Monday, May 28, 2012

Willie Mays Aikens: Safe At Home by Gregory Jordan

I tore through the book Willie Mays Aikens: Safe At Home in just a few days, which made an already intense story that much more so for me. I felt like I'd lived through Aikens's first 56 years of life compressed into three days, and it left me exhausted and emotional at the end. Author Gregory Jordan does an expert job putting the reader inside Aikens's shoes and thoughts from an impoverished childhood, to his days in college and the minor leagues, to the majors and his introduction to cocaine, his incredible 1980 World Series performance, continued drug addiction during his years in the Mexico League, to his depraved life in Kansas City after his playing days, his controversial 20+ year prison sentence, and most powerful of all, Willie putting his life back together after his release in 2008.

The book raises a host of issues, such as the placement of non-violent criminals like Aikens in the same facilities as the most dangerous inmates, the complicated matter of how drug users can best be helped (punishment vs. rehab), the bizarrely harsh punishments given to crack offenses relative to cocaine, the reintroduction into society after a long prison term, and putting broken family relationships back together. Aikens's longing to establish relationships with his two daughters fathered before incarceration is touching, and his conduct after his release from prison is inspiring.

I doubt you need to be a baseball fan to enjoy this book, but as a Royals fan, I enjoyed the peek into the great Royals teams of the early '80s and gained a new appreciation for the human side of George Brett and Hal McRae, both of whom helped Aikens adjust to post-prison life. The same goes for present Royals GM Dayton Moore. I saw Aikens speak at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum recently and he said Moore would often send an aide down to invite Aikens up to his suite during home games and they got to know each other. Moore eventually offered Aikens his current job as a minor league hitting instructor. Aikens tells his cautionary tale to the minor leaguers. The book made this Royals fan glad that Aikens is working with future Royals.

The story is so gripping, and I became so attached to the people involved, that I hated for it to end. It's like the end of a great movie where you want to find out what happens to the characters next. Here's hoping it's nothing but good things for Willie and his family.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Billy Butler: Base Clogger?

Robert Ford seems to ruffle the feathers of sabermetrically inclined Royals fans from time to time (i.e. calling David DeJesus a fourth outfielder on a good team, saying Kevin Appier was not an ace). In the latest installment, he has called Billy Butler a "base-clogger." I'm not exactly sure what people mean when they say that. It wouldn't be controversial to merely call Butler slow, but there's something else implied in the term "base-clogger," something that indirectly disparages his on-base skills. But perhaps it just means the player doesn't come around to score as often as he should relative to how often he's on base. 

Anyway, this prompted me to look into the rates Royals players have scored historically. I looked at the 113 players that have reached base 200+ times not including home runs for the Royals, the number of runs they scored minus home runs, and came up with a run scoring efficiency number. Speed and intelligent base-running are of course big parts of making your way around the base-paths, but it is also important to remember the huge factor of teammates bringing you in, making these numbers not just an individual stat. Butler has not had the luxury of great hitters helping him come home. That combined with his lack of speed does result in a poor rate of scoring: he comes in at 100th on the list of 113 Royals, having scored 24% of the time he reaches base by way of a non-homer. The average for the 113 guys on the list is 30%. So in the strictest sense that he gets stranded more than you would like, maybe he is a "base-clogger." But that is such a loaded term. Since the way to score runs is to not make outs/reach base, anytime you "clog" a base, you have done something good. And even if he's not efficient at coming home on a rate basis, he clogs bases so often that he's already scored the 18th most runs in Royals history. So, sure, call the guy slow all you want. But calling him, or really anybody, a base-clogger pejoratively just doesn't make much sense.

(By the way, I don't mean to pick on Ford. I enjoy his work on the radio and on his blog, and I appreciate that he focuses on bringing the perspective of baseball insiders, something I know little about.)

Here are some of the stats on Royals run-scoring efficiency:

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Three Times Through: April 29—May 15

I may have lost my enthusiasm for keeping up with a starting pitching review after every five Royals games, but I've dumped numbers from the fifth, sixth and seventh trips through the rotation at the end of this post, and maybe I'll stick to checking in every 15 games or so.

It was a frenetic period for the staff. Felipe Paulino mercifully came back, and has been splendid so far. So nice to have a true strikeout pitcher on the staff. Can you believe the Rockies waived this guy? Unfortunately that good news was more than offset with the terrible diagnosis of a torn ligament in Duffy's elbow. Duffy was the most crucial and exciting pitcher in KC, so facing a year-long wait after the probable Tommy John surgery to come is a bit of a gut punch. Jonathan Sanchez also went down with a less serious ailment.

Hochevar popped off the best game score of the year (75) with a seven shutout inning performance. Unfortunately I think most Royals observers, myself included, are past the point of getting our hopes up about Hochevar finding acceptable consistency. Vin Mazzaro became the eighth human being to start a game for the 2012 Royals and did a decent enough job.

Here is how the AL Central staffs are comparing:

The Tigers have joined the White Sox as the class of the division. The Royals are suffering mightily when it comes to walks, and in related news, not getting enough innings out of their starters. I was about to write "thank goodness for the Twins making them look respectable," but the KC and MN xFIPs are pretty much the same, and KC is throwing slightly fewer innings per start, so perhaps I'll bite my tongue for now.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Pitch To Contact

I'm tired of listening to Lefebvre and Hudler talk about Royals pitchers needing to pitch to contact as opposed to trying to strike guys out. That line of thinking probably sounds wrong-headed to anyone interested in sabermetrics, but I wanted to run some numbers myself verifying how off that philosophy is. The below plots include 230 MLB pitchers' totals between 2002-11. These pitchers threw at least 300 innings and as many as 2,204. There is not an air-tight correlation between contact rate to ERA nor strikeout rate to ERA, but generally speaking, the more contact you allow, the more runs you give up. The more strikeouts you get, the fewer runs. I think most of the "pitch to contact" crowd gets wrapped up in the idea that contact guys can go deeper into games. I don't know what the numbers say about that. Even if it's true, I'll take five or six good innings over seven bad ones.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Dissecting David DeJesus's Dubious Defensive Data

As I noted in my previous post, David DeJesus took a massive hit with Baseball Reference's new WAR calculation. The difference can be accounted for almost entirely from the metric used for defense. Previously, rWAR used Total Zone (TZ) to evaluate defense for all seasons. It's hard to wrap my head entirely around all the defensive metrics, but as I understand it, TZ is one of the more simplistic, and reflects mostly the quantity of plays made with little or no adjustment for the difficulty of those plays. TZ loves DeJesus's defense with the Royals, rating him 66 runs above average (RAA) in his time in KC (2003-10). That's third best among outfielders in that time frame, behind only Coco Crisp and Ichiro Suzuki.

The new rWAR switched to using Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) starting with the 2003 season. DRS attempts to rate the difficulty of every ball in play and give players credit or discredit based on the plays they do and don't make. DRS paints an entirely different picture of DeJesus's 910 games in the Royals outfield, showing him as basically average at just 3 RAA. This massive discrepancy between TZ and DRS may mean that DeJesus made a lot of plays in the OF, but didn't necessarily make the tough plays. That could be since DeJesus played behind some terrible pitching in those years, staffs that were giving up a lot of contact and a lot of fly balls.

Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) uses a similar framework as DRS, but paints yet another picture of DeJesus: 31 RAA. Well above average, but not the beast portrayed by TZ. Three different fielding metrics, three completely different assessments of DeJesus's defense despite the large sample size. It's a good reminder of how unreliable fielding metrics are, and therefore how imprecise WAR really is. I've defended DeJesus in the past on this blog based largely on his previous rWAR numbers using those huge TZ numbers. I was called out by a couple of folks for leaning so heavily on WAR, and the discrepancy in the defensive numbers shows they had a point. The framework of WAR is brilliant, but the defensive data going in--no matter which metric--is questionable.

My eyes saw an above average but not elite defensive outfielder. Much like DeJesus's hitting, he seemed reliably good year in and year out in the field. How did you view DeJesus's defense? Vote in the poll on the right, and also weigh in on whether or not you think he belongs in the team Hall of Fame eventually.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Royals Biggest Gainers And Losers In New Version Of rWAR

Baseball Reference overhauled their WAR formula, and as someone who relies (too much) on WAR to understand Royals history better, I was interested to see which Royals players had the biggest swings. I may or may not redo the team hall of wWAR sometime with the new numbers.

I only looked at players that had 5.0 WAR in either iteration. Just a little data dump on another wild and crazy Friday night:

+4.5 Willie Wilson (35.7-40.2)
+4.2 Frank White (26.9-31.1)
+4.0 Zack Greinke (22.7-26.7)
+3.8 Kevin Appier (44.1-47.9)
+3.5 Bret Saberhagen (37.3-40.8)

-5.4 David DeJesus (21.9-16.5)
-2.5 Joe Randa (15.0-12.5)
-1.6 Carlos Beltran (24.6-23.0)
-1.5 Mike Macfarlane (13.1-11.6)
-1.5 Darrell Porter (17.3-15.8)
-1.5 Mike Sweeney (22.2-20.7)

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

May Royals Schedule Desktop

MOOOOOOOOOOSE graces the May desktop. Click here (not the picture) for the full size version.