Sunday, July 06, 2008

Biblical Proportions

Hi gang. I'm kind of bushed tonight, so I'm running what I wrote on Thursday for the Dugout Splinters insert in GameDay titled "Biblical Proportions". While I'm at it, I'll throw in some postscript notes in blue. Hope you like it. - John

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Dr. Peter Venkman: This city is headed for a disaster of biblical proportions.
Mayor: What do you mean, "biblical"?
Dr Ray Stantz: What he means is Old Testament, Mr. Mayor, real wrath of God type stuff.
Dr. Peter Venkman: Exactly.
Dr Ray Stantz: Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies! Rivers and seas boiling!
Dr. Egon Spengler: Forty years of darkness! Earthquakes, volcanoes....
Winston Zeddemore: The dead rising from the grave!
Dr. Peter Venkman: Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together... mass hysteria!


- From Ghostbusters

(I think it's fair to say that I don't quote Ghostbusters nearly enough. It's possible that nobody does.)

Any other year, the collapse of the Indians might be large enough to rate as “biblical”. This year? The perpetually terrible Tampa Bay Rays have the best record in the majors. The NL pennant-winning Rockies are 17 games under .500. Throw in the Padres, Tigers, White Sox and Twins, and the Indians slide might not make the top five.

That doesn’t make it any less astounding. Last October, this team had a 3-1 game lead in the American League Championship series. This year they are in last place in the modest AL Central, 11 (now 14) games under .500, and 12.5 (now also 14) games behind the division leading White Sox - who just swept them.

So what in the name of Hal Trosky is going on?

Well, it’s been a combination of things, really. There’s been some bad luck, preceded by a slow start, and followed by some key injuries. You can start with the bad luck, because this team has actually scored more runs than it has given up. And yet they’re nowhere near having a .500 record. I’d like to tell you the cause, and there are plenty of people who will claim they can. But in reality, it’s a little like watching the roulette ball land on red ten times while you’re betting on black. You can try to explain it, but even if you can explain it you can’t do much about it. Except congratulate the guy who has been betting on red.

(After watching this team, it looks like the biggest reason they've underperformed is their bullpen. That certainly makes sense. But there is a reason that the stats guys say that it's mostly about luck despite pretty clear anecdotal evidence to the contrary. Here's an example:

I once studied several years of baseball teams over the first half of a season and over the second half of a season. I compared how often their record overperformed or underperformed versus their run differential. You might expect that if a team underperformed versus their runs over the first half of a season, like Cleveland has, that they would likely underperform against it the second half of the season, too. Certainly that would make sense if it was primarily due to something like a team's bullpen.

But when you compare them, there is no correlation. A team that overperforms before the all-star break is just as likely to underperform as to overperform again after the all-star break. It truly seems to be dependent on how the ball bounces.)

Cleveland also didn’t get out of the gate very fast this year, sporting a record that was at or below .500 for most of April. That was largely fueled by inconsistent and outright hideous outings from starter and current Cy Young Award holder C.C. Sabathia, who finished April with an ERA of 7.76.

There were plenty of offensive culprits, too. Last year’s spark for their pennant run was rookie second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera. He hit .283, and seemed to come through in every key-at bat. This year, he spent most of April and May extinguishing offensive flames before he was sent to the minors in early July. He’s hitting down there, and will likely return soon since Cleveland second basemen collectively have the second worst offensive mark in the major leagues by OPS (On-base Plus Slugging).

But the most damaging decline to the offense has been inflicted by #3 hitter Travis Hafner. His production declined last season, falling from 42 home runs in 2006 to just 24. Most assumed the 30-year-old (now 31) would bounce back this year. After all, he looked like he was pressing a bit, especially after he signed a contract extension guaranteeing him another $60 million through 2012.

So what is his home run total this year? Try four. Just four home runs. And it isn’t likely to go up soon, because he was placed on the disabled list at the end of May for … well, there things are a little unclear. We know it’s his shoulder, and that he’s always had problems with that shoulder, and that it’s weaker than the other one, and that he’s working on strengthening exercises. But they don’t know when he’s going to come back. And they don’t know exactly how good he’s going to be when he does.

The injuries don’t stop with Hafner. While Sabathia won the Cy Young award last year, it’s arguable that Fausto Carmona, who also had 19 wins and a lower ERA than Sabathia, was the best pitcher on the Indians staff. He was placed on the disabled list at the end of June with a hip strain and won’t be back until after the all-star break. Pitcher Jake Westbrook, who was another ace pitcher early this year, underwent Tommy John surgery in June. And the middle of the lineup was really gutted when catcher and cleanup hitter Victor Martinez also underwent surgery to remove loose bodies from his elbow joint. He won’t be back until the end of July at the very earliest.

And, of course, no Dugout Splinters about the Cleveland Indians would be complete without talking about the Tribe’s under-performing bullpen. This is GameDay’s seventh year, and Cleveland visits about three times per year, so this is roughly the 20th time that we’ve talked about the perpetually putrid Indians bullpen. I could plug in the same verbiage I’ve been using since 2002. In fact, let’s try that. It’s a little like Mad Libs™. Play along, won’t you?

This offseason, despite being a priority, the Indians failed to upgrade their bullpen, instead staying with somewhat shaky veteran Bob Wickman Joe Borowski as their closer. He’s blown his last few save opportunities, so this series it’s likely that manager Charlie Manuel Eric Wedge might turn to Mark Wohlers Rafael Betancourt Bobby Howry Fernando Cabrera Masahide Kobayashi in the late innings.

Given all that bad mojo, it isn’t shocking that General Manager Mark Shapiro is hinting that he is preparing to move Sabathia, who will be a free agent at the end of the year, at the trade deadline. That’s in four weeks (and is rumored to be near completion). If they’re swept by the Twins (giggle) like they were by the Sox, last year’s division flag will likely be replaced by a white one.

9 comments:

KEN said...

Last year the Indians did indeed have a 3-2 lead in the ALCS. However, they also had a 3-1 lead in that same series.

John said...

Oops. Fixed.

TT said...

It truly seems to be dependent on how the ball bounces.

The question is where is the luck? Are they a bad team that got lucky and scored a lot of runs a few times or a good team that somehow lost a lot of games they should have won despite scoring more runs ... no wait.

Its obvious you can't lose a game despite scoring more runs. Does anyone really believe teams score runs randomly and if runs are distributed less than optimally, its just bad luck? I sure don't.

David Wintheiser said...

Does anyone really believe teams score runs randomly and if runs are distributed less than optimally, its just bad luck? I sure don't.

What I believe is that a player goes up to hit with the idea that he's trying to get a hit, or at least on base, every time. Sure, you may take a different approach when your team is up three with the bases empty as opposed to down two with the bases loaded, but save for the (thankfully rare) situations where you know you're going to get the sacrifice signal, you don't go up to the plate looking to make an out.

Sometimes you're going to get on base -- sometimes even a hit. When you get that hit? Who knows? You can certainly say the odds are better against a weaker pitcher, unless that weaker pitcher happens to be 'on' today, or against a starter after a number of times through the order, unless that starter is 'dominating' and thus actually getting better results the longer he goes.

Here's the real point: If you understood everything about the path a pachinko ball takes through a classic pachinko machine (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pachinko), all the forces at work on that ball, including air currents, the precise bounce angle off of obstacles, etc., you could predict exactly where that ball is going to end up. Even knowing all that doesn't change that, when you fire enough balls through the machine, they end up making a bell-shaped, normal distribution along the bottom of the machine.

You can call it luck, but the better term for it is 'chance', in the same way that you know about 50% of your coin flips are going to come up heads despite not knowing in advance whether any individual flip will come up heads.

tborg said...

I picked up a GameDay last weekend for the first time this year. Where are the haiku descriptions of the players?

Andrew Kneeland said...

What do you mean Cleveland didn't upgrade it's bullpen? What else would you call the acquisition of Juan Rincon?

twayn said...

What else would you call the acquisition of Juan Rincon?

A free spin of the roulette wheel.

TT said...

What I believe is that a player goes up to hit with the idea that he's trying to get a hit, or at least on base, every time.

He decides whether to swing at each pitch. What does that have to do with chance?

unless that weaker pitcher happens to be 'on' today

Actually it is finer grain - how well the pitcher throws a particular pitch that time. Are you seriously suggesting pitchers just throws without regard to the batter. Or that the batter doesn't adjust to the pitcher? Or are those all just random acts?

If you understood everything about the path a pachinko ball takes through a classic pachinko machine

Yes - and if we really understood all the forces that created the big bang we could predict that I would be writing these words. But we don't.

e better term for it is 'chance', in the same way that you know about 50% of your coin flips are going to come up heads

There are plenty of people who can flip a coin and make it come up heads or tails if they know which side they started with. Baseball results are no more random. Every pitcher is trying to get the batter out, every hitter is trying to get a hit and which happens is not a random event but a result of their relative skill. The fact that you can't predict it does not make it random. There is no "bell curve" distribution.

But that ignores the question I actually raised. Which is the correct measure of a team's ability - their run differential or their record. Which is luck - that they scored more runs or that they lost more games? The answer top that may well be random.

Kal said...

Janine Melnitz: Do you believe in U.F.O.s, astral projections, mental telepathy, E.S.P., clairvoyance, spirit photography, telekinetic movement, full-trance mediums, the Loch Ness monster, and the theory of Atlantis?

Winston Zeddemore: If there's a steady paycheck in it, I'll believe anything you say.