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June 7, 2009

Prospectus Idol Entry

Everything I Know About Baseball I learned In Sandlot

by Brian Cartwright

I got started on a life of number crunching playing in and then keeping the records for the summer league in my hometown of Johnstown, Pa. Since 1946, our league has been the host for the All-American Amateur Baseball Association National Tournament (AAABA, pronounced Triple-A-B-A). Each summer, nearly 300 of the country's best players 20 and under compete for a week in a 16 team double elimination tournament in front of scouts from most every major league team, in what can be a pivotal step in their dreams of fame and fortune as professional baseball players. When I was 18 and playing in the Johnstown league, I walked into the City's Recreation Office and asked if I could get copies of past season's batting and pitching statistics. It turned out their statistician had quit, and I ended up being offered the job. As a result, within a few years I found myself in a rather unique situation, armed with both a collection of Bill James' Baseball Abstracts and a stack of score sheets containing detailed play by play ready to be analyzed. Many of the core principals that I rely on today were learned watching those high school and college players on the summer sandlots.

Many of those who came to Johnstown did go on to star in the big leagues. Before I started working as statistician and head scorer in 1978, those who played in the AAABA included Al Kaline, Joe Torre and Reggie Jackson. An average of two or three players each year could be counted on to eventually play in the majors. In my years up until 1990, I saw Orel Hershiser, Chris Sabo, Shawon Dunston, Walt Weiss, Chris Hoiles, Jim Abbott, Todd Jones, Denny Neagle, Jim Leyritz, a fifteen year old third baseman named John Smoltz, and many others who were less well remembered in the big leagues. Each season, I would wonder how the best of the players I watched all summer in Johnstown would project as professionals. I had the league and pro records of Pete Vuckovich and Gene Pentz, and later Shawn Hillegas would make it to the majors as well. Not having a sufficient sample of amateur players, I bought a few packs of note cards and a copy of 'Who's Who in Baseball' in an attempt to compare the minor and major league stats of at least a few hundred players. The paperwork turned out to be too daunting, and would have to wait twenty years before I could run the numbers through Microsoft Access to create my 'Oliver' projections.

The Johnstown league has played on a variety of fields. The flagship is the city owned Point Stadium, a former minor league park seating over 10,000 built in 1926 and rebuilt in 2006. Fit into a rectangular city block, the dimensions are reminiscent of Fenway Park. Only 262 feet down the left field line in the original stadium, a 30 foot screen extending into left center keeps many fly balls in play, while right center extends to well over 400 feet. Other local fields ranged from one with a 320 foot fence to all fields to others with no fences. The Point had a 60 foot backstop, while most fields had no foul territory. I learned that foul outs decreased all batted ball types across the board. With short fences, the outfielders play closer to the infield, allowing fewer singles by catching more short flies. However, playing up allows balls to get through the gaps quicker, resulting in a higher percentage of extra base hits, but virtually no triples. Conversely, with no or deep fences, the outfielders play further back and have more singles fall in front of them, but have more time to cut off balls in the gap. Those balls that do get by the outfielders are much more likely to be triples. In developing a table top dice simulation similar to Strat-o-Matic or Pursue the Pennant, I tabulated the batted balls in each fielding zone at each park to find the percentages of outs, singles, doubles, triples or homeruns. This let me understand that once the batter has put the ball in play, the pitchers job is done, with the fielder and park determining the outcome for that type of batted ball (such as 'line drive to right center'.) Expanding on Bill James' 'Defense Efficiency Rating' for teams, fielders could be judged by the outs, hits and total bases allowed given the mix of batted balls hit to them.

Johnstown is one of two dozen cities in the eastern U.S. that have AAABA affiliated leagues, including Brooklyn, Buffalo, Philadelphia, Altoona, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago, Dayton, Youngstown, Chicago, Birmingham, Atlanta, and the 'Big Four' powerhouses of New Orleans, Detroit, Washington and Baltimore. For many years, including the time I played, Johnstown was a city run 'recreational' league, intended to give area youths a chance to play each summer. Recruitment was limited to those who lived within 25 miles of City Hall, and as a result the league champion never had much of a chance going against the champions of the more 'elite' leagues. Washington, for example, defines its 'local' unlimited recruitment area as Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia, with three additional players allowed from anywhere else in the world. While the NCAA still allowed the practice, the University of Michigan and Michigan State each kept their underclassmen together as teams in the Detroit league. One, this taught me that if the talent level of the batters and pitchers in a league were roughly equal, regardless of what that level was, the statistics would be in an equilibrium, with batting averages near .270. Secondly, that the ratio of the talent pool to the available rosters spots defined the level of competition in a league. For example, for many years pitchers in the Johnstown league likely collected some horrendous Pitcher Abuse Points. In 1978, the league's best pitcher started 16 seven inning games and completed 15 of them in a 40 game schedule, then blew out his arm in the first game of the playoffs. Starting the next season, cautious managers sent their starters out once a week, and the offense skyrocketed once the balance between batting and pitching had been altered. In the major leagues in the 1990's, expansion, expanded bullpens and a decrease in workload for front line starting pitchers contributed (along with new ballparks and likely changes in the baseball) to a similar increase in offensive totals. Front offices responded to the lack of depth in their pitching by searching out new talent pools - more aggressive scouting of Latin America and expansion into Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Australia.

One summer I had my own experience with international baseball. Johnstown's reputation in hosting the AAABA earned it the host site of the 1984 'World Friendship Games', featuring age 16 to 18 players from eight countries. In the AAABA, there was variation in the quality of the players from one city to another, but they all played the same style of baseball. Observing the international teams, I identified the 'American' style of the United States, Canada, Australia and the Netherlands, the 'Latin' style of Panama and Colombia, and the 'Asian' style of Taiwan and South Korea. For me, this also developed an understanding of game theory. Taiwan, the eventual champion, played extreme 'small ball', line drive contact hitters who didn't go for power but made frequent use of bunts and steals. The batters showed discipline in rarely swinging at pitches out of the strike zone. In response, the Taiwanese pitchers could not afford to throw many balls, and learned how to pitch to contact. The Panamanians were at the other extreme. As illustrated by former Pirates Manny Sanguillen and Rennie Stennett, their batters practiced 'grip it and rip it', willing to swing at virtually any pitch. In this environment, there was no need for the Panamanian pitchers to learn control. They likely got the best results on pitches thrown out of the zone. In games played against their own in Taiwan or in Panama, these 'talents' likely cancelled each other out, achieving statistical equilibrium. Not so when they played each other. The Panamanian pitchers, who against their own batters didn't need to throw strikes, proved incapable of throwing strikes when they did have a need, walking 15 Taiwanese batters.

After marrying and relocating to the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. in 1985, I spent three summers doing stats for the Clark Griffith league. One of the AAABA's 'Big Four' franchises, I had the pleasure of watching Rick Reed, Willie Blair, Chad Ogea, Pete Schourek and others in my short time there.

My time in amateur baseball, which included the power to instruct the scorers in their recording of play by play, gave me a tremendous opportunity to observe and develop the principles upon which I base my analysis today.

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

BP Comment Quick Links

Scott D. Simon

Christina, paragraph length was an issue for me also. The first three were long but the fourth was so Calvin Pickering that I struggled to read the whole thing.

Perhaps as the BP Idol series continues, the authors can get some help from the friendly BP editors?

Jun 07, 2009 11:42 AM
rating: 0

Agreed. Small nitpick, but otherwise a great article. Brian has my vote!

Jun 09, 2009 09:13 AM
rating: 0

Very entertaining read. Thumbs up.

Jun 07, 2009 12:03 PM
rating: 0

This was a fascinating subject that Brian uncovered for those of us unfamiliar with AAABA. Given the length restraints, I think he combined storytelling with proper background and information so that the reader wasn't left wanting. Tough to do, considering I think this article works better as a longer feature piece.

I agree that maybe when we get to the top 5(ish) we could help the contestants with some editing. Sort of like how the other Idol brings in stylists to dress up their contestants.

Jun 07, 2009 12:35 PM
rating: 0
Mike Juntunen

The contestants should get the same editing from christina that any bp author would; its unfair to them for us to be judging them against joe or will's finished products if they aren't getting the same editing attention

Similarly, they shouldn't get more either, as their work would then dip in quality after winning

We should be getting their articles as close to normal bp publishing standards as possible.

As for this article, its a good story but teaches me almost nothing about actual baseball beyond that (unsurprisingly), things that are true of low minors and college players are true of their not yet in college/drafted peers. This is honestly pretty obvious and it did nothing for me

Jun 07, 2009 13:24 PM
rating: -1

I think the fact that these things ARE true at the lowest levels of baseball is the entire point. Common concepts such as BABIP, defensive efficiency, pitcher abuse points, and even the evolution of the game based on league-wide trends are inherent at every level. I think that's Brian's point.

I think we sometimes think of baseball in terms of just the professional and collegiate levels. One can learn a lot about the game by watching baseball from the Little Leagues all the way up to MLB.

While it 'teaches' nothing new, it is a well-written reminder that the game is the same, no matter the skill level or ages of the players involved.

Well done!

Jun 08, 2009 05:27 AM
rating: 0
Sky Kalkman

Anyone a West Wing fan? Remember the episode where Leo McGarry purposely sets the bar low for his VP debate so that when he comes off as competent, he looks even better? That's how I feel about Brian's piece this week. He showed a side I think many people assumed he didn't have, so even though it might be a 7/10, we're crediting him with an 8/10 or 9/10.

Even if it's a 7/10, though, it was a good read, and knowing he can do this makes the rest of his stuff better. Regarding Will's point about Brian's weakness being that he's not a great storyteller, maybe he can cover that weakness with his enormous strength as an analyst. Pulling from both pots, I think there might be some really awesome stuff coming up from Brian...

Jun 07, 2009 13:34 PM
rating: 0
Richard Bergstrom

Much better than a 7/10 IMHO. Give him credit.

Jun 07, 2009 14:11 PM
rating: -1

Better, but not much better.

Brian, you did what you had to do: you demonstrated that you could carry an article without heavy statistical analysis. At some points your style reminded me of Joe Sheehan; at others you reminded me a bit of my childhood memories of Curt Gowdy.

Still, I see you as Yaz stuck in the 1972 season, and I see this article marking the second half of June. Everybody knows your past accomplishments and your talent, but there's a lot of good young talent in the league, and suddenly this year your own productivity hasn't met your reputation. Yaz had a tough start to the 1972 season, including an injury costing him a month of playing time. On June 15, Yaz ended the day hitting .216/.315/.243, a dismal small sample size start to his season. In the second half of June, 1972, Yaz did everything but hit a home run, and all of New England tuned to the Red Sox Radio Network each night on AM radio, cheering all the singles that gave Yaz a .404 batting average the last half of the month, but wistfully saddened because the home run never came.

Good article. Thumbs up. I'm waiting for the home run...from you, I'm waiting for the three home run game.

Jun 07, 2009 16:15 PM
rating: -1
Sky Kalkman

I'm giving him credit. I'm not using a 70% is a C- type scale here.

Jun 07, 2009 18:32 PM
rating: 0
Richard Bergstrom

It's just the way you said this implied it was some kind of fluff piece and that people are giving him extra credit because it was shocking. My thought was that I find his comments enjoyable and easy to read, so I figured he could write like this, and maybe he just got stuck writing a "certain kind of way" if he has written for other sites in the past.

Maybe an anecdote would help. I transferred colleges while pursuing my Bachelor's Degree in History and already had a bunch of upper level classes done. My new college required me to take a freshman-level Historiography class. Historiography is "the study of the study of history". Once you get to a certain level in History, unless you're writing a doctoral thesis or have original source material, you are basically regurgitating what other people say. So, I thought this class was just to demonstrate how well can I cite/quote/research/annotate other people. My first draft of a final paper on "How would you define Historiography to a friend?" got a C for being technically proficient but used other people's analysis (properly cited) instead of my own analysis. I'd gotten so hemmed in on writing things the way my upper level teachers wanted things written/cited/quoted that I forgot that it was "my paper", not my sources' paper. So I rewrote it with my own analysis, a different "non-academia" structure and flavor and got an A because I had answered the topic of the paper in a way a friend could understand.

I think Brian is trying to find a voice we respond to and hopefully this week the feedback will help give him a better idea. Yet, I mentioned once either a week or two ago that he seemed to respond too strongly to our feedback to the point it negated his strengths.

Brian has a statistical and analytical side. Even those who suggest he should be a "research assistant" (and I think he's much better, innovative and more important than that)... I haven't seen anyone suggest his methodology is sloppy, lacked thoroughness or wasn't in depth. Everyone sees him as being an expert. Now he's shown us a storytelling voice. I would imagine that the next step is incorporating his expertise with his storytelling in such a way that we, as readers (and potential friends), can better enjoy the benefits of his work.

Jun 07, 2009 23:47 PM
rating: 0
Sky Kalkman

"It's just the way you said this implied it was some kind of fluff piece and that people are giving him extra credit because it was shocking."

I AM implying the second part (maybe not to a "shocking" degree) but not the first. Like baseball players, one's work can be both good AND overrated.

Jun 08, 2009 18:48 PM
rating: 0
Richard Bergstrom

Very true, one's work can be good and overrated. I don't think this narrative is one of the best I have ever read, but I did find it entertaining, worth my time, insightful and fun to read. Am I giving extra credit? I don't think so... if I was, he would've cracked my top three. This piece definitely moves him closer though.

Jun 08, 2009 23:44 PM
rating: -1

Disagree. This piece was, quite simply, not very well written. I found it poorly structured and rambling. Editing won't fix that. My opinion of Brian is unchanged by this piece: he's got a lot to offer, but the quality of his writing is not up to snuff.

Jun 07, 2009 18:42 PM
rating: 2
Richard Bergstrom

I'm on my iPod on the way back from slc so I'll be brief(er). I enjoyed this a lot. Brian stepped out of his element to provide an entertaining read. Anytime someone tries writing in a different style it can take some time to find the proper voice. I think he told a good story and I like the way he weaved in the conclusions of his analysis. I trust that the next time he writes an article with more statistics he'll be better able to use some of the summary skills and storytelling ability that he used in this article.

Easy thumbs up.

Jun 07, 2009 13:54 PM
rating: -1
Dr. Dave

Loved it until the weak last 2 paragraphs. Not sure what the ideal wrap-up would have been, but that wasn't it.

Still, my favorite so far of your pieces, and the choice of nonstandard topic puts it over the edge into "thumb up" territory.

Jun 07, 2009 17:46 PM
rating: 0

The last 2 paragraphs seemed to be a result of the word limit. And a clear case of where something that might be interesting is hurt by having to conform to that restriction.

I understand why it's there, but as a voter, I'm also willing to see that it can be a hinderance and not take away a vote because of it.

Jun 07, 2009 18:27 PM
rating: 0
BP staff member Will Carroll
BP staff

I don't recall there being a word limit this week.

Jun 07, 2009 21:48 PM
Brian Cartwright

Thanks. Actually it's grandfather, but they're all in the house. I rearranged my work schedule last week so I could be home on Thursday and Friday and be of assistance.

Will - I checked with the email from Kevin announcing the topic for this week. It did not say that there was a limit, but it also did not say that there wasn't - it was silent on the subject. Not having it brought up led me to assume everything was the same. If there is no longer a word limit, please let us know.

Jun 08, 2009 09:44 AM
rating: 3
Richard Bergstrom

Judging from the posted topic for this week, I assumed the same rules as before.

Jun 08, 2009 11:18 AM
rating: 0
Tim Kniker

I essentially have been assuming a "rough" word limit of 1500.

Even with that said, I have a feeling that if someone wrote a 4500 word article that there would be some eyes glazing anyway.

Jun 08, 2009 11:21 AM
rating: 1
BP staff member Will Carroll
BP staff


Jun 09, 2009 08:00 AM

My high school english teacher said it best. "A paper should be like a woman's skirt. Long enough to cover the subject, but short enough to keep it interesting."

Jun 09, 2009 20:29 PM
rating: 2
John Carter

What a great saying! I don't think teachers could get away with saying that now.

Jun 12, 2009 16:40 PM
rating: 0
Richard Bergstrom

My senior year high school english teacher had a weird look on her face the first day we walked into class and sat down at our desks. After we were all seated, she said "I don't understand why classrooms are arranged this way in rows. You all look like cattle being lined up for slaughter."

Incidentally, the class was called "Anatomy of Horror" and besides reading horror books like Frankenstein, we also watched R-rated movies like Angel Heart. The teacher was a character too. She cut her hair on one side of her head a bit shorter than the other and did the makeup differently on one side of her face to "represent my dual personality".

Jun 12, 2009 19:51 PM
rating: 0
John Carter

Not bad for winging it while getting ready to be a father, Brian.

I have to agree with the critics that the some of the paragraphs are too long.

At one point you were quite confusing. "In games played against their own in Taiwan or in Panama, these 'talents' likely cancelled each other out, achieving statistical equilibrium. Not so when they played each other." I first read that completely opposite of the way it was intended. "In games played against their own style, these 'talents' likely cancelled each other out achieving statistical equilibrium Not so when Asian style they played Latin American style." would have been much clearer.

Jun 07, 2009 19:25 PM
rating: 0
Peter Hood

I found it readable for the most part but did need more ancedotal parts - story-telling if you like.

Jun 08, 2009 04:51 AM
rating: 0

I liked the article.

Jun 08, 2009 06:23 AM
rating: 0

Nice article, have my vote.

Jun 08, 2009 08:17 AM
rating: 0

I liked the writing style and there were some interesting points brought up. My one critique is that it was in need of some structure. For most of the length of the article I was thinking, "what is the point?" I think the point probably should have been "Many of the things we now know to be true about baseball statistics can be seen even at the lowest levels." And in classic Writing 101 style, that main idea should have been presented somewhere in the intro paragraph.

There was a great article hiding within this meandering story. That earns my vote.

Jun 08, 2009 11:25 AM
rating: 1

Worst opening sentence ever.

Jun 08, 2009 15:28 PM
rating: 0

This read almost as an autobiography. It was interesting though. Definitely showing a side that he needed to show, so he gets his first thumb up from me. (that sounds dirty)

Jun 08, 2009 19:21 PM
rating: 0

i voted for this article before i'd even finished it; the 3rd paragraph alone made it a worthwhile read. Brian really broke away from the niche he'd begun creating for himself with his last 2 entries, giving us his analysis enriched by personal experience and observation. take this snippet:

"I learned that foul outs decreased all batted ball types across the board. With short fences, the outfielders play closer to the infield, allowing fewer singles by catching more short flies. However, playing up allows balls to get through the gaps quicker, resulting in a higher percentage of extra base hits, but virtually no triples."

probably one of my favorite bits ever read on BP (idol or otherwise), he's explaining how the park's structure and the players' adaptation to that structure result into the statistics he tabulated, rather than just presenting the numbers for us.

there were a couple of issues - the piece read a bit clunky, and some of the paragraphs were dense, perhaps unnecessarily so. Those negatives aside, Brian turned in my favorite piece of the week thus far.

Jun 09, 2009 07:51 AM
rating: 0
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