Barry Bonds — Too Many Intentional Walks

Remember when you were in 7th grade, thinking to yourself, “Why do we have to learn all this math? I’m never going to use it.” If you indeed tuned out, then perhaps you should take a job in baseball. (You’ll have a hard time working for the A’s, Dodgers, Red Sox, Blue Jays, and a few other teams, but there are jobs aplenty in and around baseball for the mathematically challenged.)

Many baseball fans have voiced their frustration at watching pitchers intentionally or quasi-intentionally walk Barry Bonds repeatedly. Typically, the decision to give Bonds first base comes from the manager. Considering a manager’s prime directive is to give his team its best chance to win, quite a few skippers should be on the chopping block. What strikes me as odd is that amid the discussion of rules changes for intentional walks (ludicrous for many reasons), rarely does the IBB for Bonds tactic get called into question. Bear in mind that the S.F. left fielder has received more intentional walks thus far in 2004 than Alex Rodriguez, a feared hitter in his own right, has in his entire career. Pardon the pun, but ask yourself, “Does that add up?”

The Chicago Tribune’s Phil Rogers recently touched on differences in managerial approach towards Bonds by current manager Phil Garner and their manager of a few years ago, Larry Dierker. Rogers looks at their tendencies and concludes that Garner will be more aggressive in facing Bonds. Fair enough. Although there is little quantitative analysis to support the writer’s conjecture, I’m inclined to give him a pass and examine the primary question that the article raises: Do all these intentional walks make sense?

In 2001, Dierker’s pitchers walked Bonds eight times in a three game series much to the chagrin of the fans who wanted to watch Mark McGwire’s home run record fall. Though the strategy was booed, Dierker — to this day — thinks that if one wants to maximize the chances of victory against the Giants, “an opponent would be wise to intentionally walk Bonds every time he came to bat unless the bases were loaded, the score was tied and it was the bottom of the ninth, 10th, 11th, etc.”

Dierker addresses the aforementioned strategy: “You can support that idea statistically. If you do the math, you’re better off walking him than pitching to him … I think over the course of time, you probably would be better off walking him every single time.”

Before I take Dierker up on his offer and “do the math,” I’m going to share Rogers’s mathematical take on this: “If Bonds walked every plate appearances all season, he’d have a 1.000 on-base percentage and a zero slugging average. That’s a 1.000 OPS, which creates fewer runs than Bonds’ 1.378 OPS from 2001 or his 1.437 this season, when he’s been the best hitter in the history of the game.”

First, let’s take a look at what Phil Rogers said. It’s true, a 1.000 OPS will typically yield fewer runs than a 1.378 OPS or a 1.437 OPS. The key word, however, is typically. There are two things that are taken for granted in Rogers’s assertion. First of all, OBP is a far more significant factor than SLG in determining a player’s offensive efficacy. Using a number somewhere between 1.64 and 1.8 as a multiplier for OBP and then adding the resultant number to SLG provides a more accurate assessment than a conventional unweighted OPS. Perhaps more damning though is that Rogers never accounts for the edge case, but that is exactly the scenario he offers the reader.

The imaginary player the Rogers describes looks like this (I’ll use unweighted OPS for the sake of simplicity):

PA     H    BB   OBP     SLG      OPS
500    0    500  1.000   1.000    0.000

Imagine a player who was exactly the same, save for a single in his first plate appearance. Basically, the player gets a hit and then is intentionally walked the rest of the season. Here are his numbers:

PA     H    BB   OBP     SLG      OPS
500    1    499  1.000   1.000    2.000

And if that hitter were to have hit a homerun in his first trip to the plate?

PA     H    BB   OBP     SLG      OPS
500    1    499  1.000   4.000    5.000

Each of the previous scenarios describes seasons that are quite close to identical, but the OPS is ridiculously skewed by the small sample size of at-bats.

OK, ready to do the math? Here we go…. The most important thing a batter can do is not make an out. Outs are precious as a team is only guaranteed 27 of them (24 for a winning home team) over the course of a 9-inning game. By offering a batter an intentional pass, a team is eliminated the chance of the batter’s generating an out. Bonds is an extremely dangerous hitter, but a good part of the threat he poses derives from the opposition’s unwillingness to pitch to him.

Let’s take a look at some stats. According to the formula for runs created per 27 outs (i.e. how many runs a team composed of nine instances of a particular hitter would score), a lineup of nine Barry Bondses would score almost 21 runs/game. (To put this number in context, only two other NL players have managed double digits and those players — Todd Helton and Jim Edmonds — are still below 11.) Now, take the batter Phil Rogers offered a figure out how many runs a team composed of nine of him would score. The number? Infinity. Intentionally walking every batter in the order repeatedly would eliminate all outs. The lineup would bat around until the end of time. While Bonds’s almost 21 runs created/27 outs in impressive, the imaginary player’s infinite runs created/27 outs would eliminate the need for a pitching staff in road games.

Dierker — a very good pitcher in his day, but clearly not mathematician — concluded by saying, “Over a long course of time, the math would be borne out, but in a three-game series, I don’t think you can count on it.” Taken by itself, this statement is accurate: Over a small sample, one can’t expect outcomes that are 100% consistent with the law of averages. Understanding this, Dierker should have played his hand the smartest way possible, pitching to Bonds with much greater regularity while realizing that though he may get burned a time or two, he is playing the odds. Besides, the odds are that, given enough series, Bonds will also experience less-than-favorable results on occasion.

Riding the Pine on the Day of Atonement

I try not to read Jack McDowell’s column. Honest. I’ve long found him irritating, whether he was giving interviews after games or sparring with my father on television. But his columns have been particularly grating. However, with a bit too much free time — and not enough interesting baseball news — I found myself clicking on one of McDowell’s more columns.

The issue at hand? McDowell doesn’t understand why Shawn Green skipped a game during Yom Kippur. This issue has reared its head before; Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg both elected to observe the most sacred of Jewish holidays rather than play. It seems that neither history, nor present, have enlightened the pitcher turned columnist. For those of you interested in seeing something more informative (and less provincial) Greg Garber of ESPN did a much better job deciphering the issues at play in his piece, “The Passion of the Athlete.”

I wonder if Elvis would have sat out a concert or two had he known about his roots.

Ichiro — Good, not Great

Don’t Believe the Hype
It’s about time…. Somebody (Dayn Perry) finally published something realistic about Ichiro Suzuki. The Mariner’s right fielder is exciting to watch. He gets down the line in a blur, had a seemingly bionic right arm, and plays the game with a certain flair. Despite all of those wonderful attributes, he has not established himself as a great player. Indeed, while Ichiro may put his power on display in batting practice, he spends far too much time beating out infield singles during games. Since he rarely walks, his OBP is not too much higher than his batting average. Fortunately, his batting average is so good that he does spend a fair bit of time on base.

Ichiro is a good player, but no superstar. As of this writing, the following were among the less-heralded AL players who had notched a higher OPS:

  • Melvin Mora – the Orioles 3B is having a career year, but few realize what an offensive force he truly is.
  • Travis Hafner – he’s making Cleveland’s fans forget about the loss of Jim Thome.
  • Aaron Rowand – finally living up to his promise.
  • Eric Chavez – maybe he’s too well-regarded to be on this list, but now that he’s drawing walks, look out.
  • Erubiel Durazo – healthy and starting with some regularity.
  • Carlos Guillen – I’m sure Ichiro’s Mariners are kicking themselves for thinking that Rich Aurilia would be an upgrade. The rest of us are scratching our heads at how anyone could have felt that way.
  • Jason Varitek – the Red Sox backstop can hit a bit too.
  • Hideki Matsui – while clearly not the type of hitter he was in Japan, he’s still pretty good…and more productive than Ichiro.
  • Carlos Delgado – he only makes the list because he’s having his worst year in 7 seasons and is still more of an offensive force than Ichiro.

There are a bunch of other places who are having better offensive seasons than Ichiro whom I didn’t put on the list. I don’t know that anyone disputes that Manny Ramirez or Gary Sheffield are far more dangerous hitters. And as for Ichiro’s much-vaunted base-stealing? He has swiped 34 bags and been caught 10 times. That’s helpful, but stealing a base every four games does little to help your team score runs.

Farewell PlanetGordon
This blog used to run on MovableType before I switched to WordPress yesterday. My hands-on introduction to blogging came when my friend, Doug, mentioned he wanted a website. The domain names he was considering were all taken. PlanetGordon popped into my head and it grew on him. After he registered the domain, I dilly-dallied, but eventually set up MoveableType for him. It was an adventure for the two of us and I got a nice little tour of Brooklyn to boot.

Doug has been the most reliable blogger I know and he’s done me proud. His site has been featured online, in newspapers, and on TV and radio. But now that he’s married, he’s taking a hiatus for awhile. He’s generated close to a million hits, so I’m sure his readers will bombard him with email, urging him to return. We’ll all cross our fingers that he does.

Breaking Down a Deal

A few days ago, Dodgers GM Paul DePodesta “gutted” (in the words of some journalists) a team that had been among the hottest in baseball, going 20-6 in July. Most of the articles I’ve read have scored this as a big win for the Marlins, the Dodgers’ trading partner. Sure DePodesta gave up some talent: Paul LoDuca, Juan Encarnacion, and Guillermo Mota. And in return, the Marlins sent Brad Penny, Hee Seop Choi, and Bill Murphy packing. It’s often said that “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts,” but let’s begin our analysis by looking at the individuals.

Paul LoDuca
LoDuca shot to fame in 2001, hitting .320 and slugging 25 homeruns while giving the Dodgers a legitimate thumper at catcher to replace Mike Piazza, who was traded away a few years before. He compiled an OPS of .917 and struck out just 30 times in 460 at-bats. LoDuca hit, hit for power, and seemed to have great command of the strike zone. A couple of red flags become evident in retrospect though. Despite his good eye, he walked just 39 times, a rather low number and oftentimes an indicator that the offensive performance will be hard to repeat. (Yes, exceptions abound, but this is merely one indicator, not a hard-and-fast rule.) More significant was the unexpected power surge. LoDuca had never hit more than 8 dingers in a minor league season. But most damning was his age. The Dodgers’ catcher was 29 when he enjoyed his breakout year. In a position where players wear down rather quickly, his long-term prospects weren’t great.

Indeed, LoDuca’s subsequent seasons seem to be more representative of what he brings to the table. In 2002 and 2003, he compiled an OPS of .732 and .712 respectively. In those years, he kept company with Jimmy Rollins (.707 in 2003) and Kevin Young (.730 in 2002, his last full year in MLB). This year LoDuca seemed to show a bit of a return to form, however, hitting .301 with 10 homeruns for Los Angeles at the time of his trade. But looking deeper at the numbers, he posted a .795 OPS, which puts him just ahead of A.J. Pierzynski at his position. By no means is LoDuca a bad player. In fact, he’s a major upgrade over Mike Redmond, who had done the bulk of the catching for the Marlins. But despite of what the media reports about his locker room presence, he’s a piece, not a cog. And considering that he was acquired after the All-Star break, the Marlins would be wise to temper their expectations. LoDuca seems to wear down. In his career, he has posted an excellent .869 OPS before the break, but an anemic .680 after it. At 32, with his best years are likely behind him, LoDuca’s move from one pennant race to another should cause little more than a ripple in the standings.

Juan Encarnacion
In 1999, this 5-tool player enjoyed his first year with the Detroit Tigers. With power, speed, and a propensity to swing at anything close to the strike zone, many in the baseball world were reminded of a young Sammy Sosa. Now 28 and a veteran, Juan Encarnacion has established himself as an adequate player. Florida opted not to re-sign him this past off-season after a year-and-a-half stint, and the outfielder moved west for a little over $3.5 million. However, after deciding to move Hee-Seop Choi, the Marlins needed to do some roster shuffling; Encarnacion was a warm body who filled a need in the outfield. The .706 OPS compiled (I acknowledge that he played half of his games in a pitcher’s park) would rank him ahead of only the Expos. Put another way, a team with a batting order 1-9 of Juan Encarnacions is better offensively than only one team in the National League. Factor in the fact that NL teams don’t have the luxury of the DH and his offensive value is downright frightful. Though not terribly expensive, he’s due to make more than he’s worth and the Marlins are stuck with his contract through 2005.

Guillermo Mota
In New York, Mets fans remember Mota not as a player who was originally signed by their team, but as the guy who ran away from Mike Piazza. NL players probably have something else come to mind when they hear his name: mid-90s heat and a step closer to the inevitability that is Eric Gagne. There’s no doubt that Mota can chuck it, but he can really pitch too. A converted position player, he has emerged as one of the top setup men in the majors. In Florida, he’ll likely close for a while as an injury to Armando Benitez has left the 9th inning fair game.

Mota is a young 31. He didn’t arrive in the majors until he was 26, and due to his position shift and status as a relief guy, he hasn’t put that much mileage on his arm. He’s a bargain at just under $1.5 million, but his contract expires after this season. If he holds up in the closer role, conventional wisdom indicates that he’ll receive a lucrative offer to finish games elsewhere, rendering him a short-term, but inexpensive rental.

Brad Penny
Let’s make sure one issue is clear: Brad Penny is no Randy Johnson. He’s almost 15 years younger, has cartilage in his knees, and is due to make close to $12 million less than The Big Unit. I can understand how Dodgers fans, sensing a window of opportunity to win the World Series, are upset about not acquiring Johnson. He’s a living legend and is still among the most dominant pitchers in baseball. Having said that, Brad Penny is a pretty good consolation prize.

Expendable only because the Marlins are very deep in starting pitching (although I would argue that they’re not deep enough), Penny is a 26 year-old horse who was regularly projected to bust out and become a front of the rotation-type starter. The second half of last season, he seemed to find his groove and rode that into the World Series where he beat the Yankees, winning both his starts and posting an ERA of 2.19. In fairness, he was roughed up a bit in the NLDS and NLCS, but I would attribute that to a small sample size. (Remember when Barry Bonds just couldn’t hit in the postseason? He changed people’s minds fairly quickly.) The point is that with GMs and managers placing such an emphasis on using players with postseason experience, Penny’s work last year should be acknowledged.

Most importantly, he fills out the Dodgers’ rotation. Rather than running the deceptively ineffective Jose Lima or the surprisingly effective Wilson Alvarez out to the mound on a regular basis, Jim Tracy can ink Penny’s name into the lineup card. The righty is more than just an innings eater though. He’s having his best year to date, posting an ERA of 3.15 while holding opposing batters to an OPS of .691. Florida is a good pitcher’s park, but Dodger stadium is a veritable hurler’s haven. He’s a solid number two starter or a fantastic number three and he comes relatively cheap to boot. Penny is arbitration eligible this year, however, and will probably be due a big raise.

Hee-Seop Choi
At just 25 years of age, Choi is already being referred to by some as a journeyman. The Dodgers are the first baseman’s third team in as many years. Last season, just as he was getting comfortable in the big leagues, he suffered a concussion in a bad collision. Choi’s numbers fell from an .844 OPS before the All-Star break to just .485 thereafter. He was never quite right after the injury though, and registered only 43 at-bats after the midsummer classic. Choi is big — at 6’5″ and 240 lbs, he’s roughly the same size as Jim Thome — and strong, solid defensively, and has excellent plate discipline. In fact, Choi seems to project as a poor man’s Jim Thome. His high walk totals and strong power numbers date back to the minor leagues. Choi’s age also is a strong indicator as he’s likely not yet reached his prime; he should have another four years or so of improvement.

I maintain that Choi is actually the key to this deal. Brad Penny, though young, is a known quantity. On the other hand, Choi has fewer than two years of experience in the major leagues. Despite having played most of the year in a pitcher’s park, Choi’s numbers put him in the company of Lyle Overbay (who is enjoying a breakout season), Derrek Lee (the man he replaced), and Paul Konerko (who is on pace for a career year). Years away from free agency, the young first baseman should emerge as an integral part of the Dodgers’ young foundation and will probably put up a few All-Star caliber seasons before he is through.

Bill Murphy
Murphy is a young left-handed starting pitcher who was in the Oakland organization (where DePodesta likely has a hand in drafting him) before being traded to Florida. Reports are that he has good stuff and features a low 90s fastball with good movement. It’s particularly difficult to project pitchers, but there are worse chips to have than a talented southpaw.

Overall
The Dodgers bolstered their outfield production as the struggling Shawn Green replaces the really, really badly struggling Juan Encarnacion. Choi is an upgrade offensively and defensively over Green at first base. And the starting pitching is substantially improved with the addition of Brad Penny. Encarnacion’s loss is essentially meaningless as his value was negligible and there was no room for him with Green’s return to the outfield. The loss of Mota and LoDuca sting a little bit, but the improved rotation somewhat mitigates the loss of a setup man. Where the catching situation is concerned, the Dodgers had to expect that LoDuca’s numbers would drop off substantially anyway making a Brett Mayne/Dave Ross combo comparably effective. Not to be overlooked is the payroll flexibility that DePodesta created. He saved money while improving his team.

The Marlins reacquired an outfielder that they didn’t want to re-sign, moving Jeff Conine — who should be a fourth outfielder — to first base where he represents a significant downgrade from Hee-Seop Choi. They’re better at catcher with LoDuca’s replacing Mike Redmond, but would have been wiser to try to finagle a deal earlier in the season so as to enjoy LoDuca’s typically strong first halves. They’ve also improved their bullpen, but at the expense of their starting rotation. While Penny might only make 10-12 starts and Mota could conceivable appear in 40 more games, the former will probably pitch more than twice as many innings as the latter. With Josh Beckett’s struggling through blister problems and lingering uncertainty about when A.J. Burnett will hit a dead-arm period in his return from Tommy John surgery, the Marlins were not in a position to weaken their rotation.

Fahrenheit 9/11 — A Boiling Point

While there has been no shortage of media coverage about the recent release of Michael Moore’s movie, Fahrenheit 9/11, I feel compelled to add my voice to the mix. For those of you who have paged through previous blog entries, you’ll note that I don’t write entries on any sort of regular schedule (though I tried, albeit briefly) and that I seem somewhat fixated on baseball (guilty as charged). Perhaps in an effort to avoid polemical emails, I have generally shied away from sharing my political views with strangers via the Internet. Thus far, the only unsolicited mail I’ve received via this website has been positive and affirming. That said, I’ve grown weary of what seems to be an increasingly polarized view of our country, its foreign policy, and its elected leaders. I have a friend visiting from Paris and he is astonished when watching Fox News (“It’s like they’re not allowed to criticize Bush. They just throw away all of the information and say he’s great.”) or any of the other cable news networks (“Why don’t they just tell you the facts instead of telling you what your opinion should be?”) There are so many politicians and pundits being compared to Joseph Goebbels that I’ve lost count.

The cover of this week’s issue of The New York Press asks a rather pointed question: Is Michael Moore a fascist? You’d think if Michael Moore could score with someone, it would be an African American from his home state of Michigan. But Armond White skewers Fahrenheit and takes Moore to task repeatedly for editing decisions that range from lazy to disingenuous. But Michael Moore isn’t a fascist, but rather the embodiment of almost everything that he’s fought. To look at him is to see the stereotypical “ugly American” — unshaven, morbidly obese, and typically clad in ratty clothes and a baseball hat. But Moore’s appearance is not the problem. And though it raises more than a few eyebrows, his hypocrisy, i.e. his wealth, apparent lack of compassion, and status among society’s elites, does not necessarily invalidate his message. Moore’s lack of credibility stems not from his lifestyle or his personality, but rather from his dishonesty.

Irony was lost amid the boos that rained down on Michael Moore after punctuated his “Best Documentary” Oscar speech by lambasting George W. Bush, calling him a “fictitious president.” No matter what your views are on the 2000 election (full disclosure: I think what happened was a travesty, which puts me squarely in the Moore camp), it’s hard to accept anything Moore says as truthful. The documentary film category is supposed to recognize directors who released films that are, in the words of Merriam Webster, “factual” and “objective.” Bowling for Columbine was neither.

I’m not naive enough to believe that anyone is truly objective. Our views and attitudes are shaped by our experiences and they inform everything we say, write, and do. But even if I dismiss objectivity as a requirement, I can’t be so forgiving about Moore’s lack of honesty. Were the Academy to add a category for propaganda, or perhaps, documentary-style editorial films, I wouldn’t object to a film like Bowling for Columbine’s being nominated or awarded an Oscar. But for Michael Moore to indict the media, as he did later in his rant, for not “doing their job” was blatantly hypocritical. Western societies get most of their information from the media, be it the news media, Internet, film, newspapers, magazines, or some other source. Should Michael Moore want to hold CNN to a certain standard, shouldn’t he aspire to that level as well. In the case of a major news organization, there is so much internal accountability that one can almost (but not quite) understand why the reporting is lacking. But for a “documentary” filmmaker, the layers of bureaucracy are far thinner and the director is empowered to deliver the unvarnished truth in a way that a newspaper or television channel can’t. This freedom demands of the filmmaker a great responsibility, a responsibility that Michael Moore was ill-equipped to handle.

Cogent Moore defenders will rationalize away his factual liberties by labeling him a polemicist or a propagandist. I submit that if one accepts those labels, one can no longer take Moore seriously as a documentary filmmaker. The half-truths and outright lies in Bowling for Columbine are, by now, well documented. Among them:

  • The scene where Moore opens an account at a bank and walks out with a gun was staged.
  • A Charlton Heston speech that was purportedly delivered just after the Flint school shooting actually took place almost a year later.
  • The Lockheed Martin facility in Littleton that manufactures “weapons of mass destruction” actually makes rockets for television satellites. Moore was close; he should have said that they launched “weapons of mass distraction.”

The problem with Moore is that he has become the boy who cried wolf. Roger & Me was an excellent film, and Moore’s rise from behind-the-scenes magazine editor to national (and now international) public figure has been Horatio Algeresque. But every pimply teenager who has read Spiderman knows that “With great power comes great responsibility.” If Stan Lee doesn’t land in Bartlett’s for that, someone isn’t doing his job. What Moore seems to have missed is a lesson that every college student learns, “Power corrupts.” Having risen to prominence in our popular culture, he has a platform the likes of which most will never know. While he assails the corrupting influence of power in those around him, though, Moore remains unwilling or unable to look in the mirror.

Why does this matter? In broad terms, this is important because so many people in this country develop opinions by consuming the information that’s placed before them. Funny pictures and embarrassing sound bytes may be easily digestible, but aren’t necessarily nourishing. French documentary film maker, Jean-Luc Goddard, commenting on Fahrenheit 9/11, said, “Moore doesn’t distinguish between text and image. He doesn’t know what he’s doing.” But again, the question is “Why does this matter?” Goddard has an answer: “He’s not even hurting Bush. He’s helping him in an underground way. Bush is either less stupid than he looks or so stupid you can’t change him.” That’s an interesting argument, but the issue isn’t simply George Bush, or the U.S.A., or Roger Smith, or any of Moore’s other preferred targets. It’s Moore himself. It’s not inherently wrong for a director to make himself such an important component of his “documentary” film. But Moore’s insistence on branding himself has seriously damaged his credibility even while it has padded his bank account. His anonymity gone, the film-going audience has little choice but to connect the mistruths in his films to the director. And how many times can he cry wolf before we stop believing?

The sad part of all of this is that I don’t totally disagree with Moore. I, too, am upset about the 2000 election, the President’s foreign and domestic policy, and the continued assaults on the Constitution by the current administration and the Congress. In succumbing to his ego and making himself bigger than the issues, Moore undermines the issues he claims to espouse. To his potential detractors, Moore says, “You come at me with anything, we come back with the truth.” Well, I guess there’s a first time for everything.

Related reading:
Newsweek looks at some questions about Fahrenheit 9/11:

Pied Piper or Bully

A Documentary on Michael Moore

A “horrible human being?” Ray Bradbury thinks so.

Harold Reynolds, Celebrity Kids, and MythTV

Harold Reynolds
I used to really enjoy listening to HR on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight, but this year, I’ve made the mistake of paying attention to what he’s saying. I think that the problem with many analysts who are former players is that the game came easily and was physically intuitive to them. Consequently, they haven’t had to study the sport in any objective way.

In any case, Harold was talking about over-rated statistics and cited On-Base Percentage (OBP) as an example. He pointed to Jason Giambi, who annually ranks among the league leaders in that category, and explained that the Yankees 1B/DH clogs up the bases. After pointing out a few other players who have high OBPs, but don’t run well, Harold switched gears and talked about prototypical speedy leadoff men. While Juan Pierre could hardly be accused of slowing anyone down, he’s only moderately effective as a leadoff hitter because he doesn’t get on base often enough. At the end of the game, the team that scores more runs wins the game. Run production correlates fairly highly with OBP, but correlation coefficients are likely of little interest to the majority to the retired player analysts on ESPN.

What made Harold’s statement that much more annoying to me is that he cited — just 2 or 3 days later — the Yankees as having one of the most potent offenses in baseball. You’re probably thinking, “But that’s true, isn’t it?” Absolutely, but his rationale was this: The Yankees are struggling and are among the worst in the league in batting average, but thus far, they are among the league leaders in base runners. What’s that mean? All of those high OBP guys have some value. Strange…. Just a few days earlier, getting on base was overrated.

Celebrity Kids
Apple? Please. Why do so many celebrity parents feel compelled to thumb their noses at the general public by giving their children ridiculous names. In fact, Apple is relatively innocuous when compared to Moon Unit, Audio Science, and Pilot Inspektor. For the best of the worst, check out this article.

MythTV
I recently put together a MythTV box, running on Gentoo Linux. I have mixed feelings about both Myth and Gentoo thus far. Getting everything up-and-running was certainly not a trivial process and when Myth was finally working, the picture quality wasn’t very good. I was going to do some tweaking, but I hosed my machine today and will have to get it fixed before I do so.

MoneyBall Angst

If there has been anything as controversial as the issue of steroids in baseball, it’s been the reception of Michael Lewis’s book, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. It seems that many pundits and self-appointed experts continue to insist that Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane wrote the book. Joe Morgan, the veritable bane of the baseball analysis component of my existence had this to say in an ESPN.com chat:

“I read an excerpt in the NY Times. It’s typical if you write a book, you want to be the hero. That is apparently what Beane has done. According to what I read in the Times, Beane is smarter than anyone else.”

I’m apparently not the only one who noticed this frequent misattribution relating to Moneyball. It’s both frustrating and confounding that so many — writers included — can make such an obvious mistake. Beane’s name doesn’t even appear on the book jacket.

Of greater annoyance to me is what seems like a fundamental inability to understand the principles in Moneyball. Although the book focuses on baseball, the bigger issue of finding and eliminated systemic inefficiencies to establish a competitive advantage is something that could be applied to businesses, governments, school systems, etc. Essentially, systems become self-reinforcing and once accepted as the gospel, escape scrutiny. In baseball, this means players who hit .300 with on-base percentages of .330 will almost invariable be better paid than a player with comparable power numbers, an average of .275 and an on-base percentage of .400. Practically every statistical regression shows that on-base percentage is far more important than batting average in generating runs, but the institutional powers in baseball continue to reward the player with the flashy average.

Michael Lewis spends a good portion of the book focusing on how Billy Beane and the A’s front office exploit the difference in perceived value and real value of baseball players. Is this earth shattering? In baseball, it seems so, but in any free market, if all things are equal, those who make the best use of information will end up on top. As human beings, we are prone to viewing the world in a biased fashion. In particular, we tend to see and remember outcomes that support our preconceived notions. What the “Moneyball crowd” and sabrematicians have done is toss aside conventional wisdom and begin analyzing anew. Billy Beane has a big personality and it comes across in the book. There is no arguing that some people have been turned off by this, but the question is this: Does disliking Billy Beane render invalid his methods? I don’t think so.

Bob McCullough recently wrote a piece on the baseball steroid scandal for NBCSports.com. He writes, “If steroids have played as large a role as many believe in the home run binge during the last decade, a strict testing program could spell the death of Moneyball, the offensive success formula used by the likes of Billy Beane, Theo Epstein and a host of other young GMs. Here’s why: In addition to drafting college players with a track record of success, one of the key tenets of Moneyball is accumulating players with a high on-base percentage who can supply a modicum of power (i.e., 20 HR or more a year), whether or not they can also add speed or hit for average.”

Even writers outside of the baseball establishment don’t always get it. (Don’t get me started on Tracy Ringolsby.) The fundamental argument in Moneyball is not that high OBP players with some power are the best. In fact, it’s not a baseball issue at all, but rather an economic one. Market inefficiencies can be exploited to better one’s situations. That is the crux of Moneyball.

Were homeruns to drop by even 20%, would that change the rules of player evaluation? Not too dramatically. But the beauty of what Beane does (and likely what DePodesta, Epstein, and Ricciardi do) is that it’s not written in stone. The value of the system employed by this “new breed” of GM is the constant evaluation and reevaluation. Based on the information I have, I’m not inclined to believe that Billy Beane thinks he’s figured it all out. As baseball wises up around him, he’ll have to find new and interesting ways to gather and apply information to keep his team competitive.

Back to the McCullough article. The most important thing a hitter can do is get on base. This benefits the batting team in two ways. One, the batter moves closer to scoring. Two, the batter has saved a team an out. Since in a nine-inning game, a team has just 27 outs, therefore making them a precious commodity. McCullough goes on to talk about Seattle’s being a “little ball” club and the possibility that with drug testing, “bunting could come back into fashion.” Let’s look at Seattle’s recent run of excellence:

Year	Wins	 OBP	    SLG		RUNS
2000	91	.361 (2)   .442 (8)	907 (4)
2001	116	.360 (1)   .445 (4)	927 (1)
2002	93	.350 (2)   .419 (9)	814 (6)
2003	93	.344 (4)   .410 (10)	795 (7)

The Mariners have not been a slugging team, ranking generally near the middle of the pack. But they have done fairly well scoring runs and this is largely attributable to their consistently strong on-base percentage. Even if homeruns decline, players who are selective at the plate will get hits and draw walks. Base hits and bases-on-balls will result in scoring runs and that will hold true whether there is a league-wide homerun drought or not.

As for the possibility that bunting may return to prominence, it just might. But that wouldn’t make it a smart strategy, which is what McCullough implies. Pete Palmer and John Thorn demonstrated in The Hidden Game of Baseball that swapping an out in order to advance a base is a net negative. There are certain situations where sacrifice bunts may make sense, but in general the established probabilities demonstrate that it’s better to let guys go up to the plate hacking. A return to the glory days of “giving yourself up for the team” would mean that managers value conventional wisdom over mathematical analysis. And I would suggest that they go pick up a copy of Moneyball — it’s coming out in paperback next month.

The Monday Sports Spectacular

INDIGESTION
I’ve seen some funny pictures online, but these pictures of 400+ pound competitive eater Eric “Badlands” Booker at the Second Annual Hebrew Institute of Riverdale Hamentashen Eating Contest were hysterical.

DREAM JOB
Making fun of the contestants from ESPN’s “Dream Job” is like shooting ducks in a barrel. Or are they sitting fish? Whatever your mixed metaphor, it’s easy to mock their stumbles and quirks. Dan Shanoff writes a weekly recap column about the show. He has spent the last few weeks apotheosizing Al Jaffe, a network vice president who oversees ESPN’s on-air hiring. On last night’s episode, Jaffe seemed particularly fixated on the contestants’ mispronunciation of several words, including Xavier on two occasions. He later said, “Mispronunciations are unacceptable. We would never hire someone who made the mispronunciations we heard tonight.” This was noteworthy (AND ironic) because the first couple of times he corrected a contestant, Jaffe actually mispronounced mispronunciation. (He said something that sounded like mis-pro-noun-see-ee-aye-shun.)

I also thought it amusing the Tony Kornheiser, a writer for The Washington Post and a real stickler for accuracy talked about people’s “get[ting] hung” for mistakes. The sportswriter cum television personality should have learned in class — he was an English major in college — that while clothing is hung, people are hanged.

Lastly, ESPN.com remains the best sports web site by leaps and bounds, but I am often surprised by a marked lack of editing. In the aforementioned Shanoff column, the word “necessarly” crept into a sentence. That’s no word at all, but rather a misspelling of necessarily. No, it’s not the end of the world, but an organization with ESPN’s resources should be able to pony up for a spellchecker.

BASEBALL NOTES
Baseball has an effect on me that none of the other major sports do. I find football more entertaining, think hockey games are a treat to see in person, and follow the NBA closely. But baseball’s mix of nostalgia and numbers, combined with its status as a harbinger of spring moves me in a way that the NFL, NBA, and NHL don’t…and can’t. I’ve liked baseball long enough to have seen the players transform from long-and-lean (think Keith Hernandez) and (ahem) “stocky” (think Greg Luzinski) into the muscle-bound athletes they are today. I would never argue against baseball’s position as a sporting contest, but I am sometimes reminded that most ballplayers aren’t the physical specimens that their counterparts in other sports are.

In Peter Gammons’s article today, Jose Guillen spoke frankly about having to play some games in centerfield. “I can play there, but I never realized how much running you do. Sometimes if I have to run a long way for a ball for the final out and I lead off the next inning, I’m a little tired. But I can handle it.” ‘Nuff said.

Another interesting thing about the Gammons column was his comment on THG. (I think Peter Gammons is a fantastic baseball guy, but no one is above reproach.) He claims not to understand the outrage over the use of THG, citing the fact that it wasn’t deemed illegal until after the 2003 World Series. If you want to check out my thoughts on baseball’s drug policy, click here or here. For the sake of brevity, I’m not going to rehash what I’ve already said, but rather hone in on a point. Players were advised that they shouldn’t be taking steroids after the last collective bargaining agreement in 2002. Was THG on the list? No. Why not? It’s quite likely that THG didn’t exist when the drug policy was drafted. For that matter, any new designer steroids will not be on a list until after they are discovered. That was the point of THG — to elude detection while providing a boost in strength and recovery time. The spirit of the rule dictates that THG and its ilk are out-of-bounds. No agency can proactively ban all steroids by name because to my knowledge, there are no psychics who can predict which molecules will be manipulated. Therefore, all known anabolic steroids and unknown variations thereof must be banned.

NEYER
Rob Neyer makes a bunch of assertions about Eric Chavez today that range from specious to bizarre. Chavez is a good hitter whom Neyer thinks is a consensus “great hitter.” The problem is that the same writer would argue that Garret Anderson is overrated — certainly from a sabermetric standpoint. As I see it, Chavez’s big advantages over Anderson relate to his age (Neyer appropriately does cite age) and his defensive position. Not only is it harder to find a run-producing third baseman than it is an outfielder, an elite defensive third baseman is much more valuable than a good defensive outfielder. Neyer seems to make a habit of discarding information that doesn’t jive with his preconceived notions. I strongly doubt that he would classify Garret Anderson as a great of “near great” hitter.

One other peeve regarding the article in question. (I have many more peeves, but my fingers are tiring.) Neyer writes, “Let’s run a short thought experiment … Suppose you had an outfielder who hit a home run every time he faced a right-handed pitcher (intentional walks notwithstanding), but batted just .100 against left-handers. Wouldn’t you still be thrilled to have that player, and pay him top dollar?”

Huh? How is this an experiment? I don’t necessarily need a control group for his example, but this is just ridiculous. Neyer asserts (by way of question) that Chavez’s struggles with left-handers don’t substantially diminish his value or his perceived value according to his overall numbers. I would agree with that. But the “experiment” is both strange and terribly unconvincing. The simple argument is this: Chavez murders right-handed pitching. Most pitchers are righties. Chavez will perform at a very high level against most pitchers. Q.E.D.

(If you’re interested, take a look at statistical comparison tool that my friend whipped up recently: http://www.intap.net/cgi-bin/drw/bball-test.pl.

THOSE GOSSIP PAGES
Lloyd Grove wrote about how students “brown-nosed” when dealing with fellow student John F. Kennedy Jr. at Brown University in the 1980s. These comments were related by CNN’s Christiane Amanpour during a “48 Hours Investigates” interview with Leslie Stahl. That may or may not be true, but Grove’s claim that Amanpour attended school with Kennedy is certainly not. Amanpour went to the University of Rhode Island, where she graduated summa cum laude. Take a look at her bio. George Rush, a gossip columnist and Brown graduate at the same paper, is likely readying is evil eye for his colleague. I suppose fact-checking belies the whole business of reporting gossip, eh?

Iraq — One Year Later

(Much of what you see here was taken from an excellent article in The Washington Post.)

Then: roughly one year ago.
Now: the present day — 1 year after the invasion of Iraq.

Then: The Iraqis will welcome us with open arms.
Now: Many, and probably most, Iraqis are happy to be rid of Saddam Hussein. Despite this, the American presence does not appear to be regarded with any fondness.

Then: Andrew S. Natsios, the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, said, “The American part of this will be $1.7 billion. We have no plans for any further-on funding for this.”
Now: Oops. In this year alone, reconstruction costs looks to be close to $75 billion — an error of 97.8%.

Then: Paul Wolfowitz said that Iraq “can really finance its own reconstruction, and relatively soon.”
Now: The administration is looking for an allocation of $150 billion for Iraqi reconstruction.

The news isn’t all bad. The Iraqi economy is picking up and the people are enjoying greater freedom. However, with all of the talk about the specious justifications for war pushed by the Bush administration, it’s particularly interesting to see that much of what was projected has not come to fruition.

It surprised me to see Ken Pollack’s criticism of the administration, though I agree with him. I saw Pollack speak last year at The Yale Club about his book, The Threatening Storm. While he never allied himself with the Bush camp (he actually specifically stated the he did not speak for the administration), he seemed to have drawn many of the same conclusions about WMD and the need to remove Saddam from power. Punditry is an interesting racket, ain’t it?

First Rate. Third World?

Kudos to President Ruth Simmons. Simmons, who has the top post at my alma mater, Brown University, has cast a skeptical eye on the pre-orientation Third World Transition Program (TWTP). For those of you who aren’t in the know, “Third world” is Brown’s word for minority. When I was a student there in the politically-correct charged atmosphere of the 90s, I was told that minority was a loaded world. Third world didn’t have the political baggage that minority does…. Huh?

When I found out about the choice in terminology, I was stunned. More shocking still was the explanation. For me, minority conjures up a Benetton advertisement. Third world, on the other hand, makes me think of shantytowns and of people with dentition issues. I thought it offensive to call U.S. citizens — many of whose families have been in this country longer than mine — third world. Not just offensive, but confusing.

In any case, I’m thrilled to hear that Brown is investigating the mission and legality of TWTP. Although it’s clear that racism is still an issue, I’m not inclined to believe that omitting whites and finger-pointing in their absence is a step in the right direction. This purported bastion of Ivy League liberalism has systematically — and thoughtlessly — thwarted the open-minded spirit of the students. I hope that the university, which was mostly great to me, enters an age of cultural pluralism where dialogue is encouraged and facilitated.