Thursday, November 25, 2010

Felix and Sabermetircs

"Sabermetrics is the analysis of baseball through objective evidence, especially baseball statistics that measure in-game activity rather than industry activity such as attendance."

Why is this definition important? Because it clearly lays out the focus of sabermetrics: the study of measurable game data on a player-by-player basis. The latest Cy Young Award winner, Felix Hernandez, is the poster child for sabermetrics. Although he posted the lowest win total of a Cy Young winner in a non-shortened season, with only a 13-12 record, Felix was given the award based on a number of other statistics that suggest that he was much better than a nearly .500 pitcher. In fact, there is little doubt that "King Felix" was the best American League pitcher in 2010. In the past, most pitchers needed to win a minimum of 15 games, and closer to 20 was a big advantage, to have a shot at being named the best pitcher in baseball. So, what's changed? The pervasiveness of sabermetrics has officially penetrated baseball and success on an individual basis is finally being determined by calculating individual results, not team or industry-based metrics.

Traditional statistics have long governed baseball. For pitchers, these are statistics like wins and losses, strikeouts, walks and ERA. Some of these statistics have their merits for assessing individual performance, particularly strikeouts and walks. Stats like ERA are dependant on the performance of the fielders behind the pitcher and wins and losses not only take fielding into account, but also rely on the offense to score runs. In essence, ERA, wins and losses do not show the individual effectiveness of a pitcher as accurately as other statistics.

New-wave individual statistics, generally labeled as sabermetrics (the term is derived from the acronym SABR, which stands for the Society for American Baseball Research), can isolate the pitcher from the rest of the team's performance. For instance, these statistics don't penalize the pitcher for errors made behind him or a lack of run-support from the offense. Examples of these statistics include WHIP (walks+hits/innings pitched), baBIP (batting average of balls in-play) and FIP (fielding-independent pitching). The WHIP statistic shows the pitcher's ability to keep the opponent off of the basepaths, the baBIP statistic shows how lucky or unlucky a pitcher has been when opposing hitters but the ball in play (which can artificially inflate of deflate statistics) and the FIP statistic proves how well a pitcher has performed completely independent of the play of his infielders and outfielders.

Felix Herandez did not fare as well as other pitchers in the American League in a few of the traditional categories, most notably wins and losses (13-12). While he did post great strikeout totals (232), a fantastic ERA (2.27) and pitched the most innings of any pitcher in baseball this year (249.2), he shined brightest in the new-era categories. His WHIP was excellent (1.057), while his FIP (3.07) was still very good. Mixed with the traditional statistics, the sabermetric stats only further increased Felix's case for winning the AL Cy Young.

The fact that Hernandez was voted the winner was monumental. The voters around American overlooked his negative traditional stats and instead acknowledged his positive sabermetric results. This is clearly the first major victory for "SABR-heads" on a national level. While sabermetrics have been slowly gaining acceptance amongst more and more baseball fans and writers, the outcome here is clear. Sabermetrics are here to stay and will now be a major factor in examining baseball players, not just with stat-obsessed baseball fanatics, but even in the mainstream media

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Golden Payday

Gold Glove Award winners have been announced over the last two days. While some players are not surprises at all, some players are likely to use their awards to help them cash in. Agents are tricky dudes and will use anything as leverage. With an emphasis on defense taking hold of the Majors, Derek Jeter and Carl Crawford will probably use these awards to increase their 2011 paydays.

Derek Jeter needed this one. The Captain is aging (previous post) but is apparently aging well. Despite clearly losing a step (or two) over the past few seasons in the Bronx, Jeter won yet another Gold Glove. If you're privy to metrics like UZR, they Jeter's new award might be a surprise. He's not listed in the top half of AL shortstops according to the Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR). His fielding percentage is fantastic but we have to ask why. His range is clearly limited and he can't make some of the throws he used to. So why does he win? Because of the balls he does get to, he makes the right play and is almost never given an error. This is kind of like Kobe or LeBron not given fouls. This artificially inflates his feilding percentage and because he's a modern baseball icon, he get the Gold Glove. As Jeter works to finalize a free agent deal to keep in in New York, expect him, or his agent, to claim "he still plays Gold Glove defense" and try to parlay that into a few more million dollars on his contract.

Carl Crawford didn't exactly need this one. Its not like he's complaining, but compared to Jeter, this didn't much matter. Crawford is going to sign the deal of a lifetime in the next few months, whether he won a Gold Glove for his defense or not. He's the most talented position player available and is going to cash in huge this offseason. Crawford is a standout left fielder, however. Why is he so much better than his brethren? Most left fielders are old, overweight, slightly unathletic and often a combination of all three. Manny Ramirez, anyone? Crawford is an athletic specimen who has the speed and range to play center field but his arm keeps him in left (think: Juan Pierre). Therfore, he stands tall above the competition by default. While Mr. Crawford clearly doesn't need the help, expect him and his representatives to use the defense angle drive the price amongst the teams that are expected to bid on him (Angels, Red Sox, Tigers, Braves, etc). The team that values his defense most might be the one who is willing to outbid the competition.

Gold Gloves aren't a science. They are voted on and the results are subject to massive debate. Either way, two players are expected to utilize their 2010 Gold Gloves to garner them some extra cash this winter. When they do, call it a "Golden Payday."

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Derek Jeter, Big Papi and "Old Player Skills"

As the hot stove warms, two teams are in a position to make some tough calls, specifically the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. Both are attempting to navigate a tricky situation with the face of their franchise. "The Captain," Derek Jeter, is a free agent and technically has the right to to to whatever team he wishes. David Ortiz, or "Big Papi" as he's referred, wanted a multi-year contract extension rather than the Red Sox picking up their option on retaining him for only 2011. One team has already made their move. Was it the right one and how is the other team's situation different despite the similarities?

The Red Sox acted decisively, making their decision on Ortiz today, the 4th of November. While Ortiz was seeking the long-term security of a multi-year extension, Boston took the conservative approach by exercising their club option on him, which locks him up for 2011 season for the nominal fee of $12.9 million dollars (I was kidding about it being nominal). They did this for a few reasons. First of all, Ortiz has gotten off to shaky starts the last two years, showing his age and declining ability to hit left-handed pitching. Big Papi is 34 and in case you haven't noticed, isn't exactly the finest athletic specimen on the face of the earth. Also factoring into the Sox's decision, Ortiz doesn't play a defensive position since he's a DH only. Therefore, he only has value with the bat and doesn't contribute to the team's defensive achievement.

Derek Jeter is hoping to stay a member of the New York Yankees. Its hard to imagine The Captain wearing anything but pinstripes since he is has been the face of the Yankee franchise for over a decade. Jeter is currently 36 years old but still holds his own at shortstop defensively. He no longer turning heads at the position but he's still quite serviceable. With the bat, Jeter had a down year but not a horrible one. His OBP remains good and he has high quality at-bats nearly every time he's up at the dish. He's hoping for a multi-year contract offer from the Yankees who claim to want to re-sign him, but the price doesn't seem likely to fit the product. Jeter will be 37 next year and that is a tough age to play shortstop. Moving to third base isn't an option (see Alex Rodriguez) and going to second isn't either (Robinson Cano, anyone?). So herein lies the problem: Jeter is still a serviceable player who is vital to his team and community, but is losing value as he ages despite his high salary.

As concluded by Bill James, the "Old Player Skillset" is: power, walks, low average, lack of speed. This fits David Ortiz perfectly. In my opinion, he's an injury or really bad season away from losing his value to anyone, not just the Red Sox. Sure he clubbed 32 homeruns last year, but that was after he played terribly through the first two months of the season. In the A.L. East, you can't have a bad two months from your best power hitter and hope to contend. There's simply too much firepower in that division. Because of this, and the fact that no one else would be willing to pay Ortiz $12-15 million a season, Boston did the right thing by exercising Ortiz's option and not giving him a three year deal that would have kept him with the team until he was nearly 38 years old. Keeping it year-by-year with Big Papi allows the Red Sox to cut him loose whenever they see fit without losing a ton of money on him.

The Yankees almost have to re-sign Jeter. That goes both ways, though. Jeter isn't worth nearly what he'll earn with New York and no one else is looking to give a three year deal to a 36 year old shortstop. Derek's salary last season was a whopping $22 million. Considering he put up roughly the same season as several slightly-above average shortstops, that's about three or four times what his performance dictates. This is a different situation, though, from Ortiz's. Jeter should get an extension, just not a huge one. He's a big part of the clubhouse, he's "Captain Clutch" with big hits, he can still do his job defensively and he is still worthy of his time at bat. He also sells jerseys and tickets as the ultimate emblem of the most popular sports franchise in the world. As long as Derek's alright with taking a bit of a pay cut, he will likely be rewarded with something in the neighborhood of 3-4 years and $55-75 million or less. Despite overpaying big time, the Yankees can afford it.

David Ortiz clearly has "Old Player Skills" and could nosedive at any moment. Sure he's the biggest power threat for the Red Sox but he doesn't play defense and has a body that doesn't project to age well. Honestly, I'm surprised he's held up as well as he has. Jeter, on the other hand, is worthy of more contract time since he's the leader of his team, plays solid, but not incredible, defense and can still handle the bat sufficiently. "Old Player Skills" haven't hit The Captain just yet and I don't think they will. The Red Sox were right to pick up their option on Ortiz and go year-by-year with him while the Yankees should give Jeter a few more years, just not at his current salary.