March 25, 2009
Speed and Power
Who's Got It and Who Doesn't
Let's face it, the word "Moneyball" has been so overused-as a catchall for the game's great Satan, or as its foil to the hoary wisdom of "the book"-that it has almost lost its meaning. However, the book's core concept, searching for market inefficiencies to dig up something extra that gives you a leg up on the other guys running those other teams, still has import. Whether it's OBP in the Nineties, or pitch counts and defense in the Aughties, researchers have been doing new work to give us better valuations of players, and front offices have been similarly beavering away over that data and their own with an eye toward building better ballclubs. So, what's the next big thing?
Here's one gal's argument that it's going to be speed as an augmentation to always-popular power, meaning that we might be headed back to the exciting times of the '80s, when tactical diversity was the rule of the day, and teams were more aggressive in exploiting offensive talent because they understood that, when it comes to scoring runs, there's more than one way to skin that particular cat. It's worth remembering the age of Rickey Henderson-tasty combinations of the Billyball A's of 1980 and '81 or the Rickey and Donnie Baseball run-scoring machine of the '85 Yankees-and we should also remember the other teams that did their enemies in by using every available weapon. The '86 Mets had Darryl Strawberry and Gary Carter and Keith Hernandez, but Straw also swiped 28 bags as part of a crew of baserunners that included Wally Backman, Mookie Wilson, and Lenny Dykstra attacking the basepaths just as readily as that lineup dented fences from home plate. And how about the even more amazing power/speed combination that came with dropping Jack Clark onto the Whiteyball Cardinals to propel the Birds to a pennant in the high-octane outlier of the '87 season?
So, like the geniuses at Reese's figuring out what to do with milk chocolate and peanut butter, some things go together so well they make you want a second cup-in this case, two different flavors that represent equal doses of athleticism and skill. Power is something we can measure rather easily, because a double's a double, a triple's a triple, and a home run's instantly on the board, so whether you want to use simple slugging percentage or the equally straightforward Isolated Power (ISO), we know how to measure the ability of a player to create extra bases with the stroke of a bat.
What about speed, though? Stolen bases by themselves may have worked for something like Bill James' old-school Power/Speed Number back in the day, but we already have better valuations of base-running value, because this is an area where major statistical innovations have been taking place. At Baseball Prospectus, we've been at the front edge of the curve with the development of Equivalent Baserunning Runs by performance analyst Dan Fox. (As further proof of how many smart people there are inside the industry instead of on the outside looking in, Fox has since moved on to join the Pittsburgh Pirates as their Director of Baseball Systems Development as part of the Bucs' rebuilding effort.) In short, EqBRR is a metric to evaluate what additional run-scoring skills individual players and teams possess when it comes to stealing bases, advancing on outs, or taking that sometimes key extra base on a base hit.
When you consider last season's best players by EqBRR when it comes to helping to score extra runs with their blends of pure speed and on-base intelligence, the names shouldn't surprise you: Ichiro Suzuki was the game's best, giving the Mariners an additional 12.7 runs with with his fleet feet, while the Rockies' Willy Taveras led the senior circuit with 11.9 EqBRR. On the opposite side of the spectrum, the Rays Dioner Navarro cost them 8.0 EqBRR, and Prince Fielder finished last in the NL with 7.1. When you look at that spread, we're talking about a 20-run swing from the best to worst. Using the stat-head's rule of thumb that 10 runs equals a win, that's a difference of two wins, which these days can be the difference between a wild-card bid or an early October tee time.
As we gear up for the 2009 season, it's interesting to posit whether teams that boast the best blend of power and speed will have an advantage over those who don't. Using Baseball Prospectus' Player Forecast Manager and the PECOTA-projected player performances in ISO and EqBRR, we can evaluate which teams are best equipped to deliver equal measures of these two offensive components. Using our projections for team-level EqBRR and park-relative ISO, we can get a quick sense of who's going to finish where in each category by normalizing the leagues-wide performance in the two categories, and then multiplying each team's normalized values together to get a combined measure of that team's relative balance of power and speed.
With that bit of throat-clearing aside, here are the top five and bottom five teams in terms of their projected balance in power and speed, with a reference to each team's projected lineup age weighted for playing time to see if youth-which we associate with speed-is a factor:
Team EqBRR ISO NrmEqBRR NrmISO Mult Age Padres -7.99 .143 -1.88 -1.08 2.04 29.6 Marlins 6.28 .170 1.64 1.10 1.80 26.7 Braves -3.71 .143 -0.83 -1.06 0.88 28.1 Phillies 1.68 .172 0.50 1.26 0.64 31.6 Orioles 2.80 .165 0.78 0.69 0.54 29.0 ChiSox -3.99 .172 -0.89 1.27 -1.13 29.3 Rockies -5.04 .169 -1.15 1.05 -1.21 27.9 Angels 6.23 .146 1.63 -0.84 -1.36 29.4 Cards -7.60 .170 -1.79 1.12 -2.00 28.4 Twins 5.22 .130 1.38 -2.10 -2.89 27.1
OK, that's more math than even I'm used to, but a tip of the cap to BP's Clay Davenport for generating the data. This might not seem to make much sense, because nobody thinks about the Padres as likely MLB leaders in anything besides losses this year, but because the Pads are terrible at hitting for power (which their park contributes to), and lack any real burners on the bases, we get the sadly amusing statistical oddity of San Diego boasting the most evenly bad blend of power and speed.
Getting past that freak show, though, when we look at the teams that rank much more positively in their Normalized EqBRR and ISO, we get the relatively unsurprising result that relatively young and/or athletic teams like the Marlins and Phillies, and an Orioles team that has Brian Roberts and an outfield stocked with men who can run, are the best power/speed blends that will give you thunder at home plate and excitement on the bases. The Fish and the Phils will be part of what should be an especially exciting year in the NL East, so it'll be fun to see if their multiplicity of offensive weapons gives them an edge over the Mets and the Braves.
The trailers are equally unsurprising, in that they're made up of teams that are weaker in one component or the other. In the NL, that means a Cardinals team that's sluggy on the basepaths and at the plate-Whiteyball's not just buried in St. Louis, it might take a team of archaeologists to dig up its bones. In the junior circuit, there's no surprise that we find both the Twins and the Angels, and their more speed-oriented, low-powered lineups. We've complained early and often about the Angels' need to replace Mark Teixeira, but it's worth remembering that one of the areas where the Twins could and should help themselves as well is by adding some power lest they come up short again in the AL Central.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .