The Future of Sabremetrics

I’m sure the SABR Analytics conference would be great fun.

For one, Phoenix in March is baseball heaven, if you can get tickets.

Plus, as this story by Christina Kahrl makes clear, there are lots of smart baseball analysts in one place talking about the game and the analysis of its numbers. But two things struck me about the answers Christina got about sabrementrics, evolution or revolution?

First, that this year’s big story was pitch framing. I don’t know what was presented at the conference, but what I like about much of the pitch framing work I’ve seen is just how teased out it is. Like a detective story or  a bit of counterhistory, the idea has existed for a long time. The PitchF/X numbers don’t obviously lead to framing data, but when churned and cleaned, new information emerges. That’s neat.

The other is more important. A few of the respondents talk about the importance of the PitchF/X data and some mention the BIS fielding data, the importance of which cannot be overestimated. To the extent that data is available and more eyes see it and are inspired to work with it, the more real information is developed.

Which is why MLB’s VP of Stats Cory Schwartz’s statement seems like the most significant in the piece: “I think once we are able to roll out the complete field-tracking system and start to introduce some of that data into public space to whatever extent it might be, I think that will further increase the pace of evolution and perhaps bring about what we would consider revolutionary turning points.”

Emphasis mine. Some of that data, to whatever extent it might be, these qualifiers are going to make a huge difference to the future of the analytic community in the coming years. MLBAM surely recognizes the incredible dynamic force they unleashed by making the PitchF/X data available, something we should not fail to remind them every chance we get.

Coming Soon! More baseball stats!

Screenshot 2014-03-02 13.48.20Major League Baseball Advanced Media announced yesterday that starting in 2015 every major league ballpark will have a system in place to measure placement and speed of all objects on the ballfield. Now, if only they would do something about the lines to buy food. (Kidding. Actually they seem to have.)

It is unclear whether the new system will replace Pitch F/x. It is being tested this year in Minnesota, Milwaukee and at Citi Field in New York.

The story has a video clip showing Jason Heyward making a diving catch on a fly ball into the gap, then on the replay shows how hard and high the batter hit the ball and tracks Heyward has he runs, showing his distance run, speed and acceleration.

The promise of a system like this is that, once aggregated, the data will help us learn all sorts of new things about defensive abilities, defensive strategies, the value of speed and in all likelihood stuff we can’t even imagine now.

Besides it’s relationship to Pitch F/x, which has produced a lot of innovative research because it was available, and Hit and Field F/x, which were not, is the availability of the data to the baseball research community.

No doubt MLBAM will look for the system to pay for itself through team and media licenses, but the widespread distribution of data will help improve the system initially and spur innovative uses after that.

Exciting stuff.

 

Billy Hamilton is a Problem.

Billy_Hamilton_2013First off, he’s the second major league ballplayer named Billy Hamilton. Guys with the same name give guys like me, who gamely but crudely run their databases as spreadsheets, fits. I hate you Alex Gonzalez, and you Alex Gonzalez, and I’m not forgetting you, Alex Gonzalez.

Differentiating is always a problem, though less so when they’ve played more than 100 years apart.

It is also a problem that the two Billy Hamilton’s profile similarly. Both are wicked fast and steal lots of bases. The 19th Century Billy Hamilton proved through a distinguished career that he was more than a one-trick pony. He hit the ball, too, and even made some noise with some homers. He was first player to lead off a game with a homer and then end it with a walkoff homer, in 1892. Only four players have done that since, and Ricky Henderson was not one of them, which surprises me.

It remains to be seen if the modern Billy Hamilton has enough bat to get his legs truly involved in the Reds’ offense, which is why I bring this up now. With a clear shot at a job with the Reds this year, following the departure of Shin-Soo Choo, we have to answer the serious question about how much he’s going to play, and what he’ll do while he’s out there. There’s no doubt that as a part-time player, a pinch hitter, pinch runner and defensive replacement, as he showed last September, he can steal a lot of bases. But can he be more than that?

Let’s start with defense. Hamilton reportedly spent last season adjusting to playing center field (he’d been a shortstop before that), the better to be ready for early promotion to the major leagues. While there have been questions about the routes he runs and his polish out there, there seems to be a rough consensus that his speedy legs will help him make up for whatever mistakes he makes, and that his gameness and dedication will help him learn to do things right eventually.

So, it sound like his defense will not prove a liability, or at least not enough of one at first to cost him playing time if he can contribute on offense.

What about his speed? There isn’t any need to belabor this. He’s shown remarkable speed throughout his rise through the minor leagues, which has led to staggering the first-Hamiltonian stolen base numbers. And more importantly for our purposes, he has not seen any decline in stolen base success rate as he’s advanced up the minor league chain.

Forgive me for saying the obvious, but all indications are he’ll steal plenty of bases while in the majors comparative to opportunities.

What sort of hitter will he be in the majors? There are a few moving parts here. Let’s look at them individually.

He has no power. Like many speedy hitters, he lays bat on ball and runs. That’s a simple formula for success if you make enough contact and hit the ball hard enough. But it is a thin line between hard enough and not.

Will he make contact? I don’t think we’re able to determine whether any player might find some way to improve. So Hamilton might, but his Contact rate last year in Triple-A was 77 percent, which might be good enough if he can sustain it in the majors for a .265 batting average. If he can hit the ball hard enough enough of the time.

The problem here is that even if he makes contact, if he can’t bust the ball out of the infield he’s not going to get on base enough to take advantage of his speed.

Will he walk? At the lower levels in the minors he walked a decent amount, which helped him get on base, but last year that number dropped to 6.9 percent, which isn’t terrible, but is likely to drop at the major league level unless he figures out how to improve.

And there is another problem. If he’s going to aggressively pursue contact as a hitter, he’s only going to get deep enough into the count if he’s either lighting things up and pitchers nibble, or if the pitcher has no control. The result is, whether he’s succeeding or failing, his walk rate should go down this year, putting upward pressure on hitting the ball hard (or soft) enough to get the slap hits that he’s going to need to succeed.

What about the strikeouts? One discouraging thing about Hamilton’s performances in the minors is a strikeout rate that has hovered around 18 percent. No, it didn’t get worse in Triple-A last year, which is good, but it is potentially problematic facing big league pitchers. If he doesn’t make solid enough contact early in the count he’s going to be vulnerable to falling behind. A similar player who never really succeeded in the majors, Joey Gathright, didn’t strike out nearly as much as Hamilton has in the minors. Again, history isn’t necessarily destiny, but he’s going to have to improve here not to flame.

Can he bunt? Scouting reports don’t reflect well on his abilities to bunt, and the Reds have said he’s going to work hard on that leading into this season. So he’s going to get plenty of practice. Given his rep as a hard worker, improvement is certainly possible, which will definitely help his chances.

So this all comes down to role and at bats. The player we see Hamilton compared to most is Vince Coleman, who was able to use the fast carpet in St. Louis to launch a career that lasted 13 years and led to 752 stolen bases. Coleman’s slash lines for his career were .264/.324/.345, which seems possible for Hamilton. Especially since Hamilton could become a plus defender. Coleman was able to play despite being a poor defender.

So let’s say that if Hamilton hits like Vince he’ll get 600 AB hitting .264. Based on what he did in Triple-A last year and similar players have done as major leaguers, this scenario of success should put him on 90 runs, a few homers, 48 RBI, 40 bases on balls, and 71 stolen bases.

That’s worth $33 in 5×5. It represents the high end of batting average possibilities, I think, and if he hits .265 he should play just about every day.

But let’s say he hits .240. Presumably that would mean he wouldn’t play everyday all year. He would lose his job or evolve into a platoon role. He would still run, stealing 32 bases (or maybe more because of more chances to pinch run). If his other qualitatives remained constant relative to chances, he would earn $16. I’d say this is the midrange of all the possibilities for Hamilton this year.

What if he hit .240 and led off most every day? $27 earnings, which isn’t bad, and this could happen.

The other possibility worth considering is what happens if he pulls a Dee Gordon on us. Three years ago the speedy Gordon was called up and impressed everyone by hitting .304 and stealing 24 bases in 233 plate appearances. He seemed poised to become a baseball and a fantasy baseball star. But in 2012 the hits did not drop the way they had in 2011, and he posted numbers quite a bit like the .240 scenario for Hamilton above. We expected Gordon to get another chance last year, but instead he floundered in Albuquerque, and while he stole 10 bases in 108 PA with the big club, he hit just .234 and nobody expects him to be a regular any longer.

So, what if Hamilton hits .193 and is sent back to the minors after two months? He’ll still earn $8 and steal 20 bases (maybe more if they keep him up as a pinch runner for a while).

The bottom line here is that there are plenty of reasons to think that Hamilton may not live up to the hype this year. In fact, that seems to be the dominant fantasy narrative heading into camp this year. And that’s good smart analysis.

But the other smart analysis notes that he doesn’t have to be that much of a hitter to hold the job in Cincinnati (not much competition at this point to displace him) if he plays decent defense, and if he gets at bats he will get on some, and then he will run and have fantasy value. In the Guide I put him at $13, which seemed fair given the odds that he might wash out early on, but taken in the context of the above scenarios, I’m bumping him to $17. That probably isn’t going to get him, even then, but that’s a fair risk.

And if you construct your team with lots of power and want to make a risky play to add speed, going an extra dollar or two on Hamilton would be an interesting play. A high-risk $20 bid could actually pay off handsomely, possibly.

2014 Multiposition Chart

For years we ran this chart in the Fantasy Baseball Guide, but in recent years we’ve added some advertisers and had to cut some content. The multiposition and profit loss charts seemed to be the best suited for transfer to the web.

The spreadsheet includes all players in the 2014 Guide who had 15 or more games played in 2013 at two or more positions in the majors (in the first chart) or the minors (in the second).

How this works in your league will depend on your rules, but it’s a good place to search out players who have more roster flexibility.

STATLAND is here!

Screen Shot 2013-02-13 at 1.58.42 PMSince the original Fantasy Baseball Guide, in 2000, a section in the back of the book called STATLAND has included Profit and Loss charts and Multiposition Eligibility charts from the preceding year’s play.

This year, when the player profiles were longer than the hole we had to fill them, we decided to move STATLAND online. Here are the charts in a variety of formats.

STATLAND IN EXCEL
Multiposition PDF
2012 Profit-Loss PDF

Statland in Google Docs

The Public Speaks About Defense

The Book crowdsourced defensive ratings are here.  I’m posting as a place holder, planning to compare the various defensive ratings once the Guide goes to the printer.

One note: Eric Thames rates really badly, which might explain why there was no patience with his slump. Delmon Young is rated really badly, which adds cred to this enterprise.

The Mike Napoli Problem

My take on The Worst Trade in the World Ever was that clearly the Angels’ motivation was to get rid of Mike Napoli, who everyone acknowledges is a bad catcher and a somewhat limited hitter against right-handed pitchers. These are not insignificant problems for a player who, though he hits well for a catcher, is not nearly so good for a first baseman or DH.

The Angels also as well as upgrade the aging and unreliable Juan Rivera in the outfield.

This isn’t to excuse the Angels’ side of this. It’s near impossible to imagine that if they had insisted that the Blue Jays throw in, say, $10M (or heck, $25M) along with Vernon Wells for Napoli and Juan Rivera, that the Jays wouldn’t have gone for it. But I think it’s worth noting that Napoli was unlikely to be a positve force this year on the Angels because Mike Scioscia wasn’t going to let him catch, he wasn’t going to displace Kendry Morales at first base, and the Angels needed room for Bobby Abreu and Torii Hunter to DH a fair amount.

The Jays’ subsequent dumping of Napoli on the Rangers is further evidence of that. Johan Keri tries to argue that this is a good trade for both sides, but his reasoning is a little mushy, even if you follow his own argument. It’s really more like a shuffling of resources and money, to which both teams find some appeal.

Napoli’s role on the Rangers, apart from injury, appears to be about 200 AB vs. left-handers while platooning at first base with Mitch Moreland, and an occasional turns behind the plate and at DH. The Rangers signed a catching regular (Yorvit Torrealba) in the offseason, and according to Keri the Rangers’ braintrust likes good defensive catchers (like backup Matt Treanor). With DH filled by Michael Young, there aren’t that many additional at bats to be had for Napoli with the Rangers unless Moreland fails or there is an injury.

But there may well be more than he would have had with the Jays. Not only is Toronto committed to JP Arencibia this year at catcher, but they have Edwin Encarnacion and Adam Lind at 1B and DH. The marginal advantage of Napoli over any of them, especially given his defensive limitations at catcher, was small, and now he’s gone.

The point here isn’t that Napoli is a waste, but rather that despite his admirable and somewhat overlooked offensive skills, as a complete player he clearly isn’t a valued commodity. His poor defense reduces his marginal value substantially at catcher, and he doesn’t hit enough to be a regular first baseman. With a price of somewhere around $5-$6M this year he’s an expensive platoonist versus lefties. It seems the Rangers recognize that and are willing to pay.

So were the Angels, in their own way.

Loving Bill James

David Lederer has done a lot of work indexing the information that is in Bill James’s Baseball Abstracts.

You should read all of David’s summaries of the Abstracts, and you should read all of Bill James, from the Abstracts to after.

I hope you knew that, but if you didn’t, now you do.

David’s summary of Bill James’s last Baseball Abstract is most excellent. A place to start if you don’t know all this stuff, and a place to collect your thoughts if you already do.

BTW, I have probably written about this post multiple times before. Nuff said.

Ps. One of the greatest insights in this piece is Bill James’s notice of how great an influence defense has on pitchers. We’ve all been noticing this the last few years, and major league teams have been acting on this idea, but Bill James pointed it out 22 years ago. Plus, he could write.

Mad Mel and Denis Leary

The very very fine baseball website, baseball-reference.com, posted this clip today, honoring Mel Gibson and his most recent utterances. Gibson is sad, but this will make you laugh.

Get Off My Lawn – Minor League Ball

by John Sickels

John writes one of those tough screeds that sound, about halfway through, like the complaining crap of an old man. But John isn’t nearly as old as he thinks he is, and what he’s writing about is something I hope all of us who care about baseball and stats and the data have already thought about.

The point is that thanks to Pitch FX and the efforts of BIS and MLB and everyone else scoring baseball games,we’re getting a ton more information about every pitch in every major league game. And the automation of this process promises even more in the coming years.

Much of this data, thanks to MLB by the way, is available to everyone, and so it has become a happy sandbox for baseball fans with a fondness for math.

John’s gripe, if you can call it that, is that all these analysts are sorting through the data and ending up with micro conclusions that don’t really mean much to someone watching any particular game.

What I would add is that we know an awful lot about baseball because of the things we’ve learned before this great outpouring of pitch by pitch data. Much of what we learn after all the new data has been processed and tested and used is going to support the observations of those who watched the game closely before all the data was known.

When I’m grumpy I wonder why I’m reading yet another study that confirms what we already knew about this or that baseball situation. But that doesn’t mean those studies aren’t important. We gain the most knowledge by testing everything, each situation and contingency and viewpoint, and then see what shakes out. Confirmation means as much as a fresh idea.

Despite all the noise out there, that’s what’s happening now. John recognizes that, but he’s honest enough to point out that it makes him weary. Me, too.