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Sunday, June 29, 2008

Ranking the Races

This post continues The Great Pennant Race Abstract series started several weeks back and references the races discussed in the book It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over: The Baseball Prospectus Pennant Race Book.

Using the definition in the introduction there have been 312 races (counting the four 1981 races twice because of the split season's two halves as well as the Federal League's two races) beginning with the 1901 season. Not all of them, or for that matter a majority of them, have resulted in the kind of drama and excitement discussed in many of the chapters of this book. And it's difficult if not impossible to quantify what makes up a great race but of course that's exactly our task here. I'll kick off this abstract by ranking the top 100 pennant races of all time.

Analyst Jim Albright, who over the years has been the most prolific analyst of Japanese baseball and writes for, once developed a system for ranking the greatest Japanese pennant races. With a few tweaks, that's the system employed here.

Simply put and following Albright's lead, a great pennant race can be defined as one that contains three components; 1) it is close, 2) it is between good teams, and 3) the more teams involved the greater the excitement.

The first component speaks for itself but the second is a bit more controversial. While some may argue that the 2006 NL Central race was a great race, the limping Cardinals losing seven in a row from September 20-26, almost blowing a 7 game lead with 13 to play, and especially winning the division with just 83 wins, starts to take on a more comical look than it does one characterized by great baseball. The Cardinals did go on take the distinction of the team with the fewest wins and winning percentage (.516) to ever win the World Series (the 1987 Twins at 85 wins and a .525 winning percentage were next) but their regular season race just doesn't rise to aesthetic level of a "Great Pennant Race". The same can be said for the 1973 National League East race as discussed in Race #8 where three teams finished within three and half games and another at give game behind the Mets but where none of those teams finished above .500. The 1984 AL West race detailed in Race #9 is yet another that falls into this category and the list goes on.

The third component should also not engender much controversy as it's obvious that a five team scramble as in the 1964 NL race or the four team jostle in the AL in 1950 does much to add to the drama as the number of what if scenarios and outcomes multiplies.

The methodology therefore comprises three simple steps to calculate a "Race Score" where the higher the score the greater the pennant race.

  • First, subtract the number of losses from the number of wins for each team in the race (excluding the winning team). Teams with better records will record higher numbers consistent with our first component mentioned above. Although this technique does not capture the dynamic nature of the race it turns out that the position at which teams end is arguably the best determiner of the "closeness" of the race. Using a more dynamic approach ranks races where teams hung around within striking distance but never really challenged the front-runner more highly but don't do as well with races where a furious August or September comeback brings a team back into contention.

  • Second, raise the number of games behind each team finished to the power of 1.65 and subtract it from the result of the first step. This has the effect of combining our first and second components since teams with better records who finish fewer games behind will receive higher scores. A team like the 2006 Astros who finished 1.5 games behind with a record of 82-80 receives a score of 0.048 while the 1927 Cardinals finishing an equal distance behind but with 92 wins receives a score of 29.05 (Albright originally squared the number of games behind but I found that raising it to slightly lower power allows us to consider more races and be a little more forgiving with regard to the second component).

  • Next, the teams with negative scores are eliminated and the totals summed up for each race.

  • Finally, add a bonus for the number of teams (excluding the winning team) in the race. For one team simply multiply the Race Score by 1, for two teams give a 10% bonus and multiply by 1.1, for three teams its 20% at 1.2, four teams 30%, and so on (Originally Albright gave bonuses in increments of 20%, 40%, 60% etc. but this pushed multi-team races too far to the top for my taste since good races like the 1942 NL race between the Dodgers and Cardinals and the 1993 NL West race between the Dodgers and Giants would otherwise fall precipitously in the rankings).

  • What that leaves us with are 161 of the 312 races or just over 50% that garner a positive Race Score. Without further ado then, here are the top 100 pennant races of all time with those discussed in detail in this book both bolded and italicized.

    Rank Year Lg Div Score Teams Winner
    1 1908 NL 90.2 3 Chicago Cubs (99-55)
    2 1950 AL 77.8 4 New York Yankees (98-56)
    3 1948 AL 72.0 3 Cleveland Indians (97-58)
    4 1920 AL 71.2 3 Cleveland Indians (98-56)
    5 1962 NL 70.5 3 San Francisco Giants (103-62)
    6 1964 AL 68.0 3 New York Yankees (99-63)
    7 1964 NL 64.6 4 St. Louis Cardinals (93-69)

    8 1977 AL East 62.6 3 New York Yankees (100-62)
    9 1927 NL 61.5 3 Pittsburgh Pirates (94-60)
    10 1956 NL 59.2 3 Brooklyn Dodgers (93-61)
    11 1967 AL 57.4 4 Boston Red Sox (92-70)
    12 1924 NL 53.8 3 New York Giants (93-60)
    13 1908 AL 52.5 3 Detroit Tigers (90-63)
    14 1928 NL 51.7 3 St. Louis Cardinals (95-59)
    15 1942 NL 50.9 2 St. Louis Cardinals (106-48)
    16 1940 AL 46.0 3 Detroit Tigers (90-64)
    17 1916 NL 44.7 3 Brooklyn Robins (94-60)
    18 1955 AL 43.6 3 New York Yankees (96-58)
    19 1993 NL West 43.0 2 Atlanta Braves (104-58)
    20 1966 NL 42.8 3 Los Angeles Dodgers (95-67)
    21 1915 FL 42.5 3 Chicago Whales (86-66)
    22 1915 AL 41.5 2 Boston Red Sox (101-50)
    23 1988 AL East 41.4 5 Boston Red Sox (89-73)
    24 1978 AL East 39.7 3 New York Yankees (100-63)
    25 1904 AL 39.4 3 Boston Americans (95-59)
    26 1907 AL 38.9 3 Detroit Tigers (92-58)
    27 1928 AL 38.5 2 New York Yankees (101-53)
    28 1906 AL 37.0 3 Chicago White Sox (93-58)
    29 1949 AL 37.0 2 New York Yankees (97-57)
    30 1949 NL 37.0 2 Brooklyn Dodgers (97-57)
    31 1941 NL 36.5 2 Brooklyn Dodgers (100-54)
    32 1951 NL 36.0 2 New York Giants (98-59)
    33 1916 AL 34.1 3 Boston Red Sox (91-63)
    34 1909 NL 33.1 2 Pittsburgh Pirates (110-42)
    35 1946 NL 32.9 2 St. Louis Cardinals (98-58)
    36 2007 NL West 32.7 3 Arizona Diamondbacks (90-72)
    37 1980 AL East 31.9 2 New York Yankees (103-59)
    38 2004 AL West 31.8 3 Anaheim Angels (92-70)
    39 1930 NL 31.5 3 St. Louis Cardinals (92-62)
    40 1922 AL 31.0 2 New York Yankees (94-60)
    41 1980 NL West 30.9 3 Houston Astros (93-70)
    42 2002 NL West 30.0 3 Arizona Diamondbacks (98-64)
    43 1945 NL 29.9 2 Chicago Cubs (98-56)
    44 1934 NL 29.9 2 St. Louis Cardinals (95-58)
    45 1985 AL East 29.9 2 Toronto Blue Jays (99-62)
    46 1909 AL 29.1 2 Detroit Tigers (98-54)
    47 1905 AL 28.9 2 Philadelphia Athletics (92-56)
    48 1952 AL 28.9 2 New York Yankees (95-59)
    49 1987 NL East 28.6 3 St. Louis Cardinals (95-67)
    50 1935 NL 28.2 2 Chicago Cubs (100-54)
    51 2005 AL East 28.0 2 New York Yankees (95-67)
    52 2004 AL East 27.9 2 New York Yankees (101-61)
    53 1985 NL East 27.9 2 St. Louis Cardinals (101-61)
    54 1950 NL 27.1 3 Philadelphia Phillies (91-63)
    55 1999 NL Central 27.0 2 Houston Astros (97-65)
    56 2006 AL Central 27.0 2 Minnesota Twins (96-66)
    57 1997 AL East 26.9 2 Baltimore Orioles (98-64)
    58 1987 AL East 26.9 2 Detroit Tigers (98-64)
    59 1979 NL East 26.9 2 Pittsburgh Pirates (98-64)
    60 2002 AL West 26.2 2 Oakland Athletics (103-59)
    61 1937 NL 25.9 2 New York Giants (95-57)
    62 2000 NL East 25.0 2 Atlanta Braves (95-67)
    63 1982 AL East 25.0 2 Milwaukee Brewers (95-67)
    64 1965 NL 24.9 2 Los Angeles Dodgers (97-65)
    65 1974 NL West 24.2 2 Los Angeles Dodgers (102-60)
    66 1982 NL West 24.0 3 Atlanta Braves (89-73)
    67 2001 NL Central 24.0 2 Houston Astros (93-69)
    68 1991 NL West 23.0 2 Atlanta Braves (94-68)
    69 1935 AL 22.9 2 Detroit Tigers (93-58)
    70 1924 AL 22.9 2 Washington Senators (92-62)
    71 2007 AL East 22.9 2 Boston Red Sox (96-66)
    72 1938 NL 22.7 3 Chicago Cubs (89-63)
    73 1918 AL 22.7 3 Boston Red Sox (75-51)
    74 1914 FL 22.1 3 Indianapolis Hoosiers (88-65)
    75 1921 AL 22.0 2 New York Yankees (98-55)
    76 1926 NL 21.9 3 St. Louis Cardinals (89-65)
    77 1919 AL 21.1 2 Chicago White Sox (88-52)
    78 1973 NL West 21.1 2 Cincinnati Reds (99-63)
    79 1954 AL 21.1 2 Cleveland Indians (111-43)
    80 1944 AL 21.0 2 St. Louis Browns (89-65)
    81 1993 NL East 19.9 2 Philadelphia Phillies (97-65)
    82 1969 NL West 19.8 3 Atlanta Braves (93-69)
    83 2000 AL West 19.7 2 Oakland Athletics (91-70)
    84 1939 NL 19.0 2 Cincinnati Reds (97-57)
    85 1978 NL West 18.5 2 Los Angeles Dodgers (95-67)
    86 1945 AL 18.0 2 Detroit Tigers (88-65)
    87 1952 NL 18.0 2 Brooklyn Dodgers (96-57)
    88 2003 AL West 17.9 2 Oakland Athletics (96-66)
    89 1951 AL 17.8 2 New York Yankees (98-56)
    90 1921 NL 17.2 2 New York Giants (94-59)
    91 1980 NL East 17.0 2 Philadelphia Phillies (91-71)
    92 1985 AL West 17.0 2 Kansas City Royals (91-71)
    93 1996 NL West 17.0 2 San Diego Padres (91-71)
    94 2004 NL West 16.9 2 Los Angeles Dodgers (93-69)
    95 1959 NL 16.5 3 Los Angeles Dodgers (88-68)
    96 1999 AL East 16.2 2 New York Yankees (98-64)
    97 1923 NL 16.0 2 New York Giants (95-58)
    98 1926 AL 15.9 2 New York Yankees (91-63)
    99 1954 NL 15.8 2 New York Giants (97-57)
    100 1977 NL East 15.8 2 Philadelphia Phillies (101-61)

    Nine of the thirteen races discussed in this book make the top 100 with the 1908 race (Race #4) taking the top spot by a fairly wide margin and three others finishing in the top eleven. The 1972 AL East (Race #7) finished 103rd, the 2003 NL Central (Race #6) placed 104th. That leaves only the 1973 NL East and 1984 AL West completely out of the 157 races that finished with positive Race Scores. In case you're wondering, the 2006 NL Central captured the 161st and final spot with a Race Score that rounds to 0.0.

    Some of you will no doubt quibble with this list and indeed some may detect a chronological bias which will be discussed later. Regardless of the methodology no list would be perfect and this list is offered more as a secondary look than as a definitive ranking. Arguing passionately about the minutiae of the game is one of the many aspects of baseball that we love as fans. Let the debate begin.

    Thursday, June 19, 2008

    Steals and More Steals

    Caleb Peiffer of Baseball Prospectus has a nice article at the New York Sun on stolen bases titled "Steals Have Become More Precise and More Effective" to which I contributed a very small part. Especially interesting are his stats on the Padres recent woeful record of catching opposing baserunners. Good stuff and similar to this piece by The Numbers Guy at the Wall Street Journal online.

    Wednesday, June 18, 2008

    The Great Pennant Race Abstract

    Yes, it's a little early to get all excited about the coming pennant races but this is a topic I've meaning to visit ever since the Baseball Prospectus book, It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over: The Baseball Prospectus Pennant Race Book, came out in paperback a few months ago. In any case, I contributed to that book in the appendix titled "The Great Pennant Race Abstract" by creating a series of graphs that highlighted each of the thirteen pennant races that were discussed in the chapters of the book.

    The original vision for the abstract was a little more grand and included a series of mini-essays highlighting aspects of other pennant races not discussed in detail in the book. While I did in fact pen that longer version of the abstract that stretched to over 12,000 words, it couldn't be acccomdated in the book. So for the next few days I'll publish those mini-essays here beginning today with the introduction to the abstract. These are as they were originally written with the exception of updating them to include the 2007 season. Hopefully, you'll find them entertaining and it will spur you to check out the book if you haven't already. As is the case with the other books published by BP, this one combines good baseball writing with the kind of analysis you typically read in the work of Nate Silver, Joe Sheehan, Christina Kahrl et. al. over on the web site.

    As for myself, I'm a little biased to his turn of mind I suppose but Silver's chapter on the 1944 American League race featuring the St. Louis Browns ("The Home Front") is probably my favorite as it combines the narrative of the Brown's first and only AL pennant with the effect of the war on baseball and ending with a counterfactural 1944 race based on an estimate of how much talent each team lost and how it was replaced (hint: the Brown got off relatively scot-free enabling them to take the crown).

    So without further ado, here's the introduction of the Great Pennant Race Abstract...

    Historian Jules Tygiel has argued that the men who shaped baseball in the 1850s and 1860s fashioned it in their own image through the embrace of the "modern, rational, scientific, worldview that had grown prevalent in mid-nineteenth century America."* Consistent with that world view the chaos of various versions of "town ball" were replaced by the fixed boundaries of field, team size, and game length as baseball exploded in popularity immediately before and after the Civil War.

    Embedded in that desire for rationalization was the felt need to faithfully record the events of the game, hence the first box score, then termed an "abstract", appearing in the New York Morning News on October 22, 1845. From those humble beginnings quantification took root and with the pioneering Henry Chadwick leading the way, baseball and numbers were forever intertwined.

    Such is our legacy as baseball fans.

    That legacy has been exercised, some would say with a vengeance, again and again throughout this book. Our authors have taken you on a journey through the ins and outs of thirteen of the greatest pennant races in the history of baseball. These were selected using Clay Davenport's methodology described in the introduction. But the mind of the baseball fan, obsessed as it is with quantification, probably won't rest there. Is there an alternate way to rank the races? What about all the races that didn't make the list of thirteen? How do they stack up? What do the distribution of great races look like over time? What are their numeric oddities and highlights?

    Look no further for in this abstract I'll present a series of topics brimming with analysis and information nuggets to satiate you the reader and fan. Each mini-essay touches on a theme embedded in one or more pennant races, which for our purposes here are defined as the American, National, and Federal League regular season races (including tie-breakers) beginning in 1901 and extending through the divisional races (thereby also termed pennant races) of 2007 and excluding 1994 where no post season teams were named and hence where there could be said to have been no race. Enjoy.

    * Past Time: Baseball As History by Jules Tygiel. Oxford University Press, New York Date Published: 2000 ISBN: 0195089588

    Friday, June 13, 2008

    Testing an Old Adage...Again

    Mike Fast has a great piece up over on The Hardball Times researching the correlation between working quickly and effectiveness. While I study I did on Baseball Prospectus last May used average game time and was more historical in that it went back to 1970, Mike uses the time stamps that MLBAM is providing in its Pitchf/x data for 2008.

    What Mike found largely corresponds to what I concluded, namely that there doesn't appear to be any relationship between defensive support as measured by defensive efficiency (DER) and BABIP and time between pitches for team or individual pitchers measured relative to their teams (although I was using unearned runs instead of DER as I should have).

    He does find, however, that when looking at BABIP in terms of the number of seconds that elapsed since the previous pitch, the BABIP is lower for pitches thrown within 10 seconds and higher for pitches thrown in excess of 50 seconds since the previous pitch (he does throw out pitches that came in a minute or more after the previous pitch). As Mike notes, there are other factors to control for, not the least of which are hit type (line drive, fly ball, ground ball, popup) and pitcher quality and hitter quality. Still, it's pretty interesting stuff and just one of the many applications of Pitchf/x data.

    Sunday, June 08, 2008

    Crazy for Crazy '08

    ”So grandly contested were both [pennant races], so great the excitement, so tense the interest, that in the last month of the season the entire nation became absorbed in the thrilling and nerve racking struggle, and even the Presidential campaign was almost completely overshadowed.”Sporting Life, October 17, 1908

    Before my attention and allegiance shifted due to recent and happy events, I was very pleased to receive Cait Murphy’s Crazy ’08: How a Cast of Cranks, Rogues, Boneheads, and Magnets Created the Greatest Year in Baseball History as a Christmas present. Of course as a lifelong Cubs fan my main interest was in reliving and hopefully foreshadowing a time when, in the words of one Washington sportswriter of the time, they “were grizzlies these Cubs, Ursine Colossi who towered high and frowningly and refused to reckon on anything but victory.” And for Cubs fans perhaps there is something special in the symmetry of the centennial of the Cubs last World Series victory as this year’s edition took the league’s best record into June – a feat that more than one source reminds us was last accomplished by the franchise in yes, you guessed it, 1908. It remains to be seen however, whether Lou Pinella’s Cubs will be able to say as 1908’s manager Frank Chance (known at the time as the “Peerless Leader” or simply “P.L.” for short) did, with that air of arrogance and without sounding ridiculous, “Who ever heard of the Cubs losing a game they had to have?”

    But even with my attention somewhat diverted, I shouldn’t have been surprised that in this book Murphy, an assistant managing editor at Fortune magazine, goes so far beyond the Cubs, the Merkle game and its aftermath, that any baseball fan or even history buff, will find it entertaining and a joy to read. Although the book focuses on the National League race it should not be forgotten that the American League race was almost its equal and Murphy devotes a chapter (“That Other Race”) to it as well.

    The book follows a mostly chronological course beginning with the events of the 1907-1908 offseason. From the now all-too-familiar inaction in the face of the growing problem of gambling to moves like the St. Louis Browns signing the enigmatic southpaw Rube Waddell to rules changes including the sabermetrically questionable adoption of the modern sacrifice fly rule, and a rule prohibiting pitchers from soiling one of the half dozen or so new balls that enter play each game, Murphy does a fine job of providing context to the season and the times by periodically recalling events from the recent past.

    From a baseball perspective her description of the playing conditions in the chapter “The Hot Stove League” is excellent by recapping the evolution of the game on the field in all three primary dimensions and generating one of my favorite lines in the discussion on defense where Murphy quite correctly notes that baseball “is Darwinian in its results but Newtonian in its processes.” Those Darwinian processes, already well established in 1908 and applying their mode of selection, led to the development of relief pitchers, pinch hitters and runners, base coaches, platooning, defensive positioning and strategies, and much more. What accompanied them was a march towards standardization that worked together to contribute to a gradual perfecting of the craft of baseball that we modern fans are the happy beneficiaries of. In the end, she concludes that while there are many things the modern fan (“crank” or “bug” as they were called then) would find strange including whiskey in the stands and the occasional player smoking on the field, the game in 1908 would be entirely recognizable (hot dogs and “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” which made its debut in 1908 to name a couple) in a way that other major sports with shorter pedigrees would not be. At the same time she argues that although in 1908 baseball is already big business and commands an air of respectability that it lacked just a few years before, the 1908 season – with the Merkle game and its aftermath including riots, legal wrangling and at least one death, acting as a catalyst – is when “baseball itself makes its turn into the modern era.” One sign of this new era is that 1908 was the final season for Pittsburgh’s Exposition Park (the site of which sits just east of present PNC Park on the banks of the Allegheny) and Philadelphia’s Baker Bowl, the former being replaced by Forbes Field and the latter by Shibe Park, the first fireproof park made of steel and concrete and built in French Renaissance style for a cool $457,000. Other owners were quick to follow with both Charles Comiskey and Charlie Ebbets buying up land that would eventually host their namesakes.

    Along the way the baseball that follows is also nicely setup through opening chapters on the Giants (“Land of the Giants”) and the Cubs (“Origins of a Dynasty”) Murphy takes a look back at how each of the primary combatants in the ’08 race were built (the Giants not so fairly it turns out in a seedy story of destroying the Orioles and using the Reds concocted by John Brush, Andrew Freedman, and John McGraw) interspersed with fascinating profiles of McGraw, Frank Chance, and Johnny Evers. By the time the fourth chapter, titled “Opening Days”, rolls around the reader is well positioned to enjoy the drama that follows.

    Off the field the mood of the country and the times is set by the inclusion of six “Time-Outs” or sidebars that periodically appear at the ends of chapters. For example, “Chicago on the Make” closes out the chapter on the building of the Cubs and details the evolution of the city and its leaders in dealing with corruption at various levels that had become rampant by the turn of the century. In other time-outs Murphy recounts the grizzly affair of one of America’s first female serial killers, Belle Gunness, the Doubleday myth, the position and prospects of African-American ballplayers, the scare of early twentieth century anarchism, and finally an entertaining list of the things that some players did in 1908 to “court good luck and drive away hoodoos” (“hoodoos” being the term then in vogue and denoting curses and bad luck). Each is fascinating and provides just enough additional context to give the reader a feel for the place of the game in the first decade of the twentieth century.

    But of course the main thrust of the book is the narrative of the 1908 National League season and here Murphy does a fine job by breaking the season down into six chapters with two other chapters devoted specifically to Merkle games one and two with the latter chapter complete with a timeline beginning at dawn and running until game time that serves to build anticipation of the events that follow. But in the earlier chapters recounting the ups and downs of baseball’s long season, rather than focus only on the Giants and Cubs these chapters also take the time to highlight key moments and performers of other teams including Pirates shortstop Honus Wagner who in 1908 had his finest season (.354/.415/.542) while his team fell just short in what became a three-way race after a furious run that saw the Bucs win (13 of 14) before losing to the Cubs at the Westside Grounds 5-2 on October 4th admidst a little controversy. We also here find vignettes featuring Ty Cobb, Nap Lajoie, Hal Chase, Rube Waddell, and Cy Young among others not to mention other actors in the season’s ultimate drama such as Mordecai “Three Fingers” Brown, Roger Bresnahan, Joe Tinker, “Turkey” Mike Donlin, Jimmy Sheckard, Merkle of course, and “Giant Killer” Jack Pfiester who is handed the ball in both Merkel games. And even though the story of the Merkle games and to a lesser extent the season itself, has been told countless times, I’d rather not spoil any more of it since every fresh reading brings a new perspective and Murphy adds plenty of detail that I had either forgotten or had never known. As a final treat and one that fittingly puts a bookend not only on the season but on the personalities that defined the era, Murphy includes an epilogue that tracks the destinies of the major players, managers, and magnates after that special season.

    For me, one of the supreme pleasures of being a baseball fan is the way the game connects the past with the present, not only through its numbers, but through its places, stories, and the way that its seminal events are embedded in our culture. Baseball fans, and not just those rooting for the denizens of Wrigley Field, would be well served to remind themselves of how those connections were built and in a sense to maintain them by reading about one special season on its 100th anniversary.

    Friday, June 06, 2008

    The Curious Case of Mark Teahen

    With Craig Brown's excellent review of Mark Teahen published a couple weeks ago, I thought it would be appropriate to re-publish my take on Baseball Prospectus regarding Teahen published around the same time as Brown's first piece back in August of 2006. Obviously, things haven't turned out so well for Teahen and so far in 2008 the prognosis isn't really any better. Still, it's always instructive to look at what we got wrong and not just what we got right and so without further ado...

    August 31, 2006
    Schrodinger's Bat
    The Curious Case of Mark Teahen

    "I think it's well-documented how I feel about [Teahen], and how I feel about him as a ballplayer. I don’t need to add anything to that discussion." --Former Royals General Manager Allard Baird, perhaps with an "I told you so" when asked about the third baseman's breakthrough season.

    On August 22nd of this season, Mark Teahen, Royals third baseman and former centerpiece of the deal that sent Carlos Beltran to Houston at the trading deadline in 2004, stepped in against the Indians' Cliff Lee in the first inning. Teahen would blast a two-run home run, his 16th of the year. Rather than call it a day, Teahen would add two doubles and a single, steal two bases (one of third base), and score the go-ahead run in a 5-2 Royals victory.

    My, how times have changed.

    At this time last year, eight total bases in one game would have seemed like a pipe dream for a player many were starting to consider a bust, and nothing more than a product of overblown Moneyball hype. No longer: going into Tuesday's action, Teahen was hitting .296/.368/.535 overall, and had hit an especially robust .337/.421/.633 with ten home runs since the All-Star break. That adds up to a WARP1 of 5.3 and an Equivalent Average of .305, two numbers that suggest that Teahen, at least, might heal one of the many wounds of Royals fans, and in a small way redeem the reputation of former GM Allard Baird.

    Beyond the raw performance, what we really want to know is what's behind his turnaround, and whether or not we can expect this kind of performance to continue. This week, we'll address both by revisiting the themes of an article I wrote last season.

    Where He's Been
    The primary question about Teahen, even before he was drafted, was when or if the 6'3" 210-pounder would develop power. Teahen had always hit the ball the other way with a swing he mastered in innumerable childhood wiffle-ball games played against his brothers. In Moneyball, Michael Lewis used Teahen as an example of the new thinking in player development by relating a conversation between then-scouting director Eric Kubota, a scout, and GM Billy Beane. In Lewis' version, Beane ends the speculation about Teahen by noting that "power is something that can be acquired. Good hitters develop power. Power hitters don't become good hitters."

    The A's drafted Teahen in the first round with the 39th pick of the 2002 draft, even though he had hit just ten homeruns in over 600 plate appearances during his three seasons at St. Mary's College of California. The A's attempted to help him develop power by getting him to pull the ball, according to Lewis:

    To teach him how to pull the ball, the Oakland staff took Teahen into a room and showed him tapes of Jason Giambi. Giambi once had been just like him, they said: a third baseman who hit well but not powerfully. At the end of his first season, Oakland sent Teahen to a training center in Florida with instructions to gain 15 pounds and drop his body fat from 15 percent to 10 percent. He made a halfhearted stab at it—and put on fat. ("I'm not sure how you do that, gain 15 pounds and lose all that body fat," he says. "It'd be a lot easier if they didn't include the body-fat part of it.") The extra weight made him feel clunky. And the attempt to pull the ball felt wrong. He dropped the weight, and kept on hitting the ball the other way. He didn't want to be Jason Giambi. He wanted to be Mark Teahen.
    After that experiment failed and he was traded to the Royals in the Beltran deal, his new team also attempted to get him to pull the ball, sitting him down with no less an authority on hitting than Hall of Famer George Brett. Brett introduced Teahen to the Charley Lau approach to hitting for a couple of days. At the time, that didn't seem to quite have the intended results either:

    For two days, with Brett looking on, Teahen went into the Triple-A batter's box and cantilevered backward, bat lowered and tucked tightly against his back shoulder. Just like George Brett! Then Brett left--and Teahen went right back to hitting a baseball the way he always had. "Two days!" Brett said, six months later, not knowing whether to laugh or scream. "That kid, he did what I showed him for two days…Then the moment I left he went back to doing it his way."
    As a result, up until this year Kubota's skepticism about Teahen seemed to be well-justified. In 1,468 minor league plate appearances, Teahen hit a grand total of 18 home runs, one more than he has this season in a quarter of the plate appearances, although 14 of those came in 2004 while he split time between Double- and Triple-A. All told, he put up a career minor league slugging percentage of just .409. Annointed as the Royals' third baseman in spring training last season, he continued his light-hitting ways by hitting a meager .246/.309/.376 in 491 plate appearances.

    All of this led our PECOTA system to list his top five comparables coming into 2006 a squad of non-stars:

  • Jim Mason

  • Mike Darr

  • Bobby Smith

  • Lee Stevens

  • Travis Lee

  • That's not an impressive group, to say the least, although Jim Edmonds comes in as Teahen's seventh comparable, and Larry Walker shows up at 11. In addition, the five-year forecast never had him above 12 home runs or a .448 slugging percentage, and he was given a dangerously high attrition rate of 23%. At best, that forecast made him a serviceable player, worth around two to three wins per year, but certainly unspectacular. It was a projection of a player vulnerable to, in an evolutionary sense, being selected out of the majors as a third basemen or corner outfielder.

    Given this scenario and the similar low-wattage disappointments trailing another hyped third base prospect, Sean Burroughs (who has since been released by the Devil Rays after hitting just .214 in 37 games at Durham), I wrote a piece last July that took a look at both of their performances up to that time, and tried to find comparable players using Isolated Power (ISO) to get a historical sense of just what they were up against. Basically, the idea was to use ISO (slugging percentage minus batting average, providing a measure of the number of extra bases a player generates) to see how frequently players that matched their profile (defined as 1,000 or more at bats plus walks before the age of 24) went on to develop greater than average power. I also normalized ISO to both park and league by creating Normalized ISO (NISO) for the comparisons.

    What I found was that there did appear to be some precedent for players like Teahen increasing their power, notably infielders Roy Smalley, Lou Whitaker, Toby Harrah, and George Brett, and outfielders Kirby Puckett and Roberto Clemente. I also found that players who made the largest gains in ISO after their Age-24 season typically make great gains between 24 and 27, and reach their peak performance by 28 before beginning a slow, gradual descent.

    What He's Doing
    As Royals fans well know, the change in Teahen correlates with his demotion to Omaha on May 6th. When sent down, he was hitting just .195 (15 for 77) with two home runs. Down in Omaha, he worked with hitting instructor Terry Bradshaw, providing strong support that in this case correlation is indeed causation:

    Omaha hitting instructor Terry Bradshaw made a video of Teahen’s good at-bats from last year. What better way to teach a stubborn student than to let him learn from himself? The mechanical changes were subtle. They shortened Teahen’s swing, kept his hands back, and made a minor adjustment with his hips that allowed him to hit inside pitches better.

    Once he did that, the Royals had no choice but to call him back up. He was 28 for 56 with a 1.107 slugging percentage and .606 on-base percentage in his last 17 games in Omaha.
    In addition, Teahen revealed in an online chat last month that Bradshaw emphasized that he start using his legs more. As Teahen himself says, "That has resulted in harder contact and ultimately pulling the ball more often."

    Although Brett may have thought that his advice had no effect, it now appears that Teahen absorbed what the Hall of Famer was teaching, and has been working on incorporating it into his approach:

    I took what he told me and tried to find out mechanically what I could do to get that same effect. I wasn’t going to look like George Brett at the plate, but I was going to try to use some of his ideas to get me in that same position.

    The results are fascinating. Using data from the excellent FanGraphs site we can see that the combination of subtle mechanical changes, more emphasis on using his legs to generate torque, and confidence has led to a sea change in how Teahen puts the ball in play.

    Year GB/FB LD% GB% FB% HR/FB
    2005 2.22 23.5% 52.8% 23.8% 8.6%
    2006 1.39 14.6% 49.7% 35.8% 16.5%

    The result is that his line drives are turning into fly balls (up over 50%), and those fly balls are being driven out of the park or deep into the gaps. His profile has turned from one common to a contact hitter to one that looks more like the Phillies' Ryan Howard, albeit with a few more ground balls. In the meantime, Teahen's batting average on balls in play is at .336, somewhat higher than the league average (around .300). Coupled with his relatively low line-drive percentage, it remains to be seen whether his refinements will allow him to maintain a BABIP that high, or whether he'll regress somewhat. Keep in mind that we're still talking only about a few hundred plate appearances since he was recalled from Omaha.

    It's also clear that despite Teahen's self-proclaimed increased propensity for pulling the ball, he's still being true to his natural hitting style for the most part, and is not simply looking to yank the ball down the line at every opportunity. The following chart from tracking his home runs and doubles at Kauffman Stadium this season indicates that his power is to all fields, especially to left-center:

    The following chart tracking 15 of his 17 home runs (two couldn't be located using the interface) provides a similar picture:

    Where He's Going?
    So given the apparent turnaround, can history provide any guide to what we might expect from Teahen from here on out?

    To help answer that question, I did what any good performance analyst might do: I looked for comparable players. I was particularly interested in whether Teahen's newfound power was a good bet to last. To try and get a feel for this, I created a list of players who'd had between 400 and 600 at-bats plus walks before their Age-24 season, who had debuted after the 1945 season, and who had in those opportunities recorded a Normalized ISO between 65% and 100% of league average. In other words, these were players who didn't show much power before their 24th birthday, but who had nevertheless accumulated a fairly significant number of at bats by that time. This produced a list of 90 players, ranging from Preston Ward (who debuted in April 1948) to Teahen and J.J. Hardy (who both debuted last season). This is a more targeted study than the one done in the previous article. I used these particular criteria because Teahen sits squarely in the middle, with 487 at-bats plus walks and a NISO of .828 before his Age-24 season, figures that ranked him 36th on the list.

    Of the 88 players who debuted before 2005, 77 of them are no longer active but went on to play past their Age-23 season, and as a group they lasted an average of another 8.3 years and recorded an NISO of .869. As a group, here's a chart reflecting their aging pattern with regards to NISO; the yellow line is the three-year moving average:

    Keep in mind that this graph includes a heavy dose of selection bias, as more players are included in the Age 24-31 categories, after which many of the players are out of the majors, finally leaving a core group of pretty decent players who continue to play into their late 30s. Beyond the pretty common observation that these types of players don't tend to last past their early 30s, the chart shows that these players as a group tend to increase their power a bit more slowly than is typical, and don't peak until around their 30the birthday, whereas the total population normally reaches their peak at ages 27-29. Unfortunately, it also indicates that as a group these guys never reach a league-average NISO.

    That grim observation aside, all is not lost. The good news is that in terms of increasing isolated power, Teahen's good enough to rank near the very top of the list. The following are the ten players among these Teahen comparables who ended with the highest NISOs through 2005:

    Name Bats Seasons AB+BB AVG SLUG ISO NISO
    Todd Hundley B 11 3706 .239 .464 .225 1.477
    Tony Batista R 9 4090 .251 .466 .215 1.341
    Dave Duncan R 7 2560 .223 .373 .150 1.290
    Daryl Boston L 9 2313 .253 .425 .172 1.284
    Davey Johnson R 12 4772 .262 .412 .150 1.269
    Mike Sweeney R 8 4182 .309 .513 .204 1.259
    Torii Hunter R 6 3140 .269 .470 .201 1.242
    Dmitri Young B 8 3900 .294 .491 .197 1.232
    Dave Nilsson L 6 2585 .291 .480 .188 1.188
    Nick Johnson L 3 1218 .278 .457 .179 1.136

    As you can see, there are some encouraging signs here, particularly in the cases of guys like Davey Johnson, Mike Sweeney, Dmitri Young, and Nick Johnson making the list. At this point, Teahen would rank second, with a NISO past his Age-23 season of 1.37. This is much better company to be in than the preseason PECOTA comparables we listed previously, or even most of the rest of the 88 comparables found by this method.

    There is certainly no magic that will tell us the future, but from a historical perspective, what we can say is that there is some precedent for the kind of transformation we seem to be witnessing, although the magnitude of Teahen's big step forward is not exactly typical. Combined with the anecdotal and statistical evidence of his changed approach, Teahen's improvement is therefore not likely a mirage predicated on small sample size. If he continues performing even close to the level of his last three months, he'll finally fulfill the expectations of Billy Beane and Allard Baird.

    I think Royals fans can be cautiously optimistic, with the hope that in the years to come the controversy surrounding Teahen will not be whether he'll develop power, but how the team will accommodate two good young hitters at the hot corner once Alex Gordon is ready for the big leagues. That's the kind of problem everyone would like to have.

    Monday, June 02, 2008

    Colorado Springs Home for Sale

    As you can imagine, with the impending move to Pittsburgh one of the things that's been keeping my wife and I busy is the process of listing our home. Well, after waiting for contractors to finish projects and finishing a few of our own, the house is now on the market. You can see more photos of the various rooms by clicking on the picture or on the link above. It's located in the Briargate area of Colorado Springs in the Windjammer subdivision and really has been a great house in a nice neighborhood and we'll be sorry to leave it. Between the previous owners and ourselves there have been a lot of improvements, some of which are...

  • New Garage Doors, Spring 2008

  • New Kitchen Appliances, Spring 2008

  • Entire House Repainted, Spring 2008

  • New Stucco and Stone Work, Spring 2008

  • New Pella Storm Door, Spring 2008

  • Upstairs Bathroom updated and repainted, Spring 2008

  • Downstairs Bathroom updated and repainted, Spring 2008

  • New Tile Flooring Downstairs, 2007

  • Windows, Renewal by Anderson, 2004

  • New Carpet Downstairs, Den and Bedroom, 2004

  • New Back Door, 2004

  • Kitchen and Front Hall Flooring, 2003

  • Kitchen Counter Tops, 2003

  • Three Zone Underground Sprinker System, 2002