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Sunday, January 28, 2007

Sample Size Of One

"I've nothing against stats," Stephen Smith starts a recent column about Brandon Wood's strikeouts, "but I do have something against people who abuse stats." Those of us who look at Wood's prodigious strikeout rate and wonder whether he'll live up to his accomplishments in the minors are, apparently, to be dismissed. And why? Because Mike Schmidt was a great player.
While Wood was drafted and signed out of high school, Schmidt was selected by the Phillies after graduating from Ohio University. Taken in the second round of the 1971 draft, he was a couple months short of his 22nd birthday when he reported to Double-A Reading to begin his career. In 74 games, Schmidt had an AVG/OBP/SLG of .211/.302/.350 (.652 OPS) in 268 TPA. Since we're talking strikeouts, Schmidt struck out at a rate of once every 4.06 plate appearances (4.06:1). Schmidt was a shortstop that first year, just as he was in college.

In 1972, Schmidt played the entire minor league season at Triple-A Eugene. In 131 games, he posted a line of .291/.409/.550 (.960 OPS) in 528 TPA. His TPA:SO ratio was 3.64:1. Interestingly, the Phillies moved him all around the infield that summer — 76 games at 2B, 52 games at 3B and five games as SS.

The Phillies called him up to the big league at season's end, with only 40 plate appearances. His TPA:SO ratio in that limited audition was 2.67:1.

At age 23 1/2, Schmidt began his first full major league career in 1973 that finished 71-91 and had one of the lesser offenses in the National League. Schmidt posted a line of .196/.324/.373 (.697 OPS) in 442 TPA. His TPA:SO ratio was 3.25:1.

If sabermetrics had been around then, I'm sure some of its most devout believers would have dimissed Schmidt as a “bust,” “flop,” and “dud” — all words I've seen used by some people to dismiss Wood.

Well, you certainly won't see those words around here about Wood, unless they're attached to the conditional that if he doesn't learn to cut back on those strikeouts, his chances of succeeding in the majors decreases precipitously. Speaking of abusing statistics, by using Mike Schmidt as an example, Smith falls for the trap of argument by anecdote. Schmidt may have been a Hall of Fame third baseman, but for every one of him, there are a bunch more who failed. Rich Lederer made this point most forcefully in a May, 2005 column rebutting a Nate Silver chat in which Silver made the amazing comment
Here's a secret: strikeouts are a good thing for a young power hitter.
That's an even stronger position than Smith stakes out, but whether you believe strikeouts (falsely) to be a positive, or even immaterial (as Smith does), Lederer reminds us that failure is far more common in this game than success, and high strikeout rates do not help:

Young power hitters who strike out a lot can be good players. Young power hitters who don't strike out often are almost always great players.

The major league burial grounds are filled with players such as Billy Ashley, Roger Freed, Phil Hiatt, Sam Horn, Dave Hostetler, and Hensley Meulens. I could list many, many more but limited the names to a half-dozen of the higher-profile names that have come along in the past couple of decades. More to the point, there are hundreds of unknowns out there who never even got a sniff of the big leagues because they simply didn't make enough contact to get a chance.

Look no further than active players Joe Borchard, Jack Cust, Bobby Estalella, Bucky Jacobsen, Brandon Larson, Ryan Ludwick, Eric Munson, and Calvin Pickering as further evidence of young power hitters who are having a difficult time making the transition from the minors to the majors. I'm even skeptical as to whether Dallas McPherson and Wily Mo Pena will be as good as advertised. Josh Phelps, a one-time Baseball Prospectus coverboy, has a huge hole in his swing and is unlikely to be anything more than a mediocre DH on a poor team.

While fully admitting this is hardly a scientific survey, at the same time, it's a list that makes crystal clear that strikeouts are a legitimate concern for a young power hitter. Pretending they're not amounts to a sort of willful blindness. It's not the first time that's happened for Smith; he recently made the eye-popping comment that the Angels' defense and not its offense was to blame for their second place showing in 2006. Certainly, improved D in the first month or two would have helped, but clinging to the idea that the team's defense would have somehow compensated for the Halos' terrible offense just doesn't make sense.

An easy way to show that this is the case is to notice that Oakland only surrendered 48 unearned runs last year. That was the best record in the league, while the Angels had the AL's second-worst unearned run total, with 80. If we take the A's 48 unearned runs as a sort of platonic ideal for the season, using the Pythagorean method (with a 1.83 exponent), the Angels suddenly have an 88-74 record — one loss worse than their actual record*. Meantime, the Angels' woeful sticks produced an offense that was fourth-worst in the AL.

But let's now play this game with offense. Had the Angels even put up a league average offense (804 runs), they would have been an 88-win team; had they posted a league-leading offense (930 runs as scored by the Yankees) with the defense unchanged, they would have had a 98-win team. (This is only fair, as we were considering the Angels with a best-defense team a moment ago.) Had they had the third-best offense in the league, the White Sox and their 868 runs scored, they would have been a 94-win team. That is to say, the difference between having the best defense in the league and what the Angels' had was one game; the difference between having the fourth-worst offense in the league and the best offense was about ten games. That is to say, you can get a lot farther by improving your bats than you can by improving your gloves. Pretending the Angels' well-below-average offense wasn't at fault for their second place finish in 2006 is just absurd.

*Update: it should be duly noted that the Angels were five games ahead of their Pythagorean won-loss record by the end of the season anyway.

The Angels scored 766 runs. The A's scored 771. A total of 5 more runs. The Angels gave up 652 earned runs the A's gave up 679 or 27 more runs. The Angels gave up 80 unearned runs the A's 48 for a difference of 32 runs.

Which one of these components have th ebiggest difference. Is the offense is the reason the Angels didn't win the division and the A's did? Because the A's scored 5 more runs? Or becuae the Angels gave up 32 more unearned runs?
Sure, but neither of them had good offenses. The Angels front office has played make believe that pitching and defense are enough on their own to win a title, and that just isn't true.

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