Initially, I supported the idea of trading Burnett to the Pirates because of the reports that Garrett Jones would be coming back from the Pirates. That is a deal that made sense because Garret Jones would play an important role as a platoon DH/OF against right-handed pitchers (his numbers against righties last season: .346 OBP, .462 SLG, sOPS+ 117).
However, it turned out that the Pirates were not going to trade Garrett Jones for A.J. Burnett.
In fact, it looks like the Yankees will not be getting any player that can make an impact for this team in the present or in the future. Most likely, the player the Yankees will receive is going to serve as minor league depth for the rest of his time with the organization.
If the A.J. Burnett deal is merely a salary dump for the Bronx Bombers, then it is not the right move to make.
To all those who disagree, I want you to forget what A.J. Burnett’s yearly salary will be for the next two seasons (16.5 million); I want you to remember that the luxury tax threshold of $189 million comes into effect in 2014 which is after Burnett’s deal expires; I want you to realize that A.J. Burnett is clearly a player who is above replacement level.
Last season saw A.J. Burnett post a 1.5 WAR. That means that if you replaced A.J. Burnett with a replacement-level player (think of a AAAA-type player, someone who is too good for the minors but not good enough for the big leagues) you would see a drop in the Yankees total of 1.5.
Yes, I realize you cannot have half a win. If you must harp on that fact, then treat it as a 1.5 win drop from a calculated expected wins total.
Now, how does a pitcher with a 5.15 ERA turn out to be a 1.5 WAR player?
The answer lies in better statistics. First, ERA is an antiquated stat that very often misrepresents the quality of a pitcher. The defense behind the pitcher, the ballpark he pitches in, and for lack of a better term, luck, all can turn ERA into a stat that does a poor job of measuring pitcher performance.
Now let us look at some stats that better represent pitcher performance. Burnett’s K/9 (strikeouts/nine innings—which fell by quite a bit in 2010) was 8.18 in 2011. That is near the level that Burnett had in 2009 (8.48).
His K/BB in 2011 was the best he has posted in his time as a Yankee (2.08). His WHIP was 1.43 in 2011. That does not correlate to an ERA of 5.15.
A pitcher with a 1.43 WHIP should expect to have an ERA from 4.20-4.60 which in the AL East isn’t as bad as it looks. In fact, that would make Burnett a solid back of the rotation starter.
So what could explain A.J. Burnett’s poor ERA in 2011?
Let’s look at HR/FB rate. This stat shows what percentage of the fly balls a pitcher concedes wind up in the seats. The league average is 10.6 percent and most pitchers’ career averages hang around 8.5-11.5 percent.
Obviously it can differ for different pitchers and is affected by competition and ballpark factors. Season-to-season this stat can be highly volatile. That is what we saw with A.J. Burnett in 2011.
Before 2011, A.J. Burnett had a career HR/FB rate under 11 percent. During his time as a Yankee, his HR/FB rate was slightly above 11 percent. A.J. Burnett posted a 17 percent HR/FB rate in 2011. That’s an absurdly high rate and a ridiculously large jump from his career numbers.
A number like this screams bad luck and should regress to the mean in the 2012 season.
The effect of Burnett’s “bad luck” with home runs can be seen in the FIP (fielding independent pitching) and xFIP (expected fielding independent pitching).
FIP is a stat that attempts to strip away as many of the outside factors affecting ERA and come up with a number (on an ERA scale) that represents the quality of the pitcher’s performance (hence fielding independent). If you want to learn more about FIP and how it is calculated, check here.
A.J. Burnett’s FIP in 2011 was 4.77. Now, FIP does not take into account “bad luck” when it comes to HR/FB rate. That is where xFIP comes in. This stat is calculated exactly like FIP except it normalizes the HR/FB to the league average of 10.6 percent.
A.J. Burnett posted an xFIP of 3.86. The disparity between FIP and xFIP gives strong evidence to the idea that “bad luck” with fly balls becoming home runs led to Burnett posting a 5.15 ERA.
Now that I have plead the case that A.J. Burnett is not as bad as his ERA makes him out to be, I will say that A.J. Burnett should not start the season in the starting rotation.
The way I see the Yankees’ rotation is that CC is the No. 1 and the other four spots are filled by Pineda, Kuroda, Nova and Hughes. I believe Burnett should start the season in the bullpen as a long reliever.
Why we do not see more of this in the Majors is beyond me. Instead of burning roster spots by having eight or nine man bullpens, a team could have a long reliever.
This would allow a team to use less roster spots on the bullpen and have more hitters on the roster. This would increase a team’s ability to pinch hit, to make defensive substitutions and to take advantage of platoon splits during a game or game-to-game.
With his fastball and curveball, Burnett could be an effective long reliever. He would pitch about two innings an outing. He would rarely, if ever, see a hitter twice. He can focus on maximizing the effectiveness of his two pitches.
There are concerns that Burnett’s fastball has lost velocity, but if you put him in the bullpen, he can just let it rip. By just emptying all his bullets in two innings of work as opposed to pacing himself through a start, Burnett would probably see increased velocity on his fastball.
We also cannot predict injuries and Phil Hughes’ performance. If there is a long-term injury in the starting rotation or Phil Hughes shows that he cannot start in the Major Leagues, then you have Burnett there to fill in.
Of course, at this point in the year, it looks like the Yankees have too many starting pitchers. Yet, all it takes is an injury or two and you are searching for someone to hold down the fort in the fourth and fifth slots of the rotation.
Remember, we are talking about the Yankees, not a payroll limited team. The Yankees should not be in the business of duping salary for nothing. Especially when the contract ends after the 2013 season and the luxury tax level does not rise until 2014.
It just does not make baseball sense.
Regular season baseball is all about large sample sizes. The season is 162 games long; batters have over 500 plate appearances; starting pitchers throw more than 150 innings. These large sample sizes cause, for the most part, the cream to rise to the top. Those players who are great are the players who lead in ERA, WHIP, OBP, and WAR. The MVPs and the Cy Young winners are most often players who are great having great seasons.
The playoffs are a different matter. Instead of a 162 game sample, player stats in the playoffs represent what happened over a minimum sample of three games and a maximum sample of nineteen games. Now, look at the World Series. The sample size ranges from four to nine games. When the sample size gets that small, the odds of a great performance from a great player versus the odds of a great performance shrinks substantially. This has led to some memorable World Series performances from players who were nothing special during their careers. In this case, we are looking at high level World Series performances from players with a career WAR under 10. Here are the memorable World Series performances I found that fit the bill:
George Rohe (1901, 1905-1907), 3B, Chicago White Sox, 1906 World Series
George Rohe was a utility infielder for the White Sox. In fact, he was not the first choice to start in the World Series. Before the World Series, White Sox shortstop George Davis got injured. This led the White Sox to move their starting third baseman, Lee Tannehill, to shortstop and put Rohe at third base. His performance in the World Series helped the White Sox beat the Cubs in six and Charles Comiskey, the owner of the White Sox, stated that Rohe would have a place on the team for life. After putting up a .213/.274/.255 slash line as a starter, the White Sox released him and he never played professional baseball again.
Bobby Brown (’46-’52, ’54), 3B, New York Yankees, 1949 World Series
Probably better known for being the sixth president of the American League, Bobby Brown led the Yankees in AVG, OBP, SLG, hits, runs, RBIs, and triples among players with at least three ABs in the Yankees triumph over the Dodgers in five. On a team with Dimaggio, Berra, Henrich, Rizzuto, and Mize, it’s amazing that they were all outperformed at the plate by Brown. Had there been a World Series MVP in ’49, only Allie Reynolds, who outdueled Don Newcombe in Game 1 and closed out Game 4 with 3.1 innings of shutout ball, could have taken the award from him.
Billy Martin (’50-’53, ’55-’61), 2B, New York Yankees, 1953 World Series
Most remember him for his time as manager of the Bronx Bombers during the mid-to-late 1970s and the 1908s (George Steinbrenner is probably handing another pink slip to Billy Martin in Heaven right now), but his play in the 1953 World Series against the Dodgers may have been the second most remembered event during his time as a player. In the six game series victory over the Dodgers, Martin led the Yankees in hits, HRs, RBIs, AVG, SLG, and OPS. That’s no small feat on a team with Mantle and Berra.
Bobby Richardson (’55-’66), 2B, New York Yankees, 1960 World Series
What we talk about when we are taking about WAR is the value (in this case wins) a player gives to a team above a replacement level player. In 1960, Bobby Richardson performed at the level of a replacement player. So it would have been hard to imagine, going into the 1960 World Series against the Pirates, that Richardson would end up leading the Yankees in triples, runs, and RBIs. He won the MVP award for the series making him the Chuck Howley of baseball (or does that make Chuck Howley the Bobby Richardson of the NFL?). That is not to say he was the Yankees’ greatest performer in the series. That distinction goes to Mickey Mantle. However, Mantle and Richardson, along with Maris, Berra, and Elson Howard, were not enough as the Yankees lost the fantastically lopsided 1960 World Series to the Pirates in seven.
Willie Aikens (’77, ’79-’85), 1B, Kansas City Royals, 1980 World Series
In a series with stars like George Brett, Mike Schmidt, and Steve Carlton, Willie Aikens outshone them all. In Game 1 and Game 4, he hit two home runs and until Chase Utley in 2009, he was the only player to ever hit two home runs in a game twice in the World Series. He also knocked in the game winning RBI in the 10th inning of Game 3. He led all players in the series in triples, HRs, RBI, SLG, and OPS and led the Royals in runs as well. Despite his performance, the Royals lost the series in six to the Philadelphia Phillies.
Billy Hatcher (’84-’95), LF/CF, Cincinnati Reds, 1990 World Series
The numbers say it all. Billy Hatcher, of all people, put together one of the greatest hitting performances in the history of the World Series. Let’s ignore how the performance stacks up relative to the other players in the series. He started out the series with seven consecutive hits. Hatcher set the record for batting average, and OBP in a World Series (min. 18 PA). He finished second in OPS for a series (behind 2.433 by Gehrig in ’28) and sixth in SLG (behind Gehrig ’28, Matsui ’09, Ruth ’28, Bonds ’02…ugh, Gowdy ’14 and tied with Jackson ’77). At I would argue that it is the third greatest of all time (behind Gehrig and Ruth in ’28). Hatcher and the Reds swept the favored Oakland Atheltics. Hatcher did not win the MVP for the World Series as that honor went to a deserved Jose Rijo.
Mark Lemke (’88-’98), 2B, Atlanta Braves, 1991 World Series
The greatest World Series ever played deserved a great performance from an unexpected source. That is not to say that Lemke’s series began well. In Game 2, a miscommunication by between David Justice and Lemke led to Dan Gladden reach second on a routine pop up. This led to the Twins scoring two in the first and they went on to win the game 3-2 with just four hits on an eighth inning home run by Scott Leius. However, Game 3 and Game 4 saw Lemke play the role of hero. In Game 3, Lemke’s single in the 12th with two outs scored Justice and the Braves won their first game of the series. In Game 4, Lemke’s hook slide allowed him to avoid the tag by Brian Harper and won the game in the bottom of the ninth. Lemke led all player in the series in triples, AVG, OBP, and SLG (min. 5 AB). Had the Braves won the series, the MVP would have gone to him or John Smoltz.
(All WAR numbers come from Baseball-Reference.com)
The great Mariano Rivera is now the all-time leader in save. He is the greatest closer baseball has ever seen and that argument starts with the number of games he has saved. Right? Before we get into the meat of this blog, let’s have some fun with a blind resume.
Player A: 1.91 ERA, .913 WHIP, 93 K, 80 IP, 3.0 WAR
Player B: 2.41 ERA, 1.074 WHIP, 208 K, 246.2 IP, 7.9 WAR
Before the season, if you knew these players would post these numbers, and Player A was traded for Player B, who got the better end of the deal? Who would you vote for Cy Young? Who would you vote for MVP?
In 1992, voters were asked the latter two questions. Their answer? Player A. In the Cy Young vote, Player A finished first with 107 vote points and 19 first place votes. Player B received finished third with 48 vote points and four first place votes. In the MVP vote, Player A finished first with 304 vote points and 15 first place votes while Player B finished tied for 14 with 16 vote points and no first place votes.
Now why did Dennis Eckersley (Player A) win the Cy Young and MVP awards while Roger Clemens (Player B) finished 3rd and 14th in the Cy Young Award? What criteria did he fulfill to win the two awards? What was the driving force behind the bloc that voted for him? Saves.
That year Dennis Eckersley saved 51 games that season which was the second most saves in a season up to that point. How else could a closer win the Cy Young over a starter? If Eckersley puts up the same numbers as a set up man, he does not win the MVP or the Cy Young. Somehow the fact that he saved 51 games vaulted him from valuable relief pitcher to the Most Valuable Player in all the American League. So the question now becomes,”Are saves a measuring tool of a pitcher’s performance?”
Well let’s first look at how the save came into existence. In 1960, Jerome Holtzman, a writer for the Chicago-Sun Times, had a problem with the stats of the day. While he believed that W-L was apt at measuring the performance of a starting pitcher, he did not feel like it accurately reflected the performance of relief pitchers. Wins and losses did not take reward relief pitchers for protecting leads. To remedy the issue, Holtzman came up with the save stat.
Initially, a save occurred when a pitcher finished the game for the winning team without being credited for a save. It evolved as the years went on. Later it became that a relief pitcher earned a save by closing a game in which the tying run was on base or at the plate or pitching three innings on the winning team without recording a win. A year later, the former requirement changed to closing a game with at most a two run lead.
Currently a pitcher earns a save if he fulfills the following criteria:
1) His team wins
2) He finishes the game
3) He is not credited with the win
4) He fulfills one of the following:
A) He enters the game with at most a three run lead and pitches one inning
B) He enters the game with at least the tying run on deck
C) He pitches three innings of relief
So the save measures how successful a relief pitcher is at meeting the criteria, but how low has the save stat placed the bar for success?
Let’s say that in the top of the eighth, a reliever for the home team comes in with a three run lead. He faces the 3-4-5 hitters of the opposing team and they go down in order.
The closer comes into the ballgame with a three run lead in the beginning of the ninth inning. He gives up a two singles and a double and allows one run to score. With men on second and third he walks the next batter to load the bases. He walks another batter, allowing another run to score. With the bases loaded, the closer induces a double play that does not lead to another run scoring. He then walks another batter to load the bases again. He gets out of the inning as the batter’s flyball gets caught at the warning track.
The closer’s line for the night: 18.00 ERA, 6.00 WHIP, 0 K, 3 BB. But he got the save so he must have performed well, right? He got the save, so he must have been more important in winning the game than the reliever who pitched the eighth inning?
Let’s look at a second hypothetical. Let’s say it is the beginning of the bottom of the seventh with the home team up 17-4. A relief pitcher comes in and pitches a scoreless three innings. In the meantime, the home team tacks on 13 more runs and wins the game 30-4. So the relief pitcher comes in with a 13 run lead and leaves the game with a 26 run lead. And guess what else? He picks up a save since his outing fit the criteria for a save. So does not blowing an initial 13 run lead and not blowing a 26 run lead signify a good performance?
Actually, this hypothetical is not a hypothetical. As Orioles and Rangers fans may remember, this happened on August 22nd, 2007. The Texas Rangers beat the Baltimore Orioles 30-3 with Wes Littleton earning the save.
A save is rewarded to a relief pitcher who meets the bar set by the criteria, but when it comes to earning a save, the bar is set quite low.
Let’s ignore the fact that saves do not value shutting down the heart of the order in the eighth, but does value getting the 6-7-8 hitters in the ninth. If saves were a measure of performance, then, the better one pitches, the better one would be in the save statistic. Most often, the better a pitcher performs, the better his ERA and/or WHIP numbers become. That is what one should see with saves. Let’s look at another blind resume.
Player A: 62 saves, 68.1 IP
Player B: 47 saves, 73 IP
If saves are truly a measure of performance, then the other performance based statistics will show that Player A performed better.
Player A: 2.24 ERA, 1.288 WHIP, 7.1 H/9, 10.1 K/9, 4.5 BB/9, 2.26 K/BB
Player B: 1.73 ERA, 1.096 WHIP, 6.4 H/9, 12.1 K/9, 3.5 BB/9, 3.50 K/BB
The reveal: Player A is Francisco Rodriguez in 2008 and Player B is Francisco Rodriguez in 2006.
While K-Rod had more saves in 2008, all the pitching performance metrics show that he pitched better in 2006. Even though K-Rod would probably say he pitched better in 2008 because he saved more games, he pitched better in 2006 and his best season came in 2004, setting up Troy Percival, but he probably hated doing that.
While Mariano Rivera is the greatest relief pitcher of all-time, the number of games he has saves should have no bearing, negative or positive, on that. It should not be a measure of a relief pitcher. It should not be the reason a closer is given $10 million a season for three years. It should not be the reason a set up man abhors his role. It should be seen for what it is; it is an event where the criteria are satisfied. Continue reading
In the previous blog post, I talked about how the Phillies regular season dominance does not guarantee that they will be successful in October. However, is the lack of success among National League teams that finished with the best record mirrored by the American League? Let’s see what the numbers say.
Team with the Best Record in the MLB:
|Era||National League||American League|
Team With the Best Record in the MLB Winning the Pennant:
|Era||National League||American League|
The Team with the Best Record in the MLB Winning the World Series:
|Era||National League||American League|
These numbers show that historically an AL team who finishes with the best record in the MLB has been more successful than their NL counterparts in winning the pennant and the World Series. This also holds true for each era. While the introduction of Championship Series in 1969 and Divisional Series in 1995 have reduced the likelihood that the team with the best record will win the pennant and/or World Series, the AL still maintains an advantage. What could be the source of this disparity? Well, let’s look at what the numbers would look like if we took the achievements of the New York Yankees out of the equation.
Team with the Best Record in the MLB (w/0 Yankees):
|Era||National League||American League|
|1903-1968||54.5% (+18.1)||45.4% (-18.2)|
|1969-1993||47.8% (+3.8)||52.2% (-3.8)|
|1995-2010||58.3% (+14.5)||41.7% (-14.5)|
Team With the Best Record in the MLB Winning the Pennant (w/o Yankees):
|Era||National League||American League|
The Team with the Best Record in the MLB Winning the World Series:
|Era||National League||American League|
|1903-1968||52.6% (+10.9)||55% (-9.3)|
First, understand the method that was chosen was not perfect and it will be described at the end of the blog. However, the presence of the Yankees has given the AL an advantage over the NL when it comes to having teams that succeed in both the regular season and the playoffs.
The Yankees may provide the AL teams with external pressures to innovate and build rosters. And in the attempt to catch up with the Yankees the AL has had a motivating factor the NL did not have. While that is a speculation, here is what is not. The Yankees give the American League dominant team. Dominant teams the National League has not often had. The National League has only 13 teams that have had the best record in the Majors and won the World Series. The Yankees have 20 teams who have accomplished such a feat.
One could look at lists made about the greatest teams in the history of baseball and two things are certain. The list will be AL dominant and the Yankees will have by far the most representatives of any other franchise. For example, Tom Verducci’s list of the 10 greatest baseball teams includes five Yankees teams (’27, ’39, ’98, ’61, ’32) and only two NL teams from the World Series era (’75 Reds and 1907 Cubs). The Sporting News’ list contains five Yankee teams (’27, ’39, ’98, ’61, ’53) and three NL teams (’75 Reds, ’55 Dodgers, ’42 Cardinals). Roger Weber’s list for Baseball Almanac had four Yankees teams (’27, ’39, ’32, and ’98) and three NL teams from the World Series era (1907 Cubs, 1905 Giants, and 1906 Cubs).
There may be another reason behind the success of these teams when they come from the AL. For example, the end of the Dead Ball Era coincides with the dominance of AL teams. Could it be possible that National League teams did not adjust to the changing times and clung onto players, managers, and a philosophy of playing the game that was anachronistic? I have no clue no being a baseball historian. But, we all know the legends that have played on so many great Yankees teams, that it is hard to dispute that the gap between the AL and NL is not, at the very least, the fault of the New York Yankees.
To sabermetric buffs, stats like RBIs, saves, and wins provide little insight to how good a player performs over the course of a season. Traditional baseball fans scoff at such a notion. That brings us to the case of Curtis Granderson. To many, Granderson is an MVP candidate this season. The voters for the MVP award will consist of the traditional baseball writers who grew up with BA, HR, R, and RBI as the greatest measures of player performance, and modern writer who are more inclined toward stats like WAR, WPA, WoBA, and OBP. While Curtis Granderson is fifth in the AL in FanGraphs WAR (6.6) and is 16th in the AL in Baseball-Reference WAR, he is second in home runs, second in RBIs, and is first in runs among all Major Leaguers. Does that mean that Curtis Granderson is guaranteed to dominate the ballots of traditional writers in the MVP vote? Well, lets look at how players have faired in MVP voting when they lead the Majors in HRs, RBIs, and runs.
Alex Rodriguez ’07: 54 HRs, 156 RBIs, 147 R (MVP)
Mickey Mantle ’56: 52 HRs, 130 RBIs, 132 R (MVP)
Johnny Mize ’47: 51 HRs (Tied with Ralph Kiner), 138 RBIs, 137 R (3rd in MVP voting) (MVP – Bob Elliot)
Ted Williams ’42: 36 HRs, 137 RBIs, 141 R (2nd in MVP voting) (MVP – Joe Gordon)
Lou Gehrig ’31: 46 HRs (Tied with Babe Ruth), 184 RBIs, 163 R (2nd in MVP voting) (MVP – Lefty Grove)
Since they have given the MVP Award only two out of five have won while leading the majors in HRs, RBIs, and runs. And let’s look even further into the two MVP seasons of Rodriguez and Mantle.
Rodriguez not only led the Majors in those three categories, but also led all other players in WAR that season and it was not even close. Baseball-Reference calculated a WAR of 9.9 which had him a full win above Magglio Ordonez and three wins above C.C. Sabathia who finished second and third in AL WAR respectively. Fangraphs had him with a 9.8 WAR and 1.7 wins ahead of Magglio Ordonez and two wins above Granderson who was third in AL WAR.
Mickey Mantle’s season is one of the great offensive seasons in the history of baseball. In his first of back-to-back MVPs, Mantle won the Triple Crown. He led the league in SLG, OPS+, and was second in OBP to Ted Williams. Even though WAR did not exist in 1956, look at Mantle’s WAR numbers that year. Baseball-Reference calculated a 12.9 WAR which was 4.4 wins better than AL second place finisher Early Wynn. FanGraphs calculated a 12.2 WAR which was 5.1 wins better than second place finishers in Al Kaline and Yogi Berra.
Looking at those who did not win, Johnny Mize lost to Bob Elliot who did not lead the National League in any statistic but finished 61 points ahead of Mize.
Ted Williams won the Triple Crown in 1942 and still lost the MVP by 21 points to Joe Gordon of the Yankees. While Johnny Pesky may have helped to split the vote finishing third, Ted Williams demolished Gordon in almost every meaningful statistical category and there is not a statistical argument one could make for Gordon.
Lou Gehrig lost the inaugural MVP award to Lefty Grove who won 31 games that year and carried 98% of the first place votes.
While initially it looks like Granderson is a contender in the AL MVP race, the stats and the history proves otherwise. Granderson will not receive much support from the sabermetrically inclined voters and history has shown that leading all of baseball in HRs, RBIs, and runs does not sign, seal, and deliver him the votes of the traditional baseball writers. Without a jaw dropping rest of September, the evidence points towards Granderson not being a contender for the AL MVP award. Continue reading