Monday, February 17, 2014

Big Papi: Big Legend

The best Red Sox hitters ever: Ted Williams, Carl Yaztrzemski, and David Ortiz.

Does that sound odd to you? Because it makes sense to me. It's a shame that, whenever we discuss David Ortiz, conversation centers around one question: "When is he going to get old?" Instead of dwelling over his age, we should be reveling in witnessing the greatness of David Ortiz every time he steps to the plate.

Before getting into where Ortiz ranks all time among Red Sox hitters to show his greatness, let's compare Ortiz's recent performances to what we saw of him earlier in his career to see how he's extended his career as a potent force at the plate - essentially, what Ortiz has done to keep himself great.

Baseball is a game of adjustments; David Ortiz knows this, and he's adjusted his approach at the plate as he's aged. Ortiz has been so successful that one might say he doesn't age - he merely adjusts. Perhaps, judging from the pessimism regarding conversations about Ortiz, it shouldn't be surprising that fans haven't gotten used to Ortiz's adjustments. To our credit, pitchers certainly haven't gotten used to Ortiz's adjustments either.

To get an broad view of how Ortiz has adjusted, let's look at a Ortiz's stats from 2003 - 2010 and 2011 - 2013.

2003-10 .286 .386 .958 36
2011-13 .311 .401 .972 27

We can see a couple things going on here: Ortiz's power has decreased with age, but his abilities to make contact with the ball and get on base have increased. It's worth noting that Ortiz's power decrease runs concurrent with a decline in home runs throughout baseball. In 2004, 5,451 home runs were hit; but we saw only 4,934 home runs in 2012. So maybe Ortiz's power decrease isn't age related. Ironically, this home run decline in all of baseball has made Ortiz more valuable since players who can hit 25-35 HR are no longer a dime a dozen.

How has Ortiz beaten age to remain one one baseball's elite hitter? He's added three elements to his game: hitting to all fields, better clutch hitting, and a newfound ability to get hits off left handed pitchers. These adjustments can be observed in some of Ortiz's stat splits from 2008 - 2013.

First, here's Ortiz's ability to hit to all fields display in his batting average for balls hit up the middle and to the opposite field:

Up the Middle Opposite Field
2008 .299 .268
2009 .301 .356
2010 .398 .355
2011 .369 .405
2012 .390 .438
2013 .384 .379

Ortiz had a .438 batting average on balls he hit to the opposite field in 2012 - are you fucking kidding me? This is the same hitter that world-renowned fucking super genius putzbag Joe Maddon still puts a fielding shift on? The same hitter that everyone thinks can only pull the ball and hit homers or ground outs? Think again. Younger David Ortiz was more of a one-dimensional power hitter, but he's adjusted to become the better all-around hitter we've seen for the past few seasons.

And Ortiz has been able to get more clutch hits. Here are splits for his batting average with runners on second and third, and with the bases loaded.

Second & Third Bases Loaded
2008 .100 .400
2009 .083 .353
2010 .300 .267
2011 .263 .333
2012 .250 .500
2013 .455 .455

I can see Ortiz having a high batting average with the bases loaded because pitchers can't pitch around him when first base isn't open, but hitting with runners on second and third must be a batter's toughest job - especially when you have power threat that Ortiz possess. Pitchers won't want to throw Ortiz anything close to the strike zone, yet Ortiz has figured out ways to get hits in this situation. I triple-checked his .455 average in 2013 with runners on second and third - it's no joke. Ortiz was that good in the clutch.

Finally, Ortiz has accomplished this hitting against all pitchers. Look at these splits for his batting average against left handed pitching:

vs. LHP
2008 .221
2009 .212
2010 .222
2011 .329
2012 .320
2013 .260

Judging from Ortiz's dip to .260 off LHP in 2013, perhaps pitchers have finally started adjusting to this new facet of his game. But .260 around 45 points better than the averages vs. LHP he put up in 2008 - 2010.

Through these adjustments, Ortiz has stayed ahead of his age. This is a player who should be in the twilight of his career and should be regressing, not progressing. And by prolonging his career, Ortiz is climbing the ranks of the Red Sox record book:
  • For On-Base Percentage, of all Red Sox hitters with over 5000 ABs and 1500 games, Ortiz is third all-time with .390; behind Ted Williams (.482, best all time in MLB) and Wade Boggs (.428). 
  • For On-Base Plus Slugging, of all Red Sox hitters with over 1500 games, Ortiz is second (.962) behind Williams (1.116). 
  • For Home Runs, Ortiz is currently fifth with 373 in a Red Sox uniform. Jim Rice is third with 382, and Dwight Evans is fourth at 379 - so Ortiz will likely by in third by the middle of May. 
  • For RBIs, Ortiz is sixth with 1191 - but he has played only 1514 games as a member of the Red Sox. Everyone ahead of Ortiz has played over 1800 games for the team. 
Those are the numbers that Ortiz has put up just with the Red Sox. For his career, Ortiz has 431 home runs and 1429 RBIs, with a .287 BA and .381 OBP. If Ortiz gets up to 1600-1700 RBIs, he's in Cal Ripken, Frank Thomas and Ernie Banks territory. And if he has those RBIs while becoming a member of the 500 HR Club, then how can he not get into Cooperstown?

How feasible is it for David Ortiz to attain 500+ HR and 1600+ RBIs before the end of his career? Pretty damn feasible. Consider this: Jason Giambi was 43 in 2013 and he still found a job in baseball. Giambi was once a left handed power threat, but he hasn't had a season with over 450 AB since 2008.
If Giambi can find a job as a pinch hitter at 43, then David Ortiz will have playing options available to him over the next few seasons if he doesn't choose to retire. So he will reach 500+ HR and 1600+ RBI.

If the Minnesota Twins knew how special David Ortiz was before they released him, we could only imagine what kind of stats he would have amassed by now...

All of these doesn't even take Ortiz's postseason performances into account. But I think we all remember those extra inning game winning hits in games 4 and 5 of the 2004 ALCS, as well as his career .455 BA and .576 OBP in the World Series. Ortiz has 14 World Series RBIs too, averaging 1 RBI per World Series game he's played in.

Not only has Ortiz been great, but we're still witnessing his greatness. I could have lead off this post with with Ortiz stands all time among Red Sox hitters, but then people would say "Yeah, that's great, but he's getting old." By detailing how Ortiz has adjusted along with where he ranks all time among Red Sox hitters, I hope we can understand that he doesn't just have a few years of baseball left in him, but he will be talked about for generations after he retires.

David Ortiz is a once in a lifetime hitter for Boston. Decades from now, when you're pushing 80 or 90 and have great-grandchildren, if you're lucky enough to take them to Fenway (and of course Fenway will still be there), you will tell them, "I saw David Ortiz play here." Why? Because they will ask, just like we grew up asking about Ted Williams. David Ortiz is that kind of hitter. His legend will live on after he's gone, and we should really appreciate every time he steps to the plate. So consider that, and the adjustments he's made, the next time you wonder if giving Ortiz another contract is worth it.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Ryan Dempster v. Derek Dumpster

I've never been a fan of Ryan Dempster and I haven't been shy about expressing this. Before Ben signed Dempster, he looked like a veteran starter whose talents were fading quickly - and Dempster didn't do anything in 2013 to change my opinion of how he plays. But Dempster did change my opinion of him as a player today when he announced that he doesn't feel like he's capable of pitching in 2014.

Contrast Dempster's announcement today with the eight month long circus/circle jerk Derek Jeter is about to bring to baseball. To Jeter, it's all about him: he wants a farewell tour, he wants the accolades, he wants all the praise, he wants the ego-stroking, and he knows he's going to get it. It doesn't matter that there are things Jeter could have done over the years to improve his team, like switching positions or, in this case, retiring immediately. Jeter is all about Jeter.

Ryan Dempster, however, is for his team. The 2014 Red Sox would have been worse with Dempster on the roster, perpetually in limbo between the bullpen and starting rotation because he's being paid like a starter but he's arguably the sixth best starter on the 40 man roster. Dempster knew that he wouldn't be able to perform well this season, and instead of taking $13.25 million in salary that he was guaranteed to, essentially, embarrass himself, he left millions on the table for the good of his team. I'll remember this action a lot more than a beanball to A-Roid.

This is how you leave baseball with respect and dignity. I wish somebody would tell this the Jeter, but he probably wouldn't hear it over the sound of him wanking to himself.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014


Time to play another round of GUESS THAT PLAYER. Both players are relief pitchers. Ready? Go!

Games IP Saves ERA WHIP K
Player 1 72 71.0 16 1.39 0.958 70
Player 2 73 74.1 21 1.09 0.565 101

Judging by their WHIPs and Ks, Player 2 was superior - but Player 1 certainly wasn't a slacker. His 1.39 ERA isn't a result of dumb luck, there was so talent in his arm. So, who are these relievers? No googling. Give it your best guess.

Ready for the reveal? Good, because you might be shocked: Player 1 is Mark Melancon - yes, that Mark Melancon. The same Melancon who pitched for the Red Sox in early 2012, imploded and was sent to Pawtucket for the majority of that season.

And Player 2? That's Koji Uehara. I'm sure you've heard of him.

I don't mean to impair a negative view on Koji's 2013 campaign by comparing his stat line with Melancon's, but it should be noted that, historically, relievers are tricky beasts. For a recent example, just look at the Baltimore Orioles' bullpen.

In 2012, Baltimore rode the performances of their relievers right into the playoffs (an especially pertinent point since their starting rotation sucked). But in 2013, Orioles closer Jim Johnson blew a ton of saves; and their setup man, Pedro Strop, pitched so badly that his 7.25 ERA was eventually traded to the Cubs. Consequently, the Orioles were a non-factor in the 2013 playoff race.

That's one example of how the performance of relief pitchers can vary drastically from one season to another. How Mark Melancon pitched in 2012 and 2013 is another example.

So, how will Koji pitch in 2013? He probably won't duplicate his spectacular efforts in 2013 (that's not a knock on Koji - I doubt that many pitchers outside of He-Who-Retire-And-Shall-Not-Be-Named from the Bronx could duplicate his 2013 performance), but he stands a good chance of coming close.

However, it wouldn't be a bad idea to have a closer in waiting in the bullpen, just in case Koji falters. Let's not forget that Koji was the insurance policy for Andrew Bailey and Joel Hanrahan. No matter what you think about Koji, having an insurance policy against him wouldn't hurt.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

American League Story Lines to Watch in 2014

Boston Red Sox: Can they repeat? 

The cornerstones of the 2013 Red Sox were clubhouse chemistry and an improved medical staff. This allowed players to stay on the field and instilled in them the attitude of picking each other up. Perhaps the most amazing feat by the 2013 Red Sox was stopping losing streaks at three games - this team never went downhill and never gave up. The roster depth Ben loaded the 2013 team with is still here, as demonstrated by the Sox signing of Grady Sizemore to compete with Jackie Bradley Jr. and the argument over who should play shortstop and third base. If the Red Sox can stay healthy, there's no reason to think they won't win the AL East again and the matter of repeating a World Series championship may come down to the health of their opponents. 

Detroit Tigers: Can Miggy stay healthy? 

The Tigers are the Red Sox primary opponent for the American League pennant, and despite the power of their pitching, everything for the Tigers revolves around Miguel Cabrera. By the end of 2013, Cabrera wasn't healthy and he wasn't able to be the best hitter in the game. To illustrate how important it is for the Tigers to have a healthy Cabrera, consider this: 3 of the Red Sox 4 victories in the 2013 ALCS were 1 run games. If Cabrera was healthy, he could have turned around those games and the Red Sox lose. It's as simple as that. By trading Prince Fielder for a Ian Kinsler, a veteran with a steady bat to play second base, the Tigers didn't just unload Fielder's costly contract - they allowed Cabrera to move from third base to first base, and placing Cabrera at a less physically demanding fielding position will help him stay healthy throughout the season. This should allow Cabrera to be the best hitter in baseball going into the postseason, instead of the shadow of himself we all saw in September and October last season.

New York Yankees: Who is their slugger? 

With the departure of Robinson Cano, the Yankees may not have a legitimate middle of the order slugger - the kind of hitter that pitchers fear, which prompts them to throw more strikes to top of the order hitters to try prevent them from reaching base. If Teixeria, McCann and Beltran can't be feared sluggers, how will this effect Ellsbury and a 40 year old Jeter? Pitchers won't be afraid to pitch around Ellsbury if they think the batters ahead of him aren't a threat. Without having a legitimate slugger, signing Ellsbury is akin to dumping gasoline over a pile of $152 million and lighting it ablaze. 

Besides that, what happens to CC Sabathia's velocity now that he's a toothpick? And do the Yankees have a closer? All of this makes the Tanaka deal look like an afterthought.   

Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays: The Choose Your Own Adventure Book of Self-Destrution

How will the Rays choose to self-destruct in 2014? That's the question, because in 2013 they chose to self-destruct during spring training by not making Wil Myers an opening day starter. Why? Because if they kept Myers in the minors long enough during the 2013 season, they got an extra year of contract control over the player. Think about the damage caused by that decision: the Rays were only 5.5 GB back of the Red Sox. If Myers was a starter throughout 2013, could he have gotten him over that 5.5 GB hump? And if Myers had a full 9 games of experience playing right field at Fenway under his belt, would he have let that fly ball drop right in front of him during the ALDS? 

In retrospect, the Devil Rays' penny-pinching ways bit them in the ass. So how will the Rays figure out a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in 2014? If David Price is having a good season before the trade deadline, I bet the idea of trading him for prospects, rather than pay him $16-17 mil in 2015, will be too much for the Rays to resist. The Rays won't win because they would rather blow up their team to save a buck than win a World Series. Everyone will still claim that Joe Maddon is a genius because, hey, cult it. Ack, fuck it. That's what I meant to say. 

Oakland A's: I've got nothing

Every year, I look at the A's roster and think "How the fuck will this fucking team win fucking anything?" Then, like clockwork, Billy Beane's rejects from the Island of Misfits somehow win the AL West and put themselves in the playoffs. I feel like this cycle will repeat itself in 2014 simply, and inexplicably, because of inertia. The A's let Bartolo Colon walk and think they can replace him with Scott Kazmir, whose last good season was in 2008? OK, whatever. This is one of those moves that always seems to work out for Billy Beane and nobody knows why, so we'll see. 

Texas Rangers: I've got everything

The yang to the A's yin, the Rangers spend every offseason seemingly making the right moves only to spectacularly failure when September rolls around. They signed Adrian Beltre, they let Josh Hamilton walk, they signed Yu Darvish, annnnd... Fail. Will Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Shoo finally vault them over the A's? We'll see.  

Anaheim Angels: Honorary Mention

I'm trying to keep this list to contenders, but because the Angels have Mike Trout playing out of his mind, and Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton playing well under their abilities, you have to include them as a dark horse candidate. If Trout, Pujols, Hamilton become a three-headed pitcher wrecking machine; and if Weaver and Wilson are pitching well, the Angels can position themselves as buyers at the trade deadline and stay in the playoff hunt. But these are huge if's. 

Friday, January 10, 2014

My Inevitable Post-2013 Napoli Post

It would be easy to look at Napoli's 2013 stats and say, "Hey, look, I was sorta right." In fact, why not do that?

Napoli in 2013: .259 BA / .360 OBP, 23 HR, 92 RBI, 38 2B

The stats show that this is a decent season, but we're not talking Cooperstown stuff here. But the question is should that matter?

Of course, to a certain extent, stats do matter because they show an aptitude of a player to be able to have success at the highest level of baseball. Physical fitness and potential alone just do not cut it when a player is at the MLB level - they have to have discipline at the plate to even produce a .240 batting average. If you need an example of raw physical talent not panning out, look no further than Wily Mo Pena.

Wily Mo, by the way, might have been the strongest person to ever play at the highest level of baseball. When he connected, the home runs he hit were majestic. He had an amazing amount of physical talent. Hell, 19% of Wily Mo's hits were home runs... 24% of Babe Ruth's hits were home runs; 22% of Mickey Mantle's hits were home runs. So Wily Mo is in pretty good company there. But the only thing Wily Mo could hit was a fastball. His approach to at bats sucked, and he never adjusted to Major League pitching in a way that enabled him to amass all of his talents to become a prolific slugger.

Strength and intelligence are important at the plate. Players like Wily Mo didn't have it, but Mike Napoli did.

Napoli provides a case where myself and the Sabermetric statheads both didn't get it right; and, in retrospect, I'm happy the Red Sox signed him for 2013. I'm also happy to see Napoli take a hometown discount to stay in Boston.

Around this time last year, the Sabr predictions for Napoli were ridiculous: a .280 AVG / 30+ HR season, yadda yadda. I didn't believe it, and one reason why is because I doubted Napoli could be a full time player without getting injured. I was wrong, and the Sabermetricians were wrong - Napoli played full time, but he didn't amass the stats many thought he would.

Instead, he hit 23 HR - mostly off bad pitchers - with a .259 batting average. But his OBP of .360 shows that pitchers feared him, and that's telling.

I'm not going to look up Napoli's playoff stats, because the playoffs shouldn't be about stats. In fact, I'm sure Napoli's playoff stats were worse than his regular season stats - but the playoffs are about memories. And I remember Napoli hitting a fucking moonshot off Verlander in Detroit during the ALCS. This was the moment where, for me, Napoli transcended stats.

Napoli might not be as strong as physical freaks like Wily Mo Pena, but the dude is built. And everyone in MLB knows that when Napoli connects, he can hit the ball the fucking mile. That's why you see a 100 point disparity between Napoli's batting average and his OBP - pitchers fear this man. Pitchers also knew that Napoli strikes out a ton, but when he connects... Forget it. That ball is long gone.

Baseball has a lot of players who can hit .259. Most of them are middle infielders with good gloves and Punching Judy swings - they'll hit singles and that's about it. Napoli is different. Napoli isn't the best contact hitter in the world, and his the rate he's able to strikeout at can be annoying. But what I learned from watching Napoli last season is that nothing can beat raw power when it's wielded with discipline.

Napoli won't be the best hitter in the league, but there are games when he slams a pitch into never-never land and you have to admit that he was the best player that night. Napoli always has the potential to become that, and most of the time he won't... But this talent to be the best player for even a night doesn't exist with most ballplayers. Napoli is special and has this talent - and pitchers fear becoming a victim to those few times that Napoli could eat them alive.

I didn't see this talent in Napoli during the offseason last year. To my credit, I don't think anyone did. On one side you had the Sabermetricians pulling fantasy stats out of their ass, and on the other side you had people like myself saying those stats were bullshit. Both sides missed the point. Napoli showed us what the point was in 2013, and I think all of us are happier for this.

Monday, January 6, 2014

The Lying Heart of WAR

David Pinto, over at his blog Baseball Musings, sort of inadvertently makes a very accurate observation regarding how infielders with high career WAR fair in MVP vote shares:
The most interesting thing about the lists is that they show a systematic bias. The underrated players tend to be skill infielders (2b, 3b, ss), and outfielders who did not hit a ton of home runs. Power hitting first basemen and outfielders dominate the overrated lists, although some catchers appear there as well. Over time, MVP voters overrated power and catching defense, while underrated OBP and infield defense.
More generally: WAR reflects more favorably upon any infielder that doesn't play first base, but those players generally don't make out well in MVP voting. Thus illustrating the heart of the Sabermetrics v. Old School Stats conflict.

One of David's commenters to this post, pft, digs deeper into how unfair WAR judges MLB players:
WAR basically gives middle IF’ers and CF’ers a huge handicap and introduces a bias against those playing lesser positions.

I am pretty sure there are many great defensive players in the minors who never make it to MLB, but great offensive players are so rare teams find room for them, even if they can’t field their position very well. Yet offensive talent in general is treated as a commodity in equal supply as defensive talent.

Also, there are likely a great many skilled LH players who simply were unable to play any IF position but 1B and they are docked -10 runs per every 600 PA (or 1 Win)...

I just think more weight should be given to how a fielder played his position than the position itself which in some cases is determined not by skill but by other factors such as team needs, or handedness.
This is one of the best retorts against WAR that I've read, and kudos to pft for not lacing it with profanities. Something I've been, uh, apt to do when discussing WAR.

pft brings organizational needs into account - an important point. Some prospects who are viewed as spectacularly talented hitters will be removed from more demanding fielding positions so they can focus on their hitting. Best example I can think of for this is Bryce Harper, who was a catcher in high school and junior college. After the Nationals drafted Harper, they didn't want to risk injuring his knees by having him behind the plate so they converted him into an outfielder. According to WAR, this defensive conversion makes Harper less valuable because a power hitting catcher is supposedly more valuable than a power hitting outfielder - but according to the Nationals, Harper's value lies in getting as many productive years as they can out of his bat.

So is it fair for WAR to penalize Harper? No, of course not. This is one reason why WAR isn't a stat. WAR is a judgement - and, in my view, it's a poor judgement.

There are other examples of organizations placing prospects in less demanding fielding positions to maximize their hitting... Dave Winfield and Mark McGwire were pitchers in college. They didn't pitch in MLB. The reasons for that are self-evident.

And the reasons for organizations doing what they can to maximize the offensive potential of talented power hitters should be self-evident: sluggers improve players hitting ahead of them. For example, let's look at the effect Frank Thomas had on White Sox hitters.

In 1995, Frank Thomas batted third for the White Sox and hit .308/.454 OBP, with 40 HR and 111 RBI. This guy was a force of fucking nature. The White Sox leadoff hitter in 1995 was Lance Johnson. Up until 1995, Johnson was a career .281/.321 OBP hitter - but he hit .306/.341 OBP in 1995. It can be argued that hitting in front of Frank Thomas improved Johnson's stats.

Other examples can be found - Thomas had another 40 HR campaign in 1996. Tony Phillips hit ahead of him, and the 37 year old career .266/.374 OBP hitter went .277/.404 OBP in 1996. Dave Martinez also batted ahead of Thomas in 1996. Martinez was a career .269/.329 OBP hitter before 1996, but he hit .318/.393 OBP in 1996.

Sabermetricians like to scoff at RBIs as being a useless stat, since sluggers need men on base to drive them home. What isn't mentioned in this argument is that elite sluggers make the hitters in front of them better. If you pay attention to just only WAR, then you could insert David Eckstein into the third spot on the lineup and expect him to amass the 134 RBIs that Frank Thomas raked in 1996 because the same hitters would be in front of him. But Eckstein wouldn't make those hitters better. Pitchers aren't afraid of batters like Eckstein, so they'll feel free to pitch around hitters in front of him.

But pitchers feared Frank Thomas - dude was a physical fucking freak. He was an NFL linebacker standing at the plate, just wanting to crush fucking balls over the goddamn fence. Pitchers shit themselves when he came to the plate. So, just in case Thomas unloaded on them, pitchers needed to attack hitters in front of him to try and get them out so they didn't become runs. This means those hitters would see more strikes to hit, and if they are capable Major Leaguers, they took advantage of that.

Elite sluggers like Frank Thomas didn't benefit from having good hitters batting before him to drive in - they created great hitters in the lineup and then drove them in. That's why Frank Thomas put up multiple 100+ RBI seasons. And yes, the White Sox put him at 1B/DH: to maximize his value as a slugger by improving the hitters batting ahead of him.

I like to call this basic baseball strategy. This strategy should be incorporated into MVP voting, because if a slugger an organization chose to put at first base makes hitters in front of him better, doesn't that make him quite a valuable player?

But WAR doesn't recognize baseball strategy. That's why WAR doesn't have a lyin', cheatin' ole heart - WAR doesn't have a heart, period. The primary flaw of WAR lies in it judging all players as equal without noticing the role they have on the team; whereas baseball is played through roles. You have leadoff hitters, cleanup hitters, sluggers, and catchers who can provide pop in the seven hole of the lineup. These roles lie at the heart of baseball, and as a fan, I can't fathom some cold, supposedly all-encompassing "statistic" which refuses to take the heart of baseball into account.