The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the tag “On-Base Percentage”

Underrated / Overrated: Baseball and Other Stuff – Part IV

The Blues Brothers (film)

Image via Wikipedia

This is the fourth installment of an ad-hoc series called “Baseball, and Other Stuff.”  If you’ve been hanging around here for a while, you know how this works.  If you are just joining us,  settle in.  You’ll get the idea.

Massacre of Elphinstone’s Army
Part of the first Anglo-Afghan War, 1839–1842
Last-stand.jpg
The last stand of the survivors of Her Majesty’s 44th Foot at Gandamak

 

Overrated:  Ryan Howard – Sure, his home run and RBI totals over the past five years have been remarkable.  But, consider, his walk totals have declined steadily over the past five years (108, 107, 81, 75, 59.)  In only two of his seasons has his WAR exceeded 4.0.  By contrast, Albert Pujols‘ LOWEST single season WAR was 5.8.  And Howard has struck out in 27% of his plate appearances, a staggering total.  Finally, only once in the past three years has his on-base percentage touched .360.  At age 30, he has probably seen his best days.

Underrated:  Miguel Cabrera – Has been playing in the shadow of Albert Pujols his whole career.  Otherwise, Cabrera might be considered the greatest player in the game today.  Still only 27-years old, he has already produced seven excellent seasons.  He has driven in over a hundred runs in all but his first half-season, and has only once failed to score over a hundred runs in a year.  His career line is:  .313, .388, .552 with an OPS of .939.  His career OPS+ is 145, good for 45th place all-time, higher than Harmon Killebrew and Eddie Mathews.

Overrated:  Custer’s Last Stand – June, 1876.  Lt. Col. Custer’s entire command was wiped out (268 killed) at the Little Bighorn River, by a combined force of Sioux and Cheyenne warriors.  Within a year, most of the Indians had been forced back onto reservations, were killed, or had fled with Sitting Bull to Canada.

Underrated:  Massacre of Elphinstone’s Army – January, 1842.  Afghanistan (road from Kabul to Jalalabad.)  After an uprising in the city of Kabul, fomented by Akbar Khan, forced the British / Indian troops and camp followers (16,500 strong) out of Kabul, they attempted to reach safety 90 miles away at the British garrison at Jalalabad.  But soon after they set out, the slaughter began.  Near the end, fewer than 40 British regulars of the 44th regiment of foot were all that was left.  Surrounded by Pashtun tribesmen, their surrender was requested, to which a British sergeant reportedly declared, “Not bloody likely.”

Of the original 16,500 men, women and children that evacuated Kabul, only one British medical officer and a few Indian sepoys survived to tell the tale.

Overrated:  Jim “Catfish” Hunter – A colorful character and a tough competitor, but does he really belong in the Hall of Fame?  He did win 20 games or more for five straight seasons, but, excepting win totals, he had just three truly outstanding seasons in his entire career:  1972, ’74, ’75.  He never struck out 200 batters in a season.  He was extremely durable (200+ innings pitched) ten seasons in a row, and he kept his walks to a minimum.  But his career ERA+ was just 105, meaning that taking his career as a whole, he was just 5% better than your average replacement level pitcher.

Underrated:  Pedro Martinez – Will eventually make the Hall of Fame once he becomes eligible, but some writers, perhaps most, will not view Pedro as a first round HOF candidate (as if that matters) because he won just 219 games in his career.  I could be wrong, but I’m guessing that most baseball fans / writers, bloggers, etc., view Pedro as a top 25 all-time pitcher who, unfortunately, didn’t last long enough to make an even greater impression on the minds of the baseball masses.

But let’s take another look at Pedro Martinez’ career.  He was an eight time all-star who won five ERA titles, six WHIP titles, three Cy Young awards (while finishing 2nd twice and third once), whose career WAR of 75.9 is 23rd all-time.

Pedro also posted nine 200 strikeout seasons, including two 300-hundred K seasons.

But those are his LEAST impressive statistics.  Pedro also posted a career WHIP of 1.054 (fifth best ever) and struck out 10.04 batters per nine innings (3rd best ever.)  His strikeouts per walks ratio was 4.15 (3rd best ever.)

Pedro Martinez made 409 career starts, and was defeated just 100 times.  He never lost more than ten games in a season, and he was defeated 1o times in a season just twice in 18 years.  His .687 career win-loss percentage is 6th best all-time.  Pedro struck out 3,154 batters in just 2,827 innings pitched.

Most impressively, however, Pedro Martinez enjoyed his success  in a hitter’s era in mostly friendly hitter’s parks (especially Fenway Park.)  Very few pitchers in baseball history have managed to top an ERA+ (which takes into consideration a pitchers era and home ballpark) of 200.  For the sake of context, Lefty Grove, Bob Gibson and Pete Alexander each reached that plateau just once in their respective careers.  Sandy Koufax, Randy Johnson and Tom Seaver never posted an ERA+ of 200 in any single season.

Christy Mathewson reached that lofty number twice.  Roger Clemens touched that number three times, but two of those years are tainted by alleged PED usage.  Walter Johnson, widely regarded as the best pitcher who ever lived, topped an ERA+ of 200 an astonishing four times.

Pedro Martinez reached that pinnacle five times.

Pedro’s career ERA+ of 154 is pretty damn good.  How good?  Well, since you ask, it’s THE BEST EVER for a starting pitcher.

In other words, folks, from 1997-2003, not only wasn’t there a better pitcher in baseball, but there may never have been a better pitcher in the history of baseball.

Overrated:  The Everley Brothers – Here are some lyrics to their hit single “Cathy’s Clown“, released in 1962:

“When you see me shed a tear, and you know that it’s sincere, Doncha think its kinda sad, that you’re treatin’ me so bad?  Or don’t you care…?

Egad man, grow a spine!

Underrated:  The Blues Brothers:

Overrated:  Dave Winfield – Nice overall life-time numbers, 3,000+ hits, 1,800+ RBI’s, 465 home runs… no one’s saying that he sucked.  And he gets extra points for being tailed by a private investigator at the behest of Herr Steinbrenner in the ’80’s. But his career line of .283, .353, .475 is not spectacular.  Nor is his .827 career OPS, or his OPS+ of 130.  Each of these numbers are rather on the low side for a HOF outfielder.

Underrated:  Jimmy Wynn – Jimmy (Toy Cannon) Wynn broke into the big leagues in 1963 at the age of 21, and retired fifteen-years later at the age of 35.  For most of his career, he played in pitchers’ parks in a heavily dominant pitcher’s era.  Despite these handicaps, Wynn was an offensive force in the N.L.  In 1965, at age 23, Wynn stole 43 bases while being caught just four times.  He also drew 84 walks, scored 90 runs, hit 30 doubles and 22 homers, and logged an OPS+ of 144.

In 1967, despite leading the league in strikeouts, Wynn clubbed 37 homers, drove in 107, scored 102 and stole 16 bases.  In ’68, he led the league in offensive WAR at 7.7.

In 1969, Wynn led the league with a huge total of 148 walks, resulting in a .436 on-base percentage.  He also slammed 33 homers and scored 113 runs.  His .943 OPS was good for sixth in the league.  His OPS+ of 166 was a career high, and was fourth best in the senior circuit.

In 1974, Wynn was traded to the Dodgers, made the All-Star team and finished fifth in the N.L. MVP voting at age 32.  He drew 108 walks, drove in 108 runs, and scored 104 runs.  He slugged 32 homers, and finished with an OPS+ of 151.

In his career, Wynn drew over a hundred walks six times, scored 90 or more runs six times, hit at least 25 homers five times, and posted a career OPS+ of 128, the same as Hall of Famers Mickey Cochrane, Goose Goslin…and Jim Rice.

And, perhaps most ironically, considering Jimmy Wynn is not in the HOF, and Dave Winfield is…

Jimmy Wynn’s career WAR: 59.8.

Dave Winfield’s career WAR: 59.7.

That’s all for today, boys and girls.  As for me, I’m done here until after Christmas, so check back in sometime between Christmas and (overrated) New Year’s. Until then, enjoy the holidays.

Stupid Manager Tricks: Part 1

Baseball may be the most “conservative” of all major sports in the sense that once an idea or a philosophy gains broad acceptance, it is almost impossible to change.  Baseball’s  “Conventional Wisdom” is, at times, venerated as inviolable dogma akin to Holy Scripture.  Woe unto ye heretics who question the value of “Small Ball,” Batting Average, or the Speedy Lead-Off hitter.

If you think I exaggerate, just listen to Tim McCarver or Joe Morgan as they wax eloquent as to why sheer aggressiveness on the base-paths is always preferable to a more calculated, cautious approach by a base-runner.  Or how On-Base Percentage is an overrated stat because where is the value in a slow-footed catcher clogging the bases?

Over time, I’ve compiled a list of what I call, “Stupid Manager Tricks.”  Originally, I was going to include all of them in a single blog-post, but as I began to write about the first item, “The Dubious Value of the Attempted Steal,”  I quickly realized that “Stupid Manager Tricks”  would have to become a series of posts.

Therefore, in this post, I will highlight one common baseball strategy, part of baseball’s Common Wisdom, that I believe needs to be consigned to baseball’s Dust-Bin of History.

The first item, as I’ve already alluded to, is one of the oldest and dearest strategies in baseball history.  I am referring to the The Dubious Value of the Attempted Steal.

The most important word in that short phrase is  Attempted because, of course, some stolen base attempts result in the base-runner being thrown out, thereby, in many cases, short-circuiting an otherwise promising scoring opportunity.

It has long been surmised that stolen base attempts rise and fall with the era in which they occur.  For example, the assumption is that base-stealing was a more significant part of the game in the Dead Ball era, and then again in the late 1960’s-early ’70’s, when runs were more difficult to come by.

Surprisingly, however, according to baseballanylists.com, there has been no distinct pattern between run scoring and stolen base attempts when comparing one era to another over time.

In fact, they concluded that, “baseball teams have behaved irrationally with their base-stealing strategies throughout history…  It seems that steals have not been based on the actual value of the steal.”

They cite “mere fashion” as one reason teams decide to run more in one era as opposed to another one.

Last season, Phillies second-baseman Chase Utley stole 23 bases without getting caught once.  In effect, he turned 23 singles into doubles.  Think about that for a moment.  Does that mean that Utley’s overriding strategy once he reached first base was to automatically try to steal second base?  No, it doesn’t.  How do we know that?  Because Utley reached first base a lot more than 23 times last season, yet he attempted only 23 stolen bases.

Now, not all that many years ago, playing in Joe Morgan’s 1970’s National League, Utley would have been considered less aggressive (negative connotations) on the base-paths compared to a player like Frank Taveras of the Pittsburgh Pirates who stole 46 bases in 1978, but was caught stealing 25 times.

In his day, Taveras was often lauded as an aggressive base-runner who put pressure on the opposing team’s pitcher, a player you would place at the top of the batting order to take better advantage of his speed and base-stealing capabilities.

Yet, despite those 46 stolen bases, Taveras managed to score just 81 runs in 702 plate appearances despite the fact that the Pirates, featuring Willie Stargell, Dave Parker, Al Oliver, etc., were one of the premier run-scoring teams in the National League in 1978.

That’s what happens when your “Table Setter” also comes equipped with a .313 on-base percentage.

Meanwhile, Chase Utley, whose on-base percentage was .397 last season, scored 112 runs last season in 687 plate appearances.

Utley is perhaps not as fast or as “aggressive” as Taveras, but he was certainly a better base-stealer, and a much more effective run producer.

And, in the end, isn’t producing runs, (as opposed to merely stealing bases), the reason why any particular player goes up to home-plate, bat in hand, in the first place?

Taveras’ over-aggressiveness, a fatal flaw for the Pirates in 1978 when they finished in second place to the Phillies in the N.L. East, resulted in an extra 25 outs for his team, with little obvious correlation of value-added runs scored as a result.

In other words, it is quite possible that Taveras would’ve scored 81 runs, perhaps a few more, even if he had never attempted a single stolen base that season.

Some stat-heads have calculated that a successful stolen base results in an extra .17-.20 runs scored for the base-runner and his team per steal.  This means that if a base-runner successfully steals 40 bases, he might be adding an additional eight runs scored for his team over the course of an entire season.

Meanwhile, it has also been calculated by statisticians far more competent than I that each caught-stealing costs a team about .50-.60 runs apiece.

Therefore, Taveras’ 46 steals may have resulted in an extra 9 runs scored over the course of his 1978 season.  But his 25 caught steals cost his team about 13 runs.  So, in effect, Taveras aggressive base-running actually cost the Pirates a net total of four runs over the course of the season.

In fact, between 1977-78, the Pirates had several base-runners who ended up costing their team numerous runs over the course of those two seasons.  Here are some numbers showing steals / attempted steals:

1977:  D. Parker – 17/36, A. Oliver – 13/29, E. Ott – 7/14, R. Stennett – 28/46.

1978:  B. Robinson – 14/25, P. Garner – 27/41, F. Taveras – 46/71.

The combined totals for those two seasons by these seven players are 152 steals in 262 attempts, a 58% success rate.  If you calculate the theoretical runs gained from successful steals vs. the runs lost from caught stealing, you end up with, conservatively, a net loss of about 100 runs over the two seasons.

In other words, if the Pirates didn’t attempt a single stolen base in either 1977 or ’78, they would have been better off as a team.  In ’77, they finished in second place, 5 games behind the Phillies.  In ’78, they once again finished in second place behind the Phils, only 1.5 games out of first.

It is entirely possible, then, that the Pirates ran themselves out of at least one, perhaps two, division titles.

So what’s a manager to do?  Should he shun stolen bases entirely as an effective offensive weapon in his arsenal?  Of course not.  In fact, evidence compiled over the past several seasons suggests that many of today’s managers are using the stolen base as a discretionary, tactical weapon in carefully chosen, particular circumstances.

In fact, stolen base success rates are at an all-time high, approaching 78-79 percent over the past few years.

Shouldn’t managers, then, become more aggressive with the running game now that base-stealing success rates are soaring?

Of course not.  If today’s Mets, for example, began to run as frequently as the ’78-’79 Pirates, there is no reason to think they would gain any additional strategic advantage over their opponents.

It is likely, then, that we are now at a point in the evolution of baseball strategy that base-stealing today is now at a near-perfect balance between what can reasonably be gained, and lost, by the current, cumulative number of stolen-base attempts in any given season.

There is nothing wrong with aggressiveness in baseball.  All things being equal, who wouldn’t enjoy having a Jackie Robinson on their team?  And speed on the base-paths is certainly important.  Having a base-runner who is capable of moving from first to third base on a single, or who can score from second base on a base-hit, is always an unquestionable asset.

But the term, “aggressive baseball,” used without a qualifying context, is not the same as intelligent baseball.  In fact, as we have seen with the example of the Pirates of the 1970’s, it can be quite the opposite.

Which is why the often over-used, under-analyzed value of the “aggressive” Attempted Steal, an example of baseball’s unwise Conventional Wisdom, is a primary example of a Stupid Manager Trick.

Now, if only more of baseball’s T.V. “Analysts” would see it that way…

Next up on Stupid Manager Tricks:  The Almost Always Pointless Sacrifice Bunt.

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