Friday, August 21, 2009

Billy Butler: Hall of Famer

There, I said it. Previously I indicated (when comparing Billy Butler to Dave Winfield of all people) that Billy would one day hit 30 HR in a season. Sort of a lukewarm prediction for a first baseman in the modern era, don’t you think? Sure, it’s six away from the franchise’s all time leader, that legendary slugger Steve Balboni, but saying the Royals are a bit historically lacking in that particular department is like saying that the Burj Al Arab in Dubai is a hotel. So here's going out on a limb a little bit.

The basic premise of the initial argument was why Dave Winfield was an excellent Billy Butler comp by age. But who cares? That dude who hit a sausage with a bat was a top 20 comparable last year. Prince Fielder’s his number two (who certainly at least has a more similar body type to Butler than Winfield) and there was no discussion his age 23 season whether he would ever one day hit 30 bombs – he hit 50 that year.

But something changed this season, and went off the projection in a big way … and it was extra base power, just not in the way that most would notice. The man was projected to hit around 30 doubles. As of this writing, he’s now on pace for the mid 50s. Everything else (the AVG, OBP, and SLG are almost exactly as projected) is just pretty much who we thought he would be, while hoping for more.

So what does hitting that amount of doubles mean to a player of Butler’s age (23) or younger? Microsoft Excel, some google fu, and a plain ole’ desktop calculator helped me put it into context.

If Billy Butler can accomplish this very reasonable feat, does he continue to compare with a Hall of Famer?

(click to enlarge)*

No. He compares to dozens of them.

And he shares the top ten list with four.

One of them isn’t just a Hall of Famer, but one of the greatest of all time. Another was arguably the best overall player of two different decades. One was the greatest offensive player in the most difficult run scoring environment since the deadball era. And even those who didn’t make it – one was because of injuries that derailed a sure thing. And the worst among that top 10 company had 1800 career base hits and 4 all star appearances.

Just off the top 10 list are guys like A-Rod and Albert Pujols and Ted Williams. If you expand it to age 25 and younger, George Brett in 1978 is right there. So is Hank Aaron in the late 50s. In fact, the whole qualifying list basically reads like an almanac of baseball history. These are most of the greatest players in the game starting just before World War 2. And Billy would rank tied for 5th. Unless he completely falls off a cliff, he’s going to land in the top 30 or so. That’s not good company, it's legendary.

Look for yourself -->

So to address the intial premise (the Seagull conundrum if you will), did any of these guys go on to hit 30 HR in a single season? To make this completely fair, I’d have to do park and year adjustments, but frankly there’s no need. Vada Pinson never made it, but he hit in the 20s regularly, and his prime was in the long ball killing 1960s. Every single other player in the top 10 did.

This should be a world of good news for Royals fans. But there’s an aspect of it all that makes me very sad … Butler is clearly the wrong player for the wrong time. He’s built almost perfectly in the mold of the 1970s and 1980s line drive, high Batting average sluggers. The Tony Gwynns. The Robin Younts. Even the George Bretts. This is the ultimate testament to a franchise stuck completely in the past, in that their best player, their pride and joy, could be a three time MVP … if he played in Fulton County Stadium or the Houston Astrodome, wearing ugly horizontal stripes and an unflattering adjustable waistband. Their other potentially developing offensive star is more of the modern mold – walks, strikeouts, and homers … and Alex Gordon just got sent back to Triple A.

A commenter on the Winfield / Butler comparison asked if I believed that the comp could indicate that Billy would have a long career, much like Winfield did. I indicated that I didn’t believe it was possible, that Billy’s athleticism and build would eventually hold him back. I no longer fully believe that.

This study has convinced me that Billy, unlike the discipline and power mold (the old player skills) has an ability set that passes the test of time. Even the worst comps mostly had very long careers. The power may come and then go again, like so many players, but while muscles fade in the 30s (those of us there can testify to this), the eyesight lasts until 45 or so. And that gives a player like Billy an awful lot of time to compile 3,000 hits. And there’s still going to be enough aging sentimental sportswriters around that believe in the magic number, and they’re going to give Billy the nod.

Viva la Billy Butler. Hall of Fame class of 2032.

* Projected total for 2009 for players under 25

Introducing: Adjusted Doubles

Behold a limited utility addition to the baseball statistical lexicon: the Adjusted Double, hereafter referred to at least on G&C as a2b.

So what is a2b? How is it calculated? More importantly, why is it calculated? One question answered at a time.

Specifically, a2b is the number of doubles hit for a player if he were playing in the American League in a neutral park in 1980. A2b is similar to EQA or OPS+ in that it is adjusted to account for the context of the year and the ballparks of that time.

Important differences in the calculation, however, are that it accounts for doubles alone, and no other offensive factors. This leads to some different park factors (best all time doubles park: Fenway park for righties), and year adjustments, which are available from the always estimable Because of the vast differences of modern parks (you know, like the customary outfield wall), I only used years from 1940 onward.

And as for the why: you’ll find out tonight.


Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Getting Your Money's Worth: New York Yankees

There's been a lot of web noise recently regarding some enthusiastic support for Mark Teixeira as a front runner for the American League's Most Valuable Player award. It's important to note that VOC is by no means a good indicator as to likely or deserving candidates for this award: pure worth is the only indication. If a player worth 40 million dollars gets paid 40 million, he's the MVP (or at least a strong candidate), at a VOC of 0. I think that's an important disclaimer for all teams, but particularly for this money-gusher of a franchise.

So do the Yankees get their due? I don't mind saying I was surprised. Chart get!

(click to enlarge)

Of the teams where I was anticipating writing a paragraph or two describing a VOC of 0 as still being a winning franchise if the team spends enough, the Yanks outdo me. I'd still believe they're probably in the bottom half of getting their money's worth, but hey, it's a lot of money, and while studying the reasons they are in the black, I learned something interesting: in many ways they are financially more prudent than many teams spending much, much less. Let's start with this guy:

SP Chien-Ming Wang
2009 Salary: 5.0 million
2009 Performance: .55 million
2009 Anticipated Performance: .55 million (season ending surgery)
2009 VOC: -4.55 million

Before drawing up the numbers, this is one of four team numbers I was anxious to see (not coincidentally, these are the players I discuss!). I was really quite surprised that despite his really legendary failures this year, Wang ended up being almost exactly at replacement level. How on Earth did this happen? This is how.

The Yankees end up often not spending as foolishly as other teams because the money is almost meaningless to them. Taken out of the equation, they can evaluate on a case by case basis and are never afraid to pull the plug on a player who isn't living up to their expectation, regardless of salary. Of course they don't want to sign a 25 man roster of Carl Pavanos, but a 5 million sunk cost doesn't phase them in the least. They simply move to a replacement level option or to the free agent wire or to a trade. But in all manners of speech, they move on.

Cheaper teams (see Royals, Kansas City) will give high paid albatrosses every possible chance to succeed and then some(see Guillen, Jose), and will have that player dig such a hole that it's almost impossible to get out of. If Guillen hadn't left the clubhouse this year, he'd value at -12.0 million. If Chien-Ming Wang played for the Royals, he'd Jose Lima his way to a -15, hurting himself more in the process, before they pulled the plug. But the Yankees gave him some work in the pen (where he put up a bit of good value, actually) and then shut him down. It reveals teams like the Royals as the very definition of penny-wise and pound-foolish.

SS Derek Jeter
2009 Salary: 20.0 million
2009 Value to Date: 22.70 million
2009 Projected Value: 31.43 million
2009 VOC: 11.43 million

Statistically-inclined analysts get a lot of flack for their abuse of the quintessential Yankee regarding his defense, so when the chance comes to acquiesce, we should probably take it. G&C predominately uses UZR as it's defensive measurement, but Dewan plus/minus agrees on this point as well: Derek Jeter has steadily improved at defense the last two years and is now playing the best of his career.

Whether this is an indication that the average shortstop has just fallen off a cliff or Jeter has actually made these adjustments himself is completely immaterial. We will compare a man to his peers, and Jeter is looking really good right now. The man clearly loves the new Yankee stadium and is the single most valuable member of this team, and a legitimate MVP candidate. For a legend nearing the end of his career, this is the time to honor him: when he actually deserves it the most.

3B Alex Rodriguez
2009 Salary: 32.0 million
2009 Value to Date: 12.10 million
2009 Projected Value: 16.10 million
2009 VOC: -15.25 million

It's hard to call this contract a turkey, despite it's ludicrously high, almost ridiculous numbers, for the reasons mentioned above. He obviously can't live up to this number this year because of the high margin of time missed due to injury, so there's no fair game in lambasting the fellow. He's actually been the 5th most productive member of this team, which accounting for the missed time, is truly remarkable.

If Pujols has this contract, he's of mid-level value, and he's been healthy and just butchering the ball. But that's the problem with the contract itself: He absolutely has to be that good, for that long, to make himself worth it in the truest sense, and this gives an idea of just how hard that is to do at the very top level of income.

And lastly, the man of the discussion of the hour ....

1B Mark Teixeira
2009 Salary: 20 million
2009 Value to Date: 17.20 million
2009 Projected Value: 23.82 million

Again, the Yankees just want the big production, and don't care where it comes from or how efficient it is. Teixeira is in all likelihood not going to get any better than this. He's been remarkably consistent for most of his career, and is just a better paid, more visible example of himself. This is cliche by now, but it's cliche because it's true: Mark Teixeira is a very good player. Mark Teixeira is not even the MVP of his own team, let alone the American League.

(click to enlarge)

On these big contracts, if they are going to zero out by the time the curtain closes, you are mostly counting on big production in the early years, closest to the player's prime to carry the weight of the backend years. Mark Teixeira is in the first year of a monstrous, long deal. Mark Teixeira is also 29. There's reason to believe he'll age a lot better than Giambi did in pinstripes (even though Jason actually nearly validated his contract) because of his better athleticism and defense, and accounting for inflation it wasn't as expensive of a deal, but Yankees fans should just get accustomed to the fact that a lot of this will be sunk cost in about 6 years. You just have to hope that general inflation keeps up with his decline.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Concerning Randy Wolf's Day

As I browse around my favorite numbers-laden corners of the web, it seems that no one is as fascinated with last night's Dodgers-Diamondbacks game as I am. Are my eyes deceiving me? Or was Wolf's performance last night on the very cusp of all time greatness?

Randy Wolf (Aug. 17 vs. Diamondbacks)
On the mound: 7.2 IP, 5 H, 3 ER, 0 BB, 10 K, 1 HR

At the plate: 3/4, 2B, HR, 3 RBI

... and it's probably better than it looks. If not for what seemed like sheer physical exhaustion (he'd had a long day), Wolf looked unhittable before the 8th: 4 of those hits including the HR coming in that final 2/3 of an inning. So assuming Joe Torre removes Wolf after the 7th, here's the pitching line:

7 IP, 1 H, 0 ER, 0 BB, 10 K.

Between the 1st inning with one out and the end of the 7th, no batters reached against him. 20 retired in a row. 74% of a perfect game was thrown in the same period that the pitcher fell a triple shy of hitting for the cycle. Simply amazing.

Small caveat here: Wolf's double came in the top of the 8th inning, so Torre would have had to leave him in to bat in this situation to complete the offensive leg of this feat. In retrospect, it's probably running out that very double that finished off that last bit of gas.

So if Randy Wolf could have finished off 7 additional hitters without allowing a hit (a feat accomplished in 49% of games played this year) and hit a triple, would this have been considered the single best performance by a player well ... ever?

If a PA can reasonably be considered 20% of a hitter's offensive day, an equivalent number of batters faced for a pitcher would be around 5-6. So for a hitter facing an equally improbably milestone, he was the equivalent of just one appearance away as both a hitter and a pitcher from completing a feat unlikely to ever be matched again.

I'm still in a pattern of trying to capture the scope of just what we're talking about here. Has a pitcher hit for the cycle before? He has - although Jimmy Ryan was primarily a centerfielder for the Cubs ... in 1888.

Perfect games? We know what those look like, thanks to Mark Beurhle earlier this year ... only the 16th one of those in Major League history. So how on Earth could you quantify those two feats? It is the very peak of not one but two types of performance.

Vince Young in the 2006 Rose Bowl? 467 total yards of offense. Best ever in a BCS championship game. But even just accomplishing those feats with his arm would pale in comparison. He'd have to compile two historic days into one. Something like 500 yards passing and 200 yards rushing. That's possible ... if he stays at home instead and plays the game on the XBox. With twenty minute quarters. And playing against a roommate using the broken controller.

Muhammad Ali vs. Cleveland Williams in Houston, 1966? A third round knockout where your opponent lands approximately one punch? Maybe if Williams' trainer was allowed to fight alongside him simultaneously.

Wilt Chamberlain's 100 points? Only if it comes with 20 blocked shots and rebounds, and 8 women after the game. Okay, that last part probably happened.

Ferris Beuhler? Maybe if he was used as a relief pitcher for the Cubs that day.

All in all, it's actually a tragic story. At the end, it's a really good game, one the annals of baseball are chock full of. Randy Wolf just got the five lottery numbers without hitting the Powerball, and got the 200,000 dollars. And his family can all celebrate, and he'll be a human interest story on a drab local news broadcast, and he can buy that new car he's always wanted and have a nice party.

But if you're in his shoes, how do you not spend the rest of your life wondering what happens if that last little red ball had blown into place, exchanging that nice new sedan in for a nice new oh, private island? This is probably the legacy of Randy Wolf that I will remember. And unfortunately, no one else.