Thursday, January 31, 2013

One Pill Makes You Larger...

I haven't talked to anyone in the industry about the recent Miami New Times article on Biogenesis and Tony Bosch's records, which apparently gives me the equivalent qualifications to write about this news as anyone else.

There is one important fact to keep straight now: this story is still very much in its infancy. The coming months will assuredly reveal more details from the investigation along with teams' and players' reactions. Any judgement we make now will likely be premature and any assertion as to how the consequences will unfold is almost entirely speculative.

I do have some preliminary reactions though. This is based purely on the information that is currently publicly available, but I'm going to play devil's advocate here and suggest that this newest PED break actually shows significant progress for baseball and that the MLB is doing a much better job in keeping drugs out of the league.

This is the first significant bust on the drug provider side since BALCO and it revealed only six names (ignoring athletes in other sports). This isn't to say that more names may not be revealed later, but only six players being implicated in a major drug bust is hardly indicative of an omnipresent drug culture.

To make an even greater case that baseball is being cleaned up, three of the six (Melky Cabrera, Yasmani Grandal, and Bartolo Colon) actually failed drug tests last season and were suspended. As to the case of Gio Gonzalez, none of the found records indicated that the substances that were provided to him were banned from baseball. So even though the players decided to step outside the lines, in four of the six cases MLB appears to have handled everything perfectly.

Alex Rodriguez and Nelson Cruz will surely have some questions to answer in the coming months. It's possible they were taking masking agents, that their tests happened to coincide with times they weren't using, or possibly that they never even took the drugs in the first place. Either way, in a society where we base our justice system around the fact that it's better to let a guilty man walk free than to lock up someone innocent, with the current information I think MLB should be pleased with the testing results of last season. This coupled with the implementation of HGH testing for this season should definitely give those who consider cheating second thought (about getting caught, not the consequences, although that's an entirely different discussion). Also, since the testing procedure and results are supposed to be private until a verdict is announced (cough... Ryan Braun... cough) it is possible that Rodriguez or Cruz may currently be dealing with a failed test unbeknownst to the general public.

None of this is to suggest that there aren't more providers or users out there, but if this is the result of a major investigation, I think the current state of drugs in the game is looking good.

I also think it's far too early to speculate on the future of these players. Alex Rodriguez will never play again? I think far too many steps are going to have to fall into sequence for that to come true. It's best to let this story play itself out and wait for the investigation to reveal more detailed information before rushing to judgement. Although if I'm Scott Boras I might be in Jon Daniels' ear right now letting him know how great a replacement Michael Bourn would be for a suspended Nelson Cruz.

On only a semi-related note, at some point we're going to have to have a serious discussion on why some of these drugs are illegal. Many such as anabolic steroids can have devastating effects if abused, however under the care of doctors have shown to have clear medical benefits such as helping AIDS and cancer patients maintain muscle mass. If HGH can be shown to safely help players heal faster from injuries, shouldn't we be encouraging its use? Anything can be dangerous if not administered properly by professionals. Performing Tommy John surgery on yourself with a kitchen knife in your basement would be a disaster, but no one is advocating preventing Dr. James Andrews from performing it.

It's time to seriously look at these drugs and determine their potential benefits and how they can help the athletes and improve today's game. It's possible that many of the stories we've heard from athletes, such as Andy Pettitte claiming he only used HGH to help recover, will become standard practices in the future. I'm not trying to imply that what Pettitte did was right, but I think we need to take a more critical look at "PEDs" instead of just labeling everyone under the blanket of "cheater." These drugs were found or created for medical purposes, and just because they can enhance performance, does not mean they should be banned.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Opening Day Starters

AP Photo/Al Behrman
Given a healthy rotation, every starter on a team will pitch about once every five games and all the starters will make approximately the same amount of starts. We tend to put a lot of thought into who a team's opening day starter is, often denoting them as the "Ace" of the staff, but from a statistical perspective, it doesn't really matter who starts the first game. If a team follows the rotation order perfectly it could make a difference of a an extra game around the all-star break or the end of the season, but there are likely to be more external factors which affect how often each starter takes the mound.

Nevertheless there is a certain amount of prestige in being named the opening day starter. It's the first big draw of the season and teams want to put out the best possible team out on the field. There are many reasons which one could be named the opening day starter, not all of them having to do with performance. Often the longest tenured member of the staff will get the opening day start as a token thank you, and to be the face of the franchise for the public.

If you were to ask me a year ago who the Jays opening day starter would be in 2013 I would have said Romero. He was one of the best pitchers on the team and had the best history with the franchise. Things can change quickly in a year though. Romero had a terrible season, ending in off-season shoulder injury, and the Jays pulled off a couple massive trades with the Mets and the Marlins to restock the rotation.

I don't think there's a default opening day starter on the Jays team, and really any member would be a reasonable choice. Romero has tenure, Morrow was the best Jays pitcher last year, Johnson and Buehrle have both piled up opening day starts as staff aces, and Dickey is coming off a Cy Young season. So it occurred to me that if Morrow or Dickey were to get the start, four out of the five members of the Jays rotation would be opening day starters at some point in their careers. This seemed like a lot and off the top of my head only the 2011 Phillies in recent memory would be able to match that feat. The Phillies actually topped it with five: Halladay, Lee, Oswalt, Blanton, and Contreras out of the pen. Hamels has yet to start an opening game.

With five previous opening day starters on the team I thought about what the most a team has ever had. To beat five, you probably need to have at least one starter coming out of the bullpen. 

This is a little more likely than you might think. For every Halladay and Verlander being put out by a team, there is a team just rolling the dice and hoping that at least one of their pitchers will still be in the majors by the end of the season. The last two seasons alone have seen the likes of Bruce Chen, Jeremy Guthrie, Kevin Correia, Luke Hochevar, Mike Pelfrey, and Tim Stauffer start opening day. It isn't just bad pitchers either but also players who have aged beyond their usefulness as starters. Carl Pavano, Ryan Dempster, Brett Myers, Fausto Carmona, and Livan Hernandez have all started opening day in the last two years and many of those have either already ended up in the bullpen or are clearly destined to show up there soon.

If we go back a decade to 2002 we see opening day starters, Chan Ho Park, Jeff Weaver, Jon Liever, Kevin Jarvis, Livan Hernandez, Ron Villone, and Tanyon Sturtze, who all ended up serving bullpen time later in their careers. So to make it simple, how does a team get more than 5 opening day starters on their roster? By filling their bullpen with ex-starters who either got too old, too injured, or were really never good enough to be starters in the first place.

What kind of a team loads up with players like this though? The obvious answer is great teams. They load up their rotation with at least four of these guys, and fill in their bullpen with a few more. But does this entirely make sense? If a team has a real ace they end up starting opening day for a long time. Half of Jack Morris' Hall of Fame case is his 14 opening day starts. So how do these guys all end up on one team. One possibility is that they aren't top quality starters any more and their original team has let them go. Players like that can be collected by anyone, particularly poor teams that could overpay slightly and offer the pitcher one last chance at glory. Let's see how well reality matches up.

Before we look into generalities let's take the teams with the most opening day starters as case studies. The most opening day starters on a team is eight, and the record is held by three teams.
  • The 1998 Red Sox are the most recent example. That team had Pedro Martinez, Tim Wakefield, and Bret Saberhagen as starters all season, Pete Schourek as a spot starter, and Dennis Eckersley, Greg Swindell, Carlos Reyes in a bullpen anchored by closer Tom Gordon. So how did this collection come together? Pedro was making his first of eight straight opening day starts while rotation mates Wakefield and Saberhagen had come to Boston a few years earlier to revive their careers. Tom Gordon started the season before, but after splitting duties in 1997, this was to be his first full year as closer. Eckersley was in the final year of his career and Swindell had moved to the bullpen in 1996. Schourek and Reyes were both midseason acquisitions to help the Red Sox pennant push. It didn't help as the Red Sox finished 92-70 and lost to the Indians in the ALDS.
  • The 1963 Cleveland Indians had Mudcat Grant, Dick Donovan, Jack Kralick, and Pedro Ramos in their rotation with former Opening Day starters Early Wynn, Jerry Walker, Jim Perry, and Gary Bell in the bullpen. Unlike the '98 Red Sox, this Indians team wasn't very good and were in the middle of a stretch of average finishes, including 79 wins this season. They were looking for any starter who could stick, which explains how five of their eight opening day starters had made their starts for the Indians. Grant made the 1963 start, Donovan made the 1962 start, Perry made the 1961 start, and Gary Bell made the 1959 and 1960 starts before being moved to the bullpen. Perry was also traded for 1962 Twins starter Jack Kralick in May. The Twins also provided Ramos who was traded to the Indians before the season. Early Wynn was 43 and the previous 6-time opening day starter moved to the bullpen for this, his final season. Jerry Walker previously started with the Orioles but was traded to the Indians and ended up in the bullpen after his 1962 season ended with a 5.90 ERA.
  • The 1947 Pittsburgh Pirates are the final team with eight opening day starters on their roster. Their rotation had Kirby Higbe, Fritz Ostermueller, Tiny Bonham, and Preacher Roe. Roger Wolff and Rip Sewell made spot starts while Jim Bagby and Hugh Mulcahy came out of the bullpen. The Pirates were not a good team (62-92) and looking for pitchers, which explains why the four guys I mentioned in their rotation were all 31 or older. In fact their opening day starter in 1947 (and 1943) was the 40 year old Sewell who spent half the season in the bullpen. Higbe and Mulcahy were both prior starters with the Phillies, although in '47 Higbe started 30 games while Mulcahy played in only 2 and was released in May. Fritz Ostermueller started opening day for the Pirates the previous two seasons, while Preacher Roe started in '44 but after a season with a 5.14 ERA in '46 didn't deserve the opening day start, which he continued to justify with a 5.52 ERA in '47. Tiny Bonham was the opening day starter for the 1943 Yankees and joined the Pirates in a trade in the offseason. Roger Wolff and Jim Bagby were purchased during and before the season respectively and both put up ERAs above 4.70. For both, 1947 would be their final season in the majors. Most of these players were washed up by this season which helps to explain the Pirates last place finish in the National League.
It's clear that opening day starters can come together in many ways. The three examples with the most feature three wildly different teams all with very different reasons for gathering the starters, and all having the starters at very different points in their careers. We can look to see if there is a relationship between the amount of opening day starters a team has and their success. The following graph shows the amount of wins teams have (scaled to a 162 game season) compared to the number of opening day starters they have.

Wins given the number of Opening Day starters on teams' rosters
There is a definite upwards trend in terms of number of wins. A team with only one opening day starter wins on average only 74.6 wins while a team with five opening day starters wins on average 87.4 games. Above five starters the trend is less obvious, for one for the various reasons that a team may acquire so many starters as illustrated by the example above, but also due to the small sample size. The following table shows how many teams fit into each bin for the number of opening day starters. The amount of data available clearly becomes more limited with six or more starters.

Number of Opening Day StartersNumber of Teams

It's definitely important not to mix up correlation with causation. Although having more Opening Day starters may make a team better, especially if they are acquired in their prime, a team often has more Opening Day starters because they are already a good team and looking for an extra player or two to push them over. I think this is more of an interest piece than looking for any real cause-and-effect algorithm for wins. The way teams are constructed and the changing roles of players as they age and change teams provides some insight into the history of baseball. The amount of data for the higher number starter sets should also increase now given the greater number of teams and more liberal use of relievers. In studying all the teams since 1901, 22.4% of the teams with 6 or more opening day starters on their roster occurred in 2000 or later.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Hall of Fame Ballot Oddities

I think every BBWAA member who didn't vote for the PED era players should have to go back and re-read what they were writing in the 90's (if they were even writing about baseball then) to see how well their current version of history matches up with what was really going on in the baseball world at the time.

Today 569 10-year members of the BBWAA put their collective brainpower together and came up with absolutely nothing. This wouldn't be so bad if you're a fan of a small Hall or if there were no good candidates. Unfortunately the greatest power hitter in the history of baseball an the all-time leader in Cy Young awards were making their first appearance on the ballot.

It's a shame really. It's a shame that traffic to the induction ceremony at Cooperstown this year will be slim. It's a shame that we're going to have to continue the PED era debate for at least another season. It's a shame that with players like Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, Mike Mussina, Jeff Kent, and Frank Thomas being added next year that the ballot will become even more crowded and vote-splitting may cause some deserving members to fall below the 5% threshold.

It's a shame that some voters choose to make the ballot more about themselves than about the Hall of Fame. Five members submitted blank ballots which to me seems thoughtless and selfish. Was there really not one deserving member on the ballot, or was the vote returned blank as a form of protest?

I can complain forever about the results though, instead I thought I'd point out some things that jumped out at me as really not making any sense. This year the BBWAA has published  the ballots of 108 (at the time of writing) of their voting members, some with links to the justifications for their ballots. Although I don't agree with the mental gymnastics some members of the morality police are doing to keep the likes of Bonds, Clemens, McGwire, and Sosa off their ballots, I at least understand the position that they're coming from. On the other hand, some ballots just made absolutely no sense at all to me.

Barry Bonds won 7 MVP awards. Roger Clemens won 7 Cy Youngs. Both of these totals are completely unprecedented. If it wasn't for the PED issue I don't see how either of these players wouldn't be unanimous selections. It shocks me then that Clemens got 8 more votes than Bonds did. None of the 108 published voters contained a ballot with only one of these names so I can't read any justification, but I fail to understand how someone could vote for Clemens but not Bonds. Is it because Bonds was convicted on one count of obstruction of justice while Clemens was not? I'm really grasping at straws here.

Let's make a quick comparison:

Jeff Bagwell2150231444915171529202.297.408.540.40576.7
Edgar Martinez205522473091219126149.312.418.515.40564.4

In addition to both spending their entire careers with the same team their stat lines are pretty similar. One big difference is that Bagwell spent 2112 of his 2150 games in the field while Martinez spent 1463 games at DH. Throw in an MVP award for Bagwell with three top-three finishes, compared to only one for Martinez, and Bagwell definitely has the better Hall of Fame case. Given that the only connection either of the have to PEDs is the era in which they played, I don't understand how a voter could put Martinez on his ballot without putting Bagwell on as well. However there are five incidents just on the published ballots (three of which come from Honorary voters). I'll defer to Paul Gutierrez to explain the rationale:
Jeff Bagwell, he's the wild card. His stats jump out at you now, but he never really jumped out at me as a player. The steroid suspicions on him are strong, but that's not what's keeping him off my ballot.
I don't know what that means. Maybe try some research, figure out why that discrepancy exists between your recollection of him and the stat sheet.

Jack Morris. Ace. Stud. Work Horse. A man so great, that three voters felt it would be an insult to crowd a ballot with any other names. Of the three men, two are now Honorary voters, and two actually work for Ken Gurnick makes it simple, "As for players from the steroid era, I won't vote for any of them." Glad he put so much thought into that one, pretending a couple decades of baseball never happened. Marty Noble is "not comfortable with the suspicions" he has so he's not voting for the PED era players either. Instead, he's voting for Morris for the first time because he's "been swayed by evidence presented this year about his complete games and innings." It's shocking that it took until Morris' 14th year on the ballot for that evidence to become available. Whether I agree with Noble's vote for Morris or not, it shouldn't take 14 years to look up some of the most basic stats. Murray Chass was the third voter to only vote for Morris, but he's basically a professional troll.

I'm reminded of a story from Barry Stanton from 2011 when he was explaining his vote for BJ Surhoff (I don't have the link to the original):
In 1976, I was just out of college and working my first job at the Port Chester (NY) Daily Item, covering a Babe Ruth 13-year-old tournament. The starting pitcher for the team from Rye was supposed to be their star, a big kid named Rich Surhoff, whose father Dick had played for the NY Knicks in the 1950s. Surhoff did, in fact, make it t the major leagues, spending nine games with the Philadelphia Phillies. But that day, the pitcher's younger brother was the one who caught my attention. He was only 12 years old and playing with the older kids, playing shortstop. On consecutive plays, I saw him range behind third base to the left field line and throw out a runner, then range the other way all the way behind first to catch a tricky pop that eluded a teammate. 
After that game, I told BJ I thought that someday, I'd be watching him in the major leagues. For the next few years, I watched BJ become a local star at Rye HS, covering his games occasionally. And I remember telling him then that someday, I'd be voting for him for the Hall of Fame. Surhoff, went on to a career at UNC, became the No. 1 pick of the draft, played on our first Olympic baseball team. He had a very good (though not great) career for 18 years in MLB. And then there he was on my ballot (I've been a BBWAA member since 1985 and have had a Hall of Fame vote since '95). So I remembered that promise (though I honestly can't say if BJ does) and checked the box.
I'm reminded of this whenever I see that a couple people ended up voting for someone who has absolutely no place in the Hall of Fame. Sometimes there's a nice personal story, so if the voter took the rest of their ballot seriously and had room beneath the 10-player maximum for the token vote, I don't really have a problem with it. Unfortunately sometimes you start seeing ballots with a few too many of these guys and it starts to raise some flags.

Yasushi Kikuchi voted for Biggio, Schilling, Julio Franco, and Bernie Williams. I can't find an explanation from Kikuchi to justify this.

In her first HoF vote, Jill Painter voted for Craig Biggio, Shawn Green, Kenny Lofton, Edgar Martinez, Don Mattingly, and Bernie Williams in one of the more confusing ballots I've seen. The only information I've really been able to get from her is off her tweets in which she isn't a fan of PED users and that Bagwell and Raines may have been using. This is a mess.

I wouldn't have voted for Lee Smith. He was a very good reliever early in his career, then rode his closer reputation to rack up saves for many more years when his numbers just weren't the same. I don't view his save total too impressively but I do understand how some voters do. What I can't understand is how on a ballot with Clemens, Morris, and Schilling, that Smith would be the only pitcher that a person would vote for. The starters on the ballot were far superior players that are much more deserving of a vote. I can't access any good explanations from Michael Knisley, Paul Sullivan, or Ann Killion though.

The entire voting process is a mess and it's only going to get worse and more cluttered in the coming years. A major cause of the problem is on the voters. Whether I agree with them or not, many put a lot of work into their ballots, which to be fair is often the most we can ask from the writers. However many are careless, or use the opportunity to get up on their soapboxes and deliver the message on steroids that they forgot to give 15 years ago. Worse still are those voters that clearly don't follow or care about baseball anymore. I don't think it's a coincidence that many of the strangest ballots I saw belonged to Honorary members. The process needs to be cleaned up.

We should also stop pretending that the last couple decades never happened. Steroids were institutionalized by baseball just like amphetamines were in the decades before, or racism and blacklists in the decades before that. It's not a good thing, but neither is a vote for the PED players an endorsement of the use of steroids. We have to acknowledge what the era was and that everyone was a part of it, not just the players who were juicing. Players have to be evaluated in the proper context. It's the same reason magic numbers like 500 home runs aren't as magical anymore. Numbers were inflated in the 90's which resulted in players like McGriff or Palmeiro putting up outstanding numbers while never being close to the best first basemen in the league. Context is everything.