Friday, June 28, 2013

Clutch Hitting Revisited (Part 2)

In my first post on clutch hitting I made a simple point--clutch situations exist and sometimes hitters perform in those situations, sometimes they don't. While there is a statistically significant difference in batting average in clutch situations vs. the bases empty, it's a big leap from statistical significance to meaningful difference. Yesterday I focused on the differences in batting average based on base situation, but today I'll do something completely different.

Which I'm pretty sure will show completely different results.

I'll quote directly from (B-R):
Within a game, there are plays that are more pivotal than others. We attempt to quantify these plays with a stat called leverage index (LI). LI looks at the possible changes in win probability in a give situation and situations where dramatic swings in win probability are possible (runner on second late in a tie game) have higher LI's than situations where there can be no large change in win probability (late innings of a 12-run blowout).
The stat is normalized so that on average the leverage is 1.00. In tense situations, the leverage is higher than 1.00 (up to about 10) and in low-tension situations the leverage is between 0 and 1.0.
What this doesn't state is that it was developed by Tom Tango, the nom de baseball for person/persons who create extremely advanced baseball metrics that I can't calculate but can interpret. I've seen the LI for years but it never meant much to me since everyone was grouped right around 1.0--if everyone is around the same number, what deep meaning can it have?

That was until I started playing around with individual plate appearances, possible if you shell out the unheard-of sum of $36 to subscribe to the B-R Play Index feature--once I did that, well, I felt like Saul at Damascus when the scales fell from his eyes. Everything I had done was based on aggregate yearly data, which has value, but individual plate appearances, well, now I could separate hits from HITS.

B-R uses the following definitions:
LI<.7                Low Leverage (i.e., low pressure)
.7<LI<1.5        Medium Leverage
LI>1.5             High Leverage

Here are some recent examples using Albert Pujols plate appearances:

Contrary to the definition above, there ARE LI situations below zero and as would be expected, describe situations in which Pujol's performance was generally irrelevant. The last example is Pujol's highest LI plate appearance in his career (through 2012) and is an excellent illustration of what the LI can explain--the Cardinals were down one run with two outs in the bottom of the 9th with the bases loaded--if this isn't a clutch situation, nothing is. The LI does not take into account (at least to my knowledge--I could be wrong) the fact this plate appearance was very early in the season, giving the Cardinals plenty of time to overcome the fact that he didn't win the game, but it's clear--using the LI can help us realize that not all situations are equal, which is the premise that I essentially set up yesterday and certainly espoused in my FanGraph piece

Using B-R's LI figures, this is how many plate appearances Pujols has had (through June 27th, 2013) at the different leverage levels:
Low                        3,937 (46.6%)
Medium                2,926 (34.6%)
High                       1,589 (18.8%)
Total                       8,452
I could have sliced the data using these guidelines, but I chose to divide the plate appearances into three roughly equal groups of plate appearances, and after some work made my own definitions for the LI:
<.57                   Low Leverage
.57<LI<1.12      Medium Leverage
LI>1.12              High Leverage
I doubt that changing these definitions greatly affects the results and was more interested in creating equivalent sample sizes. I used only one data set (I had to create five different Excel spreadsheets for all this data) to determine the values, but I'll assume that using over 900,000 data points gave representative results:

I used a couple of tables to help break down the relative success near the end of yesterday's post, and I'll use the same tables today using LI. The first table breaks down the 837 players by career plate appearances:
Something very interesting has happened--the difference in batting average are much smaller than they were using my previous criteria. In fact, the difference between the medium and low leverage plate appearances are NOT statistically significant, .271 in the low leverage situations and .272 in the medium. High leverage situations have a batting average of .278, which does maintain statistical significance. 

This table breaks down the players by All-Star appearances:
Much as in yesterday's post, the better the player the better the results, totally intuitive and what we would expect to see. This last table breaks down the players by career batting average:
This explains clutch hitting about as well as anything I've written over the past two posts. If we use batting average increase as a measure of clutch performance, it's obvious the largest improvement occurs at the lower end of the scale where there's the greatest potential for an increase. Likewise, players at the high end aren't necessarily excellent clutch hitters as much as excellent hitters period. Players with an aggregate batting average of .310 are hard-pressed to improve on that.

In the end, looking for improvements in batting average as a measure of clutch performance probably falls short--there are natural upward limits in batting average. For example, the person with the highest low leverage batting average is Wade Boggs at .334, the lowest Johnnie LeMaster at .200 (the lowest by 16 points--ouch!), a range of 134 points. I won't even show the table it's so useless--the players with the greatest percent increase in batting average from low to medium index are all those with low batting averages and certainly not the players managers keenly desire to bat when the game is on the line.

Two last charts--I started off my FG piece with a scatter graph of player's batting average in low and medium leverage situations:

Players want to be on the ABOVE the line of this chart, meaning they hit better in medium leverage situations than low. It's pretty obvious that the players are all over the chart, implying that sometimes they performed, sometimes they didn't. It's also clear that hitters are what they are--.220 hitters may be able to bat .240 in clutch situations, but not .300. It's an improvement, but does it really make a difference? Remember from yesterday that even at the extreme, a 20% increase in batting average from a low-hitting player translates into around 5-6 hits.

This last chart compares low and high leverage situations:

It's natural to break data down and search for deeper meaning, and unfortunately life is rarely so simple that we can look at one set of circumstances and make concrete inferences. This doesn't prevent people from doing this on a daily basis, but in the case of clutch hitting, I really wish I would stop hearing:

"Player X sure knows how to come through in the clutch"

And begin hearing:

"Player X is our best hitter, and we really need a hit here--he's our best hope"

Sometimes Player X will come through, sometimes not. Albert Pujols is one of the best hitters in recent memory and destined for Hall of Fame induction, but even HE fails 70% of the time in clutch situations. However, I can state for certain that he'll fail LESS often than most, not because he's a great clutch hitter, but a great hitter. You'll find this last table interesting--it shows how Hall of Famers have performed by leverage situation:

Rod Carew had a 15% lower batting average in medium leverage situations, all the way "down" to .282--hard to call this failure. There ARE clutch situations, there ARE NOT clutch hitters, just hitters that occasionally perform in those clutch situations. The Hall of Famers above didn't have outstanding clutch numbers but were simply the best of their generation at baseball. The idea of clutch hitting will never go away, I just wish it would. In my next post on this subject, I'll do some case studies and show some individual players. And don't forget--I'm willing to share the data on these 800+ players so you can make your own comparisons--just hit the email link at the right and ask.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Clutch Hitting Revisited (Part 1)

I first studied clutch hitting in a piece that was published over two years ago in the Community Research section of FanGraphs (FG)--talk about beginning by jumping into the deep end. I was mildly surprised at the reaction it received and I always intended to return to the subject and investigate it further. The Cubs and White Sox aren't going anywhere--why not now?

Let me be absolutely clear up front--clutch hitting EXISTS.

Allow me to repeat that--clutch hitting EXISTS.

Have I made myself clear? When Joe Carter came to the plate in the bottom of the 9th in Game 6 of the 1993 World Series with Rickey Henderson on 2nd, Paul Molitor on 1st and on the wrong end of a 6-5 score and hit the game-ending and Series-ending home run off Mitch Williams, that was absolutely clutch in any way you wish to define the term--it was in an important game, an important situation, etc. There were runners in scoring position, the game was tight, the Blue Jays already had one out and Carter came through in the quintessential clutch situation. NOBODY ARGUES THIS.

What we DO argue about is whether clutch hitting is a skill, i.e., something that can be replicated. In other words, are there players in baseball history who are better at performing in the clutch--do they seem to rise to the occasion more often than others? If so, what made them special, and can we tease it out, and even more importantly, can it be cultivated and taught? These are all valid questions that I touched on in that FG piece but will look at further. In addition, advances in the data available from Baseball-Reference (B-R) allow me to separate out even more what is important and what isn't and I'll introduce metrics that I was either unaware of or didn't have access to even as recently as 2011.

What is a clutch situation? This will be a somewhat fluid definition as I write this but I'll explain as I add situations or permutations. Initially, my definition is very simple--a clutch situation is any one in which a runner is in scoring position, period. I don't care how many outs there are, what inning it is or the score of the game--I firmly believe that any major league hitter (shoot, any HITTER at any level) batting with the opportunity to drive in a run is keenly interested in doing so. I contend that had the Blue Jays been beating the Phillies 18-2 at the time of Joe Carter's at-bat, first, he wouldn't be batting (there would have been no bottom of the 9th), and second, he would STILL want to do his best to drive the runners in. Would it be EXACTLY the same--probably not, but my point is clear and I will proceed from that foundational understanding.

This chart shows the difference in batting average with the bases empty and with runners in scoring position from 1947-2012:

Not all opportunities to hit in the clutch are the same, and I'll introduce this chart knowing full well it might confuse the issue--it shows how often base runners are driven in depending on the given base situation:

To explain, with a runner on 1st, hitters drove in the runner 5% of the time in 1950, with the range between 3.7-6.7%. In 2012, that improved, and depending on how you want to cut the numbers, an argument can be made that the improvement was rather dramatic, about a 14% increase from 5.0 to 5.7%. Be my guest, but I think that's overstating--I would argue that over time, with runners on 1st, they'll be driven in about 5% of the time, runners on 2nd around 15% and so on. When I created this table I don't remember if I only used players with a certain number of plate appearances, but even so, the ranges aren't dramatic. Taken all together, the average hitter drives in about 15% of the base runners, and in cases like last year with Miguel Cabrera, can move that number as high as 22%. That's about a 50% difference, and that's something to talk about. I wrote about this in a prior post if you wish to read further on it--it's an important topic, but not exactly what I'm writing about here, but it is related.

I don't use advanced math but I do utilize college-level statistical methods that I will explain to anyone interested--email me at the link to the right and I'll answer any questions you have. In my initial FG piece, I suggested a 10% increase in batting average as a marker of clutch hitting and saw nothing anywhere near that, making me smugly assume that I had conclusively proven once and for all that clutch hitting didn't exist. As I thought about that, that was a ridiculous standard--a 10% increase in ANYTHING in life is usually something momentous and a fairly arbitrary and rigid standard.

It's difficult to look at meaningful trends without having samples of adequate size, so I chose to use any player with at least 3,000 plate appearances through the 2012 season going back to 1980, and for players whose last year was 1980, going back for their entire career. I used the B-R Event Finder for each  player to amass all their plate appearances, and in the end had approximately 5 million. I also incorporated any Hall of Famer from 1947 on--it unfortunately leaves out players like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ty Cobb, etc. but does include players like Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and so on.

"But Scott, that's not FAIR--you cherry-picked the best hitters in baseball history to make your point!" Absolutely I did--I would argue that if clutch hitting exists, this is precisely where to find it, in the creme de la creme of baseball hitters. The number of plate appearances in a player's career serves as an excellent marker of player success--it's very difficult to find historical players who had fewer than 3,000 plate appearances that are considered among the best in baseball history (absent injuries or Negro League players, of course). If there's clutch hitting to be found, it should be in this group.

I'll present the data in three different ways. In this first method, I'll show differences in batting average (BA) and on-base + slugging (OPS) over three different scenarios:
1. Bases empty (e)
2. Runners in scoring position (risp)--(-2, -3, 1-2, 1-3, -23, 123)
3. Runners in scoring position, less than 2 outs (rispl2o)
This table shows the first results:

Just so we're clear, this sample of 838 hitters, arguably the best hitters of the past 30-odd years and inclusive of the best since 1950, has a collective batting average of .268 and OPS of .756. With batters in scoring position, that average moves to .276, an increase of 2.9% and so on. I'll be the first to state I'm intrigued by the increase from the bases empty to runners in scoring position with less than two outs, because that's huge, but I'll leave that aside for the moment.

What DOES an increase in average of 8 points really amount to? In a typical season of 600 at-bat, that would translate into about 5 hits. Of course, when these hits occur and what kind of hits they are is tremendously important, but it's the rare season that one state hinged on one hit in a given situation--to suggest that is to believe that games are played in a vacuum and that seasons aren't cumulative experiences. Having said all this, I must state that the difference in batting average between the three situations is statistically significant. I don't dispute or underplay that, I merely suggest that there is a huge difference between statistical significance and real-world impact, and I believe that's the case here, because the statistical significance translates into about one more hit a MONTH.

The argument I make is a simple one--if clutch hitting is a skill, it can be replicated andutilized on demand. Tiger Woods hits his driver 300+ yards--it may not go straight, it might end up in the rough, woods, water or sand, but it will go 300 yards, and it's in the fairway 62.2% of the time. If a hitter had similar numbers, he'd be batting .620 with runners in scoring position, and of course no one does that. Tiger Woods is in control of his golf club--he can't control the weather or the course, but he can certainly adjust to these and any other factors. A hitter doesn't have that luxury--he can't ask for a fat fastball right where spray charts show is his power zone. While the hitter wants the ball chest high right down the middle, chances are the pitcher is throwing inside or at his knees, making adjustments difficult.

But we can make some distinctions. Early on in the data collection process I noticed that players with fewer career plate appearances were showing more dramatic increases in batting average. This is to be expected--the lower the batting average, the easier it is to have a higher percent increase. A .220 hitter can increase his batting average 5% and still only be hitting .232--better than .220, but still nothing to be celebrated. The .300 hitter, however, might only increase his batting average 2.5%, but this still translate into a .308 average, an increase only four points less than the .220 hitter. That's the eternal battle between absolute numbers and percentages--I heard it best explained to me in my former life as a pharmaceutical sales representative. I was discussing relative profit margins with a pharmacist, stating that while a branded drug costs more, a generic has a significantly higher profit margin, to which he replied "I pay my people in dollars, not margin." Pretty much ended that discussion. The hitter that hits .270 gets paid, the .220 hitter than increases his batting average 10% gets a ticket to Triple-A (or released).

These next tables segment players by relative success. This first one breaks down the data by career plate appearances:

It should come as no surprise that career batting averages increase directly with career plate appearances--if a player isn't hitting enough, he'll no longer have a career, and even that success needs to be sustained, or else he's done. In baseball history there have been 268 players with at least 8,000 plate appearances, of which 152 are included in this sample. To  do that a player has to be not merely good, but among the best that ever played the game. To illustrate, I sorted this group  by WAR using the B-R Play Index feature, and the WORST players by WAR with at least 8,000 PA are Doc Cramer, Don Kessinger, Kid Gleason and Charlie Grimm, but we understand how that occurs--Gleason played in the Dead Ball Era, Cramer was a light-hitting center fielder that still gets suggested (wrongly) for the Hall of Fame, Kessinger was a middle infielder who played during the Mini-Dead Ball Era of the 1960s and Grimm gets dinged in WAR calculations for being a first baseman. Having said all that, none of these guys are considered bums or players unworthy of lengthy careers, but instead help prove my overall point--you don't have a long career unless you have skills.

Let's slice it differently--here is the data by All-Star Game appearances:

Now we start to see something. I don't argue that All-Star selections are perfect, particularly with modern rosters numbering in the 30s, but it's rare to be an All-Star more than once without being considered among the best players in the game. We do see some separation, and also the expected lower increase in average with less than two outs as the players improve, because their ability to improve reaches natural limits. 

I've made the decision to split this into two posts, so I'll finish with some tables showing some players that did have success--here are the top 20 players in terms of increased average with runners in scoring position:

There are some intriguing numbers in here, but generally speaking, these are players who have tremendous increases because they had low batting averages to start with. Those Kevin Youkilis numbers are impressive, but not so much for the Yankees this year. Do any of these players jump out at you and roll off your tongue when you discuss clutch hitting? Of course not. So, who's at the bottom?

So  I guess the Yankees should trade Robinson Cano and get whatever they can for him--he's the perfect illustration of the shortcomings of this exercise, in that when you bat .322 in any situation, there's typically only one direction in which to go.

No matter how we view the data, the difference between the bases empty and runners in scoring position with less than two outs is downright dramatic--even players who had career averages increased from .313 to .324, a 3.5% increase. The one upside of watching Cubs games this year is listening to Len Kasper and Jim Deshaies call the games on TV, and they'll have plenty of time to discuss the phenomenon over the long Chicago summer. It can be many things--throwing from the stretch instead of a windup, nerves, maybe even hitters trying harder, but the numbers are there and irrefutable. I plan on doing a clutch PITCHING analysis as well (I'm still gathering the data) that will show slightly different values from what is seen here since that sample will include only pitchers who faced at least 5000 batters. In this sample, the hitters were facing everyone from Roger Clemens and Greg Maddux to bums who got one start and were never heard from again (believe it or not, there have been 12 pitchers like this since 2000)--there HAS to be some difference between facing bums and facing aces, but that's for another day. 

I'll end this section with stating that it's best to view clutch situations independently and not as a pool of instances to be grouped, sliced and diced. Every single plate appearance is different, from the big (pitcher, score, outs, time of season) to small (time, date, day/night, feeling good/bad and many other factors), and extrapolating is difficult. This table shows it best, breaking down these numbers by batting average with bases empty:

The higher the average, the smaller the increase with runners in scoring position--perfectly reasonable. Think about it--who would you rather have, the .270 or above hitter or the .240 hitter who may (or may not) show some propensity to perform in the clutch? Most managers and GMs don't think too hard about this.

And in the next post, I'll show why none of this matters--how's THAT for a teaser? I'll also tell you how you can contact me and receive the data that I used--not every one of the five million or so plate appearances, of course, but the amalgamated data that you can look at yourself and reach your own conclusions. Clutch situations exists, and it's very real that hitters have more success with runners in scoring position and less than two outs, but it's not a skill, it's a simple binary process that each time the hitter bats, he is either successful or he isn't. There are NO clutch hitters, just hitters that bat in clutch situations--sometimes the worst hitter hits the game-winning home run, sometimes Yasiel Puig strikes out (just not very often), but what happens in one instance has no carryover effect to the next. Clutch hitting is an opportunity, and the better hitters will perform better, not because they're better clutch hitters, but better hitters.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

National League Trade Thoughts

I posted yesterday on potential acquisitions that American League teams might make, and today's post will focus on the National League. I'll restate three caveats I made:
1. Much as I love MLB Trade Rumors, I will NOT refer to them--this is all my speculation.
2. I know ABSOLUTELY NOTHING about any team's farm system, so I have no clue if the Cubs are salivating over a 19-year-old flamethrower on some other team's High-A affiliate. I consider all prospects suspects until  they've performed in the the majors.
3. This is the second year with the 5-team playoff format. I wrote a couple of months back about how this separates the chaff from the wheat in  a much more dramatic fashion, and I'm wondering if this will change how teams view the trade deadline going forward. In other words, if it's much more cut-and-dried as to whom will make the playoffs, will teams be less inclined to make roster changes? It's too soon to tell, and the impetus to NOT have to play in the one-game Wild Card has to be there (at least until that's turned into a best of three series), but just keep this in the back of your mind.

NL EAST (team links go to the Baseball-Reference salary and contract status page)
Atlanta (89.6% chance of making the playoffs according to Baseball Prospectus)--if you look at their lineup and cover up the names you'd say "They need a second baseman and left fielder," but when you uncover the names to see they're Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton and are owed around $30 million and $70 million respectively, nothing is going to happen.  Uggla has been underwhelming since he signed with the Braves andwhile Upton has shown flashes of power in the past he's never hit for average. If the Nationals continue to tread water, making the playoffs won't be the issue for the Braves, but advancing will. Their starting pitching is solid and Craig Kimbrel is as good as any closer in the game--perhaps they'll try to pick up another starter, but I'm not even sure about that.

Nationals (20.7%)--they're not going anywhere this year unless Bryce Harper comes back and is productive. They might be active in preparation for next year, in which case they could use a second baseman and a catcher. As I mentioned yesterday, I don't really have any catchers in mind that would be a major improvement, but I wonder if Chase Utley is available from the Phillies. He's 34 and just back from the DL, but a free agent after this year. The more I think about it, I'll scratch him for the Nationals and send him 40 miles northeast to the Orioles.

Phillies (3.4%)--they're just loaded with players poised to move, and I wouldn't put it past them to chalk up this year to injuries and try to do it one more time next year, but they're right on the cusp of having taken their core as far as they can. Cliff Lee won't be cheap but is having a great year--I mentioned yesterday I can see him returning to Texas. Teams will ask about Kyle Kendrick but he's cheap and only 29. Carlos Ruiz could be of interest for teams needing catching, he's cheap and will be a free agent at the end of the year. 

NY Mets (.9%)--I find it amazing that the Mets have THREE players under contract for 2014, and one of them is Johan Santana (the other two are David Wright and Jonathon Niese). When you look at the lineup, you understand why very quickly. They have decent young pitching that isn't going anywhere and a closer in Bobby Parnell that may draw interest. They better have prospects down in the minors, because if they don't they're in for an extended period of mediocrity at BEST.

Miami (0%)--along with the Astros, the only two teams that Baseball Prospectus states have NO chance of making the postseason, but did you really need me to tell you that? There's a reason they're team shorthand is MIA. They're the anti-Astros in that they're old and bad, which is a horrendous combination that hinders the ability to make trades. Even Giancarlo Stanton's value is down from prior years due to nagging injuries, and their pitching wouldn't be competitive on a Double-A team. Football season is coming, Miami---wait, that won't help much. At least you have the Heat.

St. Louis (95.9%)--this is the future model of how to build a franchise. Take a look at their payroll and see how many players have "Amateur Draft" as the method of acquisition. Teams have given lip service to this for as long as the draft has been in existence, but the introduction of free agency provided a new way to acquire talent. There will continue to be a free agent market, but I strongly suspect that the signings of Josh Hamilton, Albert Pujols and the like will be much rarer. The Cardinals don't have to do a thing, and I'd be surprised if they did anything other than add spare parts.

Pittsburgh (86.8%)--look at that, almost July and the Pirates with that high of a percentage to make the playoffs. They were above .500 at this point in both 2011 and 2012 and faded down the stretch, but they're a more veteran team now. Matt Garza would be an excellent addition for them, and they could use upgrades at third, short and right field. Until his recent rash of errors I might have suggested Alexei Ramirez but I'm not confident that's a great idea. Jose Reyes is too expensive, but they're going to need something better than Clint Barmes.

Cincinnati (86.0%)--when I was still writing my daily updates I stated frequently that I'm convinced that the two wild card teams will come from the NL Central and nothing has made me change my mind. Except at catcher they're pretty solid, and they're probably going to give Derrick Robinson more time in left. They might try to add pitching but  certainly don't have to.

Milwaukee (.7%)--when they lost Prince Fielder after 2011, who knew their team would collapse as quickly as it did? Their pitching is adequate at best and they're nothing special except for Ryan Braun. Teams will make offers for Kyle Lohse, and there very well could be a market for Aramis Ramirez (Pittsburgh maybe? He's pricey but only signed through 2014 with an option for 2015) and John Axford (not as much). I suggested yesterday that someone pick up Jim Henderson, and if there's value for him, I'd move him--he's a rookie closer who's 30

Chicago Cubs (.7%)--well, they took care of the Carlos Marmol issue yesterday, but it's been obvious for at least two years that he had no trade value. Matt Garza will be wearing a new uniform by August 1st at the latest, and he's been pitching well enough that he should generate a decent return. David DeJesus and Nate Schierholtz have value, but the sleeper could be Ryan Sweeney--he's cheap and having some success and could be a nice fourth outfielder for someone.

Arizona (53.4%)--this is the most intriguing division since four of the teams are within 3 games and the fifth has a different way of running a baseball team. The Diamondbacks need more starting pitching but I'm not sure how much they're willing to pay--Mark Buehrle might be a relatively affordable option for them. Heath Bell is probably adequate at closer and needs at second, third and center are probably higher priorities. David DeJesus could fit in well and perhaps Mark Ellis.

San Francisco (20.8%)--what do you do when you're one game below .500 but only three games out of the division lead? It's the question that the Giants, Rockies and Padres are going to have to answer, with the knowledge that they have the next month to make the final determination. Unless one of these four teams gets hot and creates some separation they'll all have to try to improve themselves. In the Giants case, their lineup on paper looks fine, but they're not executing. I can see them getting hot and moving ahead of the rest, but I could easily be giving more credit to a lineup that once was as opposed to what is. I've heard whispers that Tim Lincecum is being shopped, which doesn't surprise me that much, but if I start hearing that about Matt Cain, that'll be different. They also could use some outfield power that the Cubs could supply.

Colorado (17.6%)--they can go ahead and call it a season since Troy Tulowitzki is going to be gone for the next 4-6 weeks, and their pitching is mediocre top to bottom. Todd Helton is done and they could use a second baseman as well. Their outfield is as good as anyone's, but they're going to have to figure out how to win when half their games are played at Coors Field. They haven't done it in 20 years and probably never will unless they move to a domed stadium. Given that they had a game earlier this year when the temperature was 28 degrees, that might not be a bad idea.

San Diego (10.0%)--they need a catcher and a right fielder, as well as Chase Headley to come out of his season-long slump. I'll assume that the Padres have a tough schedule coming up since the Baseball Prospectus odds have the Dodgers with a better chance of making the playoffs. It's probably not the right time, but they should dangle Headley and see what he would bring in a trade, but he's 29. Their best pitcher is Jason Marquis, meaning they need an upgrade there as well. San Diego has the opposite problem of Colorado in that they play in such a pitcher's park that they need to focus on that aspect.

LA Dodgers (13.6%)--any other team I'd call this (along with Philadelphia) as the National League's one-stop shop for talent, but with the money they generate, they can afford to shrug off this season and wait for next year. There's a real possibility they have a lineup built for 2011 (i.e., Carl Crawford, Hanley Ramirez, maybe even Adrian Gonzalez). The only thing for sure is that Andre Ethier is definitely available but I'm not sure what value he'll bring in return. Same for Zack Greinke and Josh Beckett--teams may inquire, but probably won't offer much in return. Beckett may have more value since he's only signed through 2014 whereas Greinke is owed $125 million+ through 2018. Much as I think it would be interesting to offer Matt Kemp and see what he could garner, he's signed through 2019 at over $120 million. I wouldn't be surprised in the least if the Dodgers only change is at...manager.

Anyone can make predictions, and I don't claim to have greater insight or knowledge than anyone else, but I put it all in one place. I might revisit this come August and see how well I did.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

American League Trade Thoughts

Baseball has the stage to itself for the next month or so as the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup with one of the most amazing comebacks (quite possibly THE MOST amazing) ever. As we near July, it's time to consider where baseball teams are and what moves are possible. I'll begin with several caveats:
1. Much as I love MLB Trade Rumors, I will NOT refer to them--this is all my speculation.
2. I know ABSOLUTELY NOTHING about any team's farm system, so I have no clue if the Cubs are salivating over a 19-year-old flamethrower on some other team's High-A affiliate. I consider all prospects suspects until  they've performed in the the majors.
3. This is the second year with the 5-team playoff format. I wrote a couple of months back about how this separates the chaff from the wheat in  a much more dramatic fashion, and I'm wondering if this will change how teams view the trade deadline going forward. In other words, if it's much more cut-and-dried as to whom will make the playoffs, will teams be less inclined to make roster changes? It's too soon to tell, and the impetus to NOT have to play in the one-game Wild Card has to be there (at least until that's turned into a best of three series), but just keep this in the back of your mind.

AL EAST (All team links go to the Baseball-Reference team salary and contract status page)
Boston (78.2% chance of making the playoffs according to Baseball Prospectus as of 6/25/13)--they could use a shortstop, third baseman, possibly a left fielder and a closer. One of the infield positions is there in Jose Iglesias when they decide where to play him and Daniel Nava will probably start getting more outfield playing time, which leaves closer. As I was looking through these rosters, I noticed something regarding closers that I'm going to investigate further in a separate post sometime, but I wonder if they're looking at the Twins Glen Perkins? He's 30, the Twins won't need a closer anytime soon and he's very affordable. He's under contract through 2016, which may reduce the Twins interest in moving him.

Baltimore (30.9%)--any team that bats their DH in the #9 slot as often as the Orioles do either has interesting (and I would strongly argue MISTAKEN) batting order construction notions or could use some help. The Cubs have a perfect solution in Alfonso Soriano, and chances are the Cubs would pick up the lion's share of his salary. He'll be owed $18 million for 2014, and since the Cubs are aiming at 2015, they might not be willing to eat that money and just use him next year and then bid him adieu. The Orioles could also use help at second, for which Daniel Murphy or Mark Ellis might fill that need, with Ellis able to be jettisoned at season's end for $1 million.

NY Yankees (55.9%)--they're the last team to try to ride old expensive free agents, which has worked so far but they have holes to fill. I have no clue how willing ownership is to add to a $225 million+ payroll, but they have glaring needs at first unless Mark Teixeira comes back any time soon (and I'm clueless on that), DH, third and left. This could be another good fit for Alfonso Soriano, and depending on the prognosis for Teixeira, Adrian Gonzalez (owed over $100 million through 2018) or my personal favorite, Justin Morneau. He could be the ultimate rental as his contract is up after this year.

Tampa Bay (38.3%)--as of today they're four games out of the wild card, so I have no idea in what direction their management is looking. Even if they're willing to make moves, they're hamstrung by payroll and with needs at left and starting pitching. My only pitching thoughts would be to raid the LA Angels for C.J. Wilson (expensive) or Joe Blanton (bad). The more I think about it, I see them standing pat.

Toronto (10.1%)--will the real Toronto please stand up, the abysmal team that started 25-37 or the one that just had an 11-game winning streak snapped. I say the former, making R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson, Jose Reyes and Melky Cabrera ripe for the plucking, with more available. I'd blow it up and get as many prospects as I could get. The glittering prize is Josh Johnson, a free agent after this year while the others have substantial contracts.

Detroit (95.3%)--absent some disastrous collapse, they're almost guaranteed to win their division, giving them the luxury to adjust their roster for playoff success. They could use a catcher but no one jumps out, and they have needs in the outfield, which is addressed easily enough. They need a closer, and one deal with the Cubs could solve two problems--they could acquire Nate Schierholtz, with their consideration being that they ALSO take Carlos Marmol. Other than deals like this being expressly prohibited, it seems like a trade made in heaven to me. In all seriousness, there's plenty of closers (Tom Wilhelmsen, Jim Henderson, Jose Veras, Kevin Gregg and more) that I won't bother checking contract status for, so that need should be able to be addressed.

Cleveland (27.2%)--wait 'til next year. Michael Bourn is signed through 2016, significantly dampening his trade value, but Mike Aviles might have value to anyone looking for infield help. I have no idea what Jason Giambi is doing on this roster, but Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir might have some value to teams.

Kansas City (4.1%)--I have no idea what they're thinking. They're out for this year but probably aren't looking to break off pieces of a team that appears poised for success. The one move I can see would be Jeff Francoeur, but he won't bring much in return. They'll probably stand pat and see what happens next year.

Minnesota (1.3%)--I've already relieved them of Glen Perkins and Justin Morneau, and I'm sure Josh Willingham and Ryan Doumit are available but won't bring much in return. Kevin Correia is cheap and only signed through 2014, making him an attractive candidate.

Chicago White Sox (.5%)--where to start? They'd give Adam Dunn away, and perhaps Paul Konerko as well. Alex Rios could be of interest for those teams with outfield needs but is signed through 2014. What value Alexei Ramirez may have is being dribbled away with every league-leading error at short. The gems are Matt Thornton and Jesse Crain, but I'm not sure how much value middle relief will elicit--given the sorry state of the Sox farm system (look at the Charlotte or Birmingham rosters at your own risk), anything has to be an improvement.

Texas (84.8%)--they're fairly solid top to bottom, with their biggest need at left, making it another potential landing spot for Alfonso Soriano. They might want to add a veteran starter and would have much to choose from--anyone from Toronto, Matt Garza, Cliff Lee, possibly Kyle Lohse, and that's just scratching the surface.

Oakland (66.6%)--the Tampa Bay of the West, but with a much more realistic chance of making the playoffs. They have real needs at catcher and right, with Francoeur being a very real (and affordable) possibility in right. He's cheap (about $3-4 million pro-rated) and a free agent after this season, so someone will get him. I have no viable options at catcher, and they're  going to need something both offensively and defensively.

Seattle (.8%)--there's no one on this roster that anyone realistically wants except for Wilhelmsen (who has been blowing saves) and perhaps Michael Saunders. There are cheap fixes (Raul Ibanez, Kendrys Morales and others), but I don't think they need to keep the phones handy.

LA Angels (5.9%)--as big an enigma as Toronto, and just as mysterious as to where they're headed. Their lineup on paper looks decent but it simply hasn't translated into on-field success. They'll end up being essentially the same team come August 1st primarily because no one will be interested in anything they have to offer except perhaps some starting pitching. If they can start out better than they did this year, they could be poised for success next year but Texas and Oakland don't show signs of backsliding. 

Houston (0.0%)--I've often wondered what players on Double and Triple-A rosters of awful teams think--if they're not young prospects on the way up, this has to be a real sign that their baseball careers will be shorter than they think. In the Astros defense they're relatively young, so they don't have much to offer and what they do have (Erik Bedard and...well, I guess nobody else) no one wants. The one possibility is Brandon Barnes, a rookie, but a 27-year-old one. For a team going nowhere anytime soon, if they can get some prospects in return, I'd move him while he has value.

I'll cover the National League tomorrow--I'm very interested in your thought and comments on this.

Friday, June 21, 2013

The Mistake Index

For the past couple of years or so I've played around with my Mistake Index with the belief that mistakes in baseball are just as costly as in any other sport but not watched as closely. I've had ideas come and go--for example, I used to track strikeouts looking but decided it didn't illuminate anything. In many ways, what I tabulate are (within reason) completely in control of a team and not subject to outside influence or randomness. Some of this is by definition--an error is judged to be a play in which a fielder should have made a play and not given when a shortstop goes 25 feet to his right and can't enough on a throw to beat out Michael Bourn. A blown save is when a team had the game in hand and gave it up and so on.

By this point it's become apparent to me that better teams make fewer mistakes and  not-so-good ones make more. I've played around with the balance between data and ease of understanding and will continue to do so. This is the primary point of the Mistake Index, to put in one place disparate numbers that are rarely seen or evaluated together. I think it works--here's the Index as of Thursday, June 20th, 2013:
Explanations of the column headings are in the Index itself, but since this is a stand-alone post I'll briefly what the columns are:
BS, BK, WP, PB--blown saves, balks, wild pitches and passed balls
E, unER--errors and unearned runs
2oR--two-out runs, something I added after a particularly egregious Cubs game and further explained in this post
eBR, eBU--errors in base running (as judged by me) and bad bunts, usually any bunt with a runner on base that doesn't result in a sacrifice or a hit

The total column is these numbers added together EXCEPT two-out runs, which are shown for illustrative purposes only. I had the epiphany earlier this year that every mistake is something an opponent can take advantage of, and that's when the Mistake Index really came together for me by allowing me to see if a team makes more mistakes than its opponents, and more importantly, to see if it translates into winning.

By this point in the season I think the correlation between mistakes (or lack thereof) and success is obvious, which should not come as some great revelation or pronouncement--anyone who follows baseball would state "Duh!!," but again, if there's a place that puts this all together in one place, I'm not aware of it (which isn't saying much). Every team makes mistakes, but the thin line between success and failure is two-fold:
1. Keeping a team's mistakes to a minimum
2. Taking advantage of opponent's mistakes

Who are the leaders in the Mistake Index? That would be those with positive values in the highlighted column and are the Cardinals (by a mile), Yankees, Padres and Twins--two very successful teams and two very "eh" ones. Avoiding mistakes by itself cannot overcome inadequate pitching or hitting, but for teams that are on the cusp of success, it can certainly propel them forward. The teams on the bottom, well, that's a different story: the Dodgers, Mariners, Marlins, White Sox, Astros and Cubs. Not a single decent team among them. The Cubs are special in that they manage to be bad across the board by being tied for the league lead in blown saves and near the top in errors and are well-known for their lack of offense this year, making it the trifecta of awful--and yet they still outdraw the White Sox, who are playing their own brand of Triple-A ball. 

One side benefit of the Mistake Index is that it clearly shows the link between errors and unearned runs. I wrote a post some time back that linked errors with unearned runs and for some reason baseball stats don't list these together, which I don't understand--an unearned run cannot score without an error, and I think it's illuminating to see how often an error leads to a run. As the Mistake Index makes clear, it's about half the time. For reasons not worth describing, my list of errors will not match up exactly with MLB fielding statistics, but it's really close and in any case, I'm much more interested in the story that the precise number. If it's apparent that about half of errors result in runs, then it behooves teams to do what they can to cut down on the errors. Generally speaking, the better teams field, the more success they have. I am NOT suggesting that a team can field its way to the playoffs--if sabermetrics have taught us anything it's that fielding is important, but not anywhere near the equal of pitching or hitting. Fielding may not get a team in the playoffs, but it can sure keep them out.

One last thought on errors that is underappreciated--if Paul Konerko hits a ball to third that is bobbled, the third baseman has the chance to recover, grab a beer and a hot dog in the stands and still throw him out, but if it's Jean Segura it's a different story. Errors can be an indirect measure of the OTHER TEAM'S team speed when they're not dropped balls or throws into the stands. The Cardinals are near the lead in fewest errors and cause the other team to make errors, a testament to their ability to make teams pay for mistakes. It's  one thing if a team makes a mistake, but if the opponent doesn't capitalize on it, it's just another entry in the Mistake Index. Baseball is tough enough, and it's apparent to me that the more mistakes teams make, the closer they come to failure.

I used to include stolen bases and opponent stolen bases as a part of the Index but changed my mind about a month ago. Part of it was simply how it looked--too much data caused the table to be almost unreadable and there's a point where too much data is simply overwhelming and not informative. Also, I've never seen any clear correlation between base stealing, opponent base stealing and success. Here are the numbers through Thursday, June 20th, 2013:

The Diamondbacks aren't having much success stealing this year, and while opponents don't attempt to steal often, when they do they're successful. This COULD be a recipe for disaster--in this case, not so much as they lead the NL West by two games. The Cubs are stealing bases, letting their opponents steal bases and where has it gotten them this season? The stolen base leaders are San Diego, Boston(!), Cleveland and Milwaukee--how's that worked out for everyone but Boston? The best catchers  play for Baltimore, Minnesota and St. Louis, teams all over the map in terms of success.

The stolen base is making a comeback as hitting continues its return to historical norms but any impact on winning is coincidental at best. San Francisco opponents appear to have no problems stealing bases almost at will but I doubt they'll make Buster Posey available any time soon. That's ultimately why I separated it from the  Mistake Index and just show it by itself--it has value and is worth seeing. 

The Mistake Index is my attempt to put in one place any number of varied stats that are not often seen together. Some day I might put together a Hustle Index, something that would include items like reaching on an error, extra bases advanced on the basepaths (which I'm not sure how I would measure), pickoff and caught-stealing in which runners end up being safe (usually due to an error so I'm not sure I could call that hustle), advancing to first on a strikeout and other things like that--even as I write this, it makes me curious to see if it would correlate with success. I update the Index daily, so be sure to check it frequently--it's only a click away at the upper right of this page.