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Mike Scioscia is making me crazy

May 21, 2009

Sabermetrics has come around on the stolen base a bit. Back in the Moneyball era, the steal was a no-no. Since then, front offices such as the Athletics and Red Sox have come around on the stolen base, so long as it’s successful at a very high rate.

If your stolen base attempts are successful less than 70-75% of the time, then you’re penalizing your team in two ways. First, the stolen base removes a baserunner, something that the average at-bat only generates about a third of the time. Even more important than the loss of the baserunner, however, is the impact of the out. This topic has been beaten into the ground by the geniuses at Hardball Times, Fangraphs, and Tom Tango’s The Book Blog, so I’m going to be quick in my explanation so that I can get to the point. Baseball has no clock. Outs are akin to the “time” a team has left to score. They are your “most precious commodity” (hat tip to Earl Weaver), and should never be squandered.

Today’s LA Times article about the Angels’ reckless attempts to take third by theft is a terrible example of justifying a stupid tactic through veteran endorsement. The article’s thesis is that attempting to steal third frequently is OK because Mike Scioscia and Torii Hunter say that it is worth the risk and the consequences of getting caught.

Let’s break it down using an expected runs framework*:

Bases    0 outs    1 out    2 outs
xxx    0.54124    0.30065    0.10974
1xx    0.91891    0.56768    0.24182
x2x    1.11888    0.73508    0.33831
xx3    1.25203    0.98077    0.42975
12x    1.55291    0.95307    0.47846
1×3    1.77027    1.18257    0.61926
x23    2.10112    1.52899    0.6437
123    2.29851    1.71074    0.83677

For those of you who haven’t seen this before, here’s how the chart works. You take the bases from the left and the number of outs from the top of the starting state, and then you take the same combination for the conclusion of a play to see how many expected runs you gained or lost from your move. This chart is how you can demonstrate that in most situations a sacrifice bunt leaves you in a worse position than before the bunt.

Let’s say Torii Hunter is on second base with no outs. The Angels should score 1.12 runs in the inning on average. If Hunter steals third, they should score 1.25 runs on average. His gain of .13 runs is very small. The reason for the tiny gain is that most plays that score a runner from second also score a runner from third (especially a fast runner like Hunter), and that with no outs there are lots of chances for Hunter to advance, even on outs. Now let’s see what happens if Hunter is caught. The Angels go from an expected 1.12 runs to .30 runs, a loss of almost an entire run (.82 runs to be exact).

If Hunter were stealing with 1 out, the Angels expected runs rises from .74 to .98, about a quarter of a run, and the possible loss from being caught is the difference of .74 and .11, a loss of about two-thirds of a run. If he succeeded with two outs, the rise is from .34 to .43, about a tenth of a run, and the potential loss is .34 (you can’t score when you have three outs). The point is that stealing third successfully gets you a very marginal advantage, and failure comes at a great cost. The penalty goes down as the number of outs increases, because it becomes less likely that the inning will say alive long enough for Hunter to be driven home.

Stealing third tends to be less successful than stealing second for a number of reasons, including the much shorter throw from the catcher. With this in mind, a manager should only attempt stealing third if they think the defense is napping (such as when the third baseman is way off the bag or covering for a bunt), or when they have a combination of a very good base stealer and a very bad catcher. Kenji Johjima is a terrible hitter at this point, but he is a very effective defensive catcher. The Angels used the argument that because Felix Hernandez was pitching that they had to do everything possible to score against him. They are correct that Felix might change the situation, but they are dramatically overestimating the impact of the steal. They would be better off hoping that one of the next two hitters got a base hit (about a fifty-fifty shot) than having Hunter atempt a low-probability, low-benefit play.

What infuriates me is that attempting to steal third in a one-run game when there are two outs and a bad hitter up could be an acceptable tactic. Scioscia’s insistence on suiciding his runners in all situations just provides another example that he’s unwilling to adopt any sort of nuanced approach to his unabashed love of small-ball.

Of course, this is the same nonsense we should expect from a club that doesn’t advocate taking walks, and thinks that because they won a World Series with small-ball once that it should trump all other tactics. Scioscia needs to realize that 1) his team is not as young and fast as it once was and 2) that while small-ball can be effectively mixed with other tactics, the Angels’ current recklessness on the basepaths is only costing him further outs that his on-base percentage deprived team of Mickey Hatcher** acolytes can not spare.

*Expected runs courtesy of Baseball Prospectus, but they are available from The Book and several other sources. Expected runs are the basis of Hardball Times’ RE24 statistic.

**Hatcher’s philosophy is that swinging more and swinging earlier is the route to winning. Sounds more like a recipie for a guy batting .275 with an on-base percentage of .300 to me.

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Update on Sonnanstine/Longoria situation

May 18, 2009

OK, so here’s what actually happened:

Joe Maddon listed both Evan Longoria and Ben Zobrist as 3Bs for the day, even though he was intending on having Longoria play as a designated hitter. Eric Wedge, that old rascal, waited for Zobrist to take the field before he raised his objection, denying Maddon the ability to fix his lineup card in the most desirable way (losing Zobrist, keeping Longoria). American League rules require the manager to forfeit their DH slot if they switch in a postition player (meaning that double-switches for AL teams turn them into NL teams for the duration of the game). Since Longoria wasn’t the player on the field, it was his slot that had to be adjusted to get the pitcher in the lineup. Sonnanstine was technically pinch-hitting for Longoria, so that was why Longoria was unavailable.

As it turned out, Sonnanstine hit a double, so Maddon did not end up paying for his mistake.

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Sonnanstine batting 3rd, Tampa without a DH

May 17, 2009

I’ll post more about this later, but it looks like Joe Maddon screwed up on his lineup card and listed both Ben Zobrist and Evan Longoria at 3B. The consequences of this are that he forfeited his designated hitter slot, and had to put Sonnanstine in the three-hole in place of Longoria. I’m still not sure why he didn’t bench Zobrist rather than Longoria, but we’ll see. We’ll get the update, and I’ll be sure to comment on Maddon’s general strategic ineptitude.

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Steven Goldman on Selena Roberts

May 8, 2009

Lest we be accused of being an all-Red Sox, all-the-time blog, here’s a piece from YES and Baseball Prospectus’ Steven Goldman on Selena Roberts’ less than stellar record with respect to accuracy and an understanding of the issues in baseball.

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How Seibu spent the money

May 4, 2009

Here’s the NY Times account of how the Seibu Lions spent the $51.1 million that they received from the Red Sox for Daisuke Matsuzaka‘s posting rights. Looks like most of the money was very well spent. (They won the Japan Series and renovated the stadium.)

Update: I forgot to mention, pay special attention to the money dedicated to upgrading the stadium toilets!

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Bowden Discussing Nationals’ Strasburg Strategy

May 1, 2009

I’m sure those of you who followed Jim Bowden’s incompetent reign as GM of the Nationals and his firing this winter for a combination of inept management and possible corruption won’t see this much of a surprise, but I was dumbstruck when I saw this post on Jim Callis’ blog at Baseball America.

In an on-air appearance on LA radio, Bowden says that the Nationals have already decided on drafting Stephen Strasburg, the San Diego State pitcher is already considered the near unanimous choice for the first pick in this year’s draft. His incredible performance (fastball at 98-99, over a strikeout an inning, ERA way under 1.00) have scouts drooling, and with Scott Boras as his agent, the bonus demands are sure to be high. He will probably shatter the record for a draft signing bonus based on the combination of hype, performance, polish, and the lack of talent following him in a weak draft class.

Bowden is making the situation much worse for the Nats by telling the public that the team is dead-set on getting Strasburg. His comments:

“That is who they are going to take . . . This is the best amateur pitcher since I was born. He is that good–his delivery, his stuff, 100 miles an hour in the eighth inning, his makeup. He’s got the entire package . . . Strasburg is going to be drafted by Washington. You think they are going to sign him early? No, it’s going to be Aug. 15 at 11:57 p.m. It will end at around $15 million, about under $35 million of what Scott wants, but that is where it ends up. It will be record-breaking, and he will be pitching in the big leagues in September. He is that good.”

This has to violate some kind of non-disclosure agreement. Bowden is undermining the Nationals’ bargaining position by 1) establishing Strasburg as the clear choice of the Nationals and 2) telling the expected terms of the signing. This kind of stuff is going to be used by Boras against the Nationals in negotiations. Boras will be able to use what would have been the Nationals’ final offer as his initial barganing position. Even if Bowden is not violating some prior agreement not to divulge internal details from the Nationals’ baseball operations department, this is a serious breach of professional ettiquette. How could another owner ever hire Bowden to be a GM or special assistant to the GM if this is the way he acts on the way out the door?

If I were the Lerner family, I’d be assembling a group of lawyers to sue Bowden immediately.

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Jonathan of all (van) Trades

May 1, 2009

During last night’s disembowelment of the Red Sox by the Tampa Bay Rays, Terry Francona made an unusual move. Javier Lopez was getting touched up, and the bullpen was depleted after no days off and several extra-inning games against the Indians and (previously) the Yankees. Francona wanted to preserve Lopez, his “lefty specialist”, so he sent Lopez to right field, and asked minor-leaguer-for-life Jonathan van Every to pitch.

(Pitch f/x was broken for most of Van Every’s outing, so we didn’t get to watch much of his motion/pitch selection, etc. It looked to me like he was just throwing a lot of high and outside pitches “not-slowballs” in the low 80s.)

I had the Rays’ broadcast of the game at home, and the announcer brought up a really good point. Some viewers may have thought that Francona’s move was embarrassing to Lopez, and was meant to show him up. The broadcaster (who sounded a lot like Fox’s Kevin Kennedy, but I thought he was doing Dodger games) made the point that Francona’s move was designed to protect Lopez’ arm for a later night that weekend where Lopez might be able to contribute to a game that wasn’t already decided by a ten-plus run margin. Javier Lopez may have suffered the indignity of being replaced but not pulled (and having to run down a double that Van Every allowed), but he would live to fight again later that weekend.

Now if only we could figure out why Theo Epstein and Terry Francona keep relying on Javier Lopez to fight for them.

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