Colin thanks and bids farewell to the sabermetric community as he joins the Houston Astros.
While working on cleaning out my house recently (more about that later—but long tangents before I get to the point are a tradition around here, and I can’t well abandon that at the end, can I?), I came across a book called Understanding Solid-State Electronics. I don’t think I’ve seen it in years before now. It’s a bit dated. Actually, it was a bit dated even when I was reading it as a kid—its illustration of something that fits the Universal System Organization of sense, decide, and act is a record player.
It’s that time of year again, when Forbes gives us its estimates of baseball team finances and baseball teams dispute the estimates. This year’s reporting comes with an especially sensational headline:
2013 Houston Astros: Baseball's Worst Team Is The Most Profitable In History
Why knowing what went before will help the sabermetric movement in the future.
This was my third year attending the annual convention of the Society for American Baseball Research—in this case, the 43rd such event. It is one of the social highlights of the year for a community that essentially suffered a diaspora at birth—it’s never been easier for baseball researchers to communicate, but every so often it’s vital to actually bring them together under one roof, and SABR is a vital way of doing that.
There are panel discussions, keynotes, presentations, posters, and committee meetings. There are also discussions in hallways and on escalators and in line at cheesesteak vendors and in bars… well, okay, mostly in bars. And those ad hoc interactions are at least as important as the formal events, if not more so. I’ve tried to recap the formalevents, at least the ones I found of suitable interest. But it doesn’t really do enough to capture the sense of what the thing is. So let’s talk a bit. I don’t mean so much talk about SABR, although I’ll do that plenty. I mean let’s talk like we’re at the bar, with room to meander and ruminate and think about larger things. Now, obviously, I’m going to be doing most of the talking here to start, but a few of my victims from the hotel bar on Saturday night can tell you that’s pretty typical of being at SABR too.
The real danger Biogenesis revealed and the false threat that we shouldn't make this about.
The announcement was mostly anticlimax. Twelve players accepted 50-game suspensions for their involvement with the Biogenesis clinic, and Alex Rodriguez is looking at a longer suspension pending appeal. Some of the names are a surprise, but not the name that everyone is talking about.
The Biogenesis story has, admittedly at the urging of MLB, become primarily about Alex Rodriguez and his massive contract, and Ryan Braun and his improperly handled sample. It is understandable, in that they’re both big stars and the storylines around them are indeed compelling. But there’s a larger story here that’s mostly being missed.
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Colin reviews two stats presentations from SABR's Friday schedule.
Two stats presentations on the first day of SABR.
The first is a WPA-based look at the most exciting games of all time, based on WPA adjusted for “odds of winning the World Series.” Methodology discussion was sparse to non-existent, bulk of talk is a list of games itself. Without any detail on methodology, hard to critique or approve of the methodology, and a dry recitation of quote-unquote “exciting” games is not especially exciting in and of itself.
A review of the keynote address at this week's SABR convention in Philadelphia.
It may seem incongruous to some to have David Montgomery, president of the very traditional (and sometimes openly disdainful of sabermetrics) Philadelphia Phillies address the crowd at SABR. But it really shouldn’t. Sabermetrics is named in homage to SABR, but while Bill James’ admiration for SABR is returned by many of its members, it is a very traditional organization as well. Its membership skews very old – even older than the 2013 Phillies, believe it or not. And while you’ll find a diversity of interests at SABR (including some interested in sabermetrics, in fact), on the whole it skews heavily toward an appreciation of baseball history. The Phillies too share an appreciation for baseball’s historical record, apparently up to and including using it as a reason to sign Delmon Young. So it really is a good fit.
Montgomery opened by welcoming everyone to “his city” of Philadelphia, saying, "This is a very passionate sports town, which is great if you happen to work in sports. Well for the most part, it’s great.” He got more than a few laughs from that. He then went on to discuss the “cycles” of the Phillies, talking about the high points of the franchise (including the recent run of success. He did not elucidate where the 2013 Phillies were in the cycle, however.)
Have we been underrating big-market, high-payroll teams?
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the distribution of team wins, and the discovery that the distribution may in fact be bimodal, not normal as one might expect.
One of the predictions that came from this theory was that teams right at .500 would, counterintuitively, tend to regress away from the mean. So one thing we can do is actually check to see if the real world behaves the way we expect it to. I took all teams from 1969 on with even numbers of games and split them into “halves” of even-number games. I use scare-quotes for halves since in order to boost the sample size, I split into increments of two and kept any pair where both “halves” were within 20 games of each other. Then I looked at teams that were exactly .500 in the “before” sample— 716 teams total—and saw what they did afterward:
The Phillies can survive Ryan Howard's contract, but can they survive the GM who gave it to him?
Some baseball teams are disappointing by strange twists of fate. Some are disappointing by design. Not because they’re designed to perform poorly (although that happens, too), but because they’re given expectations contrary to reality, and when reality diverges from expectations, they continue to cling to the expectations.
The 2013 Phillies are a team modestly below .500. Given a preseason forecast of a basically .500 team, this shouldn’t be a terrible shock—baseball is a game filled with randomness, after all. But to view the Phillies as a real disappointment requires you to compare them to their run of excellence from 2007 through 2011, rather than the team they are now. General manager Ruben Amaro’s expectations, then, seem weirdly out of date, in more ways than one. When asked about the player who will most likely define Amaro’s career as a GM, he responded succinctly:
If .500 is average, where are all the teams with .500 records?
Sometimes, baseball research happens because you go out looking for something and you find it. Other times, it happens because you go off looking for something else and you trip over something far more interesting. This is the latter. While looking through historic team records for another project I was working on, I came across an interesting puzzle—there were far fewer teams exactly at .500 than I would have expected. I thought maybe it was a wacky feature of the sample set I was using, but I expanded my search to nearly 50 years of Major League Baseball, and the same puzzle was still staring me in the face. So I was left with three questions: Was what I was seeing really there? Why was it happening? And what did it mean?
One of the best parts of working at Baseball Prospectus is the ability to pester the staff email list with really bizarre questions. Some people use this power to ask questions where they don’t know the answer. Those people are probably much more well-liked than I am by the other staffers. I, instead, ask questions to which I already know the answer and request that people make wild guesses without doing any research first. I do this because sometimes when I’m looking at data, it helps me to get an unbiased perspective of what someone might expect the data to look like. But to get that, you need to ask people who haven’t seen the data, because once you’ve been staring at the data for too long you expect the data to look like the data.
Breaking down the debate about sabermetrics between Brian Kenny and Hawk Harrelson.
I don’t know how we got to this point, but the long-awaited grudge match between White Sox color commentator Hawk Harrelson and MLB Network broadcaster Brian Kenny (with occasional contributions from Harold Reynolds) took place last night. Everyone was polite, nobody got sent to the hospital, and Hawk launched a thousand indignant tweets. You can see the whole thing through the miracle of YouTube, if you have ten minutes to spare for Hawk to say five minutes’ worth of sentences twice:
Does public criticism of Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo help the Cubs?
Robert W. Chambers was one of the more successful authors in what may well have been the heyday of written fiction in America at the turn of the previous century, and he’s an interesting example of how writers were far less constrained to a single genre back then. During his lifetime, Chambers was mostly known (and read) for his romantic fiction, which produced several bestsellers. He also wrote war stories and historical fiction, as well as a handful of illustrated children’s books.
Nowadays, to the extent he’s remembered at all, it’s for his contributions to the field of horror. His best-remembered work is a collection of short stories called “The King In Yellow,” which contains several stories about a play titled (yes) “The King In Yellow.” Chambers only ever quotes from the first act, which characters describe as banal and innocent. The second act, however, is so terrifying and horrible (and so filled with awful truths) that it drives those who read its text or see it performed utterly insane. Chambers never reveals the contents of the second act in full, only hinting at its contents obliquely: