Sunday, May 20, 2012

Quarter Pounded: WYSIATI

I don't have time for any exhaustive review of the first quarter of the season. But if you want answers, simple and painful, they can be distilled into two charts. You must click to see the full charts.

The first examines Red Sox starting pitching. Forget about no Daisuke or Lackey and focus on what is here. First, the Sox are next to last in ERA. They have allowed almost a run more than the league average. Granted the defense is worse than advertised. But look at the best predictor of future ERA, K/BB ratio. With the league average at over 2, the Red Sox are about 1.66 to 1. This also implies that Toronto is living on borrowed time with their staff.

Within the team, you can see where the problems have been, specifically Daniel Bard and Clay Buchholz. Both BARELY exceed parity (1:1) on K/BB. It's easy to understand the K/BB ratio as a ratio examining power and command. So as much as the apologistas want to blame injuries to Ellsbury, Crawford, and Youkilis for the Sox mediocrity, that's not fair. The bullpen has really stepped up, but the front of the staff has underachieved...and the Sox internal best predictor (K/BB) speaks volumes.

WYSIATI. What you see is all there is. So if you want to hate on Bobby Valentine, fine. But he doesn't pitch.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Men in Black

They call it 'professional baseball', the major leagues, 'the show'. Unfortunately, our lying eyes tell us that, despite efforts to standardize umpiring, MLB is falling short.

In the video above, you see Brett Lawrie "lose it", en route to EARNING a four game suspension. The umpire, Bill Miller, has received neither sanction nor public reprimand for his role. Clearly, Lawrie overreacted, but Miller gives the appearance of injecting himself into the action, quite probably retaliating against the volatile Blue Jays third baseman.

MLB, while celebrating the human element (making bad calls is evidently integral in baseball), has introduced boundary call replays, precisely because umpires (like all of us), make mistakes and fans (aided by replays) demand a higher standard.

Every MLB stadium has a tool, Pitch FX, designed to analyze pitch location, speed, type, and more, but becomes a tool to study both player and umpire performance. Not surprisingly, the performance varies...but it does allow objective umpire performance assessment.

Here's the multiyear card for Joe West, not the highest regarded umpire by many. You can see his accuracy rate (hits and misses).

Miller's card looks better, although there's no comparative statistical analysis.
But if you have the ability (generally) to make the right call, why not swallow your pride, act like a professional, and do your job?

My sense, watching games, is that the umpiring consistency on balls and strikes has gotten worse. What do you think?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Put the Blame Where It Belongs

Here's the problem, Sox fans. We care too much. Walking around time in your Fenway tees and Red Sox caps, we're billboards for sorry obsession.

Sure, you love baseball in the fashion of Bart Giamatti and Bob Costas, the smell of green grass and money in the air.

Maybe you should pause to reflect upon what Giamatti actually said, “[Baseball] breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall all alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.” 

In other words, what we're feeling is normal.

Really, why should we care, when the feeling isn't mutual or at least universal. Sure, players bask in the reflected glory and wonderful compensation a child's game affords them. Why not? But, they have other concerns too, families missing them on road trips, finding the right investment manager, how to lever up endorsements, and of course, their golf handicap. As Ned Martin would have said, "mercy".

Players do have lives off the field. And many do good work for the Red Sox Foundation, and promote goodwill visiting sick children, raising money for charities, and so on. That really matters, and we shouldn't forget it.

But we have that nagging concern about what happens between the lines. Sure, the Sox are on a roll, keelhauling the mighty Tribe and the Mariners en route to a four game win streak. Will the real Red Sox please stand up? Are they the hapless bunch that gets punched out by the A's and the Orioles or the world beaters pummeling other also-rans?

Have the New Look Sox, led by the farmhands Will Middlebrooks and Daniel Nava turned the corner, or was this just "mean reversion" in the Weaverian sense "you're never as good as you look when you win or as bad as you look when you lose".

Maybe, it's not so simple after all. Complexity reigns in a complex world. We 'judge' players on a heuristic pair, "what have you done for me lately" and "how much do they pay you for what you do?" Consider the case of Carl Crawford. He's drawn a king's ransom, underachieved last year and got hurt this year. The performance per dollar and recent history both offend our sensibilities. Rhetoerically, should Crawford care what we think? Maybe we'd all be better off if he doesn't.

Conversely, a guy like Alfredo Aceves, gets an unfamiliar role, doesn't publicly complain, and aside from some early adjustment, has produced at a 'serviceable level, both recently and per dollar. Doesn't that make you feel better? You think that the Philly fans feel good about Jordany Valdespin taking Jonathan Papelbon yard last week?

Shakespeare summed it up, "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings."

And so it goes. Don't blame the stars, blame yourself, for caring too much. 

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Culture Club

As fans we are outsiders. The saying goes, "what you see here and what you hear here, stays here." That is, baseball players must respect the sanctity of the clubhouse.
Of course, sometimes we get the tiniest glimpse of what happens there. Chicken and beer isn't as important as the will to prepare, leading to success on the field. Preparation might be mental or physical, watching film or lifting weights, spending ten minutes a day on sports psychology.  One Red Sox employee told me, the all-too-common attitude migrates from "whatever it takes" to "I've got mine." And that doesn't translate to winning baseball.

New players on the Patriots talk about doing whatever it takes to contribute to winning, to working toward a common goal, to get to the Super Bowl. Is that what we SEE with Ye Olde Towne Team?

Currently, the Red Sox have one of the worst records in baseball. WYSIATI. What you see is all there is? Fans want players who care as much as they do. If I were Ben Cherington, I would call every player on the forty man roster in, and get a read on what is important to them. If your first priority isn't doing everything possible to create team success, then I'd offer each player the option (behind the scenes) of another baseball destination.

The organization used to talk about The Red Sox Way. Frankly, that has become a joke with a continual stream of bad baseball, with bad execution (defensive mistakes and errors, balks and fat pitches) , a litany of excuses, self-centered behavior and attitudes. Fans don't tar every player with the same brush, and recognize the role of injury and special circumstances (e.g. playing out of position, reserves asked to play daily). The manager has to tread lightly among big egos, some of whom are living off declining reputations.

But what fans find unacceptable is the perception that neither management nor many of the players care about more than taking their money. As long as the corporation keeps generating cash flow and puts fannies in the seats and Red Sox gear flies off the shelves, it's all good. Any concept of 'quality control' and accountability just goes out the window. The new motto, "Every Game Matters" has become the big lie.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Run Prevention Not an Issue?

It's hard not to comment about the mediocre defense the Red Sox are running out there lately. Even worse, the announcers either have been instructed to downplay it or simply choose to.

First, nobody chooses to fail. I remember the Steve Lyons mantra about earning the right to fail. But over the weekend, Saltalamacchia's defense led to Aaron Cook's injury via the passed ball, and Salty dropped popups on consecutive days. After all, this is the Big Leagues.

Tonight, Marlon Byrd misplayed a long fly to the track into two runs, and Will Middlebrooks turned a routine grounder into a three-base error (no way was it a single). At least Middlebrooks hits the ball.

Yes, the errors are worse than the whistling past the graveyard approach to announcing. But when the Royals leftfielder misplayed Shoppach's fly ball into a triple, Eck was all over it. "He's gotta catch that ball".

It wasn't that long ago that "run prevention" was to become the Sox watchword. They'd run down balls in the gaps, turn the double play, and keep runners from taking the extra base.

Now, we've been routinely treated to what is called in the vernacular "bad baseball".  Maybe the attitude is that "it's a marathon, not a sprint." But you gotta start running sometime, even in a marathon.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

No Win Situation

I can't focus on solutions today. The problems are overwhelming. Hope and pageantry have morphed into predation, with the Sox as prey.

The Red Sox announcers regularly tell us about the Red Sox fielding percentage and how they're at the top of the league. Anyone who watches the games recently sees:

1) We see mediocre but not average outfield defense (even routine plays look hard), weak throwing arms, and very few 'good' plays. Ask Daniel Bard.

2) Concern about the catching situation. Not only did Saltalamacchia struggle catching Aaron Cook, he contributed to Cook's injury, and missed a popup. We keep hearing about Lavarnway's limitations...and we keep seeing the Red Sox battery running low.

3) The day-to-day lineup, courtesy of injury, gets exposed. Role and platoon players forced into starting positions has gotten ugly. The Orioles look like the 1966 Orioles on the mound. Are they that good or are the Sox simply making them look good? With Ortiz and Aviles cooling off, Dustin Pedroia and Adrian Gonzalez are going to have to hit like crazy.

4) The starting pitching, led by the trio of 'stars', hasn't lived up to reputation. Reputation is what people say you are; performance is what you do. I guess we're left to define stars by the number of zeroes on the contract. "Hit 'em with your wallet."

5) Blame the manager? The team continues to play mediocre, uninspired baseball. I won't say that they're going through the motions, but they're horrible to watch.  If Bobby Valentine lambasted them, then he'd be blamed for being unsupportive. If he coddles them, he's an enabler. He's in a no-win situation now.

If you're watching rookies, at least you can cheer for hungry guys trying to make it big. That's not what we're seeing...and the announcers make it worse, with the Costasesque injections about the grandness of Fenway. Let's make something clear. Fans pay to see the game not the stadium.

The situation has simply become Kafkaesque...and it's hard to see the misery lifting.