Five years, what a surprise

yanksalcs250.jpgFIVE YEARS LATER…
…The Yankees are back in the American League Championship Series. This is an accomplishment, no doubt about it, but the sweep of the Twins shouldn’t be taken as any sign of the Yankees’ predestination as champions. Despite their exciting charge into the postseason (or the Tigers’ historic collapse), the Twins were not a very good team, but rather the last survivor of one of baseball’s weakest divisions. They were there because a team had to represent the AL Central, not because they had any claim on greatness. They were no better than the Tigers, Rangers, Rays, Mariners, Marlins, Braves, Cubs, or Giants, teams with similar records who now compete only on the nation’s golf courses. Moreover, the Twins were missing one of their big bats, Justin Morneau; the Yankees defeated a half-strength team that was down half its strength.

The point here is not to diminish the win any, because the Yankees played excellent baseball against an opponent that didn’t roll over. Game Three’s key defensive play by Derek Jeter is another great, heady move to add to his Hall of Fame case, one of two in the series. Actually, the very fact that he was able to make those plays points up the very inadequacy of the Twins as an opponent. Just as Jeremy Giambi made Jeter’s most famous play possible by failing to slide, the Twins made mistakes that an intelligent player like Jeter could exploit. During the broadcasts of the series, you heard a great deal about what a gritty, gutty, speedy, fundamentally sound, ballclub the Twins were — this despite their tripping around the field at every opportunity. The Twins are a myth, one created because calling things what they are isn’t something the media does. Yes, the Twins are small-market. Yes, they have had a miserable stadium deal. Yes, their late billionaire owner never seemed that interested in spending for another winner after the team’s 1987 and 1991 championships. None of that means they had to play Nick Punto or Joe Crede or Delmon Young or any of their other compromise ballplayers. Not counting midseason acquisitions Orlando Cabrera and Ron Mahay, Punto is the highest-paid Twin after Morneau, Joe Nathan, Joe Mauer, and Michael Cuddyer. That’s just not right.

It seems as if The Angels will represent more of a test, because they have things the Twins can only dream of. The Twins have emphasized the drafting and development of low-stuff college hurlers who pitch to contact (Johan Santana was a Rule 5 accident), though they did strike out more than their share of Yankees in the series just completed. Overall, the Angels did not have a great pitching staff for strikeouts, but of the pitchers the Yankees will see in the ALCS — John Lackey, Jered Weaver, Scott Kazmir, Joe Saunders — only Saunders would fit in on the Twins. They also have a deeper offense. Not all of their .290-.300 hitters are created equal given their organizational reluctance (despite much lip-service being given to the positive influence of Bobby Abreu) to reach base via walk. As for their vaunted baserunning game, it wasn’t the most successful operation in the world — the Angels stole at a 70 percent success rate, which was one of the worst rates in the league. By contrast, the Yankees stole at an 80 percent rate, which is to say that in every 50 attempts, the Yankees went 40-10 and the Angels 35-15. Finally, the Angels haven’t much in the way of bullpen. They very much missed the injured Scot Shields. Darren Oliver was their most productive reliever, followed by closer Brian Fuentes. Notwithstanding their historic aversion to playing well against the Angels, something that the Yankees might have put behind them in taking two of three at Anaheim in late September, there is no reason the Yankees cannot take this series.

We’ll get into the head-to-head stuff tomorrow. We’ve got all bloody week to delve into this series.

PUT MARIANO RIVERA IN THE HALL OF FAME TOMORROW OR TODAY
Not that he needs another paean to his brilliance, but the series again demonstrated why Mariano Rivera is a unique talent. If you compare Joe Nathan to Rivera during the regular season since 2004, there isn’t a lot to suggest that Rivera has been dramatically better than Nathan in that time, if he has been better at all. Nathan has pitched in 412 games and converted 247 of 272 save opportunities with an ERA of 1.87. Rivera has pitched 405 games and saved 243 victories in 261 chances. Rivera allowed 26 percent of his inherited runners to score. Nathan allowed only 20 percent. Under most conditions, if you had traded one for the other the teams would have seen a minimal change in outcomes.

“Most conditions” do not include the postseason. Rivera is one of the greatest postseason performers in history. You could make a reasonable argument that he is in fact the greatest postseason performer in baseball history given his level of excellence over so many games, the expansion of the postseason to three rounds in recent years having provided him with more October opportunities than even some of the Dynasty greats like Yogi Berra. Nathan has had many fewer opportunities, but he’s one of the reasons that he’s pitched in fewer games, not having done very well.

Rivera only got one chance at a save in this year’s ALDS, pitching with a big lead in Game 1 and coming in to try to protect a tie in Game 2, something at which he failed, so it’s not as if this series is going to deserve a track on his greatest hits album, though aside from allowing those runners inherited from Phil Hughes to score he did quite well. What he did isn’t as important as what he has done, and what Nathan wasn’t able to do.

PRODUCTIVE OUTS

I was disgusted to see a list of “productive outs” pop up towards the end of TBS’s broadcast last night. It just cemented TBS’s status as a network that broadcasts baseball but doesn’t pay enough attention to the game in any of its aspects to be successful. How the heck do we kill this concept that making  outs can be a good thing? Check out the stats: A team with a runner on first with no outs has the expectation of scoring .88 runs, but a team with a runner on second and one out will score just .69 runs. Even though the runner moved over, the chances of scoring went down. Similarly, a runner on second with no outs meant that teams scored 1.14 runs on average, whereas hit a grounder to the right side and “productively” move that sucker over, and the run expectation drops to .97. Now, it is preferable to have the runner at second with one out (.69) then it is at first with one out, that is, having received a “non-productive” out (.53), so the productive out would be worth .16 of a run. That’s nice, but it’s such a small thing that it doesn’t really mean anything, doesn’t add up into anything you can see in the final record.

If the Yankees can be credited with having a high total of such outs, it is because they had a high total of runners on base. Scoring is the result of reaching base and making extra-base hits, not making outs. All this stuff about productive outs is purely imaginary corn for suckers, and TBS embracing it is just one more embarrassment for an amateurish production.  

I BELIEVE IT IS A CHAT OR AN ELEPHANT

I’m not certain, but I believe that I and some Baseball Prospectus colleagues will be hosting a live chat during this evenings Phillies-Rockies game. Drop by BP.com around game-time for more info.

10 Comments

With regard to your point on Productive Outs, I totally agree, but you have included a slightly misleading statement. You say, “A team with a runner on first with no outs has the expectation of scoring .88 runs, but a team with a runner on second and one out will score just .69 runs. Even though the runner moved over, the chances of scoring went down.” While the expected number of runs scored surely goes down on a “productive out” you have not offered data on what happens to the probability of scoring any runs at all in these various scenarios. When you say the “chances of scoring went down”, you actually mean the expected number of runs scored in the inning will decrease. I only mention this because in certain circumstances (a walk off win opportunity being the only one I can think of) trading a lower expected run total for a higher probability of scoring just one run is advantageous. I am not claiming that this is the case. It could be that the probability of scoring 1 or more runs is still lower with a runner at second and one out than it is with a runner at first and no outs. I don’t know. Do data exist to answer this question?

Concerning the Yanks win over the Twins, using Morneau as an excuse does not work in this series. I think the Twins were something like 17-4 after Morneau was declared out for the season, so i guess the Twins probably wouldn’t have lost if Morneau played. The fact is that Morneau was actually hurting team when he was playing hurt, so him being out because of injury cannot be used as an excuse. Did I expect the Yanks to win this series? Yes, and i thought it would take 3 or 4 games. Saying all that,you still have to give them credit for going and executing.

Hi Steve,

I hate when folks use the ol’ “it seems like when” line on me, but I have to go there myself; It seems like you’d be more likely to score with one out and a runner on second than with one out and a runner on first. Much more extereme is the case of one out and a runner on third rather than no outs and a runner on second. I agree with dwolman; that might prove an interesting stat.
By the way, you didn’t seem a huge Abreu fan; right now, he’s the Angel that scares the crap out of me. He’s got something to prove to the Yankess and he has the ability to put a hurtin’ on just about anyone, as we saw last year. Thoughts?
Anyway, keep doing what you do. This is a great column!

…and one more thing: what’s up with that scorecard status thing on TBS? Never have I seen a less readable format for what a hitter has done in a game. To think someone got paid for that! Another example of people that have no idea how to present baseball!

I agree with most of what you said, but I’m not certain that TBS is saying that outs are a good thing. I think what they meant is that if you must make an out, don’t let it be a total loss. At least move the runner over. It’s not a bad strategy. Of course a basehit is ideal, but no one can honestly say that they know they can get a hit at will.
You’re right that the Twins were overmatched against NY, but that doesn’t mean that they are a bad team. They play in a very weak division true enough, however they do have a remarkable track record, and are managed by an excellent manager and coaching staff.
Finally, your comments about Joe NATHAN, are mostly true, except that I think that you have to make accomodations for saving games in NY as opposed to Minnesota. Fans and the media in NYC are more demanding. If you blow a save in NYC, the fans and the media are all over you. They question your ability, your health, or your resolve. The fans in Minnesota, however just call it the way it is, just one of those things that can happen once in a while, even to the great ones. Joe NATHAN is one of the great ones, but Mo has to contend with the added stress of saving games in New York. That counts for something.

Hi Steve, I agree that “productive outs” are completely annoying and I hate how the media goes on and on about how the scrappy teams are so great at moving runners over with productive outs, while usually ignoring that the better teams are the ones that actually get hits or draw walks in place of making all those outs in those situations.

But I do think that “dwolman” has an interesting point, and I would like to present an example to illustrate his point, in case it is not clear.

Take two discrete sets, A and B. Each set consists of 10 numbers. Here are the sets:

A: 0, 0, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 2
B: 0, 0, 0, 0, 1, 1, 1, 2, 4, 5

The average of the numbers in set A is 0.9
The average of the numbers in set B is 1.4
So set B has the higher average.

Now if you were to pick a random number from set A and calculate the probability that the number picked is at least equal to one, that probability would be equal to 0.8. or 80%.

But if you repeat the same task for set B, the probability is equal to 0.6, or 60%.

You have presented data that shows that a team will average more runs scored per inning with a runner on first base and nobody out than with a runner on 2nd and one out. But it is still theoretically possible to have a lower probability of scoring at least one run in the former situation. Perhaps leaving the runner back on first base with fewer outs results in lots more big innings and lots more Zero Run innings (like set B), while the situation where a runner is advanced on the bases at the expense of outs results in very few big innings but also more innings with exactly one run (like set A). If this were true, this might actually provide some support for some one-run strategies in tie games in the 9th inning or later (within reason, of course. I highly doubt that we would want Cano to drop a bunt with a runner on first base so that Jose Molina could get a chance to drive in a runner on second base with less outs available).

I have no clue what the truth is. But this seems like something the BP guys can figure out, since you have the data at hand to calculate the average runs in each of those situations. Maybe you can convince your colleagues to calculate the actual probabilities of scoring exactly one run, exactly two runs, exactly zero runs, at least 1 run, at least 2 runs, etc. in each of those possible situations (runner on first with nobody out, runner on 2nd with one out, etc).

Sorry for going on so long. I hope that made sense.

And even though it may sound like I was trying to defend productive outs, I just want to remind you that I do despise them nearly all the time.

And please tell me that Jose Molina won’t be back next season with the Yankees.

Is that a David Bowie reference I see in the title? Cool!

Is that a David Bowie reference I see in the title? Cool!

By the same logic you could show that a sacrifice fly or a ground ball getting a runner in from third with no outs is a negative since the expected value of a runner on third with no outs is 1.31 compared to scoring a run (1.0) plus no runners on with 1 out (0.28) which totals 1.28. The point is that all productive outs are not give aways — even when a batter tries to “give himself up” he may still get on base via an error or a “seeing eye” hit.

I must point out that Rivera did not come in to preserve a tie in game two of the ALDS ? he entered with the Yankees trailing 2-1 and gave up an RBI single, putting them down 3-1.

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