Baseball Prospectus Founder and MLB Team Advisor Gary Huckabay is writing an essay on the utility and limitations of statistical analysis in front offices for the upcoming Baseball Prospectus 2006, as well as a forthcoming piece on value
determination for player contracts. He'll answer your questions on anything baseball related.
Gary Huckabay: Welcome, all, and thanks for joining us. Rose Tattoo is blaring in the background, Trader Joe's Kettle-Brewed Black Tea in the convenient gallon jug is the caffeine source, and there's already a bunch of questions in the queue...let's get going...
Edward (Philly): Huck: Do you think that it's a good time to start a competing baseball league? If so, where and how, and if not, why not?
Gary Huckabay: I don’t think it’s ever a bad time, necessarily, to start a ‘competing’ baseball league. Baseball’s great entertainment, and MLB’s certainly left an opening for a low-cost alternative that doesn’t charge $6 for a corn dog and $10+ for parking. (We paid $40 for a plate of about 1/3 of a watermelon in an SBC box a few weeks ago, for on-field talent that was less than stellar) There’s already a pretty good product out there on the west coast; Dave Kaval and team have a very compelling offering in the Golden Baseball League. It’s a great way to spend three or four hours putting on sunscreen and watching good baseball. I mean, if you’re going to pay Major League money to see Jose Lima pitch, why not pay considerably less to watch something better?
ekanenh (NH): Does anyone keep track of UNsuccessful sacrifice bunts? Putting aside the utility of a successful sacrifice in any given situation, it seems that the utility discussion always assumes success, which, as we know, is far from the reality.
Gary Huckabay: The data’s available, but usually not for free. A couple times over the last couple of years, I’ve put the information in front of some broadcasters, usually to illuminate some gawdawful bunter who gets praised for dying gloriously on the basepaths, but it’s never made it on the air to the best of my knowledge.
Things I’d like to see/hear in the next couple of years; immediately after a successful sacrifice bunt, I’d like to hear Tim McCarver talk about “what a shortsighted strategic play that was. It increases the Acorns’ chances of scoring one run this inning, but at the cost of dramatically reducing their chances of having a big inning, and putting this game away. Even Deion Sanders wouldn’t be that dumb.”
Ok, maybe not McCarver, who’s probably responsible for more mute pressing that Gilbert Gottfried. McCarver’s really only good for raising great philosophical questions, like “What else is on?”
The basic point you're making is correct, though -- sac bunt attempts are far from ironclad, and when you include that as part of the calculus, the expected value of the sac bunt drops notably.
John (San Francisco): Daric Barton's upside: John Olerud or Albert Pujols?
Gary Huckabay: No one's expected upside, no matter who they are, is Albert Pujols. Pujols is one of the very greatest talents in the history of the game, and when you start using specific players as touchstones for minor leaguers, you end up doing a lot of wishcasting and making bad decisions. Daric Barton is a tremendous prospect, and he's got a chance to be a legitimate star because of his hitting.
Above and beyond that, I don't think there's a lot of value of talking about him as producing like an inner circle hall of famer just yet. It could happen, but it's not enormously likely. I think everyone concerned would be pretty happy with Travis Hafneresque production, if you want to force a name to it.
jsimon (Los Angeles): There were 82 players in the majors this year who stole at least 10 bases, and only 13 of them had success rates at or below what's generally regarded as the break-even point of 2:1. 20 of the 30 teams also managed to clear 67% on their steal attempts. Is this evidence that players and managers have taken to heart the sabermetric idea that steals have to be successful at a high rate to be worthwhile, or have success rates been this high in the past and I just didn't notice?
Gary Huckabay: The baseball analysis community is largely out to lunch when it comes to stolen bases. There’s a tendency to stick to widely-accepted formulas, even when they probably shouldn’t have been widely accepted in the first place. Just as some folks who genuinely detest statistical analysis will fight tooth and nail against anything that brings them back to their nightmare of high school calculus, many in the analyst community cling too persistently to solutions that are easy, but not necessarily accurate.
The “break even” point is something of a fallacy anyway. Unless you’re dealing with the specific probabilities of victory in a given game, it’s a waste of time. If someone stole 22 bases in 30 attempts, you don’t know squat about the actual value of that unless you know the specific instances of each attempt, and each action’s impact on P(Win). It’s a meaningless and futile exercise when looking at an aggregate stat line. Much like watching Saturday Night Live and expecting it to be funny outside of about 90 seconds on Weekend Update.
Remember the saying “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail?” In Baseball Analysis, the reliance on tools like linear regression is more than a bit silly. People use it because it’s easy, they learned it in Stats 101, and you can do it in Excel – not because it leads to the best insight or decision support.
Including SB and CS in multivariate regressions to determine run weights is misguided, IMHO. You can control when you attempt a steal, as opposed to HR, doubles, singles, etc, which you can't control. It's conflagration for convenience at the expense of accuracy, when the convenience isn't particularly important.
John (San Francisco): Has anyone done any extensive work to evaluate the effect of managers on a team's success? It seems absurd to give out multi-million dollar contracts (not much in the grand scheme of a baseball payroll, but still) to men who may or may not have any discernable (positive) effect on the game.
Gary Huckabay: The work's been done by several people, inside and outside of MLB. The data sources to do a good job are still coming together, and the problem with doing an analysis of this nature is exactly what you'd expect -- too many potentially intervening variables.
It's hard to comb out correlative effects when you've got 10 zillion phenomena going out, much less isolating and quantifying causal factors.
So, yes, people have studied this, but I haven't seen anything even close to definitive, and most of the honest researchers I know are quick to point out that what we do know isn't close to providing actual guidance.
Jake (Los Angeles): I can't recall seing much analysis on Super Two eligibility. What kind of increase in cost does that eligibility usually entail for teams?
Gary Huckabay: I’m not certain what you’re referring to in terms of Super-Two research. I think the cutoff for being in that top 17% of the two+ cohort is something like 130 days, but my memory on the subject may have faded. Are you asking about the marginal cost of using someone for more than that, thereby pushing them into arb early? If that’s your question, I haven’t seen explicit research on the topic, at least outside of a couple emails within an organization, and even that was more of just a comment about the arbitration process sucking, rather than anything sinister. I suspect one would find that the marginal cost of those few extra days is very high, especially when the performance you get for it is right at the beginning of a player’s career.
Yes, Virginia, most clubs would rather renew than present.
Daniel (Worcester, MA): Thanks for the chat, Huck. I met a couple of consultants last month, and both described difficulty getting their opinions heard about players. How do you get your voice heard in a culture that's not favorably inclined towards your views?
Gary Huckabay: It's an issue faced by people inside and outside of baseball, isn't it? Part of everyone's job is to get the organization to support and commit to one's plans. Yes, there are specific challenges facing 'quant guys' in baseball front offices, but there's challenges facing everyone there.
I suggest that the process of building credibility and influence is precisely the same as it is elsewhere -- do good work, have everything lined up in terms of your research and evidence, be respectful of others, and try to convince people with the evidence by any means necessary, be it repetition, co-opting, or anything else. But most importantly, don't fail because of a lack of preparation. The insight about what to do is only part of what's necessary -- persuasion and execution are more important than understanding VORP, for example.
Own up to your mistakes, too.
Parris (Oakland, CA): $50 for a pizza feed? Have you gone completely insane, or joined a cable company or bank?
Gary Huckabay: The $50 isn’t for the pizza feed – it’s for life-changing, underpaid teachers, who typically use it for extravagances like more books and supplies for their students. I’m working on lining up matching funds, so please, find a way to get out to Rocco’s for the pizza feed. Rocco Biale and his staff make very good pizza, it’s a great cause, and I think the issue of how much players are actually worth on the top and bottom line is really interesting. Plus, you’ll get a chance to meet James Click, who’s a good guy, and BP’s star intern, Ben Murphy, who’s flying out from the East Coast just to meet a bunch of readers. Even if you’re not going, consider making a donation. http://www.eukelteachertrust.org.
So yes, $50 for the pizza feed, but it’s tax deductible, goes to a very worthy cause, and you’d just blow it on booze and women anyway. Would you rather spend $50 on booze and women, or on watching a powerpoint presentation with lots of math, and talking baseball?
Funny, that rhetorical question worked on Woolner.
Bill Johnson (New Mexico): Nice to have you back for one of these, Gary. With the multitude of umpiring screwups this post-season, is it time to ask whether statistical analysis can do anything useful in evaluating umpires and getting the bad ones fixed or fired? Some of the strike zones in the playoffs have appeared to be randomly generated. Is the umpires' union/lobby too deeply entrenched for this to have a prayer? Any rumbles of discontent that you're hearing?
Gary Huckabay: I think umpiring can always be improved, but I also don’t believe that the “total disaster” can be avoided. Mistakes happen, and they happen with humans, robots, systems, etc. All you can hope for is diligent effort, and an concerted effort to consistently improve throughout your career. No one should be defined by one bad moment in their career; everyone has them, and the consequences are what they are. I’d like to see a Questec-like system in place, as a tool used by home plate umpires; I detest the phantom outside 2”-4” of the strike zone, and my subjective impression is that the umps have tightened that up over the last couple of years. Overall, umpires do a remarkable job. Considerably better than say, your typical analyst.
K.R. (DC): You said----Pujols is one of the very greatest talents in the history of the game ---how is that possible that he was drafted in 13th round, i heard he had weight issues but how can a guy be drafted in 1999 in 13th round and in 2001 have 37 HRs---he had only one year in the minors.
Gary Huckabay: The great thing is that it *is* possible, no?
There's no exactness in baseball. None. One of the best sensations ever is being mammothly wrong and pleasantly surprised at the same time. So 300+ players were drafted in front of Pujols. That's 300 dudes who get to tell their nephew that they were drafted ahead of that guy going into Cooperstown.
Peter B (Walnut Creek): As baseball appears to be slowly moving away from the recent long ball era (many would say that steroid use was a major contributing factor to increased power numbers and a wild card in statistical evaluation) what impact will this trend have on have on the next generation of player evaluation?
Gary Huckabay: Can we really say that “baseball is moving away from the longball era?” There’s not a ton of evidence to support that, is there? Runs per game were down a little from 2004, but in 2004, they were up a little from 2003, which was up from 2002.
The best play in baseball is still “hit the ball over the freakin’ fence,” and it’ll always be that way. Even if I accept your premise, I don’t think any changes in the game are likely to make a significant impact on performance analysis, which is still a very young endeavor.
In other words, not much impact.
John R. Grout (San Mateo, CA): We Oakland A's fans are still in shock over the sudden death of Bill King, our long-time radio announcer. Do you have any King memories to share that are of interest to the broader BP community?
Gary Huckabay: It’s a terrible loss. I was fortunate enough to meet and speak with Bill King on several occasions, and it’s because of him that I bought my first Bill James Baseball Abstract, so he’s responsible for many of the good things that have happened to me. He’ll be sorely missed, and hopefully remembered fondly for his tremendous contribution to sports, particularly here in the bay area. He was always very kind and generous to me, and I hope I repay him adequately. If George Carlin were 20% brighter and went into sports announcing, he would have been Bill King.
“Arlington’s a great place. For other people to be.” – Bill King.
“The majority of the umpires do a fantastic, professional job. All the umpires except John Shulock count as a majority, right?” – Bill King.
Ray DiPerna (NY): For 2006 which guy do you want on your team?
D) R. Johnson
Once we adjust for league/park/era, is Clemens the greatest pitcher of all time in your mind?
Is Bonds the greatest player?
Gary Huckabay: I’ll take Clemens. If for no other reason but I get to be on the phone to discuss his contract demands.
“I’d like $44 Million.”
“Well, it’s my best and final. Either pay me that, or I’ll hang out at home with my family, counting my rings and considering a Senate run.”
I think Bonds will be more effective on a per game basis, but I don’t think he’ll be able to play more than perhaps 100 games, and I expect Clemens, if chooses to play, to go 30 starts with a very good to great ERA.
Pinnick (Houston, TX): How bad does the new King's X record have to be for you not to mention it in your initial blurb?
Gary Huckabay: It’s actually quite good. It’s toned down a little bit, apparently in an attempt to garner some airplay, but it’s still outstanding. I love “If” & “Hurricane”, and like every other King’s X album, I think they made a mistake in picking the initial single, “Alone”, which isn’t nearly as radio-friendly as “If”.
I’m sure this is fascinating to the two dozen King’s X fans out of 70,000 who typically read the chats. It’s a bit like Rush Limbaugh having an on-air discussion about the various flavors of OxyContin with a street philosopher named T-Bone.
Darren (Hilo): So what is the biggest factor in figuring out a player's value?
Gary Huckabay: Well, you should come to the Pizza Feed in a couple weeks and find out.
But, not surprisingly, from the club's standpoint, the most important factor is probably the club's ability to accurately assess the quality of their club before any signing. The marginal value of specific wins is highly variable; if there's a player out there who can give you six wins, going from 69 to 75 wins isn't as big of a deal as going from 90 to 96.
It's actually an interesting issue, and one that requires more space than this chat. In addition to the work that I've done on the issue, Nate Silver's writing a piece for an upcoming book, and I'm confident it will be excellent.
STierce (Beaumont): What do you think of the postseason coverage so far, in terms of the broadcasts?
Gary Huckabay: I’d say it’s painful, but it’s really worse than that. From the pregame show, where everyone looks and talks like a Xanaxed-out realtor, to the 2:30 breaks between every half inning, it’s been unwatchable, at least for me. I’ve missed a fair amount of the postseason simply because Fox has managed to take some truly great, dramatic, world-class sport, and turn it into some sort of horrific suburb fest. It’s kind of the TV equivalent of one of those vile exurb malls, with faux façade architecture, nine hundred different soulless, Bed Bath, and Beyondesque retailers, usually clustered with a SlavLaborMart or some sort. I’d feel worse about it, except that I’m amused by the convergence of the visages of Kevin Kennedy and the Plastic Burger King King we’re seeing all the time on commercials. Creepy.
Also -- why are so many of you sending in questions that you *know* I can't answer? Take my silence as your answer, please...
jabrch (Chicago): On June 29, 2004, Gary Huckaby Said, "I think they did give up too much, but I’m lower on Freddy than most, and higher on Jeremy Reed than I probably should be."
A year later, what do you think of Jeremy Reed, Miguel Olivo, Michael Morse and Freddy Garcia? Do you still think the Sox gave up too much - given that Reed hit .254/.322/.352, the other guys the Ms got are of little value and Garcia had a 3.84 ERA in a very hitters friendly park? Olivo is regressing. Morse can't seem to find a position.
Your thoughts now?
Gary Huckabay: I expected Jeremy Reed to show more power and plate discipline than he did, even in spacious Safeco. I’m still not nuts about Garcia, despite his OK ERA on the year. As for Mike Morse, he’s something of a mystery at this point, for a number of reasons. Overall, we still don’t know how things will end up looking when we evaluate that trade. Aside from the performances in question, there’s the contracts to consider. I’m not sure that it’s really all that big of a deal. Kenny Williams deserves credit, though, so consider these official kudos.
And yes, I still think they gave up too much. But a flag flies forever.
robassalino (San Francisco): Is the pizza feed going to be as A's centered as events with James and yourself have been in the past, or is there going to be some thoughtful Giants analysis as well. Also is Tom Gorman going to be there, I hear he lives in the bay area.
Gary Huckabay: I expect it to be less so, but the Q&A isn't something we can really control. The focus of this event is on raising money in support of teachers; if you want to talk about the Giants, please, come on out, and drive the discussion.
I expect Tom Gorman will be in attendance, but I don't know for certain.
dantroy (davis, ca): Based on the analysis you've done, is it fair to assume your son is throwing from the southpaw side?
Gary Huckabay: Charlie is indeed throwing from the left side. The hard part was convincing his mother to let me duct tape his right arm behind his back in his formative first year. She also get really upset at my mounting a 48” x 72” glossy of Jesse Orosco in Charlie’s room, because it really scared him at first, but I convinced her by making the only other option a mural of noted character actor Jack Elam. Charlie’s first word was “LOOGY”, and his second was “BORAS.” His interest in baseball is second only to his interest in “doggie shoes”, his slippers that resemble beagles. His favorite ballplayer thus far is Travis Hafner, based on his clapping and yelling “yay” after watching Hafner hit a home run.
Alex (Houston): Cards or Stros?
Gary Huckabay: Stros.
brdirck (Noblesville, IN): Wondered what you thought Gary Sheffield's chances are at making the HOF. He's got an outside shot at 3000 hits, a better shot at 500 HRs, but not much in the way of awards (never an MVP).
Gary Huckabay: I think Sheffield will have to continue performing at a very high level for a bit longer to have a shot. He’s an outstanding player, but the press can be very fickle, and lots of chatter will come about those parts of Sheffield’s career that don’t necessarily play well in Peoria. The tanking games, the public statements in Los Angeles, etc. Sheffield’s not a go-along-to-get-along type guy, and although many of us may admire his plainspokenness on occasion, I don’t think he’s going to get the benefit of the doubt from the voters. He needs to be clearly over the top.
The main reason why is left as a very easy exercise for the reader.
Nate (Los Angeles, CA): What's the fate of Paul DePodesta in Los Angeles? What happens, where does he end up, how do the Dodgers fare?
Gary Huckabay: No matter what happened with the Dodgers this year, Paul DePodesta is still a very capable, qualified, bright guy. He’s certainly bright enough to take a long-term view in terms of building a franchise, and the Dodgers aren’t likely to be hit quite as hard by injuries next year and going forward.
I think you’ll see the Dodgers improve quite a bit in 2006, and I expect Paul to be a successful GM no matter what happens, with at least a ring or two by the time his career’s over. If the Dodgers are foolish enough to let him go, he’ll eventually get another shot, and I think any team would be fortunate to have him.
delugeofgrandeur (Clinton, NY): How do the Red Sox fill their hole at 1B? Kelly Shoppach as the linchpin of a deal for Aubrey Huff? Trade for Ryan Shealy?
Gary Huckabay: There's lots of decent options available, and the Red Sox should have a fair amount of fleixibility. The AL East isn't a place where you can just sit around with mediocre production from an easy spot to fill. A first baseman with a sub-.400 SLG just isn't going to cut it.
They don't need a 162-game solution there, but perhaps a low-cost platoon, giving them some financial flexibility that they could use to address some of their other needs.
Karl Rove (DC): Better starters Astors or White Sox?
Gary Huckabay: Astros.
Gary Huckabay: I've gotta run. Thanks for coming by, and for all the questions. Hope you enjoy tonight's game, and please come join us at the Warren Eukel Teacher Trust Pizza Feed -- you can sign up by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org. It's $50 well spent -- think of it as a way to pay back that great teacher you remember from high school. Take care, all...