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Is there meaning in checked swings, and can teams take advantage of it?

When I got home from the SABR Analytics Conference in mid-March, I spent a week or so writing and talking about some of the most interesting things I’d heard there. But there was one particularly intriguing topic that I wasn’t yet ready to write about.

That topic was brought up by Bill James, who's given us more than his fair share of interesting insights. Here’s all the backstory you need to know: James was on an “Analytics Super Panel” with Brian Kenny and Joe Posnanski, and he was asked by an audience member whether there’s any utility for teams in gathering information on home plate umpires. If I’ve embedded it right, this video should play only a short clip from the relevant portion of the panel (59:40-1:00:29). If I’ve embedded it wrong, you can either skip to that section yourself or read the transcript below.

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Sabermetric pioneer Pete Palmer tackles the hit and run and other statistical topics.

Believe it or not, most of our writers didn't enter the world sporting an @baseballprospectus.com address; with a few exceptions, they started out somewhere else. In an effort to up your reading pleasure while tipping our caps to some of the most illuminating work being done elsewhere on the internet, we'll be yielding the stage once a week to the best and brightest baseball writers, researchers and thinkers from outside of the BP umbrella. If you'd like to nominate a guest contributor (including yourself), please drop us a line.

Pete Palmer is the co-author of The Hidden Game of Baseball with John Thorn and co-editor of the Barnes and Noble ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia with Gary Gillette. Pete introduced on-base average as an official statistic for the American League in 1979 and invented on-base plus slugging, now universally used as a good measure of batting strength. A member of SABR since 1973, his baseball data is used by the SABR Encyclopedia, MLB.com, Retrosheet, ESPN, and Baseball-Reference.com. He was selected by SABR to be in the inaugural group of nine given the Henry Chadwick award in 2010. Pete is also the editor of Who’s Who in Baseball, soon to be celebrating its 100th anniversary. His latest book, Basic Ball: New Approaches for Determining the Greatest Baseball, Football, and Basketball Players of All-Time, was released late last year.
 


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June 13, 2012 7:00 am

Manufactured Runs: The Madness of King Bill

11

Colin Wyers

A conscientious sabermetrician questions everything, even the work of Bill James.

The really great thing about learning from one’s predecessors is that you can learn just as much from when they are wrong as when they are right, if you take care and are vigilant—which is to say, that you recognize that an error was made to begin with.

At its core, sabermetrics got its start because people were able to read things and then ask questions about what they read, rather than taking everything at face value. Does this make sense? Is this really true? And I think that any sabermetrics worthy of that name is as willing to question itself in this fashion as it is everyone else.

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Pitchers continue to get injured while batting, so should baseball continue to require NL pitchers to hit?

I'm not known around the Internet as the world's biggest A.J. Burnett fan. During last Wednesday's BP roundtable, I even dusted off an old Simpson's riff: "I'm a well-wisher in that I wish him no specific harm." Now, to set the record straight, any voodoo dolls I may have referenced over the past decade or so for any player exist only in my breathlessly hyperbolic narratives, and I would never actually wish injury on a ballplayer, particularly not such an injury as befell Burnett later that day. The recent trade that sent the enigmatic righty from the Yankees to the Pirates mandates that he practice his hitting and bunting, and unfortunately, a less-than-stellar bit of work on the latter sent a ball into his own face, fracturing his right orbital and necessitating surgery. Fortunately, it does not sound as though he suffered a detached retina, which could have threatened his career.

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Does a new set of stats reflect much of a change in who could stand to upgrade in left field?

Last week, I explored the majors’ surprising downturn in offense from left fielders, a result counterintuitive to our understanding of Bill James’ defensive spectrum, which runs DH-1B-LF-RF-3B-CF-2B-SS-C. The positions to the left of the spectrum, which require far less defensive skill, are the ones where offensive production is supposed to be the highest, yet left field has been engaged in a decades-long battle for offensive supremacy with right field—which requires a stronger arm for throwing to third base—and this past year slipped behind center field for the first time since 1966. I placed the major reason for the downturn at the feet of teams attempting to copy the 2005 White Sox, who used Scott Podsednik—a center fielder to that point in his career—in left field, and attempted to show how the defensive gain supplied by the speedsters did not outweigh the loss of offense. I even got to talk about the phenomenon on television.

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The corner outfield spots are known for production, but one field has been far more dominant in recent years.

My working theory was that it began with Scott Podsednik. In December 2004, White Sox general manager Kenny Williams sent slugging left fielder Carlos Lee to the Brewers for a three-player package that included Podsednik, who was coming off a so-so season as Milwaukee's center fielder. He had stolen 70 bases and bopped 12 homers—a nice return in the fantasy realm—but had hit just .244/.313/.364. His .237 True Average was hardly anything to write home about, and here at BP, both Christina Kahrl and Joe Sheehan tossed around phrases like "as a hitter plugged into left field, the nicest thing you can say is that he makes a great part-time center fielder." At the time, the Sox were set with an All-Star caliber center fielder in Aaron Rowand, 27 and coming off a breakout .310/.361/.544 campaign, which didn't exactly clarify matters.

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While third base is often considered an offense-heavy position now, last year proved to be a major down season.

As so often happens, my recent Replacement-Level Killers and Vortices of Suck miniseries have focused my attention on the landscape of offensive production at each position. Back in July, while putting together the midseason Killers, I was struck by just how awful a year it had been for third basemen. Age, injuries, and mysterious slumps had sapped the production of so many hot cornermen that their collective True Average (.253) trailed that of second basemen (.256)—a seven-point swing from the year before, a change that couldn't simply be explained by Chone Figgins' switch in positions. As someone who internalized Bill James' defensive spectrum before I was old enough to drive, this anomaly fascinated me.

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While it may be easy to root for certain ballplayers, we have to be open to honest assessments of their abilities.

Ever since I was introduced to Bill James’ works in the mid-'80s, I have wanted to learn as much as possible about baseball so that I can better understand and appreciate it. If you're reading this, you're probably wired the same way. It might be easier to watch without thinking so much, but we don't know how to do that.

I have a similar problem with music. I started playing guitar at the same time I started reading James (correlation does not equal causation), and although I'm a bit of a hack, I've earned enough over the years from my efforts to attract the U.S. government's attention.

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February 2, 2012 9:00 am

Overthinking It: The Overlooked Overlooked Hall of Famers

28

Ben Lindbergh

Why have two of the top 30 position players since 1950 been ignored by BBWAA voters and bloggers alike?

The last thing I want to do is create another Bert Blyleven.

I don’t mean Blyleven the pitcher or Blyleven the person. The world could probably use more of those. I’m talking about Blyleven the Overlooked Hall of Fame Candidate. Don’t get me wrong—I’m glad Blyleven is in the Hall of Fame. He deserves to be. His induction was a triumph of critical thinking over snap judgments, of evidence over empty arguments, of the hard work and research of writers like Jay Jaffe and Rich Lederer over the bluster and baseless self-assurance of others in the mainstream—an infinitesimal triumph, in the grand scheme of things, but a triumph nonetheless.

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Bill James may claim to study baseball questions, not statistical ones, but what happens when a statistician studies Bill James?

Believe it or not, most of our writers didn't enter the world sporting an @baseballprospectus.com address; with a few exceptions, they started out somewhere else. In an effort to up your reading pleasure while tipping our caps to some of the most illuminating work being done elsewhere on the internet, we'll be yielding the stage once a week to the best and brightest baseball writers, researchers and thinkers from outside of the BP umbrella. If you'd like to nominate a guest contributor (including yourself), please drop us a line.

Andrew Gelman is a professor of statistics and political science at Columbia University. He occasionally blogs on baseball, including here, here, here, and here.


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December 21, 2006 12:00 am

Schrodinger's Bat: The Best Baserunners of 2006

0

Dan Fox

Dan examines Bill James' baserunning metrics and names the best baserunners of 2006 on the major league level.

- Bill James, "Baserunning", The Bill James Handbook 2007

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"John Henry and the Red Sox were great to me. They were willing to pay me more money than I could believe. But it's more than money, I've never been about money. I made one decision based on money in my life--when I signed with the Mets rather than go to Stanford--and I promised I'd never do it again." --Billy Beane, Athletics general manager, on turning down an offer to join the Red Sox

RED SOX EMPLOYEES: PAST, PRESENT, AND NEARLY

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