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June 19, 2000

From The Mailbag

The Strike Zone, Old Books and Sammy Sosa

by Baseball Prospectus

The Strike Zone

Not that I care about increased offense (I love baseball all the same), but no one in baseball looks at the strike zone, or how it is called. It's obvious some umpires have a more liberal strike zone than others, and I was wondering if any of you know of any empirical studies done on different umpires.

My guess is that umpires with too liberal or too conservative a measure of the strike zone should have extremely variant K/BB ratios in the games they ump. A liberal ump would decrease this ratio and a conservative ump would tend to increase it. So I did a little test, with two particular games that caught my eye.

On April 16, the Indians and Rangers combined for 24 strikeouts. Oddly enough, Esteban Loaiza had 11 of those in his eight innings of work; that's weird because in his other 60+ innings, he has had only 27 Ks. Without seeing the game, I surmised that the plate ump that day had a liberal strike zone. The ump: Greg Bonin.

The AL K/BB ratio so far this season is 1.68; the NL ratio is 1.72, let's call it 1.7 for MLB. Bonin, in 10 games this year, has logged 68 walks and 142 strikeouts for a 2.08 K/BB ratio, 22% above the MLB average.

On April 29, the Brewers and Astros combined to walk 24 times in a game. The home-plate ump in that game, Andrew Fletcher, in 10 games this year has rung up 106 strikeouts and 80 walks for a 1.32 K/BB ratio, about 22% below the MLB average.

Maybe I'm wrong, but 22% seems like a lot. It's early in the season, and I expect studies like mine to normalize, but it's something people in baseball should track. Umpires who deviate too much from the norm over time must be scouted by the league to see if they are doing their jobs properly. Of course the union would have a problem with this, but I digress.

If Eric Gregg were still around, this would be a little bit more fun.

--CS

How the strike zones of home plate umpires affect a game piqued my curiosity a couple of years ago, too. I decided to track the data for the 1998 season to see what I could see.

Many of the umpires listed are no longer with us, having been led like sheep to the slaughter by the wily Richie Phillips and his cunning resignation scheme. Nevertheless, based on watching far too much baseball, I'd venture to say that data spread isn't any different today. The most surprising thing to me was that an extra two or three strikes per 100 pitches increases offense to the tune of almost two runs per game.

Unfortunately, I didn't track strikeouts, so I can't compare full-season numbers to the ones that you calculated for the first third of this season; however, your proposition that larger strike zones produce higher K/BB ratios certainly passes the sanity test.

Collecting this data is something that Major League Baseball could, and probably should, do. Are they? Beats the heck out of me, but with Sandy Alderson now pulling the strings, it wouldn't shock me. Using the data to enforce a more uniform strike zone would be a Good Thing, in my opinion. Of course, I'd prefer that they eliminate umpires altogether and use available technology to get the calls right, allowing play on the field to be the only factor in determining who wins and loses.

--Jeff Bower

Sammytime

Wondering what you think might be fair value for Sammy Sosa in a trade with the Yankees. Not that Ed Lynch would get fair value, and anyway, I'd like more than fair value, wouldn't you? Brian Cashman is not stupid enough to give up Nick Johnson, but George Steinbrenner may be. Lynch could throw in Hee Sop Choi. I'd like to see Mark Grace unloaded as well.

In fact, how about Sosa, Grace, Choi and whatever else the Yanks want for Johnson and D'Angelo Jimenez, who might be downgraded now due to the injury. Assuming he'll be OK, he's better than Alfonso Soriano, who's just the kind of sucker pickup Lynch and his baseball men would want.

I hate it when yutzes call up radio stations and say things like, "Hey, how 'bout we trade Eric Young for A-Rod?" But in this situation, the Cubs may have a chance to score big. Here's hoping Lynch doesn't get a bunch of B-listers for Sosa. If someone thinks he's worth $15 million a year, Lynch ought to get something serious for him.

--MW

While I'm totally in favor of sending the Yankees as many players as it would take to get Nick Johnson, it won't happen. Short of getting Johnson, I'd be reluctant to consider any Yankees' package. While I like Drew Henson more than most, I can't shake that nagging feeling that if the Yankees trade him, it would be because they expect him to go to the NFL.

The team that should be able to put together the best package is the Red Sox. If the Cubs could get catcher Steve Lomasney and first baseman Dernell Stenson in the deal.

The really bad news is that I expect Lynch to ask for (and get) pitching instead of position players. At least the good news about trading Sammy Sosa is that it would free up the Cubs to do something to improve the team, like sign Manny Ramirez or Alex Rodriguez. That's just an "on-paper" concept, because neither one would sign with the Cubs with this management team at the helm.

--Chris Kahrl

Old Business

Just writng to say what a good job you are doing at Baseball Prospectus. Your book and Web site have been very helpful for my fantasy team, as well as being some of the most cogent and informative baseball news on the web.

I'm curious to know if there is an archive of old Prospectus articles, or a way to get old issues of the big book.

I've still got my old Bill James Baseball Book from 1991 and still pick it up and flip through it every once and awhile. It would be nice to read last year's articles.

--LD

Yes, we've got an archive available. The link to it is right underneath the banner on the front page, or you can click here to get to it. The archives go back to late 1997.

As for old copies of the book, online booksellers apparently have copies of the 1998 and 1999 editions available:

Thanks for reading,

--Dave Pease

Transaction Analysis Feedback

As usual, I agree with most of your comments on the Pirates. However, I'm curious about your stance on John Vander Wal and Ivan Cruz.

Why is getting Vander Wal into the lineup a good thing? His career numbers are quite poor for a corner outfielder, considering all his time in Colorado. I imagine that given semi-regular playing time vs. primarily pinch-hitting, those numbers could improve some, but I doubt it would be enough. Furthermore, a Cordero-Giles-Vander Wal outfield defense would be borderline scary-bad (albeit better than the Orioles, Padres, and possibly Cubs).

Wouldn't playing Bruce Aven full-time be a better choice?

I would like to point out that I like Cruz just fine, and would much rather see him be the everyday 1B than have my favorite team sink $24M into Kevin Young.

--KR

P.S. I don't know how they did it, but the Bucs have managed to turn Aramis Ramirez into a singles hitter. He's hitting .420/.460/.593, with just three walks in 81 at-bats since his demotion.

Getting John Vander Wal into the lineup isn't a great thing, but he is somebody with some value as a platoon player, as last season's .285/.381/.439 performance against right-handed pitching indicates. The Pirates can use somebody who gets on base at anything approaching a .380 clip. But I agree with your sentiment that Bruce Aven should get a lion's share of the playing time. He doesn't look like he needs to be platooned at all; my thought was simply that with a lineup as right-handed as the Bucs have, they could use a lefty bat to spot start against those right-handed pitchers with severe problems against left-handed hitters.

As a temporary patch, using Aven and Vander Wal is at least a step up from somebody like Al Martin. To return to what I considered my main point, I don't see it as the kind of improvement that will help the Pirates get that much closer to contention.

I'm an inveterate sympathizer with minor-league veterans like Ivan Cruz. I know the Pirates have been denying any intention to let Kevin Young play third base for any length of time, but moving Young to third to get Cruz's lefty power into the lineup might be the sort of big improvement--since we're talking about the difference between Cruz and Mike Benjamin or Luis Sojo--that could make a real difference in their ability to score runs.

As for turning Aramis Ramirez into a singles hitter, the Bucs seem determined to prove that where there's a will, there's a way. Not just any franchise pays top dollar to Pat Meares, after all. Those lily-livered Twins couldn't bring themselves to do it, yessireebob.

--Chris Kahrl

What you fail to explain on the Royals move of sending Mark Quinn to the minors is that they are in interleague play and aren't using a DH at the time. Todd Dunwoody and Scott Pose have faced NL pitching. Quinn will be back as soon as they don't have to play this godforsaken interleague crap (instead of more games within the division). Then the Royals will have to make the choice between Dunwoody and Pose but Dave McCarty will probably be on the Royals the rest of the year.

If you really want to bash a team, bash the Twins. They need home-run hitters and can't find room for Mario Valdez! They have Ron Coomer (nice OBP), Butch Huskey, Marcus Jensen, Jay Canizaro (who actually hit a game-winning HR), Jason Maxwell, Brian Buchanan...ugh!!

--BN

Not to be overly harsh on the subject, but the idea that Scott Pose and Todd Dunwoody have value over Mark Quinn because they've faced National League pitching is damned silly. On the basis of his NL experience, Dunwoody hasn't demonstrated he can hit well enough to play in the major leagues. As for Pose, the last time he played in the NL was 1993, and nobody currently on the Pirates' pitching staff was in the major leagues at that time.

Second, the point is mooted by several other factors: the Royals are playing the Bucs in Kansas City, so the DH is in play. Finally, while he has his shortcomings in the field, Quinn gives the Royals what they lack by carrying Dunwoody, Pose and McCarty: he's both an an outfielder and a right-handed hitter.

This is all small beer compared to the bigger point: Quinn can hit, and Dunwoody and Pose can't.

If you're really interested in the Royals and a few discussions of whether or not Herk Robinson is the unappreciated genius or a turnip in a suit, you should check out what Rob Neyer and Rany Jazayerli have to say about him over at www.robneyer.com in their semi-regular column about following the Royals.

As for the Twins, they deserve what they get, which as the wise taxpayers of the great state of Minnesota have told them repeatedly, is nothing.

--Chris Kahrl

I disagree that the assignment of John Wasdin to Triple-A was a "punitive demotion.". The reasoning behind it is is clear: Wasdin has allowed 11 of 15 inherited runners to score, the worst percentage in the AL. In fact, this is not new for Wasdin, and you've noted this problem with him before. Frankly, an inability to pitch with runners on renders a middle reliever nearly useless.

Wasdin could be an effective pitcher in certain roles but he isn't going to crack Boston's rotation nor close. In addition, Wasdin's demotion came at a time when the bullpen had been overworked due to a couple rough outings and extra-inning games, and they needed a couple of fresh arms (that's why they went to twelve pitchers). Rob Stanifer and Chuck Smith are just warm bodies until Rod Beck and Bryce Florie rehab; in fact, Smith was only called up because he was the only PawSox starter who could have made a long- relief appearance Saturday night.

Contrary to your implications, the Red Sox have been extremely patient, in fact frustratingly so, for many of their fans. They seem to have help in Triple-A they aren't using. Duquette certainly isn't panicking; if anything he's perhaps being too calm.

--DA

Considering that the Red Sox have several starters that they pull after five innings of work, a middle reliever with a pretty good record of keeping people off base, as John Wasdin has, should be an asset. Giving him the sixth and seventh innings, without inheriting runners in tie games or ones in which the Sox are down a run or two, could make him a pretty handy guy to have around, especially when Jimy Williams likes to reserve Derek Lowe for games in which the Sox have the lead.

As far as moving Wasdin aside so that guys like Beck, Hipolito Pichardo and, eventually, Mel Rojas can add service time to their already overextended careers...to my eyes it looks like a severe case of wasted time and roster space on retreads, no-treads and untreadables. While Joe Kerrigan is a miracle worker among his peers, there comes a point where you have to stop taking the miracles for granted.

--Chris Kahrl

You suggested that the Padres open up roster spots for bidding, since it would be no less illogical than their current policies. You know where that would lead, of course:

"Now starting...for San Diego...at third base...Garth... Brooks..."

Hey, you're talking to the guy who once argued that if fan interest was all that mattered, there would be years in which the Angels should just put some extras from "Baywatch" in the infield.

Besides, isn't Rey Ordonez proof enough that letting celebrities play doesn't work? Katarina Witt would look graceful and athletic if she were the Mets' shortstop, and she couldn't hit any worse. Heck, she was even a victim of the Red Menace, just like St. Rey.

I think Jesse Helms needs to fire up an investigation of MLB's refusal to employ ex-East German athletes, because there's clearly a conspiracy here. This sort of burning issue is exactly what our founding fathers invented the United States Congress for, and you and I can thank our lucky stars that we can count on patriots like Senator Helms to take up these kinds of critical issues. He's got his finger on the pulse of the nation, even if only to remind himself what one is.

--Chris Kahrl

We'd love to hear your thoughts on anything baseball-related at info@baseballprospectus.com. We'll publish the best of what we get weekly at www.baseballprospectus.com.

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