Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Room for Improvement: Not Eric Wedge

First things first: let us not make global attributions about Eric Wedge the person. He is not an idiot. He is not a schmoe. I did not agree with every move Eric Wedge made, which puts him squarely in the 100% of other managers I have not agreed with at one point or another. He did some things well, and other things less well, and he has been both (IMO) undersold by passionate fans and oversold by front office types. Ultimately, a majority of what it means to be a good baseball manager is inaccessible to the public at large (managing personalities, talking behind closed doors, recognizing physical and mental state, etc.), and by most accounts Eric Wedge was pretty good at these hidden things.

This having been said, I did not spend most of 2007 concocting Completely False Statements for the Google Search Engine in order to get him fired as a frivolous exercise. (Go to www.TheClevelandFan.com and search for "Completely False Statement") There are many things that drove me crazy about Eric Wedge, including bullpen management, veteran playing time, and too much damn bunting. But there are two elements of Wedge-managed teams that are simply unavoidable:
  1. Slow starts, especially falling behind in April
  2. Underperforming the team's "Pythagorean Projection" consistently
In 2005, the Indians posted a Runs Scored vs. Runs Allowed that would normally be expected to result in a 97.5-win season (closer to 98 wins). Instead, they finished with 93 wins and lost out on a playoff spot due to an epic collapse in the final two weeks. The collapse can't ethically be pinned on Wedge, but the fact that the team finished 4.5 wins under its Pythagorean Projections is worth noting. And although I only have back to 2005 at my fingertips, the Indians teams before that underperformed their projections as well. But from 2005:
  • 2005: Won 93, projected 97.5, -4.5
  • 2006: Won 78, projected 89.6, -11.6
  • 2007: Won 96, projected 92.3, +3.7
  • 2008: Won 81, projected 85.5, -4.5
  • 2009: Won 65, projected 72.3, -7.3
Three things: 1) People laughed at the contention that the 2006 team was much better than its record, but the 2007 season shows that such a contention is hardly unfounded. 2) The only team that DIDN'T significantly underperform won the Division. 3) Last season, the team scored/prevented enough runs to be a 72-win team. Why is the last item important? Well, the whole point of the Room for Improvement series is to come up with a reasonable projection as to how much this 2010 team can be better than the 2009 version. In very (very) broad terms, if Grady Sizemore truly has a 42-point improvement in VORP this season, that's roughly 4 more wins. The question then becomes, more wins that WHAT? More than 65? Or 72? If Wedge were still the manager, I think it would obviously be over 65. A 7-win deficit is nothing new for a Wedge-managed team and pales in comparison to the sad, sad 2006 team, although 4.5 wins is probably more reasonable to guess. But now that Manny Acta is the manager, this might change. As I recall, there isn't a significant statistical correlation between managers and under/over-performing one's Pythagorean Projection. Still, it makes a certain amount of intuitive sense that a consistent performance has a nice element of consistency about it. To this end, the more information we have, the better: anyone can have any result over the course of ONE season, but if they get roughly the same result over a long time ... well ... let me say in a cheerfully unsubstantiated way that I consider four years to be the absolute minimum time to be able to find a trend here. In 4 of the last 5 years (and, if I recall correctly, 6 of the last 8), Eric Wedge's team underperformed its Projection ... by a LOT. On the other hand, is Acta really an improvement? Honest answer: we don't know. We don't have enough data to tell. In his first full season, Acta's team won 59 games when it should have won 61 (technically a 1.6-win deficit without as much rounding). That seems pretty neutral. Of course, in the front end of 2009, his "Natinals" team underperformed to the tune of 6.9 games in only 87, which is pretty astounding and some kind of terribibble. "Oy," and also "vey." (Jim Riggleman got them to overperform by a small amount.) So here's the question: did Acta do such an incredibly bad job last season that he should be considered WORSE than Eric Wedge at hitting a team's Projection? Or is this just Small Sample Size Theater, in which given the rest of the season this might have "evened out," or at least been a one-year gork? His first season wasn't nearly this bad (although his team, it should be said, was putrid). Let's hedge our bets. Let's say that we don't know about Acta, but we do know that some of the elements that make up over/under-performance (bullpen, especially back end, team defense, K rates) haven't changed significantly. So let's be what I consider to be very conservative and say that Manny Acta will split the difference between Eric Wedge and Nullzone Johnson, between a negative-seven performance and a dead-on zero. Further, let's give him the rounding error for managing better right out of the box instead of being the typical slow-starting April Cleveland team (another thing that was consistent consistency). All told, without a whole lot of real supportable evidence, but at least a whole lot of at least sensible reasoning, we can reasonably expect a 4-win improvement from Not Eric Wedge.

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