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Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Clemens better than ever

Roger Clemens is not supposed to be doing what he is doing. He did, after all, try to quit.

Clemens, who has a won World Series ring and numerous Cy Young awards, "retired" after the Yankees lost to the Marlins in the 2003 World Series. Before the 2004 season began, however, he was coerced into playing one more season for his hometown Houston Astros.

It was a remarkable season at that. Clemens posted an 18-4 record, won a seventh Cy Young award and helped the Astros come within one game of their first-ever World Series appearance.

After last season, things began to go south for the Astros. Carlos Beltran left for a fat contract with the Mets. Lance Berkman tore up his knee. Jeff Kent signed with the Dodgers. Surely Clemens would ride off into the sunset with 328 career victories in his pocket.

Not so. Clemens did come back this season, playing for the love of the game and $18 million. Amazingly enough, at the age of 43, Clemens has never been better. In fact, you can argue that no one has ever been better.

After pitching six shutout innings Saturday in Washington, Clemens has an ERA of 1.40. The National League's composite ERA is 4.34.

What's more, Clemens' home ballpark, Minute Maid Field, favors hitters. The park effect in Houston has been a little more neutral the last couple of seasons but, in the past, the park has had as much of a 15-percent effect on run scoring in favor of the offense. Also, Clemens has allowed only four unearned runs this season.

Bob Gibson holds the record for ERA in the live-ball era, or since 1920. Before 1919, baseball was much different, and 40 out of the 41 best ERAs ever posted occurred during that time.

Gibson's 1.12 ERA in 1968 ranks fourth all-time and came in a season in which the National League's composite ERA was 2.98. He also pitched in a pitcher's park and allowed 11 unearned runs.

Adjusting for ballparks and unearned runs, you get recalculated runs-allowed-per-nine innings of 1.49 for Gibson and 1.86 for Clemens. Gibson was allowing runs at 44 percent of the league average. Clemens is at 34 percent of the league's pace.

Continuing at his current pace will be a tall order even for Clemens. But, if he does, this may be the most dominant pitching performance ever and, at the same time, give further credence to the argument that the Rocket is the best pitcher who ever lived.

* MOYE'S SKILLS: Royals owner David Glass said something the other day that merits another look.

Referring to Class A outfielder Alan Moye, Glass said, β€œHe's got some skills and is really coming on,” Glass said.

Before you get too excited about Moye, there are some of things to consider.

First of all, the run-scoring environment of the High Desert Mavericks is as favorable to hitters as any almost ballpark in minor-league baseball.

Second, Moye will turn 23 years old in October. That's not ancient for high Class A, but it is a little advanced for a true prospect.

Lastly, and most important, Moye wouldn't know the strike zone if it fell on his head. This season, in 89 games, Moye has struck out 121 times and walked 19.

Moye may have talent, but if he doesn't make significant strides in plate discipline and frequency of contact, he won't have an appreciable big-league career.
Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Palmeiro way back on list of great ones

What did you think when you realized that Rafael Palmeiro had become the fourth player to reach 3,000 hits and 500 home runs in a career?

Here's a typical exchange:

"Rafael Palmeiro got his 3,000th hit."

"Really?"

"Yep. He also has 567 home runs."

"I didn't realize he was that good."

Palmeiro's career achievements have really sneaked up on most of us. Sure, he's played in a hitters' era and has always played in hitters' parks, but numbers that lofty ensure a future plaque in Cooperstown. This is a guy whom the Cubs once traded (along with Jamie Moyer) for Mitch Williams, Paul Kilgus, Steve Wilson, Curtis Wilkerson, Luis Benitez and Pablo Delgado. Hey - that's why they're the Cubs.

Cumulative totals in any sport are subject to a wide array of mitigating factors, but it's especially true in baseball, where run-scoring environments transmogrify and ballpark factors vary wildly from stadium to stadium.

Palmeiro has always been a player regarded as good, even very good. But great? Here's an excerpt from a wire-service story that came out after Friday's milestone game:

"There's no way to accurately determine the greatest left-handed hitter in baseball history, but an argument can be made for Palmeiro, who now has 346 more hits than Ted Williams, nearly 450 more home runs than Ty Cobb and 127 more hits than Babe Ruth."

Nonsense on stilts. It would be a little bit too easy to poke holes in that particular bit of inspired analysis. Instead, let's take a glimpse of where Palmeiro does rank among the great lefty hitters in baseball's annals.

Runs Created Above Average (RCAA) is a good tool for looking at issues on the offensive side of the ledger. RCAA accounts for ballpark differences and allows for the different offensive environments across eras, though some bias towards players from offensive eras seems to exist. RCAA data is taken from Lee Sinins' Sabermetric Baseball Encyclopedia.

Through the All-Star break, Palmeiro ranked 22nd on the all-time list for left-handed batters in RCAA with 574. He's still going, but the nature of RCAA means that he has to keep producing at an above-league-average rate to add to his total. Joe Jackson is next on the list with 580. George Brett is 19th with 593.

Far out of reach for Palmeiro are Ruth (1,795), Barry Bonds (1,496), Williams (1,475) and Cobb (1,369). Those are the big boys, and Palmeiro simply isn't one of them. They should have a separate Hall of Fame for some players, and guys like Palmeiro should have to buy a ticket. You could call it The Pantheon, and an angry portrait of Bonds could hang over the entrance.

Ballparks and eras are not the only factors to weigh in the comparative evaluation of players. The player's position is another key consideration.

A player who can adequately hold down a key defensive position while also producing with the bat is more valuable than a player, like Palmeiro, who plays first base or is employed as a designated hitter.

To account for this, you can measure what a player produces versus other players who play his position. Compare shortstops to shortstops, first basemen to first basemen, etc.

Whereas RCAA measures a player's production compared with that of a league-average counterpart, regardless of position, Runs Created Above Position (RCAP) compares a player with a league-average counterpart who plays the same position.

In terms of RCAP, Palmeiro ranked 63rd among lefty hitters entering this season. Ruth (1,594) leads. Brett (508) ranks 20th.

Don't misunderstand - 63rd among the approximately 16,000 players who have played big-league baseball is pretty impressive. But, given the era in which he has played, does the ranking make Palmeiro great?

Let's recognize Palmeiro's career for what it is - a testament to durability and sustained competence that unfolded in the most optimum of circumstances.
Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Stars fit formula for success

The All-Star break is here, which can only mean one thing: no box scores in today's paper.

Of course, it also means that all statistics are frozen for a couple of days, so it's a good time to compile the second annual Stat Guy All-Star team - the best player at each position over the first half of the season.

Players were selected based on extrapolated runs (XR), a formula developed by the Baseball Think Factory that measures the total offensive contribution of a player. Add up XR for all players on a team, and you'll have a good approximation of the total runs for the team. The totals have been adjusted for home ballpark.

So without further ado, here are the winners:

* FIRST BASE: Derrek Lee, Cubs (40.3 extrapolated runs above average). Lee is having the mother of all career seasons. His slugging average is more than 200 points above his previous career best. His career high in home runs is 32. This season, he already has 27. Lee has been the best player in baseball over the first half and has single-handedly kept the flagging Cubs afloat. Runner-up: Albert Pujols, Cardinals (29.9).

* SECOND BASE: Brian Roberts, Orioles (25.0). Whose first half has been more of a surprise β€” Roberts or Lee? It's a good argument either way. Roberts has already tripled his previous career best in home runs. His 50 doubles last season might have been a precursor to the power spike. If the season ended today, Roberts would probably be the MVP in the American League. Runner-up: Jeff Kent, Dodgers (16.6).

* THIRD BASE: Alex Rodriguez, Yankees (26.6). Curses. If A-Rod hadn't had such a monster first half, the Yankees might have been buried beyond hope. Instead, they enter the break only 2 1/2 games back. The case for picking Rodriguez at the hot corner was not so clear-cut, however. He has been positively statuesque in the field. But the offensive numbers give him too great of a buffer for any other third sackers to overcome. Runner-up: Morgan Ensberg, Astros (18.8).

* SHORTSTOP: Miguel Tejada, Orioles (21.6). Remember the very recent past, when all arguments about shortstops centered on Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Nomar Garciaparra? Seems like a long time ago. Tejada takes the shortstop spot by a bigger margin than any other position. His defensive numbers are down - but not enough to threaten his perch. Runner-up: Derek Jeter, Yankees (10.6).

* CATCHER: Jason Varitek, Red Sox (8.5). Varitek is another player who takes a defensive position because of dominance with the bat. His defensive numbers are so-so, but he has a good reputation for working with his pitchers. Varitek has always been a plus with the bat, but he may be having his best season. Pudge Rodriguez takes the runner-up spot because of some terrific defensive numbers. Runner-up: Rodriguez, Tigers (0.1).

* LEFT FIELD: Miguel Cabrera, Marlins (21.1). Which young hitter would you rather have, Cabrera or Pujols? When you consider what Cabrera has done by the age of 22, it's not an easy question. Also, when you realize that the most comparable hitter to Pujols' career to date is Joe DiMaggio, Cabrera is off to an awfully good start. His defense isn't great, however. Runner-up: Jason Bay, Pirates (16.4).

* CENTER FIELD: Andruw Jones, Braves (16.5). It seems as if Jones has been around long enough to have played with Hank Aaron - but, in reality, he's still only 28 years old. This may be the monstrous season that Jones always seemed destined for. While his reputation with the glove now exceeds his actual performance, he's still a plus defender. Runner-up: Jim Edmonds, Cardinals (15.4).

* RIGHT FIELD: Brian Giles, Padres (23.0). The breadth of Giles' season is partly masked by the pitcher's park in which he plays, but Giles has been one of the five best offensive players in baseball over the first half. Park factors give Giles the edge over Bobby Abreu. Runner-up: Abreu, Phillies (20.0).
Tuesday, July 05, 2005

What is the best way to make All-Star selections?

This All-Star selection business always draws out a chorus of opinion. So, what the heck, let's sing.

There are three ways to approach the issue. There used to be one, but the always-reactive Bud Selig changed that when he decided to make the All-Star Game winner get home-field advantage for its league in the World Series a couple of years ago. That's not a comment on the decision itself. It's simply a statement of fact. Making the game count for something alters - or should alter - the way the teams are selected.

Let's consider this theoretical shift by looking at Mike Sweeney's selection as the default representative of the Royals.

The selection of the squads used to be a matter of politics, semantics or both. Perhaps it still is. But however a player landed on an All-Star roster, it was considered that he had been rewarded for what he had done during the first half of the season or, because of fan voting, for what he had done previously in his career.

This meant that the players in the game weren't necessarily the best players in the league at the time of the All-Star Game itself. Often they were - success breeds popularity, and most of the truly great players were (and are) elected as starters.

Sometimes great players have bad seasons, however, and from time to time a great player would end up starting in the game when he didn't deserve it - simply because his former excellence had embedded itself on the fan/voter consciousness.

No one really cared, though. Rosters were a mix of fading stars, rising stars and others, who simply were having career seasons.

Under the old way, default selections from teams who might not deserve a representative were selected almost exclusively for what they did in the first half of the season.

If the outcome of the All-Star Game still didn't matter, the Royals' selection this season should have been Emil Brown or David DeJesus. In terms of Win Shares (the Bill James statistic that expresses a player's total contribution as a single, integral number), Brown and DeJesus are about even.

There are other metrics that could make the same point, but this should suffice. DeJesus has contributed more with the glove and, because of more opportunities, leads the Royals in total runs created. Based strictly on first-half production, DeJesus probably should be the choice.

Mike Sweeney has simply missed too much time. Part of being a productive player is being there. As has been the case all too often in recent seasons, Sweeney simply hasn't been there often enough. But thanks to Selig, the question is convoluted.

If the final score of the Midsummer Classic carries meaning, then perhaps players shouldn't be selected based strictly on first-half production. Maybe the best players should be picked - no matter how much time they've missed - to field the strongest teams possible.

If that is the case, then you don't look at cumulative statistics - rate stats take precedence. And you don't just look at first-half performance; you have to look at two or three years' worth of data.

In that case, Sweeney is the proper choice. Despite the missed games, Sweeney has been clearly established as the Royals' best player for the last half-decade even though he offers little defensive value. That's not based on this season, necessarily, because if you look at rate stats, a case can be made for Brown, DeJesus and even Matt Stairs.

That still leaves the third approach, and it's one that no one wants to talk about. If the All-Star Game actually matters and the goal becomes fielding the strongest possible team, then you have to make changes.

First, you have to eliminate the fan vote. Second, you have to eliminate the one-player-per-team minimum - tough choices to make.

If you do make those choices, however, then the question about the Royals' representative is moot.

No matter what rate statistic or performance metric you look at, whether you look just at first-half performance or two-or-three-season track records, the answer is the same.

No one on the Royals deserves to go to Detroit.