Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Park Factors Follow up

Watch this HR from Derek Jeter from Monday night:

In most ballparks that is not a home run. But that home run was not hit because park factors say that Yankee Stadium is an easy place to hit home runs. According to the way park factors are calculated, that home run literally made Yankee Stadium an easier place to hit home runs. It's all backwards.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Talent Moved to the National League?

The title really has nothing to do with this article. But after the movement of Greinke, Dempster, Pujols, and Fielder since last season, it's nice to see the AL get a little easier for the Blue Jays.

This is a warning and a reminder to any Red Sox fans who might be encouraged by the recent salary mega-dump.
  • The team will be worse next year. Adrian Gonzalez may have been past his peak but there are only a few first basemen around the league who are better than him and none of those will be playing for the Red Sox any time soon. There are positions that baseball fans don't mind seeing their team be weak at. Red Sox fans are more than familiar with that after watching every shortstop they've had since Nomar. First base is not one of those positions. When your first baseman isn't hitting 30 HR and smacking doubles all over the field, you notice.
  • 260 million dollars is a lot of money. You as a fan will not see any of it. Ticket prices will not go down. Cable prices will not go down. You won't stop caring and watching every inning of your team play baseball. Take it from a fan who has watched a team that hasn't make the playoffs in 20 years, being a fan is a full time year round job with no breaks. The team may stop trying, but you don't get to. You're going to shell out your money to watch James Loney while all financial benefits of the trade go right into the owners pockets.
  • I probably exaggerated on the last point. The Red Sox have shown a willingness to go out and spend money on elite players. After all, that's what it takes to get that sort of talent. Teams have become super aggressive about locking up their young players before they hit free agency. Since it's next to impossible for a team to grow their own elite players at every position, spending some money in free agency is the only option. Wouldn't it be great if the Red Sox could sign get a top first baseman now? I wonder what kind of contract it would take to get one. I'm thinking something around 7 years and $148 million. Don't worry, I'm sure there are some of those around baseball.
  • Let's forget about Adrian Gonzalez though, he's gone. The money can be used to sign some of the homegrown players the Red Sox have developed in their system. Like Jacoby Ellsbury! He of the only 224 games played over the last 3 seasons. Carl Crawford had only two seasons under 150 games before signing with the Red Sox before he became an injury risk. Don't worry though, I'm sure Ellsbury will be fine over the minimum 6 year contract he's going to demand. And as a Boras client, he probably won't be looking at comparable outfielders when trying to determine the salary. You know, guys like Carl Crawford.
  • The money could also be used for free agents though! Zack Greinke will be on the market and looking for a contract to make sure his great-great-great-great-grandchildren never have to work a day in their lives. I'm thinking he's going to be looking at the contracts just given to Cain and Hamels as the type of deal he wants. That could be money well spent though! There have never been questions about his makeup and his recent move back to the AL for a competitive team has been great so far. Also if Ellsbury leaves, I hear Nick Swisher is a free agent!
  • At least the clubhouse atmosphere has been cleaned up. I was getting sick of how all those in-fighting stories were leading to incidents like Youkilis refusing to throw the ball to Gonzalez on grounders to third. This was probably something that couldn't have been solved by either firing the manager after the season or by just telling a bunch of millionaires to grow up.
Free agent signings are inherently risky. You're putting a lot of money down on a human body which often isn't built to withstand the rigors of 162 games of baseball every year at the professional level. Since teams can control players for the start of their careers, free agents are often also heading into the downswing of their careers. Unfortunately for teams bidding on these players, that's just the way it's done. You can always choose to stay out of the free agent game completely, but if you have available money to spend, as the Red Sox do, the talent is worth high price. 

The Dodgers realized this and they looked around at the free agent marketplace and didn't like what they saw. There's a reason they went after Adrian Gonzalez. He's expensive, but in their financial situation, it doesn't matter and he's exactly what they needed. Crawford may be a sunk cost, or maybe a year from now he'll become the Crawford from his Tampa days. Rich teams can afford to spend the time figuring that out. Just remember that any unspent money the Red Sox get out of this salary dump is pure profit for the owners.

Maybe the prospects obtained in the trade will work out, although history in these sort of trades isn't on their side. It is good to see a team say they are refocusing on their minor league system. It is the most efficient way to develop a ball club. With a team like the Red Sox though, there's no real reason why they couldn't do that concurrently with taking chances on free agents. So Sox fans can take this as they will. This Jays fan though is relieved to see those guys out of the AL East.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Criminal Ballpark Factors

Remember, WAR judges everything. Fielder is a poor baserunner (one run below average), a lousy fielder (six runs below average) and Comerica Park rates as a slight hitter's park this season.

The quote is from a piece that Dave Schoenfield wrote where he tries to explain the value of WAR. He introduces it as a tool that attempts to quantify performance while normalizing for different ballparks, eras, positions, etc. Unfortunately it's not that simple, and since there are only a couple sources that do WAR calculations the general public accepts the values as truth. Now for the most part the websites do an excellent job and work hard to keep updating their algorithms. Personally I prefer Baseball-Reference's version over Fangraph's due to the peripherals used in Fangraph's pitching calculations, but I'll often go back and forth between the websites depending on the tools I need. I'm absolutely sick of the park factors calculations. "Comerica Park rates as a slight hitter's park this season." What, as opposed to last season? Did they move the fences? Did they change the size of the infield? The only thing that could have changed from last season is the weather and I'd be shocked if that was accounted for in the data Dave used to write that line. So is it more likely that the characteristics of the entire MLB hitting and pitching profiles have changed since last season, or that people just happen to be hitting well in Comerica Park this season?

I'll rip on ESPN first because it's been a hobby of mine lately before I move onto others who calculate park factors slightly better. The formula ESPN uses to calculate park factors is
  • homeRS = Runs scored at home
  • homeRA = Runs allowed at home
  • homeG = Number of home games
  • roadRS = Runs scored on road
  • roadRA = Runs allowed on road
  • roadG = Number of road games
A value over 1 favours the hitter while a value under 1 favours the pitcher. This formula is based not on the actual characteristics of the park, but instead on the performances that occurred in the park. That makes the park factors extremely circumstantial and subject to high variability. As I mentioned before, park factors should not drastically change from year to year as all that changes in the park usually is weather conditions. If the makeup of players in general hasn't changed there is nothing inherent to the parks that would make the players perform any differently from the season before. The data from runs scored isn't nearly sufficient enough to draw meaningful conclusions. The following graph shows the ESPN Park Factors for runs for 6 parks from 2004 to 2012.

If I were to take this graph seriously I'd be forced to conclude that in the span from 2004-2006, Great American Ball Park went from being a great pitchers' park to being a better run scoring environment than Coors Field. Safeco was close to a league average park from 2005-2009 but this year is playing like one of the greatest pitchers' parks of all time. Miller Park goes back and forth between being a hitter's and pitcher's park. Same with Rangers Ballpark. That makes sense. Admittedly, there is a flaw in using the 2012 data since this season isn't over, but small sample size is hardly this data's only problem. Changes in other parks will also affect this data since it is all relative, but not by this much, and not with year-to-year changes. The variance can be seen across all parks, and especially when trying to determine park factors for different types of hits. The following table shows the average and standard deviations of park factors for ball parks that have been open from 2004-2012.

Park factors from 2004-2012 based on the average of single year park factors

The fact that they would even include data on triples for park factors is insane. There are an average of about 30 triples a season in each park. This makes the error on the triples park factor about 0.26 just from random deviations. How can any meaningful conclusions be drawn when the error is so significant?

As I mentioned also, these park factor calculations are entirely circumstantial. Last season Citizens Bank Park had a runs park factor of 0.997 making it a slight pitchers' park. Coincidentally Cliff Lee started 18 games at home and 14 games on the road. What happens if we balance that out? The difference between Cliff Lee and the rest of the team over 2 games is about 5 runs. With that change the the Phillies park factor goes to 1.01. If we take it a little more extreme and move a couple of Lee's better outings, two shutouts, from home to the road, and move two of the Phillies weaker outings, two 7-run games, back to Citizens Bank Park, we get a new park factor of 1.04. Due to a slight imbalance in Cliff Lee's scheduled starts Citizens Bank went from a hitters' park to a pitcher's park. What did Cliff Lee do to make Citizens Bank Park into a pitchers' park just by starting there? Did his act of starting change the size of the park. If so I for one would like to see what other magic tricks he's capable of. Also, it's insane that these numbers are being reported to three decimal places.

The weather in many parks can significantly change the run scoring environment month to month. More northern parks tend to have worse run scoring environments when the season starts in the colder months of March and April. According to the way these park factors are calculated, if the Blue Jays opened the season in Seattle in the lower run scoring environment, this would actually make Rogers Centre into a better hitters park. No other parks would be affected. Somehow a team's road schedule affects how well their home park plays.

There are ways to manage the variability and websites like Baseball-Reference to a better job in calculating their park factors. They use park factors averaged over three year periods and account for things which can affect game score, such as the home team not batting in the bottom of the ninth or by using the fact that some teams play some more than others so teams don't all have equal effects on each other's park factors. This is a step in the right direction but to me it's not nearly enough. It's basing the park factors on empirical results instead of the actual sources of the park factors themselves, the physical ballpark. It seems that the layout of the fences should be a more important determining factor than who actually hit the ball over those fences. Maybe the results do average out and approach the "real" park factor numbers, but why should we be forced into that scenario.

We're still far off from the proper solution though. Look around and try and find the exact dimensions of ballparks. I've tried and that information is not available. You can find the distance down the lines and to the power alleys, which is itself a laughable way to define a ballpark, but if you want the exact dimensions of the entire park, you're screwed. Without even knowing how big the outfields are, how are we to put any faith in park factor numbers. I sincerely hope that team's front offices are doing a better job than the public. That they've actually made measurements about the size of their park and use that information when making personnel decisions.

A fundamental question that still hasn't been asked is "what is the point of park factors?" What information do we want to get out of them? Taking the current park factors and using them to normalize WAR values doesn't make sense. Park factors as they are cannot be applied uniformly across all players. Each player would have their own park factor in every stadium depending on the player's hitting profile. Think of an asymmetric stadium where the left field line was 300 feet and the right field fence was 500 feet. One park factor can't be applied fairly to both a left handed and right handed batter. The numbers need to be individualized. A GM could much better custom build his lineup to his home park if he knew how it affected each player, not a player in general.

Maybe front offices really are a step ahead and are calculating these park factors properly. It's not enough though. Writers, fans, agents, etc. use sources like ESPN and Baseball-Reference for all purposes in the industry. BBWAA voters don't vote for Larry Walker because of the Coors field effect. We know that Coors field is generally a better hitter's environment, but did it affect Walker to the same extent that it affects others? Also, the longer these numbers and formulas are used, the more ingrained they become in baseball culture and harder to correct. Their use becomes more widespread and the flaws become like a virus affecting other stats. Calling something an advanced metric does not make it so, the reasoning behind the formula needs to be sound too.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Latino Pitcher Throws Perfect Game

I've written about perfect games a couple times already this season and in each I've mentioned how I'm tired of writing about perfect games. So I'll keep that part of this column short. Yesterday afternoon Felix Hernandez struck out 12 batters on his way to throwing the 23rd perfect game in Major League history and the 1st for the Seattle Mariners. It was an incredible performance by a pitcher who has been one of the best in the league for about the last four seasons. It was his major league leading 4th shutout of the season and his third this year to end with a 1-0 score. The absolute inadequacy of the Mariners offense made the perfect game that much more impressive to me. Every time Felix pitches he needs to be perfect as one run is usually enough to decide the game at Safeco. So congratulations to Felix, it was an awesome sight to see.

What struck me in the aftermath of the perfect game was that Felix became only the second Latino player to throw a perfect game (Dennis Martinez). This struck me as a low number, especially when considering some of the amazing Latino pitchers to have come close enough by throwing no-hitters (Fernando Valenzuela, Carlos Zambrano, Ubaldo Jimenez, Johan Santana, etc.). However in looking at the lists of ballplayers, Latino batters have overall been much more successful than their pitching counterparts. I'm not in any way qualified to determine why this is the case, although I will offer a few possibilities, but it is interesting to examine the facts. I've defined a Latino ballplayer as one who was born in one of the Hispanic or Latino countries. I realize that the definition is much more convoluted than that (Alex Rodriguez was born in New York but spent time as a child in the Dominican Republic and his loyalties were debated at the World Baseball Classic) but I'm looking at a large group of players and a line had to be drawn somewhere and this one seemed appropriate and made for the easiest filtering.

In 2011 Latino players made up approximately 27% of the Major League players and 42% of the Minor League players. However the skew in talent favours the batters and has for some time. Of the top 60 position players in terms of WAR (Fangraphs), 20 of them were Latino. The top 20 featured Jose Bautista, Miguel Cabrera, Adrian Gonzalez, Jose Reyes, and Adrian Beltre, and just missed out on other high regulars such as Robinson Cano and Albert Pujols on their "down" years. Conversely, Latinos only represented 12 of the top 60 pitchers and after Felix Hernandez at #10, only Anibal Sanchez and Jaime Garcia even managed to make the top 30.

If we look further into the past and at entire careers we see a similar pattern. Of the top 100 batters from 1950-2012, 15 are Latino and are represented mostly by Hall of Famers or future Hall of Famers (Roberto Clemente, Albert Pujols, Rod Carew, Rafael Palmeiro, Ivan Rodriguez, Andruw Jones, Manny Ramirez, Roberto Alomar, Tony Perez, Carlos Beltran, Sammy Sosa, Luis Aparicio, Bobby Abreu, Vladimir Guerrero, Adrian Beltre). Of the top 100 pitchers, only 10 are Latino, and many are known more for longevity than their dominance (Pedro Martinez, Javier Vazquez, Dennis Martinez, Johan Santana, Fernando Valenzuela, Mariano Rivera, Jose Rijo, Felix Hernandez, Livan Hernandez, Freddy Garcia).

The same divide exists when we look at major awards. Since 1967 when the Cy Young award was awarded independently to each league, 7 different Latino pitchers have won the award a total of 10 times. Over that same time span 11 different Latino players have won MVP a total of 14 times, although it should be noted that Willie Hernandez falls into both categories, when really as a reliever he should fall in neither.

I can't really say why this is the case although I highly doubt it has anything to do with genetics. Pitching is generally a higher injury risk to a player than being a position player. It's possible that injured young pitching prospects in Latino countries don't have access to the required medical care and are forced to give up the sport while their American counterparts can receive the necessary care, rehab, and pick up where they left off down the road. I can't comment on the state of scouting, but Latino prospects are often signed young. A standout 16 year old may not be able to develop all the tools required to make it in the MLB. Conversely a weaker player at that age may be passed over in Latino countries while in the United States the college system would provide more opportunities for development.

Perhaps this is all one giant fluke and Latino pitchers are about to become the new market inefficiency. As I said, I don't know nearly enough to create an informed opinion on why this divide exists. What I do know, is that for one night, Felix Hernandez was perfect, and there's no reason to believe it can't happen again.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

August Trades That Won't Happen

By the end of this month this column will either make me look like a seer or a complete moron. I seem to be okay with that.

Yesterday Buster Olney published an article on ESPN on Ten August trade candidates which really caught my attention. I like Buster Olney but after looking at his list of names he's either lost a step or he wrote the article to drive page clicks. The first two names on his list were Jed Lowrie and Cliff Lee, two players who I can't possibly see getting traded this month. Not only does it make no sense for their respective teams to deal them away, but they aren't remotely close to the type of players that are traded after the non-waiver deadline. In order to trade a player in August that player must pass through waivers, a complicated procedure. Waivers give a chance for any team to make a claim on a player to try and get exclusive access. This isn't just reserved for teams that want the player though. Waiver priority is given to teams with worse records so teams will often put a claim in on a player just to prevent the team they're chasing from winning the claim. This makes it extremely difficult to acquire any good assets in August since the team trying to trade away the player has such limited negotiating options if there's a chance the player might get claimed in waivers. This is why August trades usually suck. Players like Jed Lowrie and Cliff Lee can't pass through waivers, and even if their contracts prevented teams from putting a claim in, any players that the Astros or Phillies would want from other teams would also have to pass through waivers.

I looked through the history of August deals from the last three years to see if there is any precedent for such a good or controllable player being traded. The results aren't promising. The following table shows the most notable August trades from the last three seasons. The WAR is the rWAR accumulated before the trade. Stayed indicates if the player remained on the team he was traded to for the next season. Since August trades are notoriously weak, some of the Players To Be Named Later (PTBNL) may have already been worked out, but at this stage I feel comfortable with the fact that none of them will turn into Cliff Lee within the coming season. The second table shows players that were claimed off waivers and allowed to go to the team that claimed them.

There are some ugly names and performances on these tables. When considering the main pieces of the trades (left column plus Kelly Johnson) the player's average WAR up to the point of their trade was 0.1. Fourteen of the thirty-three players had a negative WAR. Only four players had a WAR over 1, the highest being Jim Edmond's 1.9 in his final season before retirement. Only 10 players stayed with their teams for the season following the trade. Of those 10, 5 re-signed as free agents, 3 were already under contract for the next season, and just two were still arbitration eligible. Of the 5 players either under contract or still under team control, 4 of them only had one year left until free agency. Scott Kazmir was the exception with two years remaining and I don't think anyone wants to emulate his post-trade career. The waived players aren't much more impressive. Cody Ross and Alex Rios were the only players to contribute after their waiver claims and both players were let go in a salary dump by their previous owners (or for yelling at fans, although ones who were clearly goading him).

So how does Cliff Lee fit into all this? Well he doesn't. Cliff Lee hasn't been up to his typical standards this year with only a 2.1 WAR so far after posting 4 straight 5+ WAR seasons including a Cy Young award and another top-3 finish. The 2.1 WAR would still make him the best player traded in August in the last four years though. The main issue for the Phillies right now is his contract. Depending on whether the final year option vests, after this season Cliff Lee is either owed $87.5 M over 3 years or $102.5 M over 4 years. It's expensive and a bit overpriced, but not significantly so. Lee has shown himself to be one of the best pitchers over the last few seasons and is posting numbers this season still very much in line with the last few years. There are more than enough teams out there that could do worse than have Lee in their rotation and have the money to overspend on him that they would risk putting in a waiver claim (Dodgers, Red Sox, Nationals). Teams like the Blue Jays could even put in a claim just to prevent the Yankees or Red Sox from getting him. I highly doubt that the Phillies would let Lee go for just a waiver claim and they will have a lot of trouble if forced to negotiate with just one team. Even if he somehow passed through waivers, if the Phillies were unable to swing a trade in July, they won't be able to do it in August given what their demands would be. On top of all this, I don't see why the Phillies would even want to trade Lee. It's been a bad year in Philadelphia, but with a rotation of Lee, Hamels and a healthy Halladay and Worley next season, with recoveries from Utley and Howard, the team could easily compete for a playoff spot next season. They're now under the luxury tax threshold and with their aging core they are limited in the time that they can still compete for a World Series. Dumping Lee just doesn't make sense for them right now, especially after the massive Hamels extension.

As for Jed Lowrie, he's not going anywhere either. His 2.1 WAR to date this season would also make him the best player traded in August in the last few years, and he's done that while only playing 80 games due to injury, an injury that will also keep him out for the next few weeks and might scare off any team still in playoff contention. More importantly for Lowrie though is that he's a young cost-controlled shortstop who can't hit free agency until 2015. Before his injury he looked great in what was an awful Houston lineup. With the lack of quality shortstops for many teams at the bottom of the league (Minnesota, Seattle, Oakland, Milwaukee) there is no way that Lowrie could get through waivers. A team like Houston needs to hold onto players like that. Have the firesale for guys like Wandy Rodriguez or Brett Myers, but if the Astros want to be competitive in the AL West in the coming years having a quality shortstop will go a long way. Lowrie is as good a candidate as anyone for that post.

With all due respect to Buster Olney, Lee and Lowrie are too good with contracts that run for too long to be traded in August. The fourth name on his list, Jason Giambi, is much closer to the type of player we can expect to see dealt. I'm confident this article won't make me look stupid on September 1.