Wednesday, September 30, 2009
Jaws and Sabermetrics
Of course, being an egotistical blogger myself, I decided to throw my hat into the ring. Realizing I couldn't hang with the big boys when it came to hard core stat-crunching, I decided to try a different tack and submit something that was a little different, a little quirky and fun. I decided to combine my two great loves, baseball and the movie Jaws, into a silly article about the stats vs. scouts argument. Why not, I figured. If it was well-written and entertaining enough, maybe I could sneak in to the Top 10.
I didn't win, nor did I really expect to. I actually didn't even get any feedback, even though Will Carroll promised that everybody would get some sort of comment on their work. Jerk.
(At the risk of sounding like an asshole munching on sour grapes, I will say that a couple of the finalists wrote articles that were just flat out not good [one was a bland puff piece about the Rays; another was a rip job on Raul Ibanez that I think anybody could have written], and I can't see how anyone in their right mind would think they qualified as the best in a contest determining who gets to write for one of the most prestigious baseball think tanks around. I'd say it reflects the general deterioration of quality in BP's work over the past year or so, but then again, a few of the finalists submitted solid pieces that could blow my shit out of the water any day, so there you go.)
Anyway, I've been sitting on it for a few months, and I thought some of you readers might enjoy it. It's a little long, but I'd love to hear what you think upon reading it! Enjoy!
Killing the Shark: Jaws and Baseball
It’s a common scenario, played out many times in sports bars near you. Paul and Jimbo sit down to watch their favorite team over a couple of brews and mozzarella sticks. They both have equal passion as baseball fans, they’ve rooted for the hometown boys since childhood, but times are tough. Their team is right in the middle of a down year, the fourth in a row for this franchise, and the two men are losing their patience. Soon an armchair GM debate breaks out between the two of them. They are both certain that they could run this team better than the clueless jokers currently in charge, but how?
Paul says that the team needs a total makeover in front office philosophy, so he’ll hire the best stat gurus in the business world to crunch the numbers and assemble a team of highly efficient hitters and pitchers. Jimbo scoffs, saying that his own two eyes will suffice to put together a first place team, and he’ll hire the greatest collection of scouts ever to grace the high school bleachers.
Jimbo tells Paul that his team of athletic, toolsy players and tall, hard-throwing hurlers will beat the tar out of Paul’s Google-obsessed nerd troupe any day. Paul responds by telling Jimbo that while his scouts are busy fretting over The Good Face, Paul’s statistically advanced squad will be leaving them in the dust. Soon voices are raised, fists start to fly, and the two have to be separated. The pals eventually make up, only to repeat the same charade the next week as the beer flows and their team continues to pile up the losses.
Okay, so this is a bit of an extreme example, an exaggeration of how many fans picture the stats and scouts argument. Though it has been inflated to the point of ideological warfare by the tenets of Moneyball and the extremists who linger on the nutty fringes of fan message boards, the debate over qualitative versus quantitative analysis in baseball still exists, and it is still fiery. The discussion is not limited to your average Joe at the barstool, but one spread throughout actual baseball front offices, to sportswriters and broadcasters who cover the game, and even to rotisserie baseball players who just want to win that office league.
The debate revolves around a simple question: what is the best method to build a winning baseball team? Is it the more statistically-inclined variety, determining a player’s value based largely on his numbers and how they project? Or is it the more qualitative method, judging the likelihood of a player’s major league success based on his raw physical tools and his ability to utilize those gifts as he matures?
If we take a look at which major league franchises utilize which philosophy, we get mixed results. The obvious poster boys for the “stat” crowd are the Oakland A’s, but after a run of success in the early decade, they’ve come upon hard times, with two straight losing seasons based largely on a poor team offense suffering from, ironically, terrible on-base percentages. On the other hand, the Boston Red Sox won two recent championships and the latest trendy statistically-motivated team, the Tampa Rays, came very close last season.
On the other side of the ledger, in 2005, the Chicago White Sox rolled to a title by eschewing statistic-heavy team-building in favor of more old-fashioned small ball baseball ideas, while scout-leaning teams like the Twins and Angels have met with consistent success for the majority of the 2000’s. Then again, similarly inclined franchises like the Astros, Mariners, and Giants seem to be stuck in a perpetual malaise.
So what is the best way to run a team? Well, to answer our query we had best look at an example from a rather unexpected source: Sheriff Martin Brody, the Roy Scheider character from the Steven Spielberg all-time classic Jaws. In order to save the citizens of the sleepy town of Amity from a killer shark, Brody and his cohorts, Quint and Hooper, set out on an expedition to kill the murderous fish. The clever way in which Brody finally dispatches the shark can serve as a valuable lesson to baseball fans and analysts everywhere.
Wait, you say. What does a popcorn movie about a man-eating Great White have to do with the inner workings of a multi-billion dollar industry? Simple. When Brody, Quint, and Hooper set off on their mission to kill the giant shark at the end of Jaws, their internal battle to find a suitable method of defeating the beast, with their strikingly different viewpoints, is a microcosm of the entire stats-versus-scouts debate.
On one side, there is Quint, the old salty fisherman who believes that the men can sail out in his dinky old schooner and kill the shark with harpoons, shotguns, and weighted barrels that will keep it from submerging. Hooper, on the other side, is the fresh-faced, yuppie ichthyologist who insists that his collection of fancier, newfangled anti-shark equipment is the way to go.
Naturally, both men eye each other skeptically, and are at odds virtually the entire time they are out at sea. Hooper dismisses Quint’s old fishing methods as outdated, primitive, and wholly incapable of handling a 25-foot killer shark. Quint views Hooper as a rich, naïve city kid and openly questions the effectiveness of all the equipment he is bringing on board. When Hooper brings aboard his anti-shark cage, Quint derisively asks, “What do you have there? A portable shower or a monkey cage?” Then, with one doubtful eyebrow raised, he says to Hooper: “Cage goes in the water. You go in the water. Shark’s in the water. Our shark.”
So which method finally wins out? Well, neither, frankly. The shark is much too big for Quint’s barrels and easily dives underwater time and again, evading the hunters. Harpoons and the shotgun are equally ineffective, and the shark eventually eats Quint before proceeding to completely destroy his boat. Farewell and adieu, indeed! Likewise, Hooper’s modern methods also fail to impress. When he goes underwater in his anti-shark cage, intent on killing the shark with a poison-tipped spear, the shark completely rips the cage apart and sends Hooper scurrying to hide behind a rock.
Just when it looks like the heroes are doomed, Brody figures out a way to kill the shark by combining the two methods. He throws one of Hooper’s scuba tanks into the shark’s mouth, then takes Quint’s shotgun, shoots the tank as it rests between the big fish’s teeth, and blows it to hell. Using a careful balance of both the old school fishing technique and the new, Brody, as unskilled a seaman as you could imagine, does what the two other experienced men could not.
Baseball aficionados and ideologists on both sides should take heed of Brody’s lesson. Statistics can tell us many things over the course of a year or many years that we simply cannot see with our two eyes or pick up with our instinct, while good scouting can give us insight into certain features or skills of a player that sheer numbers can’t. Good team building is about accumulating and utilizing the best information available, and you simply can’t get the best information by adhering strictly to one methodology. You have to have it all.
Take the example of Milwaukee starting pitcher Dave Bush. In 2006, Bush put up amazing peripheral numbers, including the best K:BB ratio in the majors, but his ERA was a mediocre 4.41. Going by the numbers, it stood to reason that his strong peripherals would catch up and he’d have a breakout 2007, right? Wrong. Instead, Bush regressed in almost every category and his ERA jumped nearly a full run.
With good scouts on hand, we could have determined that there must have been something with Bush that made his lofty strikeout numbers in 2006 a fluke, namely the fact that he relied a lot on a tricky delivery that wouldn’t fool hitters quite so much the second time around. Conversely, if a there is a player who is beloved by scouts (like Jeff Francouer, per se) but who has poor underlying numbers, such as poor plate discipline and terrible OBPs, we can make an educated guess that he isn’t going to live up to the potential that his physical skills might imply.
In the end, an intelligent melding of both the numbers- and scouting-based methodology, with cooperation between the scouting department and the statistical advisors, is the best way to project which players will succeed, which ones won’t, and what is the best path to take the franchise. It works in the front office, in your fantasy league, and at the bar. As Rob Neyer noted, “It's all pieces in the same big puzzle. The trick is figuring out where all of them fit.” Just as in trying to kill that damn shark, the solution is to combine the best of both worlds to field the best team.
Tuesday, September 29, 2009
Hangin' In Limbo
Luckily, the Giants were able to break through and string enough hits together tonight to get Davis the hell out of there and come away with a victory, but not before Davis had succeeded in slowing the game down to a snail's pace. At around 9:30, I was ready to switch off the cable and hit up my latest Netflix arrival (Barry Levinson's Diner...nope, I've never seen it), when I realized it was only the fifth inning. Come on, Doug, I only have so many hours to squeeze in my nerdy, extra-cirricular crap before I have to hit the hay! Commendations around to all the brave souls at the ballpark tonight who stuck through the entire game.
With their playoff chances ready for a good eulogy, the Giants are in sort of a weird limbo state right now. Tonight they looked like they were playing loose, not wound up and rearin' to choke like those awful games against the Cubs on Friday and Saturday. As a fan, I'm torn. Obviously, the only thing to really root for at this point is for the Giants to try to run up their win total, to make it look as pretty as possible so we can look back in 20 years and fawn over this magical, bounceback 87-win season or whatever. That, and root for the Panda to do some serious stat-padding.
However, I long for the drama. With the Giants good again this year, it almost seems like we're being cheated without a playoff race that would go right down to the wire. Yes, the last time the Giants had a winning season, that season died with Wayne Franklin's career, but at least there was excitement. There was the thrill of going into the final weekend knowing one team makes the playoffs and one team goes to sit at home and pout, even if the pouting bastards were your team. Now, there's just something unwholesome and empty about your good team playing near-pointless games as the season closes.
My question: If you know your team isn't going to make the playoffs (but had a good season, like 88-90 wins), would you rather they just get eliminated a week early, like this year, and play out the string? Or would you rather they go into an elimination scenario in the last day and lose in horrible, heartbreaking fashion, like the Giants in 1998 or 2004?
Maybe I'm a raging masochist, but I'd almost rather take the heartbreak. Baseball is about suspense, and there's something whimsical about being able to look back years later and say, "Oh my God! Do you remember when J.T. Snow came barreling into Ivan Rodriguez and he knocked I-Rod into next Friday and oh my God it was a vicious hit and holy shit one of the most exciting plays ever but I-Rod held on to the ball and the Giants lost and I went and cried into my pillow for a week straight oh why oh why must I suffer being a Giants fan?!?!"
Even the tragic losses have that hint of nostalgic wonder, the idea that even though your team narrowly missed, and probably because of some awful, Neifi-induced fiasco, at least they were thisclose, and it was damned memorable.
Unless, of course, it's Game 6 of the World Series and you have a five-run lead in the 7th inning. Then it just fucking sucks.
--Bengie Molina hit two home runs tonight, setting a new career high. Long after Bengie is gone from baseball and we recall with misty eyes his deathly slow gait that couldn't outrun Bill Conrad with with a boulder strapped to his waist, we'll remember him as a Good Giant, and with good reason.
That said- and I know I may be beaten savagely by many Giants fans by saying this- I really have a hard time watching the guy hit. He just has no clue up at the plate. He swings at everything, hits more weak ground balls on bad first pitch breaking balls than anybody in the league, but he runs into just enough fastballs to make him look kinda okay. Yes, I realize this isn't anything new, and since he's a catcher, his bad hitting "philosophy" is seen in many circles as a little easier to take, since anything you can get from your catcher is essentially seen as gravy. But gawd almighty, it's been wearing on me lately. It's just brutal to watch.
When Bengie is making enough contact that his bloopers are falling in and his OBP isn't a disaster, like last season, then no problem. When the evil god of BABIP comes back to open up a can of karmic whoop-ass, though, he's a brutal, outmaking machine. The problem with those 20 home runs lies in what they may mean for the future. Let's see...career high in home runs, he's a free agent at season's end, and the Giants are stubbornly loyal to their veteran players? Uh oh.
If I had to make three quick and silly predictions for moves the Giants make to improve their offense this winter, here is what they would be (Note: "improve" meaning in the minds of the Giants' brain trust):
1) They'll overpay Chone Figgins and stick him at second base or left field or something and it'll be a huge disaster. Figgins is a good player and he'd add some much-needed patience to this lineup, but he's exactly the kind of guy the Giants would seem likely to hand a five-year deal to and not bat an eyelash. He's 31 and "proven", which makes him a valuable commodity to the Giants but really means he's going to hit his decline phase sooner rather than later. Not that they learned their lesson from Aaron Rowand or Edgar Renteria or anything.
2) They'll be seduced by Juan Uribe's career year, give him a 3-year deal, and it'll be a huge disaster. I love what Uribe's done this year. I'd be an idiot otherwise. I take back all the horrible things I've said about him, because his bat has been a godsend to a lineup in need of any kind of competence. Still, he's not this good. He's a had a monster second half that's really out of line with anything he's ever done, and I can't believe- not for a second -that he has this in him for a full season.
I'd love him back on a one-year deal, but the Giants, again, are the kind of franchise that has proven in the past to overreact to one hot stretch and overpay a guy based on that stretch. See: Winn, Randy.
3) They'll give Bengie Molina another couple of years, thinking Buster Posey isn't ready, and it'll be a huge disaster. Okay, maybe they aren't crazy enough to do this, but you just never know. The Bengie love is really out of control in Giants-land, and a franchise that ignores OBP and focuses on grittiness and magic catching juju like this one seems bound to make irrational decisions that defy explanation. See: Matheny, Mike.
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
Four, Five...Still Alive
Yep, the Giants have scored 26 runs in the past three games, an unheard of amount for this bunch. The team showed a noticeable change in approach tonight, actually taking pitches (what a concept!) and lighting up a wild Ubaldo Jimenez. Is this new willingness to draw walks here to stay? Pshaw! Surely you jest. It's the same bunch of hackers, only tonight Jimenez was throwing pitches out of the strike zone that nobody in their right mind would swing at. Tomorrow the Giants get another guy, Jorge de la Rosa, who is prone to wildness so hopefully they can keep the bats on their shoulders when the balls fly out of the strike zone for one more game.
Give it up for Barry Zito, as he continues a year we should just call Zito III: The Redemption. You have to love the Zito chants he was getting from a suddenly adoring crowd tonight, a crowd that hated him so last season. In his first playoff push in a Giants uniform, he's pitching some of his best ball. After all the particularly heinous flak he's taken from the online community (and especially from this blog), he's suddenly very easy to root for. It's not like he was out there trying to stink it up last season.
--It's funny the kind of Jekyll and Hyde dynamic that goes on during these Giants/Rockies games every season. The troubles in Coors Field have been well-documented. In Colorado, the Rockies are like the toughest team in the world to beat. Screw the 1927 Yankees. Ask me what team I'd never want to face with something on the line and I'd say the Rockies in Coors Field in any year. Then they come to San Francisco and turn into the Bad News Bears. They stop hitting, their pitching sucks (bring on Tatum O'Neal!), and they fall down a lot. Take today's game, where their best pitcher got shellacked by the NL's worst offense and Garrett Atkins played third base like he had ping pong paddles glued to his hands.
No matter what shape either team is in during the course of a given season, it doesn't change. It's the same if the Giants are good and the Rockies stink, and the same if the Giants are bad and the Rockies good. The home/road schizophrenia has been going on for as long as I can recall. In Coors, Larry Walker used to be Babe Ruth; at Mays Field he was Ross Gload. In Coors, Vinny Castilla was Mike Schmidt; in SF, he was, well...Vinny Castilla. Needless to say, if this series right now were being played in Colorado, I'd be busy writing up a 2010 season preview right about now.
Just two-and-a-half back, baby! Gotta have tomorrow's game, but if the Giants win, they've definitely got a fighting chance.
Sunday, September 13, 2009
We're (Still) In This Thing!
This is such a bloody infuriating team. They spend an entire week swinging the bat like the second coming of the 1992 Angels, seemingly primed to rip the orange and black hearts from our chests as a near-miracle season winds down. Then...hope. A glimmer, yes, but hope. The Giants are four-and-a-half back of Colorado. If they sweep them in the next three games, they're right back in the thick of things with 16 games left to play. If they lose just one game, they're probably done. Being a long time Giants fan, I probably should have learned some time ago that I'm just bound to be disappointed (well, more likely devastated), but what the hell? Masochism and Giants fanaticism go hand-in-hand apparently.
I went to Friday night's game, stewed through nine innings of a brutal 10-3 loss, and left with a strong urge to drive right off the Bay Bridge. It had to be the worst Giants game I've ever attended, and I've been to some stinkers. After every hard hit ball into the gap, drunken Dodger fans laughed and danced a jig around me. Two little kids dressed in LA peraphernalia in front of me got in on the act, yelling "Giants suck!" at all within earshot, as for the first time in my life I felt the distinct desire to cold-cock an eight-year-old. When the game ended, Giants fans death-marched out of the stadium and into the cold night wondering what in (Dodger) blue hell they had done to deserve this treatment.
From my seat down the third base line, I got a great view of Giants hitters being completely outclassed by the Dodgers. With Hiroki Kuroda on the mound, the Giants made him look like Greg Maddux, swinging at bad first pitches and hitting weak ground balls all night. Meanwhile, the Dodgers were bleeding Matt Cain dry, working deep counts and running up his pitch total so that he was gone after six. Through six innings I think Kuroda had only thrown like 59 pitches. Yes, this inept Giant offense really has to be seen up close to truly be appreciated. The next night was virtually a carbon copy of Friday night's debacle, and I tuned out early and leapt into the warm embrace of my Netflix pile.
The Giants aren't going to score much in the next couple of weeks, as our good friend Captain Obvious can tell you. That means if the Giants are going to sneak into the playoffs it'll be via pitching and some of the ugliest winning you'll ever see. Hell, we've been watching it all year. Never has a team turned scoring on wild pitches and slow-hit infield choppers into such an art form.
Luckily the Giants have the arms to pull out the miraculous, and nine games left with the awful DBacks and Padres help. The addition of Brad Penny has been brilliant, and the Giants go into this stretch with five pitchers starting who can completely shut you down on any given day. That's a wonderful thing to have in a gritty fight for a playoff berth, moreso since the Giants are probably going to average like .5 runs scored in that span.
I will say one thing: If the Giants continue to play Eli Whiteside over Buster Posey when Bengie Molina gets a day off, they just aren't serious about winning. Whiteside has been a decent backup and all, but let's face it. If Posey were installed in the lineup right now he'd be the Giants' second-best player. He should be starting instead of Molina but that'll never happen. When he's losing time to Whiteside, though, that's just brain damage.
Wednesday, September 09, 2009
The Mad Bum, A Phantom Injury, and a Bad Loss
Why start Madison Bumgarner in his place, then, opening the team up to all kinds of criticism about service time and whatnot? Probably because the Giants felt that Joe Martinez or any other AAA filler-type wouldn't be able to stop even the Padres' meager attack, and Bumgarner was ready after tearing through the minor leagues. He ended up pitching well enough, before the bullpen had an uncharacteristic blowup to send the Giants to a rough loss that put them three games back of the Wild Card.
Bumgarner pitched pretty well and even got one good swing off, taking a Kevin Correia fastball to the warning track, but all the attention seemed to be on his lowered velocity. The scouting reports had Bumgarner throwing in the range of 93-95, but last night he showed up throwing 88-90, as ghosts of Jesse Fopperts past began swirling around. Worrisome? Well, yes. Bumgarner's strikeout rate in the minors also was less than inspiring. Maybe he was pacing himself, but Giants fans don't really want to stomach another pitching prospect with overhyped velocity. That was almost certainly his only start of the season, so we'll have to wait a while to see if the decreased velocity was the real deal or just a nerve-induced fluke.
Wednesday, September 02, 2009
Penny From Heaven
Penny's numbers with the Red Sox this year were fugly. His numbers with the Dodgers last year were fuglier. He was criticized for being out of shape and having a poor attitude in both of those stops. Mitch Williams ripped him a new one on MLB Network for not wanting to pitch for the Sox out of their bullpen (not that this is particularly noteworthy; I just find the idea of Mitch Williams being an authority on anything to be absolutely fucking hilarious). So, no, Penny was not the most beloved individual in the world as Monday morning dawned.
However, Penny cleared waivers, so the Giants not only did not have to trade anything to get him, they only have to pay him $100,000. He also still throws in the mid-90's, and he's got a chip on his shoulder (though, to be fair, so does Willie Bloomquist.../stifles laughter). There was just no reason not to make this move. Finding out whether or not Penny can throw a breaking ball once in a while and start pitching like 'twas 2006 is well worth the pocket change the Giants have to give him. Plus, some of his bad pitching in Boston was attributable to some bad luck (Fielding Independent ERA of 4.48, for you DiPs nerds out there).
So I liked the move (seriously, why wouldn't you, if you're a Giants fan?), and wouldn't you know it? In his first start with the team, Penny shut down the Phillies to lead the team to a huge 4-0 win. Awesome performance, and it's not like he was out there overpowering some crappy NL team like the Padres. This was the Phillies, a team that can swing with basically any AL team, and he was facing them in their home ballpark. He didn't strike out many, but he was painting the corners all night and had hitters off balance.
Juan Uribe hit another big home run, cementing his amazing transformation from free-swinging bane-of-Paulie's-existence to tolerable utility infielder who seems destined to knock at least one or two more big hits down the stretch. I told myself before the Phillie series that, hell, I'd be thrilled if the Giants were able to just take one game. Now, with Tim Lincecum squaring off against the corpse of Pedro Martinez, they're in good position to win the series and continue to hang around with the Rockies until they can get back home.