Friday, November 20, 2009

Room for Improvement: Intro

This is my first post in the Brave New World, so bear with me here.

I don't think it's a statement of Great Earth-Shattering Controversy to say that the Cleveland Indians need to do a lot of things better to have a more successful season. The team lost 97 games, fer crine out loud. This was a bad baseball team. To say it needs to improve is kind of like saying, "Oxygen is helpful" or "Teletubbies are creepy." When you lose 97 games, improvement is necessary. No team loses 97 games solely through "bad breaks." They lose 97 games because there is a fair amount of suckage.

In Cleveland in 2009, this suckage took many forms, a majority of which took the guise of men throwing baseballs from the pitcher's mound. In an effort to quantify exactly where we as fans might reasonably expect improvement, though, I went to Baseball Prospectus' Team Audit for the Indians. The idea here is to identify players who can reasonably be expected to improve their VORP (Value Over Replacement Player) in 2010.

Now, is VORP "The Perfect Stat?" Of course not. There IS no "perfect stat." Am I being a bit lazy here because it's a handy, one-number metric? Of course I am. Is VORP fraught with measurement problems, interpretation problems, and other things that might hide information? It is.

As an aside, I should point out that ALL baseball stats have these issues, even OBP. Yes, OBP. Consider this: Jhonny Peralta is at the plate with two strikes. The pitcher throws what I call a "six six" slider, meaning it is six inches off the ground and six inches outside. Now, what do you expect Jhonny Peralta to do in this instance? You expect him to swing through it, right? Because this is what Jhonny Peralta does with unhittable sliders out of the zone, right? Well, what if Peralta takes this pitch ... and the umpire punches him out? I would argue that Peralta did exactly the right thing ... exactly the thing that is most likely to lead to long-term success. If Jhonny Peralta takes this approach on ALL six-six sliders over the course of the season, in the LONG RUN, Peralta is more likely to be a more productive player. MOST of the time, this pitch is called a ball, and what is Peralta going to do with it, anyway? Ground out weakly? Strain his oblique? Force Manny Acta to use a DHT blocker to grow hair so he can subsequently pull it out? No, I want Peralta to lay off that pitch. Did he do the right thing? You bet. Is he still very, very out, resulting in a drop in OBP? He sure is. OBP measures what DID happen: it only represents a LIKELIHOOD of what WILL happen. What WILL happen is that this entire paragraph will be rendered moot because Jhonny Peralta has never, ever, ever eschewed a slider in the dirt, but I think the principle is still a good one.

In any event, listing the players by VORP, a few things jump out:

1) Four of the top eight hitters are no longer with the team
2) If 10 VORP represents 1 win, more than half our pitchers were worth fewer than a quarter of a win, and fully 10 of them were worse than replacement players
3) Chris Gimenez is a fungus

It could be argued that we had exactly THREE truly valuable (> 20 VORP) players on the team: Shin-Soo Choo, Asdrubal Cabrera, and Cliff Lee. When was the last time a team was any good without having any actually-good players? You want to pinpoint the reason for Cleveland's struggles? How about "because their players are bad?" Or rather, "because their players performed badly?" I don't think it's right to make a global attribution about talent based on 2009's numbers. It may be that David Huff is really practically a replacement player. It may also be that 2009 was his rookie season and he could reasonably be expected to perform on that performance. It's unfair to tag David Huff as a "bad player." It is EMINENTLY fair to say "David Huff was pretty bad in 2009, objectively speaking."

Oh, by the way, David Huff led the team in wins.

(The team was pretty bad.)

Anyway, in the coming days, I've identified some players for whom reasonable improvement is hardly ridiculous. I mean, sure, there are some things that simply aren't going to happen. Choo is not going to improve significantly on his 2009. Wyatt Toregas is not going to morph into Joe Mauer. But there are at least 8 players on this squad with legitimate chances to lift their VORPs by double digits. And who knows? Maybe some of them actually will.

1 comment:

  1. In my unbiased opinion, this guy is a genius. Just some fan who happens to have the same last name, and shall we say, a paternal interest.