Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Baseball is awesome.

Mike Blowers, journeyman, career OPS+ 97, and one of the most amazing things I've ever heard.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Cubs "All-Time 9"

This seems like it would be a good idea. The Cubs are, after all, a franchise steeped in history, and some of the greats have played on the North Side (especially given Cubs.com's one-season format, which allows us to pretend that Rogers Hornsby belongs on an all-time Cubs list despite his HoF career as a Cardinal). So compiling an "All-Time 9" list seems like it could be a lot of fun.

Unfortunately, there are a few problems. First off, most of the statistics given on the ballot are junk. Runs and RBIs are too dependent on teammates to be reliable for...well, much of anything when we're talking individual performance. Batting average, when combined with OBP and slugging, can actually tell us quite a bit about a hitter. Of course, it's presented alone, which tells us very little. SB totals are nice, but without CS numbers it's impossible to know whether the player ran himself into bonus bases or right back into the dugout. Home runs are great, and definitely the best "stand-alone" stat that Cubs.com gives us, though it would be nice to see doubles in there as well (I'm not going to ask for anything crazy here like isolated slugging).

But these troubles are easy to overcome and, frankly, the sort of thing I'd expect. Most fans aren't interested in the sorts of numbers that I'm interested in. Fortunately, there's always Baseball-Reference.com. I pointed my browser B-R-ward and started creating some play index pages by position, sorting by runs created (which seemed the best statistic to use, seeing as the purpose of Cubs.com's little thought experiment is to determine the best offensive lineup).

That's when the real problems became apparent.

Even before I hit up Baseball-Reference, I noticed some glaring omissions from the ballot. Example: who the fuck leaves Cap Anson off any so-called "All-Time 9" ballot for the Chicago Cubs? I don't care if we're talking all-time seasons, careers, or months of June; Cap Anson was an insanely good baseball player and one of the Cubs' first stars. In fact, he's probably the greatest first baseman to ever lace up for the North Siders.

But the hits just kept on coming: even when the right names are on the ballot, the right years aren't always there (RBI/BA bias in several cases, but some of the choices were absolutely baffling).

Clearly, the solution to these problems is for an anal-retentive Cubs fan, who happens to maintain a ridiculously obscure pseudo-sabermetric blog [very] loosely based on the NL Central, to write about said problems.

Fortunately, I know just such a fan.

Following is my position-by-position analysis of the Cubs.com "All-Time 9" ballot. Sometimes Cubs.com does a solid job of picking candidates. Sometimes they don't. And sometimes, they pick Pittsburgh Pirates.

Read on, if you dare.


Cubs.com's ballot:
1982 Bill Buckner (98 RC)
1903 Frank Chance (83 RC)
1995 Mark Grace (115 RC)
1922 Ray Grimes (125 RC)
2005 Derrek Lee (167 RC)
2002 Fred McGriff (93 RC)

Frank Chance was awesome, and I'm glad to see an "old schooler" from the turn-of-the-century Cubs dynasty on the ballot. But Frank doesn't belong in this conversation if we're talking single-season dominance, unfortunately, as he simply did not hit for power.

Fred McGriff did hit for power, but as much as I love the Crime Dog, he also doesn't belong on this list (though his 30 HRs and 100+ RBIs explain why he made the ballots, methinks).

Bill Buckner is probably the 7th or 8th most deserving first baseman, so his inclusion on the list isn't a big problem: he's not going to win, and neither are the guys who turned in slightly better performances. So why not give the much-maligned Buckner (who, it's worth noting for the umpteenth time, was a solid ballplayer) his day in the sun?

My ballot:
2005 Derrek Lee
1970 Jim Hickman (129 RC)
1922 Ray Grimes
1886 Cap Anson (119 RC)
1995 Mark Grace
1953 Dee Fondy (100 RC)

Cubs.com was right on when it came to Lee, Grace, and Grimes; all three should be in this discussion, and for the years they appear on the ballot. But what about Jim Hickman's 1970 campaign? Only Lee's 2005 beats out Hickman's 1970 in RC for a Cubs first baseman. And how about Cap Anson? He may not be the third beat in the Tinker-to-Evers connection, but if Frank Chance is fair game for the All-Time 9, why the hell wouldn't Mr. Burns' first choice at first base be? Fondy and Buckner could easily be switched, but Dee slightly outperformed Bill in every rate state and several counting stats (Buckner's RBI total appears to have been the deciding factor for Cubs.com), so I went with Fondy's '53.

Top 100 by RC. Note that Phil Cavarretta had a couple big years in 1944 and 1945 but did not make my list. That's because in 1945, the total number of arms in Major League Baseball was not an even number.

Best season: 2005 Derrek Lee
My vote: 2005 Derrek Lee


Cubs.com's ballot:
1912 Johnny Evers (91 RC)
1935 Billy Herman (120 RC)
1929 Rogers Hornsby (188 RC)
1990 Ryne Sandberg (124 RC)

One of these things is not like the other things. I'll give Cubs.com's writers credit for knowing their baseball poetics, but Evers really shouldn't be on this list. Hornsby and Herman, however, are spot on, as is Sandberg (though I prefer his 1984 season slightly).

My ballot:
1929 Rogers Hornsby
1935 Billy Herman
1984 Ryne Sandberg (126 RC)

Sure, I could add a fourth player to the list, in which case it would be between 2000 Eric Young and 2008 Mark DeRosa, but neither player topped the 100 RC mark, making them massive underdogs (just as Evers was), and DeRo wasn't exclusively a second sacker in '08. Best to keep this one simple, methinks.

Top 100 by RC. Note that Sandberg and Herman absolutely dominate this list.

Best season: 1929 Rogers Hornsby
My vote: 1929 Rogers Hornsby


Cubs.com's ballot:
1958 Ernie Banks (135 RC)
1978 Ivan DeJesus (84 RC)
1995 Shawon Dunston (68 RC)
1931 Woody English (101 RC)
1922 Charlie Hollochar (97 RC)
1912 Joe Tinker (63 RC)

Now things are starting to get tricky. Why? Because when I started digging into the numbers, it seemed like Woody English should be on the ballot for his 1930 campaign, in which he totalled a club-best 139 RC splitting time at short and third. Cubs.com's rationale seems pretty obvious: in 1931, English played SS almost exclusively, whereas he played SS only about half the time the previous year (and actually played more games at third). But sweet merciful crap was his 1930 line a thing to behold: .335/.430/.511 (vs. .319/.391/.413 the following year).

As for the rest of the ballot, enough with "Baseball's Sad Lexicon," already: Joe Tinker doesn't belong here. And much as I love Shawon Dunston, he wasn't exactly the most feared hitter in baseball back in the day.

My ballot:
1958 Ernie Banks
1931 Woody English
1894 Bill Dahlen (125 RC)

Much like the second base ballot, this one is pretty straight-forward. If I had to add a couple more names to the list for the sake of argument, I'd take 1922 Hollocher, 1978 DeJesus, and 1969 Don Kessinger.

Top 100 by RC. Note that Ernie Banks was really, really good at baseball.

Best season: 1958 Ernie Banks
My vote: 1958 Ernie Banks


Cubs.com's ballot:
1983 Ron Cey (90 RC)
1976 Bill Madlock (100 RC)
1948 Andy Pafko (105 RC)
2004 Aramis Ramirez (109 RC)
1964 Ron Santo (135 RC)
1912 Heinie Zimmerman (131 RC)

This is probably the best ballot Cubs.com created. Most of the players are right on. Most of the years are, too. But Ron Cey really doesn't belong here, particularly since there is one glaring omission, not to mention one arguable omission: Woody English, playing just over half his time at third in 1930, put up an RC of 139 and could have made this a three horse race (OK, so I mentioned it). For the glaring omission, see my ballot...

My ballot:
1976 Bill Madlock
1948 Andy Pafko
2006 Aramis Ramirez (115 RC)
1964 Ron Santo
1912 Heinie Zimmerman
1938 Stan Hack (108 RC)

Stan Hack has no business being left off this list. He put up four of the top 15 RC seasons by Cubs third basemen. Granted, all were during World War II, but his best season (1938) came before the U.S. started sending Big Leaguers off to fight (or anyone, for that matter). So why was he left off the list? I have two guesses: 4 HR and 67 RBI. Of course, he also put up a .320/.411/.432 line. But in a battle of traditional statistics, Hack's not gonna do so well.

As for Aramis, his 2004 season was actually only his third best offensively as a Cub: 2006 and 2008 were both better. In fact, the only reason I can find for Cubs.com to select Ramirez's 2004 over his 2006 campaign is batting average; even Ramirez's traditional stats were better in 2006, with the exception of BA (.291/38/119 in '06 vs. .318/36/103 in '04). Ah, the siren's call of the .300 average...

Top 100 by RC. Santo is a Hall of Famer. Just sayin'.

Best season: 1964 Ron Santo
My vote: 1964 Ron Santo


Cubs.com's ballot:
1984 Jody Davis (63 RC)
1935 Gabby Hartnett (91 RC)
2008 Geovany Soto (91 RC)
1993 Rick Wilkins (95 RC)

On the heels of Cubs.com's best ballot comes their worst ballot. The catcher race only looks close because of two terrible, terrible calls: the inclusion of Jody Davis at all (and the use of his third best year as Cubs catcher, to boot!) and the inexplicable decision to use Gabby Hartnett's 1935 season instead of his 1930, when he was worth a staggering 129 runs at the plate.

My ballot:
1930 Gabby Hartnett (129 RC)
2008 Geovany Soto
1993 Rick Wilkins
1923 Bob O'Farrell (88 RC)

Ol' Bob ain't gonna win this one, but at least his performance is in line with Soto's and Wilkins's.

As for the Hartnett mixup, I can only shake my head in dumbfounded wonder. Let's take a look at two seasons:

Season 1: .339/.404/.630, 37 HR, 31 2B, 172 H, 84 R, and 122 RBI in 141 games
Season 2: .344/.404/.545, 13 HR, 32 2B, 142 H, 67 R, and 91 RBI in 116 games

Which was the better season? If you said Season 1, it's because the answer is really, really obvious. I even included a couple numbers I don't put much stock in (R and RBI) to illustrate how hard it is to get this one wrong even when relying on the BA/HR/RBI split stat style of player evaluation. So what the hell happened? Are five points of batting average really worth 24 homers (just for starters)?

Top 100 by RC.

Best season: 1930 Gabby Hartnett
My vote: 1935 Gabby Hartnett

I probably should've gone with Rick Wilkins since, based on the ballot, it was technically the best answer and it would be a nice, petty move on my part in response to the ridiculously crappy catcher ballot. But I couldn't say no to the greatest catcher in Cubs history, even if it meant cheating a little bit.


Cubs.com's ballot:
1961 George Altman (105 RC)
1925 Kiki Cuyler (154 RC)
1987 Andre Dawson (111 RC)
1937 Frank Demaree (114 RC)
1982 Leon Durham (108 RC)
1970 Jim Hickman (129 RC)
1979 Dave Kingman (112 RC)
1939 Hank Leiber (82 RC)
1943 Bill Nicholson (123 RC)
1950 Andy Pafko (117 RC)
1952 Hank Sauer (107 RC)
2007 Alfonso Soriano (107 RC)
1998 Sammy Sosa (149 RC)
1929 Riggs Stephenson (122 RC)
1970 Billy Williams (147 RC)
1930 Hack Wilson (192 RC)

There are quite a few snubs on the outfielder ballot, but it's such a gigantic field that I tend to be forgiving so long as we're at least talking about a guy who was over the century mark in run value. But Hank Leiber? Really?

Also: Kiki Cuyler was awesome in 1925. And a Pittsburgh Pirate.

My ballot:
2001 Sammy Sosa (193 RC)
1930 Hack Wilson
1970 Billy Williams
1930 Kiki "Chicago Cub" Cuyler (147 RC)
1970 Jim Hickman
2004 Moises Alou (123 RC)
1929 Riggs Stephenson
1936 Frank Demaree (120 RC)
1935 Augie Galan (119 RC)
1950 Andy Pafko
1911 Frank Shulte (117 RC)
1979 Dave Kingman
1987 Andre Dawson

Sosa's '98 was awesome. His His 2000 and 2001 seasons were even better. His '98 is on the ballot only because of the chase: he hit two fewer homers in '01, but with 2 more RBIs (for those who care) and a batting average that was 20 points higher (and, more tellingly, an OBP up 60 points and a SLG up 90 points). Sosa's 2001 season is, for all intents and purposes, tied with Hack Wilson's 1930 campaign (and possibly Rogers Hornsby's 1929) as the best offensive season by a Cubs player. Ever. At any position. But it wasn't part of a magical home run chase, so it's not on the ballot.


Fortunately, Sosa's '98 is still comfortably in the top three on this ballot. Poor Kiki Cuyler, though, gets screwed over. If Cubs.com actually listed Cuyler's best season as a Cub, I'd have a tough decision between Kiki and Billy Williams for the third outfield spot. As things stand, however, I'm not voting for a Pirate on an all-time Cubs list. (Though for what it's worth, Cuyler's value is inflated due to the fact that MLB didn't keep CS records during his playing days, so I'd probably vote for Billy W. regardless.)

And as a final note, where's the love for Moises Alou? The man gave us two fantastic seasons in 2003 and 2004, and yet he gets snubbed for the likes of Soriano? For shame, Cubs.com. For shame.

Top 100 by RC. Note that Bill Lange's 1895 (124 RC) did not make my ballot. That's because the lack of CS numbers from way back when result in what appears to be a 67-for-67 SB record, which is almost certainly inaccurate. Since I don't know whether he got caught once or 68 times, and since he isn't going to win anyway, I left Lange off my list (perhaps unfairly).

Best seasons: 2001 Sammy Sosa, 1930 Hack Wilson, 1970 Billy Williams
My votes: 1998 Sammy Sosa, 1930 Hack Wilson, 1970 Billy Williams


Cubs.com's ballot:
1921 Grover Alexander (11 RC)
1918 Claude Hendrix (12 RC)
1971 Fergie Jenkins (16 RC)
1930 Pat Malone (11 RC)
1933 Lon Warneke (14 RC)
2008 Carlos Zambrano (13 RC)

Pitcher is a really, really tough position for this sort of vote. Since the All-Time 9, as proposed by Cubs.com, is intended as purely an offensive force, it doesn't matter whether the pitcher is actually good at pitching (though it's worth noting that most of these guys were), which makes things a bit easier. But the pitcher's spot in the batting order is where the differences between the game of the late nineteenth century and the game since the early twentieth century are perhaps most obvious: pitchers started (and finished!) a lot more games back then (see John Clarkson), which really skewed the all-time seasonal RC leaderboard in favor of the olde timers.

Cubs.com's solution seems like the right move in my mind. Rather than loading up the ballot with obscure names from the 1870's, they went with 20th- and 21st-century hurlers. This makes a lot of sense. Even once I sorted out pitchers who'd appeared in more than 45 games, 19th-century types still lurked atop the leaderboard en masse. Some of these performances are damned impressive (Scott Stratton's 1894 season is absolutely eye-popping, in fact). But many of these pitchers, Stratton included, saw time at other positions, and even those who didn't tended to be left in games longer, resulting in more at bats and, therefore, more accumulated value with the bat.

So with the 19th century eliminated, how did Cubs.com do?

My ballot:
1921 Grover Alexander
1918 Claude Hendrix
1971 Fergie Jenkins
1924 Tony Kaufman (11 RC)
1933 Lon Warneke
2008 Carlos Zambrano

They did pretty damned well, as it turns out. There's an argument to be made for Jack Taylor's 1902, in theory, but his line really wasn't all that impressive: those extra runs (he put up 14 RC that year) are a function of his 204 PAs (79 more than any player on Cubs.com's ballot) rather than his lackluster .237/.272/.280 line. Tony Kaufman's 1924 should probably replace Malone's 1930, but it's such a close call (it really comes down to rate vs. counting stats evening out in RC) that I can't fault Cubs.com for going with the guy who got more PAs in this case.

Top 100 by RC (post-1900).

Best season: 1971 Fergie Jenkins
My vote: 1971 Fergie Jenkins

Cubs.com's All-Time 9 is a great idea. And in some ways, it's executed very well. The stats on the ballot are crap, but even when the positional ballots themselves are garbage, I'm usually able to pick the best player(s), if not always the best year(s), and that's not something that should be sold short. Still, I wish that more of the ballots looked like those for third base (pretty much dead-on) or pitcher (arguable, but with solid logic backing the choices). A+ for the concept, and a big "thank you" to Cubs.com for giving me an excuse to dive into the B-R archives, but just a little more statistical legwork would have made the All-Time 9 a much, much better experiment.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Holliday Revisited

I am not willing to, as yet, admit that I was dead wrong a couple months ago when I bashed the hell out of the trade to acquire Matt Holiday from Oakland. I still think that signing him is going to be an issue, and the playoffs will of course be an issue as well. But man, oh, man, has he been fun to watch.

I'm not going to get into specific numbers and all that rigmarole, because that's just not what I do. What I know for sure is that the Cardinals would not be the team they are now without his bat in their cleanup slot every night. He's managed to put up over 100 RBIs this season despite a very inauspicious first half with the A's, and with his bat and, to a lesser extent, Mark DeRosa's bat as well, the Cardinals are being mentioned by many as the "team to beat" in the NL.

Not so fast.

Let me dig up some numbers, because they are important for this part. Okay. So, the question remains: Are these Cardinals good enough to get to the World Series? The short answer, in my opinion, is yes. However, I could just as easily see them ousted in the first round. Of the teams that are likely to make the playoffs (that is, the Rockies, Dodgers, and Phillies), all have at least one dominant-to-very-good left handed starter. Cardinals average against lefties this year? .234. I just watched Sean West of Florida tear through our lineup like it was wet toilet paper and then proceed to get mauled my the Kip Wells-led Reds club in Cincy.

Jorge De La Rosa of Colorado is their lone dominant lefty, however the Rockies are playing like the best team in the NL over the past month or so. I do not want to play a streaky team...I found out how that works when we won in '06. And that guy is tough, and on a side note I will probably thank his waiver-wire pickup for me winning in fantasy baseball this year.

The Dodgers would throw Kershaw, Billingsley, and Randy Wolf at us, probably in that order. I don't trust this Cardinal team to beat Kershaw or even Wolf. Wainwright matches up well with Billingsley but you have to admit that ol' Chad is not a bad pitcher in his own right. Thus, the Dodgers scare me.

Finally the Phillies. Oh, the Phillies. You and your possible 7 man rotation. If I'm Charlie Manuel, the Cardinals get Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, J.A. Happ and good night Irene. Not to mention they have a very potent offense and, for the record, I believe them to be the NL Champs this year.

So we come full circle. If the Cardinals fall short, which no one in St. Louis expects them to, will the Matt Holliday trade have been for naught? I have to say yes to this, and that is regardless of what kind of players Clay Mortensen and Brett Wallace become. He has added a spark to this team that I didn't expect, though, that much I can admit. But one of two things need to happen to cause me to completely rethink this trade: 1) A World Series appearance, or 2) Re-sign him. I do give props to John Mozeliak and the front office for trying to make things happen this year, though. Too many times we have watched the Cardinals go on their merry way and not pick up anyone who could give the team a boost. This year they went out and got 3 of those guys.

Nothing to do now but wait til the playoffs to start and look for an old hat to eat. Go Cards!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Wait 'til next year

Yeah, things are pretty quiet for us in Chicago about now. My Brewers failed to make the type of move that got them in the playoffs last year and aren't going anywhere.

We still cheer of course but until the end of the season when we can do awards and stuff we are mostly just waiting out the year.

I did want to mention one thing: Jim Thome left Chicago for the Dodgers and I am very sad to see him go as he is one of my true favorites in the league. I wanted to quote Jon Bois to illustrate how great a guy Thome is: "Perhaps the most telling acid test: think back to all the insults you’ve heard from Cubs fans. They hate Ozzie Guillen, they hate Gordon Beckham, they hate Jermaine Dye. But I have never, ever heard a Cubs fan speak ill of Jim Thome. It’s almost like speaking ill of Buck O’Neil. It doesn’t make any sense."

Happy FJM Day

The Gang from FJM is getting back together for a day of guest editing over at Deadspin. We here of course adore FJM and are happy to see them back in any form at all. Go read and understand what bad sports journalism looks like when it is being mocked by sarcastic know-it-alls.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Here's to the Next 17 Years!

As most of you probably already know, the Pirates clinched their record 17th consecutive losing season on Monday following a 4-2 loss to the Cubs. It seems nothing's gone right for the Pirates since that devastating loss in Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS, and Pittsburgh's season-long fire sale suggests that the streak could hit 20 unless some young Pirates develop quickly and simultaneously in the next couple years.

So how do small-market franchises like the Pirates, Royals, and Nationals compete? Joe Posnanski has some ideas. As always, Joe P's piece is a damned good read, but with apologies to Joe, I think my favorite part of his article this time 'round is actually a link: "How David Beats Goliath" is one of the most enjoyable New Yorker essays I've read in a long while (which is saying something), and it's food for thought for a beleaguered small-budget ball club. And as Justin Bopp's recent BtB post illustrates, a small-market club can get a lot of bang for its bucks if it makes smart (and lucky) investments or manages to exploit inefficiencies in the market (as Sabermetricians have attempted to do since time immemorial).

#17 is all but in the books now, Pittsburgh front office. It's time to do something gutsy and innovative. Hire Bill James. Bat your best hitter second. Scout soft-tossing control artists. Put together a team of banjo-hitting defenders that makes the Mariners outfield look like Little Leaguers trying to shag flies in a 30 mph crosswind. Sign a golden retriever. But don't simply stay the course and doom your fans to 17 more years of "rebuilding."

Concerning Large Numbers

The Rays are up 2-0 against the Yankees on ESPN right now, but Derek Jeter has moved two hits closer to Lou Gehrig on the all-time Yanks hit list thanks to a bunt single and a ground rule double. When Derek stepping into the box for his second at bat, however, I heard something absolutely astonishing: Steve Phillips believes that Jeter will get to 4000 hits.

Actually, I think he said that Jeter has a "very good chance," or something along those lines, but still. Phillips went on to explain that Jeter "only" (and he did in fact use the word "only") needs to play eight more seasons (the man is 35) and average 158 hits in each of those seasons in order to crack 4000.

Now, I'm sure there are plenty of people out there who are statistically savvy enough to use aging curves and such to illustrate how unlikely Phillips' claim really is, but I'm not one of those people.

Instead, I'm going to point here and here. Pete Rose and Ty Cobb are the only members of the 4000 hit club, and I think we can all agree that they were both pretty good at baseball. Rose played for about three minutes shy of forever. Cobb was done at 41. Rose averaged 167 hits between his age 36 and age 43 seasons. Cobb averaged 154 from 36 on. Jeter is a damned fine hitter, but 158 hits for eight more seasons, even assuming that, like Rose and Cobb, Jeter is going to pile up hits totals in the high 100's or even low 200's until he's 40 or so, is no easy task (one that Ty Cobb, he of the 4189 hits and .366 career average, failed).

The Yankee captain has a further disadvantage due to his position: there is almost no damned way any manager in his right mind is going to trot out a 43-year-old to the shortstop position every day (even Vizquel was only the everyday shortstop through his age 40 season), and Jeter's numbers aren't likely to be DH-worthy into his 40's.

Where Jeter actually has an advantage over Rose, though, is in the slugging category. Rose had a career SLG of .409; Jeter has slugged .459 over his career (Cobb slugged .512, because he was Ty Fucking Cobb). Jeter's hit totals are less dependent on legging out singles than Rose's were, so it's likely that while there's still some pop in #2's bat, he'll continue to rack up hits as he's always done. And there's no doubting Jeter's commitment: his off-season training regime (which emphasized lateral quickness, particularly on defense) has resulted in Jeter's best defensive season to date (he's worth 5.1 runs at short so far this year, a far cry from the negative numbers that usually "grace" Derek's WAR charts).

But will all this translate into the longevity and productivity that Jeter would need to reach the 4000 hit plateau? Probably not. There is, after all, a damned good reason that only two players have cracked 4k in 150 years of baseball: it is really, really hard to play baseball into your 40's, particularly at a high level, without...help. And Jeter's .409 SLG, while better than Rose's and solid for a SS, isn't a number most managers want their first basemen or DHs turning in.

Steve Phillips could be right, of course. Derek Jeter could one day rap hit number 4000. He might even hit number 4257. But to claim that Jeter has a "very good chance" of doing so is absurd, as is taking eight seasons of 158-hit production for granted.

Fortunately, Steve Phillips' little speech was intercut with shots of Nick Swisher screwing around in the dugout, and was followed by Swish striking out and yelling "fuck!" on national television. Nick Swisher is amazing even when he strikes out.