Wednesday, January 25, 2012


A few surprises in this data set. We are looking for macro-patterns, and today the search is focused on the overall performance data in bullpen stats for the American League over the past twelve seasons (that's 2000 through 2011).

First: things don't even out.

The basic twelve-year data (at left) shows that over twelve years there is an effective range of a full earned run per game between the best performing team (the Angels) and the worst (should we be surprised to discover that it's...the Royals?).

The correlation between the won-loss record by relievers and overall bullpen ERA is a good bit stronger than what one might believe (PEARSON test brings it in at around 80%). The only real outlier in the chart (at right), the team at the far left (we show best to worst from left to right here...) is, of course, the Yankees.

What may surprise is the more conservative "tuck-in" that the overall bullpen data suggests to be the case. The won-loss record for relievers actually stays within the parameters of overall winning percentage: it is a centrifugal rather than a centripetal force.

While there are a number of examples of high-win, high WPCT seasons (three teams--the 2006 Twins, the 2007 Mariners, and the 2009 Yankees--all had bullpen WPCTs over .700), the overall ERA for good teams (92+ wins) in this time frame trails the overall WPCTs posted.

As the data shows, bullpens in general do not lift up good teams' winning percentages, nor do they drag down the won-loss records of bad teams. The effect is, in fact, the opposite.

Finally, let's look at the overall bullpen rankings for the teams over the 2000-2011 time frame (as ranked by bullpen ERA).

This table has been color-coded to display some additional info: World Series winners are shaded in orange; pennant winners are shaded in yellow; playoff teams are shaded in green. Teams that finished under .500 have their rankings shown in red.

At the bottom of the chart the pennant winner rank is shown in its own line. That average rank is 4.3. The opening (2000) and closing (2011) pennant winners (Yankees, Rangers) are the only teams with seriously sub-par bullpen ERA rankings: everyone else is in the top half, with seven of the twelve pennant winners ranking in the top three.

The average playoff team is shown next as an average. Overall, the average rank is 5.4. Only one playoff team--the 2005 Red Sox--finished dead last in bullpen ERA.

Finally, "bad" teams (those with a WPCT under .500) are represented with their average. As you'd expect, this is relatively high at 9.4. Two of the chief culprits here are (who else?) the Royals, with an average rank over the twelve-year span of 11.8, and the Orioles, who are on their heels at 10.4. (The Royals have finished last in bullpen ERA six times in the past twelve years, though they made a good jump in 2011; however, they did something similar in 2007...only to regress to the bottom again.)

The chart also shows that there has been a good deal of performance volatility, particularly around pennant and playoff teams. The Red Sox showed a lot of this in the 2003-05 period, and they have been the most ping-pongy of all AL teams over the twelve years represented here. The White Sox had a bullpen apotheosis in 2005 and won the World Series; the next year, the bullpen lit itself on fire. The Rays made a huge jump in bullpen performance from 2007 (last) to 2008 (3rd), which is one of the reasons that they exceeded all the improvement projections made for them that year. The Rangers made it to the World Series with two vastly different performance levels from their bullpens in 2010 and 2011.

2010 was the only year in which the top four bullpens (as measured by ERA) all made it to the playoffs at the same time.

Most volatile bullpens over the time frame: Red Sox, Indians, Rangers.

Least volatile bullpens over the time frame: Yankees, Orioles (but not in a good way!), Angels, Royals (again, not a positive manifestation...), Twins.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012


Who hasn't had enough of "Whisky Jack," the man who would be an albatross, an eyesore, a bare New Years' Eve lightbulb in need of a lampshade?

The signature line that launched a thousand rants: their version
would replace that second line with "105 lifetime ERA+"...
Clearly we haven't. And since those who followed in our wake seem even more conflicted as the clock ticks down to the next Hall of Fame election, let's give Jack Morris one last look--and possibly discover just what it is that his supporters may be sensing within the fractured syntax of their "narrative" (the word that would, if it could, eclipse "metrics" as the most abused construct in the orotund post-neo rhetoric).

Let's digress long enough, however, to remind the reader that all denials, reformulations and elisions notwithstanding, the BBWAA voters do know that the "disloyal opposition" has been hard at work in scorched earth tactics with respect to Jack. We may not be able to quantify it--the saddest of all possible words except possibly for Tinker to Evers to Chance--but (in honor of my all-too-indulgent colleague Darren Viola) it's best to acknowledge that the spore is on the wind--tonight, and for each of the next 350+ days as the countdown to anti-ecstasy looms larger with every forward click.

Jack, bob-bob-bobblin' along...
say, where's the bobblehead for
"Steely" Dan Petry??
We'll get to what really looks to be the underlying reason why Morris is getting support in just a minute or two, but first let's examine some data that isn't lashed to the mast of WAR's siren call. (Noodling around with the present-day implementation of WAR, by the way, leaves one with some troubling concerns about park factor distortions, something that just might be part of the "narrative" that Morris detractors have whipped up.)

But that's a battle for some other day--it would be both premature and a needless distraction to force-fit it into the Morris controversy. Instead, let's focus on the interesting issue of mediocrity and how it applies to starting pitchers in general (and, of course, ol' "Whisky Jack" in particular).

Pitcher mediocrity can be measured in a lot of ways...most of the time we see it in season-long "chunks" (a word that probably won't become as charged with meaning in the post-neo world as "metrics" or "narrative"--a darned shame).

But there are other ways to slice data, and it just might be better to take a more global view of mediocrity--one that collateralizes performance across an entire career.

We can do that by utilizing Bill James's Game Score, a stat that is probably a bit overdetermined but is still useful in cutting across the lamentable tendency to see all performance from the straitjacket of individual years.

Mediocrity, as measured by the Game Score, is arguably those games where the pitcher posts a score between 40 and 49. These are games that don't usually produce a high chance of success for the starting pitcher's team, but that operate in the nether region between competitiveness and (looking to create a term that can move in the circles with "metrics" and "narrative"...) just plain "suckitude."

These games do just that, producing an aggregate pitcher WPCT in the .360 range. (Teams tend to win about 41% of these games, as they come very close to breaking even in those games within this region that don't result in decisions for the starters.)

Don Cardwell: half as good as Curt Schilling,
but just as unlucky when he was mediocre...
Of course, there is variation in the individual won-loss records. Occasionally it's quite dramatic. (Say hello to Curt Schilling and Don Cardwell, whose WPCT in these 40-49 GS games is .182. That works out to a record of 5-27.) The more of these games you have--and we'll keep you guessing as to how many ol' Jack has for a while longer--the closer to that aggregate .360 you'd think people would come, but that isn't always the case, either. Look at Larry Jackson, with 75 such games, and a .192 WPCT (10-42). And how about Nolan Ryan (93 such games, with a 8-57 record, or a .123 WPCT).

This is the region where the luck of the draw really comes into play--run support, for one thing; or the simple non-uniformity of runs allowed within the context of the scoring rules that define the Game Score. None of these measures is, as we like to say, a perfect instrument. Here, however, we can at least measure some of the impact of luck as it relates to mediocrity, and point ourselves in the direction of pitchers whose won-loss records may be at least a bit misleading.

But you really want to know about Jack. So where does he rank on the scale of mediocre games? Is he a top ten guy, along with the likes of (gasp) Greg Maddux (115 games in the 40-49 range), Don Sutton (110), Tom Glavine (104)? Does his winning percentage in this game range approach the apostles of good fortune such as Andy Pettitte (35-24, .593 WPCT) or Kenny Rogers (40-31, .561)?

Handsome, smooth, and just a little bit too bland,
Roger Smith (77 Sunset Strip) was the Jack Morris
of actors--but he reached the Babe Magnet Hall of
Fame by marrying Ann-Margret.
When we frame the question in this way, 60% of you are 90% sure that we're going to try to pull the rug out from under the other 40% of you. And that other 40% are 70% sure that the original 60% are probably overconfident at least 80% of the time. There's a secret formula in there somewhere, but 66.7% of you (the same number of BBWAA writers who voted for Morris in the last election) will dismiss it out of hand, while the other third will plead the Fifth.

It turns out that Morris is forty-first on the list that reads "Most Starts With Game Scores between 40 and 49." He had 77 such games, which ties him with Mike Morgan and Bob Friend, puts him one behind the aforementioned Pettitte, and one ahead of Tom Seaver, Mike Flanagan, Mike Torrez, and Jim Clancy.

As 77% of you suspected, however, Jack was luckier than average in these mediocre games. As a matter of fact, he won as many games in such performances as Morgan and Friend combined. All in all, Jack was 29-26 in these starts, which equals Morgan (15) plus Friend (14), who, oddly enough, combined for 77 losses in such games. (And you thought we couldn't tie that all together, now, didn't you?)

So Jack was lucky. He won about nine more games that he should have when he was mediocre. If we wanted to follow that line of thought, we could adjust his won-loss record and downgrade it from 254-186 to 245-195. Would that be enough to derail Jack's Hall of Fame momentum?

Possibly. But you want to know (yes, you do...) who had the most "mediocre" starts. We already told you that Maddux has 115. He places fourth on the list. #3 is Frank Tanana, with 118 (with a personal won-loss record of 26-58). #2 is Jamie Moyer (123 games, 46-40--another guy who caught a break when he wasn't at his best).

It would be boffo if the man at the top of this list were Bert Blyleven, but it's not so. (Bert does have 93 such games, however, in which he went 21-45; his .318 WPCT is a bit under the aggregate.) No, the man with the all-time record for mediocre starts is Tommy John, with 129 (and a 28-50 personal won-loss record). That's three lefties at the top of the list, leading one to seek a connection between the term "southpaw" and "going south."

Now of course there is not a single BBWAA writer who knows these stats and how they relate to Jack Morris. What they know is that Morris had a late kick in 1991-92 (which is just about the last point in time that remains reasonably within memory for many BBWAA members) and that he was a big winner for two consecutive World Champs in those years. This has obliterated the fact that Jack was seriously subpar from 1988-90.

The strange thing, in fact, is that when we break out Jack's career, it's clear that he's really more of a "peak" candidate than anything else. Combining together Jack's twelve best years in terms of won-loss record (not saying that this is what should be done, mind you, but doing it anyway...), he has a 204-123 record. That works out to a .623 WPCT. The remainder of Jack's career is exceptionally bad (50-63, 4.59 ERA), but, as Jonathan Bernhardt--doing his damnedest to occupy the rhetorical space of Chris(tina) Kahrl circa 1999--so slitheringly put it: Morris is a winner.

The BBWAA voters probably have no idea that Morris parlayed good fortune in mediocrity to such a tidy little WPCT, but they are as subliminal a bunch as their "disloyal opposition" is not: they don't have to quantify, cauterize, conspire, or even Midasize in order to have a bone twinge about Jack. (Not that some of these folk aren't simply bandwagoning to get the collective goat of the numbers guys: that's part of the latest "surge"--another word, like "metrics," etc., that's been defaced by the special mud that is meant for major league baseballs but is currently ricocheting into the eyes of the disenfranchised.)

Please understand that none of the above is meant as an endorsement for Jack's candidacy. It simply shows the components that are located "underneath the narrative" that so many post-neo folk have given a semiological credence via their arch articulation. It's our theory that the components took awhile to coalesce beyond the subdural level, and that the scratch'n'claw tactics of the disloyal opposition unleashed a virus, which in this case operates more like the toxic agent found in poison ivy.

In other words, rash behavior has created an itchy situation, and it's not out of the realm of possibility that  the more we scratch, the more that itch will scratch back, until it spreads to over 75% of the affected body. And that will bring on that all-too-rare occurrence: the Hall of Fame induction as knife-twist, the unconscious, autonomic coiling of a python-like organism, scissoring itself around the strangled voices of those whose votes and opinions remain marginalized.

How grimly appropriate, then, that our final image herein depicts the ultimate result of this careening, disconnected anti-narrative, this jack-knifed discourse that brings any hope of mutual understanding and forward movement to a halt. As with much in the world these days, unstable events in the foreground overwhelm the longer processes and points of reference in the background. Thus the deeper structures get overlooked in the noise.

The Morris candidacy has progressed in a way that certain anomalous things happen: the shouting becomes its own form of silence, felt but not heard, acted upon without any actual articulation. Underground forces pop up, like gargoyles peering out of manhole covers.  One man's train wreck is another man's pinnacle of success.

Just wait till next year...

Wednesday, January 18, 2012


It's time to mess around with some data in the subcutaneous regions. (We all need to wind down from the agitato of the Hall of Fame's bloody penumbra.)
...bloody Penumbra. (But Cristina Brondo
might be worth getting sliced up for...)

So we will fly under the Hall of Fame--literally, in this case.

The vagrant thought that motivated this was an old chestnut: the platoon advantage. Or, rather, the disadvantage as it's often manifested in lefty hitters vs. lefty pitchers. We wondered if there might be any rhyme or reason in it--meaning some other kind of correlating pattern which explained its overall behavior.

So we decided to take a subgroup of hitters who would have been good enough to have actually given a prolonged opportunity to hit against lefties.

That group, after a couple of generous swallows of a high-powered Trappist ale, was identified as the left-handed hitting first basemen from 1930 to the present who are just below Hall of Fame level play.

We gathered the 38 hitters and calculated their personal OPS+ against lefties (we call it LOPS+, and it corresponds to the sOPS figure that Forman et fil calculate on their splits pages). That data is presented in the table at the left.

When we average out some of the other salient data about these guys, we discover that, as is the case generally in baseball as it's moved into the present, power is increasing. We took our three historical categories (30s-50s, 60s-80s, 90s-now) and averaged the ISO (isolated power) and the XBA (our stat, called eXtra Base Average, the percentage of total bases that are created from extra-base hits). When you look at that, you'll see that there's a big uptick in the last 20 years.

This is also accompanied by a general improvement in the performance level of the lefty-swinging first sackers who are "bubbling under" the HoF.

The XBA values, not shown in the chart, mirror the ISO: .556 for the 30s-50s group; .573 for the 60s-80s group; .640 for the 90s-to-the-present group.

The overall LOPS+ value for all 38 lefty-swinging first basemen is 79. That is, they lose about 21% of their overall OPS+ as a result of facing left-handed pitchers.

The historical data shows that there was a slight dip in the platoon performance of the lefty first-sackers who played in the 60s-80s group.

From this, it doesn't look like there's a whole lot to this study...

But it turns out there's another way to slice the data. (There's always another way to slice the data.)

And, in this case, the slice we want to do looks at a grouping of players by their ISO/XBA.

When we lump players into six XBA categories (.499-, .500-.549, .550-.599, .600-.649, .650-.699, and .700+), we see that there's almost a linear correlation. We've run the power data "backwards" in our chart; it runs from the most powerful to the least powerful, left to right, in order to show the virtually linear improvement in platoon advantage.

So what we're seeing here is that the more XBA or ISO these players have, the worse they are at hitting left-handed pitching.

Now possibly this is simply an intuitive thing. It might just be common sense to you all that the more a left-handed hitter successfully swings for the fences (or emphasizes extra-base power), the more trouble he might have with southpaws.

But it's not something that we've ever seen broken out in any way. So, here it is.

We of course realize that this is a highly targeted small sample size. It surely isn't representative of average players--though it could be. One thing to test is the performance of other lefty-hitting players who play different positions, but who hit at an analogous level for their defensive position. (In other words, hitters from other defensive positions who are the "bubbling under the HoF" types.)

We'll probably get to that a bit later on in the remaining off-season.

Ryan Howard: disappearing into a cloud of smoke
against lefties...
OK, it's coming back to us. What spurred this little exercise was the ongoing discussion of Norm Cash, the Tigers' long-time slugger. Cash had a fine career, and he gets touted as a "skirting the HoF" type from now and then.

But he had a very pronounced platoon split (just 61 LOPS+, one of the worst such scores among the players we've broken out).

The positive point, however: he owned righties.

That makes him eerily similar to a man who, unlike him, is widely considered to be a vastly overrated player--Ryan Howard.

Cash spent a portion of his later career being sat out against lefties. That was a lot easier to do in those days because the Tigers weren't paying him an absolute king's ransom to play. The Phillies might be well-advised to have Howard sit against lefties, but given what they're paying him, it just isn't feasible.

Thursday, January 12, 2012


The makers of this poignant mini-documentary about iconoclastic painter Ben Sakoguchi, whose "Unauthorized History of Baseball" is but one of many "orange crate label" series that he has produced in a startling display of focused artistic energy, didn't see fit to bring baseball into the narrative, but as Sakoguchi talks about his life and art (a most welcome first) you can see a generous array of the baseball paintings in the right corner of the frame...

The occasion for the video is Sakoguchi's inclusion in the Japanese-American National Museum's ongoing series, Drawing the Line: Japanese Art, Design, and Activism in Post-War Los Angeles, which is featured at their Little Tokyo-based facility just east of downtown L.A. For more information about the exhibit, which is part of the expertly coordinated Pacific Standard Time cluster of exhibitions that have been running throughout Los Angeles since October, please visit their web site. The Drawing the Line exhibition continues through February 19th.

Ben Sakoguchi today...
The only problem with Sakoguchi's video is that it is much, much too short. The filmmakers do a wonderful job of capturing the essence of Ben's unique personality, and the story they are able to tell in just over four minutes is affecting, but more time with his prolific, often outrageous, consistently challenging and thought-provoking work is what the viewer will want after such a tantalizing glimpse. (A half-hour or hour documentary is what's needed: let's hope that it will happen--soon.)

Ben "back in the day"...
You can take a self-guided tour of Sakoguchi's work at his web site, lovingly maintained by his wife Jan, who is also the very principled portal through which prospective buyers of Ben's work must pass. [Full disclosure: we are pleased and honored to have somehow slipped through the cracks in her radar to have become a proud owner of several "Unauthorized History of Baseball" paintings.]

Such a tour, which will remind you of Ben's fruitful association with the Baseball Reliquary, will also demonstrate to you how much more there is to his work than baseball.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012


First and foremost: congratulations to Barry Larkin for his enshrinement in the Hall of Fame. He is an exemplary choice in every way.

Jack (aka "Whisky Jack")...
...and Jim (who some would rather have
dipped in something other than bronze).
While yesterday's Hall of Fame vote didn't deliver a lethal blow to our little scenario for future results (more on that below...), it did crystallize the dynamics of the culture war that continues to rage between two increasingly armed camps: the mainstream media and the blogosphere.

What's clear from the increase in the support for Jack Morris (up to 67% from the low-to-mid fifties in the two previous years) is that the mainstream media has been listening to the blogosphere. But what they've heard--much as was the case with Jim Rice--has caused them to dig their heels in.

It's plain as the nose on Pinocchio's face that the BBWAA writers have taken umbrage at the ridicule that has been relentlessly sent their way by a very vocal minority (a kind of "Green Party" of "baseball activists") that hounds them. As is the case with any stacked deck, there are essentially two choices for alleviating the effects of such a condition: evolution or revolution.

The blogosphere, following the more combative post-Abstract muckracking of Bill James, has chosen revolutionary ardor. Buoyed by the fact that baseball front offices have adopted statistical and economic concepts from the ongoing "advanced metrics industry," they operate ideologically, attempting a full-court press of cultural revolution.

But they've only been given the keys to daddy's car. They don't own the car, and they don't have enough revolutionary praxis to steal it away from either its owners or its guardians: the mainstream press.

Thus the Hall of Fame has become the bloody battleground for symbolic control of the flow of ideas and the control over the nature of discourse. As we've demonstrated elsewhere, the flaws in the Hall of Fame voting process have been exaggerated, beginning with James in The Politics of Glory, who opened the door to what has become a tidal wave of revisionism by declaring that the process was irretrievably broken and advocating radical new mechanisms for voting.

Thus the BBWAA has been under assault from the forces of revisionist revolution for the better part of two decades, with a yearly flashpoint that occurs in the second week of every new year.

Make no mistake: the BBWAA is far from perfect in what it does. But nothing in this world is. And when an organization holds an important key to how "cultural definition" is coined, it's best to proceed from a less combative position.

Rich and Bert: accentuate the postive...
Rich Lederer's campaign for Bert Blyleven was effective not so much because it encompassed all of the deep technical truths that animate the world of "advanced metrics," but because it was an example of positive advocacy. By contrast, the neo-sabe campaigns against Jim Rice (and, now, Jack Morris) have failed to gain traction. If anything, they may have helped hasten the very thing they were attempting to avoid.

Frankly, the Hall of Fame is the most pointless place to wage a cultural war. But neo-sabes can't quite let go of their Stalinist roots. They factionalize as well--and as frequently--as any cadre of folk, even those with a bitterly cynical brand of utopian fervor. (It's that combination of impulses that earmarks it as a tiny but potent signifier for the ongoing malaise in American culture.)

The sane response to a Hall of Fame that's seen as a hopeless quagmire is to simply start one's own. A somewhat more moderate subgroup in the analytical world began this in the mid-80s, well before the Internet. That group predated the Hall of Merit by fifteen years, and it began as an intellectual exercise not motivated by the cynical depredations that permeate James's bracing-but-divisive Politics of Glory. That group called itself the Baseball Maniacs, attempting to own up to the obsessiveness that such immersion in minutiae so clearly entails. They did not think that the world would change much if they conducted a thought-experiment about who the best ballplayers were. They did not think it quite so urgent that a semi-lax organization be overthrown due to the "cultural abominations" it had perpetrated upon a helpless humanity.

As noted, the result of these negative campaigns against Rice and Morris seems to be that the organization with the power to make a "bad decision" will only be motivated to go ahead and do it, if only to remind everyone that they have the power to do so. Now, in some cases, such actions can serve to undermine authority and pave the way for cultural change. That's what some would call a Trotskyite tactic for "dialectical transformation." And, clearly, creating martyrs has brought about change--some of it good.

But people become resistant to such tactics. They learn to discount and deflect them. Cycles of change occur as cultural combatants revise and reapply their words and actions.

But the other problem for the neo-sabes who want to reform/control/blow up the Hall of Fame and drive all the BBWAA "morons" into the Red Sea is this:

--Not nearly enough people are going to get up in arms if/when a controlling organization goes "rogue" and puts Jim Rice and/or Jack Morris into its Hall of Fame.

There's no traction for "cultural transformation" here. It's better found in the front offices. If it permeates the front offices (and, to some extent, it is doing so, but the jury is still out on that eventual outcome), then there will be a slower but more lasting set of changes.

"Mandarin revolution" is a double-edged sword, and one must not proceed prematurely to the next state of change without risking backlash. The road to what looks like a sudden transformation is usually preceded by a long march. That is the reality of the situation here, and it will be best to accept and absorb  the so-called "setbacks" in order to find the path that will lead to success. Given what's happened, there is really no other recourse.

So Morris' rise in the voting reflects more than just a strategic failure on the part of the numbers mob. It demonstrates that if you push against an inchoate monolith, the inchoate monolith tends to push back.

The corollary to the famous film noir maxim "No good deed goes unpunished" that's appropriate here is: "Poke a sleeping bear once too often, and you won't have to worry about where your next meal is coming from--because you will be the meal." The BBWAA is the bear; we are the visitors to the park. You don't change that essential relationship by yelling at the bear.

We weren't convinced that the Morris matter had taken root in the way that it has, but this year's result makes it clear that we're now in that "elemental test of manhood" phase.

Organizations do (at least) as many bad things as good things when they are threatened, or feel threatened. Lederer's approach shows how small changes can be made; the campaign against Rice (and now Morris) is pitched at such a volume that it can't help but create backlash.

From the tiny standpoint of our own ongoing HoF projections, they weren't blown out of the water by yesterday's results. Jeff Bagwell came up a bit short of our projection, but his upward movement was strong; while there's considerably less certainty that he'll make the necessary jump for enshrinement in 2013, we'd still grade it at 60-65%. None of the other results were particularly divergent from what was predicted; like many of those whose individual voices remain less combative than the unfortunate "echo chamber" effect of the numbers blogosphere, we're heartened to see Tim Raines move up in the vote, but caution his advocates to be ready to weather a protracted plateau as a series of more obviously qualified candidates begin to appear on the ballot next year.

[EDIT: Some might wonder why, if the Hall of Fame is characterized here as not being worth so much worry, why we've (recently) advocated a "Hall of Fame Redux." A fair question. That idea is just that: an intellectual exercise that follows in the wake of very diligent efforts by a group of committed baseball scholars and historians to shape an alternative roster of the best players using the most rigorous methods available to them (the Hall of Merit).

The thought-question answered by a "Hall of Fame Redux" is what would that roster of inductees look like had the same bureaucratic constraints been in place for the Hall of Merit as was the case for the BBWAA. While this is admittedly an esoteric idea, the interest in seeing such a result simply won't go away, at least from yours truly. We will know more about what the exact differences are in the de facto "inner circle" of the Hall of Fame by participating in such an exercise. Perhaps this is pointless, as it will not change anything. But any new perspective has the potential to spark future actions and change, even if they seem less than promising at first glance. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.]

Monday, January 9, 2012


Jorge Posada has announced his retirement...the late-blooming Yankee backstop was a mainstay during a time when the gorillas from the Bronx were exceptionally successful even by their standards.

His retirement leaves only two players from the beginning of the Yankees' late 90s dominance still active (Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera).

He's not going to be a force in the Hall of Fame voting in 2017, though one expects him to stay on the ballot for a few years. His association with the Yankees during an extremely successful timeframe should boost his vote totals, as opposed to what happened to a switch-hitting catcher with a similar profile (Ted Simmons, who dropped off the ballot with only 4% of the vote in 1994).

Here's a brief sketch of factoids concerning Posada's career that will add a little more perspective.

First, of course, is that late-bloomingness. You can count on the fingers of one hand the number of players who had their career year at age 35.

That age-35 season is the best such season turned in by a catcher that age in baseball history. (WAR-mongers might argue for Elston Howard's 1964 season, but they'd be doing so on the basis of the sketchy defensive values that the system kicks out for catchers. Posada's 153 OPS+ dominates the list of 35-year old backstops.)

The lengthy post-season that was so often part of the Yankee experience during Posada's career seemed to grind him down. Forman et fils' post-season breakouts show a marked decline over the escalating course of the post season: Posada's OPS in division series was .790; in championship series it was .742; and in the World Series it fell to .667.

In terms of his career development as a hitter, Posada began as a much better right-handed hitter, as our chart of his cumulative left-right splits demonstrates. He made a rapid improvement from the left side in 2000, and continued to improve as a lefty from then on--one of the contributing factors to his ability to remain an extremely effective hitter into his mid-to-late 30s.

That sharp dip in 2011 that's shown for his right-handed hitting (the one marked "LHP") shows the specific nature of Jorge's decline. He was just 6-for-65 against lefties last year. (That might have been a contributing factor in his decision to hang it up.)

The thought of playing anywhere else probably also influenced Posada. Of all the ballparks in all the major leagues, the one he really didn't want to walk out of (to rework that Casablanca reference just a bit...) was New Yankee Stadium. The revamped "House That Ruth George Built" proved to be exceptionally cozy for Jorge: in the three years he played there (at the advanced age of 37-39), the park literally kept his career going. He hit .302 there, with an OPS of .938. On the road, those number were considerably more wan--as in .209 and a .665 OPS. In 2011, Posada hit .165 away from the Bronx, with a .524 OPS.

Laura Posada: perhaps the reason for the "home
field advantage" is now abundantly clear...
Of course, we'd be remiss if we didn't work in a couple of "midwestern angst" digs into this. First, Rob Neyer's knee-jerk notion that Posada was held back from enough career games in 1996-99 to cost him a slot in Cooperstown wasn't really worth the time it took to write the column. (That's the Damoclean sword of the Internet--it just coerces that empty content out of you...) [EDIT: Hi, Rob!! :-)] There's a good chance that Jorge will end up in the Hall--but it will be sometime after 2030 or so, when many more things have shaken out. Second, it turns out that Posada's very favorite place to hit is--you guessed it--Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City (.340 BA, 1.011 OPS).
Get lost, Chet!!

Finally: evidence that Posada just isn't a West Coast kind of guy. On West Coast road trips, Posada hit .246, was on-base about a third of the time (.331), slugged .386--a total OPS of .728. Everywhere else (including his two homers in Tokyo, which is so far west that it's in the Far East and thus doesn't count) he hit .276/.374/.483, for an OPS of .857. Note to Jorge's red hot wife Laura: no Chet Baker records to get him in the mood. It'll just get him fouled up and off his rhythm.

Thanks for the memories, Jorge.

Saturday, January 7, 2012


The Blue Bum tells it like it is: Stephen Seemayer's
paintings revamp the Dodgers' increasingly fragile legacy.
While oh so many of you are fixating on the scarifyin' prospect of Monday's Hall of Fame vote (Barry Larkin is looking good), you might want to turn your attention to an election in which any and all are allowed to participate: the Baseball Reliquary's Shrine of the Eternals, where you can buy your own vote for a small yearly fee of $25 (that's less than seven cents a day, campers).

It involves a shift in mentality that might not be possible for those who are over-invested in statistics or "official stories." Rather than expending emotion and intellect in Hall of Fame revisionism, there's an alternate path that involves an entirely new vision, a true re-visioning, in fact, of baseball history. The voters of the Baseball Reliquary get to engage in this process directly, and they've done a sensational job in producing a unique slate of Eternals. Their "outsider" stance welds together the most disparate strands of baseball's ongoing tapestry.

This year there are a dozen new candidates for the Shrine of the Eternals. Some of the better-known names include: Bert Campaneris, Jose Canseco, Charlie Finley, Hideo Nomo, Lefty O'Doul, and Joe Pepitone. (How would you like to have that sextet in a panel discussion?)

But where the Reliquary really shines is in its selection of the lesser-known figures in baseball history. These are the fleeting ones, who add the texture of individuality to the game--the characters who often are the purest embodiments of adversity, extremity and otherness: the qualities that abound in Reliquary inductees.

Bill Bergen
The half-dozen fleeting ones who are invited to take a bow in 2012:

--Gary Bell, an ordinary pitcher with an extraordinary wit, one of the three major characters in Jim Bouton's abidingly irreverent classic, Ball Four;

--Bill Bergen, whose lack of hitting prowess is the most extreme for any position player who ever amassed 2500 or more at-bats;

--Steve Bilko, legendary minor-league slugger whose long-ball exploits in the Pacific Coast League were so legendary that Hollywood appropriated his name for the classic Phil Silvers comedy, Sergeant Bilko;

--Charles "Victory" Faust, the type of "team mascot" that could never happen today, whose story would make for a quirky but compelling baseball biopic;

Toni Stone
--Annabelle Lee, aunt of Bill (Spaceman) Lee, whose left-handed pitching exploits in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League included a perfect game (Lee has said his aunt threw harder than he did);

--Toni Stone, the only woman to play in the Negro Leagues, signed by the Indianapolis Clowns in 1953 to play second base (thus replacing a future Hall of Famer: Hank Aaron).

These are not your garden-variety "Hall of Fame" candidates. They are literally the stuff that dreams are made of, people who lived out their dreams in the light of day. For thirteen years, with unerring insight, the voter population of the Baseball Reliquary has selected a troika of inductees that capture this quirky, undefinable resonance.

If the all-too-brief stories of these six unique, fleeting-but-eternal individuals capture even the briefest spark of interest in you, then you should join the Baseball Reliquary--the quintessential baseball "anti-institution" where your voice is always heard. Voting begins in April, so there's still time to join.

The fourteenth Shrine of the Eternals Induction Day will be held on Sunday, July 15th, in Pasadena, CA. As we've told you for almost as long as there has been an Induction Day, the ceremony is unlike any other you will ever attend. Don't miss it.

Friday, January 6, 2012


The Big Z: according to many semi-reliable sources,
the bobblehead makers got the proportions right...
The new year, arriving on the heels of the Oakland A's tradeoff of three frontline pitchers and the Chicago Cubs (aka Theo'n'Jed's Sausage Shed) deep-throating of Carlos Zambrano's contract, is virtually guaranteed to send the post-neo saber-fatalists into paroxysms of punditry capable of outstripping the mainstreamers they love to excoriate. (Since news often travels in threes, we can only hope that the Houston Astros will bite the bullet and hire Keith Law in a dual role--deputy scouting director and team mascot.)

The consensus in the ever-Iagoseque world of numbers is that Billy Beane has at last been exposed as a corporate shill, in direct opposition to his portrayal in Moneyball (and, yes, we still owe you our rev-up on the film, the flim-flam, and the many talking dead bodies that are still molesting the many myths that were serially propagated over the past decade).

The universal contempt for his recent deals, which sent starters Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez (snif!), plus reliever Andrew Bailey, off to far-flung destinations for a minivan full of farm-fresh produce, is an amusing reversal of the 1998 idolatry accorded then-Marlins' GM Dave Dombrowski for his acquisition of a rhythm section's worth of first-round draft picks.

The fine feathered folk who touted the "Swing Kids" strategy in 1998 lived through a number of years where the Marlins fell far short of the scenario predicted for them, were buoyed by the parallel success of the A's, whose longer-term run of fortuitous draft selections coalesced into a set of mythic performances in 2000-02 that ushered in a wonk-infused feeding frenzy.

His other nickname: Lew "Blow Up My Stadium" Wolff
But the A's stalled (purportedly because their "brand" of exploiting "market inefficiency" went by the wayside). As with the five-year plateau that faced them in 2002 when the Marlins remained on the wrong side of .500, the A's old constituency has finally gotten off the bus. Jonah Keri, the krown prince of profit-pundit shape-shifters, actually tossed an incendiary device into his most recent screedy-poo at (g)Rantland, dousing Beane with gasoline as the hired hand of an owner with an agenda as dire as Wayne Huizenga or Jeffrey Loria. (That A's owner is now nicknamed Lew "the Leper" Wolff.)

The massive irony, of course, is that as Wolff and Beane tear down their team, their actions are no longer brilliant. And yet as Theo'n'Jed (Epstein and Hoyer, the two goombas from Boston who've begun to share a reinforced houseboat on the shores of Lake Michigan) make a series of similar steps (while not actually resulting in any dramatic payroll reduction, mind you...), they are the beneficiaries of what is mostly a "hands-off" policy.

We might humorously ascribe this to an inverted variant of Keri's discarded (shape-shifter, remember?) "theories," which we could rechristen as the "failure cycle," but we really ought to get down to something actually worth reading about. Let's just finish this long opening aside by noting that five years is clearly the operating limit for the cultural heroes of the numbers set. Epstein, a clever shape-shifter himself, bought himself time by taking a powder: by leaving Boston (four years after his last big success, and with two years out of the post-season), he was able to re-set the clock.

"Lavrenti" Beane...
"Billy" Beria
Beane and the A's, however, are now worse off than a discredited mid-fifties Politburo member. While it's gratifying that the crossed-sword set is actually willing to acknowledge how many games the long-ago vaunted (and summarily eviscerated) Fish Fillets (aka the Marlins) lost in 1998--that's 108 big ones, for those of you who were riding the space shuttle at the time--it is by no means a done deal that the A's will suffer the same fate.

It's not a done deal, in fact, that they will actually be all that much worse than they were in 2011.


There, we've said it. And, of course, we have some of our always handy, usually idiosyncratic data with which to wrangle.

What does it take to fall apart? Nobody is really sure, of course, until after it's happened. But that won't stop many from predicting it, particularly if they've been unlucky in love. The A's are odds-on "favorites" to lose 100 games (for the sake of our data, we'll interpret this as playing less than .400 ball).

Teams in the .399- WPCT bracket, as the data from the past twenty years demonstrates, do not tend to be exemplars of the "fall apart" syndrome. They tend to be a good way toward the lower depths already, and merely slide further into a region below mediocrity. The overall average drop for these teams is 14 games, but this figure has tightened a bit in the most recent decade.

Using a formula that uses team ERA+ and OPS+ to solidly mimic Pythagorean Win Percentage, we see that in the last decade teams who've declined into sub-mediocrity have lost the most ground in their pitching staff.

But the eighteen teams in the most recent decade have clearly bifuracted into two distinct classes (as the more detailed breeakout will demonstrate). They've splintered into teams that genuinely, catastrophically collapse (we can put the 2011 Twins and Astros, the 2010 Mariners, 2008 Padres, and 2004 Royals and D-Backs into this category), as opposed to mediocre teams that were already skating closing to the thin ice separating them from pond scum status.

Only five out of these eighteen teams had better-than-league-average pitching in the year prior to their sub-.400 season. Four of them are teams that really collapsed. And these are the only four (out of nearly two hundred league seasons where teams scored a 100 or higher in ERA+) where the teams collapsed.

The A's had an ERA+ of 110 in 2011. While they've lost three front-line pitchers, one of them (Cahill) was slightly under the league average in ERA+ in 2011. The A's have quite a backlog of young starters, including several who were acquired in these most recent trades. There is no fait accompli that the A's pitchers will suffer a catastrophic reversal in 2012.

The data strongly indicates that it's the pitching that drives the decline process, however. (The steady-state bad teams show a more balanced decline.) So how far do the A's need to drop from last year's pitching performance in order to sink into the morass that so many are expecting?

Let's answer that with a bit of indirection. What's clear from the data when we separate the two classes of .399- teams (the bad-by-free-fall from the bad-by-steady-state) is that the 2011 A's have a performance profile more like the free-fall teams, but we have to remember than there is a totally unrepresented class of teams that need to be mentioned here; namely, the teams that didn't collapse at all, but remained at least mediocre (winning 75 or more games in the following year). The A's still have a backlog of pitching that  can cushion their fall; if they are able to stay at or near league average, they are going to be able to win enough games at home to escape catastrophe.

The best Beane can do when asked to remove payroll is to reposition the team to have the best possible chance to tailor the talent distribution around the characteristics of his home park. He's done that.

Now back to the question. How far do the A's need to fall in order to fulfill the wish-fulfillment of those who would send Beane off to a sabermetric gulag? The answer: several ways--both of them requiring a drop-off combination of at least twenty percent (as shown in the diagram: projections for 2012 at the left; last year's data on the right). The two likeliest scenarios are: a balanced downturn that's relatively even across offense and pitching performance; or a catastrophic decline in one category (we've chosen to humor the doom-sayers and put it all in the pitching side of the ledger).

Both of these would get the A's down to a projected win total that'd drop below a .400 WPCT; the current likeliest projection, however, looks more like a more modest downturn, one that won't push the A's down into the type of oblivion that teams such as the Royals and Pirates have reached. (We've also included the current projections for the Cubs and those current sabermetric darlings, the Tampa Bay Rays, entering that fateful fifth year of being the daring Davids in the ever shape-shifting maudit Moneyball formulation still swirling in the snark-infested waters of the post-neo zeitgeist.

Consequently we're inclined to think that a mild drop-off in 2012 will be followed by a return of solid pitching in '13. Add in some incremental offensive improvement and the 2014 A's (wherever they might be playing) have a decent shot to be "the new Rays."

Be sure to forget that you read it here first.