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The Beyond the Box Score mailbag

Three writers from the Beyond the Box Score staff answer reader questions about their favorite offensive and defensive statistics, rotation optimization, and their least favorite transaction of the offseason, among other topics.

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The first actual baseball game of the season takes place next Saturday (that's right, next Saturday!), and the full season kick-off is just another week after that. We received more reader questions for our mailbag throughout the week, and three of us writers at Beyond the Box Score have provided you with answers. We hope you enjoy, and be sure to send us in your questions next time around!

Now onto this week's questions:

Is there a good place to find specific pitcher-catcher matchup data? I’m doing research on pitch framing and would like to find out how many innings a catcher caught a specific pitcher.

Neil: Not one of my specialties. I can think of a couple of non-public places to find this data, but as far as publicly available stuff, your best bet is one of the database sites that pulls from MLB Advanced Media. Baseball Savant has pitcher and catcher data, but I'm not sure if it's synced up the way you'd like.

Stuart: I don't know if anyone has the data—most people have their own databases that they populate with Retrosheet or Gameday data that they use.

Otherwise, you can look at game logs from Baseball Reference or FanGraphs.

Alex: I’m with both Neil and Stuart. I don’t know of any specific place that has specific pitcher-catcher matchup data. Baseball Savant will have some of what you’re looking for and the site’s creator (@darenw) is always willing to help or hear about new ideas.

What is your one go-to stat to measure overall offensive contribution? -OmahaHi

Neil: If you're forcing me to pick one, wRC+. I prefer rate stats to counting stats, and there's no reason not to park and league adjust when you're not looking to do any of the calculations yourself.

Stuart: wOBA

Alex: There are any number of go-to offensive stats, but I’d say wRC+ is my favorite. wRC+ measures how many runs a batter has created relative to league average (which is 100) and is also park and league-adjusted, which is crucial in measuring any player’s offensive performance. Miguel Cabrera led the majors in wRC+ last season at 192, meaning he created 92% more runs than league average. The glossary over at FanGraphs has a good, concise write-up on wRC+ that I suggest checking out.

Do you think WAR is good for head-to-head comparisons? -JimXavier

Neil: Between players? Definitely. The key with WAR is to understand the built in uncertainty. A 4.5-WAR player and a 4.4-WAR player are virtually the same. A 4.5-WAR player and a 3.0-WAR players are very different. If I want to compare players, my eye starts at WAR and looks backward. You want to know plate appearances, then you want to know their positions, then their defensive and baserunning ratings, then how their offense is aligned.

Stuart: It depends, but I lean towards no. You can get a cursory idea of whether two players are worthy of comparison, but the way in which players can accumulate WAR can be so drastically different that using WAR to do more fine grain comparisons probably isn't the best bet.

Alex: I think comparing players using WAR can be worthwhile in determining just how valuable each player has been. It’s a cumulative stat, so a player’s WAR is dependent upon how much playing time they’ve had, and isn’t always as telling as some of the rate stats out there. WAR should be just one piece of the puzzle you use when analyzing and comparing players, though it is probably the best statistic out there in determining a player’s overall value from both an offensive and defensive perspective.

What defensive stat do you use the most and why?

Neil: I use UZR and DRS pretty evenly if I'm actually digging into defense, but I lean on UZR more often when I'm thinking about overall value because I prefer FanGraphs' version of WAR, so that's already built in. I don't really think one is better than the other and pretty much always cite both if I'm trying to make a serious point about defense.

Stuart: I use a combination of DRS, UZR/150, and RZR. I use RZR as a first pass since it's an older, less detailed stat, but it's a great start to better understand where and why DRZ and UZR/150 agree and disagree with one another.

Alex: Defense is tricky, and even the more advanced defensive metrics out there still have limitations when used for even a season’s worth of games. With that said, I generally use both Defensive Runs Saved and UZR when evaluating a player’s defense. FanGraphs just added Inside Edge fielding data, which is similar in process to DRS, and I’m looking forward to seeing some of that data as the 2014 season gets going.

Would baseball be more or less fun to watch with 20-man active rosters? What about 30-man? -Neil Weinberg

Neil: I think 20-man rosters would be amazing. You'd probably have shorter careers and more injuries, but I love the idea of having a set of players who have to pitch and play a position regularly. And while I appreciate the value of situational relievers, the idea of having limited pitching changes would really make having good relievers valuable. I think 30 would improve the "actual" quality of play because you could really optimize your matchups, but it would probably get tedious.

Stuart: It depends on where you derive your fun in watching. It would probably be great for those who like pitching, and homers would (I assume) drop from what we see today, but it would also mean fewer human interest stories. I could also see smaller rosters making the game go a little quicker and also making the college game a different beast altogether.

Alex: Twenty-man active rosters is a fun idea, especially if it would lead to more players being used as both hitters and pitchers. I think it would also make team- and organization-wide depth more important, as I imagine we’d see more injuries (or, at least, their impact would be felt more). As for 30-man rosters, I’m not a big fan of the idea. When the rosters expand to 40 spots every September, it’s always a bit superfluous, and I can’t see much of a benefit from teams having 30-man rosters.

A lot of attention is paid to lineup optimization. Could there also be rotation optimization? The popular placing of pitchers is from best to worst, as the staff ace will get the most starts, the No. 2 guy gets the second-most and so on. Is there an alternate way to get the most out of a rotation? As an example, the Jays current rotation has R.A. Dickey first, but there was an article a while back that showed the pitcher who started after Dickey fared better than normal. Would it make sense to put him in front of the team’s weakest pitcher, in this case, before the No. 4 or No. 5 pitchers? -Daryl

Neil: I'm doing this off the top of my head, so if someone actually wanted to run these numbers I might end up being wrong, but I think the advantage would translate evenly. So the benefit to the No. 2 is the same as the benefit to the No.5 on average with respect to how much it helps the team win. I know some managers talk about trying to alternate the looks an opposing team gets, but I don't really think rotation order matters outside of which pitcher gets the most starts. Maybe there is a small advantage, but I can't imagine you could find it among the noise.

Stuart: Yes, there is rotation optimization in various flavors, some of which could be seen last year with the Rockies and in the Astros minor league system, and also in the college game. Like so many other things in the game, there is a large amount of backlash over doing things that require significant paradigm shifts and wholesale changes from what have been done the last century or so, so a lot of what could be possibly gained might never make the light of day in a consistent fashion, sadly. Add in the psyche of players and the reality that wins, homers, saves, and other tangible stats are what drive contract negotiations, and anything that might affect those numbers come contract time is not going to be embraced, unless it gives a player more wins, homers, and saves.

Alex: I’ve never felt the order of a team’s rotation matters much. It seems every April that some people make a big deal about it, but the order ultimately gets jumbled six weeks into the season, and it doesn’t much matter if a pitcher is in the No. 3 or No. 5 spot in the rotation once that happens. You would, of course, want your best pitchers making the most starts, but by the end of the season, I think it all evens out for the most part.

From a different perspective, some teams (like the Rockies and the Astros’ minor league affiliates) have tried four-man rotations with piggyback starters, which is an idea with some merit. The current five-man system isn’t efficient, and often starters are throwing innings later in games long after they’ve lost their peak effectiveness. It wouldn’t surprise me to see a team in the near future (and again, I’d bet it’s the Astros) try to limit the workload of their starters and use a few long men out of the bullpen in an attempt to maximize the quality of their innings pitched.

With the reluctance many teams have shown in giving up a draft pick to sign a free agent the past two offseasons, is it fair to say that MLB teams are overvaluing draft picks now? -Sam Kelton

Neil: I wouldn't draw that conclusion based on your premise. All we know is that teams factor the draft pick lost into their calculations. For example, Ubaldo Jimenez signed for 4/50, plus the draft pick and everything that goes along with it. All we know is that the Orioles would have paid more if the compensation wasn't attached. And they should, right? You may think a pick is worth $5 million, but they value it at $9 million. You both place some value on it, but disagree about the number. I think fans tend to assume team valuations are too high here because teams think much more about future value than fans do. That's not a criticism, but fans look at the bust rate of prospects and teams look at the success rate. Both are empirical facts, but they frame the conversation differently.

Alex: Teams are certainly factoring in draft pick compensation in their decision-making process, and it would be interesting to see what monetary value different teams have for draft picks. I do think teams are perhaps overvaluing the importance of a draft pick over the fairly predictable production they can receive from major league players in free agency. However, it’s more a matter of teams committing to staying financially flexible and sustainable over the long haul instead of spending all their money on free-agent contracts, which is far less efficient. That, I think, is what has changed most about MLB spending habits in recent years.

What was your least favorite transaction this offseason? -Martin Adams

Neil: Tigers trading Doug Fister, by a Giancarlo Stanton-sized home run. I got asked this question on the radio on Wednesday, and I realized that there were very few moves I really didn't like this year. Lots of nice ones, plenty of decent moves, but only a few I really didn't like.

Stuart: WIllie Bloomquist to the Mariners. Too many years for too much money for a guy who won't hit and isn't very good defensively at any of the positions he plays. He is also fairly injury prone these days. Add to it that he might take away playing time from Nick Franklin, and it makes even less sense.

Alex: My least favorite transaction was probably a move that never ended up happening. I still don’t understand how the Angels think they can compete with their pitching staff, and while they did add Tyler Skaggs and Hector Santiago via trade, neither of those two are the type of impact arms the Angels rotation could use. Their roster is set up to win right now, and by not investing in a better pitching staff, I think they have cost themselves again this season.

There are a ton of different projections systems out there and they often view players differently. Do you have a favorite projection system? And how do you use them for analysis? -Chris Morriseau

Neil: I like ZiPS and Steamer, and I tend to use Steamer a little more because it works harder at figuring out actual playing time. I like that FanGraphs uses both and then does their own (usually well-vetted, but sometimes funky) playing time estimates. The boring answer is to tell you to use all of them with skepticism and to understand that they only report the mean value. So saying a guy is going to have a .330 wOBA means there's a 50 percent chance it's higher, and the shape of the distribution could be such that a wide range of outcomes is really likely. Projections are a good way to start an analysis, but I don't like to lean on them for overly specific purposes.

Alex: I try to look at a few different projection systems and Steamer, Pecota, and ZIPS are among my favorites. It’s always hard to predict playing time, which I think is one drawback, but they generally do a good job of providing a realistic and objective prediction of a player’s future performance. I don’t lean on them too heavily for analysis (they’re always good to keep in mind as a measuring stick of your own opinions), unless I’m determining why one system has a different view of a player than another.

Special thanks to Neil Weinberg (@NeilWeinberg44) and Stuart Wallace (@TClippardsSpecs) for lending their opinions and analysis, and thank you to our readers for sending their questions in.

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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.