Sunday, October 30, 2005

Champions: Sympathy for the Beancounters

Why the statheads (and I) got it wrong comes down to two mistakes:

1) I misread the Go-Go PR as grand strategy, and missed the real point, like almost everybody else;

2) There is a difference between players like (say) AJ Pierzynski and players like Ben Davis, not just in their own performances, but in what they expect from and coax out of others

The Strategy

Conventional stathead analyses of baseball start with the assumption that wins and losses are directly a result of runs scored and allowed, following several formulas, the best known of which is Bill James’ Pythagorean formula.

My pet theory is that the obsession with grand totals and consequent averages (whether they be Equivalent or On Base) loses the key concept of standard deviation.

I believe the White Sox quite intentionally built a team with a relatively lower game-to-game deviation of runs scored and an intentionally wider deviation of runs allowed. Kenny was very public about this. I don't know that anybody ever really set out to do this (although the Twins stumbled into it for a couple of years), but I am pretty sure Kenny Williams is very aware of what he did, and I think it may be a surefire way to beat “Pythagoreas” because it invalidates the precept that runs are randomly distributed along the normal curve. The risk is you won’t score enough runs to win any games, a risk the White Sox flirted with in September but only then.

To understand my hypothesis, you have to realize that most pitchers with a 4.50 ERA don't allow 3 runs every 6 innings. They usually allow 1 or 2, punctuated by a 4 here and a 7 there, but not nearly as often. We see this happen all the time with rookie soft tossers for the other team and wonder why Joe Blow from Cuba Mo can shut the White Sox down. It's because that is in fact a pretty normal pattern. My hypothesis is you actually WANT pitchers who blow up once a month (we’ll call him Freddy Mercury) but otherwise dominate instead of one who is consistent (we’ll call him Steady Eddie Average), because the first class of pitcher will actually win more often despite having identical total and average statistics. Guys who blow up once a month are easier to find than guys who consistently put up mediocre numbers because most baseball teams are actually LOOKING for the pitcher who is consistently average and get frustrated with the Mercury types.

This grand strategy won't work if you bring in five relief pitchers a game, because you increase the probability than one of the middle guys will end up blowing the game, but it does work if your starters usually go 7. It only works for STARTING pitchers, who control the outcome of any given game more often than not.

Here's the thing -- this strategy works by leveraging guys who are undervalued by the market, a la Moneyball. It won't ever show up in computerized simulations because they all use a Monte Carlo model for pitching performance -- random numbers -- which assumes that a player is some permutation of his stat-generating-robot counterpart in cyberspace. He's not; he's a human being operating more or less at the edge of an infinitely sheer precipice of failure.

Baseball as viewed by Baseball Prospectus and the East Coast, is a war of attrition, like World War I, fought by artillery duels between huge sluggers driving in baserunners who often walked. The White Sox played a game more akin to precision air strikes and infiltration ground tactics. (Their latest book, Mind Game, does include a paragraph pointing out that Pythagoreas may be an oversimplification.)

We statheads missed because we didn’t understand that Kenny was looking to exploit one of the quirks of the game – that runs don’t carry over, that losing by a lot is no different than losing by a little. We confused what he was advocating with true, 1960s small ball, and because sabermetric orthodoxy tells us that this is a poor decision, we bought it. He couched it in go-go smallball terms as a PR move. Most White Sox fans believe in the holy trinity of pitching, speed, and defense. They let us project that onto what they were doing.

The Players

Last November 10th, I wrote an email to the WHITESOX mailing list bewailing the White Sox offseason strategy. What they were doing, it seemed to me, was insane. As it turned out, what they were ended up doing was the opposite of what I feared, while they hit the nail on the head for every single one of my “imaginings”.

First, to be fair, Kenny didn’t do all of it intentionally. He was saved from himself by the Giants adding a third season to Omar Vizquel’s offer. He was saved from himself by the Red Sox and other teams bidding up mediocre pitchers and ignoring the brittle but still cagey El Duque. He benefited from the Angels’ giving up on Bobby Jenks. He benefited from the Giants’ second mistake, releasing A. J. Pierzynski without a really good reason.

In early November, the White Sox had Ben Davis catching, no right fielder except perhaps Alex Escobar, no second baseman, no fifth starter, questionable 3 and 4 starters, and a bullpen with several very iffy characters. So what happened?

They dumped Carlos Lee for bullpen depth and official stathead dart board Scott Podsednik. I really thought at the time this was about freeing up money (which it was) and ridding the team of a problem personality (it was). It also gave the White Sox dual centerfielders, at the expense of some big-bang offense, and improved what I can only call the presence-of-mind on the field. Carlos was widely believed to be a stathound, the biggest one on the team.

After the Giants’ aforementioned brain freeze, they signed Jermaine Dye to fill the right field hole and Dustin Hermanson as an insurance policy for two spots. Dye was a risk given his injury history but not a terrific one. Hermanson was a career mediocrity, but one with the big-inning quirk I mentioned before. Then came Pierzynski, El Duque, and most shockingly, Tadahito Iguchi. What happened was a methodical upgrade of every major hole in the roster to at least an adequate player and, in almost every case, a good one.

They had clearly improved the defense without crippling the offense.

But it wasn't just that. It was also the fact that, with no exceptions, they added red asses. Of the additions, Dye was the closest thing to laid back. The rest of them wanted, more than anything else, to win. The image of 2005 is A. J. Pierzynski, by hook or by crook, getting 100% out of every situation. And, while character can't cover up a lack of talent, it can definitely get the most out of talent.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

WS +3: The Best Of Times...

I admit I didn't stay up to see it, and I also admit saying an Aaron-Rowand-like "no way! No Way! NO WAY!" when checking the score this morning...

No way!

Sunday, October 23, 2005

WS +1: The Miseducation of Joe Sheehan

Instead of over-analyzing last night's game, instead I want to ask the question: How did the analysts, specifically Baseball Prospectus (BP), get the White Sox so wrong this year? Now, they have an answer, "luck", but that just doesn't wash given the incredible gap between what they said in their book this year and what actually happened. I think I have the answer, but explaining it takes some background.

First, you have to understand the history of sabermetrics a little bit. Sabermetrics is a term coined by Bill James to encompass the whole idea of studying questions about baseball using statistics. James didn't invent the concept, it's as old as baseball and Henry Chadwick keeping score in the 19th century. Many systems have been proposed over the years, from Earnshaw Cook's DX to Tom Boswell's Total Average to Pete Palmer's Linear Weights (LWTS) to Bill James' many metrics to BP's collection of formulas.

With that said, here's why BP screwed up:

Attitude. Bill James wrote books that were essentially academic papers. He would pose the question, describe the framework used to address the question in full (including formulas), attempt to answer the question, and then open the floor (conceptually) to objections and review. BP doesn't do this, really; their formulas are largely proprietary (because they make money selling information to many sources), and they don't really brook review of their methods or conclusions. BP's attitude is more Papal than academic, an attitude which leads to error through the age-old idea of hubris. The White Sox don't fit BP's concept of how to run a baseball team, so they must be bad. When their own formulas showed a better outcome than their guts, they went with their guts. When their formulas emitted transparently bizarre predictions, they stuck by their formulas, as long as they fit their assumptions.

Appearance of Conflict of Interest. Further, because the White Sox don't fit their concept (and presumably don't buy their private analysis products), they trashed them in public, which is analogous to the brokerage scandals of a few years back (but, admittedly, however, not harmful to the public in any way). The teams BP singles out for praise are, predictably, the teams that employ their authors and friends. As BP is largely a Chicago-born institution and the Chicago teams ignore them could be a cause for simple spite. Further, obviously success by any organization that doesn't follow the basic BP program could be perceived by the public as undermining the credibility of their otherwise entertaining and shrewd product.

Methodology. Plainly put, much of BP's work derives from Pete Palmer's work, and Palmer's methodology was, I believe, flawed by the basic, mistaken assumption that baseball is close enough to a linear process to be analyzed as such. James noticed early that baseball isn't linear, his formulas aren't linear, and his results were better. BP drank the Total Baseball Kool-Aid -- or we think they did; we'll never know because they don't really let us see their process. One example is the focus on replacement players, who are essentially strawmen; the goal is not to collect players better that AAA players, the goal is to win as often as possible.

Observability. Baseball has dozens of individual statistics that are collected at every level, and analyzed and over-analyzed. It also has dozens of events that happen on the field every game that go unrecorded because there's no statistic to cover them. It has no realistic way to distinguish intent. When a batter grounds to second to advance a runner to third base, no statistic is really kept, and if one were, no framework exists to evaluate it. BP's approach to this problem is age-ol, assuming that if we can't measure it, it must all even out in the end.

So, because they couldn't understand the Carlos Lee trade in their analytical framework, and couldn't account for the possibility that Jose Contreras' failures in Yankee Stadium not being correctable, and so on and so forth, BP allocated 82-odd wins to the White Sox, and Joe Sheehan predicted a 90-loss season for a team that has now won 107 games and counting and has a tenuous one-game lead in the World Series. When confronted time and time again with the fact that something went wrong in the system to make that grade of mistake, the responses amount to: (1) they were lucky, (2) they were lucky, (3) their luck will run out, and (4) they are really lucky. That excuse made the grade in May, BP, but now we're in late October and you need better ones.

The real answer is you can't predict run prevention because your defensive/fielding analysis is just as bad as everyone else's. For a business that makes money based on the promise that they can predict the future, that is what you call a severe downward indicator.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

World Series break: Pinch me!

We still don't know which team will face the White Sox in the Series, but we do know one thing: writers and analysts will mess up the comparison because they constantly forget that ERAs aren't comparable between the two leagues. An ERA in St. Louis of 3.60 is about the same as an ERA of 4.00 for an American League starter, and a Houston ERA of 3.50 is about the same as a 4.00 for a Chicago starter. The principal reasons for this all relate to the use of the DH, both in weakening the opposition starter and getting NL pitchers out of the game before they are completely gassed. The Astro and Cardinal pitching staffs are good, but their real numbers are significantly below the White Sox numbers.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

ALCS 3-1: In the a[la]rms of the Angels...

How many Angels can dance around like pinheads?

The Angels and some of their fans, as well as the Fox rally monkeys, would like you to believe that the only reason the Angels are the ones down 3-1 is blown calls by the umpires.

The fact is, though, that there's an element of old-fashion boneheadedness at work.

Consider the Finley double play last night. Here are the facts: the Angels had runners on first and third with one out. Steve Finley's bat hit A. J. Pierzynski's mitt during his swing, which the umpires did not notice, and Finley hit a grounder to Iguchi. Finley spent part of the time he was running to first half-turned to the home plate umpire pleading his case.

From the time that Finley hit the ball, there were three reasonable outcomes possible:
  • The umpire could have called catcher interference, sending the runner on third back and loading the bases with out for Adam Kennedy in a 3-1 game. The expected number of runs from this scenario is 1.52, with 0 being possible.
  • Finley could have run full-speed to first base, certainly beating Uribe's relay, while a run scored from third base, leaving a runner on first with two out and a run scored to make it 3-2. The expected number of runs from this scenario is 1.24, with the 1 being certain.
  • Finley could do what he did, inning over, no runs scored.
Finley arguing the call before the play completed was plain-and-simple stupid. His beating out the throw to first base was only somewhat less advantageous to the Angels in the big ball sense than the catcher interference call, and in the small ball sense (which is how the Angels play) it was probably dead even. Angel paranoia about the umpiring cost them one sure run. The call itself may have cost them more runs, but maybe not, given that Garcia struck out both Adam Kennedy and Chone Figgins in their next at bats.

Then there were the two calls on the bases on Podsednik, which were both close and amounted to one insurance run.

The Fox-fueled controversy in Game Two has an equally simple three-plausible-outcomes scenario:
  • Pierzynski could have been called out on a clean catch. Despite Tim McCarver's incessant repetition, the "fact" that Jose Paul caught the strike on the fly was not conclusively established by the replay.
  • Paul could have tagged Pierzynski, who stood there for an instant, ending the inning.
  • Pierzynski gets first on the error.
Once Pierzynski was on first and the pinch runner Pablo Ozuna was in place, there was no law of physics guaranteeing that Ozuna would steal second; that happened because Escobar did a poor job of holding the runner and Josh Paul didn't try a throw. There was no guarantee that Crede would hit a two-strike double to left field off a hanging breaking ball. There certainly was no guarantee that the Angels would score in the tenth or any other inning, given that they are scoring two runs a game in the series. The was no guarantee that the back end of the Angel bullpen would stop Chicago from scoring in the bottom of the tenth inning. Game Two boiled down to Scioscia's decision to use his regular catcher as a DH to stack the lineup with righthanded batters causing him to play his third-string catcher.

The Angels and Fox want you to believe that they haven't gotten a call in the series, which is not true, and I don't just mean the Iguchi neighborhood play last night. In Game One, the Angels got a huge break when the second-base umpire failed to call Orlando Cabrera out for interference on his rolling block on a DP. This caused Iguchi to throw the relay over Konerko's head and allowed the third run in a 3-2 game to score. The got a break in Game Two when much-vilified plate umpire Doug Eddings over-eagerly punched out Paul Konerko on a checked swing in the sixth with nobody out against Scot Sheilds and a 3-2 pitch without asking the first base umpire for help; replays showed (much more conclusively than in the Paul pitch) that he did not go around. The next batter, Carl Everett, was called out on a very low pitch. A runner on first with nobody out is a much more dangerous situation than with two out, and other than pointing out that the call was blown, Fox didn't play that up.

Personally, I hope the Angels keep it up. It means they think they've lost.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

ALCS entrants: Wildest Dreams

It's been a long time since I rock 'n' rolled... writer's block.

All I can say now is, it's just gravy.