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Spitballing: Jim Thome and Recognition July 21, 2011

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It’s no secret that I’m a fan of Jim Thome. Although he never played in my hometown, Buffalo was Cleveland’s AAA affiliate when I was a wee lad and so I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Indians. I also admire Thome’s small-town, farm-boy image. The PepsiMAX Clubhouse in the Corn ad showing Jim asking for autographs played off that image.

Thome’s pretty popular on the internet, based on the proportion of traffic I’m getting from searches for his name.  Kyle Kendrick (no, not that one) of the Winfield (Kansas) Daily Courier noticed, though, that media has been much quieter about Thome’s achievement than about Alex Rodriguez‘ same run last year. Kendrick blames the lack of coverage on Thome’s image:

Honestly, I believe it’s because he is too quiet and too humble for his own good. He isn’t flashy like Bonds, or flamboyant like Sosa or making it look easy like Griffey did. Therefore people, including the media, haven’t latched on to him like they have done with other hitters in the past. Add that to the fact that he’s never played more than one season in a very big media market town like New York or Boston or Chicago, and you may come to understand why he isn’t getting the bigtime coverage.

(Let’s leave aside the dismissal of three seasons in Philadelphia and three and a half in Chicago for a moment.)

It’s pretty clear to me why Derek Jeter‘s 3000-hit milestone got more coverage than Thome’s: Jeter is, for better or for worse, much more well-known than Thome. The average fan probably knows Jeter’s face, but it would take a much more interested fan to recognize Thome’s face. Jim was last an All-Star in 2006 and spent five and a half of the last six seasons  in the AL Central, meaning that the largest markets that he was regularly exposed to were Detroit and Chicago. (Granted, he spent half a season with the Dodgers.) He’s not well-known enough to be wildly popular, and he’s not hated enough (like Rodriguez) for people to take pleasure in any failure that might happen. As soon as A-Rod’s production slowed down, people started accusing him of choking. Thome’s been like clockwork throughout his career, but even if he did slow down, it’s no fun to call a likeable guy a choker. Gary Sheffield was a Met at the time he hit his 500th, so there was a bump in coverage from being with a large-market team, but he got a lot of coverage too. Is it any coincidence he was widely regarded as a bit of a tool?

As I said earlier, Thome will likely hit his 600th home run in August, and it’ll probably be only a few weeks before the September callups. Minnesota is five games back, but in third place in the AL Central, and 12 games back from the wild card. Thome probably won’t get his glory this postseason. Hopefully he’ll get his recognition when he hits #600, but whether or not he does, he’ll go down in history as the eighth member of an exclusive club that won’t expand for some time longer.

Spitballing: Position changes June 3, 2011

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First thing’s first: this entry was prompted by Buster Posey and his horrific ankle injury, but it’s not just about him. The first time I started thinking about it seriously was last year, when the Mets’ Carlos Beltran was about to come off the DL and Angel Pagan‘s placement was in doubt. Either Gary, Keith, or Ron tripped my “Stuff Keith Hernandez Says” meter by saying that fans had suggested moving Pagan to second base to fill in for the ailing Luis Castillo, and commented that “You can’t just move a guy to second base.” Very true.

Similarly, it’s very hard to “just move a guy” to catcher, which is why a guy like Buster Posey is so valuable. In the National League, the median OPS+ for players with at least 100 plate appearances and who played more than half their games at catcher was 91. Posey’s OPS+ was 129 – that’s over 40% better. If instead you look at first basemen with at least 100 plate appearances, the median OPS+ is 107. All of a sudden, Posey’s offensive value-added drops to about 20% above average, and that’s before accounting for regression to the mean. Moving him to third base instead mitigates the damage and takes full advantage of his arm, but he’s suddenly a much less special player when he’s on the hot corner instead of behind the plate.

It’s also maddening to hear about efforts to move Derek Jeter to center field. Even though he’s on the downswing, he’s hit well above average every year from 1996 through 2009. Even last year, his 91 OPS+ was acceptable, especially considering his popularity. Granted, he costs his team runs on defense (he’s rarely had a positive defensive Wins Above Replacement), but his offensive contribution more than makes up for it. He’s 6’3″, making him more than big enough to move to first base, and first base doesn’t require him to have the range that center field would. After Jorge Posada hangs it up, splitting  the duties at first base and DH between Jeter and Alex Rodriguez will start to make more sense, and using homegrown prospects to take over at shortstop and third base ensures continuing fan loyalty.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention future Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen. Although his 2.000 OPS last year grossly overstated his batting ability (only two plate appearances, compared with a lifetime .229 batting average in the minors), Jansen is a success story in his move from catcher to fireballing reliever. That was an excellent move by the Dodgers system – they took Jansen’s innate ability (his cannon-like arm) and moved him to a position where his contribution would be optimized. Whether or not Jansen turns out to be a future dominant closer, he’s probably gotten more playing time as a reliever than he ever would have as a catcher, and he’s generated more value for the Dodgers.

Basically, player moves are difficult. It’s important to try to optimize a player’s contribution, and that needs to take into account his defensive talents instead of merely trying to find a place for him to play. I can only hope Buster Posey’s recuperation goes smoothly and there’s a value-maximizing slot for him with the Giants.

Mariano’s Walk-Off Beanball September 12, 2010

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Mariano Rivera did something strange tonight: He plunked in the winning run. He hit Jeff Francoeur of the Texas Rangers to force in Nelson Cruz for the winning run in extra innings. It was his fourth hit batsman of the year and only his third loss.

A walk-off beaning requires an extraordinary set of circumstances. First of all, like all walk-off plays, it requires the home team to be at bat in the bottom of the inning. In this case, it was in extra innings rather than the bottom of the 9th. It additionally requires a tied game in the bottom of said inning. Finally, it requires the bases to be loaded when the plunking occurs.

This is all magnified by the face that Rivera does not ordinarily load the bases. Assuming his 2010 OBP against (.214) held, the probability the bases being loaded with two outs or fewer is:

p(bases loaded, 0 outs) + p(bases loaded, 1 out) + p(bases  loaded, 2 outs) = (.214^3) + (.214^3 \times .786) + (.214^3 \times  .706^2) = .0098 + .0077 + .0061 = .0236

Then, if that situation occurs, we still have to deal with the unlikely event of Mariano hitting a player with a pitch. Before this evening, Mo had hit three batters in 196 plate appearances, for a rate of about .0153. Thus, the probability of Mariano Rivera hitting a batter with a pitch after having loaded the bases is

.0236 \times .0153 \approx .0004

That means that in 10,000 innings, we would expect that to occur about 4 times, assuming that Mariano wasn’t removed after having walked the bases (which would obviously introduce some bias).

Oddly, the last walk-off hit by pitch also involved the Yankees, albeit on the other side, way back on July 19 of 2008. That night, the A’s’ Lenny DiNardo hit Jose Molina with a pitch to force in Derek Jeter, again in extra innings. David Robertson grabbed the win that night.

Measurability and Derek Jeter February 26, 2009

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Skip Sauer at The Sports Economist had an interesting post about Houston Rockets forward Shane Battier’s lack of traditional stats and Rockets GM Daryl Morey’s belief in him regardless. Morey’s use of an adjusted plus-minus stat to justify hiring Battier is reminiscent of Billy Beane’s attention to on-base percentage in building the Oakland As as detailed in Moneyball.

What I take from Sauer’s post is that plus-minus is a surrogate variable for ability to be a team player. That opens the broader question of what can be measured and whether nonmeasurable statistics are ever useful in building a team.

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