Tango answers questions from a sabermetric skeptic

Having a summary opinion without evidence is bullish!t. – Tom Tango

The above quote illustrates why I enjoy Tango’s work. Everyone has an opinion — what’s the old saying? — and they’re entitled to that. But that doesn’t mean we should take every opinion seriously. Only opinions backed by argument, based on facts and a logical thought process, warrant consideration. So when a fairly prominent blogger tries to stir the pot by deriding the sabermetric community, using little or no evidence, Tango will likely respond.

We’re no strangers to Mike Silva. We’ve addressed at least one of his evidence-less rants, and see plenty more of him on the BBTF Newsstand. In the traditional talk radio style, he makes emotional appeals as a substitute for evidence, but that type of argument doesn’t fly in statistically inclined baseball communities. We require evidence.

Proving that he’s not 100 percent gasbag, Silva agreed to send Tango 10 questions about advanced statistics and the sabermetric community. Before linking to the entire series, I’d like to note some highlights.

My biggest beef with Silva — the reason I no longer visit his site — is his stance on the sabermetric community. He suggests that “the ultimate goal is to mainstream their theories and perhaps gain more power in the baseball community.” Using “mainstream” as an infinitive peeves me enough, but the idea that statistically inclined fans want to gain more power is preposterous. Tango rightfully takes Silva to task on this issue, though his focus is more on the second part of Silva’s non-question, wherein he claims that “the ‘value’ of hose these metrics can be used seems to be marginal in my opinion.” Tango:

It’s one thing to say that you don’t understand it, so either you accept it or want to learn more or ignore it. It’s another thing to say that you don’t understand it, and so you will dismiss it as being “marginal” or worse. You have no basis for dismissal. Ignore it, if you must. Dismissing it is out of the question. There’s a huge number of people that find value in it.

Another interesting sequence arises when Silva asks about the future of sabermetrics. Where will we see advanced metrics in 10 years? “Fad? Major part of a front office operation? Replace traditional scouting?” No, yes, and no are the correct answers, but Tango takes it a step further.

You haven’t seen anything yet. Wait until PITCHf/x, FIELDf/x, and HITf/x take shape. You will wish and pray to get back to the simpler times of 2000s. The 2010s will bring an avalanche of data. It will absolutely be a major part of the front office. The best-case scenario is that you have all these f/x systems set up at colleges and high schools. Instead of one scout seeing one game of some prospect in one town, while missing a game on another town, you will have every single pitch charted, every swing charted, and every single fielder charted. The question is to try to identify all of the contributions of each player to each pitch and each play. Having a summary opinion without evidence is bullsh!t. Scouts have summary opinion on limited amount of data (say they see 5% of someone’s games in college). That’s valuable. Now, imagine having a summary opinion based on 100% of the data?

I think this describes what happened after I read that paragraph.

I also enjoyed Tango’s explanation of FIP. I think this point is lost on many proponents of the stat: “it is only concerned with one component to pitching. And that component is the one that does not involve his fielders.” It’s like OBP, and Tango makes that connection as well. It tells us just one thing. It happens to be a very important thing, but there are other factors to consider, just as we consider factors like power and base hits when discussing OBP.

If you have questions about sabermetrics yourself, or you just want to see Tango dole out some quality arguments and explanations, I recommend the entire series. It’s not an overly long read, and I think it’s totally worth the time.

Part 1: UZR
Part 2: WAR
Part 3: WAR and finances
Part 4: FIP
Part 5: Stat saturation
Part 6: The goal of sabermetrics
Part 7: Selling the stats
Part 8: Hall of Fame
Part 9: Stats in fantasy baseball
Part 10: The future

Linkage: Minors, Players Aging, BABIP, 2009

Got some stuff worth bringing to your attention, but not exactly deserving of their own posts…

  • There’s a discussion about the Yanks’ farm system going on at John Sickels’ Minor League Ball. The recent trades have really cut into the system’s high-end talent, but there is tremendous depth when it comes to solid (three star prospects, as Kevin Goldstein would call them) prospects. The Yanks have plenty of young players coming up to fill out the bullpen and take over bench jobs and serve as decent trade bait, which frankly is all the Yankees really use prospects for anyway.
  • Michael Lichtman is running a series of posts at THT looking at his study on how baseball players age. Here’s parts one and two. It’s pretty intense reading, but it’s so worth it, there’s tons of great info in there. Lichtman wouldn’t do it any other way.
  • Adam Foster at Project Prospect looked at some batted ball and BABIP data, and shows that fly balls might have a more direct correlation to BABIP than line drives. It makes sense since fly balls are turned into outs more often than line drives and ground balls, meaning their impact on BABIP is negative.
  • Dave Cameron pointed out the obvious: that 2009 is not a constant. This particularly applies to the Yankees, who are replacing Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui with Curtis Granderson and Nick Johnson. You aren’t simply replacing the first pair’s 2009 production with the second pair’s, you’re really talking about what you expect them to do in 2010. Both Damon and Matsui enjoyed their most productive seasons in several years in 2009, and at their ages, is it realistic to expect them to perform like that again?

Thoughts on a third team in New York

During Monday evening’s Open Thread, I explored a few economic theories behind the upcoming round of collective bargaining negotiations. As always, the Yankees and their huge economic advantage over nearly every other baseball team will be at the forefront of the 2011 efforts to renew the CBA, and I sketched out a rough idea for a salary floor.

As economic solutions go, a salary floor isn’t an ideal one. Although it would force teams such as the Marlins to spend rather than pocket their revenue sharing dollars, it would create more problems than it would solve. In fact, by forcing teams to meet a minimum salary threshold, baseball would create inflation. To reach the salary ceiling, some teams would be forced to overpay for mediocre talent, and the ripple effect of those contracts would lead to higher salaries — and fewer teams able to afford those players — at the top. That’s bad news for everyone.

With these and other institutional hurdles to a salary cap/floor system, smart baseball minds will look at other ways to rein in the Yankees. In Sports Illustrated this week, Tim Marchman proposed a third team for the New York area. The Yankees, he says, are right now playing within the rules of a system designed to penalize them, and it has mostly stopped accomplishing that goal. They paid $220 million for a World Series winner in 2009 and appear willing to go high in 2010. So let’s add a third team. He writes:

According to the measure used by the Office of Management and Budget, the New York metropolitan region numbers about 19 million people. In other words, New York has one MLB team for every 9.5 million people. Chicago, by this measure, has one for every five million people, just as Miami and Atlanta do. Los Angeles has one for every 6.5 million people, as do Dallas and Philadelphia. (This doesn’t even take into account New York’s vast, inherent wealth.)

As we learned a decade ago, baseball at large is quite willing to jury-rig a silly tax system that only works against the Yankees, because everyone else benefits, be it poor teams getting handouts or rich teams who see the Yankees ever so slightly chastened in their spending. With the collective bargaining agreement coming up for renegotiation, a bad economy and a Yankees team that looks like it will be ferociously good over the next few years even if the likes of Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera begin their inevitable decline, it’s quite likely that their continued high spending will provoke some new set of ineffectual regulations meant to reign them in a bit.

The better solution would be to place a third team in New York. That would bring the town’s population:team ratio down to the level of Los Angeles or Philadelphia, and with the same number of people and dollars chasing more baseball, would quite likely bring Yankee spending down a hair without doing anything punitive or unfair.

He further elaborated on this point in a blog post on his personal site. He admits that this plan is both unlikely due to the territorial rights the teams own and unlikely to succeed due to New York’s huge size. After all, the Yankees would still be the top team in town; they would still sell out most of their games; and they would still draw record ratings on TV. Another team in the area would simply become another big market, high spending team that would. As he puts it, “Even with a third team, there would still be about as many people per team there than there are in any other market, and they’d be playing to probably the most baseball-mad population in the country. In the end, it’s about providing baseball to people who want it.”

From a New York point of view, I’d love to see a third team in the city. I’d love to see the regional rivalries reemerge as they did when my dad and grandfather were growing up in New York. I’d love to see three teams compete for air time and fan allegiance. I’d love to see borough-based baseball rivalries renewed, and baseball fever truly grip the city.

It won’t, though, happen. The Yankees and Mets won’t waive their precious territorial rights. The city won’t fund construction for another baseball stadium, and New Jersey isn’t about to foot the bill for a ballpark either. For better or worse, we’ll just be stuck with the Yankees and Mets. A third team also would not address baseball’s financial imbalance.

In the end, we just have to ask if it’s truly a problem. Should we care that the Yankees — as Marchman says, the richest, most powerful team playing in the “richest, most powerful city in the country” — lord over the rest of baseball? Maybe for the health of the game, we should, but I am not ashamed to root for U.S. Steel. Third team or not, it’s a grand life rooting for the Yanks, and the fact is that baseball probably won’t be able to do a thing about it in 2011.

Left field closing arguments: Reed Johnson

I recently said that all we’re going to talk about is left field, but that will get boring, if it hasn’t already. So I’m going to make this easy. Over the next few days I’ll write up something about the available left fielders, then wrap it up at the end. That will conclude our left field discussion, unless something unforeseen happens. For all predictable rumors, we’ll point back to these.

If not for constant injuries, the market for Reed Johnson might be a lot more competitive. The 33-year-old has battled back issues for most of his seven-year major league career, and has suffered other maladies, mostly to his lower body. Not even the Cubs, Johnson’s most current team, wants him back. So, then, why would the Yankees even consider him?

Because he’s a potentially undervalued commodity.

In 2006, at age 29, Johnson experienced his breakout season. He started off with a 3 for 5 performance against the Twins and kept up the hot hitting for the next five months, ending August with a .327/.400/.501 line. His numbers dropped off a bit in September, probably due to a hip issue that eventually led to a stress fracture in his foot just days before the season ended.

Despite a training program to help correct the hip issue, Johnson still struggled through physical issues in 2007. He rested early in the spring because of a sore back, but by mid-April he was back on the DL, needing surgery for a herniated disc. After over two months of recovery, Johnson returned in July, but didn’t produce anything near his 2006 effort, ending the season with a .302 OBP and a .307 SLG. The Blue Jays tendered him a contract that off-season, eventually agreeing to a deal worth over $3 million. But after they added Shannon Stewart they cut Johnson in Spring Training, paying him only about $500,000 in termination pay. To the Cubs he went.

Back problems again affected Johnson in 2008, though he only missed the minimum 15 days. From his return through the end of the season, which included only 165 plate appearances, Johnson hit .342/.377/.461. The Cubs tendered him a contract for 2009, and he produced well enough, hitting .268/.336/.446 through June 20. But, at just about the same time as in 2008 he hit the DL with back soreness. Again he missed only the minimum 15 days, but soon after fractured his foot. A slow recovery meant he got just 20 more plate appearances before the end of the season, though he made them count, hitting three doubles and a triple.

Johnson has demonstrated that he can hit, and for stretches can hit very well. He also plays excellent defense, positing a 23.3 UZR/150 over 2,666.2 career innings in left field. In terms of platooning, he’s an ideal caddy for Gardner, or even Granderson, because he mashes lefties, to the tune of .313/.378/.463 over 1,027 career plate appearances. Even in his poor 2009 and 2007 campaigns he posted an OPS of over .900 against lefties.

It appears Johnson’s only major downside is his injury history. The frequency of his back injuries makes this no light consideration. If he misses just 15 days because of back issues, it’s no big deal. Thankfully, that’s all he’s missed in each of the past two seasons. His two recent lower body injuries also raise a red flag. His stress fractures were in different legs — right leg and left foot — so maybe there’s not a connection. But for a player with Johnson’s injury history, it’s certainly a concern.

As a platoon player, Johnson does make sense. Facing primarily lefties will not only emphasize his strength in that regard, but will also keep him rested, possibly helping him avoid injury. His excellent defense in left field will also make it easier to play him out there, even if Brett Gardner is as good as his small sample UZR numbers indicate. Since the Yankees seek only a low-cost option for their outfield, it seems Johnson fits the profile.

(Bonus: If the Yankees sign Johnson, he’ll have to cut his King Tut goatee. Many people sport good facial hair. Johnson is not one of them.)

So now, whenever a rumor surfaces involving Johnson and the Yankees, we can refer back to this post and its comments. Have your final say now.

Photo credit: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images North America

Open Thread: Photos from Cooperstown

HOF 2009 World Series display

Did you miss me? In case you hadn’t noticed, I was away from RAB the last three days, checking out the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. I had never been there before, so everything was new to me. We spent basically all day Monday in the HOF and the museum, and you can see all the pics I took here. As you’re scrolling through the slideshow, be sure to click “Show Info” in the top right corner to get the description of what each pic is.

What you see above is the Hall’s 2009 World Series display. It consists of Andy Pettitte’s ALCS jersey, Hideki Matsui’s World Series Game 6 bat, Mo’s hat, Johnny Damon’s double-steal spikes, A-Rod’s WS Game 6 spikes, Suzyn Waldman’s Game 6 scorecard, Jose Molina’s and Jorge Posada’s masks, the ball CC Sabathia threw for the first pitch of the series, and tons of other stuff. Eventually the 2009 WS ring will join the ’98, ’99, and ’00 rings in the giant display case.

Babe Ruth had his own room in the Hall, which basically told his life story and chronicled all of his baseball exploits. It contained the story about how he was found, his old glove,  his famed “called shot” bat (it’s the one on the left), an old Christmas card, and not to mention his bowling ball and various golf trophies (who knew?). Oh, and of course they had his lockerJoe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, and Lou Gehrig all had their own displays as well.

Another room had more recent milestones, with each team getting it’s own locker. The Yanks’ locker featured Matsui’s bat from his grand slam against the Twins in 2003, Derek Jeter’s spikes from when he passed Lou Gehrig’s as the team’s all-time hit leader, a shovel they used to break ground on the New Stadium, Mike Mussina’s hat from his 20th win, Mo’s hat from his 400th save, A-Rod’s helmet from his 500th homer, and Aaron Boone’s bat from Game 7 of 2003 ALCS. Among the other miscellaneous items displayed throughout the museum, there was the 1996 World Series trophy, one of Don Mattingly’s Gold Gloves, a 1973 ticket booth from Yankee Stadium, Melky’s helmet from his cycle, Curtis Granderson’s jersey from when he went 20-20-20-20, and the lineup card from the team’s record breaking 112th win in 1998.

The hands down coolest item on display was Ted Williams’ strikezone. Each ball tells you what he hit on pitches to that spot. I guess you had to keep the ball down, or else. Well, Honus Wagner’s hat and flip down shades were pretty badass too. If you scroll through my Twitter feed, you’ll find a couple other pics as well. Hope you enjoy ‘em, the trip was a blast.

Anyway, here’s your open thread for the night. Both the Isles and Knicks are in action, but talk about whatever you want.

How many wins would Matt Holliday add in 2010?

The Yankees’ only lineup weakness exists in left field. Matt Holliday, an All-Star left fielder, remains on the market, mostly because no team has met his current contract demands. It seems the two match up perfectly, yet the Yankees have stated that they will not sign Holliday. Since the team made their budget the theme of the off-season, we can see clearly that in no way could Holliday fit into any budget of around $200 million. But are the Yankees really going to let money get in the way of a perfect match?

Maybe the match isn’t so perfect after all. Dave Cameron at FanGraphs discussed the topic from the lens of marginal value added. Maybe, he argues, the Yankees will stay away from Holliday not because he’s too expensive, but because his salary would not justify the improvement his addition would bring to the Yankees. After all, as Cameron explains, the Yankees are already a near-100-win team on paper. So, when considering Holliday (or the recently signed Jason Bay), the Yankees need to wonder exactly how much they benefit the team.

They are at the other end of the win curve, and it doesn’t make much sense to spend a lot of money there either. The marginal value of the 101st, 102nd, and 103rd win in terms of playoff odds is really quite small. And that’s approximately the upgrade that Holliday would represent over the current production that Gardner offers in left field.

Cameron’s analysis falls short in two areas. First, the strength of the team once it does make the playoffs. The Yankees might win 100 games with or without Holliday, but once the playoffs roll around they need all the ammunition they can muster. Holliday’s value inflates in that situation. Second, it doesn’t take into account future considerations. Maybe Holliday’s marginal value on the Yankees doesn’t project to much for the 2010 season, but that could significantly increase in future years as the roster changes.

Still, I’m sure the marginal value factor plays a large part in the Yankees’ decision making process. If they really do covet the 2010-2011 free agent class, then perhaps they’ll find an even better left field fit in that market. In that case they can avoid signing Holliday this season and a player who provides more marginal value for their 2011 team. It means they’d get more for their money, which, as we’ve discussed many times, is the business ideal.

By the Deki-ade: Left field strengths

Throughout the latter half of the 1990s, the Yankees won without a true left field solution. They used Tim Raines and Chad Curtis, Ricky Ledee and Shane Spencer to try to fill the hole. It was not until 2003 with the arrival of Hideki Matsui that the Yankees had a true left field solution.

Now, as the Aughts came to a close, the Yankees’ left field position is again up for grabs. Johnny Damon is gone, and someone will step in to fill the hole. That is a concern for other posts. Today, as we continue our Yankees By the Decade retrospective, we come to toast the left fielders. The table below is those who made at least 10 appearances in left from 2000-2009.

Hideki Matsui 2080 605 122 8 82 357 265 18 9 293 54 .291 .371 .475
Johnny Damon 974 293 61 6 35 146 109 1 2 142 12 .301 .372 .484
Melky Cabrera 569 157 32 3 11 64 58 2 3 65 14 .276 .345 .401
Chuck Knoblauch 424 104 14 2 7 27 45 1 8 52 9 .245 .329 .337
Rondell White 410 101 19 0 12 55 21 1 7 75 9 .246 .292 .380
Shane Spencer 387 106 22 1 14 67 26 1 3 76 8 .274 .320 .444
David Justice 201 67 13 0 17 42 25 1 1 25 1 .333 .406 .652
Xavier Nady 176 47 8 0 9 30 11 1 4 39 5 .267 .323 .466
Tony Womack 160 36 0 1 0 7 7 0 0 22 1 .225 .256 .237
Juan Rivera 160 38 12 0 2 15 9 1 0 21 10 .237 .275 .350
Ricky Ledee 148 41 11 1 6 27 22 2 1 28 6 .277 .370 .486
Luis Polonia 57 17 3 0 1 4 7 0 0 3 1 .298 .375 .404
Brett Gardner 56 8 1 0 0 6 4 0 1 17 0 .143 .210 .161
Ruben Sierra 51 17 8 1 0 9 2 1 0 9 1 .333 .358 .529
Karim Garcia 46 18 1 0 3 5 2 0 0 10 1 .391 .417 .609
Glenallen Hill 41 15 1 0 5 10 2 0 0 8 1 .366 .395 .756
Ryan Thompson 34 8 1 0 1 7 5 0 0 9 0 .235 .333 .353
Bubba Crosby 31 8 1 1 0 1 0 0 1 5 0 .258 .281 .355
Jerry Hairston 27 4 1 0 2 3 3 0 0 3 0 .148 .233 .407
Clay Bellinger 21 2 0 1 1 3 1 0 0 6 0 .095 .136 .333
Gerald Williams 16 1 0 0 0 0 1 0 0 7 0 .062 .118 .062
Totals 6303 1743 346 25 214 912 649 30 42 977 137 0.277 0.346 0.441

By virtue of playing time alone, Hideki Matsui is the left fielder of the decade. For a few years from 2003-2007, before his knees gave out, Matsui brought stability to the spot and man, did he hit. Over his 2080 left field at-bats, he hit .291/.371/.475 with 82 home runs and 357 RBIs.

Even with this gaudy counting stats, I’m a little hesitant to flat-out proclaim Matsui the best of the decade. The simple truth is that Matsui’s fielding in left was, for five years, atrocious. He never once put up a UZR better than -1.6, and his combined left field UZR for his time in the Bronx was -57.8. Without Matsui’s big bat, the Yanks would have been in deep trouble in left.

For the 2000s, though, the trend for the Yanks in left focused around a big bat with less emphasis on fielding. Johnny Damon, the successor to Matsui in left, put up nearly identical numbers to Matsui. He hit .301/.372/.484 and sported a better OPS out of left than Matsui did. For the first two seasons, Damon put up positive UZR totals in left, but in 2009, that figure dipped to -9.2. It was ugly for sure.

Before these two stalwarts of the late 2000s, the Yankees tried everyone. The Rondell White era was a misguided attempt to plug a hole left by the end of the Paul O’Neill era. Never able to stay healthy, White signed a multi-year deal with the Yanks, put up some atrocious numbers and was traded for Bubba Trammell. The two-year, $10-million deal White signed was one of the worst of the early 00s.

As the early years of the decade wore on, others came and went. The Yankees tried to put Chuck Knoblauch in the left field spot in 2001 after he couldn’t throw from second to first. They tried Melky Cabrera when Matsui went down with an injury in 2006. They even gave Ruben Sierra 51 at bats in the field during the mid-decade years.

Now, though, the era of Matsui and Damon is over. The Yanks’ DH went west, and the Yanks’ incumbent left field is trying to find some team willing to overpay him in both years and dollars. Maybe Damon will return; maybe Brett Gardner will fill the void. For the Yanks, that left field hole is nothing new, and as the decade ends, we will be Matsui, the man who received just 33 percent of all Yankee LF at-bats, as the position’s best.