Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Earthshattering Run Prevention Breakthroughs!

So after my run today, I found an old Sports Illustrated that I never got around to reading. It had my girl Julia Mancuso on the cover, so that means it was from about a month ago. The most relevant content about it, however, was in this Albert Chen article. Refreshingly, he gave a reminder of what Moneyball is all about (not OBP or OPS--exploiting inefficiencies in the market), and explained that defense and "run prevention" is the new Moneyball.

The champions of the new Moneyball are not the Oakland Athletics, whose defensive-minded teams have won 75 games a year, but the 2009 World Series Champion, oh, I mean, 85-game winning Seattle Mariners. Perhaps an unbiased or pro-run prevention mind would see some insight in this article (and even I found a little bit of insight), I thought the whole argument was full of holes. As I think the "run prevention" angle is helpful for a team, but not the main driver of what will make the team successful (we weren't talking about how great Nick Swisher's glove was last year), I find it necessary to point out the holes.

First of all, the article treats the Seattle Mariners as a team that went from the worst team in baseball to the World Series champions. Not true. They went from the worst, most-underachieving team in baseball to a mediocre team. Celebrating their huge gains in the NL West is like celebrating next year if the Colby College XC team comes in 10th in the NESCAC instead of their perennial 11th and recording the second-worst score in the history of the conference in 2008. Perhaps they hideously underachieved in 2008 and achieved as expected in 2009? Let's put the hyperbole away. Channel 7 News is over for the night.

The theory that they had some kind of defensive out-of-body experience in 2009 is further debunked when you look at the changes they made. They did not make that many changes. They added Franklin Gutierrez, who is described in the article as Jesus. Fine. But one guy? Other newcomers in '09 were Wladimir Balentien and Russell Branyan, both of whom are average defenders at best. But this whole turnaround is coming from defense? Doubtful.

The article talked about how the Mariners succeeded despite having a crappy offense and having a pitching staff whom nobody had heard of other than Felix Hernandez. Ask Adrian Beltre: Maybe their offense was terrible because you can't hit the ball to the walls in their freaking ballpark! Maybe their defense was so good because warning-track-power fly outs at Safeco Field are home runs anywhere else in the world. Maybe the range factors are so elite because there's more room to roam in Seattle than anywhere else.

None of this stuff is mentioned in the article. At all.

I feel like the "run prevention" strategy might work for teams like Seattle, Colorado, and actually even Oakland more than for most teams, because they have all of that outfield room. Therefore, having fast outfielders who can judge fly balls well (sorry to Number Two on that one) actually can save a crapload of runs. However, if a ball is hit 320 feet for a home run in right field, or if it's slamming off a big wall 300 feet away for a double, nobody this side of Inspector Gadget or SpiderMan is going to help you. Ballparks where run prevention will only marginally help would include Boston, Yankee Stadium, Texas, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. It might work in spacious ballparks. But even that is questionable considering Oakland's futility over the past several years.

So bottom line is, I still believe Moneyball 2.0 is smoke and mirrors, especially as it applies to the Red Sox. I think the Red Sox are punting the 2010 season and engaging in an experiment of "let's see what happens." Look, if the Mariners win 60 games started by guys other than Cliff Lee and Felix Hernandez, I will apologize right here. If "run prevention" propels the Red Sox into the playoffs, I will apologize right here. But otherwise, I am calling Albert Chen's bluff and all the sabermetricians' bluffs. Run prevention is full of crap.

4 comments:

jason said...

I still dont see the sox being too far off from being a play off team but i am also about 20 beers in so with that in mind here is my opinion on this post: jim edmonds ( you know that cardinal guy) would still have a job if that article was the bible because if you put that gfuy in a place like seattle or oakland he will judge the expletive out of the ball and if his legs dont fall off he will make the play, where this comes into play im not sure but i think it makes sense right? that was rhetorical because i know i make sense, so with 3 guys like jim edmonds in the field every ball would be tracked down if it was possible which i think is what the moneyball theory is pointing out no misjudged fly balls turning into doubles, and doubles being robbed instead and after all this i think i may make a habit of this expletive i wonder if thatll work

the gm at work said...

Jason,

Trying my best to translate that into English, your commentary makes sense. Really what Moneyball 2.0 means is that guys who can field like Jim Edmonds but can't hit the broad side of the barn are undervalued. The overall production, using advanced sabermetric statistics, is higher per-dollar than what you pay for.

What I'm trying to say is the following: 1. The advanced statistics are dubious and do not work universally. And 2. Bargain shopping will not win you a pennant.

Anonymous said...

DV

Run prevention has another name: It's called good pitching. If you have a great defensive players but the ball is getting rocketed all over the stadium you're not going to put up a lot of zeroes on the scoreboard.

However, I do think that defense can matter, but it's only as a compliment to good pitching. A bounding grounder up the middle gets tracked down by better fielders. An shallow fly that normally drops into left in front of Manny Ramirez or Jason Bay gets tracked down by Mike Cameron or Jacoby Ellsbury. But those plays only get made of the pitcher is keeping the hitter off balance enough to not make solid contact. If pitcher is terrible and giving up lasers it doesn't matter who you put in the outfield.

Also agreed on bargain shopping. Maybe you can get away with that with a few back-end bullpen guys, your utility infielder and your DH, but your team generally needs to have some studs if you're going to win anything.

--the Gunn

PF said...

Run prevention is definitely important. That much is obvious. Having a good defense is better than having a bad defense, and is going to help your team win. The question becomes how much can it help you win? I think the answer for me is a combination of what dv and gunn are saying here. Run prevention is not just defense. I don't think you can win by focusing your team on defense and nothing else. To that extent I agree with dv that it's not a solid philosophy. But run prevention is also pitching (in fact it's more pitching), as gunn points out. For some reason a lot of run prevention is getting focused on defense, and that's not accurate. The distinction that I think needs to be made is you can win with run prevention, not defense. They are different things. Run prevention is what gunn is talking about, pitching AND, if not complimented BY, defense. Not just defense.

I think the best approach is a well balanced team, especially when you make the playoffs. If you can't have that, you aren't going to convince me that run prevention is more important/effective as offense, at least in the regular season. Maybe the same, but not more. The reason is I watched yankee teams with average pitching and awful defenses win upper 90s/low 100s games. Sure, they went nowhere in the playoffs. But that had to do with a lot of things. In the regular season, they won by punishing the baseball on a nightly basis. Granted, those were historically good offenses in some cases. But it still goes to show how effective good old scoring runs can be. Just like run prevention. Defense alone? Remains to be seen, but I don't think so.

And this is where I think the 2010 red sox are going to be in the mix for a world series. So much is being made of there defense, but I only care about that in support of their great pitching. That defense alone won't mean much without good pitching, again as gunn said above. With it, it could really help them keep a lot of runs off the board.