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July 29, 2010

Changing Speeds

Forty-two Things I Think, Part 1

by Ken Funck

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I have engaged in baseball conversations with a greater number of people in the past year since becoming a contributor to Baseball Prospectus than in the previous five years combined. Casual acquaintances, or good friends who aren’t particularly baseball zealots, have been interested in hearing what I write about, and how it might differ from what they read in the local paper or see on ESPN. Mostly these conversations are exceedingly pleasant, since like most people I like to talk about myself, and I can spend time pretending to be an “expert” with a willing audience to discuss concepts that many people have never really heard about or considered.

Last week, however, I was a little taken aback when, in response to being told I wrote for BP, an acquaintance (let’s call him Chet) shot me a glance and said “Oh, so you probably believe a lot of things about baseball that I don’t believe.” I guess I never had really thought of it that way—that what I think about baseball is some sort of a belief system, a method of explaining the workings of the baseball universe to be embraced or discarded, and essentially argued for or against, like a religion. We went on to discuss a few topics, like clutch hitting, DIPS, and the importance of clubhouse chemistry, and I think Chet was surprised at how much we actually agreed, and that most of our disagreement was one of degree, or about the difficulty of proving that something exists. Mostly, we just enjoyed talking about a game we both love for many of the same reasons.

Since that conversation, I’ve been asking myself what my baseball belief system is, and how much it overlaps that of other fans—both those who read BP and those who don’t. With that in mind, here are some of my beliefs, mostly about baseball, some of them related to metrics, some of them not, for you to chew on. I came up with 42 of them very quickly, half of which I’m sharing this week. They’re pretty random, and don’t include some of the basic tenets of baseball analysis (e.g., outs are bad, several counting stats are overrated and clutch hitting as a repeatable skill is hard to prove), but should provide somewhat of a picture of what my belief system is.

Please consider this an invitation to agree or disagree with me as you see fit, and use the comments to pick me off if you feel I’m too far off base, or to throw out some beliefs of your own.

1. I believe that Major League Baseball organizations are better for having embraced sabermetric concepts and married them to their scouting process, while at the same time I’m disappointed that the mainstream media has yet to fully do the same. As I’ve written before, I think the disconnect here is that GMs need to leverage new ideas in order to succeed in a competitive environment, whereas success in the mainstream media isn’t tied to wins and losses. I believe that casual fans, driven to a great degree by the proliferation of fantasy baseball, continue to grow smarter about the game and how to value players—a belief that persists despite my daily dose of call-in sports radio—and I think a new generation of forward-thinking broadcasters will eventually change the sports media landscape much as the recent generation of GMs has changed the game itself.

2. With that in mind, I believe that OPS is a perfectly useful metric. Sure, it’s not as accurate as something like True Average, and it doesn’t attempt to accurately weigh the value of avoiding outs compared to hitting for power but, as Clay Davenport has shown, it’s not particularly inaccurate, either. More importantly, when you tune into a ballgame or watch ESPN or MLB Network, you’ll sometimes hear announcers mentioning OPS, or see it under a player’s name. I’d rather see OBP and SLG listed and discussed separately, of course, but any metric that helps move casual fans beyond batting average and counting stats like RBI and wins is something to be embraced.

3. I believe value metrics such as WARP are terrifically useful for giving us some idea of the total production a given player has provided for his team. However, I worry that sometimes people (myself included) use these metrics a little too literally. As Colin Wyers has recently done such a terrific job of pointing out, in our continued quest to understand and quantify as much as possible about the game, we sometimes lose sight of the uncertainties that underlie them. Has a player with a 5.8 WARP at the end of the season clearly helped his team more than one with a 4.2 WARP? Personally, I’m not sure. The defensive component of that number isn’t precise, and the offensive component can’t take into consideration the timing of the hitting events that go into it—sure, clutch hitting hasn’t been shown to be a particularly repeatable skill, but if a batter “happens” to produce better in clutch situations during a given season, he’s clearly provided more value that year, which is what WARP tries to measure. It’s important to keep in mind that numbers like this aren’t concrete data points but a range of values that overlap each other to a greater extent than you might think.

4. Similarly, I believe there is value in calculating pitch-type linear weights, but I worry about some of the conclusions being drawn from them, especially from a small sample size. Due to the effects of pitch sequencing, it’s harder to consider each pitch as a discrete event than it is to consider, say, a plate appearance as a discrete event. The largest change in run expectancy for a given pitch in an at-bat will usually be the terminal pitch of the at-bat, but it’s hard to know whether that slider away would have been offered at if the previous fastballs hadn’t set it up. There’s no foolproof way, and perhaps never will be, of assigning appropriate weights to each pitch in a plate appearance. None of this renders pitch-type linear weights useless, but we should be careful to use it correctly and be less apt to call a particular pitcher’s slider, “the best pitch in baseball” based on this metric.

5. I believe one of the biggest aspects of baseball’s appeal is the myriad approaches that players can take to perform the same job. Billy Wagner’s heater, Doug Jones’s changeup, Byung-Hyun Kim’s submarine slider—all have been dominant in their own way. You rarely see such wide variation in approach, or even in physical size and skill, in the other major sports, and this humanizes the game for us. I can picture myself charging down the third-base line after a slow roller, making a bare-handed pickup and firing a strike across the diamond, far more than I can picture myself boxing out an NBA power forward or tackling an NFL running back in the open field. Walter Mitty was surely a baseball fan.

6. I believe expanded instant replay is long overdue, with the best approach being an umpire placed in a booth with the authority to quickly review any questionable play, other than balls and strikes. Such a system would be unlikely to interrupt the flow of the game, would likely add at most a few minutes to the average game, and would protect umpires from the inevitable mistakes they’ll make. I’ve yet to hear an argument that convinces me there’s any significant downside to this.

7. I believe the championship of our summer game should be decided in weather that is likely to at least approximate summer temperatures, thus the World Series needs to conclude before the gales of November appear. The way to do this is to schedule, say, eight doubleheaders for each team throughout the season. There are arguments against this, of course, but I don’t care—these are my beliefs, right?

8. I believe that the designated hitter should continue to be supported in one league but not the other. Whether you adore or abhor the DH, there should always be a league for you. 

9. I believe the wild card should remain as well. I’ve read many well-reasoned articles calling for the WC to be flushed down the toilet since it minimizes the value of a team’s regular-season record and cuts into the drama of a “real” pennant race between, say, the Yankees and the Red Sox. While that may be true, to me that’s outweighed by the sheer number of other teams that remain in the hunt for a playoff spot later in the season, and the fact that it reduces the chance that the second-best team in a given league doesn’t even make the playoffs. If you want to get rid of divisions entirely and have the teams with the best record in each league face off in the World Series, fine, I’ll buy that (though I don’t expect most owners would). But if we’re going to have playoffs at all, the wild card does more good than harm.

10. I believe interleague play should be ditched. The number of truly successful “rivalry” games that this allows is truly small, and they come at the cost of a huge increase in schedule disparity.

11. I believe Inception is currently listed on IMDB as the third-best movie of all time, which is pretty ridiculous considering I believe it’s at best tied for the third-best Christopher Nolan movie of all time.

12. I believe it’s inevitable that additional steps will be taken to ensure a more level playing field between large-market and small-market franchises, and if done correctly this will be a good thing. This will likely require a salary floor to ensure small-market teams don’t line their pockets with revenue-sharing dollars, but the continuing disparity in resources available to teams is a time bomb that continues to tick. While it’s possible to win with less and lose with more, it’s certainly easier to win with more, and any fan of a successful big-market team who disagrees with that is merely rationalizing.

13. For all that’s been written and said over the last decade about pitch counts, the injury nexus, and arm fatigue, I believe we’ve only just scratched the surface on learning how to keep pitchers healthy. We seem to know that pitching when fatigued leads to injury, but we’re not sure how to accurately assess and avoid fatigue. Rany Jazayerli and Keith Woolner performed groundbreaking work in developing and tuning the Pitcher Abuse Points metric, but I suspect both would be the first to agree that PAP is only a starting point for assessing the long-term injury risk of specific pitchers. To try to avoid injuries it seems to me that teams have merely decided to have pitchers pitch less, but a more nuanced approach doesn’t yet seem to have taken hold. “Pitching less” can mean any combination of fewer pitches in an outing, more rest between appearances, or a more gradual increase in workload from year to year, without much knowledge of the cost/benefit of each. Since quality pitchers are baseball’s most-valued commodity, if there is any great breakthrough in baseball analysis over the next decade, I believe it will be in this area.

14. I believe that this great breakthrough may well come through further analysis of PITCHf/x data. The wealth of PITCHf/x data that will pile up in coming years could be mined to identify changes in velocity, release point, or movement that indicate a dangerous level of pitcher fatigue. PITCHf/x, and eventually HITf/x, is likely the most disruptive technology sabermetrics has yet seen.

15. I believe current pitcher-usage patterns, perhaps partially in an effort to avoid injuries, have become less optimal over time. The one-inning closer is my favorite example—if your closer is the best reliever on your team, he should be pitching more innings and facing tough hitters earlier in the game if those situations have higher leverage. The multi-inning save has become a rarity and should be revived. Every extra inning pitched by your best pitchers means fewer innings for your worst pitchers to work, and could perhaps even get teams to stop carrying as many relievers.

16. If the Brewers are serious about installing a Bud Selig statue in front of Miller Park, I believe it ought to have a very specific design. All entry to Miller Park should be funneled past Bud’s image, which will rest motionless and inscrutable until fans approach. At that point The Selig will seemingly come to life and challenge those who wish to enter with The Riddle of the Selig: “What had 38 arms in the morning, zero arms in the evening, and left millions up in arms overnight?” Only those who provide the correct answer, “The 2002 All-Star Game,” will be allowed in.

17. I believe baseball is the sport that works best on radio. The game’s rhythms are the perfect accompaniment to spring cleaning, summer beach lounging, and fall drives to the country, and the slower pace allows us to develop a deeper relationship with our local broadcasters. If music is the space between the notes, as DeBussy noted, then broadcasting is the space between the pitches, and those announcers who fill that space with not just their analysis but their personality become part of our life’s soundtrack, more than in any other sport.

18. When it comes to batter platoon splits, I believe we might be better off thinking of batters facing same-side and opposite-side pitching as two distinct skills. Much of the work I’ve seen, such as Dan Fox’s excellent article from several years ago, looks at a player’s platoon split as a single value, i.e., the difference between a given offensive metric vs. righties and lefties, and determines that such a value doesn’t seem to show a lot of year-to-year consistency. However, I wonder if there’s a flaw in that approach. If batting against same-side hitting is a skill, and your annual OBP or SLG vs. same-side hitting varies around a mean, and the same thing is true of opposite-side hitting, isn’t the variance between those two numbers going to be even greater? Some time ago I played around with re-running Dan’s analysis, but instead of calculating split-half correlations between the annual platoon split I calculated career split-half correlations separately for batters facing same-side and opposite-side pitchers, and I found much greater correlation. I’ve meant to write about this for a while, but I think that there is much more persistence in a given hitter’s ability against same-side hitters than many analysts seem to think—and I don’t just say that because Curtis Granderson is on my Strat team.

19. I believe Matt Swartz is right that free agents who re-sign with their existing team are likely to perform better than those who change teams. On reflection this seems obvious—of course a player’s current team should have the most knowledge about that player, and will be more likely to re-sign him if their information shows that doing so is likely to turn out well. Yet no one had really shown this to be true before, and Matt’s work on this shows that sometimes the simplest ideas are the most powerful, and there are still plenty of avenues to be explored for those with inquiring minds and the analytical chops to follow up their theories with action.

20. I believe Tim Raines has a better case for the Hall of Fame than Andre Dawson. However, I also believe Dawson belongs. I understand that he made a lot of outs, but Hawk’s combination of speed, power, and center-field defense enabled him to make game-changing plays at literally any point in the game: at the plate, in the field or on the base paths. I’m unabashedly a “Big Hall” guy (not to mention a Willie “Too Big” Hall guy), and while I understand there are more deserving players currently on the outside looking in, I can’t begrudge Dawson that.

 21. I believe the Chicago Cubs will win the World Series in my lifetime. Otherwise, why would I still care?  

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

36 comments have been left for this article.

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