The Baseball Graphs Blog
Friday, January 26, 2007
Ozzie Smith’s Fielding Win Shares
One of the more controversial aspects of Win Shares is the way in which it gives credit to fielders (and pitchers). In a nutshell, Bill James wasn’t sure enough of his system to let it really work. He put boundaries on the overall impact fielding could have for a team, and he also didn’t give fielders any negative fielding claim points.
As a result, it seems that Win Shares doesn’t truly value great fielders. It recognizes them, but doesn’t credit them with enough impact. To look at this a bit more closely, I thought we might use the case of Ozzie Smith.
Now, Win Shares certainly does recognize that Ozzie Smith was a great fielder. He racked up 139 fielding Win Shares in his career, which is the fourth-highest total ever (behind Rabbit Maranville, Bill Dahlen and Honus Wagner). But we can dig deeper than that, thanks to some research conducted by Chris Dial a few months ago.
Chris took Ozzie’s Zone Ratings for the years 1987 to 1996 (the second half of his career). Using the data, Dial estimates that Smith saved 156 runs over how an average shortstop would perform in the field. That’s a tremendous total for a fielder, particularly considering that this represented the “decline phase” of Ozzie’s career.
How can we use this to evaluate Win Shares? Well, let’s first take a specific year, 1988. No reason; just a good year. Dial estimates that Smith saved 23 runs more than the average shortstop in 1988. Let’s translate.
In Win Shares, an average shortstop who played every inning of every game would accrue six fielding Win Shares. In 1988, Smith was credited with eight Win Shares, two more than average. Is two enough of an edge for the Wizard of Ahs?
As a general rule, ten runs saved adds a win to the team. Smith saved 23 runs, or contributed 2.3 wins more than the average shortstop. Each win equals three Win Shares, so Smith actually contributed 7 Win Shares above average. Add back the six Win Shares of the average fielder and you can see that Ozzie should have been credited with 13 fielding Win Shares, not eight. He was shortchanged five Win Shares.
Win Shares provided a great public service by including the impact of fielding, something that only a few other statistics do. But for the Ozzie Smiths, Rabbit Maranvilles and Adam Everetts, it didn’t get it right.
Saturday, January 20, 2007
Gary Moore Responds
The author of “Playing with the Enemy” read my recent review and was nice enough to respond in an e-mail. With his permission, I’m reprinting his message here. Although this letter didn’t change my viewpoint, I really appreciate the fact that Gary is open enough to have a dialog like this.
First of all, let me thank you for your interest in my dad’s story. “Playing with the Enemy” clearly states it is a story “based upon true events.” It is not nor was it ever intended to be a strict historical footnoted style non-fiction biography that accounts for every facet of my dad’s life. It is a story of character, persistence, and an essay on what a man can do with a second chance in life—wrapped up in my dad’s life experiences.
Because my dad was not a historical figure and never made it far in professional baseball, there are few records or written accounts to rely on. There is the possibility my dad played a bit more baseball after leaving Greenville, because it was a long time before he finally made it back to Sesser. That period of his life is a complete blank slate. But at the end of the day, “Playing with the Enemy” is a son’s interpretation of his father’s life. As I said, it is a character study and snapshot of small-town baseball and a look at a few family members of that were part of what has been dubbed our Greatest Generation.
My dad never told me specifically who the pitcher was in “Playing with the Enemy,” or if he did, I did not recognize the name. It has been over 23 years ago that the conversation took place. As I tell it in the book, I witnessed a meeting between my dad and Elroy “Roy” Face at Wrigley Field in the early 60’s. I was quite young then, but it was obvious they knew each other well.
It would be like you taking your son to PacBell Park and Barry Bonds running over to greet your father at the fence in front of you. But how did they know one another? I truly don’t know, but they must have played together somewhere or at the very least, met and nurtured a friendship. At the time, my dad drove a bread truck and had been out of baseball close to 15 years. How would a bread truck delivery man from a small town in Illinois know Roy? I don’t know.
But at the end it is not intended as what you called a “heavy hint” that it is Face. In fact, the book specifically says that Gene never saw Ray Laws again. The Face mention is as it states, memories of a young son who is trying to piece together his fathers past.
As recounted in the book, I found out about much of my father’s history in one very long single conversation the night before he died (and a lot more interviewing people who knew and played with him). I wish I had taken notes that night, but it never occurred to me it would be one of our last conversations.
I spoke to dozens of people who confirmed most aspects of my dad’s saga, but the Roy Face/Gene Moore connection remains a mystery and is not even an aspect of the story. It is a recollection mentioned at the end of the story.
I hope that helps clarify things a bit, and I am grateful you took time to read and comment on “Playing with the Enemy.” I deeply appreciate it.
PS- By the way, Publishers Weekly, the standard of the publishing industry this week awarded Playing with the Enemy with a “Starred Review.”
Wednesday, January 17, 2007
Playing with the Enemy
I just finished reading Playing with the Enemy, which seems to have created a mini-sensation, at least judging by the number of superlative reviews it has received at Amazon. Playing with the Enemy is an emotional and remarkable story about a young baseball player who was evidently quite talented but lost his chance to play in the majors after serving in World War Two. It’s a tale of heroics, lost ways, self-sacrifice and redemption. In other words, it’s tailor-made for a sap like me.
Before continuing, I should tell you that Field of Dreams brought tears to my eyes. Heck, so did the book Shoeless Joe. So does It’s a Wonderful Life. Still. So I’m a sucker for stories like this. And Playing with the Enemy desperately wants you to know that it’s a story like this.
Check out the subtitle: A Baseball Prodigy (like prodigal son? sob…), a World at War (bluebirds over white cliffs of Dover? choke…), and a Field of Broken Dreams (Sob!!). Plus, a ribbon on the front declares that Playing with the Enemy will soon be a major motion picture! Has Kevin Costner signed up yet?
There is a plethora of recommendations in the front (“a passion play…”) as well as acknowledgements (in which the author expresses his undying gratitude and love to anyone he’s ever known), a foreword (by baseball “legend” Jim Morris) and an introduction (by someone I haven’t heard of). Yes, the publisher wants you to know just what it is you’ve opened, even if you would prefer to find out for yourself. This is the sort of publicity usually reserved for bestsellers, not newly published books.
As you can probably tell, I’m not only a sap, I’m a cynic, too. So I began the book expecting to be disappointed. I must say, though, that the story is terrific. It starts with a son finding out that his father has a hidden secret, and there’s a dark reason his Dad never attended any of his baseball games. It has to do with the Dad’s lost opportunity and the bitterness he still carries inside him. I don’t want to give away much of the plot, but I will say it concerns the war erupting at the wrong time, guarding Germans in a prison camp, playing ball with them, getting a chance to play in the minor leagues, a terrible career-ending injury and a second chance in which the hero rubs shoulders with future major leaguers.
I don’t think I’ve given too much away, because the manner in which these events unfold is the point of the book. The author/son admits upfront that he’s not a writer, and it shows. His doesn’t really have an ear for dialog, his descriptions are mostly flat (though he manages a few good ones) and he likes to hammer home points (how many times can one man be told he would have been a major league star?). But his pacing is good, and the story carries you along. And, yes, I did tear up at a point or two.
In the end, however, you’re left with a question: is the story true? If so, how true is it? The writer is coy on the subject; he created composites for most of his characters and he freely admits that the story is based on only his remembrance of his father’s story (two decades ago) as well as conversations with other acquaintances. Nowhere, however, does he explain how much of the story is true or isn’t, or what he found in his research. In fact, it doesn’t appear that he did much research at all.
Near the end of the book, he drops a heavy hint that his Dad played in the war and in the minors with Roy Face. But he couldn’t have: Face never served in the war nor did he play in the minors when his Dad did. In fact, there is no record of a Gene Moore having played minor league ball in Greenville, Mississippi in the Cotton States League in 1949. The only facts the author presents that can be verified appear to be false.
This is a real shame. The power of this story lies in its truth; if made up, it’s just an overwrought story. The details should have been researched more thoroughly (with so many baseball resources available today, there’s no excuse not to) and the author should have been more upfront regarding which portions of the story were verified as legitimate and which were embellished.
So if you read Playing with the Enemy, enjoy the ride and take a hankie, but take it with a grain of salt.
Monday, January 15, 2007
Seaver, Ryan and Palmer
Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver and Jim Palmer all pitched around the same time with great success and all three have been inducted into the Hall of Fame. Yet they had very different pitching styles. Here’s a quick review based on the Fangraphs graphics (a blogger’s best friend):
First off, take a look at their strikeout rates. Ryan, of course, was the greatest strikeout pitcher of all time. Seaver was also excellent but Palmer wasn’t even an average strikeout pitcher for most of his career:
You might also notice that Seaver and Palmer followed typical “aging” patterns. For instance, Seaver lost a lot of of zip when he turned 35, his second season with the Reds. Ryan, however, remained an elite strikeout pitcher his entire career. Next, here’s a graph of their respective walk rates. This graph may be a bit hard to read, but it shows that Ryan was a wild dude while Seaver had extraordinary control. Palmer was better than average:
Different aging patterns. Ryan’s control improved as he aged; Seaver’s deteriorated until he renewed his control at age 40. Palmer’s pattern looks pretty random. Here are their home run rates. All three had home run rates significantly below average. That would be expected with Ryan and Seaver because strikeout pitchers give up less hits in general. However, Palmer’s HR rate was also very low until he turned 35—a key to his success.
A little later, I’ll graph two other important aspects of their success: Batting Average on Balls in Play, and runner left on base.
Thursday, January 11, 2007
McGwire and the Hall
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
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
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
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.