Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Winning baseball

Question: Why did the Tampa Bay Rays make it to the World Series?

Answer: Because they hit a ton of home runs.

Question: Why did the Tampa Bay Rays lose the World Series?

Answer: Because they did not hit a ton of home runs.

It's passé in baseball to harp on doing the little things during the playoffs: bunting, sacrificing, hitting to the right side, stealing bases, etc. If you do these things well, the theory goes, you will be successful in October. Yet time and again, we find that it's the team that out-pitches or out-slugs their opponent that emerges victorious. That happened again this year. The Rays simply ran out of slug, and when they did, they lost. 

In fact, they lost despite stealing a record number of bases and scoring on not a few small ball plays. That's the irony of the whole situation. I'm sure not a few columnists will take the time to point out that home runs are fickle and that the Rays simply relied on them too much to be a winner. The problem is that this is true of virtually all teams, even (or especially) championship teams. When you don't hit for any power (with men on base), it's really tough to win.

Naturally, if someone could find the fountain of hit-home-runs-all-the-time, they could practically guarantee success in the playoffs. Since this is reality, where chance governs so much of the events that make up sporting events, sometimes the power just doesn't come when you need it. So it goes. All you can do is put the best team you can out there and hope that you get some breaks. That's not a flawed strategy or one-dimensional approach to the game. It's just The Way Things Are.

Hit for power and win; don't hit for power and lose. That's the lesson of these playoffs, even if the talking heads decide that the exact opposite is true.

Saturday, October 11, 2008


4.1 IP, 9 H, 8 R, 8 ER, 1 BB, 5 K, 3 HR


Pete Abraham notes here (by way of this MSNBC article) that the Yankees paid 2.3 million dollars per win last year. The Rays paid only $451,000 per win.

This is actually misleading. In reality the situation is much worse. It's not possible for a baseball team to field a roster with zero payroll and it isn't likely that the worst roster a team could field (while still trying to win) would win zero games. In fact, the minimum a team could pay its players for one season is roughly 10 million dollars and the lowest win total they could possibly have is around 40 wins.

When you factor this in, what you realize is that the Yankees really paid about 199 million dollars for 49 wins, an embarassingly bad 4.1 million dollars per win. The Rays go up too; they really paid about $593,000 per win.

This distinction is actually important. For example, the Yankees are last in dollars per win, but when you adjust for the proper baselines, the Seattle Mariners are far more inefficient. Seattle paid 5.1 million dollars over the minimum payroll for each win over 40.

Inefficiency isn't just about spending tons of money. The real key to inefficiency is to pay a lot and get almost nothing for it. That's why the 40 win baseline is so important. Teams should not get credit for efficiency for winning games that they were going to win no matter how inept they were. Hell, even the 2003 Tigers managed 43 wins. They probably hold the record for inefficiency. By my back of the envelope calculations, they would have paid nearly 17 million dollars per win. If you fail to adjust for the proper baseline, they would appear to have only spent 1.4 million dollars per win.

Proper baselines: always important.

I would remiss if I didn't mention Doug Pappas in this post, since he is the man who pioneered this line of thinking, at least among those of us who follow baseball analysis on the Internet. Doug died in 2004 at the age of 41 while hiking on vacation. His presence and analysis is sorely missed. You can read his take on payroll analysis here and view his blog here. Rest in peace, Doug.

**EDIT** Fixed some egregious typos and reworded an awkward sentence.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

A couple postseason thoughts

  • Buck Martinez kept going on and on during tonight's Angels - Red Sox game about how hard closing was relative to setting up. He spouted nonsense about closers being able to pitch "with the game on the line" while setup men can't and how closers "want the responsibility" and feel like they're "carrying their 24 teammates on their shoulders."

    Sucks to be a set up man, eh? Not only do you somehow not know how to pitch with the game on the line (because, as we all know, runs in the ninth inning count twice or something), but you are also an irresponsible coward. Honestly, what compels people to talk about closing this way?

    Naturally, it gave me much satisfaction to see Jered Weaver, certified non-closer, close out a one run lead in the bottom of the twelfth against the heart of the Red Sox order. Closing: it just isn't that hard.

  • Dustin Pedroia is now something like 0 for 17 in the postseason. He is coming off an MVP caliber season. He will not be accused of choking. Why? Mostly because he's short, white, scrappy, and low-paid. People will point to earlier postseason success instead of dwelling on his current slump. I hope someone can explain to me how this is fair to Alex Rodriguez.

  • The bottom line with these two previous thoughts is that people on both sides of any argument can find anecdotal evidence to support their position. This is why eventually it becomes necessary to either prove a point logically from a set of common assumptions or to provide evidence from a rigorous examination of data. If you cannot do either of these, your argument deserves no respect.

    Interestingly, this rigorous examination of data is called "statistics." It is the science of science in a certain sense. It exists preciesly so that arguments can be settled instead of devolving into an endless series of platitudes and anecdotes. They aren't evil. They exist because sooner or later a question has to be settled from an objective basis. For the life of me, I don't understand why more people don't realize this.