Friday, February 13, 2004
The revolution will not be televisedThe Los Angeles Dodgers are reportedly on the verge of hiring Oakland assistant general manager Paul DePodesta as their new GM.
This development is just another step in what is becoming a sabermetric revolution of sorts. As near as I can figure, DePodesta running the Dodgers makes the following list of sabermetrically-inclined teams:
Toronto Blue Jays
Boston Red Sox
Los Angeles Dodgers
New York Yankees
San Diego Padres
Kansas City Royals
We're not yet to the point where spreadsheets and Bill James Abstracts fill the majority of major league front offices, but we're certainly moving in that direction.
Billy Beane, in addition to not being a best-selling author, is the GM of the Oakland A's, and now his former assistants, J.P. Ricciardi and DePodesta, are running things in Toronto and Los Angeles. And, of course, Theo Epstein is heading up a front office in Boston that includes Bill James himself.
The links to sabermetrics in the second-tier of teams I have listed there aren't quite as obvious, but they're definitely still there. In addition to the nine teams I have listed above, the New York Mets recently hired their very own "stat guy" and the Texas Rangers will likely be run by another former Billy Beane assistant, Grady Fuson, if/when current GM John Hart steps down.
What exactly does this mean for baseball? The answer to that is far from crystal clear. Some would say that it means high on-base percentages and crappy defenses will be taking over both leagues in no time, but I think they'd be wrong. That's an overly simplistic way of looking at things.
Sabermetrics has never been and never will be about high on-base percentages and valuing offense over defense. Anyone who thinks it is about those things obviously hasn't been watching Beane and the Oakland A's lately.
Sabermetrics, as defined by Bill James, is "the search for objective knowledge about baseball." The fact that something such as on-base percentage is touted is simply an off-shoot of that, stemming from the knowledge that getting on base is an extremely important factor, and perhaps even the most important factor, for scoring runs.
Instead of OBPs taking over the world, I think I would say that the changes will not be as specific as that. The changes you will see (and probably are already seeing) have to do not with a style of play, but with a way of thinking.
Paul DePodesta will bring a way of thinking, a way of doing things, a way of approaching tasks, to the Los Angeles Dodgers that they simply haven't had before. Whether that is good or bad is up for debate, I suppose, but I certainly am of the mind that it is a very good thing.
The Los Angeles Dodgers will be in better hands with DePodesta than they were before him, and at the end of the day that's about all you can ask for. The same is true of Theo Epstein and the Red Sox, and J.P. Ricciardi and the Blue Jays. Billy Beane and the A's have won an average of 96 games per season over the last five years and they've made the post-season in four straight years, so I think Billy Beane's hands are pretty good too.
A side effect of DePodesta joining the Dodgers is that Billy Beane and J.P. Ricciardi have a new trading partner. Not that Billy and J.P. have been shy about trading in general, but they've worked together on multiple occasions since Ricciardi got the job in Toronto.
In fact, since Ricciardi was hired by Toronto in November of 2001, the Blue Jays and A's have already completed four trades with each other. Plus, they were also both involved in a four-team deal in which they didn't directly trade with each other but certainly worked together to facilitate the deal.
That's essentially five trades in about 27 months, which means Billy and J.P. are on the phone a lot. Now all they've got to do is patch Paul in on three-way and they've suddenly got another mind to work with, not to mention another roster full of players and another system full of prospects.
I've already heard talk of concerns over whether Beane and the A's can be as successful without DePodesta. While losing Paul DePodesta certainly hurts a team a tremendous amount, it is not something that is going to wreck the Oakland franchise. For one thing, Beane has already lost Fuson and Ricciardi and, as great as both of those guys were at their jobs, the A's have kept on winning.
I suppose this is starting to be similar to when assistant coaches from Bill Walsh's staff with the San Francisco 49ers started getting head coaching jobs across the NFL.
I've seen "family trees" that have Bill Walsh at the top, with links to a couple dozen of his disciples that have gone on to bigger and better things. The Walsh influence spread throughout the league, as his assistants got head coaching jobs and then their assistants got heading coaching jobs, and on and on and on.
Guys like Mike Holmgren, Brian Billick, Jeff Fisher, Mike Shanahan, George Seifert, Andy Reid, Jon Gruden, Steve Mariucci, Sam Wyche, Denny Green, Mike Sherman, Bruce Coslet, Ray Rhodes - the list goes on and on. And all of their roots can be traced back to Bill Walsh and the San Francisco 49ers.
Can Billy Beane and the A's sit atop a similar family tree of front office men someday? Well, they've got a good start, with Ricciardi, Fuson and now DePodesta. Soon Ricciardi's assistants in Toronto will start to get looked at for bigger jobs and then down the line perhaps the same will happen to DePodesta's right-hand men in LA, and the cycle will begin again.
*****Comments? Questions? Email me!*****
Thursday, February 12, 2004
You're kidding, right?Sometimes it's not easy being a baseball fan. My team, the Minnesota Twins, signed Jose Offerman to a minor league contract earlier this week. When I first saw the news, I thought nothing of it. After all, Offerman is 34 years old and was out of major league baseball last year, after being cut by the Mariners in 2002. A recognizable name for the fans at Triple-A Rochester to watch and nothing more, right?
Then I saw the following headline the Minneapolis Star-Tribune:
Offerman signed to serve as pinch hitter
Double-checking my calendar to make sure this was, in fact, February and not, say, April Fool's Day, I read on:
"The Twins signed two-time All-Star infielder Jose Offerman to a minor league contract Monday, and they plan for him to fill the role of veteran pinch hitter."Oh boy. But wait, it gets better. He's a quote from Twins manager Ron Gardenhire:
"Keeping Jose might affect someone like [righthanded-hitting outfielder] Lew Ford. I'm excited about this. We needed a veteran, and we all know Jose can hit. I just talked to him on the phone, and he's excited. I don't know if we'll use him in the field much, but that's not what we need."I would submit that the single last thing the Minnesota Twins need is a defensively challenged hitter. And that applies even if Jose Offerman could actually hit, which, despite Gardenhire's insistence that "we all know Jose can hit," is simply not true.
Before not playing a single inning of major league baseball in 2003, Jose Offerman hit a robust .232/.320/.335 in 2002, while racking up 326 plate appearances between Boston and Seattle. Prior to that, he hit .267/.342/.374 in 2001 and .255/.354/.359 in 2000. In 6,264 career major league plate appearances, Offerman has hit .274/.361/.373.
Oh, and last year, while playing in the independent Atlantic League for the Bridgeport Blue Fish, Offerman managed a very pedestrian .295/.383/.466 in 98 games. That's the same league that Rickey Henderson hit .339/.493/.591 in before being signed by the Dodgers last year.
Never a good defender, Offerman used to at least play a passable second base. At 34, he is, as the quote from Gardenhire suggests, most likely limited to playing first base, DH or pinch-hitting.
Aside from the absurdity of having a 34-year-old 1B/DH/pinch-hitter who missed all of 2003 and hit .255/.360/.341 from 2000-2002 combined, there is also the fact that Offerman would be taking playing time away from much younger, much more promising players.
Over the past several years, the Twins have had an incredible logjam of quality 1B/DH/LF/RF-types throughout their organization. They jettisoned Dustan Mohr to San Francisco during the off-season, but they still have a wide variety of guys who should absolutely, without a doubt, be playing ahead of Jose Offerman.
As long as Gardenhire brought him up in his quote about Offerman, I'll mention Lew Ford. Ford is a 27-year-old who is fast, can play all three outfield spots very well and hit .329/.402/.575 in 83 plate appearances for the Twins last season. He is also a career .317/.374/.468 hitter at Triple-A.
You don't think it would be a better idea to let Ford be a bench guy, instead of a 34-year-old who can't play defense and hasn't hit since I was in high school? You don't want to maybe develop a guy in his 20s that can actually play defense and just might have some actual value down the road?
I see literally zero reason for Jose Offerman to be on the Twins roster when the season begins. If he could actually play a middle infield position at a reasonable level of effectiveness, I'd be all for the signing. Lord knows "competition" like Nick Punto and Augie Ojeda aren't exactly making Luis Rivas shake in his boots. But Jose Offerman is about as likely to take Rivas' starting spot at second base as I am. Of course, second base was my best position and I was a magician with the glove...
If the Twins wanted to sign a washed up, 34-year-old relief pitcher, I'd be fine with it. A 34-year-old starting pitcher who hasn't been good for years? Yeah, why not. A 34-year-old backup catcher who hasn't hit in five years? Fine, sign him up.
But a 34-year-old pinch-hitter who can't actually hit, in an organization bursting at the seams with young players who can actually hit? Wow. I mean, it's enough to...well, it's enough to make me write a few hundred words about Jose Offerman in the middle of February!
Actually, I am still holding out hope that Gardenhire's quotes about Offerman are simply one of those "I'll say something nice about him because all these tape recorders are in my face" situations.
It's sort of like when you're eating dinner at someone's house and the food is horrible. When they ask you how the food is, you want to tell the truth and say, "To be honest, it's really bad and I see no reason why you can expect it to improve at this point." Instead, it comes out, "The food? Well...the food is...the food is very good. Yeah, the food is great! We expect the food to be a solid option off the bench for us this year."
I'd like to have Ron Gardenhire over to my dorm room for dinner one night, so I can further investigate this matter.
As a special tribute to Jose Offerman, I would like to present to you now the third entry in the history of Aaron's Baseball Blog, written nearly 19 months ago.
"You're full of (expletive)"By Aaron Gleeman
August 2, 2002
The Red Sox (finally) released Jose Offerman. Unlike everyone else who pays attention to major league baseball, this apparently came as a huge shock to Jose.
And, in his state of shock, Offerman had some interesting things to say (according to MLB.com):
"You're full of (expletive)," Offerman told [Mike] Port.This after Port (the Red Sox GM), according to news stories, flew to Texas to personally inform Offerman of the decision.
"I ain't got nothing to say," Offerman said. "You guys (messed) me up, that's what I have to say."Whenever someone says, "I ain't got nothing to say" and "that's what I have to say" in the same sentence, you know you have an A+ quote.
Also, I find it amusing when writers (or editors maybe) decide to substitute different words for something a player says. So, for Offerman, "You guys f---ed me up" becomes "You guys messed me up." Gotta love that.
As long as they are (presumably) changing things, why didn't anyone substitute something for "(expletive)"? I have a few suggestions:
- "You're full of whatever the equivalent to my hitting performance is."
- "You're full of professionalism."
And my favorite...
- "You're full of Selig."
As for the actual baseball aspect of his release...
As I said before, it was about time. Offerman has been in steep decline mode for about three years now and with his defensive shortcomings he is pretty much a useless player at his current level of performance.
Offerman's career in Boston is an interesting one, both because of his signing and his performance. The media generally had three phases during Offerman's tenure in Boston:
1) Immediately after his signing, Dan Duquette was almost universally ripped, mostly for letting Mo Vaughn leave.
2) During Offerman's first season in Boston, Dan Duquette was almost universally praised for signing Offerman at a fraction of the cost that it would have taken to keep Big Mo (who coincidently was beginning a pretty nice career decline himself, in Anaheim).
Stuff like, "With the money Vaughn would have gotten, the Sox got Offerman, ________ and _______."
3) Ever since Offerman's first season with the Red Sox, Dan Duquette has been almost universally ripped (yes, once again).
The three phases are wrapped up very nicely by these quotes found in the article about Offerman's release:
"It was a tumultuous end to Offerman's largely disappointing run in Boston. It was a tenure that started on Nov. 13, 1998, when former Red Sox GM Dan Duquette signed the switch-hitting infielder to a much-criticized four-year, $26 million contract with an option for a fifth year.Phase Two:
"Offerman did have a solid first year in Boston, earning a trip to the All-Star Game, which was played at Fenway Park. He led off and played second base in that '99 season, helping the team's run to the ALCS by hitting .294, scoring 107 runs, hitting 37 doubles and leading the AL with 11 triples."Phase Three:
"But he came nowhere near that level in the three ensuing seasons. In fact, he never hit as high as .270 or scored more than 76 runs. This season, Offerman was hitting .232 with four HRs and 27 RBIs. His last game with the Red Sox was a loss to the Orioles on Friday night, when he lost track of outs and got doubled off on a flyball to end an inning."I actually think the Offerman signing was a decent one - not a great one, but certainly not a horrible one. To me it seemed like a reasonable contract, in both length and dollar amount for a 29-year-old second baseman coming off of a year in which he had a .400+ on-base percentage and 45 stolen bases. Offerman was a certified leadoff man, having had an OBP of .380 or higher in three of the four years prior to signing with Boston.
In hindsight, of course, it looks pretty bad. Although the Sox did get one very good season from Offerman, in which they made it to the AL Championship Series.
Jose Offerman in Boston: Four years/$26 million
1999: 586 AB .294/.391/.435
2000: 451 AB .255/.354/.359
2001: 524 AB .267/.342/.374
2002: 237 AB .232/.325/.325
I am sure Sid Thrift (Baltimore's GM) is on the phone with Offerman's agent right now.
*****Comments? Questions? Email me!*****
Wednesday, February 11, 2004
Q&A with Will CarrollOver at BaseballProspectus.com, injury savant Will Carroll has begun his "Team Health Reports" for all 30 major league teams. Will kicked off the series of articles with a look at the Philadelphia Phillies and his second installment focused on none other than my beloved Minnesota Twins.
While the Phillies THR is free of charge, the Twins THR is Baseball Prospectus "Premium" content, which means non-subscribers don't have access to it. Of course, if you haven't heard already, subscribing to Baseball Prospectus Premium is definitely a worthwhile expense.
In addition to his work for Baseball Prospectus, Will is also putting the finishing touches on his first book, Saving the Pitcher, which can be pre-ordered on Amazon.com. As if that weren't enough, Will also maintains a blog of his own, the Will Carroll Weblog, which features his thoughts on all sorts of stuff that have nothing to do with baseball injuries.
I don't usually talk a lot about injuries, mostly because I don't know much about them. That said, when it comes to the Twins, it's not difficult to get me talking...even about stuff I don't know about. Will Carroll was kind enough to answer some of my questions about the Twins and their injuries...
Aaron Gleeman: The Twins trading Eric Milton seemed like a no-brainer move to me and I give them an A+ on the deal, despite the fact that all they got back was Carlos Silva and Nick Punto, neither of whom I think much of. It surprises me then that so many Twins fans I've spoken to are not happy with the deal.
To me, there is just no way a team with a budget in the $55 million-range can keep a pitcher with a serious knee problem who will make $9 million in 2004 and threw only 17 innings in 2003. This is especially true when said pitcher wasn't ever even all that great to begin with (Milton has never had an ERA below 4.00 in a full season).
So here's the question (yes, there is a question): What do you think the chances are of Milton and his knee staying healthy enough to pitch 200 effective innings for the Phillies in 2004? And, what is your over/under on the last season of Eric Milton's major league career?
Will Carroll: 200 innings is a tough threshold. I'm not sure how many pitchers cleared that last year (22 in the AL, thanks Lee), but it's not many. Milton, like Randy Johnson, will make it a certain amount of time before an inevitable breakdown, but none of us know exactly what that will be.
For the Phillies, a team opening a new stadium and a great shot at a title, that risk is certainly one they're willing to take on and can certainly afford. I'm not sure the Twins could have got much more given the contract and health, but it doesn't seem like much either.
AG: By the way, before we get off Milton, it always seemed to me (and a lot of people) that Milton's landing/follow-thru was very violent and basically asking for trouble. I know this is easy to say now that he's had knee problems, but if something like that was so obvious to the untrained eye, why didn't the Twins try to do something about it? Or don't you think his heavy landing had anything to do with the knee injury?
WC: I don't get to see Milton very much, so I'll take your word for it. Tinkering is something I cover in Saving the Pitcher, but Keith Law of the Blue Jays said it best when he said that, at some point, tinkering becomes counterproductive.
Some of the inefficiencies actually help by being deceptive or add power that the arm will break down under. Do you reduce short-term effectiveness for long-term durability? That's a tough question for any coach or organization to deal with. What if I told you Johan Santana's going to win 20 games with a 2.35 ERA, but that he'd need Tommy John surgery after the season? It's risk and reward.
AG: Gee, thanks for bringing up a wonderful subject like Johan "The Official Pitcher of Aaron's Baseball Blog" Santana needing Tommy John surgery! For the record, I think I'm nearing about 10 years without having cried, but that streak would be in serious jeopardy if I heard that news. As long as we're talking about Johan...
As anyone reading this probably knows, this website is essentially Johan Santana's official fan club. As I've said millions and millions of times, I think he has more long-term star potential than just about any pitcher not named Prior.
It obviously scared me to see Johan needing to have bone chips removed from his elbow this off-season. I know you and I have talked about this a couple times and you've said bone chips are something that typically comes back, but over a period of years instead of months. Is there a chance, however slim, that the bone chips could come back at some point during the 2004 season?
WC: Bone chips happen. Think of them like a blister. It happens, it heals, but if you irritate the site again, it recurs. Something - and we don't know what - is causing spurs/chips in his elbow. I'd guess about half of pitchers have them, but the majority are non-symptomatic.
I'm not as high on Santana as many are, but I'd sure like to have him on my team. Chance of recurrence in 2004? Sure. He could get struck by lightning or your dog could chew off his pitching arm too. The chips are more likely, but I'm not laying money on it either.
AG: Okay, let's assume Johan is safe for 2004. Doesn't that mean he's still a walking (and pitching) time-bomb, with the potential for the bone chips rearing their ugly, chipped head at any point, during any season? And finally, seeing as though he had the bone chips removed almost immediately after the season ended, do you think they had anything to do with his less-than-stellar performance in the playoffs against the Yankees?
WC: The question is more how is it managed than anything else. Will he need them cleaned up after every other season? Every third? Will they get symptomatic mid-season at some point and cost him and the Twins a couple months? We don't know, but we do know to watch for it. If Santana gets an x-ray or such every month or so, isn't that a good expense? I would guess that it didn't help him in the playoffs, but I don't know that.
AG: Let's talk Corey Koskie for a minute. He has been, without a doubt, one of the Twins' most valuable players over the past few years and has also been one of the most underrated players in baseball over that span (is anyone outside of Minnesota aware that he is a career .285/.379/.457 hitter who plays Gold Glove defense at third base?).
Koskie is also 31 years old this season and his contract with the Twins expires after the year. He seems to me like a guy who is going to age very badly, mostly because he, despite being a good athlete and actually somewhat fast on the bases, almost always appears to be moving gingerly. Even his swing seems, at times, to get extremely long and loopy, like he's having trouble just bringing the bat head through the zone.
In addition to my personal observations, Corey has missed 53 games over the past two years with various injuries and has also gone into prolonged slumps several times. Last year he hit 14 homers in the first-half and then didn't hit a single homer after the All-Star break. I don't really have a specific question (what else is new?), but I'm interested in your take on Koskie as an aging/injury risk?
WC: Koskie is someone I always compare to Mike Sweeney in my head. Both deal with back problems and assorted other minor things that always keep them from reaching the level we expect. That's not to say they're bad players - far from it - but health is so fragile and integral that ignoring it as baseball has done for...well, nearly forever, stuns me.
Koskie had some really interesting PECOTA comparables but the one that stands out for me is Robin Ventura. I think they really are similar and will follow similar paths. Having the '87 version of Leon Durham [as a comparable] scares me, but I'm really looking forward to the 2004 comparables. PECOTA's attrition and drop rates for Koskie are also scary, so in a walk year, I'd start thinking about who'll be at third next season.
AG: Talk to me about Joe Mays' insurance situation. This has been a much talked about issue with Twins fans this off-season, because the Twins can't seen to get money from the insurance company to cover Mays' injury. That lack of money (presumably) kept them from re-signing Eddie Guardado or Latroy Hawkins (or perhaps signing a replacement like Ugueth Urbina). Why haven't the Twins gotten money to cover Mays' contract? And do you foresee them ever getting any money for it, even a fraction?
WC: It's a dispute about whether or not Mays' 2000 problems are related to his 2003 Tommy John surgery. I can't get too specific, but it's a typical contract problem. It will end up in arbitration somewhere, but I have no idea where it will end up. Blaming the loss of Guardado and Hawkins on that seems pretty weak. It's not like Carl Pohlad is hurting.
AG: The Twins are installing a new playing surface this year, finally seeing fit to ditch the old turf, which had gotten so incredibly worn out that it was laughable. There were seams in the "carpet" that rose high enough to trip someone, there were big patches that were so worn out that they didn't even have a color anymore. It had to have been like playing on concrete the past couple years.
What do you know about this new turf they are using in regard to its impact on injuries? And do you think the old, crappy turf led to more nagging injuries for players? (Jacque Jones' groin, Koskie's whatever, Doug Mientkiewicz's everything, etc).
WC: I discussed in my chat [on BaseballProspectus.com] Monday that we just don't know due to a lack of data how much turf affects things. Anecdotally, it seems to cause more injuries, but as there's less turf around the league, there aren't less injuries.
We also don't know if NexTurf or whatever the new substance is has a significant effect. There's lots we don't know and that's one of the more exciting things about injury analysis. In baseball, there's few blank canvases left, but most of the good questions about injuries are still waiting to be asked.
AG: In general, what do you think of the Twins' training/medical staff? I have no inside knowledge, but it does seem to me that they've had an awful lot of injuries, both nagging and serious, over the past few years.
Last year, Milton missed nearly the entire season and Joe Mays was horrible and then ended up needing Tommy John surgery. Koskie missed a bunch of time, Rick Reed had to leave multiple games with back problems and also missed time, Mientkiewicz had nagging injuries all year, Jacque Jones missed a lot of time with groin problems. Then there was the incident where Lew Ford hurt his arm and Ron Gardenhire was angry at him for not being willing to go into the game because it was hurting him. Turns out the arm was broken. And that's just 2003.
In past years, Cristian Guzman has had a problem with the training staff and has missed significant time with various injuries. Brad Radke missed half of 2002 with groin problems. Mays, even before the TJ surgery, had elbow surgery and was injured often. I'm sure there are some other things I am forgetting too.
Are these things simply a matter of "all teams have injuries" or is there something more here? I know the Twins fired their long-time trainer a while back and rumors were that it had to do with his relationship with some of the players (Guzman chief among them)?
WC: Damned Gleeman-length questions. :)
Man, that's a tough question to answer without waffling. I'll admit that I'm still bitter about the manner that [former Twins trainer] Dick Martin, a personal friend, was treated by the organization, but their staff is qualified and hard-working.
I saw [current trainer] Jim Kahmann at the Injuries in Baseball Conference, so he's committing his off-season time to working in addition to the insane hours most trainers put in. (There's a chapter in STP about "A Day in the Life of a Trainer" that will just stun you.)
I think what we have to look at is results over a reasonable period of time. Kahmann's entering his third year and that's where numbers stop being fluky and start being more reliable. At the end of the day, any trainer should be forced to answer for his results, just like anyone in baseball.
Too often, it's about relationships or knowing where the bodies are buried in the organizations. I think a lot of teams don't want to be accountable and that holds true for a lot of trainers. The data's out there, if not publicly accessible, and we know which teams are consistently losing less time and money to injuries. Not addressing it is the fault of the front office.
You can read more of Will Carroll's injury-related writing, including his Team Health Reports, on BaseballProspectus.com. For his non-injury work, check out the Will Carroll Weblog.
Will's book, Saving the Pitcher, is due out later this year. To pre-order it now on Amazon.com, click here.
*****Comments? Questions? Email me!*****
Tuesday, February 10, 2004
Stat heads like basketball too (Part Two)In yesterday's entry, I talked about one of my favorite basketball stats, adjusted field goal percentage, and how it can make Peja Stojakovic and his 47.9% field goal percentage as efficient a shooter as Shaquille O'Neal and his 55.9% field goal percentage.
Today, we get a special treat. Craig Burley, of Batter's Box fame, is here with an interesting and informative look at who the most valuable players in the NBA have been this season. Craig's approach takes aspects of in-depth baseball analysis and applies them to basketball, which is exactly what I have been looking for.
So, enjoy Craig's guest piece and make sure to read it all the way through, because I've got a few comments of my own that I'll save for the end (not that you wouldn't read it through anyway...).
By Craig Burley
Some recent reading (and subsequent work) I have done on basketball statistics is beginning to confirm to me that, like with baseball, basketball is remarkably quantifiable. As a former basketball coach and player and a longtime devotee of the sport, I found this to be intensely surprising, but also intensely pleasurable. I have often in the past derided basketball statistics as hiding more than they reveal, but like baseball stats, when properly accounted for and subjected to rigorous analysis, they are capable of producing insight that is startling for its originality and power.
A huge factor in my recent conversion into a basketball stathead has been the work of John Hollinger, author of Pro Basketball Prospectus, which is a book you should RUN to the store to buy. John sets out his methods in just fourteen pages of a 300-page bible to the past season, but they are the second most important thing I have ever read on basketball. (The most important thing? Easy... a short article from 1986 in which a young Providence College coach named Rick Pitino outlined the fundamentals of his 1-2-1-1 pressure defense).
Anyway, without spoiling too much of the fun, Hollinger's approach takes every event recorded in a statsheet and assigns it a value, denominated in points, based on its impact on the game. The point value of a steal? Well, it's the value of one possession, so a steal garners a player 1.001 points, which is the average value of a possession in 2003/04. The point value of an offensive rebound? That's the value of one possession, times the chance the defense would have gotten the ball otherwise (or the "league defensive rebounding percentage").
He does more than that, though. The most important insight in the whole book is that all statistics need to be read within the context of a team's pace... the number of possessions both teams use in a game. On teams that play to a slow pace, each possession (and each point) matters just that bit more. Also, did you know that the "Pythagorean Theorem" that we can use to predict team records in baseball from runs scored and runs allowed, also works in basketball? The exponents are different, is all.
Anyway, you can add every element of a player's record -- his 3-pointers, assists, rebounds, steals, blocks, fouls, made and missed field goals and free throws, and turnovers -- and get a nearly complete picture of that player's contribution to his team. What it misses, is the ability of a player to spring other players open, and on-ball defense (including help defense). These are very important, but that's all that's missing from this superstat, which is called Player Efficiency Rating or PER.
PER isn't perfect. Some events in the game are double-counted; others are single-counted. For example, a steal is counted as a turnover for the defense and a steal for the offense. A made field goal, on the other hand, counts as a positive for the offense (part credited for the assist, part for the make) but nothing is counted against the defense. However, PER is more than good enough for government work... it's a terrific shorthand at how much a player is contributing to his team's offense and defense.
PER itself is a per-minute stat, but it can also be calculated in its "raw" format, which lends itself to MVP-type analysis. It also can be given a Linear Weights type analysis, and is particularly amenable to a "replacement-player" analysis. PER can also be broken down into its component parts. Hollinger has a measure he calls Offensive Percentage, which uses the offensive components of PER and compares it to the number of possessions a player uses to generate that offense.
I have two metrics of my own design, called Individual Defensive Value and Adjusted Defensive Value, which use the defensive components of PER. Adjusted Defensive Value uses a PER-type analysis to measure a team's field-goal defense, for which value is then distributed amongst the players on that team and added to their Individual Defensive Value.
The creme de la creme of the metrics, however, is my Wins Above Replacement metric. More than even PER, Wins Above Replacement (which is in the very early stages of development) is a basketball superstat, similar to VORP or Win Shares for baseball. Essentially, the metric measures the total points a player is credited for in the PER system, subtracts the points a "replacement level" player (usually with a PER of about 11.00 on the normal scale where 15 is average, but it can be moved up or down), adjusts for the "double counting" problem, and then plugs that into an average team's results using the Basketball Pythagorean Theorem.
Wins Above Replacement, as I have indicated, is in the early stages. I find that it does a good job of capturing value, and curiously the sum of a team's WinsAR is very close to a team's actual wins no matter whether the teams are good or bad teams. This would indicate that a team of "replacement level" players wouldn't win very many, if any, ballgames; a theory that does appear to be borne out in practice. Again, on-ball defense is not counted in this metric, and I am working on including it, as well as putting players in team context instead of league context. For now, though, the WinsAR metric will help us look at the midseason candidates for NBA MVP.
The MVP Candidates
First, let's get the list out of the way. The top 20 NBA players in 2003/04 to date (actually to February 6, the day for which I currently have data) are:
Player Team WinsARSomething should leap out at you immediately from that table. One is that the Timberwolves have a 35-14 record (through Feb. 6) based mostly on the superlative play of two players (no other team placed two players in the top 20!). Second is that there are three players in the NBA this year who have been head and shoulders above everyone else... Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan, and Tracy McGrady.
You may notice something else about this list. The top scorers are not necessarily on it. Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant, Vince Carter, LeBron James... these guys are high on the scorer's list, but not as high in PER and similar metrics. Iverson leads the NBA in scoring, yet is 26th in the league in WinsAR at 5.5, tied with Carlos Boozer and Rashard Lewis. Why is this?
The analogy I use is that points scored is an awful lot like RBI in baseball. Both are primarily a product of opportunity. The top scorers, like the top RBI men, are all good players. They are all good at converting opportunities into baskets or runs. But that does not make them the best players; the players who are setting up those opportunities have equal claim to offensive prowess. The players who are more efficient (who take fewer shots and waste fewer of a team's opportunities) have a better claim to offensive prowess. Possession in basketball is like outs in baseball... it is your commodity.
Also, in basketball, there is another wrinkle. Like in baseball (except for DH baseball) all basketball players are two-way players. But in basketball, that defensive role is equal for all five players (whereas in baseball as much as two-thirds of the defensive responsibility falls on the pitcher). In baseball, non-pitchers' defense may have considerable value, as it does in basketball.
Let's get back to the candidates.
Kevin Garnett, Minnesota
Garnett is having a monster season, full stop. Not only is he fourth in the NBA in scoring and first in rebounding, he has played more minutes than any other big man and his passing, shotblocking, and other skills have been terrific. He leads the NBA in PER with a 29.06 figure, well ahead of Tim Duncan at 26.56 and in the usual range for an MVP (which is around 27.5 to 30).
Garnett is over 12 wins above replacement; which is about the distance Minnesota is over .500 (taking away 12 wins would put them at 23-26, which is probably where they would be if you replaced Garnett with Horace Grant or Donnell Harvey). His teammate Sam Cassell is 8 wins above replacement. With KG but without Cassell (replacing him with Dan Dickau or somebody) the Wolves would be about 27-22, shockingly similar to Wolves teams in the recent past.
[Editor's note: A 27-22 record works out to 46 wins over the course of a full season. The Wolves' win-totals over the past four years: 51, 50, 47, 50.]
Garnett is clearly the real MVP right now; he has never approached these levels of performance before. He is grabbing far more rebounds (he's grabbing over 20% of available rebounds for the first time in his career; 20% is the hallmark of the game's truly great rebounders). He is making far fewer turnovers. And most importantly, he is creating far more offensive opportunities for himself than ever before. Put it together, and Garnett is carrying one of the league's best teams on his shoulders. It has been a Shaq-like performance.
Tim Duncan, San Antonio
Ho hum, another Tim Duncan season. Duncan's statistical profile is different in type, but equally valuable, as last season, when all he did was lead the Spurs to the NBA's best record and the championship, and won the MVP to boot. A player can do no more.
Duncan's doing it differently, as I mentioned. He has been creating far more offensive opportunities for himself, much as Garnett has - but like Garnett he is actually a less effective shooter than in the past (is this a product of the evolution of NBA zones? If so, yuck). Also like Garnett, his assists are down marginally, but so are his turnovers.
Duncan's 10 wins above replacement are impressive; the next best players on the Spurs are Manu Ginobili at +4.1 and Tony Parker at +2.8, so if San Antonio's 34-18 record is disappointing, it's not down to Duncan. But there is one other stat that goes a long way in explaining San Antonio's "disappointing" season.
Remember how earlier I was explaining that the Pythagoeran Theorem works in basketball too? Well, every team in the NBA is within three games of their Pythagorean record. Except for the Spurs and the Portland Trail Blazers. The Blazers are four games worse than their record indicates; but the Spurs are *under*performing their Pythagorean Expectation by a whopping SIX games.
The Spurs' "true" record is 40-12; better than Sacramento and indicating that if you can find a nice price on the Spurs you may do well to take it. They have been unlucky so far this year; I would not bank on that continuing. The Spurs are trying to set all kinds of records for defensive excellence; they allow a ridiculously low 91.3 points per 100 possessions by their opponents, easily the best in the NBA in some time. And we all know that in the playoffs, it all starts with defense. Duncan's contributions to that outstanding defense are a good argument and what must underlie any argument for him as MVP.
Tracy McGrady, Orlando
A great lesson in how a player can get lost when he's on a lousy team.
Aaron and I have discussed McGrady a couple of times now and Aaron rightly points out that McGrady has "Vince Carter disease" and doesn't slash hard to the basket to create offensive opportunities, instead hanging out at the 3-point arc and expecting others to make shots for him. It's a symptom of living without hope; McGrady's not likely to apply himself when the only thing that will accomplish is fewer balls in the lottery for the Magic. McGrady was the league's real MVP last year; he won't get there this year, but he might have if the Magic could play defense.
The Magic have been a tiny bit better than their 13-39 record would indicate, but nearly all of their problems this year have been defensive (opponents score 107.8 points per 100 possessions against the Magic, easily the worst in the NBA). On offense, they rank 12th, in large part thanks to McGrady, who creates shots for himself with ridiculous ease and does it without turning the ball over.
On a per-minute basis, McGrady is not in fact the third-best player in the NBA this year. Elton Brand has a PER of 25.56 to McGrady's 24.94, but he hasn't had the minutes because of a broken foot. T-Mac isn't a serious MVP candidate right now, not on a godawful Magic team. But it goes to show how a guy can be written off despite a good year, merely due to team context.
A big thanks to Craig for that piece. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.
Craig's Wins Above Replacement passes my first test, by producing a ranking that makes sense to me. Any metric that has Garnett as the MVP thus far is off to a good start, and I also agree that Duncan, Cassell and Stojakovic should be included in the top five.
I'm a little less sold on McGrady, but that might be because his team's poor record has clouded my judgment. Seeing as though team performance taking precedence over individual performance in MVP debates really makes me crazy in baseball, I'm willing to give Tracy the benefit of the doubt and say he's as good as Craig's system says he is this year.
I do think McGrady is starting to get on the Vince Carter 'settling for three-pointers and fadeaway jumpers' diet, which can make an incredible player into an overrated scorer before you can say "Glenn Robinson."
Now, onto the fun stuff...
A few days ago I talked to a long-time friend of mine named Max, who I hadn't spoken to in quite a while. He told me a funny story about how we came to talk again.
Max said he was at a party at this guy named Jeff's house. He was telling a story at the party about how Jeff once got into a scuffle with this kid named Aaron Gleeman, and that Jeff threw him to the ground and busted his chin.
So someone at the party hears this and says, "The Aaron Gleeman? Aaron's Baseball Blog?"
Max had no clue what he was talking about, but the guy showed him my blog and then Max dropped me an email. I think that is a great story. Of course, it would have been even better if it didn't involve me getting tossed around and me getting my chin busted open, but not every story is a perfect one.
Anyway, Max recently started up a sports website of his own, called "Courtside Chatter." It is a sports forum/message board that focuses on basketball. And, since this blog has been devoted to basketball for the past two days, I figured it would be a good time to give Max's new website a plug.
I've started up a new topic/thread on Max's forum, about the basketball entries on this blog the past two days. So, if you feel like chatting about the NBA, basketball stats, Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter Disease, Kevin Garnett or me getting my butt kicked by a kid named Jeff when I was 12 years old, head on over and check it out.
I'll be stopping by throughout the day, so hopefully there will be some interesting discussions going on.
Here's the link to the specific topic in the forum for today's blog entry:
Courtside Chatter: Stat heads like basketball too
Head on over and tell Max I sent you...
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Monday, February 09, 2004
Stat heads like basketball tooOne of the things that makes me love baseball so much has always been its numbers. The numbers of baseball can help you become more knowledgeable about the game, they can give you a better understanding of the game and its history, and they can simply allow you to enjoy the game on a different level.
Of course, saying something like that in the wrong crowd get can get you called a "stat head" or much worse, and you'll probably hear something about you needing to "get your head out of the spreadsheets and watch some games." Stuff like that, in my case at least, is absolutely ridiculous.
During the season, I watch baseball like it's a drug, and then I go into my own personal detox during the off-season. But still, no matter how many games I watch, I will always enjoy the numbers too. The reason is that I think baseball's statistics tell you more about the game and its players than the statistics of any other sport.
Every sport has its own statistics, obviously. And every sport even has its own "advanced metrics" and "complicated formulas." But none can compete with the sheer volume of interesting ways of looking at numbers that baseball has, and no sport has numbers that can essentially tell you anything you ever wanted to know about the game.
Secondary to my love of baseball is my strong "like" of basketball. Truth be told, I like college basketball much more than the pros, but the NBA can be fun too. If I weren't such a baseball nut, I'm sure I'd be writing "Aaron's Basketball Blog" and I would be using basketball's stats to help me better understand the game.
Much like baseball fans, basketball fans often fall victim to relying on numbers that are misleading at times. Where baseball has batting average, wins and RBIs, basketball has scoring average and field goal percentage.
Scoring average, to me, is the single most overrated stat in basketball, and it becomes even more misleading and useless when it is viewed by itself, without additional factors weighed in. While the amount of points a player scores is certainly important, when I'm looking at a someone's scoring ability I always do so while also paying attention to how well they do in my own personal stat of choice - "adjusted field goal percentage."
A lot of fans rely on regular field goal percentage, where Shaquille O'Neal usually leads the league shooting around 58% and guards rarely top even 50%. Deeming Shaq the most effective shooter in the league is a bit like saying Bill Mueller was the best hitter in the AL last year because he led the league in batting average.
Not because Shaq can't shoot from outside of about 10 feet (which is fairly irrevevant, as long as he's able to make the shots he does take), but because Shaq's shot attempts are all worth two points, whereas other players are attempting multiple shots per game that are worth three points each. Because of that, his field goal percentage alone, much like Mueller's batting average, does not tell the entire story.
Three-pointers are made at a much lower rate than two-pointers (especially Shaq's two-pointers), but they are also worth 150% as much. In essence, someone shooting 40% on three-pointers is doing the same as someone (like Shaq) who is shooting 60% on two-pointers. This is the reason why adjusted field goal percentage is far superior to raw field goal percentage.
I suppose it is analogous to using slugging percentage in place of batting average. While one player might hit .340 and win the league batting title comfortably over a player who hit .290, that .290 hitter's hits might have been worth a whole lot more bases.
In other words, take a look at two players from last year, Ichiro! and Vernon Wells:
AB PA AVG HITIchiro! and Wells got essentially the same amount of playing time last year and, in one less at bat, Wells got three more hits. They ranked 1-2 in the AL in hits and several of their other stats - at bats, plate appearances, batting average - were about as close as two players can get. So, if you were to look at their batting averages (or their hits) the same way most NBA fans view a player's field goal percentage, you would conclude that Ichiro! and Wells were equally efficient offensively.
Now, look at this:
TB SLGWhile they both had essentially the same amount of hits, Vernon Wells' hits gained nearly 80 more bases than Ichiro!'s hits. In other words, Ichiro! and Wells got hits at the same rate, but Wells' hits simply went for far more bases, and thus had more value.
Now let's make a similar comparison in the NBA...
Zach Randolph, a forward for the Portland Trail Blazers, has taken an average of 17.8 shots per game this season, making 48.3% of them. Meanwhile, Peja Stojakovic, a forward for the Sacramento Kings, has taken an average of 17.7 shots per game this season, making 47.9% of them.
FGA/G FGM/G FG%As was the case with Ichiro! and Wells in regard to at bats and hits, Randolph and Stojakovic are essentially identical when it comes to the amount of shots they take, the amount of shots they make, and the rate at which they make shots.
Here's where it gets interesting...
3PTA 3PTMRight around 40% of the shots Peja Stojakovic has taken this year have been worth three points, while Zach Randolph has taken just a handful of three-pointers the entire year. With this in mind, the fact that Randolph is shooting 48.3% and Stojakovic is shooting 47.9% becomes extremely misleading.
What it means is that, just as Vernon Wells' hits were simply worth more than Ichiro!'s hits, Peja Stojakovic's shots are simply worth more than Zach Randolph's.
FGA/G PTS/G PTS/FGA*The above numbers ignore what each player does at the free throw line, which is an entirely different issue.
In short, each shot Stojakovic has taken this season has been worth about 16% more than each shot Zach Randolph has attempted. If you give each three-pointer credit for being worth 1.5 times as much as each two-pointer, you then get the following adjusted field goal percentages:
AdjFG%That tells a whole different story, doesn't it? In fact, because so many of the shots he attempts (and makes) are worth three points instead of two, Peja Stojakovic can actually challenge the king of field goal percentage, Shaquille O'Neal, when it comes to efficiency.
It's not particularly close when you look at raw field goal percentages:
FG%Shaq leads the league, while Stojakovic's 47.9% is good for just 22nd place. However, when you take into account that each three Stojakovic makes is worth 150% of each two Shaq makes, you get the following numbers:
AdjFG% PTS/FGAThat's right, despite Shaquille O'Neal's gaudy field goal percentage, Peja Stojakovic has actually scored slightly more points per shot attempt than O'Neal this season, resulting in an adjusted field goal percentage is 0.1% higher than Shaq's.
In baseball, a team's currency is its remaining outs. When those are gone, you are done scoring runs. In basketball, the same is true of possessions. You get a certain number of possessions per game and your efficiency converting those possessions into points (and keeping your opponent from doing same) will determine whether you win or lose.
This is why looking simply at a player's scoring average is misleading at best and it is why even looking at a player's scoring average, alongside his raw field goal percentage, can still tell you an incomplete story about that player's efficiency and value.
Since we're still a few days from seeing actual baseball, tomorrow's blog entry will be taking a look at who the most valuable players in the NBA have been so far this season, by way of some advanced basketball stats. It's very interesting, so make sure to stop by to check it out.
See ya then...
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