Saberleaders: A nostalgia freak finds religion in the church of Sabermetrics
A NY Daily News pull-out section caricature of Mets catcher Jerry Grote, circa 1972, hangs above my desk. The middle portion of my bookshelf holds every "Complete Handbook of Baseball" season preview guide from 1971 to 1997. One of my prize possessions is a ball signed by Gaylord AND Jim Perry. Players like Oscar Zamora, Mark Lemongello & both Dave Roberts mean as much as to my personal history as Johnny Bench and Reggie Jackson. In the annual stage play of my youth, there were 660 roles every season. As someone that has spent the last 10 months creating the 1975 Topps Baseball card “Traded" set,, I think I kinda have a grasp on nostalgia.
If 2012 isn't the year WAR ("Wins Above Replacement") goes mainstream, then 2013 will certainly enjoy that distinction and will alter the conversation of baseball statisitcs and awards. It’s been in the works on a niche level for a few decades now, from the personal desk of Bill James and the birth of Sabermetrics, the dawn of Rotesserie/Fantasy Baseball & Rob Neyer's legendary ESPN column, to the 21st century bust-out of wonderful sites like David Appelman’s Fangraphs and Sean Forman’s Baseball-Reference.com, which reads as an encyclopedia of every baseball “counting stat” imaginable. Tom Tango,Mitchel Lichtman and Andrew Dolphin created The Book, which moved the statistical dialogue forward and Baseball Between the Numbers, published in 2005 and edited by Jonah Keri, answers in essay form nearly every question you may have wondered about the National Pastime if you really thought about it.
• Do Players Perform Better in Contract Years? It’s in there.
• Do high salaries lead to higher ticket prices? It’s in there.
• Is there such a thing as a AAAA-player? It’s in there.
• Are new stadiums a good deal for municipalities? Derek Jeter’s gold glove? Why can’t Billy Beane get to the World Series? In there, in there and in there, too.
Baseball Prospectus recently published an updated version, edited by Steven Goldman,which tackles even more issues – Latin American scouting, Tommy John surgery and pitcher abuse, the myth of manager impact – taking any baseball trivia expert and opening his or her mind to a greater appreciation for the nuances of the game. Sabermetrics and advanced statistics have become my new religion and Baseball Between the Numbers is its bible. This isn't a shout-out to guys like Dave Cameron, Eno Sarris, Steve Slowinski, Chad Finn, Kevin Goldstein. They've already found a cozy spot on the bluff for their lawn chairs overlooking the revolution.
I'm speaking to you, the overly-nostalgic one trapped in that time machine of your own device, stubbornly insisting "The Wind Cries Mary" on vinyl trumps CDs, iTunes or Spotify; passing on Trader Joe's Organic Popcorn for the old-school Jiffy Pop experience over the stove; proudly accepting designation as the last quasi-responsible father in America who keeps TANG in the pantry. I still love my sluggers driving in 100 ribbies. Still want my starters winning 20. Still love quality clutch hitting from scrappy underachievers.
All that said...it's time we joined the rest of the group, people. Let's evolve together.
I was pretty pissed about the outcome of the 2011 NL MVP voting. Digging into the numbers, it was criminally wrong for Ryan Braun to be 12 first-place votes better than Matt Kemp. To be sure, if you noticed the ESPN Baseball writers’ vote tally back in November of last year, the numbers went pretty much down the line with younger voters choosing Matt Kemp and old-school veterans clicking on Ryan Braun of the division-winning Milwaukee Brewers. Many, many observers chose Braun because his ballclub made the playoffs, while Kemp’s Dodgers languished in mediocrity. The glitch in the debate always revolves around team standings in the context of an MVP discussion. Which begs the other question: is it harder to perform with the light of post-season radiance on the horizon, or is it actually more difficult to achieve counting/sabermetric stat milestones surrounded by teammates with nothing to play for outside of ephemeral pride of the spoiler role? Is next year’s contract enough of an incentive? Certainly should be, but it’s not always the case.
Former big leaguer Orlando Merced, who played in the post-season for the Pirates in 1991-1992 and the Houston Astros in 2001, had some thoughts on this. “Of course, it’s tougher to perform in the heat of a pennant race,” Merced replied, “Those who lack the mental toughness, by the end of the season, fatigue will eat them up.” Former big leaguer hurler-turned youth-pitching instructor “Starvin’” Marvin Freeman, member of the ’92 Braves World Series team and fourth-place finisher in the ’94 Cy Young voting, seconds this. “Much tougher pitching in the pennant race because of the magnitude of every game.” Duke Sims, a member of the 1971 Los Angeles Dodgers who barely missed the playoffs against the San Francisco Giants and caught for the Detroit Tigers on their 1972 AL Eastern-Division winning ballclub, echos this as well. “I loved all of it and was excited throughout (the pennant chases of 1971 & 1972). Not too much to get excited about when you are out of the race.” Then there’s the other side of this debate. “[I think it’s] tougher to pitch on a 5th place team,” says former Arizona Diamondbacks and starter for the 1992-1993 World Champion Toronto Blue Jays, Todd Stottlemyre, “More pressure is more fun and brings out the best in you, in my opinion, it’s always better to be pitching when the game or season is on the line.”
Many believe Most Valuable Player denotes the finest performer in the game with the best statistics and assumes that these numbers are transferable (especially if coming from a ballpark as pitcher-friendly as Kemp’s home environs @ Chavez Ravine). There are some who take it to define as “Most Valuable” to your specific ballclub. The Baseball Writers Association (BBWAA) created the award in 1931 keeping this purposely vague. Craig Calenterra from the NBC Sports Hardball Talk site wrote a nice piece in August 2011 . In it he speaks with an official from the BBWAA. From the conversation:
There is no clear-cut definition of what Most Valuable means. It is up to the individual voter to decide who was the Most Valuable Player in each league to his team. The MVP need not come from a division winner or other playoff qualifier.
“The rules of the voting remain the same as they were written on the first ballot in 1931: (1) actual value of a player to his team, that is, strength of offense and defense; (2) number of games played; (3) general character, disposition, loyalty and effort; (4) former winners are eligible; and (5) members of the committee may vote for more than one member of a team.”
It has been always my assumption that the reason behind this was to stir debate, create narratives and angles for the baseball writer’s membership. The great minds behind Sabermetrics (whether they realize it or not) have altered this forever. Whether you prefer the FANGRAPHS version of Wins Above Replacement or the numbers from Baseball-reference.com, Kemp came out ahead. So how do you create a metric that (almost) satisfies everyone?
WAR: EITHER IT’S ALL ENCOMPASSING OR IT’S NOT
Here's the starting point for our MVP equation:
MVP = WAR –STANDINGS * SD, where standings represent the current position of the players’ ballclub and SD is the standard deviation of the WAR for the TOP TEN players in the league and everyone else.
Wins Above Replacement is right now the most popular metric used to determine effectiveness among most Baseball analysts. It is a measure of value, therefore the player with the highest WAR, seemingly the highest “value,” should be MVP, logically speaking, no? ALMOST.
The standings play into this to some degree, where it reflects the performance of the team and the lineup surrounding the player. It also comes from the concept of two players tied with the same WAR, the tie will generally go to the player from the better ballclub. If you’re Robinson Cano and the Yankees finish in first, nothing is deducted from your MVP score. Guys on teams from mediocre ballclubs have to perform demonstrably better to gain an edge. For players on last-place teams, unless you have enjoyed an amazing year (both in a vacuum as well as relative to the field), you most likely will not win the MVP award regardless of our equation.
I do believe we’ve seen the last of guys like 1987 Andre Dawson winning the award on a last-place ballclub. To be sure, the “counting stats” (RBIs, specifically) held much more weight 25 years ago than today – Dawson didn't even rank in the Top Ten for WAR among position players. I’m not sure we will ever see that again, not as WAR becomes an integral element of the MVP litmus test. That said, what If Dawson’s WAR was monumentally greater than the next player behind him? What if someone like Carlos Gonzalez goes nuts and finishes 2012 with a 16 WAR (highly unlikely, but bear with me) for the last-place Rockies while Andrew McCutchen comes in @ 7 or 8 WAR and the Pirates overtake Cincinnati? If we are to detract from CarGo’s success because of his ballclub’s lousy standing, we need to reward the fact that his individual achievement is exponentially greater than those who follow him. That gives explanation to the Standard Deviation element of this equation, which measures how much better Gonzalez performed than McCutchen and the other players. If the average of the Top Ten players is close together, than the SD has little to no bearing on the outcome. If, however, say Mike Trout is head & shoulders superior statistically (and he is right now), the SD will reward him.
Ultimately, I feel this equation only gets us halfway to the solution. Mine feels unfinished, if not in need of mathematical revision. I know there’s smarter thoughts out there. We want to create a conversation in the community – with some sort of consensus resolution. What’s the equation that encompasses stats, standings and the difference in player performance? I believe by next season, the sabermetric statistics that account for the BBWAA awards will be listed in many more outlets than exist today, in a singular space dedicated solely to the Saberleaders awards race.
From the first week in the season.
Fans have awoken on Sunday mornings for many decades excited to enjoy their cereal, pancakes or bacon & eggs while sorting through the batting/pitching leaders in their weekend paper's sports section, even when guys like Juan Bernhardt in 1977 were leading the leagues in most offensive categories the first weekend in April. This creation is for them.
What’s most important is that this conversation happens now. For the remainder of the season, INSTREAM SPORTS will compile the top five players with the highest MVP score to determine the true Most Valuable Player in each league. We will also track all of the BBWAA awards this season (ex-Manager of the Year). Some awards will simply be the players WAR that is specific to the award. The Cy Young Award will track a pitchers “pitching WAR” (pWAR) separately from his Total WAR, which includes hitting and fielding. To normalize the score, the relievers equation will be Pitching WAR * 1.25, as WAR is an accumulative statistic, the more innings you pitch the greater chance you have to add/lose to your final tally. For a starter to be eligible, he must pitch at least 150 innings; a reliever must appear in at least 40 games.
In terms of the Rookie of the Year, a position player must have at least 300 plate appearances. The pitcher eligibility remains the same as Cy Young.
Listening to certain players’ complaints (we’re looking at you, Joey Bats) about pitchers “having the Cy Young” as an argument against consideration for MVP, we believe it’s time the HANK AARON AWARD received more recognition. Although big leaguers and baseball fans alike have a vote in determining the winner of the aware named after the Braves great, it still lacks the respect and awareness of the MVP or Cy Young. Think of the Hank Aaron as the Cy Young for batters. The designation we will be using is a simple one: Offensive WAR - the average of Baseball-Reference.com & Fangraphs, removing the fielding element. Same for the Silver Slugger. The best hitter at each position.
The Gold Glove remains way too subjective for many tastes. I asked Sean Forman of Baseball-Reference.com for his thoughts on using sabermetrics to determine the Gold Glove winners, especially pitchers, where there's really no WAR data. "To do it right you'd probably want to modify it by balls in play so as to not penalize high strikeout guys." We will use Defensive WAR (dWAR) plus RF/9 (Range Factor per nine innings) divided by Balls in Play (BIP) to track the finest fielders at every position. Pitchers we will simply use RF/9 divided by BIP. Catcher defense remains a difficult measure. I asked sports analytics expert James Piette, Ph.D and co-founder of Krossover, for guidance on creating a formula for the metric. "Caught Stealing percentage doesn't account for Omission Bias or 'Catcher's Presence,' or how base runners shape their game according the backstop behind the plate. Think about it this way: in '94, Pudge had a CS% of ~38%, while Benito Santiago's CS% was higher at 47%. Your initial reaction might be that Benito did a better job at keeping runners from stealing 2nd base, but we both know that Pudge definitely had the better arm. How can we see that in the numbers? Look at the number of people that attempted to steal on Pudge v Benito: 60 v 85. That is, runners knew that they could test Benito's arm, so more runners tried to run on him. In fact, it could be the case that the runners that ran on Pudge who also ran on Benito got caught less often; the point being that Benito likely had base runners trying things on him they wouldn't normally on Pudge."
While we're at it, why don't we create a Defensive Player of the Year Award (the "Ozzie Smith?") The reason guys like Ben Zobrist finish in 16th place for the 2011 MVP vote rather than the top ten where he belongs is that defense doesn't garner the exposure it deserves, regardless of this. If the BBWAA were to create an award that recognizes supreme singular defensive excellence, the Ben Zobrists of the world (and players like Brendan Ryan, who by the way is killing it with the glove this season) in addition to defense as a whole, voters would be much more aware of defense in the context of not just determining the MVP, but the defensive element in winning games as well. For the Defensive Player of the Year Award (the "Ozzie Smith?"), we will use the average of dWAR & Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR). At the very least, this allows for a weighted look at the best players facing the pitcher and catcher, most especially dealing with curious cases like Brett Lawrie.
By next year, we predict many other outlets will dedicate space on their blogs/sites, perhaps even newspapers to track the sabermetric All-Stars vs. the actual voting, on a daily basis. Popular Baseball writer Joe Posnanski got the ball rolling this past July with this fun piece. Many will do likewise next year. Don’t get me wrong, I loved seeing Cal Ripken starting in the Midsummer Classic every year, or Ichiro. It truly is the fan’s game, and if they want to see the popular stars of Baseball match off against each other once a year, I’m on board. That said, it’s still cool to track and calculate the actual top players at each position in the league.
The final element of the Saberleaders is a departure from WAR, but in line with the right side of Baseball Statistical history. Tom Tango developed an outstanding metric that analyzes the performance of not simply closers but ALL relief pitchers. The metric is known as SHUTDOWN/MELTDOWN. Everyone from Fangraphs, Tom Tango, Jonah Keri, and Jason Dunbar @ The Bleacher Report are singing its praises. To return to the old Firemen of the Year, Rolaids Relief Wins/Losses/Saves/Blown Saves formula seems retrograde, almost quaint. (Steve Slowinski of Fangraphs explains the nature of the Shutdowns & Meltdowns here.) Therefore, to promote FANGRAPHS great work, we have created the FANGRAPHS RELIEVER OF THE YEAR AWARD. I asked Eno Sarris for his thoughts on creating a formula for the top reliever that incorporates the principles of SHUTDOWN/MELTDOWN. "I use a combo," Sarris replied, "Strikeouts minus walks; Shutdowns divided by Meltdowns, plus win Probability Added(WPA). SD/MD will get you consistency."
I can’t stress enough that this is simply an experiment, a statistical test kitchen, a space to question freely, make mistakes and bring forth something definitive, while ultimately drawing more old-school fans to Sabermetrics that wouldn’t normally play around with it. Other sites will create and design Saberleaders pages for tracking the BBWAA awards very soon, most likely improving upon our efforts. Someone needs to create a dedicated daily column to the Saberleaders race. We want to have fun with this, we want everyone to contribute in this open-minded forum. We believe we’re halfway there, but it would be much more fulfilling if we developed these formulas as a community.
I still spend at least 15 minutes a week sorting through Baseball Cards. If I need something to read in a pinch, it’s still the 1975 Complete Handbook of Baseball. Still seek decades-old game broadcast clips to just hear Curt Gowdy’s voice one more time, to enter the portal which brings me to that lovely place reeking of cigar smoke and near-extinguished Paul Malls, the faint scent of curdled Schaefer beer, the trailing voices of since-gone relatives from our greatest generation, the incessantly muffled, shuffle sound of a Bicycle-brand Pinochle deck against the felted card table in the paneling-laden family room, beside my beloved Uncle Bob, the war hero, settled Indian-style on the off-white shag carpet, too close to the Zenith 25-inch color box set, straining my four-year old neck to find Brooks Robinson, Bobby Murcer and Rod Carew tackle the likes of Seaver, Marichal and Fergie Jenkins. Yet, when the clip runs its course, we’re back in 2012, and Sabermetrics is the present and future of baseball statistics.
The quality goes in before the name goes on.
Baseball Card art courtesy of Andrew Woolley of The Dick Allen Hall of Fame blog.
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The phone rang in my kitchen.
After I see a film, I might read 25 reviews.
Having enjoyed the experience of close to 13 seasons in the Major Leagues, a second life touring
"Oh shit, Johnny, there's a T in the road,” Randy Moffitt yells, beside me in the shotgun seat, l