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August 28, 2004

Evaluating the Olympians

How Good Was the Baseball in Athens?

by Clay Davenport

The baseball tournament at the 2004 Olympics is over. Cuba has reclaimed the gold medal they lost in 2000, Australia got silver--their first baseball medal ever--and the Japanese settled, unhappily, for bronze.

But how good was the level of play in a tournament that had nearly as many European teams (three) as representatives from the rest of the world (five)?

Fortunately for the answer to that question, the skill level of many of the players in the Olympic tournament was a known quantity. Most of the players for Canada, Australia, Greece and the Netherlands are or have been in the American minor leagues, and we have a very good understanding of the level of play in the minors. A few, like Dave Nilsson and Gene Kingsale, have major-league experience, but because Major League Baseball would not release anyone from their contracts to participate in the Olympics, no one on an active major-league roster was present. All of the Japanese players came from their major league, and while we aren't quite as certain about rating the Japanese leagues (see Baseball Prospectus 2004) as we are with the American minors, we still do pretty well. The Taiwanese were mostly unknown, the team drawn mainly from their professional leagues, which I have never been able to translate in either a baseball or a linguistic sense. Their top players, Chin-Feng Chen and Chin-Hui Tsao, do play in the States and are on the verge of playing in the majors. The Italians were unknown, coming from their home leagues, but a couple have played in the U.S. before. The Cubans were all unknown.

To evaluate the tournament, the first thing to do is get the statistics for all the players in the Olympics, and calculate the participants' EQAs. This was actually a little easier for the Olympics than it is for American leagues, since we didn't have to worry about the park factors--although I suppose the different fields at the complex where the games were played could have had different characteristics. The stats for the Olympics as a whole came to .253/.322/.393. That is an REQA of .727, a level of offense that is very low by the standards of the American minor leagues. As with any league, we set it up so that the league average is .260.

Then we ran Davenport Translations for every player in the Olympics who had played in the U.S. or Japan within the last few years. The DTs are a process for converting a minor leaguer's statistics into a set of major-league statistics that have the same value as the minor-league performance, adjusting for the differences among the leagues. In short, they are an estimate of what the player would have hit in the majors if he had been playing there. For American players, we used the player's total performance from the 2002-2004 seasons as his expected baseline; for Japanese players, their 2002-2003 total served as their baseline (I haven't done any Japanese stats for 2004).

This produces a table that looks something like this:

                           Olympics                  Expected
                     Outs     EQA     EQR          EQA     EQR
Gene Kingsale         17     .362     7.5         .245     2.5
The first three columns show the player's performance in the Olympics in terms of outs, Equivalent Average and Equivalent Runs; the last two show his expected EQA, if the level of play in the Olympics was as good as that in the major leagues, and the Equivalent Runs he would have had with his expected EQA and his actual number of Olympic outs. Since Kingsale's Olympic EQA is higher than his expected, major-league translated EQA, we would conclude that the Olympics were less competitive than the major leagues.

Now, one player, even over 150 games, is a ridiculously small sample for measuring league differences; you cannot ascribe every change in performance from one season to the next to changes in the league. For the Olympics, we don't have 150 games for each player; we have seven or nine. But we do have 52 players, and among them they account for 1,267 of the 2,336 plate appearances in the Olympics. Generally speaking, at 1000 plate appearances I start having confidence in the what the translations are saying.

These 52 players produced 191 equivalent runs in the Olympics while making 846 outs, for a .290 composite EQA. From their baseline performance, we expected them to produce 115 runs with those outs: an EQA of .236.

That level of inflation, 191 runs where 115 were expected, is a 1.66 ratio. If you did the same analysis with Double-A players moving to the major leagues, you would get a ratio of 1.49. If you did the same thing with players in high A, the Carolina, California and Florida leagues, you would get a ratio of 1.82. The Olympic figure is almost exactly halfway between these two ratios; in other words, the average Olympic player was about halfway between an average Carolina League player and an average Eastern League player.

Of course, not all teams in the Olympics were equal. The decision by the IOC to give two tournament spots to European teams, even though the host country with their automatic bid was also European, seriously degraded the level of play. Europe does not come remotely close to playing baseball at the levels seen around the Caribbean and the Pacific Rim. Any of the U.S., Dominican Republic, Mexico, Venezuela Korea, or Puerto Rico would made the field stronger; if continental spots were assigned on merit, rather than IOC politics, Europe would not have had an entry, as they do not have a single team among the top eight in the world. The stats bear this out: the three European teams went 1-14 against the rest of the world in these Olympics, getting outscored 118-28 in those games. In particular, they couldn't pitch: the best European team had an ERA of 7.02; the worst non-European team was 3.73.

Here's how the teams performed in Athens. I've changed the pitching statistics from an ERA to an EQA by keeping the Pythagenport winning percentage constant (i.e., Japan had a 2.59 run average, which would produce a .762 winning percentage with average (4.98 RA) run support. The EQA that produces a .762 winning percentage is .328), and I've averaged the two together to get a sense of the overall team quality.

              Bat    Pitch     Average
Japan        .315     .328        .322
Cuba         .280     .325        .304
Australia    .270     .278        .274
Canada       .253     .280        .267
Taiwan       .241     .282        .261
Greece       .235     .222        .229
Netherlands  .237     .209        .224
Italy        .208     .204        .206
This is still using the Olympic average=.260 EQA rule. Given the difficulty level we worked out before, an average major-league team on this scale would have an EQA of .318. Stepping through the levels, an average Triple-A team should have produced at about a .289 EQA, a Double-A team would be .271, a high-A team would be .251, a low-A (South Atlantic, Midwest) would be .232, a short-season A team (New York-Penn, Northwest) would be .212, and a rookie league team (Appalachian, Pioneer) would be .201.

As you can see, the team the Japanese sent to Athens is essentially a major-league team; assuming our assumptions are correct, they could be expected to go 82-80 if they were playing in the NL. The Cubans were not quite as strong, but still played at a legitimate major-league level: 75-87 isn't a championship team, but they could certainly give a team like the Orioles a run for their money.

But then, we already knew that.

The next three teams were basically Double-A in quality. How is it, then, that the Australian team (a sub-Triple-A team, in my analysis) beat the Japanese (near-major league) in the tournament? Ignoring the rather large fact that one pitcher can completely change the quality of a team, the expected winning percentage for a .274 team like Australia going against a .322 team like Japan is about .300--plenty of room for an underdog to win what amounts to a one-game playoff.

Going to Europe, though, the quality skips right through Double-A and high A down to the low-A level for the two teams that used American players, and down to the rookie leagues for the Italians, who didn't. As was widely reported, the Greek team was almost entirely composed of Greek-Americans. Nick Markakis is almost certain to be the best player on that team, but he is still a (guess what) Sally Leaguer, playing in Delmarva for the Orioles, and he's not a great player just yet. The Netherlands team is stocked with players from the Caribbean islands of Aruba and Curacao, making them stronger then if they relied on born-and-raised Dutch players; still, they might have liked to have had Andruw Jones or Sidney Ponson available. If any of these three teams tried to play in the major leagues, we would be in Cleveland Spider territory (a team that went 20-134 in 1899); expected wins range from 26 for Greece to 17 for Italy.

Just for kicks, here's the same table as above, but this time for the Olympic softball teams. Softball, at least the fast-pitch variety, typically plays at a much lower offensive level than baseball, and the Olympics were no exception: a composite line of .194/.244/.262, something you only see in baseball from pitchers. The U.S. dominance was such that the EQA system had a hard time balancing the results:

               Bat   Pitch     Average
United States .421    .450        .436
Japan         .300    .249        .276
Australia     .274    .193        .239
Italy         .221    .160        .194
Taiwan        .175    .209        .193
Greece        .221    .169        .187
Canada        .137    .208        .178
China         .119    .193        .162
Basically, the U.S. women as a team hit like Barry Bonds and pitched like Mariano Rivera's best week.

For the complete list of Olympic hitting statistics and EqAs, click here.

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2004-10-08 - Playoff Probabilities
2004-09-23 - Playoff Odds Report, Redux
2004-09-02 - Return of the Playoff Odds Report
2004-08-28 - Evaluating the Olympians
2004-07-30 - Park Factor Review
2004-07-08 - Making Changes
2004-02-24 - Baseball Prospectus Basics: About EqA