With spring training getting underway in Arizona and Florida this month, we at Beyond the Box Score felt it was a good time to start up a new mailbag. Last Friday, we asked for your baseball-related questions and received some good ones in response. Then, three of our writers took turns lending their opinions on each topic. We hope you'll enjoy the new mailbag, and we plan on doing more throughout the season ahead, so send us in your questions for future mailbags!
Now let's get started!
What MLB organizations do you perceive as being the most analytically inclined? What about the least?
Alex: We don’t know exactly what goes on behind closed doors in MLB front offices, but from my perspective, the most analytically inclined organizations are the teams we always hear about—the Rays and A’s, and perhaps to a slightly lesser extent, the Red Sox, Cubs, and Cardinals. I would point out that being analytically inclined in this case doesn’t preclude strong scouting and player development programs. These five teams also have arguably the best scouting and player dev departments in MLB. In terms of the least analytically inclined, I would pick the Phillies (surprise!), Twins, and Giants, but there are probably others you could throw into the mix as well.
Neil: This is just my perception, so the reality could be quite different, but I'd put the Rays, A's, Astros at the top of the list with the Red Sox, Cardinals, and Cubs nearby. On the low end, I'd include the Phillies, Royals, Rockies, and Mariners. I'm basing this on some contact with front office staff, but it's mostly public image and that isn't always accurate.
Scott: I'm not even going to try to pick most, it's too difficult. Up until 2013 I might have placed the White Sox among the least as they signed older one-dimensional players at the risk of developing new talent, but with Rick Hahn that's no longer true. It's also very difficult to tease out "analytically inclined" from "blessed with really high draft picks over a period of years" like Tampa Bay or Washington.
Say you are an alien who has a perfect understanding of the rules of baseball, but absolutely no knowledge of any statistics that are used, nor the way that events/players/teams are measured or evaluated (other than numbers used during the game itself, i.e. strikes/balls/outs/score). How would you keep track of the events of a game? How would you evaluate players? Basically, you’re building baseball statistics from ground zero; where do you start?
Alex: This is a fun question. I would probably start with a similar process to what baseball writer F.C. Lane used back around the World War I era. For those unaware of Lane’s work, he basically invented a rudimentary version of wOBA by pointing out that not all hits are equal (and criticized batting average in the process). A double is obviously worth more than a single, a triple more than a double, and so on. So in short, I would seek to measure not just how frequently a hitter gets a hit, but also the quality of his hits. For pitchers, I would probably begin with a similar process, measuring not only the amount of hits and runs they give up, but the quality of the hits they give up. In other words, I’d measure how many extra-base hits and home runs each pitcher gives up. From there, of course, we could get into some more complex topics, but I think that would be a good starting point.
Neil: For hitters, you'd want to focus on what leads to scoring runs and would probably think about their contribution to the odds of scoring a run - maybe something like wOBA or RE24, but it's hard to get to those specific measures without inventing a whole host of other things along the way. Defensively, you'd be working on a UZR type number. How good is a player at making a play relative to his peers. For pitchers, you'd probably think about measuring the frequency of each outcome; strikeouts, walks, balls in play, etc. It's a hard question because pretending you don't know *anything* is tough. Need to focus on run scoring and run prevention and work out from there, but you might start with more fundamental data like quality of contact, etc.
Scott: Runs scored, runs allowed. It's good enough for Pythagorean Runs and we have a tendency to obfuscate instead of illuminate (like I just did here) with our advanced metrics. Keep it simple and build upon the basic building blocks of runs and run prevention.
If you were an owner, who would be your first pick for GM (assuming everyone is available)? Who would be your last?
Alex: Well the last will be no secret to readers—Ruben Amaro. As for my first choice, a number of GMs stick out, but I would probably go with John Mozeliak of the Cardinals.
Neil: Current GM's? I'd take Friedman and pass on Amaro.
Scott: Theo Epstein if he'll take the demotion because as a biased Cubs fan I think they're on the precipice of sustained success. Either that or an extended run of failure, but I know how to manage that... I know the Mariners have money but that doesn't mean they're required to throw money at middle-aged middle infielders when they have many other needs. As such, Jack Zduriencik would probably be my last choice.
What is your preferred method of measuring a reliever’s probability of repeating their success?
Alex: Relievers are a quirky breed, often dominating one year and struggling the next. In a lot of ways, I like to keep things simple when analyzing them, and I think a pitcher’s strikeout and walk rates are a pretty good indicator in telling if relievers will continue their performances into the future. Another fun way to measure relievers (and one that provides some context given a large enough sample size) is WPA. Since relievers often come into the game in high leverage spots, their WPA gives a pretty good picture of how well they’ve performed their duties, and in a way, what we can expect from them moving forward. Our own Bryan Grosnick wrote about WPA earlier in the offseason and mentioned how it can be useful in analyzing a reliever’s performance.
Neil: Quality of mechanics, command, and repertoire. Relievers are so difficult to predict, so I'd want to try and get a sense of their injury potential and then decide what kind of ability they have. I'm not really sure you can use statistics very successfully here because relievers change so much over the years that by the time you have a good sample, it no longer reflects the pitcher you're projecting. I guess my preferred method is to just assume they're all going to fail very soon.
Scott: I've found getting a Mariano Rivera or Craig Kimbrel to be an excellent method. Unfortunately, that's about how often teams can count on sustained excellence.
What is your most underrated signing of the offseason?
Alex: There are a lot to choose from, but off the top of my head Dan Haren’s deal looks good from a pitcher’s perspective, and the Phil Hughes contract could look great if he can solve his home run problems away from Yankee Stadium. The Royals got a nice deal with Omar Infante as well, and in the context of other reliever deals, Boston’s signing of Edward Mujica looks pretty good.
Neil: I really liked the Josh Johnson move. Dan Haren too. Uribe, Infante, DeJesus, Maholm, and Ellis all come to mind. Johnson was my favorite "value" move, but the Infante one is probably the most underrated.
Scott: A couple of middle-aged middle infielders not named Robinson Cano. Omar Infante for the Royals is a massive upgrade over Chris Getz (so would Rogers Hornsby, and he's been dead for 50+ years). For a team as close as the Royals, Infante can be the push they need to make the playoffs. Well, that and a third baseman... Jhonny Peralta signing with the Cardinals is a huge upgrade over Pete Kozma (so would...wait, I already used that one). The Cardinals put three to four players on their 40-man roster that aren't home-grown just to show they can do it, and Peralta can be the transition until the next Cardinal shortstop develops.
It seems strange the Dodgers have spent so much money on their roster, but are going into the season depending upon Alexander Guerrero to play second base. I know Yasiel Puig did great coming straight from Cuba last season, but can we really expect the same from Guerrero?
Alex: The Dodgers’ second base situation is certainly tenuous. Puig surpassed all expectations in 2013, but by all accounts, Guerrero is no Puig. It’s odd they didn’t just bring Mark Ellis back, who is a pretty dependable option (especially in a platoon role) and would have given Guerrero some time to get acclimated. I imagine the Dodgers will need an upgrade over at second before the season is over.
Neil: I couldn't believe they didn't pick up Ellis' option. They might be high on Guerrero, but Ellis was clearly okay with a shared role (like the one he has in St. Louis), so why not keep him around? You can't sign a Cano or Infante as insurance, but you could sign Ellis or Punto.
Scott: Predicting Cuban talent is close to impossible--you can get Yoenis Cespedes or Yasiel Puig or you can get Adeiny Hechavarria and you do Not. Want. That. Baseball Prospectus 2014 writes, "Guerrero has been one of the best hitters in Cuban baseball for the past four seasons." He's signed for four years and $28 million and won't have to carry the Dodgers on his shoulders. He probably won't burst onto the scene like Puig did, but it will probably be quite some time before someone does, and he certainly has the chance to be a solid contributor and make the Dodgers even that much tougher.
I was reading some old Sports Illustrated articles, and in one where they compared Sadaharu Oh’s home run record to his American contemporaries, they always added the caveat that he used a compressed bat. What is a compressed bat?
Alex: I can’t say any of us are experts on this topic, but I did find an old article in the New York Times explaining how compressed bats are harder and denser than the bats used in the major leagues, and therefore, allow players to hit the ball harder and farther. For what it’s worth, compressed bats are outlawed in MLB. If anyone has any other info on this topic, feel free to leave a comment in the comments section.
Any baseball books recommendations with the season ahead and all?
Alex: There are a ton of great baseball books out there, and I’d recommend checking out the link Neil shared—it has a whole bunch of great books listed. Right now, I’m in the middle of Dollar Sign on the Muscle by Kevin Kerrane, a famous book about baseball scouting, which Baseball Prospectus recently re-published. Thus far it’s as good as advertised and anyone can purchase it here if interested.
Neil: Tons. We actually crowdsourced a list of the best baseball books. "The Art of Fielding" is great baseball fiction. "Heart of the Game" is wonderful, but heartbreaking. "56" is extremely well done. You can't really go wrong here.
Scott: Something old, something new. New is Baseball Prospectus 2014, an extremely comprehensive analysis of not just the stars but top-tier minor leaguers as well. The old is the New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (2002), which is just as timely today in the manner in which James doesn't just discuss advanced baseball metrics but explains why they're important.
How good of a hitter would Clayton Kershaw need to be for you to play him in LF on days he wasn't pitching given that he'd be more fatigued and more likely to suffer injury?
Alex: Fun question that comes with two caveats: 1) Kershaw is the best pitcher in baseball making any potential injury he might suffer that much worse and 2) The Dodgers have a highly crowded outfield already. Aside from that, I imagine Kershaw would have to be a superstar approaching Trout-ian levels for the Dodgers to try this, though he did basically single-handedly win a game for them last year by pitching a shutout and hitting a home run. It would be interesting to see a team try this with a pitcher who isn’t quite so valuable, though even then, the pitcher would have to be pretty clearly worth one or two wins for this to work.
Neil: Let's assume league average defense and baserunning and we'll pretend his opt out doesn't exist. I think he'd have to be a superstar for this to actually happen because teams are really afraid to try something this crazy, but if he could hit like a league average left fielder, I would almost want to try it. Imagine the roster flexibility! You're adding 2 WAR to his yearly totals, and I have a hard time imagining the fatigue penalty would exceed that. He's more likely to get hurt, but being a pitcher is such a hazard already. I'd love to see a two-way player in the pros.
Scott: So many ways to go, I'll take the easy way out—if Matt Kemp is healthy (and that is one big if) there are four outfielders for three positions with Carl Crawford, Andre Ethier and Yasiel Puig. In this era of ascendant pitching I would do nothing to risk the person on the short list for best pitcher in baseball.
How many stolen bases do you think Billy Hamilton gets this season?
Alex: I hope Hamilton can hold down a starting job so we can see him really rack up the steals. He stole 13 bases in 13 games last year despite only making three starts. I’ll go with 72 steals assuming the on-base concerns don’t prevent him from being a full-time player.
Neil: I think he'll have one steal for every seven plate appearances, plus anything he gets as a pinch runner. Let's call that 75 or so.
Scott: Baseball Prospectus 2014 projects Hamilton with 250 plate appearances and 38 stolen bases—only two players, Willie Wilson for the Royals in 1978 and Alex Cole for the Indians in 1990, have had so many stolen bases in so few PA. Hamilton's problem will be two-fold: 1.) Getting on the field, because 2.) He has problems getting on base. I'll go under on the BP projection, I'm not sure he'll produce enough offense to stay in a lineup in what should still be a competitive NL Central.
Special thanks to Neil Weinberg (@NeilWeinberg44) and Scott Lindholm (@ScottLindholm) for lending their opinions and analysis.
Thanks also to @WallyWill5, @cdmorisseau, @MattR_Hunter, @MLBPlayerAnalys, Neil, and others for sending in their questions. We hope we did them justice with our answers.
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Alex Skillin is a writer and editor at Beyond the Box Score and also contributes to SB Nation's MLB newsdesk. He writes, mostly about baseball and basketball, at a few other places across the Internet. You can follow him on Twitter at @AlexSkillin.