It might be missing WARP, FRAA, and TAv–for now–but the humble box score still gives us much of the information we need to understand the game.
With Barry’s day in court almost upon, what’s the basic background on where things stand in terms of evidence and procedure?
Keith Scherer has an update on Barry Bonds’ legal situation that covers the period between the publication of Will Carroll’s “The Juice” and the present.
In our introduction to the Baseball Prospectus Basics series we wrote, “We always want to improve our understanding of the game–each player, each play, each pitch, each throw, each hit–what does it really mean?” We have a storehouse of data to help us refine our understanding of how baseball really works and how it can be improved. We have a team of performance analysts who help us see things we might have never perceived on our own. But the unrefined essentials of what we use are harvested from the box scores you and I read every morning from April through October.
The title of this essay is misleading: there is no correct way to read a box score. Roto gamers approach a box score like it’s a greatest hits record. Retrosheet’s patrons dust each stroke of agate as if it was an artifact. You pay for the morning paper, you get to use your box scores however you wish, even as fishwrap.
Box scores now tell us nearly everything that occurs in a game. They tell us hot warm it was, the direction and speed of the wind, and how many people came out to the park. We can find out who the umpiring crew was. Baserunning blunders, substitution patterns, clutch hits, high-leverage relief appearances–it’s all in a good box score, along with groundballs, flyballs, balls, strikes, and pitch counts.
The breadth of the draft allows everyone–including the fans–plenty of room to work out their theories. And it gives us armchair GMs a chance to learn that it’s not as easy as it looks. As a fan, I don’t know what GMs or scouts know. I don’t get to watch high school baseball, and the only college ball I see is when ESPN runs the College World Series. The good news is that my eyes won’t fool me. The bad news is that I don’t know anything about a player’s mental or mechanical defects, his signing demands, or injuries.
I have the numbers, though, and I know how to read them. It’s true that numbers can be made to lie, and they can be misunderstood. The variances of league, park, and competition make high school numbers notoriously untrustworthy. If you’re going to scout the high schools, you have to rely far more on scouts’ observations than data. If you’re a frequent visitor to this website, you’re highly suspicious of wholly subjective analysis. You’d be more comfortable if you could play with some numbers too. So you prefer to look at college players.
College numbers are difficult to interpret, but not as hard as some people think. If we account for strength of competition, strength of conference, age, and park factors, we can get a crude but helpful idea of a player’s projectable skills. Until recently these factors have been hard to come by, but Boyd Nation has revolutionized the processing of college baseball data. Using Boyd’s rankings and comprehensive collection of hyperlinks, we can make substantial adjustments for context. We could use these sources to collect our field of draftables, or we could use them to modify Baseball America’s many lists. BA is second to none in its coverage of the draft, but if you lean toward performance over tools, you’re bound to be dissatisfied with some of BA’s conclusions. Even so, its subjective observations are often invaluable.
So with Boyd’s rankings and hyperlinks, and BA’s multiform coverage, you settle in for the draft. You know that Delmon Young, Rickie Weeks, Tim Stauffer, and Kyle Sleeth are going right up top. You know that Vince Sinisi will probably fall a bit because of the Boras factor. By draft day, a lot of the drama has already been diffused. But there are choices to make:
Why have Cincinnati’s pitchers done poorly? The ball-strike count plays a big part. In a previous column, I noted that the Reds’ strike rate was tracking with their wins and losses. This is an essay about the importance of strike rates, but let me get the caveat out of the way: Strike rates play a big part, but of course they don’t explain everything. High strike rates don’t necessarily mean success. Brian Anderson rarely gives up walks, but he gets hit hard. That said, strike rates have a big influence on outcomes. Pitchers and batters alter their approach to an at-bat on where they are in the count. Whether or not a pitcher works ahead in the count and can use his whole repertoire matters, and it matters whether a batter has to protect the plate because he’s behind in the count. Strikes reflect how well a pitcher controls a game.
What might surprise a lot of people is that there is no official method of scoring balls and strikes, just as there is no official way to publish a box score. You won’t find anything in chapter 10 of the official rules on box score formats or ball-strike tabulations. There is no official method, but for both box scores and pitch scoring there is a customary, standard way of doing things.
Under the standard, swinging strikes, called strikes, foul balls on full counts, and balls in play are counted as Strikes. All balls, including those thrown for pitchouts and intentional walks, are counted as Balls. As strikes are recorded now, a called third strike is no different than a 500-foot homer. An intentional ball is no different than a wild pitch.
So far, this column has been a day-by-day review of factoids. That’s a fun and profitable way to review box scores, but this week I have re-oriented Box Lunch toward a topical focus, using Earl Weaver’s maxims to introduce a variety of subjects. There’s little worth knowing about baseball that Weaver hasn’t already covered, and so far I have found more than 40 observations in Weaver on Strategy that are relevant to things we can study using box scores as the primary source. This week the emphasis is on how managers select and use their rosters.
“When a manager has been pushing the same buttons day after day and losing, he’d better start pushing different ones.”
Alan Trammell is doing the drunkard’s walk. On Wednesday he started Bobby Higginson in center field. It was the first time Higginson played the position in the majors, and he hasn’t played there since. And then on Saturday, with his team sniffling along at 1-14 and losing its 16th game 9-2, Trammell had Craig Paquette pinch-hit for Higginson. It was the eighth inning and Royals reliever Albie Lopez was working on his fifth consecutive scoreless inning, so maybe it was despair, and maybe it was the managerial equivalent of Brownian Motion, but the move had no strategic justification. Removing your best hitter is the worst way to start a rally. Paquette is Trammell’s de facto designated pinch-hitter, so maybe he was trying to keep Paquette fresh. Pinch-hitters come in cold and they can’t really be kept fresh, but even if you could crisp them up with two or three swings every other day, what would be gained by wasting one of your stars’ turns on a bag of sand like Paquette? It wasn’t a platoon decision. Higginson is a lefty and Paquette and Lopez are righties. If Higginson was injured you can’t tell by the box scores; he had played the previous inning and was back in the lineup the next day, and there was nothing in the next day’s news about an injury to Higginson. All I can think of is that Trammell was either conceding the game by giving him a breather or–this has to happen sometimes–a leisurely bathroom break.
In response to one of last week’s Box Lunch articles, one reader asks: “I see the intellectual interest in all the detective work of reconstructing an inning from a box score, but in this day and age, who would do that instead of clicking on the game log provided right next to the box score at ESPN if you really want to know what happened?”
Maybe some of the same people who think it’s still worthwhile to cook their food on a stovetop. Also, newspapers don’t publish game logs. Box scores are portable, foldable, markable.
A box score’s value is greater than the sum of its roto points. Weather, crowd size, umpiring crew, pitcher abuse, baserunning blunders, ball/strike and groundball/flyball ratios, substitution patterns, clutch hitting, clutch pitching–with enough time and a high enough geek quotient, you could nearly recreate an entire game from a box score.
Last Thursday night Minnesota beat Detroit 3-0 in front of less than 9,000 customers, a quick, two-hour game that produced a nice line for Kyle Lohse but not much else for the highlight reels. It’s a box score you could scan in seconds if you were looking for roto events. But if you spent some time with it you could figure out nearly as much of what happened as if you had been there.
Keith Scherer kicks off the first in a weekly series looking at box scores from the past seven days. In his review of the boxes, he’ll scan for trends and tendencies, using the names and digits you see in agate type every day.
The PCL is famous for its pinball scores but there are other, better reasons to pay attention to it this year.
The Anaheim Angels finished the 2001 season 41 games out of first place, so you would be forgiven if their World Series victory last fall surprised you. It surprised all of us. All of us except Phil Rogers, that is. He saw it coming.
This series is almost remarkable in its absence of “hooks.” Sure, you’ve got the “Pastaman’s Progeny” angle, as two putative Sons of Lasorda duke it out from the dugouts. As regional incest goes, the Bay Area versus the Angeleno megalopolis doesn’t really rise to Boston-New York, and certainly ranks as much more on the level than the low-water mark of the 2000 World Series.
Even as they take the lead in the wild card race, the Los Angeles Dodgers are dying. Only Jim Tracy’s magic keeps the Dodgers from seeing how chronic their situation is.
In Tracy’s short time as a major league manager, he has demonstrated a gift for turning others’ garbage into gold. Just as Chavez Ravine (park factor 91) makes Dodger pitchers look better than they are, it conceals just how well Tracy has done with the hitters he has been given.
Before the Chuck Finley deal, the Cardinals had only one hitting prospect. Now they have none.
Before the Chuck Finley deal, the Cardinals had only one hitting prospect. Now they have none. They tried to trade their only pitching prospect, but he had the bad manners to hit the DL at the All-Star Break. They managed to complete the Scott Rolen deal by trading two major leaguers (Bud Smith‘s 132 2/3…