Sandy, Randy, and the Culiacan Dandy

Three years ago when the mystical statistical analysis of Scott Boras determined that Oliver Perez was heir apparent to Sandy Koufax and Randy Johnson, eyebrows were raised, but I figure you have to wait to see how things play out. On Wednesday Perez signed with the Seattle Mariners, in a transaction involving considerably less money (and fanfare) than his three year $36 million signing with the Mets. How Koufax-like or even Big Unit-like was his production with the Mets? Below are the major league numbers for their three seasons starting at age 27 to 29. In fairness, it should be noted that Perez’s line does not include his minor league numbers, including the entire 2011 season during which the Mets paid him $12 million to pitch for the Harrisburg Senators, AAA affiliate of the Washington Nationals. 

Perez, Koufax, and Johnson ages 27-29

 
 
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The Retired Number Index

When the Twins announced last week that Bert Blyleven’s #28 would be retired it came as no surprise.  Generally speaking getting one’s number retired is a lesser feat than getting elected to the Hall of Fame, yet it would be an oversimplification to imagine the two honors as merely points along a sliding scale of greatness—there are a number of players enshrined in the Hall of Fame who never had their number retired.

The easiest way to be enshrined but not have your number retired, of course, is to not have a number. It turns out that even this is no iron clad guarantee, as six players from the days before uniform numbers still managed. Still, unless you are Ty Cobb or Rogers Hornsby your team is not likely to jump through the necessary semantic hoops, and accordingly the overwhelming majority of numberless players never had the honor of having their numbers retired. Of players who played their entire careers after 1932 (when uniform numbers were universally adopted) only eight made it to the Hall of Fame without a retired number.* Looking at these eight players six factors stand out:

1.     Number of Teams: One thing sure to hurt a player’s chances is moving around a lot. Hoyt Wilhelm and Goose Gossage probably made the list due to their extensive travels, both playing on nine different teams over their long careers.

2.    Maximum Tenure: Playing on several teams is not as big an issue if you manage a long tenure on at least one team. Time Raines played on four teams but his thirteen years with the Expos assured a retired number.

3.    Settling on a Number: It’s tough to get your number retired if no one can remember what number you wore. That may have been a problem for Joe Medwick, who wore ten different numbers over his career.

4.    The Era: Obviously, the bar has been lowered a lot since the Yankees first retired Lou Gehrig’s #4 in 1939. Five of the eight players on the list started their careers in the 1930’s.

5.    Room on the Wall: It’s easier to get your number retired if you are playing on an expansion team than if you are on a team with a long history like the Yankees.

6.    Perceived Talent: Notably four of the eight players in the Hall of Fame without retired numbers were elected by the Veterans Committee, and several of them had a shockingly low level of support from the writers.

There’s no simple formula for determining whether or not a player will have his number retired, except for possibly my Retired Number Index™, which weights the six factors listed above. In addition to the eight Hall of Famers whose numbers were not retired (in red), I have included five arbitrarily chosen players whose numbers were retired even though they are not in the Hall (green), and five other players up for election in the next few years. For the five recent players I attempted to choose players who are likely to get some Hall of Fame support but are not locks.

 

           
  Retired Number Index First Year Number Of Teams Max Tenure Number of Numbers
Joe Medwick 47.1 32 4 9 10
George Kell 50.2 43 5 7 6
Johnny Mize 55.9 36 3 6 4
Joe Gordon 59.0 38 2 7 2
Arky Vaughn 69.5 32 2 10 4
Hoyt Wilhelm 74.4 52 9 6 8
Jim Edmonds 74.6 93 6 8 2
Early Wynn 82.0 39 3 9 7
Kenny Lofton 82.2 91 11 10 5
Goose Gossage 86.4 72 9 7 1
Tim Raines 92.7 79 4 13 4
Kenny Rogers 93.7 89 6 12 3
Mike Mussina 103.5 91 2 10 2
Ron Santo 106.1 60 2 14 2
Don Mattingly 106.5 82 1 14 2
Dale Murphy 118.4 76 3 15 1
Steve Garvey 125.6 69 2 14 1
Bernie Williams 138.7 91 1 16 1

 

Even assuming I selected all the important contributing factors, the quantifying and weighting, needless to say, makes the whole thing rather unscientific. Still, it completely separated the Hall of Famers without retired numbers from the non-Hall of Famers with retired numbers, and I’d take my chances with the five predictions. Bernie Williams’ high score suggests that maybe I should have weighted the team penalty a bit more—if he had played for the Marlins I think he would already have his number on the wall but it’s a bit more crowded at Yankee Stadium—but I’ll stand by my prediction that he goes up along with Mussina and Rogers, while Edmonds and Lofton don’t make the cut.

* 2011 inductee Roberto Alomar might technically be the ninth, though Toronto’s “Level of Excellence” is more or less the equivalent honor for the Blue Jays, they just aren’t keen on wasting good numbers.   

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Jeff Bagwell and the Unfortunate Fate of the Early Bloomers

What do Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines, Alan Trammell, Ted Simmons, and Ron Santo have in common?

The short and obvious answer: they are not in the Hall of Fame.

But there is another relatively simple thread connecting these five players that may partly explain why in spite of their seemingly unassailable career numbers they have not gotten the call.

On the ballot for the first time in 2011, Bagwell was deemed worthy by only 41.7% of the voters, a shocking total given his 79.9 career wins above replacement, ranking him fiftieth all time among players currently eligible for the Hall of Fame. With Bert Blyleven’s enshrinement all 49 players ahead of Bagwell—and an overwhelming percentage going quite a ways down the list behind him—are Hall of Famers.

In 1998 Jeff Bagwell was the most valuable player on a Houston Astros team that won 102 games and ran away with their division. He put up great numbers by traditional standards (.304, 34, 111), nineties era sabermetrics (.424 OBP, .981 OPS), or the newer WAR (6.7), he was a solid defender, and reportedly a clubhouse leader worthy of all the intangible points you want to hand out. Not that any of this means he actually deserved an MVP, but consider this: in 1998 Jeff Bagwell did not receive a single vote. For the record he finished behind Mickey Morandini.

 In light of this I decided to compare Bagwell’s league rank in WAR to his finish in the MVP voting:

Year 92 93 94 95 96 97 98 99
MVP rank 19 20 1 15 9 3 X 2
WAR rank 16 12 1 6 2 4 7 1

 

Year 00 01 02 03
MVP rank 7 7 X 14
WAR rank 14 17 27 70

Note that every year until 1999 he was underrated, with the exception of 1994 when he was properly rated at the most valuable player in the league. After 2000, though, the rankings completely flip and he becomes overrated. No doubt a large part of the explanation is simply that award voting is largely influenced by a player’s reputation, but it suggests an interesting theory: are players who produce later in their careers more appreciated than players who put up similar numbers when they are younger?

To test this theory I looked at players, like Jeff Bagwell, who accumulated 40 or more WAR by the season when they were 29 years old and compared them to the players who accumulated 40+ WAR starting at age 30. There was one player in each group (Shoeless Joe Jackson in the young achievers and Pete Rose in the late bloomers) ineligible for the Hall. The pending column is made up of recently retired/on the ballot. 

Group Total Players Hall of Famers  non-Hall of Famers Pending Ineligible
<29 69 46 10 12 (9/3) 1
>30 35 27 1 6 (6/2) 1

The upshot: it’s not just what you did but when you did it. In the baseball history Bob Johnson is the only player to ever accumulate 40 WAR after turning 30 who was not elected into the Hall of Fame. (His career total was a mere 53 WAR, having not reached the majors until he was 27.) On the other hand, there are ten players (including Ted Simmons and Ron Santo) on the younger list who dropped off the ballot, and three more (Raines, Trammell, and Bagwell) currently on the ballot who may not get in.

But as Sam Gamgee’s gaffer used to say, it’s an ill wind that don’t blow nobody no good, so perhaps there is a glimmer of hope in this for fans of Edgar Martinez and Larry Walker, the two members of the older group currently on the ballot.

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In Defense of Bonds: Revisiting the 1998 NL MVP

If one believes Barry Bonds when he asserts that he did not take steroids until after getting upstaged by Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in 1998,* one might revisit the 1998 National League Most Valuable Player race and write a story about the man who later became the face of the steroids era, a tale filled to the brim with irony and pathos—well, okay, unless you are F. Scott Fitzgerald it may be hard to drum up much pathos for your protagonist, but the irony is there and you might at least turn him into a sort of tragic hero.

But instead of focusing on what might have been, I want to write about what actually was. And it turns out the reality was probably quite a bit different than what I (and almost everyone else) thought it was at the time. Last week I asserted that a certain type of player—the Shin-Soo Choo type—whose contributions were spread out over several areas tends to be undervalued. Before diving into a broader historical survey, today I want to start by narrowing the focus considerably to the National League in 1998. It may be that the story of Barry Bonds was not that he was unable to compete with the juiced bats of McGwire and Sosa; it may be the that he was able to compete but hardly anyone noticed.

In part, this is the story of how statistical analysis is still evolving. At the time, I ranted quite loudly about how McGwire had been robbed. Looking at his advantage over Sosa in OPS+ (216 to 151) and runs created (193 to 149) it seemed clear that McGwire should have been the MVP.**  But if we look at the race in terms of wins above replacement, it seems that McGwire probably did not deserve the award either:

  Player WAR HR OPS+ Rfield Rbaser Team
1 Barry Bonds 9.3 37 178 10 0 SFG
2 Mark McGwire 7.2 70 216 -16 -3 STL
3 Vladimir Guerrero 7.1 38 150 17 -1 MON
4 Jeff Bagwell 6.7 34 158 4 2 HOU
5 Moises Alou 6.6 38 157 4 -1 HOU
6 Greg Vaughn 6.6 50 156 2 2 SDP
7 Sammy Sosa 6.5 66 160 3 -3 CHC
8 Mike Piazza 6.2 32 152 -1 -3 TOT
9 Andres Galarraga 5.4 44 157 -5 1 ATL

 

Not only did Bonds significantly outpace McGwire, but Vladimir Guerrero rates a close third in WAR. Not surprisingly, the largest contributing factor to the new outlook is defense. Not only did Bonds and Guerrero add some value defensively but McGwire was actually a liability by that point in his career,*** according to Sean Smith’s fielding runs.

But maybe none of this is really too surprising. Even at the time most of us had an inkling that we were willfully deluding ourselves. But given the choice between knowing the truth and watching Mark McGwire hit some dingers…well, is that even a choice?


* And this part of his story sounds very plausible. A fun exercise I used to give my students when we were studying polynomial curves was to plot baseball players’ trajectories over the course of their careers. Typically, a quadratic model works fairly well. But for fun I would throw in Barry Bonds, for whom a cubic model actually fit better.

** What made the choice of Sosa even more dubious is that it took the questionable practice of determining and individual award based on the team’s finish to the ludicrous extreme: Sosa’s groundswell of support was due to the fact that his team finished with the fourth best record in the league, versus McGwire’s finishing seventh.

*** During his prime in Oakland McGwire actually had a two year period where he was +22 defensively.

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Shin-Soo Choo, Logarithms, and the 2010 NL Rookie of the Year

The 2010 National League Rookie of the Year race was the subject of much spirited debate. After giving all due respect to Neil Walker and Jose Tabata, most folks agreed it was a two man race between Giants catcher(/first baseman) Buster Posey and Braves right fielder Jason Heyward. While the Heyward supporters won me over with their razzamatazz algebra and their free vouchers, there is one thing they missed—not in their analysis so much as their analysis of the analysis: why was it in this world where a guy like Felix Hernandez who has no idea “how to win” ™ can win a Cy Young that so many folks couldn’t see the difference between a 3.0 WAR player and a 4.4 WAR player?  Sure, part of it was those elusive, intangible intangibles and part of it was (mis?)valuing their defensive contributions, but there was something else going on.

Speaking of Wins Above Replacement, at the end of the year I browsed the major league leaders, working upward through the top ten: Wainwright, Beltre (yeah, I knew he had a good year), Gonzalez, Halladay, Jimenez (what a year for pitching in the NL, eh?), Cabrera, Pujols (good old dependable Albert), Choo—what the?! Choo? The second most valuable player in the major leagues? But then sometimes, I have to confess, I neglect Indians baseball.  I went in to see what he’d been up to, expecting to be blown away only to find 22 home runs, 22 stolen bases, .300 average—oh, but he did have a .401 OBP…but still, second most valuable player in baseball in 2010? Shin-Soo Choo?

To understand why Heyward was not the 2010 NL Rookie of the Year, you might want to look at Shin-Soo Choo. You might ask why is it so hard for some folks to believe, even for a real-facts/WAR kind of a guy like me to believe, that Choo could be the second most valuable player in the majors. And you might need logarithms.

That’s almost certainly a lie, the part about needing logarithms, but on the other hand if there is one thing we do here at the Juglandaceous Porthole it is making sure we cover all the angles. As an erstwhile math professor, I can tell you by the time we get to logarithms in my College Algebra class there are two camps. First, there are those who stare at the definition and see a bit of abstract mathematical esoterica completely removed from the real world and those—wait, how many camps did I say? I meant one camp.

Early in the semester, long before we enter the logarithmic wastelands, I throw in the following question at the end of a quiz: “Name three locations, one that is near to your house, one that is a medium distance away, and one that is far away.” Having not had much of a chance to let their creative juices flow while using the quadratic formula on the preceding question, and given a question which seems impossible to get wrong, most of them are enthusiastic in their responses. Answers vary from conservative to bordering on philosophical, but a fairly common type of answer is along the lines of “My friend Steve’s house, my friend Shin-Soo’s house in Cleveland, Neptune.”

Does that sound like a reasonable answer? I think to most of us it would, but the thing that (most of) most of us don’t realize is the only way it could possibly be considered reasonable is using a logarithmic scale—in other words, many people use logarithms all the time without knowing it. In fact, everyone is using all sorts of math all the time without knowing it. Much of what we call “math” is a formalization of what we do informally dozens of times a day without thinking about it.

Why then, you might ask, do we need to bother with the formal part? The answer is in part that most of the time we don’t.  I could work out, with a bit of observational data thrown in, the equations to help me decide how to handle the hundreds of decisions I face on the drive in to work—but of course that would be silly. The rough math I do after just eyeing it up works fine, as it does for hundreds of other situations. But sometimes things are more subtle and this sort of math doesn’t give us an answer. Worse yet, sometimes it makes us think we have an answer when we are actually wrong.

Which brings us back to the alleged second most valuable player in the major leagues last year. Certainly, one possible answer is simply that WAR is not accurate. Advocates of the newer more ambitious stats are usually the first to point out that there is still a lot of work to do. But in this case in particular, this case of WAR versus my gut feeling, I notice that it seems to be for a particular type of player that WAR doesn’t seem quite right. Players like Shin-Soo Choo. Players like J.D. Drew, who I thought was nuts for opting out of his contract with the Dodgers but who some pretty sharp folks in Boston thought was worth even more. Players who make a defensive contribution but not in a position where it seems to really matter, who have some power and some speed but not enough of either to really impress anyone, who have a great on base percentage that is easy to miss if you are looking at average instead. Players like Jason Heyward.

Maybe WAR is not accurately valuing this type of player, but it seems more likely to me that I am making an error when I run through the numbers and try to weigh everything according to the rough math in my head. When Bill at the Platoon Advantage tells me that Jason Heyward didn’t simply have a good rookie year he had a great one, I believe him—at least in my head. But there is another part of me that is still looking at his baseball card stats and doing the rough math in my head and seeing another Ben Oglivie.

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Better to Burn Out?

Did you get a chance to see the kid pitch in 2010?

It’s true the rookie only pitched [23.1, 13.1, 15.1, 27, 20.2, 68] innings this year, but small sample sizes be damned he was awesome! He mowed down batters at a(n) [amazing, spectacular, unbelievable, absurd, Strasburgian, fairly good] rate of  [12.3, 12.8, 13.5, 13.7, 17.4, 12.2] batters per nine innings. As a [White Sox, Reds, Angels, Dodgers, Braves, Nationals] fan I can’t wait for [2011, 2011, 2011, 2011, 2011, 2013?] to see the kid pitch again. Mark my words, [Chris Sale, Aroldis Chapman, Jordan Walden, Kenley Jansen, Craig Kimbrel, Stephen Strasburg] is a name you want to remember.

Before this year there had been 14 pitchers in history to debut with strikeout rates of more than 12 per nine innings.* In 2010 alone there were six, from the (over?)hyped Stephen Strasburg to the unheralded Kenley Jansen. It’s certainly true that whenever you look at historical comparisons involving strikeouts the numbers will be skewed towards our modern age of free swingers where the K no longer has the stigma it once carried. Still, there’s never been a year like we just witnessed when it comes to flame throwing debuts.

* Using Chapman’s innings total for the admittedly low cutoff.

But what does it portend? Did we see the debut of the next Randy Johnson? The next Kerry Wood? The next Jonathan Broxton? Joba Chamberlain? Karl Spooner? Here’s the complete list:

Rk Player SO/9 IP Year Tm
1 Craig Kimbrel 17.42 20.2 2010 ATL
2 Jonathan Broxton 14.49 13.2 2005 LAD
3 Macay McBride 14.14 14.0 2005 ATL
4 Kenley Jansen 13.67 27.0 2010 LAD
5 Jordan Walden 13.50 15.1 2010 LAA
6 Karl Spooner 13.50 18.0 1954 BRO
7 Edwar Ramirez 13.29 21.0 2007 NYY
8 Pat Neshek 12.89 37.0 2006 MIN
9 B.J. Ryan 12.84 20.1 1999 TOT
10 Aroldis Chapman 12.83 13.1 2010 CIN
11 Joba Chamberlain 12.75 24.0 2007 NYY
12 Jose Valverde 12.70 50.1 2003 ARI
13 Ron Villone 12.60 45.0 1995 TOT
14 Kerry Wood 12.58 166.2 1998 CHC
15 Francisco Liriano 12.55 23.2 2005 MIN
16 J.R. Richard 12.43 21.0 1971 HOU
17 Chris Schroder 12.39 28.1 2006 WSN
18 Chris Sale 12.34 23.1 2010 CHW
19 Takashi Saito 12.29 78.1 2006 LAD
20 Stephen Strasburg 12.18 68.0 2010 WSN

Provided by Baseball-Reference.com

Browsing the historical precedents hardly makes one giddy with lofty expectations. On the plus side it includes several names who put up decent seasons in the closer role. But the glaring downside is the rate at which these guys burned out. The only certified star is J.R. Richard. I’m sure any of the six teams would be happy if their young pitcher’s career paralleled Richard’s.** But even Richard will be remembered more for the tragic end of his career at age 30 than for being one of the best pitchers in baseball during the late seventies.

** Except perhaps the Nationals, who might be disappointed though I suspect even they shouldn’t be.

But regardless of what lies ahead, regardless of whether it was a fluke of small sample or a portent, regardless of whether I particularly like what it might imply about where the game is heading, when I look at Craig Kimbrel’s 17.4 strikeouts per nine innings I am impressed. There is no one who ever pitched even a third of his innings in any season who could match his strikeout rate, and that’s worth at least a tip of the cap. The analytic side of me knows that Mark Whiten’s four home run game was just the sort of fluke you would expect with a lot of baseball played over a lot of years, but so what? It was still an impressive line. And speaking of Mark Whiten, how come his name never comes up in conversations about the unbreakable records? No, I don’t mean the four home runs in a game. I’m talking about career his 27.00 strikeouts per nine innings.


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Alternate History: Part I

For of all sad words of tongue or pen,

The saddest are these: “It might have been!”

                                                 ~John Greenleaf Whittier

Cliff Lee’s surprise signing with the Philadelphia Phillies and the resulting juggernaut of a starting rotation has spurred a torrent of speculation about the all-time great pitching staffs. Sean Foreman of Baseball-Reference compared the 2011 Phillies against (most of) history, running a comparison based on three-year Wins Above Replacement, and found that the fantastic four of Halladay, Lee, Oswalt, and Hamels (59.7 WAR) were bested only by the Tom Seaver led Mets of 1976 (63.4 WAR). A similar WAR based approach was taken by Dave Cameron, while Ron White and Andrew Johnson give a more general rundown of the likely suspects.

As the question of greatest-staff-that-ever-was seems to have gotten plenty of press we here at the Juglandaceous Porthole offer some thoughts on the less ubiquitous question of greatest-staff-that-never-was—but darn well might have been, with the slightest flap of a butterfly’s wings on the winds of history.  

 Back in college one of my friends religiously espoused the belief that if we change one thing in the past we can’t make any assumptions about anything that would have happened subsequently. He might be right, but we’re going to stick with the far simpler assumption that our key players would have put up the same numbers regardless of the theoretical change in uniform color and see how the hypothetical rotations stack up using Foreman’s three year WAR criterion.

1.       Catfish and Pussyface?

But for one of the most colorful near misses in baseball history, Don Sutton might have ended up in Oakland had he come up with a more plausible nickname. In 1964 Whitey Herzog was a scout for the A’s and did everything he could to get Charlie Finley to sign Sutton. Knowing how crazy his boss was about a good nickname, Herzog tried to resolve the impasse:

“Don’t you have a nickname? I could get you the money if you had a snappy nickname.”

Sutton shrugged and said, “Heck, I don’t care. Tell him anything you want. Tell him my name is Pussyface Sutton if you want, just get me the money.”

I said, “Charlie, I’ve got a kid here named Pussyface Sutton you can get for $16,000.”

But not even Charlie Finley was that crazy. (From Herzog’s biography White Rat)

Had Pussyface Sutton joined the A’s he could have pitched alongside Catfish Hunter, Vida Blue, and Blue Moon Odom.  (Actually, their 46.2 WAR would only place them third among current teams, but they make the list for style points.)

2.       A happy ending to 1986 for Roger Clemens?

If Roger Clemens had signed when the Mets drafted him in 1981 he would have missed out on a College World Series, but on the plus side the off season would have been considerably more pleasant after ‘86. Joining Doc Gooden, Ron Darling, and Sid Fernandez he would have completed a foursome entering the 1988 season with a combined three year WAR of 56.1, falling just below the 1997 Braves sixth place entry. (Speaking of those guys, more coming up…)  

 3.       Tom Seaver made his decision and will (probably) stand by it

Seaver was drafted by the Dodgers in 1965 but remained unsigned when they balked at his $70,000 asking price. Had he signed he would have been part of, in our fantasy world, a rotation including Tommy John, Don Sutton, and Claude Osteen whose 1974 three year WAR of 58.6 would put them just behind the 1971 Cubs for fourth among the greats. Of course, in the “real world” Seaver was on the number one rotation AND a part of the Miracle Mets, so he might not be so eager to accept the trade. Maybe if we threw in a racehorse?

 4.       The Royal dynasty continues?

It seems strange now, but the Kansas City Royals used to be really good—there are even some people still alive who can attest to this. From 1976 through 1989 they won the AL West six times and finished second another six times. The good times might have lasted a little while longer if they had signed their 16th round draft pick from 1978, Frank Viola. Put him in a rotation with Bret Saberhagen, Mark Gubicza, and Charlie Leibrandt and you’ve got a rotation with an impressive combined 65.6 three year WAR going into 1990, besting any real-life foursome (though still not the best in our make-believe world).

 5.       And finally, as if they needed him…

Steve Avery was a fine number four starter in the early nineties, but it is scary to think what the Braves might have looked like if they had signed their fourth round pick in the 1982 draft: Randy Johnson. His senior year in high school he struck out 121 in only 66 innings and capped off his career with a perfect game, but rather than signing with the Braves he headed to USC. Had the Big Unit landed with the Braves their 1998 staff would have come in at 69.4 WAR, an astounding six wins above any other staff in modern history.

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