Monday, January 11, 2010

Arbitrary Benchmarks

I've always been bothered by the made-up statistical benchmarks that sports announcers (mainly baseball) create to glorify certain players. Some are more inane than others, but they are always agenda driven. Rather than explain it myself, read Eric Trager's take from The Huffington Post:

In the aftermath of Andre Dawson's somewhat surprising induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame, baseball writers are struggling to demonstrate the Hawk's greatness. In this vein, a photo caption on Sports Illustrated's website noted: "Andre Dawson, Willie Mays and Barry Bonds are the only players with 400 homeruns and 300 steals in their career."

This reflects baseball writers' standard strategy for bestowing legendary status upon decent players: search for a few arbitrary statistical thresholds that the player and a few other all-time greats surpassed -- and then insist on the relevance of these thresholds in placing the player among elite company that he wouldn't otherwise deserve.

A few observations:

1. This is the first time I've ever heard "300 steals" considered as an important statistical plateau. But if it is now an important plateau, then the quickly dismissed HOF candidacies of Luis Polonia (321) and Gary Pettis (354) should be reconsidered.

2. Dawson had significantly fewer homeruns (438) than either Mays (660) and Bonds (762). He also had the fewest steals of the three: he's only 24 behind Mays, but 200 behind Bonds. So this whole 400/300 statistic is even more misleading than it initially seemed.

3. In the 20th century, only two players have pitched at least 700 innings while also collecting over 900 hits: Babe Ruth and Johnny Cooney (Who?).

How has the Veteran's Committee overlooked Cooney for so long -- especially when every other member of the exclusive 700/900 club has been inducted?

Basic statistics are easy enough to understand. They are also easy enough to manipulate. Don't let people off the hook because they throw out numbers. Make sure the stats they use are even remotely meaningful.


The Marginal Value of a Win

As fans, it is our expectation that our favorite teams will do the best they can to field the best possible team. In economics, a perfectly competitive market is dependent on perfect information (all consumers in a perfectly competitive market know the prices being charged by all the producers). The lack of honesty and forthrightness that baseball management often engages in produces a severe information gap between the decision makers and the paying (sometime) customers. This results in fans often judging actions taken by the baseball operations department as good or bad without the proper information to make an educated judgment. For example, the Yankees apparent decision to let Johnny Damon go in favor of Brett Gardner has angered many Yankee fans (I am a Yankee fan, just not a crazy ones) who expect General Manager Brian Cashman to sign an all star at every position. Whether Cashman's claims that the Yankees have reached the end of their budget is true or not (Yankee fans aren't used to such absurdities as budgets), the Yankees seem content with having the light hitting, quick footed Gardner manning left field.

The information gap causes fans to complain when the Yankees refuse to continue spending money at their previous pace. Aside from the fact that you'd expect fans to trust the General Manager who just won them a World Series Championship, there must be some information that the team has that tells them that spending an extra $9 million (estimated) is not worth the investment. Cashman must have realized that the extra potential win generated by Damon's VORP (Value Over Replacement Player) over Gardner's VORP is not worth $9 million. With FanGraph already projecting the Yankees to win close to 100 games, the marginal value of an extra win is small. Dave Cameron wrote about the Yankees' Win Curve on FanGraph.

A while ago, we talked about the marginal value of a win, and how it differs from team to team, changing the calculation on what a team should pay for a given player given what they already have on the roster. The wins that have the largest impact on playoff odds are in the upper-80s, so if you’re a slightly better than .500 club, adding another additional win or two can have a pretty dramatic impact on your chances of playing in October.

For a team that isn’t likely to contend, the marginal value of each win is pretty low, which is one reason why those teams often go young and give prospects a chance to play rather than upgrading the roster with more expensive veterans. However, the win curve has two sides where the marginal value of an additional win is low, and in New York, we may be seeing evidence of how a team responds when their marginal value of a win is way past the peak.

The Yankees have made a bunch of good moves this winter, adding Curtis Granderson, Nick Johnson, and Javier Vazquez to a roster that was the best in baseball a year ago. Their true talent level, as currently constructed, is probably that of a 100 win team. The Yankees are going to be very good in 2010.

So, perhaps we should not be so surprised that New York is bargain shopping in left field, avoiding the likes of Matt Holliday and Jason Bay. 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.

The Yankees have entered the prime area of significant diminishing marginal utility. They are so good that adding another high quality player doesn’t help them that much in 2010, and because of the long term contract that is required, they’d be risking future flexibility to add wins that may actually matter for an upgrade that just isn’t necessary.

It’s a rational decision made by smart people who understand just how good their roster currently is. In the past, New York has pursued every big ticket free agent on the market because they represented a real, tangible improvement in their quest to bring home another championship. Given how well Brian Cashman has put together this roster, though, a big ticket left fielder is superfluous. He’s right to keep his money locked up. They just don’t need another good player.

The value gained by an extra win is not worth the value of Damon's contract. This combined with Yankee ownership not wanting to bring the 25 man payroll above $200 million explains Cashman's decision to end the offseason having only acquired Granderson, Vazquez, and Johnson. What a cheapskate!


Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Future of the DH

Edgar Martinez's first year on the HOF ballot has reignited the Designated Hitter debate. For many baseball traditionalists, the DH is nothing more than a modern corruption of their childhood game. Other critics consider it a gimmick, artificially boosting American League offenses by ensuring a roster spot to an over-aged, immobile slugger. Proponents might tell you that American League teams (DH) score more runs than National League teams (NO DH), and more runs equals more excitement and more interest in the game. By the way, who really wants to watch a clunky pitcher heave a wooden mallet over his head in an attempt to make contact with his counterpart's flat curveball?

Whether you believe that the NL is a better, more interesting league with strategic double-switches or that the AL is a stronger league with more offense (or some hybrid of the two), it is hard to deny the influence that the introduction of the designated hitter in 1973 has had on the game. It has created a unique situation in which a professional sport has separate rules for its 2 leagues. It has also extended the careers of many of our favorite aging sluggers as well as creating a whole new position on the field: David Ortiz? Paul Molitor? Frank Thomas? Harold Baines? Edgar Martinez? The careers of all of these players were either extended or ensured by the existence of the DH.

Obviously, the DH debate is not an issue of empirical or anecdotal evidence. We shape our arguments to fit our preconceptions. As a 20 year old Yankee Fan, I was born long after the DH came about and spend a great deal more time watching DH baseball. If I were to construct an argument to support the DH, I might say that we never would have had the illustrious Jason Giambi or beloved Hideki Matsui (2009) without the DH. As a flimsy an argument as this may be, this is the type of analysis we must sift though when debating the past, present, and future of the designated hitter.

Since my past is limited to years after the DH was introduced (1989>1973) and my time traveling machine is still in the works, I'll stick to the present (this doesn't mean that the history of baseball is irrelevant, only that people with more experience are better suited to discuss it). The only professional leagues that I know of that still allow the pitcher to hit are the National League (and their minor league affiliates) and the Japanese Central League. Additionally, most amateur leagues (Little League, High School, and College) use the DH. The prevalence of the DH suggests that a majority of baseball fans implicitly support the DH. I have no statistical evidence to support that. Well, that was true until I did some research. A September 1997 national probability sample poll (sample size = 440) reveals that 49.3% of respondents support the DH while 31.1% of respondents disapproved of the DH.

If popular support means anything (which it may not), the DH is here to stay. But the issue isn't dead and won't be for some time.


Saturday, January 9, 2010

My 1st Post

I've often thought about starting my own baseball blog. I spend a significant majority of my free time (which I have a lot of) reading different baseball sites and blogs. I'd like to think I am engaged with the most intelligent and analytical baseball writers of the era, as well engaging in a few guilty pleasures (i.e. Yankees Message Boards).

I'll begin by saying this blog is mostly for me. My mind can only hold so much frustration before it will explode. Hopefully, lightening the load will alleviate the pressure. I doubt anyone will read it, and if you do, i question your sanity. There are far better writers out there who spend a great deal more effort trying to make sense of a game that a majority of the world has never heard of.

Here's a quick shortcut to the guys I'd rather read than myself (and those whom I read before and after this post):

Rob Neyer

Joe Posnanski

Jonah Keri

Dave Cameron


Baseball Prospectus

Baseball America

The Baseball Analysts

-I don't agree with everything these guys say. I don't read them so that I can have what I think regurgitated back at me. These guys make me think. I hope I can make you think too. Enjoy.