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February 13, 2013

Pebble Hunting

Fun with 2013 PECOTA Comparables

by Sam Miller

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My sense is that, of all the fields in the PECOTA spreadsheets, the one least likely to help you in any way is the comparables column. When you see a projection for a player’s WARP, or his OBP, or his games played, you’re getting usable, valuable data. You can go win a fantasy league with it. You can impress that girl you’re dating with your intense knowledge of Delmon Young’s future. You can use all the free time that you’ll have after that girl stops returning your calls to learn a new language. Super usable.

The comps field, though, isn’t. Sometimes it’ll trick you into thinking it’s usable:


but as I understand it, the comps field isn’t really meant to be usable. To get any meaningful information, you’d really need to see all of the player's comps, not just three, and you’d have to be a computer, not some dumb human with a dumb human brain. It’s the least usable part of that spreadsheet and it’s easily my favorite.

The rest of the spreadsheet is about predicting the future. The comps field is about the past, and it’s about storytelling. Weird and disjointed storytelling. Inscrutable, experimental storytelling that makes you feel smart for reading it but a bit dumb for not totally getting it. Put another way: The PECOTA spreadsheet you just downloaded is like an Ikea instruction manual, and tucked into that instruction manual is a Thomas Pynchon novel. Awesome.

These are my favorite stories in this year's spreadsheet, and relevant excerpts from Thomas Pynchon.

The players who get a Barry Bonds comp
"Pirates has become famous for his Banana Breakfast. Messmates throng here from all over England, even some who are allergic or outright hostile to bananas, just to watch--for the politics of bacteria, the soil's stringing of rings and chains in nets only God can tell the meshes of, having seen the fruit thrive often to lengths of a foot and a half, yes amazing but true." —Gravity's Rainbow

There are, of course, three comparables listed for each player in the spreadsheet. For Marc Krauss, those three are: Bonds, Lucas Duda, and Ben Grieve. If you ever find yourself making too much out of one comparable, just remember that list of three. Bonds, Duda, Grieve. In three names, PECOTA has allowed for virtually every possible career path.

Krauss was part of Houston’s return for Chris Johnson last year‚Äč—part of the return, mind you, so adjust your Chris Johnson-sized enthusiasm downward a bit. He’s more often compared by humans to Adam Dunn, in two of the three annuals he has appeared in and in no fewer than four (now five) articles on our site.

Most Bonds thing: Hit .414/.514/1.000 in a short stint at Double-A after joining Houston
Least Bonds thing: Hit .123/.203/.123 in a slightly longer stint at Triple-A after joining Houston

Jerry Sands is the other player who gets a Barry Bonds comp. Sands is interesting because Barry Bonds was one of his three comps last year, too. (Brandon Belt and Marcus Thames also got Bonds tags before 2012.) Sands is also interesting because

The players who get a Ken Griffey, Jr. comp
"clipped coupons promising savings of 5 or 10 cents, trading stamps, pink flyers advertising specials at the markets, butts, tooth-shy combs, help-wanted ads, Yellow Pages torn from the phone book, rags of old underwear or dresses that already were period costumes, for wiping your own breath off the inside of a windshield with so you could see whatever it was, a movie, a woman or car you coveted, a cop who might pull you over just for drill, all the bits and pieces coated uniformly, like a salad of despair, in a gray dressing of ash, condensed exhaust, dust, body wastes" —The Crying of Lot 49

As our glossary entry on comparables notes,

All comparables represent a snapshot of how the listed player was performing at the same age as the current player, so if a 23-year-old hitter is compared to Miguel Tejada, he's actually being compared to a 23-year-old Tejada, not the decrepit Giants version of Tejada, nor to Tejada's career as a whole.

The players who get a Griffey comp are from all sorts of stages of Griffey's career, and listed together might win a Six Word Novel contest:

Starling, Taveras
Harper
Trout
Hamilton
Ibanez

Luigi Rodriguez sneaks in, too. Rodriguez is a 19-year-old center fielder who played low-A in the Indians system and ranked fifth on Jason ParksIndians list this year.

Rodriguez' most Griffey thing: Hit .379/.408/.579 in complex league.
Rodriguez' least Griffey thing: Playing in the complex league. (Griffey was making the jump to Double-A at the same age.)

The players who get a Pedro Martinez comp
"Zoyd headed down to Vineland Mall and rolled around the lot there for a while, smoking up half a joint he'd found in his pocket, before parking the rig and going into More Is Less, a discount store for larger sized women, where he bought a party dress in a number of colors that would look good on television, paying with a check both he and the saleslady shared a premonition would end up taped to this very cash register after failing to clear, and proceeded to the men's room of the Breez-Thru gas station, where he shifted into the dress and with a small hairbrush tried to rat what was on his head and face into a snarl he hoped would register as insane-looking enough for the mental-health folks." —Vineland

Many of my favorite comps are my favorites because of how hard it is for a simpleton like me to find the statistical connection in them. But this one is almost eerily close: 

Pedro Martinez:
Age 23: 3.51 ERA, 8 K/9, 2.6 K/BB
Age 24: 3.70 ERA, 9 K/9, 3.2 K/BB
Age 25: 1.90 ERA, 11 K/9, 4.6 K/BB
23 - 25: 2.98 ERA, 9.7 K/9, 2.8 K/BB

And

Brandon Beachy:
Age 23: 3.00 ERA, 9 K/9, 2.1 K/BB
Age 24: 3.68 ERA, 11 K/9, 3.7 K/BB
Age 25: 2.00 ERA, 8 K/9, 2.3 K/BB
23 - 25: 3.07 ERA, 9.5 K/9, 3.1 K/BB

The huge caveats are that Beachy pitched only 238 innings in those three years combined, and Martinez pitched 653; that Martinez did his pitching in tougher environments; and that Martinez produced 6.0 WARP in his age-25 season, while Beachy has produced about half that total in his career. Still, the rare Pedro Martinez comp that doesn’t a) make you go SMH or b) compare the player to Pedro before 23 or after 33.

The other Pedro Martinez comps: Yovani Gallardo, Yu Darvish, Mark Montgomery. Darvish also gets a Roger Clemens comp, which is cool. But Montgomery—a 21-year-old Double-A reliever with a career 1.65 ERA and 14.6 Ks/9 in the minors—also gets a Billy McCool comp which is, of course, mccooler.


The players who get a Willie Mays comp
"1. You may never get to touch the Master, but you can tickle his creatures. 2. The innocence of the creatures is in inverse proportion to the immorality of the Master. 3. If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don't have to worry about answers." —Gravity's Rainbow

You never hear that a prospect is the next Babe Ruth, or really even the next Barry Bonds, but Next Mickey Mantle and Next Willie Mays come up all the time—occasionally, but not usually, justifiably. So who is really the next Willie Mays? Why, it’s just who you are thinking of: Nationals prospect Brian Goodwin.

Goodwin is a legitimately very good prospect. He’s also a center fielder, and he’s African-American, which doesn’t mean he’s going to be the next Willie Mays but suggests that somebody will say he’s going to be the next Willie Mays:

Around baseball, players like to refer to it as the Curse of Willie Mays, which is to say that any young, black center fielder who has speed and power will always be compared to the great Mays. A compliment, but also a sure recipe for failure.

That’s from Howard Bryant’s book Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston. So far, Goodwin appears to have avoided the Mays comparisons, maybe because he’s not very famous yet or maybe because baseball writers have acquired a more evolved sense of perspective*. The closest thing to a Goodwin/Mays comp that I could find was a Bleacher Report article suggesting that Goodwin is the next Mike Trout. Perfect.

Most Mays thing: Hit .382/.492/.631 with "glimpses of all five tools" in his final year of college.
Least Mays thing: Spent his entire age-21 season not in the Army.

Other Mays comps: Josh Hamilton, Christian Yelich

The players who get a Steve Carlton comp
"Some wait alone, some share their invisible rooms with others. Invisible, yes, what do the furnishings matter, at this stage of things? Underfoot crunches the oldest of city dirt, last crystallizations of all the city has denied, threatened, lied to its children. Each has been hearing a voice, one he thought was talking only to him, say, 'You don't really believe you'd be saved. Come we all know who we are by now. No one was ever going to take the trouble to save you, old fellow...'" —Gravity's Rainbow

Usually when a player shows up a lot in our displayed comps, it's because he debuted young and it’s hard to find young major-league comps. But Steve Carlton shows up about a billion times and it’s not because a bunch of generic youngsters have something superficial in common with Carlton's pre-fame years. The next Steve Carlton in his prime is:

From ages 28 to 34—the years that cover everybody above except Pettitte—Carlton produced 23 WARP, won a Cy Young, averaged 17 wins per season, etc. So how do so many mediocre pitchers merit his mention?

All of them, besides Outman and Pettitte, actually have a consistent profile: Good stuff, a ton of strikeouts, too many walks, and hardly ever on the field. All but Harden are left-handed, too. If you can get past the difference in actual value, the Carlton comp is pretty accurate and descriptive. All these pitchers (except Outman and besides Pettitte, who is being compared to old-man Carlton rather than Cy Young Carlton) actually are like Carlton; they’re just bad, broken versions of him. Sidewalk knockoffs. Similar specifications, made on the cheap. I can see it.

I’m not even going to try with Outman. Swede Carlstrom might actually be a more intuitive match for him.

The players who get a Brandon Wood comp
"Does Britannia, when she sleeps, dream? Is America her dream?-- in which all that cannot pass in the metropolitan Wakefulness is allow'd Expression away in the restless Slumber of these Provinces, and on West-ward, wherever 'tis not yet mapp'd, nor written down, nor ever, by the majority of Mankind, seen,-- serving as a very Rubbish-Tip for subjunctive Hopes, for all that may yet be true,-- Earthly Paradise, Fountain of Youth, Realms of Prester John, Christ's Kingdom, ever behind the sunset, safe til the next Territory to the West be seen and recorded, measur'd and tied in, back into the Net-Work of Points already known, that slowly triangulates its Way into the Continent, changing all from subjunctive to declarative, reducing Possibilities to Simplicities that serve the ends of Governments,-- winning away from the realm of the Sacred, its Borderlands one by one, and assuming them unto the bare mortal World that is our home, and our Despair." —Mason & Dixon

I made a greeting card for Matthew Skole, the Nationals third-base prospect and the only player deemed worthy of a Brandon Wood comp, the value of which I can ponder while staring blankly into a cup of tea for the better part of an afternoon.


But don't worry, Matthew Skole. The past is only prologue. The future, as Thomas Pynchon so aptly put it, is a dreamscape inhabited by the left, and something else about the hermetic hothouse of the past and how the streets are manipulated by mob violence. I never really got that one, to be honest.

*hat tip to Chad Finn's chapter in The Hall of Nearly Great for the Curse of Mays quote.

Sam Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Sam's other articles. You can contact Sam by clicking here

Related Content:  Comparables,  Comps

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