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January 31, 2008

Prospectus Hit and Run

Unfinished Business

by Jay Jaffe

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Last week's piece on steroids and the Hall of Fame vote drew a heavy volume of reader responses, nearly as much as that for my entire JAWS series this year. Unsurprisingly, BP's readers have strong opinions on the matter, and they're not shy about sharing them or about challenging my assertions. A handful of those emails are worth addressing in a mailbag piece to be named later, but given the combination of topic fatigue and inflamed passions, I'm going to let things cool down a bit while clearing my notebook of a few other items, including one that's actually relevant to the 2008 season.

What's the Big(gio) Deal

I will take up one area related to last week's piece, that of the 2013 ballot. The admittedly vague idea of the question as to whether a ballot with Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds and Mike Piazza would be the best class ever to debut was to compare whatever Hall of Fame-caliber big names were up for a vote, not what the values of the top three or four players were. A few readers pointed out that I should have included recently-retired Craig Biggio in the class of 2013; after all, with 3,000 hits, he's a lock for the Hall. Among the top classes I examined, this does level the field at four players apiece, and it pushes the potential class of 2013 well into the lead:

2013: 482.0 JAWS Bonds (166.8), Clemens (141.8), Biggio (93.0), Piazza (80.4)

1989: 392.0 JAWS Gaylord Perry (100.3), Carl Yastrzemski (98.3), Fergie Jenkins (96.8), Johnny Bench (96.6).

1999: 388.2 JAWS Robin Yount (104.3), George Brett (102.3), Nolan Ryan (93.8), and Carlton Fisk (87.8)

Of course, it's important to remember that we won't know the full scope of the 2013 ballot for a couple more years, since of the four only Biggio has officially retired. It's not outside the realm of possibility that Randy Johnson (112.2) and Sammy Sosa (88.8) could join the party if they don't find their way back onto the field; Johnson is recuperating from his eleventeenth back surgery of the past decade, while Sosa is finding the job market for 39-year-olds coming off .252/.311/.468 seasons to be a bit thin. Stay tuned.

Leftover Rice

In my recent dissection of the 2008 Hall of Fame vote, my wording was such that I created the impression that only four players had topped Jim Rice's 72.2 percent without gaining election that year, namely Jim Bunning, Orlando Cepeda, Nellie Fox and Red Ruffing. In fact, the list of such close-but-no-cigar cases goes to 11, all of whom eventually gained enshrinement either via the writers' vote or the Veterans Committee:

Player           Pct    Yr   Bal   Elected
Nellie Fox      74.7   1985   15    1997 (VC)
Jim Bunning     74.2   1988   12    1996 (VC)
Billy Williams  74.1   1986    5    1987
Juan Marichal   73.5   1982    2    1983
Orlando Cepeda  73.5   1994   15    1999 (VC)
Don Sutton      73.2   1997    4    1998
Robin Roberts   72.7   1975    3    1976
Gary Carter     72.7   2002    5    2003
Joe Medwick     72.6   1967    9*   1968
Red Ruffing     72.6   1967   15    1967 (runoff)
Roy Campanella  72.4   1968    5    1969
Jim Rice        72.2   2008   14     --

"Elected" is the year each player above was actually elected; besides the aforementioned players--three of whom were elected by the VC, the fourth in a second-vote runoff which was the onion belt of the era, worn on occasions when no player got 75 percent the first time around--the remainder entered the Hall on the strength of the regular BBWAA vote. "Bal" is the number of ballots a player appeared on, not necessarily equal to his number of years on the ballot because from 1956-1966 no elections were held in odd-numbered years. Thus the oldest candidates here actually spent longer on the ballot than a Rice or a Cepeda.

Interestingly enough, Ruffing started receiving votes in 1948, the year after he retired. Medwick received one vote in 1948, at a time when he was presumed to be retired, but he came back to draw 19 at-bats for the Cardinals that season, mostly as a pinch-hitter. The rule providing for the five-year waiting period between retirement and eligibility didn't come about until 1954.

And Justice for One

The Rice confusion was a minor lack of clarity on my part. On the other hand, there's nothing but E-6 written all over an assertion I made back in December about David Justice. In my JAWS write-up of Justice, I called his ALCS Game Six three-run homer off Arthur Rhodes in 2000--a decisive blast that secured the pennant for the Yankees--the biggest of his 14 postseason blasts.

Not even close, as reader Frank Greenagel noted. Justice's solo homer off Jim Poole in Game Six of the 1995 World Series provided the Braves with the 1-0 cushion they needed to sew up the only championship of the Schuerholz/Cox era.

Yeah, that was bigger. D'oh!

And Now for Something Completely Different...

The Milwaukee Brewers were one of the teams I covered in the forthcoming Baseball Prospectus 2008. Throughout the team essay and player comments, one theme I revisited was that as good as their season was, and as promising as their nucleus of young talent is, the shoddy quality of the Brewers' defense, particularly their infield defense, was a major reason they wound up sitting on the sidelines in October.

As I wrote a few months back, the Brewers finished 28th out of 30 teams in Park Adjusted Defensive Efficiency. According to PADE, they were 3.44 percent below average in converting batted balls into outs, a shortcoming that translates to -44.7 runs (every one percent away from average equals 13 runs). A look at the defensive numbers of the infielders suggests that number isn't far out of line. Based on their Fielding Runs Above Average totals and a simple Linear Weights conversion of Baseball Information Solutions' Plus/Minus ratings into runs, the quartet of Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, J.J. Hardy and Ryan Braun came in a whopping 49 runs below average.

In a tight but winnable division, that simply won't do, so kudos to the Brewers for not sitting on their hands. The recent signing of Mike Cameron to play center field created a domino effect, shifting incumbent Bill Hall, who struggled to hold down the middle pasture, to the hot corner, and Braun, who put up a ghastly .895 fielding percentage, to left field. According to the Davenport fielding numbers, Hall has performed as a league-average third baseman in 84 career games, 59 of them in 2005. Braun, however, is untested in the outfield.

How much will all these moves improve the defense? I set out to do a quick, back-of-the-envelope calculation, incorporating 2007 FRAA, Plus/Minus and the new kid on the block, Dan Fox's Simple Fielding Runs. I didn't always have all three scores for each player; catchers apparently don't have Plus/Minus ratings, and the SFR numbers I have don't incorporate their throwing, leaving FRAA as the sole input. Additionally, lacking Plus/Minus for some of the outfielders, I tossed that by the wayside, and while I did use their SFR-based rating (which does incorporate throwing), Dan cautions me that the outfielder portion of his system is still a beta version.

No matter; as I said, this is a back-of-the-envelope deal. Using DR (Defensive Runs) to represent the average of our 2007 data inputs, and FRAA to represent their 2008 PECOTA projections, we see the following:

    Old Brewers        DR   New Brewers       DR    FRAA
C   Johnny Estrada   -9.0   Jason Kendall   -15.0    -3
1B  Prince Fielder  -11.2   Prince Fielder  -11.2    -5
2B  Rickie Weeks    -15.6   Rickie Weeks    -15.6    -6
SS  J.J. Hardy        2.2   J.J. Hardy        2.2     2
3B  Ryan Braun      -30.4   Bill Hall          x      x'
LF  Geoff Jenkins     4.5   Ryan Braun         y      y'
CF  Bill Hall       -11.5   Mike Cameron     -5.0    -3
RF  Corey Hart        9.5   Corey Hart        9.5     7
Total               -59.6   Total           -35.1    -8

I've left the numbers for Hall and Braun at their new positions aside for the moment, but note that even with Kendall representing a defensive downgrade from Estrada at catcher and Cameron not performing up to his Gold-Glove reputation last year, there's a huge gain to be had simply by moving Braun (who, let us not forget, compiled those numbers in slightly more than two-thirds of a season).

As to filling in the values for Hall, for the purposes of this we can extrapolate a bit to cover for his small sample size. Playing second base, shortstop and third base in 2005 and 2006, he comes in at a combined 2.4 runs below average based on FRAA and SFR. The bulk of his playing time in those two seasons (68 percent, based on Adjusted Games) was at shortstop, a more difficult position than third, but if we simply plug that number in as a conservative estimate, we're at -37.5 runs for the new configuration, an unimpressive figure but nonetheless a 22-run improvement. If we consider the fact that a full season of league-average left field play is defined as being worth 14 runs above replacement and pencil in Braun for being worth half of that (7 FRAR = -7 FRAA, in this case) thanks to the assistance of a seeing-eye dog and a helper monkey, this could translate into a 15-run improvement for the Brewers, about 1.5 wins. If Braun and/or Hall are any closer to average, the improvement could be two games or more.

The PECOTA projections, which appropriately take into account multiple years of data, player aging patterns, and regression to the mean, paint a considerably rosier picture, though it still sees the Brewers as below average defensively. Based on their ages, Fielder and Weeks shouldn't be as bad as they were in 2007; a healthy season almost certainly helps the latter with the leather. Cameron, on the other hand, has his best days behind him; it's a good thing for the Brewers that he's working on a one-year deal. Excluding Hall and Braun, the starting lineup comes in at -8 runs, a 27-run improvement on their 2007 numbers. Figuring Hall at -2 runs and Braun at -7 again, that's -18 runs, or about a 42-run improvement. Four wins, with a bit of wiggle room.

So, based on these two estimates--which as far as back-of-the-envelope calculations go, wind up in the 10" x 13" manila league--we can bracket the Brewers' defensive improvements as worth between one-and-a-half and four wins. Rest assured this is something I'll revisit later in the season.

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