Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Further ALCS thoughts

  • What a performance by A-Rod and CC Sabathia so far this postseason. There's not much I can really say. The media will do a fine job of lauding them without my help. But still: damn.
  • Good to finally have a bit of a laugher, though even still this game was tight and exciting until the eighth.
  • The bad umpiring (and man was it bad) continued in Game Four. Fortunately, two of the bad calls (the blown Swisher pick off and the blown Swisher tag up) mostly cancelled each other out, and the stunning what-the-hell-was-that-how-are-they-not-both-out call at third didn't lead to anything, but still... not great. I don't like the idea of using instant replay NFL-style. I don't like the idea of adding challenges to the strategy of the game. No, baseball needs two things: a lighting fast, deadly accurate ball-strike system that can be invisibly relayed to the home plate umpire who will call them as normal, and a dedicated replay umpire with the ability to overturn any call at any time without the field umpires having to stop play. These two measures would be completely invisible as long as the right calls are being made. The game would look and feel the same. Nothing would change, except for the quality of the umpiring.
  • I don't know why the Yankees have Freddy Guzman on the roster. Joe Girardi prefers to use Gardner, even when he's pinch running for the DH, negating Gardner's defensive value. The Yanks clearly don't want Guzman hitting, since they chose Cervelli over him in Game Three. They don't want him playing left field, since they chose to lose the DH rather than play him there. Eric Hinske, on the other hand, would actually have been useful in almost 1,000,001 situations in Game Three. Another baffling management situation from the Yanks.
  • I wonder if the mainstream media will pick up on just how much this postseason has demonstrated the importance of hitting home runs and not giving them up. The ability to strike at any time is so much more important than any of the "small ball" skills even in a close game, but only long ball skills let you put the game well out of reach.
  • I hereby authorize use of the term "Girardiproof" to describe games in which a starting pitcher carries his team for eight or more innings while his offense accumulates a lead of five or more runs. Apologies to anyone who may have already started using this term. What a relief not to see Joe deploying his quick hook over and over and over again tonight.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

ALCS Thoughts

Bullet point style!
  • Man, Game 2 was amazing. It really felt like one of the Yankee playoff games from 1996-2000.
  • I can't decide if Joe Girardi is some kind of mad bullpen genius or a poor bullpen manager. His pattern of plowing through relief pitchers even in the face of extra innings is maddening, but on the other hand, it's also working. It's entirely possible that the way the probabilities break down, the right play is to burn through pitchers in an attempt to keep the game scoreless and accept that you will basically have to forfeit if the game goes too long. I'm not sure that's the case, but if Joe's strategy keeps working, I'll have to give him the benefit of the doubt.
  • Tim McCarver's impassioned defense of Derek Jeter from all the people out there proclaiming him "done" last year really rubbed me the wrong way. First, no one claimed he was "done;" no one sane anyway. Second, most of the performance analysts who were saying he was on the decline were at the front of the line to talk about how great he's been this year. Third, many, many people, even in the mainstream media, have talked about how much better his defense has been this year. This implies that it was worse in previous years.
    Therefore, it was fantastically ironic that both Joe and Tim agreed that if you wanted a groundball hit at one guy with two outs in the ninth of seventh game of the World Series, it would have to be Derek Jeter. Not only does this bizarre and idiotic platitude not have anything to do with Jeter's range, but later in the game he booted a groundball hit right at him. I guess one out with a runner on first in the eighth inning of a tie game in the ALCS isn't clutch enough for him.
  • In that same vein, let me be the first to point out that Alex Rodriguez is not clutch, not in any meaningful way. Yes, there is evidence that clutch skill exists, but the effect is very, very tiny. No, Alex is mostly the same player in the postseason that he always has been: one of the greatest of all time. He's more likely to succeed in clutch situations mostly because he's simply so much more likely to succeed in general.
  • I understand why the Angels were so mad about the ruling that Erick Aybar didn't touch second base. The so-called "neighborhood play" is really common. Nonetheless, he didn't even make a hint of an attempt to touch the base, nor did he ever come close to doing so. Furthermore, he did this on purpose in order to not have to deal with the oncoming runner. There has to be a line drawn somewhere, and I think that this play was on the other side of line. You've got to at least pretend to try to touch the base. Yes, I know I'm biased because I'm a Yankees fan.
  • Returning to Joe Girardi's bullpen usage, I do want to give him special props for his usage of Mariano Rivera. Mo pitched efficiently, and Joe used this efficiency to stretch Mo out over 2.2 high leverage innings. Brilliant. Now let's work on doing the same with Phil Hughes.
  • Jerry Hairston actually screwed up when he scored the game winning run. If Chone Figgins had simply picked the ball up cleanly after Aybar threw it away, Hairston would have been dead meat at home plate, turning a bases loaded, one out situation into a second and third, two out situation. That's a critical mistake. Aybar's throw was bad, but Figgins' failure to simply pick the ball up was just as costly, if not more so. The Angel's screwed up twice on that play and Hairston was the benefactor.
  • Bobby Abreu played the right field wall really well in these two games. Where the hell was that last year, Bob?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Misleading journalism

I don't know why, but for some very poor reason, I found myself reading this piece by Wallace Matthews of the New York Post.
There's no need to go through [Alex Rodriguez's] October numbers once again except to say that he did more in the three games of the Division Series against the Twins than he had done in his four previous Yankees postseasons, at least after Game 3 of the 2004 ALCS.
Let's try to forget for a moment that this piece is the predictable response on a good series by A-Rod: a backhanded compliment designed to remind the reader of how much A-Rod sucks and to set up the story line in case A-Rod plays poorly in the future. Baseball writers just can't get enough of the "A-Rod is a choker" story, so they're gonna try to keep it alive at all costs.

But let's try to forget about that for a second. The real highlight of the above quote is the way Matthews deliberately skews the reader's perception of Alex Rodriguez's past postseason performance with the New York Yankees. You see that last dangling clause there" The one that says, "at least after Game 3 of the 2004 ALCS"? That phrase does three things to poison the well against A-Rod:
  1. Conjure up memories of the 2004 ALCS, every Yankee fan's worst nightmare.
  2. Sweep away games before Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS as being irrelevant to the discussion.
  3. Leave the impression that the period before Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS only barely alters the argument.
There's only one problem: Matthew's claim is completely unsupportable if one considers the period he's trying to exclude! The impression that he's deliberately attempting to leave is completely at odds with the facts, and it's not close! A-Rod's performance before Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS was incredible. He hit .421 against the Twins in the ALDS that year with three doubles, a home run, three runs scored, three RsBI, and one very clutch stolen base. In the first three games of the ALCS, Alex accumulated six hits, including a home run and two doubles, scored seven runs, and picked up three RsBI.

So, yeah, if we ignore some minor games where A-Rod got fourteen hits, five doubles, two home runs, ten runs scored, and six RsBI, then his series against the Twins in 2009 obviously dwarfs all his previous accomplishments.

Also, it should be noted that in Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS, Alex hit a two run home run in the third inning while the game was scoreless. You'd have been forgiven for thinking that Alex was a one man postseason wrecking crew at that time. He didn't start playing poorly until Game 5.

Remember: never let facts get in the way of a good story.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Postseason thoughts

  • Don't be distracted by the media throng clamoring to tell you why it's different for A-Rod this time around. The story is not about how he' s more relaxed, more focused, having more fun, doing more of the little things, or feeling less pressure. The story is that anything can happen in a small sample. Given enough time, the real A-Rod was going to show up in the postseason, as he has in the past.
  • Sentences like these: (emphasis mine)
    "With Weaver picking up right where Lackey left off for the Los Angeles Angels, not even Josh Beckett could keep the Boston Red Sox off the brink of playoff elimination."
    "Erick Aybar followed Izturis' RBI single with a two-run triple during the Angels' two-out rally in the seventh to break up a stellar pitching duel between Weaver and Beckett, Boston's ace and most reliable playoff pitcher."
    make me wonder if anyone actually paid attention to the postseason last year, when Beckett was stunningly awful and crushed the Red Sox' chances to win. As with A-Rod, the story with Josh Beckett is that he is very good pitcher when healthy, not that he has some magical postseason powers.
  • I've absolutely had it with Joe Girardi's bullpen management. He has a decent idea of who to pitch in particular situations, but he manages like any relief pitcher that throws more than five pitches must be removed from the game. Seriously, what the hell was he going to do if the Yanks hadn't won in the 11th last night? He had used every relief pitcher except Chad Gaudin! This is not uncommon. Girardi burns through pitchers in a quest to win the most marginal of advantages by matching up against hitters. It's got to stop. At the very least, your relievers must be able to through complete innings, sometimes even against both right and left handed hitters.
  • Baseball has an umpiring problem and it's getting embarassing. The biggest issue is with the erratic strike zone, but it's affecting every area of the game. You have to feel for the Twins, who got robbed of a potential lead in the 11th inning on maybe the worst call I've ever seen. Tigers fans will perhaps see this as poetic justice, but baseball needs to see it for what it is: a big, big problem that needs to be addressed in the offseason.
  • TBS has been a mixed bag for me broadcasting. I like that their HD broadcast has PitchTrax displayed for every pitch. They've gotten some great reaction shots from players. On the other hand, the commentating has been atrocious (and getting worse) and there isn't a single thing to which they won't attach an advertisement. *sigh*

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Sportscaster laziness

I think what mostly drives me crazy about sportscasters isn't so much that they do not see the baseball world like I do. There's room for healthy disagreement there. No, I think the thing that drives me crazy is that they are too often lazy in their analysis. Willing to fall back on clichés, they often slip into a sort of absurd autopilot in which certain events automatically trigger certain comments regardless of their correctness.

Here's the example that set this off. During the top of the ninth inning of today's game pitting the Tigers against the White Sox, the Tigers had a double play opportunity with a runner on first and no one out while protecting a two run lead. Mark Kotsay hit a groundball to Adam Everett. Everett went to second for the force, but Placido Polanco's relay to first was slightly offline, and Miguel Cabrera came off of first to field it, so the runner was safe. Rod Allen (I know, I know; fish in a barrel) immediately praised Cabrera for his decision to leave the bag and ensure that the runner didn't move into scoring position.

This is autopilot extraordinaire. It's the ninth inning with a two-run lead. That run does not matter. Any baseball fan worth his salt knows this. The only thing that matters are outs. The only advantage of keeping the runner on first by coming off the bag and forfeiting any shot at a double play is that you keep the double play in order for the next batter. Note further that even if you stretch and don't get the double play, it's not assured that the ball will get by you. You still may knock it down and prevent the runner from advancing. Thus, to come off the bag in that situation, you have to believe that the odds of not getting the double play AND having the ball get by you were so high that it was more likely that the next batter would hit into a double play.

This is highly unlikely. In fact, I'd be willing to bet that for any relay throw that is not truly atrocious (which again, Polanco's was not), the better play is to stretch for the throw. Furthermore, Fernando Rodney, the current pitcher, is not an extreme groundball pitcher (he's roughly neutral for his career). Alex Rios, the next batter, is not a groundball hitter (about three groundballs for every four flyballs in his career).

Sportscasters should know this. They should be able to make this point. They should be able to talk about the advantages and disadvantages of each decision. They should not default to meaningless and unhelpful platitudes. Rod had a great chance to talk about the little details of baseball and he blew it because he, like so many other sportscasters, are just up there spewing trite baseball clichés and cashing a paycheck.

I should note that the fact that Rios actually hit into a double play does not change the analysis. This result was far from certain and could not have been known ex ante.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Payroll and Playoffs

Rob Neyer discusses the implications of the fact that six of the nine top teams in payroll are making the playoffs this year:
Well, you can't really compete with the Red Sox. Not unless you're the Yankees, anyway. But there are still plenty of teams wasting plenty of money. The Twins probably aren't going to the playoffs, but they certainly could have. The Rays are stuck in the wrong division. And more to the point, we just can't read too much into one possibly anomalous season.
The Forbes article to which he links also notes: "In 2006, three postseason clubs (Tigers, Twins and Padres) ranked 14th or lower."

Here's the thing. The Tigers are now one of those top payroll clubs making the clubs. Payroll is not static. Should we hold it against the Tigers that they've turned themselves into a top spending club in just a few years? That's a good thing. We want teams that spend to have greater success. It encourages owners to keep investing in their product on the field. The Tigers are a great example of what we should be encouraging in baseball.

Looking at payroll is misleading because teams let their payroll rise and fall over time depending on how they perceive their chances of success. Teams correctly recognize that they should spend more money when the marginal value of a win is the highest. Generally this occurs when a team is the 88-92 win range and additional wins will drastically increase the likelihood of making the postseason. Teams can and do let their payroll spike when a playoff berth is in range.

Thus, focusing on payroll is missing the point. No, the focus should be on whether or not all teams have roughly equal opportunity to support a large payroll. What Major League Baseball needs is a revenue sharing system based on teams' revenue potential, not their actual revenue. This correctly lines up the incentives in the system and ensures that all teams have an opportunity to let their payrolls rise when they get the chance to make the playoffs.

Higher paid teams are always going to be (and should be) more represented in the postseason. Instead of trying to fight that trend, MLB should be trying to find better ways to balance access to revenue.