Wednesday, October 31, 2012
All you need to do is count how successful the hitter was in that plate appearance. We have come up with dozens of ways to measure success. Did he get a hit? An extra base hit? Did he walk? Did he strike out? Did he drive in a run? Did he move the runner over? And so on. But the plate appearance is your constant. It always starts there.
For many years, people tried to judge defense the same way. Most still do. That, I think, is where the "error" concept comes in.
See, fielding percentage and batting average are really measuring in the same way. Batting average measures how how many hits you get per at-bat. Fielding percentage measures how many plays you make based on total chances. They come from the same kind of mindset, the mindset of measuring how often you are successful based on opportunities.
It really is no wonder that Nate Silver got so into this election thing. Playing with the electoral numbers is really just about as much fun as playing with baseball statistics. Even more, it's a whole lot like playing with NFL playoff possibilities at the end of the season (which, of course, is awesome).
The other day, I was trying to explain the election to my daughter, and we were playing with the CNN election map. (Warning: Do not click on that link unless you want to spend the next several hours coming up with your own electoral scenarios). She didn't really understand when I explained that there are 42 states that are more or less decided already. I tried to explain to her polling and state's histories, but she had trouble with the concept. Her thought: How can you know who will win the election until you actually have the election?
Still, I showed her that according to CNN -- and I think this is probably about right based on the little I know -- there are eight states really in play in the 2012 presidential election. And we clicked each state red and blue to see how the numbers added up. It was great -- the first time time I was really able to share with her how much fun statistics and numbers can be. And the great thing is that it really was all about numbers -- we didn't talk about the issues, the candidates, the contentiousness or anything like that. Not this time. It was an escape from all that. It was Candidate A and Candidate B. And it was a math puzzle.
Repeat: A math puzzle.
Monday, October 29, 2012
*By s----, I of course mean, "samp," which is coarsely ground corn.
Look: How do you explain it? How do you explain Pablo Sandoval, 12 home runs all year, smashing six in 16 playoff games, including three in one World Series game? How do you explain Barry Zito, in year 6 of his "worst contract in baseball tour," throwing 7 2/3 shutout innings to save the Giants in the NLCS, then pitching 5 2/3 strong innings in Game 1 of the World Series to out-duel Justin Verlander?
How do you explain Ryan Vogelsong at all?
Then again, how did anyone explain Cody Ross two years ago? Or the timing of Edgar Renteria? Or Brian Wilson's beard?
Sunday, October 28, 2012
Jimmy Snyder (he changed his name from Dimetrios Georgios Synodinos) grew up in Steubenville, Ohio -- he and Dean Martin grew up together. He is probably remembered today, if at all, for those insulting comments he made about African Americans being better athletes because they were bred that way by slave owners (he also talked about coaching being the only thing left for white people -- this was when he was at a restaurant when a reporter asked him about Martin Luther King's birthday). Greek reportedly expressed regret over what he said, and numerous people, while not defending his comments, said that he had never displayed any racist tendencies. He got fired anyway, and disappeared into the ether. We're coming up on the 25-year anniversary of those comments, if you want to feel a bit older.
Tuesday, October 23, 2012
And then there's another girl, and she is everywhere. Everyone notices her. She is impossible to miss, though she's small. She has short blonde hair, and this gap-tooth smile, and her pink socks are pulled above her knees. She chases after the ball exuberantly. That's the big thing. Wherever the ball goes, she goes full of spirit and hope. The ball bounces this way, she runs this way, it's kicked back, she quickly turns and runs back. This happens again and again, this constant shift of direction, but she never seems to tire, and she never seems to get frustrated. She is so small that at one point the coach simply picks her up to put her in a different defensive spot. She is pure energy and pure joy, and people in the small crowd find themselves cheering for her and calling her name.
Wednesday, October 17, 2012
Tuesday night in Detroit, with the game on the line, with the series on the line, with the season on the line, New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi allowed Raul Ibanez to hit against a lefty when Alex Rodriguez was on the bench.
Could you imagine those words being written even three weeks ago, much less six months or a year or two years ago?
Sunday, October 14, 2012
Saturday, October 13, 2012
Here's what I wish Dick Stockton had said in the ninth inning of that absurd St. Louis-Washington game last night: For those of you just joining us here in Washington, you've missed a lot. The St. Louis Cardinals were almost run over by a boulder. Then, after being chased by an angry tribe of natives and ambushed by Nazis, they found themselves in a pit of snakes ...
When I was in high school, this would be in the early 1980s, I decided for a time to get serious about collecting baseball cards. This is the sort of thing high school kids do, I think, when they are not getting dates. I had collected baseball cards as a kid, but that was different, more about the social experience, flipping cards, trading cards, putting cards in the spokes of my bicycle and all that. My Mom, following the Mom Handbook of my generation, threw out my card collection one day when I wasn't looking, and I have come to believe those shoeboxes of baseball cards were filled with Mickey Mantle rookie cards, Sandy Koufax rookie cards, Willie Mays rookie cards even though all of these people played years before I was born, much less before I started collecting cards.
There is a big, obvious explanation as to why we place so little value on walks in "traditional" metrics like batting average ... it's that to earn a walk, technically speaking, you don't necessarily have to DO anything. You don't have to have a skill. You don't have to be a baseball player. You don't even have to be alive. ... The walk is one of the few positive statistics you can earn simply by doing absolutely nothing.I do think that a lot of people believe this, that the walk is simply about standing around. Bill James tells a famous story of watching Amos Otis draw a game-winning walk and reading in the next day's Kansas City Star that Otis had become a hero doing exactly what everyone else in the stadium had done -- nothing.
A-Rod is, at this point, a pretty good player. That's it. He's a medium-average third baseman with a bit of power, mostly of it home. This is what he has been for three years now. He's hitting .272 over that time. He's averaging 21 homers a year over that time. He's playing OK defense over there at third base, sometimes spectacular, sometimes below average. His name might be Alex Rodriguez, but this is not the A-Rod that we have watched for 15 years. He's a touch of Doug DeCinces, a bit of Tim Wallach, a dash of Corey Koskie, a pinch of Melvin Mora.
I don't mean that in a negative way -- those were all good players, and this is A-Rod in his late 30s. For him to still be a good third baseman at 36 years old, well, George Brett couldn't do it -- he moved to first. Eddie Mathews couldn't do it -- he was a part-time player after 35. Cal Ripken tumbled dramatically at 36 and kept tumbling, and Brooks Robinson, though he still played amazing third base for a while, lost his power in his late 30s. Well, these aren't the exceptions. They are the rules. You could argue that the only third baseman who was ever really great after 35 was Mike Schmidt -- at 36, he led the league in homers and RBIs and slugging. But even Schmidt was pretty well done at 38.
Friday, October 12, 2012
That's how I felt last year about Justin Verlander in the postseason. Verlander had come off this awe-inspiring season, a year where he won the Cy Young Award and the MVP, a year where he led the league in nine major pitching categories including wins, winning percentage, strikeouts, ERA, WHIP and innings pitched. He was as mesmerizing an act as any in sports with his 100-mph fastball and his absurd slider and his any-night-could-be-a-no-hitter aura -- I flew to Kansas City to watch him pitch with Bill James on a day so hot shoes melted, and Verlander was jaw-dropping, it was like a spiritual experience, like going to the wailing wall or something.
"The real story?" I ask.
"Yeah," he says. He explains that everyone is making the story about the quality of Kansas City Chiefs fans or the struggles of the Chiefs themselves or the rights of loyal fans to cheer savagely or the wisdom of players lashing out.
"None of those things are the story" he says.
"So what is the story?"
"The story," he says, "is that people are going to stop going to NFL games. It's happening already."
Thursday, October 11, 2012
"You're pitching from an unfavorable deviation," Johnson said.
"Huh?" McNally replied.
"You keep pitching to either side of the plate. That's an unfavorable deviation. The way your ball is moving, it should offer a favorable deviation. You should throw to the middle of the plate and let it move to either side. That's a favorable deviation."
Then, Johnson threw down the rosin bag, jogged back to second base and left McNally on the mound with that cartoon bubble full of question marks hovering over his head.
Sunday, October 7, 2012
Saturday, October 6, 2012
Friday night was, um, you know, something. Well, I’ve never hidden the fact that I don’t like the one-game wild-card playoff idea. I tend to believe that baseball isn’t a one-game-playoff kind of game. It’s too volatile. Terrible teams beat great teams all the time. I think a baseball season is the longest in sports for a good reason. It takes a long time to work through the anomalies, the absurdities, the quirks. It takes a long time to find out which teams are really the best.
Sure, every now and again, after that long season, two teams tie and they play a one-game playoff, and it’s wacky and fun not because it’s fair but because it’s rare. Now, it’s not rare -- it will happen twice every year. To me, these one-game playoffs feel trumped-up and forced and gimmiccky ...
... but, hey, it’s extra baseball, right?
Friday, October 5, 2012
People seem to think that when you make a big deal out of just how extraordinary a season Mike Trout had with the Angels, that you are somehow downgrading what an extraordinary Triple Crown year Miguel Cabrera had with the Tigers.
It shouldn’t be like that. This isn’t a presidential debate. Big Bird isn’t at stake. Cabrera’s Triple Crown year is amazing, it is historic ... and it is also obvious. As I’ve written, everybody understands the Triple Crown numbers. We grew up with them. We have soaked in them. I know that there is a sense out there that Cabrera is not getting enough credit for doing this incredible thing, and while I don’t exactly buy that -- it seems to me that everybody either is talking about how amazing the Triple Crown was OR is complaining that nobody else is talking about it -- I guess it’s possible because there’s an MVP award at stake, and every vote for Mike Trout is a vote against Miggy.
If I’m wrong, I’ll be happy to admit it … but I’ll be surprised if Cabrera gets fewer than 80 percent of the first-place MVP votes. I think he will win, and he will win in a runaway, and all this chatter about the travesty of the MVP not going to the Triple Crown winner will have been pointless. We’ll check back in a month to see how it turns out.
Mike Trout’s year is amazing and historic, too. And as far as I can tell, not enough people are talking ABOUT THAT. For instance, one thing that people keep talking about is how amazing a year it is “for a 20-year-old.” But this is downgrading his brilliance. Trout’s season is amazing for any age, any time, at any point in the history of baseball.
For another, people like me keep referring to Trout’s defense as being the key to his great season. Trout’s defense has been, by all measurements I know of, otherworldly. But the guy had a historic OFFENSIVE year.
Mike Trout led the league in three categories that almost never go together: He led the league in runs scored, stolen bases and OPS+. Well, runs scored and stolen bases do go together ... but OPS+ changes the dynamic. Very few can also lead the league in that category. Adjusted OPS+ is a player's OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) adjusted for ballpark and how the league hit that year. It is a statistical effort to put the player’s season in context.
Take Carl Yastrzemski’s Triple Crown year. He hit .326 with 44 homers and 121 RBIs. Well, since 1967, 14 players have had years in which their numbers in each category are as good or better. Albert Pujols has done it three times, Barry Bonds twice, Todd Helton, Mo Vaughn, Albert Belle, Manny Ramirez ...
But we know, instinctively, that there was something special about Yaz’s season. For many, it is that he won the Triple Crown. But I would say, more to the point (and the Triple Crown demonstrates this too), is that he was remarkable in context, remarkable when compared to the rest of the league in that era of the pitcher. So his 193 OPS+ is significantly better than Mo Vaughn's in 1996 (150 OPS+) or Vlad Guerrero’s 2000 (162 OPS+) and even a touch better than Albert Pujols’ 2009 (189 OPS+), even though Pujols had a slightly higher average, hit more homers and drove in more runs.
Put it this way: Every single Triple Crown winner also led his league in OPS+. Until this year ...
Yes, Mike Trout's OPS+ (171) is higher than that of the guy who won the Triple Crown (165). This happened because:
Trout had a higher on-base percentage, which is the most important part of OPS (and probably the most telling single offensive stat in baseball).
Trout finished third in the AL in slugging -- a not-insignificant 42 points behind Cabrera, but still an amazing slugging year.
Cabrera played his home games in a generally neutral ballpark, one that might lean slightly toward hitters. Trout played his home games in one of the worst-hitting parks in baseball. You have to note this:
Cabrera on the road: .327/.384/.529, 16 homers, 64 RBIs, 43 runs.
Trout on the road: .332/.407/.544, 14 homers, 44 RBIs, 65 runs.
And this is with Trout playing 11 fewer road games than Cabrera. He out-hit Cabrera. He out-slugged him, too. Again, this might sound hostile toward Cabrera’s season, but that’s not how I mean it. The baseline is that Miguel Cabrera’s season is historic. I mean it to show you just how unimaginably great Trout’s season was.
So, getting back to the point. Trout led the league OPS+ -- first guy ever to beat a Triple Crown winner. But he also led the league in stolen bases and runs scored. Rare.
Here are the players who have won the Triple Trout:
2012: Mike Trout: 129 runs, 49 stolen bases, 171 OPS+.
1990: Rickey Henderson: 119 runs, 65 stolen bases, 189 OPS+.
1958: Willie Mays, 121 runs, 31 stolen bases, 165 OPS+.
1945: Snuffy Stirnweiss, 107 runs, 33 stolen bases, 145 OPS+.
1915: Ty Cobb, 144 runs, 96 stolen bases, 185 OIPS+.
1911: Ty Cobb, 147 runs, 83 stolen bases, 196 OPS+.
1909: Ty Cobb, 116 runs, 76 stolen bases, 193 OPS+.
1902: Honus Wagner, 105 runs, 42 stolen, bases, 162 OPS+.
Stirnweiss’ name stands out. His achievement was accomplished in a war year, with Ted Williams at war, with Joe DiMaggio at war, with Hank Greenberg at war, with Mickey Vernon at war and so on. When they returned, Stirnweiss -- a good player -- never again led the league in any of those categories, and never again finished in the top 10 in OPS+.
The other four -- Wagner, Cobb, Mays and Henderson -- are, of course, all-timers and leading the league in all three of those categories were transcendent moments in their careers. And now we list those seasons in order of Wins Above Replacement, which tries to take into account defense as well:
- Mike Trout, 2012, 10.7
- Ty Cobb, 1911, 10.6
- Willie Mays, 1958, 10.0
- Rickey Henderson, 1990, 9.8
- Ty Cobb, 1909, 9.5
- Ty Cobb, 1915, 9.3
- Snuffy Stirnweiss, 1945, 8.2
- Honus Wagner, 1902, 6.9
You might or might not buy the effectiveness of WAR, but you might admit that’s a pretty heady list to be at the top of.
When it comes to the MVP award -- and I say this now, after the voting is over -- I think it’s too easy to tilt the argument toward the player you want to win. I’m as guilty of this as the next guy. The Brilliant Tom Tango (more from him in our next post) thinks the problem with the MVP argument is a lack of honesty.
Did Mike Trout, all things considered, have a better year than Miguel Cabrera? Did the fact that he got on base more and score more runs despite playing in a tougher hitting environment, steal many more bases, and play demonstrably better defense more than make up for the fact that Cabrera hit more homers, drove in more runs and hit for a higher average? Others are more fervent about this than I am, but I still say unequivocally yes: I think they both had off-the-chart seasons, but Trout’s was better. Trout’s season is the best overall year in baseball the American League, I think, in about 20 years, or for just about as long as he has been alive.
The Barry Bonds years are a whole different category.
Now, if you disagree, make that argument in the comments. I'll post the best Miggy For MVP arguments. But, again, as Tango says, make the argument so that you will stand behind it next year and the year after that and the 25 years after that, when at some point the argument crushes YOUR MVP CHOICE. So saying that Cabrera’s team made the playoffs (when Trout’s team finished with the better record) won’t cut it here. Saying that Cabrera’s Triple Crown should guarantee him the MVP because it’s such a rare and cool feat won’t cut it here, either.
Make your best argument why Cabrera was the better player in 2012. And we will put it up there and see if people buy it.
Thursday, October 4, 2012
I thought -- and this will be the last part of what I thought, because, once more, I was spectacularly wrong -- that the Yankees' big-money deals had finally caught up with them. In baseball these days, the big-money teams put success on layaway. Look at the Phillies:
Wednesday, October 3, 2012
I'm still working on getting up the all the archives, but for now, here’s the piece I wrote after the amazing final day of last year’s baseball season. This year’s last day kind of fizzled. Well, as I wrote then: Baseball, like life, revolves around anticlimax.