Friday, July 1, 2011

Base running and pitching from two perspectives: Sam Mellinger misreads the numbers and Sean Forman says small ball makes only a small difference

I'd like to balance a stretched-to-the-point-of-breaking use of statistics from Sam Mellinger in the Kansas City Star today with a bright piece about the REAL value of small ball in the New York Times.

Mellinger wrote an unfortunately homer column today arguing the Zack Greinke trade will look better now because Greinke has an ERA over 5 for the Brewers and most of the Royals' pitchers have lower ERA's today. What he fails to mention is that Greinke's record is 7 wins against 3 loses after being bombed in New York Tuesday. What he also fails to mention is that only Bruce Chen among Royals' starters has a winning record at 4-2. The other four have 11 wins (at nearly the All Star break) against 28 loses.

That comes to a horrendous, unthinkable, .286 winning percentage for the rest of the Royal's starting staff.

Greinke has won 7 out of 10 decisions, a .700 winning percentage. Mellinger does allow that Greinke has 80 strikeouts against 12 walks in 2011. But, somehow, for the usually reliable Star sportswriter, this adds up to a winning trade for the Royals' Brain Trust. Oh, Homer, pay no heed to the siren song!

Enough said on pitching.

Now to the excellent piece in the New York Times by Sean Forman about the actual value of aggressive base running. This, the Sabermagicians conclude, is an overrated bit of baseball mythology. Simplified, their numbers suggest stolen bases, or extra bases taken, add 0.2 runs to the total a team with a more conservative approach to base running would score. So 200 stolen bases could be expected to produce just 40 extra runs a season.

Perhaps more importantly, runners caught stealing or caught taking an extra base, subtract 0.5 runs from a team's total. So the risk of stealing bases -- in the case of most runners -- is a significant gamble. Except for a runner like Mr. Dyson, the numbers suggest it is better to just stay put, let a single be a single and let a double be a double.

The numbers suggest a base runner like Mr. Dyson might add one win per season to a team's total. If you're tied for the league lead or the playoff spot at the end of the year, that's significant. Otherwise...

In other words, those who love to preach small ball to baseball fans in small markets are just shilling for tight-fisted management. Small ball is just... well... small ball. Would you trade a steak for a hamburger? A Danny Edwards Ole Smokie for a double Sonic burger?

However, a list of the players since 1950 by position who added the most to their teams by base running includes two Kansas City players from the same era -- George Brett and Willie Wilson. No other team has two players on the list. Here it is:

Thurmon Munson
Jeff Bagwell
Davey Lopes
George Brett
Luis Aparicio
Rickey Henderson
Tim Raines
Willie Wilson

Well, I guess you could add Blue Moon Odom to the list of Kansas City players. He was the highest rated pitcher as a base runner.

At any rate, that's pretty good company for Brett and Wilson. Of course, this is no surprise if you ever saw Willie Wilson go from first to third on a single to right, his feet barely touching the ground.

Billy Butler, by the way, contributes minus 9 runs to the Royals' total run production each year through base running, just behind Prince Fielder. You can look at those numbers and say, Ouch!, or you can say nine runs isn't that much across a season for a guy who reaches base once in every three opportunities. Or, you could take a look at Prince Fielder's contract when the free agent sweepstakes for him is over next spring and draw your own conclusion about how important base running really is.

Both Greinke and Fielder, by the way, toil for a team that is tied for first place in their division while the home team is, once again, mired at the bottom of the heap. So much for small ball and the Royal's starting pitchers.



  1. While I agree that Mellinger is no Posnanski when it comes to sabermetrics, using Wins isn't statistical proof of anything. Pos has written about this extensively, and again, it's pretty well acknowledged by baseball people that Wins are a misleading, ultimately worthless, statistic because they don't measure how much a pitcher actually contributed to the team's win.
    This article outlines why the Win is a terrible statistic, and here's JoPos on his hatred of Wins.

    For you to say that Mellinger "misread" the statistics based on your own selection and analysis of an overrated, archaic, nonsensical statistic is, well, misreading the statistics. Heck, it was Zack Greinke's Cy Young year that finally marked the end of the Win as sportswriters' chief criteria for pitching quality (he had the least Wins of any Cy Young winner ever, the next year's AL winner Felix Hernandez also had few wins for a Cy Young winner).
    Basically, baseball people have finally figured out that pitcher Wins are largely subject to overall team quality than pitcher performance. So, again, citing Wins means nothing, which means that you basically took a cheap shot at Sam Mellinger citing dubious evidence, proving in your own arguement that you really don't have any idea what you're talking about.

  2. I like to let the reader have the last word, but a brief comment doesn't seem out of order. I do agree with you about wins. I am probably wrong there. But, then, what are we left with to understand the value of a pitcher, or a pitching staff? ERA tells us something, as do wins. But, as Mellinger points out, ERA is probably misleading in the case of Greinke for several reasons, including the smaller sample size this year. I'm of the opinion -- and it is an opinion -- that some pitchers find a way to win. OK, I'll complicate this some by saying Greinke isn't one of them. But, my lord, take a look at the rest of the starting staff Mellinger is somehow touting! You cannot be arguing that record, no matter what the group ERA is anything but horrendous.

  3. Well, Mellinger is wrong and is showing why the Star shouldn't be read for all it's ignorant, homerism glory. ERA is just as meaningless a stat as wins. Greinke's xFIP is 2.15 and that takes out factors like MIL's defense rolling with below-average fielders in left, at third, short, second, and first. Greinke can't be held responsible for an awful team behind him. So while I would agree choosing wins to illustrate why Mellinger is wrong - which he is - the author still underlines his point that The Star only writes what is positive for the sake of the fragile KC-fan psyche.

    I would also say that posting on someone else's blog under the title "anonymous", while you may or may not know what you're talking about, would just mean that we don't have to care.