The Baseball Graphs Blog
Thursday, January 11, 2007
McGwire and the Hall
Just one post. I promise.
I’m pretty sick and tired of reading about McGwire and the Hall vote (and I’ll bet Ripken and Gwynn are tired of it, too). McGwire did break the law (though a relatively minor one; and not against the law in many other countries) and he did something that he knew stood against MLB policy. I don’t hold these issues against him very much, however, because he did so in an environment that didn’t reinforce its policies at all. In fact, several MLB teams made amphetamines freely available; that is, they encouraged this sort of illegal behavior. Shoot, any thinking person should have known that McGwire and Sosa were taking steroids. Those who were expected to enforce those policies, or report the truth, looked the other way. Given those circumstances, I would have voted him in.
The McGwire backlash, it seems to me, has been in direct proportion to the extreme hype he received in 1998. The BBWAA members feel betrayed. Since they built him up, they feel obligated to bring him down. I find this aspect of the whole affair sordid and unseemly.
But I was glancing through Bill James’s Historical Baseball Abstract (the newer one) and came across a comment in the Robin Yount section that seems relevant, concerning his holdout in the spring of 1978.
Almost all scandals, I think, result not from the invention of new evils, but from the imposition of new ethical standards. Same thing with Yount; he wasn’t backing away from baseball; he was just putting the bit in his teeth, accepting new responsibilities. In the biographies of men and nations, success often arrives in a mask of failure.
Perhaps this is worth noting. Perhaps the McGwire Hall of Fame scandal isn’t really about McGwire. It’s about a new standard of ethics being applied to baseball, by writers, fans, management and, hopefully, players. Baseball has a patina of innocence to it, one that doesn’t exist in basketball or football. Obviously, it’s important to the general public that baseball remain that way. What we’re observing is the imposition of a new ethical standard, to make sure baseball maintains its innocent glow.
Let’s hope it takes.
Tuesday, January 09, 2007
Cal Ripken’s WSAA
Please forgive me, but I’m a Cal Ripken cynic. I don’t know why the record for consecutive games played is so important. Durability is nice, yes, but Ripken’s consecutive games played streak was obviously engineered; his managers wrote his name in the lineup regardless of how he felt, or how well he was playing at the time. It wasn’t a question of performance.
I don’t mean to denigrate the guy on his big day, but I do want to point out that his Hall of Fame credentials, without that consecutive-game streak halo, might be a bit more debatable than you’ve been hearing lately.
I’m not going to go into a long, winding statistical explanation of why I think so. I did one thing: I calculated Win Shares Above Average (WSAA) for his career. There are two basic reasons I think this is a good approach:
- While Win Shares may be flawed, they at least do all the things I would try to do on my own: they adjust for league and park, they include fielding prowess, and they consider the player’s position. They also attempt to truly quantify a player’s concrete contribution to his team’s wins.
- When evaluating a player for the Hall, I think a comparison to an average player is appropriate. I could compare him to a “replacement player,” but why should someone be elected to the Hall based on that? I prefer a higher standard, and I think average is appropriate.
So I concocted a quick and dirty way to calculate Win Shares Above Average based on games played (works for everyday players only; and assumes players played entire games). Babe Ruth, of course, is first in WSAA, followed by Ty Cobb, Barry Bonds and Honus Wagner. Cal Ripken is 136th, tied with Scott Rolen. Now, Scott Rolen may well deserve to be inducted into the Hall. But I’ll bet a lot more people will debate his candidacy than have debated Ripken’s.
I understand that Ripken meant something special to people. But if you’re like me, and you don’t get all that excited about a consecutive-games record, you may feel a little less overwhelmed by his Hall qualifications.
Ripken did have several great MVP-type years. Here’s a chart of his Runs Created per Game each year, as provided by Fangraphs:
While Ripken had three or four great years, many of his seasons were in the average range. For comparison: here’s a graph of Derek Jeter’s Runs Created Per Game:
Jeter, a certain Hall of Famer who currently ranks 124th in WSAA, has sustained excellence throughout most of his career.
Monday, January 08, 2007
Tony Gwynn’s Strikeout Rate
A quick look from Fangraphs
If everything goes as expected tomorrow, Tony Gwynn will be voted into the Hall of Fame. There is really no doubt about his baseball credentials; he is tied for 49th most career Win Shares (398), he was one of the greatest pure hitters in the history of the game and a very, very good fielder to boot.
While looking through his graphs at Fangraphs, I stumbled upon this beauty: Gwynn’s strikeout rate compared to the major league average:
Gwynn had a tremendously low strikeout rate throughout his career. Just as interesting, however, is what happened to the major league rate at the same time. It trended steadily up. As I’m sure you remember, these were the days of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. Everyone was swinging harder, trying to hit the ball over the fence. But not Tony Gwynn. He resisted the trend and still wound up in the Hall of Fame.
It’s easy to see why those who vilify McGwire and Sosa today would root for Gwynn. He was his own type of player. While I sometimes scratch my head at the Hall of Fame voting results, there’s no denying that Gwynn belongs. Congratulations, in advance.
Thursday, January 04, 2007
Historical Graphs at Fangraphs
A great development
On this site, I’ve posted a lot of graphs about teams and how they performed season-to-season. I’ve been asked by folks to put together player graphs, but I never got around to it. I’m happy to report that David Appelman, the manager of Fangraphs, has. In fact, he has created player graphs for every player in major league history.
There’s enough here to read forever. I particularly like the pages that include all of a player’s graphs on one page. For instance, check out:
- How Ralph Garr’s heady years of 1971-1974 were driven by his BABIP (which is generally a function of speed and hitting line drives). He didn’t strikeout a lot and he put the ball in play, but as he lost his speed his performance declined.
- Stan Musial’s BB/K ratio is so remarkable that it’s off the graph in most years. Musial was one of the ultimate well-rounded batters, like DiMaggio and Williams. Take a particular look at his BABIP, which remained above average nearly his entire career. The guy was a line drive machine.
- One of my personal favorite ballplayers, Tommie Agee, was an average hitter overall. But he had three good years from 1969 to 1971 by keeping his strikeout rate in check, increasing his walks and just plain hitting the ball on the nose more often.
- Taking a look at pitchers, Ernie Shore was Babe Ruth’s partner, a fine pitcher for the Red Sox in the mid-teens. His best years were his first four years, including 1915, when he finished third in the AL in ERA. As you can see from his graphs, that year was particularly boosted by his high percentage of men left on base. Shore didn’t walk batters; he also didn’t allow many home runs, though that wasn’t as important back then. BABIP was, and you can see that Shore had a good BABIP in his glory years.
- To see something really remarkable, check out Whitey Ford’s graphs. Ford had a great ERA nearly every year of his career, but most of his other stats were around average. His strikeout rate, in particular, was mediocre. However, he sustained a remarkable ratio of men left on base—something we consider random today. Many of the great early pitchers had very good LOB% graphs (Christy Mathewson is another example) which tells you a lot about how pitchers pitched in the old days.
Wednesday, January 03, 2007
The San Diego Padres Trade Tree
A cool new graphic
Andy has produced a new type of graphic I hadn’t seen before: one that traces every trade in the Padres’ history. It’s a great concept, though it’s too bad the entire graphic can’t fit onto a screen and maintain its readability. Definitely one way that paper still beats computer.
Here’s a very small version of the graphic. Click on it to view the big version.
Saturday, December 30, 2006
Things to Learn
On the Hardball Times site, I publish a regular column entitled “Ten Things I Didn’t Know Last Week.” At least, it’s regular during the season.
Anyway, the original inspiration for that column was the BBC’s ten things list. And now, the BBC has posted its list of 100 Things We Didn’t Know Last Year. There’s nothing about baseball on the list—not even about cricket. But it’s a great read, nevertheless.
- Donald Rumsfeld was both the youngest and oldest Secretary of Defense in US history.
- The costume of the Lion in the Wizard of Oz was made from real lions.
- My favorite: thinking about your muscles can make you stronger.
You also might want to know if you think more like a man or a woman. I graded exactly even between the two; I evidently have an androgynous brain!
And now you know way too much about me.
Tuesday, December 12, 2006
I’m “reading” John Burnson’s newest book, The Graphical Player. I say reading, but I’m really reading graphs and charts—hundreds and hundreds of graphs representing game logs, age, skill level and lots of other things for major league players. It’s fascinating stuff, and John has included some unique and excellent graphs in his appendix, highlighting things like the depth of each team’s minor league system. I highly recommend it.
Speaking of great graphs, have you seen this display by USA Today? It’s a crazy good, superb representation of how coaches voted for college football teams. Roll your mouse over the teams on the left to see how they were ranked by different coaches. Sensational concept and execution.
Finally, David Pinto has released his 2006 fielding graphs. This is also a crazy good thing. Given the state of baseball fielding stats, I tend to think that these graphs are the best way to show fans just how good and/or bad specific fielders are. They’re intuitive and relevant. For instance, here’s a graph of Mike Cameron’s range last year on flyballs:
Lots of interesting things here. First off, notice how center fielders have less predicted out on balls that are directly over second base, and more balls to the right and, especially, to the left of second? I didn’t know that. Also, Cameron was better going to his left than his right last year, perhaps because he was shading that way. Great stuff. I could spend days just poring over these graphs, plus the Graphical Player graphs. Graphs aren’t quotable, so you don’t tend to hear about them in blogs. But they’re insightful and just plain fun.
By the way, I was a little disappointed in David’s execution of his graphics (though beggars can’t be choosers. David does this for free!). The two lines are only differentiated by color, which makes them hard to read for those who are even somewhat color-blind. What’s worse, he used red as one of his colors, when red-green color blindness is the most common type. Secondly, there is no perspective on these graphs. David’s 2004 graphs showed a typical variance in each vector, which helped tremendously. On this graph, for instance, you can see that Cameron is good, but you don’t know how good.
Tuesday, December 05, 2006
Towers’ Trade Record
Geoff Young has a great post at Ducksnorts, including a Win Shares Balance Sheet of general manager Kevin Towers’ trades. I assumed Towers would look good in an analysis like this, but I didn’t know he would look this good:
* positive win shares: 46 trades (average gain, 17.5)
* no difference: 3 trades
* negative win shares: 40 trades (average loss, 8.65)
I also would have guessed that his big trade with the Braves (netting Ryan Klesko, among others) would have ranked first, but it’s second to his acquisition of Phil Nevin earlier in 1999. I had completely forgotten Nevin played for the Angels.
Sunday, December 03, 2006
I’m not the biggest Malcolm Gladwell fan in the world, but I think his remarks about racism in this blog entry are extremely thoughtful and articulate. Racism is a deeply important subject; Gladwell’s distinction between latent racism, which we all possess to some degree (and should be cognizant of), and outright hurtful racism, which everyone should minimize within themselves, adds an important perspective to the subject.
Having said that, I do think the potential public impact of certain remarks also needs to be taken into account. Michael Irvin’s comments about Tony Romo’s heritage may not have been racist by Gladwell’s criteria, but there are people who will be influenced by his remarks because they are so specific. That’s why it’s important to speak against them. On the other hand, I don’t think Michael Richards’ outburst (using a terribly offensive word) will generate a stronger racial bias in whites. It was fundamentally an emotional outburst—not a reasoned racist thought.
By the way, baseball recently provided a great case study in how latent racism can be harmful. Consider the recent case of the Holiday Day Look Again Player Awards, in which 28 of the 30 nominees were white. The criterion: overlooked players who put their team first.
Saturday, December 02, 2006
Money, money, money
There has been an excellent thread about baseball financial economics over at The Book Blog. Scroll down the comments to see some terrific dialogue about why teams spend as much money on free agents as they do.
My basic contribution is that I think most team owners aren’t as motivated by year-to-year profitability as they are by long-term franchise value appreciation. And the two don’t track together as tightly as you might think.
One reason they don’t track tightly together is that demand for baseball teams seems to be outstripping supply such that the average value of a major league franchise has increased roughly 10% in the recent past (see Tango’s comments in the thread). And I believe teams are motivated to spend most of their year-to-year revenue on players to enhance the value of their franchise as much as possible.
As J.C. has pointed out, this flies in the face of good economic reasoning, because players will be signed at salaries that outstrip the marginal impact they have on revenue. But when owners only see cash going out when they buy a team and cash returning when they sell it, year-to-year profitability and marginal revenue means less to them. After all, most teams aren’t publicly traded, nor do they pay out dividends.
Put another way, owners are indeed motivated by profit. But profit to an owner occurs when the franchise is sold, not in annual dividends. If you think of a baseball team as a piece of art that is bought and sold and generates little profit in between, you’re probably close to the mindset of an owner.
As Phil Birnbaum points out in the comments, ego is certainly involved too. What owner wants to be associated with a losing team? And Guy makes an excellent point that spending most of a team’s incremental revenue on players is probably in the best long-term interest of major league teams because it stifles potential competition from other leagues. In other words, players aren’t likely to jump ship to another league if their income is maximal.
The strength of the player’s union is definitely a factor, too. The most recent Collective Bargaining Agreement included a settlement for collusion between owners in 2002. One gets the impression that anything owners do to keep salaries under control will get very close scrutiny from a lot of lawyers.
Anyway, given all of these factors, how should we judge these most recent contracts? By asking ourselves how much these deals will (or won’t) enhance the value of the team in question. I guess I’d look at a few things:
- How is the “brand” value of the franchise doing? Example: the Cubs have been eclipsed in Chicago by the White Sox; their brand value is lagging.
- Will a targeted player improve the franchise’s brand value? For instance, will Alfonso Soriano pique interest in the Cubs and will he improve their chances of winning? (Winning games is the best way to improve the standing of your club).
- How’s your current supply of players and how well positioned are you to contend next year? If you’re not ready to contend, spending a ton of money on an uber free agent probably isn’t worth it.
- What’s the current price of free agents, and what’s your assumption about future player salary inflation? If you think inflation will be high, you’ll be more willing to sign a long-term contract.
If someone is considering a purchase of your team, they will value a strong “brand” in the community as well as a good stable of players locked into low salaries (relative to the market salary of players, and adjusted for inflation) for more than just the short term. They will hate bad players locked into relatively high salaries for a long term.
Anyway, that’s my thinking as it stands right now. I’m sure I’ll learn more and change my mind as I learn more from my fellow posters.
If you’re interested in this stuff, here’s an article about a Billy Beane lecture to T. Rowe Price.