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February 20, 2009

You Could Look It Up

Fun With PECOTA Comparables III

by Steven Goldman

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As a co-editor of the BP annual for four editions running, I'm always discovering new facets of the project that keep me awake and motivated during the long winter hours spent pounding out the book. This year's new pleasures include "Goodfellas"-style trips to the New Jersey woods to dispose of writers who missed their deadlines. I also began a personal crusade to eliminate the word "pretty" from our descriptions of players. I let a few slip through, just for variety's sake, but for the most part you will not read that "Miguel Cairo is a pretty good bunter," "Bobby Abreu is pretty bad at catching fly balls," or "Alex Rodriguez is pretty much a deceitful person." These are ballplayers, not Schrödinger's cat, and imprecision is not what BP is all about.

As I have written in previous years, one of my consistent joys is discovering the secret stories inherent in PECOTA comparables. As I explained last year:

The comparables are only supposed to suggest what a player might do in a particular year; if the top comparables for young outfielder Johnny Wetcougar, 22, are Dave Winfield and Ed Delahanty, the most you can infer is that the system likes him and thinks he's going to be a good hitter in the style of those players at a similar point in their careers. The comparables do not suggest either that Wetcougar will deliver 3,000 hits like Winfield, or get drunk and fall off of an open drawbridge like Delahanty. As I wrote in an earlier edition of the annual, the PECOTA comps are not destiny, and Wetcougar need not invest in scuba gear. Having made that statement, I am not forced to admit that I like to take them as destiny, or at least a hint thereof.

At times, PECOTA comparables suggest themes. I'll pick a random page: say 199. Luis Gonzalez's top comps are Enos Slaughter, Stan Musial, Carl Yastrzemski, and Harold Baines. If this were "Jeopardy," we could probably guess that the clue was, "Name some guys who played too long." Country Slaughter played 19 seasons, not including a three-year time-out for World War II service. He was a regular through his age-37 season, then spent six years as part of the Yankees/Athletics' system of interchangeable parts; he finally finished in 1959 at the age of 43, having batted .171/.269/.342 in 85 games. Baines was a viable DH right through the age of 40, then petered out with .226/.307/.354 rates over his final two seasons. Yaz also lasted until he was 43, but unlike Slaughter and Baines, he remained a serviceable player right until the end, though the .269/.354/.424 rates he put up from age 38 on were on the light side for a first baseman/left fielder/DH, and that's before you apply a healthy Fenway discount. Even Stan the Man, so good as a 41-year-old in his penultimate season (.330/.416/.508-Frank Thomas would give his eyeteeth for a sip from that cup), finally wound down to .255/.325/.404 as a 42-year-old grandfather in 1963. Since PECOTA predicts Gonzalez will hit only .262/.344/.391, it's safe to assume that the system is saying, "Don't push your luck," and not, "You have a three-out-of-four chance of going to the Hall of Fame." Of course, the last laugh may be on PECOTA, because L-Gonz has yet to land a job-at last report the Pirates were kicking the tires, but it seems as if nothing will come of it.

Other themes garnered from flipping pages at random: Jonny Gomes' top comps are Kevin Maas, Marcus Thames, Bob Robertson, and Bob Hamelin. Here PECOTA seems to be screaming "flame-out!" and calling for the fire department. Maas was one of the great one-year wonders, and if you want to get really specific about it, he was actually one of the great two-month wonders, swatting 16 home runs in 160 at-bats in July and August of 1990 (.269/.371/.613). Robertson had the misfortune of being a first baseman on a 1970s Pirates team that owned Willy Stargell. Still, he made the most of his swings in 1970, hitting .287/.367/.564 with 27 home runs in 390 at-bats, crazy-good numbers for 1970. He had another solid year in 1971, then went crazy in the playoffs, hitting six homers in 11 games as the Pirates won the World Series. He was only 24, but thanks to subsequent injuries, he was basically finished. In 1972 he hit .193/.291/.346, and spent the next six years trying to get his swing back. His post-1971 numbers: .224/.319/.393 in 540 games. No doubt few readers require an introduction to Hamelin, the heavy AL Rookie of the Year from 1994, or to Mr. Thames, who is the outlier on this list.

Shorter themes requiring less explanation. Jhonny Peralta gets Jay Bell, Gary Gaetti, Clete Boyer, Travis Fryman; "I'm pretty sure you should move to third base." Alex Gordon's quartet of Pat Burrell, Eric Chavez, Troy Glaus, Darrell Evans: "I still believe, so ask again later." Kenny Rogers has Warren Spahn, Jamie Moyer, Charlie Hough, Phil Niekro: "There have been so few pitchers at your age that you are the pool and the pool is you." Cody Johnson? Rob Nelson, Eric Duncan, Matt Winters, Ian Stewart: "The dream is over and reality is a cold, hard place." Justin Upton gets Bob Horner, B.J. Upton, Darryl Strawberry, Jeff Burroughs; "Sure, you can hit, but don't expect Christmas cards from any of your managers."

Each year, PECOTA seems to seize on a few players as generic types who recur again and again throughout the comps. Two that I've noticed this year are outfielder Walt Moryn and fill-in first base/outfield guy Larry Biitner. Moryn is a good example of a journeyman who got a late break and turned it into a five-year career as a regular. Traded from the Dodgers to the Cubs at 30, he got a chance to play and hit .285/.348/.478 with 23 home runs. On May 30, 1958, he hit three homers in a game against his old team, one each against Don Newcombe, Ed Roebuck, and Sandy Koufax (in that order). On defense, Moryn was an error-prone corner guy, so when his bat slowed up, which it did when he was 34, he was quickly ushered out of the major leagues. PECOTA sees echoes of his story in Luke Scott, among others.

Biitner was in the majors from 1970 through 1983, starting with the expansion Senators/Rangers and bouncing around to the Expos, Cubs, and Reds before finishing with the Rangers again. A left-handed hitter, he wasn't much of a hitter for a platoon corner guy, batting only .282/.331/.375 against righties in his career. The Cubs, in their wisdom, let him play every day in 1977, and while he hit .310/.356/.489 against right-handers, they only got .269/.318/.297 from him in 157 PAs against southpaws. He also hit only .272/.318/.376 on the road. Thanks to Rick Reuschel, Bruce Sutter, Willie Hernandez, and good luck, the Cubs somehow went 81-81 in spite of themselves. Biitner did have a solid platoon year for the Expos in 1975, hitting .322/.384/.417. He was known as a good pinch-hitter, and his 96 career pinch hits rank in the top 20 of all time. He batted only .257/.316/.329 in the role, though he did have a few solid singles-hitting years. Having him among your comps isn't exactly flattering (Mike Lamb, for example, has Biitner, Joe Orsulak, Doug Mientkiewicz, and Dane Iorg as his comps). Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Biitner is the trade that brought him to the Cubs-they gave up Andre Thornton to get Biitner and pitcher Steve Renko. Renko happens to be the number one comp for Seth McClung, so that should give you an idea of how off that trade was.

Another player who comes up quite often, and who has in previous seasons as well, is the 1978-1983 outfielder Hosken Powell (for example, see Denard Span and Melky Cabrera). Powell seems to be PECOTA's shorthand for "non-hitting outfielder." The Twins #1 pick in the secondary phase of the 1975 draft, Powell batted .259/.314/.349 in a 594-game career spent mostly in right field. Yeah, right field-that's not a comparable, that's a cautionary tale. And in the end, that's part of what PECOTA is all about, isn't it?

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

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17 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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oira61

I am terrified by Nick Markakis' comps: Steve Kemp? Ben Grieve? Egads!

Feb 20, 2009 10:02 AM
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Schere

The Markakis comps were discussed briefly by KG, at the end of this piece:

http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=8440

Feb 20, 2009 10:08 AM
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TGisriel

Those comments were about Adam Jones' comps, not Markakis'

Feb 20, 2009 13:13 PM
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Schere

dangit...I know they were mentioned somewhere....

Feb 22, 2009 09:37 AM
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havybeaks

Your discussion of the "generic types" gave me an idea for a fun bit of research that is beyond my ability - hopefully BP will write about it someday:

If one were to calculate the average MLB career for EVERY batter and pitcher in history, what one player best matches each profile? i.e. who is Mr. Average of MLB history?

One could do the same for the average MLB season as well, i.e. who had a season closest to the average of all MLB players in history?

Even if BP never tackles this, thanks for writing an article that got me wondering!

Feb 20, 2009 11:13 AM
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Juris

That may be tricky to do since career lengths differ so much and PECOTA will pick up comparables from some players who had very short careers.

However here's another exercise that could be done that might yield similar results to what you're interested in: which player at each position shows up most frequenly as a PECOTA comparable? Presumably those individual should be the most "typical" or average at their positions.

Hey Nate -- could you give us just this article -- using the 2009 comparables?

Give us a "Comparable All Stars, 2009" (maybe top 3 to 5 at each position?).

Feb 21, 2009 09:12 AM
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yanks2009

Hey Steve,

I just had a thought while having fun with PECOTA and looking at the valuations over time. Why do teams back-load or yearly average a contract for most players as opposed to front load? Take Teixeira for example. His WARP for 09 (age 29) is 5.3, while his WARP for 2014 (age 34) is projected at 2.0. If Teixeira required X amount of years contract for Y amount of money, wouldn't it make sense for a team to try and pay most of y money over the next 3 or 4 high value seasons? This way the team could have more money in the future to find another player to improve the prodution elsewhere in the lineup to compensate for the loss in Teixeira's in the second half of his contract? Obviously, the ideal would be to sign players to shorter contracts, but elite players like Tex want long-term deals.

Feb 20, 2009 12:00 PM
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eighteen

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Time_value_of_money

Feb 20, 2009 12:38 PM
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Richard Bergstrom

Besides the depreciation of the dollar in later years, an older player that has less money on the end of his contract is more likely to get traded before the contract is up.. perhaps multiple times. A higher salary contract in the last year(s) limits the number of teams that can trade for the player, and thus, less potential trade partners and trades..

Feb 20, 2009 16:12 PM
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R.A.Wagman

This actually happens fairly often in very-long term hockey contracts, like the one just given by the Red Wings to Henrik Zetterberg. Of course, that also has something to do with the oddness of the NHL salary cap. Essentially, by adding one or two years at the end of the contract at low value ($1-2M) it lowers the average annual value of the deal, giving the team a smaller cap hit. Also, the player might not mind retiring that far into the game, as it won't hit his estate too much and the team has a much easier time of saying goodbye.

Feb 20, 2009 16:36 PM
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Drew Miller

I love articles like this. It cobbles together my suspicions about PECOTA comps, which I was too lazy to research, and presents them in amusing fashion. Well done, sir.

Feb 20, 2009 13:57 PM
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Richard Bergstrom

I love seeing a Hector Villanueva comparable, though I haven't yet in this year book besides the player comments on Geovany Soto.

Feb 20, 2009 16:10 PM
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rmorris1

Biittner's performance while managing the 1983 Texas Rangers in Strat-o-matic confirms his pinch hitting prowess. One of my all time favorite teams to play as.

Feb 20, 2009 20:12 PM
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dfiala

I am contractually required to comment about every article that mentions Larry Biitner. I watched/listened to pretty (that's for you Steve) much every game he played for the Cubs on WGN. He also showed up with alarming frequency in packs of baseball cards. Thank goodness for Bill Buckner.

Feb 20, 2009 20:34 PM
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Juris

Steve, your recounting the end of Stan Musial's career brings to my old mind the image of his well recognized narrow stance at the plate -- one of the icononic ones that we Little Leaguers emulated. Did any 40 or 41-year-olds in the pre-PED era ever have a better season than Musial's penultimate one?

Ooops, just answered my own question: Teddy Ballgame carved out .316/.451/.645 in his final season at age 41 (113 games).

Feb 21, 2009 08:04 AM
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anderson721

Speaking of PECOTA, for years I've wanted a brief article in the Prospectus on the best and worst predictions from the previous years' edition, plus some dat on players who have been consistently nailed and those who have been consistently whiffed on. I like having 4 years' editions all lined up and browse through a career progression of comps, predictions, and results- but it can get tedious.

Feb 22, 2009 07:42 AM
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Random

I would say that "$10,000 Pyramid" would be an apter "comp" than "Jeopardy."

Feb 26, 2009 13:21 PM
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