November 21, 2011

Farm system success

Flip Flop Flyball has had a number of good infographics (and humour items) in the past, but their recent "Wins and loses throughout each team's system" chart is particularly interesting.  One thing that caught my eye is that no team in the Houston Astros system managed to break the .500 mark in 2011.

This raises a question in my mind. Can the current performance of minor league afflitates be used to predict MLB team performance at some future date?  (Economists would call this a leading indicator.)  All of the research on minor league performance that I'm aware of is in service of forecasting individual player performance. For good review of that work, see "The Projection Rundown" at Fangraphs.

But I'm wondering if the fluid nature of the minor leagues will yield any sort of meaningful result at the team level.  Not only are players constantly moving up and down between the levels, it also seems to me that they are every bit as likely (if not more so) to move mid-season from one organization's farm system to another (resource: Baseball America's listing of minor league players).  And the farm teams themselves are prone to shifting from one organization to another, and moving up and down the levels.  As one example, the Vancouver Canadians of the single-A Northwest League were affiliates of the Oakland A's for 11 seasons, but in 2011 came under to Toronto Blue Jays umbrella (they finished with a 0.513 record, second in their division).

Which then leads me back to the infographic: other than 2011 results, does it tell us anything?


November 14, 2011

Lewis & Beane interview

Moneyball (the movie) opens in the U.K. on November 25, and as part of the publicity, The Financial Times features an in-depth interview with both Michael Lewis and Billy Beane by Simon Kuper.

It's quite a revealing interview, that digs into the relationship between Lewis and Beane -- why Lewis was interested in finding the story, and why Beane let Lewis hang around.

But to whet your appetite, here's a couple of highlights. First, a quote from Michael Lewis:
"Baseball is a stupid-making enterprise in that nobody wants to be singled out or say something dumb. You wander in the clubhouse and it’s amazing how incurious the players are. One reason I was attracted to Scott Hatteberg [the former A’s player] as a character: he was just curious: ‘What the hell are you doing here, man?’”

On the criticisms of Moneyball:

There are two silly objections often made to Lewis’s book. The first is that if Moneyball works so well, then why haven’t the A’s had a winning season since 2006? We meet on a sunny October morning, mid-playoffs, a perfect day for baseball, but the team’s season has long since ended.

However, the people who make this objection don’t seem to grasp the basic principles of imitation and catch-up. Once all teams are playing Moneyball, then playing Moneyball no longer gives you an edge. Indeed, the richer clubs have the means to play it smarter. The New York Yankees recently hired 21 statisticians, Beane marvels.

The other common snipe is that Beane should never have spilled his secrets to Lewis. That ruined the A’s, the critics say. But Lewis dismisses the charge. First, he notes, Beane had never imagined their conversations would spiral into a book. Lewis says, “I was going to do something little. By the time I thought I was going to do something big I’d hung around so much it would have been socially awkward to ask me to leave.”

Second, notes Lewis, by 2002 Moneyball was already spreading. The book ends with the Red Sox offering Beane the highest GM’s salary in baseball history. Only when Beane turned them down, having decided after Stanford that he’d never do anything just for money again, did the Red Sox hire Epstein. “The market was moving already,” says Lewis. “The teams that wanted to do it were going to do it anyway, so no book was going to make any difference. My view is the only effect of the book was to give them [the A’s] the credit. If no book had been written, Theo would have been branded the man who reinvented baseball.”

Of course, Epstein's stuff worked in the playoffs.


November 7, 2011

The Sabermetric bookshelf, #2

Baseball Analyst, 1982-1989 (Bill James, publisher and editor)

SABR is now hosting -- the the blessing of Bill James, and through the work of Phil Birnbaum -- the complete Baseball Analyst.  Between 1982 and 1989, Bill James published 40 issues of Baseball Analyst, which in retrospect is now recognized as the launch pad for some fundamental thinking about using quantitative approaches to understand baseball.

The initial issue got off to a great start, with an article about fielding by Paul Schwarzenbart. In his introduction to the issue, James writes that the article "demonstrates that fielding statistics, like batting and pitching but apparently even more so, are the products in part of circumstances as well as men." This is a topic that, 30 years later, continues to provide plenty of fodder for analysis (e.g. this blog post from a month ago by Tangotiger, "Not all fielding opportunities are created the same").

In later issues, there are articles covering the usual parade of topics: clutch hitting, ballpark effects, how much young pitchers should work, ageing of ball players, and of course movie reviews.

There's also familiar names: Pete Palmer, Phil Birnbaum, and Bill James himself.

All in all, Baseball Analyst is an interesting time capsule. The tools the sabermetric community use to communicate have shifted -- when was the last time you subscribed to a magazine produced on a typewriter and mimeograph? But more importantly, it demonstrates how thinking about these topics has shifted. This shift is both because of further research (we know more than we used to) and because of the proliferation of data and cheap computing power

But it also shows that in spite of 30 years of analysis, there are still many questions unresolved.