The benefit of the doubt, and the appeal to authority

This week the NBA had its trade deadline, a trade deadline that pales in comparison to the frenzy of the MLB trade deadline. Seriously, it doesn’t even come close. Aside from the trade of Carmelo Anthony and Deron Williams, one of the biggest moves came when the Celtics agreed to trade Kendrick Perkins to the Thunder for Jeff Green. This move continues to evoke anger and confusion from Celtics fans who wondered why the Celtics would sacrifice size, given that it makes their matchups against big teams like the Magic or the Lakers more difficult. Yet there was a contingent of Celtics fans who refused to get upset about the deal, reasoning that Danny Ainge wasn’t an idiot and surely considered the size question before making the deal.

This raises an interesting question that most fans are constantly dealing with, at least subconsciously. How do you balance the desire to give your favorite General Manager the benefit of the doubt with the need to evaluate the moves of that General Manager in a rational vacuum? At what point does giving your favorite General Manager the benefit of the doubt turn into an appeal to authority? There’s a fine line between arguing that a GM deserves the benefit of the doubt because of the past moves he’s made, and arguing that any given move the GM makes is good because the GM is smart.

As an example, this offseason the Rays signed Kyle Farnsworth. Farnsworth, as we all know, is the wost reliever of all time. Well, not really, but his tenure in New York went poorly and he’s generally regarded as someone with good stuff but inconsistent results, someone who probably doesn’t deserve the highest leverage spots in a game. Now, Dave Cameron pointed out that this might be a bit of a perception issue, given that a difference in repertoire might have led to greater groundballs and improved results. As a result, he goes out of his way to argue that Tampa wasn’t given enough credit for signing Farnsworth. I won’t suggest the opposite of this, but I think it’s at least possible that Tampa’s signing of Farnsworth led more people to consider Farnsworth an underrated commodity, and therefore a good acquisition, simply because it was Tampa doing the signing. In other words, if Kansas City had re-upped with Farnsworth, one has to wonder if they would have received the same level of accolade that Tampa did. To state it even more starkly: when Tampa signed Farnsworth, many assumed that the 100 IP sample of the past two years was the real Farnsworth, assumed that he would be used mostly correctly, and assumed that this was a good signing because Tampa is super-smart and never makes mistakes.

I’m not trying to suggest that any of those things are false. Tampa may very well have made a good signing of a player whose reputation led him to be slightly undervalued. What I would simply draw attention to is the danger of evaluating moves based on the person making the move.  If organizational and budgetary needs are identical, one’s reaction to a signing shouldn’t hinge on whether one thinks the GM is smart or stupid.

Yet, this is mostly inevitable, which is why this is a constant tension. It’s natural to look more closely at moves made by stat-friendly teams like Cleveland, Tampa, Toronto, Boston or Oakland. It’s also natural to have the default setting of mockery on whenever Kansas City’s name pops up on MLBTR. It’s because their track records are different, and because we don’t expect Dayton Moore to suddenly see the light, or for Andrew Friedman to suddenly blow 10% of his budget on some middling homer-prone reliever. We’re simply making very rapid subconscious probability calculations.

One of the biggest fallacies people can make is assuming that things will always be like they’ve been in the past. It’s normal to assume that the current state of affairs will continue interrupted and in perpetuity, yet this is never the case. The same holds true in sports. Just because Andrew Friedman has made a bunch of savvy moves in the past doesn’t mean that he’ll always make savvy moves from now until when he retires. It’s possible that at some point he’ll operate under faulty logic or bad assumptions or bad data and make a mistake, and it would be a disservice to continue to call his moves savvy when the opposite is true.

This is the tension that fans have to monitor, then. One has to walk the line between saying, “Because you’ve made smart moves in the past, I will assume that this move is a good one” and “Because you’ve made smart moves in the past, I will give you the benefit of the doubt and see how this plays out before I call you an idiot”. It’s a very fine line, and it’s the line between analysis and homer-dom.

Open Thread: February 26th Camp Notes

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Today’s news…

  • The Yankees fell to the Phillies this afternoon by the score of 5-4. Eric Wordekemper allowed the game-tying and go-ahead runs in the the eighth inning on the bloop single that probably should have been caught by Colin Curtis in left. Jorge Vazquez hit a two-run homer over the batter’s eye in dead center, Alex Rodriguez hit two balls right on the screws, and Mark Teixeira tripled. Bartolo Colon was meh at best, hitting 93 a few times and saying afterwards that he wants to work on his two-seamer to lefties. Here’s the box score. (Marc Carig)
  • Tex had a bruise on the big toe of his right foot after Cole Hamels hit him with some kind of offspeed pitch in the first inning. It’s the same toe he broke last year when Vin Mazzaro got him with a pitch. Other than that, no one got hurt. (Carig & Carig)
  • Before the game, the Yankees had their annual meeting with the player’s association. Turns out that former Yanks Tony Clark and Mike Myers work for the union. (Sam Borden)
  • Andrew Brackman said his hip felt just fine, which is weird because yesterday we heard it was the groin that was giving him trouble. Maybe he just felt like giving up update on an irrelevant part of his body. (Carig)
  • None of the regular infielders will play tomorrow, and neither will Andruw Jones, Russell Martin, or Frankie Cervelli. Ivan Nova, Sergio Mitre, Boone Logan, and Dellin Betances are scheduled to pitch. (Ben Shpigel & Bryan Hoch)

Here’s the open thread for the night. The Islanders and Nets are the only local teams in action, plus the Rockies and Diamondbacks will be on MLB Network starting at 11pm ET. Until then, MLBN is showing some college baseball. Talk about whatever, go nuts.

2011 AL East Sleepers

As Spring Training warms up and baseball season approaches, it is easy to find plenty of “busts and sleepers” columns around the baseball community, particularly for fantasy baseball. I’ve done the same thing here for the American League East using Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA system. First I used PECOTA and calculated the projected wOBAs for every offensive starter in the American League East. Then I subtracted each player’s 2010 wOBA from the projection. The players with the largest differences are projected to do better than they did in 2010, and the players with negative values are projected to perform worse than they did in 2010. Today we’ll look at the “sleepers”, the players that PECOTA sees doing better this year than last year. I’ve selected one player from each team because Orioles and Blue Jays fans need love too.

Boston Red Sox: Jacoby Ellsbury

2010 wOBA: .237. 2011 projected wOBA: .333.

Watch out for Adr--Ooh...(Getty Images)

Given how poorly Jacoby Ellsbury’s 2010 campaign went, it’s a bit odd to include him on this list: repeated injuries to his ribs kept him from staying on the field and producing at anything resembling a normal level of production. While it might be more interesting to examine another Red Sox player,  the next highest wOBA-gainer on the list is JD Drew (.346 2010 wOBA; .355 2011 projected wOBA) and, frankly, JD Drew is boring.

As mentioned, Ellsbury had a rough go of it in 2010, injuring his ribs in April, and then reinjuring them when he attempted to return. 2010 was a lost year for those attempting to ascertain what Ellsbury’s true talent level is. In 2009 he had taken a step forward, increasing his on-base and slugging  percentages by about twenty points apiece and bumping his OPS to .770. Ellsbury isn’t the type to hit for power, but his relatively decent ability to get on-base in 2009 and his blindingly fast speed led many to expect him to take another step forward in 2010. Many were the fantasy players who took Ellsbury in the first round of a standard 5×5 league, and great was their disappointment.

All fantasy owners and the Boston Red Sox got from Ellsbury was a measly set of 83 plate appearances, and all Ellsbury got was older and more expensive to the Sox. In 2011 he looks to get back on the horse with fellow speedster Carl Crawford behind him, yet PECOTA isn’t very bullish on Ellsbury’s ability to advance past his 2009 statistical line. The projection of .281/.337/.381 is nearly identical to his relatively inferior 2008 season.

Even with an OPS of barely over .700 Ellsbury has good value to the Red Sox. He’s relatively inexpensive, he plays good defense and he runs the bases well. However, unless he can outperform PECOTA’s meager expectations for his ability to get on base and hit for power he will fall well short of his solid 2009 season. Whether this makes him a true “sleeper”, then, is an open question.

Toronto Blue Jays: JP Arencibia

Indeed. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Nathan Denette)

2010 wOBA: .232; 2011 projected wOBA: .331.

Like Ellsbury, JP Arencibia’s presence in this list is largely the product of an unnaturally low 2009 line in limited playing time: Arencibia hit .143/.189/.343 in a mere 37 plate appearances. Yet Arencibia has an impressive minor league pedigree, and should get a decent shot at holding down the Toronto catching job now that John Buck has departed for greener pastures. Arencibia doesn’t profile to take a lot of walks; his career minor league OBP is .319. However, he has exhibited some serious power potential, albeit in the hitter friendly Pacific Coast League. Howard Bender of Fangraphs recently wrote up Arencibia as a “catcher on the rise” over at Fangraphs:

If the growth that we’ve seen in the minors is any indication, the power potential here is massive. He progressed nicely from Single-A to Double-A and the little hiccup he experienced his first year in Triple-A (increased K% with a major decrease in BA) was thoroughly wiped away with his follow-up season in 2010. His ISO numbers are fantastic and you can tell that his hitting prowess is more than just luck as evidenced by his relatively normal BABIP numbers. One caveat that I should point out is the .228 average vs lefties with a .284 OBP in his two seasons in Triple-A. Those numbers could translate even worse in the majors. There will also be questions as to whether or not he can handle the rigors of catching full time in the bigs as well as how he can handle the pitching staff, but those will certainly be answered this season as the Jays will afford him every opportunity to succeed this year. Consider him a middle round pick who should, if he keeps his head on straight, put up early round pick numbers.

In a refreshing exhibition of clear expectations, PECOTA is strikingly bearish on Arencibia’s ability to get on base (.290 OBP) and strikingly bullish on his ability to hit for power (.483 SLG). It’s probably not the well-rounded game the Jays are looking for long-term out of the catcher position, but it’s not far off from the level of production they got out of John Buck last year (.281/.314/.489 with a .345 wOBA). If Arencibia can stick behind the plate for the season and hit to his projected .331 wOBA the Jays would be happy campers.

Tampa Bay Rays: Dan Johnson

You know who broke his bat? Cliff Lee. Game 5 ALDS: 9 IP, 6H, 0R, 0BB, 11K. I hate you, Cliff. (Getty Images)

2010 wOBA: .339; 2011 projected wOBA: .367

Dan Johnson is exactly the kind of player that Rays’ management loves to sign, and he’s exactly the kind of player to take AJ Burnett deep at an inopportune time, leaving most Yankees fans saying “wait, who?”. It’s just so typical.

Johnson has bounced around in his career between the Athletics, the Rays, and the Japanese club Yokohoma Bay Stars. He hasn’t exhibited the typical power one would expect from the first baseman, but boy can he take a base on balls: he had the highest walk rate of any 1B with at least 100 plate appearances in 2010.

In 2010 Johnson, the victim of an absurdly low BABIP of .188, hit .198/.343/.414 (.339 wOBA) in 140 plate appearances. PECOTA sees his walk-heavy ways continuing in 2011, but also projects him to add some power, predicting a line of .244/.368/.465. Ultimately this isn’t going to measure up to the standard set by Adrian Gonzalez and Mark Teixeira, but Johnson will only cost the Rays $1M in 2011. They would certainly be thrilled (and smug) if they got a 0.367 wOBA from a $1M first baseman.

Baltimore Orioles: Matt Wieters

'09 PECOTA aside, dude has to be thrilled that he never had to catch Daniel Cabrera. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

No one will soon forget the occasion when PECOTA, in a seeming fit of spasmodic optimism, spit out the following line for Matt Wieters, the rookie, prior to the 2009 season: 649 PAs, 31 HR, 102 RBI, .311/.395/.544. Despite a minor league track record befitting the finest thoroughbred in all the land Wieters missed this projection and missed badly, hitting .280/.340/.412. This is an impressive line for a rookie 23 year-old catcher debuting at the major league level, but it certainly fell well short of the incredibly lofty expectations PECOTA had laid out for Wieters. In 2010 expectations were tempered but Wieters still fell short, undergoing the dreaded sophomore slump with a line of .249/.319/.377. The difference can largely be traced to a seventy point drop in Wieters’ BABIP. In his debut he averaged .356; in 2010 the mark was .287.

Aside from the fluctuation in BABIP, there are reasons for optimism for Wieters in 2011. Last year he increased his walk rate from around 7% to 9%, and managed to reduce his strikeout rate by a solid 3%. In other words, despite a worse batting line he actually made some small positive steps forward at the plate. His ISO increased ever so slightly, again indicating that the decrease in his batting line was largely related to a difference in fortune on balls in play. PECOTA sees Wieters’ BABIP normalizing at .311 this year. It’s a safe bet, but it’s hard to know whether he’ll settle in 20 points lower or higher than that on his career. As a result, the system projects a line of .268/.341/.419, very similar to what he produced in his rookie debut.

When PECOTA made the Wieters projection, there was a lot of confusion. Sure, there were the typical troglodytes who take every opportunity possible to mock the concept of a “computer” predicting baseball, but it’s always easy to ignore them. The more serious questions came from people who didn’t understand how in the world PECOTA came up with that: if PECOTA is in essence conservative, how could it produce a statistical line that looks like it was ripped straight off a fanboy’s message board posting? At the time Baseball Prospectus’ Steven Goldman sought to answer this question, contextualizing it within a discussion of the structural design of PECOTA and what it seeks to accomplish. His words are just as relevant now as they were then:

PECOTA is an essentially conservative program. Its player-performance projections are neither wildly optimistic nor pessimistic, but built purely from the data, and from its own understanding of the way that player careers progress based on literally thousands of antecedents. Thus, when it proposes that Orioles catching prospect Matt Wieters, a rookie-to-be who has never played above Double-A, could hit .311/.395/.544 in the majors this year, we took notice: this was the first time that PECOTA had looked at a prospect and predicted an MVP-caliber, Hall of Fame-level season right off the bat…

Of course, as we’ve often said in our annual book, PECOTA is not destiny. Much stands between a young player and the achievement of his projection, whether that projection is as boldly put as Wieters’ is, or merely average. Injury is a particular risk for a young catcher, as an errant foul tip can mangle a finger, or a contact play at the plate can mangle an entire body. What makes Wieters’ projection all the more impressive is that PECOTA is aware of the toll that catching can take on a backstop’s offensive skills, and yet it still sees such impressive short-term results for the Orioles tyro

Perhaps, then, it is wrong to say that PECOTA lacks optimism, that it doesn’t rave. In its own way, Wieters’ projection is its way of saying, “Hey, I think I spot a very rare talent here; you might want to pay attention.”

Given his words, and Wieters’ super minor league track record, and the fact that he’s settling into his third season in the American League East, many would be forgiven for taking the “over” on Wieters’ modest batting line this season. Yet this serves as a reminder, both for Wieters and for the Yankee sleeper who follows Wieters below, that no matter how much evidence, statistical research and historical comparisons you have you simply never know what’s going to happen next.

Yankees:  Jesus Montero

He dropped the ball, and then his glove fell off. Then he picked the ball up and threw it into CF. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

2010 wOBA: N/A; 2011 projected wOBA: 0.346.

Everyone’s favorite prospect has been every projection system’s favorite golden boy this February, and PECOTA is no exception. PECOTA sees a line of .285/.331/.471 in 2011 for Montero with 18 HRs in 480 PAs. This would quite obviously be a tremendous level of performance for a 21 year-old in his first season in the bigs.

Jesus Montero has been the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for so long now that it’s hard to imagine him actually putting up an OPS of over .800 in Yankee pinstripes. It doesn’t seem right. Shouldn’t something go wrong? Shouldn’t he have been traded by now?  Despite lingering questions about his defensive ability, and despite multiple near-misses in trade talks, Jesus Montero is on the precipice. The greatest Yankee hitting prospect since Derek Jeter is ready for the bright lights of New York.

The last few years have been exciting times for prospect watchers. We’ve seen players like Jay Bruce, Evan Longoria, Clayton Kershaw, Colby Rasmus, David Price, Tommy Hanson, Matt Wieters, Stephen Strasburg, Jason Heyward, Buster Posey and Carlos Santana get hyped and then promoted to the bigs. Some like Wieters and Bruce struggled at first; others like Posey and Heyward became immediate game-changers for their club. The Yankees have the luxury of patience with Montero this spring, but they certainly will hope that he falls into the latter category of game-changer. For its part, PECOTA is expecting great things. We all are.

Where there’s smoke: Yanks keeping an eye on Liriano

Via Bob Nightengale, the Yankees are keeping a close eye on Twins’ lefty Francisco Liriano, and the Twinkies are keeping tabs on some Yankees’ prospects. We first heard about Liriano potentially being available earlier this month, so this isn’t terribly surprising. The 27-year-old showed up to camp with a sore shoulder and had an MRI, but it came back clean and he threw a bullpen this week with no problems. There are concerns about Liriano’s durability but basically none with his performance: he’s a strikeout (career 9.30 K/9) and ground ball (48.2%) machine, exactly what you want. There’s no harm keeping an eye on the guy.

Spring Training Game Thread: The First of Many

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

The grass was a little greener (or less dead, anyway), the sun was a little brighter, and the New York air a little less nauseating when I woke up this morning. Why? Because baseball will be played today. I don’t care that it’s just a Spring Training game, it’s baseball, and we’ve been without it for far too long. I enjoy these games because of the prospects and stuff, but mostly because there’s no stress. Who cares who wins and who loses? There’s plenty of time to worry about that later. This brand of baseball is for pure entertainment in my book.

Bartolo Colon gets his first crack at winning a rotation spot this afternoon, though we really shouldn’t put too much stock in his performance since it’s just his first outing. That works both ways, regardless if he pitches well or poorly. It is worth noting that Colon did pitch in winter ball, so he’s theoretically ahead of the hitters as far as readiness, if you get my drift. He’ll throw two innings or 35 pitches, whichever comes first. I’m guessing the latter.

Brian Schlitter, who the Yankees lost on waivers to the Phillies after claiming him off waivers from the Cubs, is scheduled to pitch today for Philadelphia. Here’s the lineup, or at least the one that will start the game. Joe Girardi said yesterday that the regulars will get two at-bats then hit the showers…

Derek Jeter, SS
Nick Swisher, RF
Mark Teixeira, 1B
Alex Rodriguez, 3B
Robbie Cano, 2B
Jorge Posada, DH
Curtis Granderson, CF
Frankie Cervelli, C
Brett Gardner, LF

Scheduled to Pitch: Bartolo Colon, Joba Chamberlain, David Robertson, David Phelps, Hector Noesi, and Eric Wordekemper.

Also Scheduled to Play: Austin Romine (C), Jorge Vazquez (1B), Kevin Russo (2B), Eduardo Nunez (SS), Brandon Laird (3B), Colin Curtis (LF), Greg Golson (CF), Justin Maxwell (RF), and Andruw Jones (DH).

The game can be seen on either YES or the MLB Network, and begins at 1:05pm ET. George Steinbrenner will be honored during a pregame ceremony; here’s that press release. Enjoy the game.