Enjoyment and Analysis

It’s funny what gets a response from people. I say all sort of hilarious things on Twitter (I really do; follow me @Mark_L_Smith), and I get the occasional reply or retweet. But I make one comment about RBIs, and I get no less than 13 replies (that’s not a whole lot, I realize, so follow me @Mark_L_Smith; side note: Chip and I are campaigning to have me “trend” on Twitter, so you should follow me and help with that. I’m sure you’re racing through the tubes to do such) from people I don’t even know or e-know. Arguments over newer statistical analysis have raged over the last few years, and it never fails to ruffle a few feathers. And that’s fine. Passion, either way, shows that you care, and I’m fine with that. But it’s also another indication that there’s a linguistic disconnect between the two sides.

Here’s my tweet: “I like how we’ve mainly quashed the value of RBIs and yet we still celebrate Chipper getting 1500. Not judging or say it’s not impressive.” Admittedly, this was not my best moment in linguistic prowess, but that’s what happens when you’re on Twitter, limited to 140 characters, and trying to respond quickly. Not an excuse, but I had several good and interesting responses. Most of them stated that they believed RBIs still held sentimental value, and others stated that it still represents a positive contribution by the batter. True statements indeed, but let me explain what I meant before we tackle the major issue.

First of all, I love Chipper, and he’s been my favorite player since he broke in. It was about the time I started to pay attention to baseball, and we kind of grew up together. In other words, I was not out to say anything negative about Chipper. But what about RBIs? As we continue to delve further into advanced statistics, one of the main goals is to isolate performance, and in this instance, we want to isolate batter performance. RBIs are heavily context-driven. It helps to have runners on base and to hit third, fourth, or fifth. When it comes down to isolating batter performance, there’s too much “outside noise” when it comes to RBIs.

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Dealing with Rafael Soriano

Being a Braves fan, I was able to go through the Rafael Soriano Experience, and trust me, I went through everything. Soriano was awesome in 2007, and it was easy to see that the Rafael Soriano-for-Horacio Ramirez trade was going to end poorly for the Seattle Mariners (Horacio Ramirez? Really, they thought he could help?). A year later, Soriano’s injury history caught up with him, and he pitched all of 14 innings as injuries generally devastated the Braves. During Spring Training in 2009, Soriano refused to pitch early on. One would think you would want to pitch a little more after a season full of injuries, but the ever-temperamental Soriano said no. Braves fans were stunned, but they learned to live with it once he delivered a spectacular 2009 complete with a 12.13 K/9, 3.21 BB/9, and 2 fWAR. But the fun wasn’t over. Most people figured Soriano would decline arbitration, but realizing he might make more money by accepting arbitration, he surprised everyone by accepting and creating an awkward situation in which the Braves really couldn’t afford to keep him around. In other words when I see an episode like last night, I understand what you’re going through.

I feel a little bad. I feel like I should’ve warned you. Rafael Soriano is a weird man. When he didn’t pitch in Spring Training and considering his injury history, you kind of wondered if he subconsciously, or consciously, knew that he only had so many bullets per season, and he wasn’t about to waste it in March. There were also rumors that he really didn’t talk to anyone in the clubhouse. He was a bit of a loner. In a world where closers pump their fists and show tons of emotion, Soraino doesn’t. Soriano isn’t what you’d expect … at all.

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Yankees and Age

Ever since the Yankees started winning and spending big, people have argued that the Yankees’ age, usually high because of the importation of free-agents, will bring their downfall. A decade later, the Yankees are still winning, bringing in free-agents, and getting older, and people are still saying that their age will bring their downfall. It’s gotten to the point that Yankees fans just ignore it, and everyone else keeps saying it, hoping it will come true. Being one of the latter for a long time, I decided to take a deeper look.

With the average age of a major-league player around 27, the Yankees are, not surprisingly, a few years older than most of the other teams in the majors. However, you’ll also notice that the team, as a whole, isn’t really getting much older, and if you actually look, the team is younger now than it’s been in a while. This 2011 team is one of the youngest in over a decade, and they’re going to get younger.

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Should SLG Be the Next Stat to Go?

Much ink has been spilled over the dismissal of wins, batting average, RBI, and other traditional stats as measurements of a player’s performance. The idea behind sabermetrics was to question what we already “know”? Do our stats actually reflect what they say they do? Are strategies really being employed correctly? How much does lineup construction really matter? Do saves really matter? I could go on and on. For the most part, saberists have come up with logical answers to those questions, and while the details are still being worked out, we have a pretty good idea of how things work. But we’re still learning, and we should continue questioning. So this is my question today—does slugging percentage (SLG) really reflect slugging or power?

Let’s start with a quick refresher. Slugging percentage is a stat that intends to reflect a batter’s power—the distance a batter can hit a ball. He gets 1.000 for a single, 2.000 for a double, 3.000 for a triple, and 4.000 for a home run, and all of that is added up and divided by the number of at-bats. In simpler terms, it’s the number of total bases divided by the number of at-bats. Superficially, it makes sense. A single can just be a line drive or bloop shot. Extra bases are garnered by balls that fly further, get into gaps, and hit walls, and home runs are hit even further. If you put them on a list that reflected their importance, it would go home run, triple, double, and single, and their respective point totals also reflect that. On the other hand, we should probably quibble with the details.

Does a triple really require more power than a double, and does it require 50% more power? Probably not. Triples are really just doubles that are A) better placed and/or B) hit by players with more speed. If you want to get technical, triples have to be hit further than some doubles—a bloop down the line can get a double, but a triple pretty much needs to get to the wall—but I imagine most triples look like doubles off the bat. Either way, is 50% more power really required? Again, I think not.

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An Overly Early Look at Cano’s Future as a Yankee

Without a major contractual situation to look forward to like last season, we’ll have to peer a little further into the future to find a situation about which to freak out. Robinson Cano broke out in a big way last season, providing 6.4 fWAR after a few seasons of 4+ fWAR, and he became one of, if not the, best second basemen in baseball. Cano’s $30 million extension, signed before his disastrous 2008 season, has become one of the better bargains in baseball, and the $10 million due to him this season is a pittance compared to his $30+ million value. The real beauty, however, of the extension is the addition of the 2012 and 2013 options that can keep Cano in pinstripes for a combined $29 million, which might be half of what he’s worth. But looking down the line and with an optimistic projection, are the options more of a thing of beauty than we originally thought?

Cano is probably the best second baseman in baseball, especially as Chase Utley’s knees deprive him of playing time and ability. His rookie season wasn’t a good one as it accumulated a paltry 0.2 fWAR due to atrocious defense (-21.2 UZR) and almost as irreprehensible walk rate (2.9%), but he quickly improved in both areas. 2006 saw a 3-win season and the budding of a young superstar, and 2007 confirmed that suspicion, leading to the extension. Questions arose when 2008 saw a collapse in production due to work ethic issues, BABiP fluctuation, or both, but Cano responded in 2009. His 2010 confirmed that 2008 was a fluke, and Cano became the player everyone thought he could be. Heading into this season and next, we expect the same, but what can we expect farther into the future?

Second basemen, for some reason, decline faster than players at most other positions. By the time they reach 33 or 34, they seem to hit a wall and fall off the face of the planet. Cano will be 28 this season, and he’ll be 29 going on 30 when his last option is used up. The Yankees will, then, have to decide what to do about Cano. Do they extend him, or do they thank their lucky stars that they got Cano’s prime years at a pretty discount? If they do extend him, how do long do they extend him? He’s likely to be coming off three consecutive MVP-type seasons, and he’ll want the Yankees to pay him like an MVP for 5-7 more years. Chase Utley has been even better than Cano over the past six seasons, but his production dropped last season and his knees seem to giving up the ghost. It’s sad to say, but Utley may be succumbing to the decline most second basemen face. Do the Yankees want to pay for Cano’s 30-37 seasons but only receive decent value for 2-4 of them?

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Prospect Fatigue Spectrum

*The words “slow”, “fast”, “well”, and “poorly” are vague and subjective. They’re intended to reflect the nature of perception in regard to prospects. For instance, Jesus Montero hasn’t moved “slow”, but in relation to the anticipation of his arrival, he has moved slower than fans would like, hence his placement just left of the y-axis.

Prospects are the most exciting assets in all of baseball, and they’re even more exciting when they are considered among the best in the game. It’s easy to understand why that is. We all like young players, and I think it’s because we have this dream, in a pseudo-nostaglic way, of having a player around for the next 15-20 years producing at All-Star levels. We also like them because we can dream on them. They haven’t proven anything yet, but that also means they haven’t proven they can’t do it yet, either. Instead, fans simply have their stats and performance from dominating minor league players, and it’s easy to imagine them continuing to grow and dominate at the major-league level. We, of course, realize that prospects don’t usually work out in such a prosperous manner, but this post isn’t another analysis of the percentage of minor-league hot shots that don’t work out. I am, instead, more concerned about how we view young players, the number of chances we give them, and the difference between them and the “prospects” of other professional sports.

Let’s start off with taking a look at a Yankee prospect on the wrong side of the Prospect Fatigue Spectrum. Signed in October of 2006, Jesus Montero was instantly on prospect radars for his immense talents swinging a stick, and before the 2009 season, he was ranked 34th overall by Baseball America. Following another excellent season, Montero became the 4th overall prospect in the game, and after yet another excellent season, he’s ranked 3rd overall coming into this next season. If we could sit back and consider this objectively, this is awesome for the Yankees organization. But humans aren’t programmed that way.

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Guide to Spring Training Performance

Woo Hoo! Baseball has finally started, and we can finally get past the doldrums that are the months after the New Year begins. Pitchers, catchers, and even position players have reported, and teams are ready to start practicing, working on fundamentals, and figuring out new signs for the year. Within a few weeks, games will begin and so will arguments about who “should” win certain position battles. When arguing over these position battles, please remember the following:

1) Spring Training stats are near meaningless. One-year samples usually aren’t big enough to fully evaluate a player. During ST, you get one month’s (1/6 of a year) worth of at-bats, innings, and games, so there’s even more variation on performance. Making matters worse, players do not play the entire time, so they’re getting closer to 2/3 (if that) of a month’s worth of stats. Just because you didn’t think they could get much more worthless, quite a few of those at-bats, innings, and games (especially early) are against minor-league prospects and filler that the team is trying to give some time and experience to. So quite a bit of their time is against people that they won’t even face in a couple of weeks. Players are also beginning to experiment with new pitches, batting stances, approaches, etc., and while they get accustomed to doing so, they aren’t doing what they would normally do in the same circumstance, and even if they would incorporate it into games for that season, this is before they have perfected such things. Oh, and did I mention that everyone is just trying to get back into the swing of things after a several-month layoff? But I did say these stats are near meaningless, so when are they not?

2) If there are outliers in performance (outstanding results, poor results, weird ratios, etc.), make sure there’s a decent reason before you freak out. For all the reasons mentioned above, you should always take ST stats with a grain of salty salt. When something happens that is out of the ordinary, let’s look for some outside proof. If the difference is physical, try to find at least two articles that mention a difference in physical shape (WITH A PICTURE—NONE OF THE “BEST SHAPE OF HIS LIFE” CRAP. We need proof of a major change) that does not come from the team’s MLB.com page. If the difference is in ratios, try to find at least two articles that mention a change in approach or philosophy that would encourage such a change, and the articles should meet the MLB.com Proviso. If the results are simply so much better than normal, I’m afraid it’s just a fluke so relax.

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Long-Term Extensions, the Reds and Rockies, and the Yankees

Both the Reds and the Rockies have made some headlines this off-season, but they’ve done little to bring in new talent. Headlines, instead, have centered around the extensions both teams have given out to some of the very talented young players each team has. The Rockies extended Troy Tulowitzki through his Jamie Moyer-age season and Carlos Gonzalez for the next 7 seasons. The Reds extended Jay Bruce and Johnny Cueto, and they attempted to extend Edinson Volquez and Joey Votto. Baseball people have frequently commended both teams for investing in their youth, but there’s a distinct difference in the reasoning of those extensions.

Extensions for under-control players are very different from free-agent contracts. Free-agent contracts, obviously, are given to free-agents who are receiving offers from multiple teams, and players usually receive contracts commensurate with their worth. Controlled players, however, receive contracts that are below their market value through their arbitration years and, hopefully for the team, get free-agent years at below market value as well. Theoretically, younger players get enough money to set up their grandchildren while teams save a little money and gain payroll certainty. Teams take on the risk that the young player will get hurt, underperform, etc. while players risk losing out on money they could earn by performing well, becoming superstars, etc. There’s some give-and-take on both sides, but it definitely could make sense for both sides as well.

The thing is that, while the Reds have succeeded in doing this, the Rockies essentially took on a lot of risk while getting nothing in return except for cost certainty. Bruce was headed for Super Two status, and after an excellent 2010 campaign, $2.75 million is probably toward the lower end of what he would have received through arbitration. Considering his status as a top prospect and minor flukiness in his BABiP, it seems very reasonable that he’ll repeat that performance (5.3 fWAR) in the future, if not outperform it, and he will receive $5MM, $7.5 MM, and $10MM for his arbitration years, which may end up being well below what he may have made otherwise. During his first two “free-agent” years, he’ll make $12-12.5MM, and the Reds hold an option for another season at $13MM. Of course, he could get hurt and become an albatross, but sound reasoning would argue that this may very well end up being a steal.

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