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Saturday, March 29, 2008

Historical SFR

A couple days late in my summary of this week's effort on Baseball Prospectus but this week I ran the Simple Fielding Runs (SFR) system against Retrosheet data from 1988-1998. This was possible without modifying the system since the relevant hit type and fielder data is present for those eleven seasons (in the same ratios as available for 2003 through 2007 for the major leagues and 2005-2007 for the minor leagues).

Although you'll need to read the piece to get all the details, suffice it to say that Ozzie Smith, Cal Ripken, Mark Lemke, Ryne Sandberg, Matt Williams, John Olerud, and Mark Grace all come out looking pretty good as you might expect.

A reader asks, however, how Roberto Alomar and Omar Vizquel look and so here's a look at their complete data calculated for SFR thus far.

Roberto Alomar, 1988-2004 at Second Base
Year Team Age Balls Runners Diff SFR Rate
1988 SDN 20 624 126 8 5.9 1.06
1989 SDN 21 672 153 -4 -2.8 0.98
1990 SDN 22 593 138 -9 -7.2 0.93
1991 TOR 23 744 192 10 7.2 1.05
1992 TOR 24 619 167 -4 -3.3 0.97
1993 TOR 25 650 161 -6 -4.8 0.96
1994 TOR 26 395 101 -3 -1.9 0.97
1995 TOR 27 564 127 2 1.7 1.02
1996 BAL 28 605 130 15 11.1 1.11
1997 BAL 29 383 76 19 14.0 1.25
1998 BAL 30 587 144 15 10.9 1.10
2003 CHA/NYN 35 523 148 -22 -16.7 0.85
2004 ARI/CHA 36 125 37 -6 -4.4 0.84

7083 1699 13 9.6 1.01

Interestingly, while SFR didn't like Alomar much in San Diego and Toronto, it did in his three years in Baltimore. Keep in mind that for infielders SFR does not take into account park effects and that both the shortstop and first baseman have an impact on the second baseman since the system parcels out balls assigned to each via overall distributions. Both of these may play a factor here although I haven't researched Baltimore particularly although I did note that Sean Smith's system incldues a similar disparity. Overall Alomar rates out at +9.6 runs and a rate (computed as the ratio of expected runners reached to actual runners) just above average at 1.01.

Omar Vizquel, 1989-2007 at Shortstop
Year Team Age Balls Runners Diff SFR Rate
1989 SEA 22 557 130 9 6.6 1.07
1990 SEA 23 356 90 0 0.1 1.00
1991 SEA 24 609 152 13 9.5 1.08
1992 SEA 25 656 189 1 1.0 1.01
1993 SEA 26 719 188 3 2.6 1.02
1994 CLE 27 293 70 10 7.3 1.14
1995 CLE 28 570 133 18 13.4 1.13
1996 CLE 29 655 168 5 4.2 1.03
1997 CLE 30 633 142 15 11.2 1.10
1998 CLE 31 656 185 14 10.5 1.08
2003 CLE 36 295 59 14 10.4 1.24
2004 CLE 37 597 159 -3 -2.6 0.98
2005 SFN 38 654 153 13 9.4 1.08
2006 SFN 39 590 147 9 7.0 1.06
2007 SFN 40 639 134 38 28.5 1.29

8478 2097 159 119 1.08

Vizquel is predictably excellent for most seasons and rated highest last year although once again, his third baseman certainy had some influence.

Those interested in this topic should definitely check out Sean Smith's work at The Hardball Times where he expands his TotalZone system and provides lots of interesting results.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

A Common Theme

Coincidentally, the John Dewan stat of the week this week happens to correspond quite nicely with my Schrodinger's Bat column titled "Clearing the Decks" posted today on Baseball Prospectus. John talks about the best bunters of 2007 and in my column I do a little of that in relation to the Tattered Cover book signing that I pariticpated in several weeks ago before moving on to the minor leagues best bunters from 2005 through 2007.

In additon I take a look at the concept of "free bases" recently discussed by Rangers' staff as well as the recent 2008 Scout's Honor Results posted on It's in that section that I revisit the topic of bunting a little and have this to say on the scout's choices in that category.

Best Bunter: Juan Pierre, with Ichiro Suzuki runner-up. Near and dear to the first topic discussed this week. While Pierre is the most prolific bunter over the past six years (320 attempts), his success rate ranks 16th out of the 18 players with 75 or more attempts during that span, with a success rate of 41 percent. Suzuki doesn't bunt nearly as often, but does succeed more frequently at 59 percent in 59 attempts. No, Willy Taveras would clearly be the better choice with Luis Castillo (54 percent in 84 attempts) and Corey Patterson (51 percent in 128 attempts) undoubtedly better as well.

Of course I critique a few of the other choices as well...

Monday, March 17, 2008

Baseball's Trifecta

This article originally appeared on Baseball Prospectus on September 28, 2006.

September 28, 2006

Schrodinger's Bat: Baseball's Trifecta
by Dan Fox

"I think if you come to the ballpark and you see Carl hit a triple, you've had a pretty good day. It's pretty much a signature play for him, because when he hits the ball down the line, or in the gap, he's thinking three. He never thinks two. He breaks triple. He wants triple, he takes triple."

--Devil Rays manager Joe Maddon after Carl Crawford's triple on September 24.

"Hey, big mouth, how do you spell triple?"

--Shoeless Joe Jackson, to a heckling Cleveland fan who taunted him by asking if he could spell "illiterate." This was his response after hitting a triple.

In the bottom of the sixth inning of last Sunday's Yankees/Devil Rays game, Carl Crawford pulled Mike Myers' 1-0 slider into the gap in right-center. The ball skidded past Bobby Abreu, and by the time he retrieved it and hit the cutoff man, both runners had scored and Crawford had coasted into third. It was his 15th triple of the season.

As much as I disdain more or less arbitrary statistical milestones, the hit did draw some attention, since it made Crawford the first player in 76 years to hit at least 15 triples in three straight seasons. In that year, 1930, no fewer than three players were finishing a run of three or more years with 15 triples or more:

1930 1929 1928 1927 1926
Earle Combs 22 15 21 23
Paul Waner 18 15 19 18 22
Charlie Gehringer 15 19 16

By comparison, Crawford hit 19 triples in 2004, 15 last year, and now 15 this season. When asked after the game why he thought it had been so long since a player accomplished the feat, Crawford replied, "There are fast guys in the game who can hit, so I have no clue why guys haven't done it. That's not a stat that you go out and try to do every year. That's a stat that just happens."

Crawford's achievement and his comment provide a springboard for this week's column, where we'll discuss triples and their accompanying historical trends.

Historically Speaking

The simple and somewhat tautological answer to Crawford's consternation regarding the lack of triples is that the triple has become increasingly rare over time. And just as a rising tide lifts all boats, a low tide grounds them. The following graph shows the number of triples per 500 at-bats plus walks for each year from 1901 through 2005:

Notice that, as it did for offense in general, the robust environment of 1930 marked the high point for triples, with 6.8 triples hit per 500 AB+BB. The rate dropped immiediatly thereafter, to 5.7 in 1931 and 1932, and it never again reached as high as 5.3. It now seems to have stabilized at around 2.5.

If there are fewer triples being hit, then it becomes less likely that an individual player will be able to hit 15 in three consecutive seasons. For example, a player who hits 15 triples would have a rate of 12.5 per 500 AB+BB. In 1930, a player who hit triples at 1.8 times the rate of the average player would end up with 15 triples, and eleven of the 73 players with 500 or more AB+BB hit 15 or more triples in 1930. In 2005, however, a 15-triple player would have to hit triples at a rate more than five times that of the average player, and just two players (Crawford and Jose Reyes, who hit 17) out of 140 with 500 or more AB+BB could do that. It should be noted that 2005 was a comparatively good year for three-baggers: since 1992, there have been ten seasons in which no player has hit 15 triples. In contrast, when 10-15% of the players hit 15 or more triples every year, there is a very good chance that one or more of those players will repeat for three consecutive years.

As an aside, the general reduction in triples makes the performance of Cory Sullivan on April 9 even more of a fluke. In the top of the fifth inning, Sullivan hit two triples in a seven-run outburst that helped the Rockies beat Jake Peavy and the Padres 10-4. Those two triples tied a record held by ten others, although most recently accomplished by the Senators' Gil Coan in 1951.

The graph also shows the spike in triples that occurred between the years 1974 and 1980. As you can see, triples had been declining steadily since 1930, reaching a low of 2.72 in 1973. From there they began to climb again, reaching a high point of 3.71 in 1977 before gradually declining to settle back down at the 1973 level by 1986. Note that 1977, like 1930, was a relatively big offensive year, with teams scoring 4.47 runs per game. Offensive levels continued to rise throughout the period, and so it can't simply be chalked up to more hits resulting in more triples. But since there weren't new parks being introduced, and expansion occurred in the middle of the spike and not at its start, it's not obvious what might have caused it the outburst.

At first blush, one might posit that there was a general trend towards valuing speed that began in the early to mid-1970s, as young players like Ron LeFlore, Tim Raines, Willie Wilson, and Omar Moreno began to establish themselves. The increase in stolen bases, however, is more gradual than that for triples, and actually began around 1959 (with the "Go-Go Sox" and Maury Wills playing a large part) with a steeper increase in the mid-1970s that peaked in another year that was good for offense, 1987, as shown in the following graph:

While all of this is interesting, it kind of tiptoes around the answer that Crawford is looking for (he probably doesn't really care, but play along). Although there doesn't appear to be consensus among the analytical community, the following are the theories most often discussed as to why the triple has become relatively rare:

  • Better Fielders. One of the more interesting questions is to consider how the game has changed as the players have become more athletic. Clearly the speed, strength, size and athletic ability of the average professional baseball player in 2005 exceed that of one in 1920. The question is, how does this affect the game and the evaluation of performance? This was recently touched on by Phil Birnbaum on his Sabermetric Research blog, and was the subject of a thought-provoking chapter by Nate Silver in Baseball Between the Numbers.

    As an example of such an effect, the late Stephen Jay Gould argued that a rising level of play inching closer to the "right-wall" of human ability coupled with stabilization of the game itself have conspired to decrease the variability in seasonal batting averages, making it far more difficult to hit .400 now than in years past. The epitome of Gould's argument is that Tony Gwynn had less opportunity than Ty Cobb to exploit the inferiority of others.

    Something like this may be happening with triples as well. The theory is that as fielders have become bigger, faster, and boast better throwing arms, would-be triple hitters have had a more difficult time exploiting their opponents, and thus rack up fewer three-baggers. In addition, the standardization of positioning (including the idea that outfielders played shallower in the past) and cutoffs have added to the difficulty. Although baserunners have also become faster, this theory would argue that the improvement in fielding ability and techniques has outstripped the increase in baserunner speed.

  • Park Configuration. This is a corollary to the first theory. Early in the century, ballpark dimensions were far less standardized than today. For example, the Huntington Avenue Grounds where the Red Sox played from 1901-1911 featured a left-center field fence 440 feet away, and a centerfield wall 530 feet from home plate from 1901-1907, and then at 635 feet starting in 1908. Similarly, the center field fence at Forbes Field was 462 feet away in 1909, and at the Polo Grounds, center field ranged from 430 feet in 1931 to 505 feet in 1949. Don't forget that while these and other ballparks in the two eight-team leagues had one or more long distances, they also had lots of corners and edges that made for unpredictable caroms. All of this adds up to situations which surely allowed hitters more opportunity to leg out triples.

    Over time, standard dimensions (335/375/400/375/335) made their way into the game, diminishing the opportunity for strange bounces and balls rolling towards distant fences with outfielders in hot pursuit. For my money, the combination of this and the first cause probably explain the lion's share of the overall historical trend.

  • Risk Aversion. As mentioned previously, as offensive levels rise, the relative importance of stolen bases decrease. The same reason causes triples to decline in value; the marginal benefit of stretching a double into a triple is lessened as the probability of scoring from second base increases. A quick look at Run Expectancy Matrices from various years would bear this out as well as the graph presented in my column on Win Expectancy. The argument, then, is that as offensive levels have risen over time, triples have decreased as a result of their lessening strategic importance.

    While the premise of this theory is certainly true, one doubts whether calculations like this are taken into account either consciously or subconsciously. More problematic, however, is the fact that runs per game have not increased over time, therefore cutting the legs out from under this theory. Contrary to the steadily downward-sloping line in the first graph, run scoring was actually higher throughout the 1920s and into the early 1930s than at any other time, and after diminishing to reach its low point in 1968 (3.42 runs per game per team), it has steadily increased since then:

  • Player Aging. No discussion of triples would be complete without at least a brief look at the effect of age. As Clay Davenport noted in his essay "Graying the Game" in Baseball Prospectus 2002, and subsequently reinforced by Nate Silver last season, the player population is aging, and has been for quite some time. This has an impact on triples, since older players lose foot speed and don't hit as many as younger ones do. The graph below shows triples per 500 AB+BB for all players since 1901, player-seasons from 1901-1935 and seasons from 1936-2005:

    Even at a time when triples were much more common (the orange line), triples peaked at age 22 and steadily declined through age 40. You'll also notice that the slope of the line for players in the first part of the 20th century is not quite so steep as it is for those since. I also find it very interesting that the slope of the line from ages 22 through 35 for all players is very nearly straight, indicating an extremely uniform decrease with age.

    Clearly, players don't hit as many triples as they get older, but the general aging of the player population cannot account for the overall decrease in triples. Just considering players 25 years old or younger, those who played since 1936 hit triples at a rate of 3.72 per 500 AB+BB, while those who played before 1936 hit them at a rate of 6.73. Keep in mind that it's also very likely that the average speed of players 25 years old and younger in the major leagues today is greater than that in the Deadball Era, meaning that other factors such as fielding prowess and changing park configurations are much more important to the overall trend.

"How do you spell triple?"

The triple is often called the most exciting play in baseball, and for good reason. There is no play that involves as many players, lasts as long, and concludes so often with a bang-bang crescendo. As we've seen, there are a variety of reasons that have conspired to make it a much rarer event today than it was in days past. These include increased standardization and ability on defense, less variability in park dimensions, risk aversion, and perhaps an aging player population. Whatever the combination and relative importance of these different causes, rather than wring our hands at its disappearance, let's instead appreciate the feat for its increased difficulty and marvel at those, like Carl Crawford, who can do it with regularity.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Back from the Desert

I returned yesterday from my annual trip to spring training in Arizona and so thought I would post a couple of pictures today. Had a great time hanging out with Ron Hostetter, his brother, and their friend watching baseball of course in addition to taking in a Suns game. Unfortunately for them the Royals lost all three games we saw them play and looked very bad in doing so. Poor defense, poor pitching, and not much hitting to speak of.

Update (3/13): My column this week on Baseball Prospectus titled "Spring Fling" is full of news and notes from four of the camps I visited. From Jason Kendall batting ninth to John Bale's release point to Brian Bannister's quest to beat DIPs, take a look.

This is the first year I visited the Angels camp in Tempe and took in the A's and Angels game on Monday afternoon. It's a beautiful setting and a nice little ballpark.

I believe this is a shot of Daric Barton who homered in the game.

We saw the Cubs play in Surprise on Sunday afternoon and pummel the Royals 13-1. Kerry Wood worked a perfect inning and looked very good touching 98 and showing a nice slider.

I also spent some time at the Rangers camp and in addition to taking in a B-game played against their complex partners the Royals, watched some BP. Here Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Hank Blalock discuss some of the finer points of hiting.

While in the desert I was also able to catch dinner with Christina Kahrl and Kevin Goldstein who were in town for a book signing and several media events. It was great to meet Kevin for the first time.

Once again it was a very successful trip and it's hard to disagree with Ron when he says Surprise is his favorite place on planet earth.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Facing Clemens

My column this week on Baseball Prospectus is an interview with the author of the new book Facing Clemens: Hitters on Confronting Baseball's Most Intimidating Pitcher, Jonathan Mayo. Some readers I'm sure will recognize the name since Mayo is also a senior writer for who typically writes about the minor leagues and can be found all over the place as the draft approaches.

In epitome, Mayo's book is a look at what it's like to compete against Clemens from the perspective of thirteen hitters who faced him at various points in his and their careers. Beginning with Dave Magadan, whose University of Alabama Crimson Tide faced off against Clemens' University of Texas squad in the 1983 College World Series, Mayo takes us all the way through the 2007 season with Torii Hunter's final three--ultimately unproductive--plate appearances that capped his unbroken string of futility. Along the way we hear from Hall of Famers like Cal Ripken Jr. and future member Ken Griffey Jr., star players including Gary Carter, Chipper Jones, and Luis Gonzales, to lesser-known hitters like Daryl Hamilton and Phil Bradley (Clemens' 20th strikeout victim in his 1986 record-setting performance), and finally culminating with the story of minor leaguer Johnny Drennan who homered off of Clemens during the pitcher's minor league stint in 2006 as well as Clemens' son Koby. In all, thirteen players are interviewed and the book includes plenty of interesting anecdotes not only about Clemens but on other topics from the hitters perspective.

Although readers will no doubt read the book in a different light than Mayo had intended, it is an interesting compilation and it was nice of Jonathan to "sit down" with me for the interview.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

The Phone Books Are In! The Phone Books Are In!

Ok, so it's not quite a Steve Martin moment but I was excited to see this at my local Borders bookstore today. Good stuff.

Oh, and tomorrow night I'll be joining Christina Kahrl and Nate Silver at The Tattered Cover in LoDo to talk about the book and the Rockies. Hope to see you there.

A Rite of Spring

Yes, it is that time of year again and in just a little over 36 hours I'll be touching down in Phoenix to enjoy five glorious days basking in the Arizona sun and thinking, talking, and writing about all things Cactus League.

The photo above was taken at the Rockies training facility in Tucson last spring but alas this spring we won't be venturing that far south. Our path this time around takes us to Peoria (home of the Padres) on Thursday to watch the Rockies take on the Padres, to Surprise to see the Rockies play the Royals on Friday (and a Suns game in the evening), to Maryvale to take in the Royals and Brewers on their home turf on Saturday, back to Surprise for the Cubs and Royals on Sunday, a swing over to Tempe for the Angels and A's on Monday, and finally a quick stop in Mesa to take in some workouts on Tuesday before heading home. Shoot me an email if you're going to be around at any of those venues, it's always great to kibitz with like-minded fans while taking in the games.

My column next week on Baseball Prospectus will likely detail the happenings in the various camps so stay tuned.

Monday, March 03, 2008

VORPies and Scrappers

Here are a couple of by now dated but still interesting articles...

  • Cubs' Theriot measures success in different ways. Bruce Miles talks about Ryan Theriot and how he's never been a numbers guy and how numbers don't tell the entire story etc. Personally, I like this article and couldn't agree more with the author. Miles mentions that Baseball Prospectus PECOTA has Theriot projected for an OBP of .330 and quotes Theriot as saying:

    I'm going to give everything I've got. And I'm not afraid to fail. I think I'll do what it takes to do something great and help the team win. I take pride in my defense. Either you've got to drive them in or you've got to save a run.

    I think it's easier for me to save them than drive them in. I'm realistic about my game. I think I know what I can and can't do. I know my limitations.

    Offensively Theriot played very well until a September slump which could be attributed both to a little fatigue in his first full season or an indication that the league has caught up with him. It'll be interesting to see if either of those play out in 2008. Defensively SFR had Theriot at +4.8 at short in 2007 (399 balls assigned) and +2.3 at second base (100 balls). At third he was -0.8 in a really small sample (15 balls). SFR also had him at +0.7 in 2006 at second base (101 balls) and so overall defensively, and although Theriot's not a number's guy, I'd have to say that the numbers agree that he can help the team win with his glove. Incidentally, SFR had Brian Roberts at +7.6 in 2007, +1.2 in 2006, and -1.2 in 2005 at second base.

  • VORPies?. I'm still trying to figure out just what a "VORPy" is but Jon Heyman tweaks them a little in discussing Jimmy Rollins and his MVP award in 2007. But again, this article to me makes some good points including the ideas that Rollins should get a little boost over David Wright because of his defense (and playing a more difficult position) and baserunning but of course all of these things can be quantified. Wright's VORP was 81.1, Rollins was 66.1 and these numbers as Heyman rightly points out are park adjusted. So was Rollins 15 runs better on defense and baserunning? SFR has Rollins at +5.0 and Wright at +3.2 and so Rollins makes up a little there. On the bases Rollins was at +7.2 and Wright at +2.5 and so there's another few runs which when combined with his defense essentially allows Rollins to make up about half the difference. But the MVP is not all about numbers either and winning and leadership, I think, should definitely matter. In the end, when you factor these things in it seems to me like these guys are in the same vicinity and so it's not as if Rollins was a really poor choice. Matt Holliday, with his 75.0 VORP and pretty decent defense in 2007 should no doubt also have been considered. And by the way, Heyman talks about Hanley Ramirez a little whose 89.5 VORP led all National Leaguers. I had him at +1.8 in baserunning but at -17.5 runs with the glove in SFR. By all accounts his defense really is poor and so it comes off as kind of disingenuous for Heyman not to mention that. But on the topics of the Gold Glove and Rookie of the Year...well, don't get me started.