Thursday, November 29, 2012

Chapman to Rotation Makes Sabermetric Sense

The Cincinnati Reds' plan to move lefty power-closer Aroldis Chapman and his 100 mph fastball into the starting rotation has drawn the ire of many baseball analysts, including MLB Network's Mitch "Wild Thing" Williams.  For that reason alone, the decision makes sense, since the inaccuracy of "Wild Thing's" assessments and predictions is nearly 100%.

Aside from that compelling bit of logic, Chapman's transition from the bullpen to the starting rotation would potentially give Cincinnati around 200 innings pitched*, as opposed to the 71.2 he logged in 2012.  Those extra innings - assuming they are "quality innings" - would translate into more wins for Cincinnati; a scary thought for the rest of the NL Central, considering the Reds already won 97 games in 2012.

*UPDATE:  Word from the Reds' front office is that Chapman will be under an innings limit when he goes into the rotation.  No word on what that innings limit will be, however.

The saber-metric evidence is compelling:  Good starting pitchers are more valuable than even the elite relief specialists; sometimes, significantly more valuable.  Observe the disparity in the ERA+ of Chapman over the top four starting pitchers in the 2012 NL Cy Young Award voting; then observe the disparity in the Wins Above Replacement (WAR) of the four starters over Chapman:

                  ERA+     WAR

Dickey -       140          5.6
Kershaw -    150          6.2
Gonzalez -   137          4.5
Cueto -        152          5.8

Chapman -   282          3.6

Chapman's ERA+ is roughly two times better than the four best starting pitchers in the National League; yet the limited use of his talents translates into fewer wins for his team than the other four.  As an aside, it appears that either Kershaw or Cueto might have a stronger case for the CYA than Dickey; however, somebody else can write about that.

Historically, even when relief specialists get the nod for either the Most Valuable Player Award and/or the Cy Young Award, they don't compare favorably to other players in the voting mix, from a purely saber-metric perspective.  Here's the evidence - the award winners who were strictly relief specialists - their WAR, their rank compared to other players receiving votes, and the player who actually had the highest WAR:

                                                           WAR     Rank     Highest    Player
1950 - NL MVP Jim Konstanty (PHI)      4.2      16th        7.8          Eddie Stanky (NYG)

1974 - NL CYA Mike Marshall (LAD)    2.9        5th        7.5         Phil Niekro (ATL)

1977 - AL CYA Sparky Lyle (NYY)        3.5       9th         8.0         Frank Tanana (CAA)

1979 - NL CYA Bruce Sutter (CHC)        4.9        3rd        7.0         Phil Niekro (ATL)

1981 - AL MVP Rollie Fingers (MIL)       4.1      10th        6.6         Rickey Henderson (OAK) &
                                                                                                            Dwight Evans (BOS)
1981 - AL CYA Rollie Fingers (MIL)       4.1        2nd       4.3          Steve McCatty (OAK)

1984 - AL MVP Willie Hernandez (DET)  4.6      14th        9.8         Cal Ripken (BAL)*
1984 - AL CYA Willie Hernandez (DET)  4.6        4th        7.6          Dave Stieb (TOR)

1987 - NL CYA Steve Bedrosian (PHI)      2.2        8th**    6.8         Bob Welch (LAD)

1992 - AL MVP Dennis Eckersley (OAK)  2.8       17th       8.4         Roger Clemens (BOS)
1992 - AL CYA Dennis Eckersley (OAK)  2.8         6th       8.4         Roger Clemens (BOS)

2003 - NL CYA Eric Gagne (LAD)            3.6        3rd        7.2          Mark Prior (CHC)

Notes:  *Despite having the highest WAR in the AL in 1984 (before WAR was even devised), Cal Ripken garnered the grand total of ONE POINT in the MVP vote!  **Steve Bedrosian (who saved 40 games) had the lowest WAR among all pitchers receiving NL CYA votes in 1987!  Surely, there were others not receiving votes that had a higher WAR than Bedrock's 2.2.

The impact on MLB history may not seem significant if the players with the highest WAR actually won these awards, but it surely would've gotten Phil Niekro in the HOF sooner had he won both the '74 and '79 NL Cy Young Awards!  Ironically, a knuckleball pitcher won the NL CYA this past season - RA Dickey - and it was the first time in MLB history that had happened; but it should've happened 38 years ago.

In the "borderline" case of Dwight Evans, perhaps winning the 1981 AL MVP Award would've put him over the top with the voters; he certainly belongs in Cooperstown.  Hopefully, as they become more saber-metrically informed, worthy players like Evans will finally get their just rewards.

Although some may disagree with the evidence, it seems apparent that a great starting pitcher is comparable to a great everyday player, in terms of the value they provide for their team.  The argument baseball analysts (like Mitch Williams) use when trying to dispel the notion that no pitcher should be considered for a Most Valuable Player Award - because they're not "everyday players" - is saber-metrically unfounded.  Some of the highest WAR totals over the years belong to starting pitchers; just not relief pitchers.

Another compelling piece of evidence:  The elite relief specialists obviously receive a lot of media attention for racking up a lot of saves; but it appears the "save" may be one of the most overrated statistics in MLB history.  That probably explains why a fairly mediocre relief pitcher like Steve Bedrosian - with those 40 saves in 1987 - was able to capture the NL Cy Young Award that year.  Strangely enough, the greatest closer ever - the New York Yankees' Mariano Rivera - never won a CYA, although he finished second once and third twice.

It's also interesting to note that for whatever reasons, no team has ever won a World Series with a closer that has recorded 50 or more saves; it's happened on nine different occasions, but has yet to help produce a World Championship for any team.  Go figure.

That gets us back to the Aroldis Chapman debate.  Quite simply, if he's able to still pitch effectively as a starter and give the Reds somewhere around 200 IP next season (assuming he stays healthy), he'll be helping them win more games, and that seems to be a gamble worth taking; a no-brainer, especially for a team with no left-handed starters currently in the rotation.

Taking it one step further, if Chapman even comes close to matching the level of performance he produced in 2012, the next NL Cy Young Award winner may well be a former flame-throwing, somersaulting, left-handed relief specialist currently employed by the Cincinnati Reds; who were smart enough to put him in a role that made saber-metric sense.



Thursday, November 22, 2012

Cabrera-Bashing Tarnishes MVP Honor

If you regularly watch MLB Network's Clubhouse Confidential segment - hosted by the analytically brilliant Brian Kenny - chances are, you're gaining insight into the saber-metric side of baseball; and that's a good thing.  Unfortunately, Kenny and his legion of saber-metric fanatics may have gone too far with their relentless attack of American League Most Valuable Player, Miguel Cabrera - you know; the guy who won the AL Triple Crown (last accomplished by Carl Yastrzemski forty-five years ago) while leading his Detroit Tigers team into the postseason for the second straight year (the first time that's happened since 1934 and '35).

While Cabrera's historic season should have made him a lock to win the AL MVP Award (in fact, it did), the saber-metrics community felt otherwise; essentially drawing a line in the sand in support of LA Angels of Anaheim rookie sensation, Mike Trout.  Okay; Mike Trout is a better all-round player than Miguel Cabrera, but under the subjective nature of this award, not necessarily "more valuable".  Hence, the MVP Award went to Miggy and the debate intensified to epic proportions; saber-metric Cabrera-bashing became the latest trend, and leading the charge on MLB Network was the uncompromising Brian Kenny, who refused to believe anyone with a brain could possibly support the Detroit slugger.  Such a travesty.

What Kenny refuses to accept is the reality that voters (sportswriters) are usually impressed by big offensive numbers, especially when they help carry a team into the postseason.  That makes for good copy.  Sometimes, big offensive numbers plus a last place finish is even good enough to win (1987 - Andre Dawson - 49 HR/137 RBI).  Talk about a travesty.

In the aftermath of the Cabrera MVP Travesty of 2012, Brian Kenny has paraded various guest saber-metric analysts on his program - including the witty and smug Keith Olbermann - decrying the injustice and outright stupidity of it all.  One of Kenny's guest saber-geeks solemnly remarked how "sad" it was that the sportswriters did the unthinkable, thus depriving the 20-year old rookie of the award he so richly deserved.  Oh, the humanity.  This may be worse than the Hindenburg Disaster.

I'll tell you what's sad.  It's how the game's greatest pure hitter - Miguel Cabrera - finally wins his first MVP Award, and is being declared "undeserving" by the Brian Kennys of the world, who apparently don't like being on the losing side of their saber-metric arguments.  We're talking about an individual award to a ballplayer coming off a terrific season.  Let him bask in a little glory; not stick him under the microscope and comment about all his deficiencies.  To say there have been far less-deserving players over the years who were chosen "Most Valuable" in their league is an understatement.

In defense of the current crop of voting sportswriters, they've been doing a credible job of selecting players who are at or near the top of the Wins Above Replacement (WAR) saber-metric guidelines; at least in the current millennium.  How all this mumbo-jumbo is calculated is beyond me; however, when Albert Pujols won it on three separate occasions (2005, 2008 & 2009), he indeed had the NL's highest WAR each season.  In fact, he also had the highest WAR on a couple of occasions when he didn't win (2006 & 2010); and I don't recall anybody complaining about those two snubs.  The great Stan The Man Musial - who recently celebrated his 92nd birthday - only won three MVP Awards, but could have easily won another three or four.

Ted Williams was never very popular with a lot of the sportswriters, which partly explains why his incredible season in 1941 - featuring his iconic .406 BA - was trumped by Joe DiMaggio's equally iconic 56-game hitting streak.  Perhaps the most galling snub came when a Teddy Ballgame Triple Crown-season in 1947 was clipped by a rather mediocre Yankee Clipper-season, by a single point.

Many other all-time greats like Mays and Aaron have been consistently snubbed over the years by the likes of Maury Wills and Dick Groat, among others.  Generally speaking, if a player wins a batting championship on a pennant winner (Groat) or establishes some new MLB (stolen base) record (Wills), sportswriters eat that stuff up.  Every now and then, superior players on bad teams are selected (Ernie Banks in '58 and '59), but once their "quota" is fulfilled, they'd really have to go wild to get another one.  Banks had another great year in 1960, but winning three times in a row just wasn't happening.

A couple of my favorite MVP's - Kenny Boyer (1964) and Orlando Cepeda (1967) both led the NL in RBI's playing on pennant winning St Louis Cardinal teams.  Much to my surprise, there were several other players with higher WAR totals than the former Redbird heroes; especially surprising, since the vote for Cepeda was unanimous in 1967.  Go figure.

Meanwhile, as the outrage over the selection of Miggy over Trouty was starting to wane, our saber-metric hero on MLB Network decided it would be fun to review previous MVP selections on his Clubhouse Confidential program which he deemed "wrong".  I wonder if I was the only one surprised when he chose to nitpick the 2005 NL MVP Award which went to Albert Pujols of the 100-win NL Central champion-St Louis Cardinals, instead of Derrick Lee of the sub-.500 Chicago Cubs.  Both had very similar offensive numbers, but Lee's slugging percentage was about fifty points higher, plus he won the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger Award.  I suppose a clean sweep of the awards would've been nice for Lee, but for some reason those crazy sportswriters took the guy from the 100-win team instead.  "What were they thinking?" suggested the irrepressible Kenny.

I'll tell you what they were thinking, Brian.  They were thinking Pujols was the best player in the National League that season, who played a key role in the success of his team.  His "value" to his team is best measured by his NL-leading 8.2 WAR.  I'm surprised Brian Kenny failed to realize that before he decided to tell his viewers something that made no saber-metric sense whatsoever.  And that's a travesty.

No, the real travesty is subjecting the likable and extremely talented Miguel Cabrera to unfair scrutiny of an honor he deserved - American League Most Valuable Player - 2012.  The last time I checked, Andre Dawson got to keep his; along with George Bell, Don Baylor and Jeff Burroughs, for that matter.  None of those guys won the Triple Crown, by the way.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Postseason "Wild Ride" Nothing New for Cardinals

A little over two weeks ago, Barry Zito - an unlikely hero - pitched the San Francisco Giants back into the National League Championship Series, winning Game Five over the Cardinals at Busch Stadium, and sending the two teams back to San Francisco for the final two blowouts.  Zito's surprising win over the Redbirds was the first of seven consecutive postseason victories San Francisco would compile en route to their second World Championship in the last three seasons.

For the Cardinals, it was a bitter disappointment; ending their postseason dream of successfully defending a World Championship which nobody outside of the St Louis organization thought possible to begin with.  Just when so many of the naysayers finally jumped on the Redbirds' bandwagon, those magical bats - which carried them past Atlanta, then Washington DC, and through the early contests with San Francisco - were abruptly neutralized by the Giants' three hottest pitchers:  the aforementioned Zito, then Vogelsong and Cain.  All pitched brilliantly in the NLCS, and carried that momentum into a World Series four-game sweep of a Detroit Tigers team most baseball analysts predicted would do the "sweeping".  They were wrong again (See:  2006 World Series).

Meanwhile, back in Cardinal Nation, the frustration of getting within one win from an eighteenth World Series appearance - and four wins away from their 12th World Championship - had players and fans alike shaking their heads in disbelief.  Perhaps many of those disheartened souls don't remember what happened in 1968; or 1985; maybe not even 1996?  Perhaps they just remember the last time the Cardinals held a three games to one postseason advantage - over the Detroit Tigers, in the 2006 World Series.  Of course, that story had a happy ending, with St Louis taking care of business at home, winning three straight to clinch their 10th World Championship in just five games.  Believe it or not, I never felt comfortable about that favorable outcome until that last out was recorded in Game Five.  Here's why:

The Cardinals have actually blown more 3 games to 1 postseason leads than not; and more than any other MLB team.  After their most recent meltdown against the newly crowned World Champions - the Redbirds, in their long and glorious history - have now blown four, while only winning three, after holding that seemingly insurmountable three games to one postseason advantage.  To get a better understanding of what went wrong, let's examine the crime scenes:

1968 WORLD SERIES VS DETROIT TIGERS - Strangely enough, it was the Detroit Tigers who trailed Bob Gibson and the St Louis Cardinals in the 1968 World Series, three games to one, but proceeded to win the final three games of that Fall Classic; including the Game Seven shocker, when Mickey Lolich out-dueled the Great Gibson in front of 54,692 stunned Cardinals' fans at Busch Stadium.  As I skipped a day of drudgery from Kirkwood High School to watch what was surely going to be another Gibson triumph on national television; in a little more than two hours, had  evolved into a numbing defeat; the first of its kind for Cardinal fans:

*This was the first time in franchise history the team had ever coughed up a three games to one advantage in the World Series to lose.

*This was the first time in Bob Gibson's history that he had ever lost a World Series - Game Seven.  He prevailed in 1964 over the mighty New York Yankees; and three years later, pitched brilliantly and even hit a home run to beat the Boston Red Sox by a score of 7-2 at Fenway Park, in front of 35,188 stunned fans.  With Game Seven in '68 being played at Busch Stadium, the thought of losing never even crossed my mind; nor the minds of most other Redbird fans, for that matter.

1985 WORLD SERIES VS KANSAS CITY ROYALS - If anything, blowing a three games to one World Series advantage in the cross-state I-70 showdown with the Royals seemed even more improbable than what had occurred seventeen years earlier; especially after St Louis won the first two games on the road.  Until that time, no team in World Series history had ever lost the first two games at home, and then gone on to win it all; of course, that's exactly what happened.  When the Royals won two out of three at Busch Stadium, the Cardinals were forced into a return trip to KC to capture title number ten; but we all know what happened in Games Six and Seven.  Kansas City won their first World Championship instead, while St Louis would have to wait another 21 years to get that tenth title.

1996 NLCS VS ATLANTA BRAVES - In Tony LaRussa's first year as manager, the NL Central champion Cardinals somehow grabbed a quick three games to one NLCS advantage over the defending World Champion Braves.  Coming off an exciting comeback win in Game Four didn't give the Cardinals enough momentum to overcome a clearly superior Atlanta pitching staff, which allowed just one run over those last three games.  Nor could they stop an offense that put crooked numbers on the scoreboard at an alarming rate; the Braves scored 32 runs in that span, featuring a 15-0 annihilation in that final debacle.  Although this setback was a disappointment, it came as no big surprise.  After all, the Cards fell to three future Hall of Fame hurlers - Smoltz, Maddux and Glavine - and a ferocious lineup that seemed to be able to score at will.  The over-matched Redbirds were fortunate to have extended the series for the full seven games.

2012 NLCS VS SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS - Well, at least the Cardinals made a bit of progress, as rookie manager Mike Matheny led his Wild Card team into the postseason, all the way to the NLCS; this time losing those final three games of the series by a composite 20-1 margin; a twelve-run improvement!  Still, the last three "Game Sevens" produced no runs for the Redbirds; lots of runs for their opponents; thirty-nine, to be exact.  All told, St Louis was outscored 93-9 in Games 5-6-7 by the postseason quartet of Detroit/Kansas City/Atlanta/San Francisco.  If someone is going to draw up a blueprint for blowing a three-games-to-one postseason lead, getting outscored 93-9 by four teams works quite well.

So much for rehashing epic collapses.  How about some remarkable postseason comebacks?  No, the Cardinals have never been down three games to one and successfully overcome that deficit to win a best-of-seven postseason series; but they've perfected the art of coming back when trailing three games to TWO.  And that ain't bad.  Here's a quick summary of how things played out (and where Series ended) when the Redbirds faced a three games to two postseason series deficit (They've had a lot of experience in these situations - 9 different times):

1926 vs New York Yankees - STL Wins Series (Home)
1930 vs Philadelphia Athletics - STL Loses Series in 6 Games (Away)
1934 vs Detroit Tigers - STL Wins Series (Away)
1946 vs Boston Red Sox - STL Wins Series (Home)
1982 vs Milwaukee Brewers - STL Wins Series (Home)
1987 vs San Francisco Giants - STL Wins Series (Home)
2004 vs Houston Astros - STL Wins Series (Home)
2005 vs Houston Astros - STL Loses Series in 6 Games (Home)
2011 vs Texas Rangers - STL Wins Series (Home)

From their very first World Championship in 1926 to their most recent title in 2011 - and five other times in between - the Cardinals have managed to overcome seven out of nine 3-games-to-2 deficits; six out of seven comebacks were finished off at home for Games Six and Seven.  That's a pretty impressive postseason resume for St Louis, after all.

If this kind of stuff fascinates you as much as me, check out my two books on Cards' trivia (below).