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Daily Box Score 8/5: What Sabermetrics Has to Teach Managers

Much of what goes on at Beyond the Boxscore is advising general managers on how they should do their jobs. After all, it's fun, and since there are teeming throngs of people who would love to take (just to pick a random example) Omar Minaya's job, the GMs don't really have much say in the matter. With the advent of Sky's trade value calculator, it seems that the monday-morning GMing has reached new highs. To be sure, sabermetricians have words of advice for others, including baseball writers (vote Tim Raines). But today, I would like to focus on what sabermetricians have to offer managers.

We'll start with a question that is not entirely intuitive: which current player should you be most afraid of stealing third base? You might be inclined to guess the most prolific basestealers, and that would get you in the ballpark. But is there a specific skill to stealing third as opposed to stealing second?

At Hardball Cooperative, Thom Henninger makes the case for Brian Roberts. Using two tables (an excellent reminder that tables can be as illustrative as graphs), he demonstrates that Roberts is both the most prolific and the most successful stealer of third base (2005-2009). Roberts is 11-11 in steals of third and 20-26 in overall steals this season. I would add that Roberts spends a great deal time at second base, and therefore has a large number of opportunities. Since 2005, he has hit 210 doubles (his mark of 38 this season leads the AL). Can you think of a runner an opposing manager would less like to see on second base?

How about pinch hitters? The question of whether a "pinch-hitter" skill exists is a commonly discussed one in sabermetric circles. Recently, the Florida Sun-Sentinel argues that Wes Helms is uniquely well-suited to pinch hitting. Juan C. Rodriguez writes:

As much as it might seem Wes Helms was born to pinch hit — and even he admits that's what it feels like he was put in this game to do — Helms was made a pinch hitter.

Sure, there's plenty of intrinsic talent involved. Make no mistake, Helms is six pinch hits shy of eclipsing Alex Arias for the all-time Marlins record and owns the highest average among the game's top active pinch hitters because he learned how to do it.

The article takes the idea of intrinsic skill as a given. "Don't make me whip out my copy of The Book," I thought as I read the article. Because I'll do it. 

The Book Says:

A player is significantly less effective as a pinch hitter than he is as a starter. All players show a comparable decline in effectiveness; in other words, there is no such thing as a pinch hitting specialist. ...

Call it TINSTAAPHS. That said, Helms has in fact performed well, tallying a career .289/.362/.474 line as a pinch hitter (vs. .263/.322/.420 overall). That does not imply a greater innate ability on Helms' part, however.

What about a relatively recent trend in managing: calling for the shift, particularly against left-handed sluggers. How effective is it? Using HITf/x data (which unfortunately forces him to omit lefties), Jonathan Hale took at look at spray patterns versus various pitch types. He finds the shift to be effective in same-handedness matchups, but surprisingly a reverse shift to be effective against opposite-handedness matchups. Also, Hale finds the shift loses its effectiveness with a sinkerballer on the mound. I recommend the whole thing, which includes numerous heat maps. I've always thought the shift was more effective against fly-ball power hitters, but it sounds like we need to wait for more HITf/x data to answer that particular question.

One situation where the manager often has direct control over how a hitter behaves in the batter's box is when the batter is facing a 3-0 count. Some batters, it is said in these situations, have a green light. That is to say, the manager allows them to use their own judgment, and at times swing away, when faced with a 3-0 count. Other players do not have the green light. So which is more effective? Baseball Prospectus intern (score one for the little guys) Daniel Malkiel takes a look:

This analysis seems to support the conventional wisdom: overall, it is better to take on 3-0. The difference, however, is not as big as I expected; indeed, one can think of many situations where giving a hitter the green light will increase run expectation. There’s also a game-theoretic argument for the green light [...] By adopting the mixed strategy of swinging on occasion, a hitter might get the best of both worlds: more walks and some easy extra-base hits.

The game theoretic aspect of these situations always seemed under-emphasized in my book. Considering that, as Malkiel shows, Luis Castillo never swings on a 3-0 count, it's not surprising that his career OBP exceeds his career SLG.

Let's play Terry Francona for a second. You've got future Hall of Famer John Smoltz toeing the rubber for you every fifth day, but he has struggled so far. His 7.12 ERA is out of line with his 4.31 tRA, but his fastball has been hit hard and you've got other options biding their time. How long do you trust the peripherals before you throw in the towel on the 42 year-old? Writing in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Mark Bradley argues it should be sooner rather than later. Of course, he relies on ESPN's Inside Edge, which is fraught with sample size issues. So what say you, o wise crowd?

How about pitching coaches? What should they be whispering in the ears of their prized wards? FreeZorilla at DRaysBay has noticed that the Rays' rotation has been throwing fewer fastballs and changeups, and more breaking balls. The results, however, have been mixed as the secondary offerings have gotten more exposure. As he puts it:

For a team that has the reputation of everything building off the fastball, there seems to have been a shift away from fastball and change usage this season in favor of curves and cutters. I don't know what this means for the long term, but the short term results indicate that there just may be some truth to the basic fastball/change mantra.

That reminds me of the greatest Jeff Goldblum film quote of all time:

Hello? I forgot my mantra.

And it went uncredited. Such a shame. 

On a lighter note, test your wits with a baseball card quiz, courtesy of Mental Floss. I'll warn you, though, it's a doozy.