Tuesday, November 29, 2011

What FIP Critics Do and Do Not Say

On Fangraphs today, Noah Issacs refuted an argument against FIP.  The argument that Issacs attempts to refute can be formalized as follows:

P1.  If there are players who consistently outperform their FIP, then FIP is a failed stat.
P2.  There are players who consistently outperform their FIP.
C.  Therefore, FIP is a failed stat.

This argument is certainly valid (modus ponens...If A, then B; A; thus B).  So, Issacs argues against the soundness by attacking P1.  He correctly notes that one should expect a certain number of players to consistently outperform their FIP, as there is a 50% chance that any given pitcher will outperform his FIP in any given year.  Hence, there is a 25% chance that any given pitcher will outperform their FIP for two consecutive years, a 12.5% chance he will do so three consecutive years, and so on.

In other words, the presence of players who consistently outperform their FIP is to be expected even over a 5+ year sample size.  That is, FIP's standing as a perfect stat is consistent with the presence of statistical outliers.

Consider the following example.  If there were 100 people flipping a coin, we would expect about 50 of those to flip heads.  Of those 50, we would expect 25 to flip heads the next time, 12-13 to flip heads three times in a row, about 6 to flip heads four times in a row, and about 3 to flip heads five times in a row.  This is all consistent with the fact that there is a 50% chance of flipping heads on any given flip.  With a large enough sample size, you can expect statistical extremes.

Issacs' argument works off the same basic reasoning pattern.  We should EXPECT outliers like Matt Cain who consistently outperform FIP, as our sample size is large enough to reasonably expect extremes.  So, P1 is false.  We can not conclude that FIP is a failed stat just because there are players who consistently outperform their FIP.

The problem with Issacs, refutation, however, is that few critics of FIP make the claim found in P1.  That is, few critics of FIP believe that the mere existence of statisical outliers refutes FIP as an important stat.

Rather, critics of FIP try to offer an explanation for why certain pitchers outperform FIP beyond the expectation of statistical extremes in our sample.  For example, many FIP critics claim that pitchers like Tom Glavine are able to control their BABIP and/or HR/FB ratio through skill, something that FIP assumes is not possible (as FIP assumes BABIP is fully the function of luck).  A FIP critic looks at Glavine, who, after his breakout year in 1991, outperformed his FIP 16 out of 18 years, and offers an explanation for why this is so: Glavine could control his BABIP (career .280) and/or his HR/FB ratio.

A sample argument of this sort may look as follows:

P1.  If pitchers can control their BABIP in a meaningful way, then FIP is a failed stat.
P2.  Pitchers can control their BABIP in a meaningful way.
C.  Therefore, FIP is a failed stat.

This is the sort of argument FIP critics make.  So, this is the sort of argument that FIP defenders need to address.

Issacs' article, while certainly correct in its refutation, is merely attacking a straw man argument.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The New CBA and the Misuse/Overuse of Pitching Prospects

Both Dave Cameron and Keith Law did a splendid job recapping the highlights and lowlights of the new MLB CBA (sadly there are a great deal lowlights).  I believe, however, that one negative aspect of the new CBA has not been discussed sufficiently.  In short, by enticing more players to go to college, the MLB is putting their prospects in the wrong hands.

This goes beyond the fact that, on average, college coaching staffs are not as skilled as professional coaching staffs in terms of developing prospects (especially in developing the sort of specific players a specific team may be looking to develop).  On average, the best coaches are in the professional ranks, so putting these future prospects in the hands of inferior coaching for 3-4 years inhibits their baseball development.  However, this negative aspect of the CBA is not my focus here.

Rather, my focus is on how college pitchers are misused and overused.  For a college coach, a new pitching recruit is simply a three or four year investment.  For a professional coach, a new pitching prospect can be a 10+ year investment.  Who is going to be concerned more for the pitcher’s long-term health and development?  Well, obviously it is going to be the coach who has more invested in the player.

I have two roommates who pitched at the same Mid-American Conference school.  Both of them were right-handed pitchers and both were viewed as low-level pro prospects at some time or another (one was drafted out of high school, and both attended several professional tryout sessions).  Each experienced a period of dead arm, where their low to mid-90’s fastballs were suddenly sitting in the mid 80’s range.  What did coaches do?  Well, of course, their coaches turned both of them into side-armers, making them right-on-right specialists.   In fact, this was (and still remains) standard practice at the school for any player who experiences dead arm.  It is the best way to squeeze out every ounce of value before the pitcher graduates.

Now, ask yourself, “What would a professional coach do in this situation?”  Well, simply put, a professional coach would shut the pitcher down for an extended period, seeing if he could help bring the velocity back.  If that failed, he might then move on to other methods (long-toss program, etc.) in hopes of bringing the pitcher’s velocity back.

Now, it is not as simple as the college coach acting selfishly and the professional coach acting selflessly.  Both are actually acting selfishly.  For the professional coach, the selfish thing to do is whatever best helps the player become as good of a player long-term as possible.  So, he will take a long-term approach with the player.  The college coach is not afforded such a luxury.  Rather, the college coach must win and win now in order to keep his job.  So, in order to achieve this goal, he squeezes every ounce of short-term value he can out of a player.

This is not a problem merely at the lower level (i.e. the MAC, where the anecdote I recite occurred).   Many remember Austin Wood, the Texas pitcher who threw 169 pitches (a day after throwing 30) in a 2009 NCAA Regional game.  If a coach in the New York-Penn League (or some other low minor league system) used a top prospect like this, what would happen to that coach?  Obviously he would be fired or severely reprimanded.  If you do something like this in college, you are rewarded, because you are doing whatever it takes to win.  It should surprise no one that Wood only pitched 1.1 innings in 2010 (his first full MiLB season) because of injury.  This type of overuse is not all that uncommon.  In fact, during 2009 alone, a pitcher threw 150 or more pitches 25 times!

So, as more pitchers are enticed to go to the NCAA ranks, more pitchers will be misused and overused in ways that would get professional coaches fired in they treated the players in such a way.  

College coaches get rewarded for it.  That’s why MLB teams should want these kids under their control.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Tigers Must Offer Wilson Betemit Arbitration

Wilson Betemit may have disappointed in the playoffs (often missing pitches by what looked like three full feet), but the Tigers have to offer him arbitration.

Betemit would almost certainly decline, as he only made one million dollars last year and would likely be in line for a bigger contract if he went out on the open market.  If he does decline, the Tigers get a supplemental first round pick (likely somewhere between 40 and 60 overall).

If, for some reason, Betemit accepted arbitration, the Tigers would only owe him between 1.5 and 2 million, a very reasonable amount for his skill-set.  Betemit would then be used as a platoon third baseman (to limit Inge’s playing time) and second baseman.

So, there would be no downside, regardless what Betemit decided to do.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Offseason Acquisition Series: Tigers sign Gerald Laird

Here in Detroit, the standard reaction to the Gerald Laird signing was something along the lines of:


As you can imagine, I did not find this reaction to be very reasonable.  So, why do Tigers' fans universally despise Gerald Laird?

Game 163.

In Detroit, those two words point to only one thing.  2009.  Twins vs Tigers.  In what MLB Network declared the 20th best game of the last 25+ years.  As a Tigers' fan, it was simultaneously the most exhilarating and frustrating game of my life.

Gerald Laird's line in that game: 0-6, 2 K's, 10 LOB.  All of that with future All-Star Alex Avila sitting on the bench as a sparsely used rookie.

Because of that one game, Detroit fans hate Gerald Laird.  It is really as simple as that.

Of course, this is about as small a sample size that you can get when evaluating a player, and most Tigers' fans would admit that their disgust with the Gerald Laird signing derives from their arational, emotional reaction to Laird.

So, let's be rational and objective and view Gerald Laird for what he is.

Quick Summary:

  • Terrible hitter vs righties
  • Below-average hitter vs lefties (most of his appearances will probably be vs lefties, as he is playing behind a lefty in Avila)
  • Average to above-average defensively
  • Above -average (for his position) in terms of speed and base-running
  • Accustomed to catching Verlander, Scherzer, Porcello, Coke, Papa Grande, and Ryan Perry among others

    A backup who will only be asked to play about 30 games this season, assuming Avila stays healthy

    For all that he will provide, Laird is a fine signing for a piddling one million dollars.

    Even if it may take years to get the bad taste of game 163 out of Tigers' fans' mouths.

    Offseason Acquisition Series: Phillies trade for Ty Wigginton

    The Phillies gave up virtually nothing in this trade, as they surrendered only a Player To Be Named Later (who is expected to be inconsequential), while the Rockies are picking up two million of the four million dollars Wigginton is owed in 2012.

    So, the financial investment is minimal, but there is another important investment that often gets ignored.  In short, the Phillies must invest one of their 25 roster spots in Wigginton.  Anybody who has followed a team throughout a whole season knows how valuable each roster spot is.

    Perhaps you are wondering why Wigginton isn’t a good guy to give a bench spot to, considering he can play all four infield positions, as well as both corner outfield spots.  Isn’t this type of versatility that you look for in a bench position?

    Yes.  You want someone who can play multiple positions.  The problem with Wigginton is that he is a significantly below average defender at every position he plays.  His UZR is negative for every position except right field, where he has only played 46.3 innings in the last four years (i.e. an insignificant sample size).  You want a versatile player to back up a bunch of positions, but you don't want someone like Wigginton who is likely a downgrade everywhere he plays.  In this case, Wigginton's versatility is highly overrated.

    His bat is also lacking, as he has posted a wRC+ of 92 or less each of the last three seasons.  Add in his below replacement level base-running, and you are left with a guy who can “play” 6 positions, is a below average hitter, a below replacement runner, and just turned 34 years old.

    Is this the sort of player the deep-pocketed World Series hopeful Phillies should have on their 25-man all year?

    Forget the monetary investment, Wigginton isn’t even worth the investment of a roster spot.