Archive for December, 2009

The Tale of Tommy Davis

A Google search for “Jason Bay + Run Producer” brings back 91,100 hits. Bay’s name and “RBI Guy” brings back 159,000 hits. “Jason Bay + good hitter” only brings back 160,000. The funny thing is that Bay has topped 105 RBI throughout his career only twice despite being a constant force in the middle of the Pirates’ and Red Sox’ lineups. He’s really not much of a “RBI Guy”. Which brings up another point — a warning, though: stop here if you don’t feel like reading another piece that discusses how RBI totals can fluctuate heavily (and sometimes amusingly) on a year-to-year basis.

For those who chose to read on, consider Tommy Davis. He has more than a few things in common with Bay. Both are left fielders, stand around 6’2”, and weigh around 200 pounds. Davis even played with the Mets at one point. In 1962, as a 23-year-old, Davis played his best season of ball. He hit 27 homers, held a line of .346/.374/.535, stole 18 bases, and had 153 RBI. Focus on that last statistic. 153 runs batted in. Since 1961, that ranks as the sixth most RBI in a single season and, until 1998, was the most. Since then, Manny Ramirez, Sammy Sosa, Juan Gonzalez, and Alex Rodriguez have managed to pass Davis, including two seasons with more than 160.

There are about a dozen different fun tidbits to pull from Davis’ ensuring career. Here are the ones I enjoyed the most:

Davis had 153 RBI in 665 at-bats. Over the next two years, he racked up 1,148 at-bats and 174 RBI.

Davis never had reached the 100 RBI plateau, and never would do so again. In fact, he never reached 90 again.

In 1962, he spent the majority of his time batting fourth. This remains true through the 1968 season. In 1969, he spent most of his time hitting third rather than cleanup.

His teams kept him there in large part because of that huge RBI season. To be fair, he also had a .910 OPS that season, but his OPS in the immediate seasons afterwards: .816, .708, and .729 (after skipping an extremely short 1965 season for Davis).

Bay is a better hitter than Davis ever was, but if for no other reason than Bay’s health, hope a similar fate isn’t awaiting him.


Cubs Land Marlon Byrd

After a few months of shopping around, the Cubs finally settled on Marlon Byrd as their new center fielder, signing him to a 3 year deal worth a reported $15 million. What should Cubs fans expect from their new center fielder?

Essentially, the epitome of an average player. Byrd is, across the board, about as average as it gets. His career wOBA is .332, and that’s based on a skill set that is neither strong nor weak at any one thing. He walks some, strikes out some, and hits for some power, though he’s not a slugger.

Given that this is a big time buyer’s market, pretty much any deal is going to look good in comparison with other contracts signed in prior years, and this one is no different. In over 4,000 innings in center field, his career UZR/150 is 0.0.

Jack of all trades, master of none, thy name is Marlon Byrd. To be fair, he’s been a bit above average the last few years, but the Cubs are signing him for his age 32-34 seasons, so they should be building some regression into his past performances. Projecting him as a +2 win player going forward is fair.

$5 million a year, even on a three year deal, is a good contract for the Cubs. He fills a hole and should provide a solid performance at a cost of less than $3 million per win. Even in this kind of market, that’s a move worth making. Byrd is not a star, but he’s good enough at everything to be a useful role player, and the price was right for the Cubs.


Inflation And Prospects

Until last year, baseball had seen steady salary inflation of nearly 10 percent per season for over a decade, as free agents cashed in on ever growing contracts. Teams counted on this inflation to justify long term deals, as the assumption was that a player would not decline much faster than salaries grew, keeping his relative value fairly steady even if he lost value on the field.

That assumption has to be thrown out the window now, however. Despite signs of economic recovery in the U.S. (the stock market is going to close up 20 percent in 2009), we’ve seen a significant pullback in spending for the second consecutive year – Jason Bay notwithstanding.

Trying to project future inflation now is just a guessing game. Will salaries increase again in the future? Probably. How quickly? No idea. Teams are learning how to restrain themselves from spending sprees in the winter, finding value in players they used to overlook. The acceptance of concepts such as replacement level have taken some of the mystique away from veteran players with track records, as teams are less willing to pay for what a player did in the past.

What I think will be interesting to watch is how this unpredictability of future salary growth will affect how willing teams are to pour money into scouting and player development. During the age of booming inflation, players with 0-4 years of service time were remarkably valuable, as they could provide production at minimal cost.

If we do not return to that kind of inflation, however, the relative salary difference between young players and veterans will be significantly smaller than it has been in the past. And with a smaller gap in cost, it may be become more viable to build a team with established players.

For instance, this winter, teams have been able to sign useful major league players for a couple million dollars. Kelly Johnson got $2 million from Arizona. Adam Everett got $1.5 million from Detroit. A ton of average-ish infielders signed for $5 or $6 million per year for one or two years.

If that remains true in future years, then it reduces the desire to spend millions on prospects with fractional chances of making the majors. The previous cost differences were great enough to make it worth investing in a lot of prospects, reaping the benefits from the ones who make it, and building a team of good young players to avoid having to pay the market premium. But now, if we continue to see years where near average players can be had for $2 to $3 million per win, then the player development calculation makes less sense.

If we don’t see a real up-tick in spending next winter, expect some teams that have traditionally focused on building from within to do less of that going forward. Buying wins in free agency, rather than developing them through the farm system, may be the new trend if inflation doesn’t return.


Arizona Raids Non-Tender Market, Adds Kelly Johnson

After a disappointing season with Atlanta, 27 year old 2B Kelly Johnson was non-tendered and hit the market. In a deal made official on Wednesday, Arizona added Johnson for one year and $2.35M, who will become the Diamondbacks starting 2B in 2010, replacing Felipe Lopez, who was traded to Milwaukee before the 2009 trading deadline.

Johnson’s career was off to a great start with Atlanta. In his first three seasons in the majors, Johnson posted wRC+ numbers of 99, 121, and 116, and even despite poor defense at 2B, Johnson compiled 7 WAR in those first 3 seasons.

Johnson fell off a cliff in 2009, however. His defensive numbers rose to average for the first time in his career, but his wRC+ fell to a putrid 86, leading to his first season below 1.0 WAR. With a .224/.303/.389 triple slash line, GM Frank Wren had enough, and the team did not tender a contract to Johnson. Said contract would likely have garnered in the 3-4 million dollar range, given Johnson’s 2009 salary of 2.85M, his second year arbitration status, and his poor 2010 season.

That said, Johnson is a perfect breakout candidate. We saw nothing in his plate discipline or isolated power numbers to suggest that 2009 was anything more than a product of poor luck on balls in play. After 2007 and 2008 years with BABIPs above .330, regression (and more) hit Johnson in the worst way. His BABIP nosedived all the way to .249, leading to the 50 point AVG and OBP drop and 80 point SLG drop that resulted in the worst season of his career.

With this in mind, it is much more likely to see a year with production akin to 2008 – .346 wOBA, 112 wRC+ – than 2009. Especially if Johnson’s UZR numbers are truly an indication of increased defensive skills, Johnson could approach the 3 WAR level, if not surpass it – a number that compares very favorably with Mark DeRosa, who signed with the Giants for leaving the D’Backs with a great asset for not only 2010 but also 2011, Johnson’s third year of arbitration.

What we see here with this move is Arizona taking advantage of the largest pool of talented arbitration eligible players in recent memory that has resulted from the downturn in the economy. Not only do the Diamondbacks pick up a talented player with a high chance of rebound for 2010, they also pick him up at a below-market rate in 2011. We also saw this with the Nationals signing of Matt Capps. One of the major stories from this offseason could be the development of this market. We do know one thing: the Diamondbacks played it perfectly with their addition of Johnson.


Fan Projection Targets: New Year’s Eve ’09

Happy New Year’s Eve (Day)! Let’s crank out one more set of fan projections before the decade is over. Today’s players: Mark Ellis, Josh Willingham, and Luke Hochevar.

It seems like just yesterday that A’s second baseman Mark Ellis was the toast of the on-line baseball nerd community for his outstanding second base fielding. We threw a collective fit (or at least released a collective sigh) when he signed a far-below market deal with Oakland (right before the market collapsed). Our thoughts on Ellis today? As I’m typing this, he hasn’t even passed the threshold for fan projections. Sure, Ellis missed much of 2009 due to injury, but are our memories that short? C’mon.

About this same time last season, the Jim Bowden-run Nationals were seemingly intent on fielding Ryan Zimmerman, a pitcher, and seven outfielders. One of the many outfielders acquired in Bowden’s final bonanza before the end of his career as a baseball executive was Josh Willingham. While sometimes forgotten between Elijah Dukes, Nyjer Morgan‘s incredible year in the field, and Adam Dunn’s amazing (in very different ways) year at the plate and in the field, Willlingham had another season that was below average with the glove, but good with the bat. But what will he do going forward?

We certainly need more pitcher projections, and for this last one we have another forgotten man: 2006 #1 overall draft pick Luke Hochevar. While he has been generally disappointing in the majors so far, Hochevar did have several dominant starts last season, including a 13 strikeout game. Which Hochevar is the real one? How will he fare against (fading) expectations in 2010?

Click here to enter your projections for Ellis, Willingham, and Hochevar.


Does Beltre Make Sense to Boston at $10M?

Adrian Beltre is still a free agent and Scott Boras is still his agent. Matt Holliday is still a bigger name and will still receive a bigger contract, but discounting the assumed stare-down between Theo Epstein and Boras over Beltre’s contract demands is amusing if nothing else. A few weeks back Boston trotted out manager Terry Francona to talk up Casey Kotchman. Why Kotchman? Because if the season began tomorrow, Kotchman would man first while the incumbent, Kevin Youkilis, moved across the diamond to third. Epstein also talked up Kotchman in the press, focusing mostly on his strong contact skills.

Pretend, for a moment, that Youkilis would field equally at third and first. I know he wouldn’t, but just pretend. Over the last three years, Kotchman has hit .279/.346/.421 while the ‘disappointing’ Beltre has batted .269/.318/.444 with 59 homers. Those numbers aren’t park-adjusted, which means Beltre is still being punished heavily for playing within Safeco’s constricting park. Even so, Beltre is only four OPS points off. Defensively Kotchman is above average for a first baseman while Beltre is well above average for a third baseman. Putting it all together, Kotchman’s career best season (2.5 WAR) is barely better than Beltre’s worst season since 2002 (2.4 WAR).

In fewer words: Beltre is a better player than Kotchman. How much better and how much money is the upgrade worth to Boston?

Let’s dive back into the Youkilis-to-third predicament first. His career sample at first is more than double his time at third (~3,802 innings versus just under 1,600) and in those spans we have UZR/150 of 8.6 at third and 6.5 at first. That implies he’s actually better at third base, although most of that time at third base came in 2004. Youkilis was 25 then, not 31 like next season. For the sake of argument, let’s say Youkilis is five runs worse at third than first next season. Feel free to adjust that as you see fit, but remember it’s better to be conservative than optimistic.

With that in mind; estimate Beltre at ~10 runs defensively and ~5runs offensively. That makes him a three and a half win player. Kotchman is probably good for a win, maybe a bit more. Let’s say the difference is two wins and then factor in the Youkilis transition. Overall a 2.5 win upgrade. Wins are going for roughly $3.5M so Beltre is worth $8.75M more than Kotchman. Meaning the tops Boston should give Beltre is just under $9M. Given Boston’s placement on the win curve and how much those additional wins could help to distance themselves from Tampa, it seems the reported asking price of $10-15M isn’t too far-fetched after all.

Worth noting: one of the four players represented by Boras on Boston’s roster is J.D. Drew, who shares quite a bit with Beltre in the means of unfair criticism and a sentence to perennially underrated purgatory. I wonder if they would get along and tell war stories.


Fan Projection Targets – 12/30/09

With the excellent feedback we’ve had to the Fan Projections, it’s becoming more difficult to find players with too few votes. It’s for that reason that a couple of today’s targets are over the 30-ballot threshold. Still, none of these guys is close to the century mark, either.

Said targets are Kelly Johnson, Martin Prado, and Ryan Roberts.

Johnson has just inked a deal with Arizona for one year at $2MM.

Prado is the man who stole the starting second base job from Johnson last year in Atlanta.

Roberts took over starting duties in Arizona last year after Felipe Lopez left town, posting a 108 wRC+ in 351 PAs.


On the Closer Position: The Save and RP Usage

One of the most interesting aspects of roster construction in today’s major league baseball is the bullpen , and how it revolves around the closer. The closer position has reached mythical status in today’s MLB, exemplified by Mariano Rivera. Since 1996, the game for the Yankees has been to find a way to lead after eight innings, and then to turn the ball over to the undisputed best one-inning pitcher in the history of the game.

Rivera may rank behind Trevor Hoffman in terms of career saves, but Mo’s 14 year span of dominance is unprecedented. And yet, he only ranks 76th on Sean Smith’s list of pitchers by WAR. Hoffman is all the way down at number 209. For me, the idea that a role with such a seemingly low value can be placed in such a high regard evokes some sort of curiosity.

Today, we look at how the position of the closer has evolved since the inception of the save, the statistic which will be forever linked with the closer. The save was introduced in 1969, but the idea of the one-inning closer which we are so familiar with did not immediately catch on. Goose Gossage, for instance, is specifically noted as having the ability to earn a multiple-inning save with regularity. In today’s game, on the other hand, it is an event when a closer is called upon to make a two-inning save. Let’s take a look at the average innings per game finished for those pitchers with 30 saves or more since 1969. Games is used instead of saves to account for blown saves as well as games entered that weren’t save situations.

Two things jump out right away. First, the sheer numbers of 30 save guys ballooned in the 90s and the new millennium. Second, as we already knew, for the most part, “closers” pitched many more innings in the early parts of what we can call the “Save Era.” The correlation between IP per game is high, with R^2 = .56. We especially see this decline around 1986, when the average IP/G for these players drops from 1.51 to 1.32. Tom Henke’s 34 save season in 1992, in which he pitched 57 games and 55 2/3 innings, was the first 30+ save season with less than 1 IP/G.

Things have been relatively constant since the strike of 1994. From 1995-2008, the average IP/G for 30 save closers ranged from 1.03-1.07, with only two pitchers (Danny Graves in 2002 and Ryan Dempster in 2005) going over 1.25. The role of the closer has now been quite well-defined, and the Goose Gossage style of pitcher is dead.

Here, we can see the undeniable effect that the save has had on the game of baseball. The way teams build rosters is different. The way managers attack game strategy is altered. The market for relief pitchers has changed. Between these and other changes, we’ve seen one simple statistic dramatically effect the way the game is played.


Why Should We Care About the Hall?

Because we care about the players and the players care about the Hall of Fame.

The average player probably was on his high school team and before that may have played some little league or grade school ball. From there either he went to college or straight to the minors. There are exceptions to that, but again this is the average player. Some players last through their 30s; others burn out. Either way, that’s at least a decade of dedication to the game. Hate Barry Bonds for any reason you want, but his first wife is baseball and his long-time mistress is breathing.

The pay is good and the fame is probably pretty sweet at times too, but let’s not ignore the disappointment that some of these guys feel when the Hall call never comes. Yet we care about the snubs. We make case after case for the snubs. The competitiveness and glory-seeking doesn’t simply vanish upon filing of retirement papers. Jon Heyman Tweeted that if Jack Morris played on non-World Series teams, he wouldn’t consider Morris a Hall of Famer. Think about that for a moment. His vote for Morris is based almost entirely on luck; meanwhile, Bert Blyleven’s candidacy is in the shadows over bad luck with certain metrics. Life is funny, isn’t it?

The guys like Blyleven and Tim Raines have a type of fan support that some would describe as obnoxious. They’d say that some people need to remove their nose from the spreadsheet because the game isn’t played on Baseball-Reference.com. Besides being a silly thing to say, those people miss the point. Rich Lederer, Jonah Keri, and Tom Tango didn’t waste those words to come off as omniscient or as holier than the non-believers. They spent those words because they care about those players and 99.9% of all Hall cases are based on numbers, just not the numbers that make sense to people like them.

And you know why those guys care about the players? Not because of their numbers – although they certainly help – but because in the end, those players enhanced the game-watching and -attending experience. Keep that in mind the next time someone writes a piece bemoaning the deserving nature of a future candidate. The motive isn’t to be a pain in the neck or trendy. It’s an exhibit of appreciation earned through merit.

Isn’t that what the Hall should really represent?


The Bay Deal and the Time Value of Money

One thought process seems to be that Jason Bay and agent Joe Urbon were silly to take what could be a heavily back-loaded contract from the Mets in favor of Boston’s deal which offered more cash upfront. The idea stems from this Peter Gammons piece which includes this nugget of information:

While the Mets offer is four [years] for 65 [million], it’s so backloaded that I’ve been told by Mets people that it’s far less than what the Red Sox were offering in present-day value

Present-day value is important because $100 today is more valuable than $100 a year from today. If the two offers were equal in dollars, however constructed differently, with one deal being front-loaded and the other back-loaded, then the agent should have his player sign the front-loaded contract. That scenario doesn’t match reality though. Boston reportedly offered four years and $60M while the Mets offered four years and $66M. More present-day value or not, Urbon and crew were correct to take the Mets offer. Here’s why.

Let’s assume Boston offered Bay 4/$60M split evenly across the four seasons; which is to say $15M in 2010, 2011, and so on. Meanwhile New York’s offer is more in total dollars, but most of the payout is located in the final two seasons. For our purposes, let’s say the money breakdown is 10/15/20/21. Using the time value of money formula and a discount rate of one’s liking, you can quickly figure the adjusted totals in present-day value. In this example, Boston’s deal is worth roughly $56M while the Mets’ offer is worth nearly $61M, or a spread in $5M, almost identical to the unadjusted spread.

Say one gets really aggressive with the discount rate and bumps it to 10% with the same contract breakdown. The Boston offer would be worth $52M in present-day value while the Mets’ offer worth $56M. Closer, but still no cigar. Keep that discount rate and get creative with the back-loading, say, 7/12/22/25; it’s even tighter at $52M and $55M. Still though, the Mets offer is worth more.

Barring some really ridiculous discount rate or extensive back-loading of the contract, there’s just no way around it. New York offered more dollars.