Swing Away, Ryan

TOKYO - MAY 28:  Singer Mariah Carey throws the ceremonial first pitch before Japanese professional baseball match between Yomiuri Giants and Rakuten Golden Eagles at Tokyo Dome on May 28, 2008 in Tokyo, Japan.(Photo by Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images)
Yes, Ryan Theriot swung at this pitch.

If I were to rank the complaints of Cubs fans this year on a scale of frequency and intensity of the rants, Ryan Theriot’s approach at the plate would probably rank somewhere around the 4th spot in between Zambrano’s tumult and John Grabow’s existence. Honestly, the objections of this fan base are so voluminous and varied, ranking them would be almost as difficult as addressing them.

Ordered lists of grievances aside, we can all agree that Ryan Theriot’s concept of patience has forced Cub fans to lose theirs. He swings at the ceremonial first pitch. He swings at bean balls. When the visiting team hits a home run, his biggest regret is not having a bat to swing when the bleacher bums throw the ball back. There’s no question what the perception is: Theriot loves to swing at the first pitch. I guess my only remaining questions are, Does he? and Should he?

Does Ryan Theriot love to swing at the first pitch?
First of all, I think what really bothers everyone (justifiably or not) isn’t that Theriot swings at the first pitch so much as that he puts the first pitch in play. You can see from Theriot’s plate discipline numbers that he swings at a smaller percentage of pitches out of the strike zone than the rest of the league, so it’s not a matter of Theriot swinging at bad pitches. So if he swings at a strike on the first pitch without putting it in play, the act of swinging really has no effect whatsoever other than maybe giving Theriot a better sense of timing. When Theriot swings, though, he makes contact 90.3% of the time (the 13th highest contact rate in the majors), so I really don’t think people are complaining about his first-pitch whiffs so much as his short at-bats.

So let’s just look at the plate appearances in which Theriot puts the first pitch into play, a pretty frequent occurrence. In 2010, just over 18% of Theriot’s PAs have lasted exactly one pitch. League average is about 11%. For his career, almost 16% of Riot’s plate appearances are one-pitch affairs, so he has definitely earned the reputation for hitting the first pitch more than the average player (and definitely more than the prototypical leadoff hitter). This year he’s been even more slap-happy than normal, but not much. A 2% increase represents about 14 PAs per season, and I highly doubt anyone has noticed that Theriot is hitting the first pitch an additional eight one-hundredths of a plate appearance per game.

That being said, yes, Ryan Theriot does seem to love that first pitch. Is that so wrong?

Should Ryan Theriot love to swing at the first pitch?
There are those who would say no regardless of evidence to the contrary. Since Theriot has been semi-regularly batting in the leadoff position, the unwritten (but oft spoken) rule dictates that he should take as many pitches as possible. It’s his job, I’m told, to work the count and get on base as often as possible. And in those cases when the pitcher just made the second out, he is required by law to take at least two strikes and foul off at least three pitches if necessary to give the pitcher at least a five-pitch time span in which to rest.

Forgive me for challenging the conventional wisdom, but I do think his main job is to reach base as frequently as possible and to advance as far along the basepaths as he can. I’d prefer to use wOBA, but without the split information for that particular stat I’ll look at OPS first. If Theriot’s on-base plus slugging numbers are better when swinging at the first pitch than in other situations, wouldn’t it be advisable (or at the very least forgivable) for him to continue in his relative impatience?

Well guess what: they are. For his career, Theriot’s AVG/OBP/SLG line is .349/.351/.453 when he hits (or gets hit by) the first pitch he sees, putting his 1st-pitch OPS at .803 (it’s .807 this year, so let’s just stick with the career numbers for better sample size). Now let’s look at those numbers in plate appearances he allows to go more than one pitch. After the count reaches 1-0, Theriot’s line is .287/.406/.387. Yes, his OBP goes up significantly, but his slugging plummets as well, yielding an OPS of .793. Keep in mind, that’s throughout Theriot’s career on all PAs that start with him taking a pitch and getting ahead in the count.

The difference is extremely slight, but Theriot’s ability to inflict damage on the opposition has been better when he hits the first pitch than when he gains the 1-0 advantage. What about after a first pitch strike? .266/.306/.309 with a .615 OPS. If  you’d rather see Theriot take that first pitch for a strike, you must really put a lot of stock into the benefit of “showing his teammates what the pitcher has to offer,” because the difference between hitting and taking that first strike is pretty damaging to Theriot’s chances.

All told, here’s Theriot’s career line in plate appearances that last longer than one pitch: .275/.352/.343 (.695 OPS). Here’s the net difference in his line when a Ryan Theriot PA goes beyond the one-pitch mark: -.074/+.001/-.110. So, yeah, when Theriot lets an at-bat go any longer than the minimum, he actually decreases his OPS by .109.

Complain about Theriot leading off and I’ll agree with you. Demand his trade and I won’t bat an eye. But to those clamoring for longer Theriot at-bats, I beg of you to find a new tree up which to bark. Theriot’s love affair with pitch 1 is well founded. Don’t try to get in between those two. They will very likely both hit you.

Source of Silva’s Luck: The Other Guy on the Mound

Silva avoids a pitch from the best pitcher he’s faced all year: Dan Haren (who’s having a sub-par year)

I’ve been wanting to post something about Carlos Silva for the last few weeks as his undefeated record begins to look more and more impressive (and the deal that brought him here appears increasingly miraculous), but I have hesitated because a) I didn’t want to jinx it, b) I don’t want to spew skepticism, c) I don’t feel the need to diminish what has been one of the few feel-good stories of the season.

But let’s face it, all of us have that nagging itch somewhere along the cerebral cortex telling us this won’t last. You know how every cartoon has an episode in which the protagonist finds a map to some buried treasure or enter a contest with a ridiculously generous prize, and they come tantalizingly close to acquiring riches that will change their lives (and the nature of the cartoon) forever, but you know deep down the creators of the show will never ever allow them to get what they’re after?

Such is Carlos Silva’s season. We know he can’t be this good, right? Well, watching him pitch, especially in his most recent outings, it’s pretty obvious that he really is outpitching the expectations. That’s not a fluke, it’s reality. But the money stat everyone’s staring at, the booty to Carlos Silva’s J-Lo, is his 8-0 record. (His 2.93 ERA ain’t too shabby, either.)

As much as any of us know that the Win stat is the most overvalued, meaningless number in all of sports record keeping, 8-0 still looks pretty darn impressive. I, for one (representing millions, I’m sure), am scratching my head trying to figure out how Silva could be so lucky. Because he’s been good, but not 8-0 good.

The best explanation is his run support. The Cubs are scoring an average of 6.45 runs when Silva starts, and they’ve never scored fewer than 4 runs for him. Is that because of the huge psychological boost they get from knowing Big C is taking the hill? I don’t think so. Let me give you a list of names of some guys who might hold the answer:

Homer Bailey (twice). Felipe Paulino. Oliver Perez. John Lannan. Dan Haren. Chris Volstad. Jhoulys Chacin. C. J. Wilson. Adam Ottavino. Dana Eveland. No, those aren’t the leading candidates to fill out the N. L. All-Star pitching roster, those are the starting pitchers Carlos Silva has had to face so far this year. Here are their ERAs: 5.51, 4.01, 6.28, 4.79, 4.83, 4.08, 3.77, 3.62, 5.06, 6.34; a collective 4.70 opposing pitcher ERA. Silva’s opponents have combined for a WHIP of 1.46, .89 HR/9, and a 1.68 Strikeout-to-Walk ratio.

To put that into terms I can understand, the guys who have started opposite Carlos Silva have been overwhelmingly craptastic. Silva has better numbers than his opposition almost across the board. Almost, because he’s actually been inferior to his opponents in HR/9 (.9 for Carlos) and SO/9 (6.3). Silva has made up for that with a very nice 3.92 K/BB ratio and a low 1.064 WHIP.

Again, I don’t want to diminish the pleasantness of the surprise Carlos Silva has been. I’m really happy for him and for, well, myself and all Cub fans who want to see him succeed. I just want to point out that the 8-0 record and the gaudy run support has as much to do with the lackluster opposition as it does to whatever magic beans Jim Hendry received along with Silva in exchange for Milton Bradley. I just hope the sleepy giant doesn’t come crashing to the ground on his way down the beanstalk.

Yes, I know these numbers are tiny. Click the image for a better look.

Issue One: Suck or Cynic?

No, seriously, get off my lawn.

I hated it when I was a kid, but I’ve grown to love The McLaughlin Group. Led by curmudgeonly debating dictator John McLaughlin, this talking-head free-for-all might carry the blame for the parade of political punditry running through television around the clock, but that’s only because they do it right. They step on each other’s sentences and stumble their way through a bipartisan spectrum (composed of drastically slanted extremes). It’s entertaining, informative, and everything a political talk show should be.

Be that as it may, Johnny has drawn lighthearted criticism for his less-than-subtle manner of implying his cynical opinions are superior to all others, a caricature made famous by Dana Carvey and imitated by Cub fans everywhere.

I’m probably just as guilty as anyone of dismissing dissenting opinions, so don’t read this as a personal attack just because you know I know you’re wrong. But there’s something I find so irritating about the cynicism that follows a Cubs loss, bad inning, John Grabow run given up, Aramis Ramirez strikeout, Lou Piniella managerial decision/quote/shaving holiday . . . you name it. And, yes, I even get irritated at myself for succumbing to it. It’s the attitude that I can draw sound conclusions about this team or this player based on the last game, at bat, series, or even two weeks of play. 
We all know that’s not true, but when a small sample agrees with our general conclusions, it’s oh so tempting to set our opinions in stone. And then laminate them.
The first week of the season, everyone jokes about it. Samardzija’s ERA is infinity. Marlon Byrd is on pace to hit 456 homers. The Cubs will go 0-162. But after the first month of the season, and especially after the first two, fans tend to forget how unreliable small samples are, especially the fans who don’t know what constitutes a significant sample.
The Cubs are 1-7 against the Pirates. What does that tell us? It tells us that the Cubs have a woeful record against the Pirates this year. Are the Pirates better than the Cubs? Let’s entertain the thought. Here are some other imaginary conclusions we can draw from the Cubs/Pirates season series: 
  • The Cubs are 23-22 against the rest of baseball, so the Pirates must be the best team the Cubs have played this year. 
  • The Pirates are 15-30 against non-Cubs teams, so the Cubs must be the worst team the Pirates have played, including the Astros who have yet to lose to the Bucs and have lost just one to the Cubs.
  • Somehow the Cubs are an otherwise above-.500 team that is also the worst opponent the Pirates have faced, so the Pirates must have the toughest schedule in all of baseball. Ever.
  • Xavier Nady is an unstoppable force, he and his 1.065 OPS against the untouchable Pirate pitching staff.
  • Marlon Byrd doesn’t hustle nearly as hard as Alfonso Soriano.
I won’t go on. No one believes those conclusions, but for some reason, “The Cubs suck” is the most obvious fact ever presented before the public eye because of the Cubs’ 8 games against the Pirates, even though it doesn’t really agree with what the other games have told us. The Pirates have the second worst pitching staff in the National League (Milwaukee is the worst). Although the Cubs have absolutely pounded on Brewer pitching, the Pirate hurlers have been tougher on the Cubs than have all but three opposing staffs. It doesn’t make sense. And, in small samples, neither does baseball.
To be fair, the optimists who get overly excited when the Cubs are on a hot streak (read: me) are just as deceived by recency and selective sampling as the cynics who proclaim doom every time the L flag flies over Wrigley. But cynicism especially irritates me because it’s the cop-out attitude. It’s safe. It’s the defense mechanism of every fan.
Anyone quick to judge the Cubs as uber-sucky, other than opposing fans who frame their identities around criticizing the very team they hate (and really, this has to be the most pathetic segment of sporting society), is happy to be proved wrong. Generally, Cubs fans aren’t happy to see their team fail, so the doubters take solace in the fact that they saw the collapse coming. If the Cubs lose: “I knew it, and you’re an idiot if you’re surprised by this.” Cubs win: “Yay, I was wrong! This won’t last.”
See how that works? Call the desired outcome impossible, and you’ll never be disappointed. The only problem is, it doesn’t mean you’re a good prognosticator, it just means you’re skilled at covering your butt.
The people calling for Lou’s head because he leaves starting pitchers in too long are the same ones who get irate when he brings in the wrong reliever. The people saying Lou was a fool for starting the all-bench lineup are the same ones who, 24 hours earlier, were begging him to shake things up. They have to blame unexpected results on someone, and the unpredictability of baseball isn’t an option. It’s this: Lou sucks. The Cubs suck. If I can’t get the outcome I want, at least I can feel better blaming it on the people stupid enough not to be as cynical as I am right now.
Well, that sucks. I’m not saying everyone has to predict the Cubs to win or to bounce back. I’m not saying the optimists are right and the pessimists are wrong. I’m just saying the cynics, in this case and in life in general, are taking the easiest path, especially when it’s based on only the most recent or selective observations. If you think the Cubs suck (and their record agrees with you) I’d hope you’d form that opinion from something more than the final score to one game or even eight.
I’ll leave you with two things: 1) MLB’s collection of highlights carrying the Starlin Castro tag; 2) Exit question: on a scale of 1-10, 1 being the suckiest team in the history of spheroidal suction and 10 being the metaphysical pinnacle of baseball existence, how good do you think the Cubs are?

Is Aramis Back?

Aramis? Is that you?

After Monday’s walk-off homer, Ron Santo declared Aramis Ramirez back (he has probably said it a half dozen times or so of late). For the record, A-Ram hasn’t really gone anywhere. His bat has been missing. His look of determined competence was nowhere to be found. He appeared to be playing the role of Mike Fontenot’s inept replacement at third base, but Aramis has been in the starting lineup for 36 of the Cubs’ 40 games so far this year.

The hits haven’t been there, though. Aramis has hit safely in just 22 of those 36 starts. Of his hitless games, he drew a walk (just one) in eight of them. He has three multi-hit games; one was opening day. The other two offensive explosions (two hits each) have come in the last five games. It’s hard to say he is back, because he still hasn’t had an extended stretch of productivity. But by comparison, he’s definitely closer to being offensively relevant than he was at the beginning of the year.

Through his first 18 games (including one late-inning replacement) Aramis struck out 23 times in 79 plate appearances for a K% of PMET%*. Since then, he’s fanned just 10 times in 84 PAs, a much improved (and much closer to his career 15.4% rate) 11.9%. So, yeah, Aramis is hitting the ball now.

But on the whole, Aramis is still way off his typical batted ball distribution. He typically hits 19.8% line drives, 35.2% grounders, 45% fly balls (13.4% of which wind up as homers), and 11.5% popups. This year, Ramirez has a line-drive rate of 14.7% (down a bit), groundball rate of 25% (way down), and a pop-up rate of 11.5% (almost exactly his average). The big difference? His flyball rate is 60.3%, a spike of almost 50% of his career average. Now that Aramis is actually putting the ball in play, most of those balls are going in the air. The real bad news: his homer per flyball rate is less than half his career standard: 5.7%.

So Ramirez is back in a sense: he’s not completely lost at the plate anymore. Hopefully he can return to the guy who prefers hard line drives to towering moon shots, because he’s pretty much an out machine right now. In his last five games, he’s slugging .500. For the season: .288.

I like what I’m seeing out of Ramirez right now, and I have every reason to believe his last five games are more indicative of what we’ll see than his first month and a half. We know the guy can hit, and we can see his slump wasn’t permanent. Let’s just hope the resurgence is neither too short nor too late.

*Pretty Much Every Time

Lucky Strikes: Baseball and Bowling

Baseball. Bowling. Homer. See what I did there?

I’m in a bowling league. I am not good. My form is awful. My entire game is inconsistent, from my approach to my release to my follow through. Sometimes the ball hooks like a drifting frisbee. Other times it sails straight as a hanging Grabow slider.

But the crazy thing about bowling is, you don’t have to be good. I mean, if you’re good, you will, with very few exceptions, always bowl  a better series than I do. I will rarely bowl a better game than a really good bowler does, but it happens. And there are plenty of frames in which I’ll bowl a strike while a far superior bowler leaves a pin or two standing. I’ve seen five year olds bowl strikes (sans bumpers). I’ve seen guys with near-200 averages bowl gutter balls or even sub-80 games.

It’s a simple fact of bowling that superior skill and even superior execution doesn’t always yield superior results—it usually does over the course of time, but most definitely not every time, especially in smaller samples.

The more I bowl, the more it reminds me of baseball.

I don’t think I’m telling you anything you don’t already know when I say that superior skill and execution don’t always yield superior results in baseball, because you know that luck rears its pretty or ugly or pretty ugly head all the time. But more often than not, we judge someone’s talent level (or at least the quality of their execution in a specific instance) on results we know to be affected or even completely determined by luck. We know better, we just forget.

Here’s an example from the lanes: aiming for the traditional pocket between the 1 and 3 pins, I miss my target to the left by almost a foot. The execution: bad. The result: awesome. I get a “Brooklyn” strike, landing the ball between the 1 and 2 pins. Oddly enough, if I had missed by just an inch, I could easily have wound up with the dreaded 7-10 split, one I have no hope of sparing. The uneducated observer would say I did well. The learned bowler would say I got lucky. But somehow everyone would look at the resultant score and go on thinking I was having a better game than the great bowler with the split.

Similar things happen all the time in baseball on both sides of the ball. Derrek Lee had the game-winning single  in Saturday’s game against the Diamondbacks, and it was probably the second-worst hit he put in play, a ground-ball single through the hole at short. It could have easily resulted in a double play. His worst was his other single, a blooper to right center. Both his fly outs to right were hit harder than either of those two hits, but the results were worse. His strike out was a gutter ball (those pretty much never work out).

And that’s just balls in play. You know how when a hitter fouls a ball straight back, we’re supposed to take that as a sign he was “right on it” from a timing standpoint and “just missed it” with his swing location. Great. But I have to assume that if he had split the difference between absolutely nailing it (homer, maybe?) and just missing it (foul straight back), the result would have been a nice high pop fly. Hit it perfectly, it’s a homer. Miss by a lot, it’s a strike (but not the bowling kind that makes you happy). Miss by a little less, it’s an out. Your degree of success does not reflect the precision of a player’s execution.

Obviously the same breaks work for or against pitchers, too. Every now and then you’ll see a batter take a fastball for a called third strike right down the middle, a pitch that was much more hittable than he expected. Everyone knows the pitcher got lucky, but no one curses him for his poor execution; we’re happy with the results. Cue the announcer, “He found a way to work out of it.”

The other factor is timing. Here’s the bowling scenario: A good bowler begins the game with 3 consecutive strikes, a feat worth 60 pins plus twice the pinfall on the next ball and the pins knocked down by the ball after that. If the next two balls are also strikes, the total in the third frame would be 90 pins. Me? I bowl three strikes in the 10th frame, and I’m totally stoked. That feat nets me 30 pins. Same execution as the good bowler (for those three throws). One half, or possibly one third of the score. That’s bad timing.

It’s painful to revisit how this plays out for the Cubs. Wednesday against the Nats, the Cubs had 9 hits, drew 4 walks, and benefited from 1 Washington error. Cub pitchers yielded 4 hits, one walk, and no errors. Cubs lose 3-2, but who had the better game? Who exhibited superior talent? You could argue that the Nationals did, since two of the Washington hits were homers. But still, the Cubs did enough things right to score a lot more runs; they just did them at the wrong time.

I know this isn’t all a matter of luck. Just like better bowlers will come through more consistently, better baseball players will post superior results because of their consistently superior execution, although they’ll be rewarded for plenty of their screw-ups along the way. It’s part of what makes baseball so fun to watch: it’s unpredictable. Not only will inferior players succeed and bad teams win rather often, but sometimes it will be their mediocrity that causes the wins.

So why am I saying all this? Because it’s hard to evaluate how well the Cubs are playing. They play well and lose. They play badly and win. There are stats that help tell the story a bit better, but I don’t even want to talk about them right now. I just want to acknowledge that . . . well, that I’m not a good bowler. I’m not a good judge of baseball talent (or choosing baseball teams to follow, for that matter). Sometimes the best I can do is just enjoy it and try to learn from people who are better than I am.

Thank DeRosa for Small Sample Sizes

MLB: Brewers vs Cubs APR 23
The truth hurts. So lie to me, Cubbies.

There’s a reason baseball is so fun to watch. Well, there are 225,658 reasons baseball is so fun to watch, but one of my favorites is the way it can take so long for the true balance of talent to bear itself out. Albert Pujols is as good a hitter as you’ll find, yet he makes outs in 53% of his plate appearances; despite that ridiculously good average, there were 15 games in 2009 in which he didn’t reach base. Tim Lincecum yielded a .206 batting average to opposing hitters last year, but there were two games in which he gave up 10 hits.

The numbers of any one game or any handful of games is likely to tell you a big fat lie about how good any one player or team really is.

Some games are more accurate depictions of talent than others, but you don’t really know which ones are telling you the truth until the season is over—and even then, most teams change composition over the course of the year, usually in an effort to get better, but often times due to injury, a player or team will get worse.

Statisticians can tell you the truth about any team, or at least a fair, objectively calculated, more-accurate-than-your-eyes judgment of a team’s potential. But watching a game has a way of reinforcing your hopes or deepening your fears. The Cubs drop 3 of 4 to the Mets, they suck, and I knew it. The Cubs sweep the Brewers, and they are the offensive juggernaut to put an end to the juggernaut business. Their pitching is outstanding. Carlos Zambrano is in the bullpen because the Cubs have at least 8 Cy-Young-caliber pitchers.

I don’t care about what’s accurate. It’s fun to watch the Cubs put a beating on the Brewers. It’s a small sample size, but it’s beautiful to behold. I might be furious, depressed, or elated when the sample reaches 162 games, but for this weekend I’m loving the lie.

Cubs and I Are Wishing on a Starlin

Starlin Castro has soared through the minor league ranks; is he ready to stretch his wings at the major league level? Photo by Amandy Rykoff (who has an amazing collection on flickr that I recommend you devote an hour or two to perusing)
I trust you’ve heard, read, talked, or written about 19-year-old Starlin Castro’s arrival at Spring Training and his potential for being a legitimate force at shortstop in the not-so-distant future. How distant (and how legitimate) is still pretty fuzzy. Lou thinks he looks a little Renteria-ish and could even fill in right away for an injured Ryan Theriot if the need presented itself.
But I’m sure you haven’t forgotten how the previous installments of this film series turned out. Corey Patterson. Felix Pie. The Hills both Rich and Bobby. We know the gap between highly touted prospect and holy-crap-is-this-guy-for-real All-Star vote getter is a deep and treacherous canyon through which the river of our disappointment flows freely. So how do we know what to expect? I ask because I don’t like getting burned by failed expectations any more than you do. So should I risk the excitement or just dismiss this kid until he proves me wrong?
But the truth is, we don’t know. We can listen to the scouting reports, but you can usually find a scout who will support whichever conclusion you’re predisposed to believe. You can look to the minor league stats, which Bill James says are just as trustworthy as major league stats for their predictive powers. There’s an interesting discussion in the comments at this Castro post at ACB about Castro’s stats, what they tell us, how different experts interpret them, and what we should believe. (Indulge your curiosity and read through the comments, because there’s great food for thought there.)
If you lack faith in the prophetic powers of stats, you can always just watch Castro play this spring and judge for yourself. I know I can’t wait. But I do want to call your attention to just one thing: the kid is 19. Nineteen year olds are, as a group, not entirely dependable. They’re just unpredictable creatures, those teenagers. As baseball players, the rate of development is pretty drastic. As people . . . same thing.
The reliability of the scouting reports is at the mercy of Castro’s youth. They can be impressed by a kid’s “makeup,” but they can’t know if he can handle the challenge of major league baseball in Chicago or anywhere else. And while I do agree that minor league stats can tell us a lot, I think they’re really shaky when it comes to teenagers. Let me give you a non-saber stat line for a 19-year-old shortstop who played a full season at the A level:
Player X: 128 Games, 71 RBI, 5 HR, .295 BA, .376 OBP, .394 SLG, 56 Errors
The hitting looks decent, the error total is atrocious, and the overall product doesn’t exactly scream future MVP. Keep in mind, these are single-A numbers we’re talking about. Here’s Castro’s line from A+ Daytona and AA Tennessee:
Castro: 127 Games, 49 RBI, 3 HR, .299 BA, .342 OBP, .392 SLG, 39 Errors
I’d call those numbers comparable, no? Neither guy jumps out at you, and the defense suggests both players are actually Jake Fox. But Player X is actually a 19-year-old Derek Jeter.
Now, I know that these stats aren’t the best predictors of future performance, but if you’re familiar with the ones that are, you have already looked at Castro’s. I’m not saying we should expect or even hope Castro will look like the guy who wears the #2 on his Yankee jersey. I can’t even guarantee he’ll be good enough to replace the guy who wears the #2 on his Cub jersey. 
But I will say that Starlin Castro is only going to get better. Stupid as I’m inclined to be, I’m expecting good things from the kid if he can impress Sweet Lou and ascend through the minors so quickly. I’ll be watching with great interest when he plays semi-real games this spring, and something tells me I’ll be easily impressed.
Consider my hopes officially raised.

A Biblical Guide to Baseball Prophecy

This post may very well be of no interest to anyone, which would hardly make it the first of its kind. If I could call any subject matter my niche, it would be things no one cares about enough to read. But to be more specific, in terms of sheer volume, the two topics I’ve written the most about are probably baseball and the Bible. The audiences for both are small enough, but the overlap between the two is impressively minuscule. But despite the almost nonexistent intersection of the disparate groups, this post is born out of their improbable similarities.

What I’ve noticed is this: there’s a big similarity between biblical prophecy and baseball statistics and the way both have been received, dispensed, and interpreted.

Since I’m posting this on a Cubs blog, I’m going to focus on the baseball side of things, particularly the statistical realm. But since I know next to nothing about statistics, I’m going to weigh this sucker down with Bible talk. If the verbose introduction hasn’t served as warning enough, I should also caution you that I’m not exactly a Bible scholar either. I mean, in the general community of Cubdom, I probably know more about biblical prophecy than most . . . but certainly not all. And among the people I know who would be most eager to discuss the translation of Isaiah 7:14 in the Septuagint, I don’t know that any would give two craps about Fielding Independent Pitching.

So, chances are I could talk about either topic to the other audience without ever being exposed as a fraud. I’m okay with that. Now, on the off chance that anyone is still reading, I’ll press on to something resembling a point.

Most people, biblically inclined or not, equate the term prophecy with the foretelling of future events. But the fact of the matter is, most of the content of biblical prophecy had less to do with judgments that lay ahead and more to do with sins that had already transpired and wayward beliefs and practices going on at the time. Sure, virtually every prophet predicted something about the future, but many of those forecasts were fulfilled in multiple manifestations separated by many hundreds and sometimes thousands of years. And some predictive prophecies are spelled out in fairly precise terms, while others leave room for infinite speculation and varying interpretations.

The big problem comes in the way people handle what they know, what they think they know, and what they don’t care to know. Some scholars obsess over the minutiae to the contempt of the faith and the division of their ranks. Many well intentioned people project historical anecdotes onto completely unrelated current situations and future speculations. Others focus so intently on the future that they become myopic to their current travails or joys. And the masses just want to know enough Bible to feel good about themselves and roll their eyes at the mention of prophecy. But, whether any such people exist or not, the best among us have the wisdom to learn from past declarations, draw conclusions from clear predictions, and allow for the uncertainty of peering into the great beyond.

If you’ve yet to see a correlation between all of that and the way baseball fans view their stats, I applaud and pity you for making it this far. But I’ve observed a similar phenomenon among Cub fans and sabermetricians the world over.

In a debate taking place far above my level of understanding, there are statisticians on many sides of many different arguments about concepts I can hardly begin to understand. I won’t go into them, I just know that there’s a lot of projecting and computing and regressions and standard deviations and . . . hell, a lot of stuff I don’t know. But the people who do know it can get pretty heated about their methods to the point you wonder how a game can cause smart people to act so foolish.

On the plane where commoners like me reside, there are old-school, lowbrow minds who devoutly swear by stats like Wins, ERA, batting average, and fielding percentage, and they’ll tell you that the basic triple-crown stats tell you everything you need to know about a player’s performance and his potential. They don’t see the difference between the stats that describe the past and the ones that predict the future. Like a close-minded pastor using Habakkuk 3 to tell you rock & roll is of the Devil, they’ll tell you that any stat invented after 1908 was contrived for the sole purpose of polluting young minds with the perverted rites of the cultic Epsteinian overlords.

Then there are the occasional saberlovers who are so infatuated with advanced stats that they look with disdain upon conventional numbers. If they had their way, games would no longer be decided by a statistic so rudimentary as runs but by a park-adjusted comparison of  team xBABIP, xFIP, EqA, and UZR or a sum of each player’s Win Probability Added. Keith Law comes to mind. He got publicly lambasted (called an idito more than once, if I recall) for valuing FIP above ERA in his Cy Young balloting, and I can understand why. FIP is designed to ignore the factors of luck and the defensive skill behind a pitcher—but baseball isn’t so kind to pitchers. Should the batting title go to the hitter with the highest xBABIP?

Crap, I’m afraid I’ve lost my last interested Bible reader. If you care for an overview of some of these stats . . . ugh, look them up. It’s 4 in the morning, I can’t post every link in the world. Or go here.

Where was I? Oh, yeah. Of course, Wrigley Field welcomes plenty of visitors who have no intention of examining stats beyond finding just enough to confirm the positions they already hold about players, managerial decisions, and player acquisitions. They’re mad. They’re happy. They love a guy. They hate a guy. Find a stat that helps you feel better about that feeling . . . or don’t. Whatever. You’re definitely not reading this.

But the thing that I’ve learned from everything I read about baseball statistics is that some stats are really good at predicting the future and evaluating talent, even when they paint a different picture than the old-school stats that tell you beyond a shadow of a doubt what happened in the past. The typical stats are determined by tons of luck and teammate-dependent factors, but baseball is hugely affected by those factors. The advanced metrics may tell you who the best man is, but the old stats will tell you who wins.

But that doesn’t mean you can dismiss the prophets who understand the stats better than you. I’ll admit, most statistical methods give me a headache. I understand what’s going on to some degree, but I will always need help knowing what the numbers mean, how they’re computed, and where they’re headed. I do know that no matter how good they are, they won’t stop strange things from happening. You just hope that eventually, they’ll stop stupid things from happening (cough, Aaron Miles, cough).

Prophecy, stats . . . they have nothing and everything to do with each other. Neither is necessarily predictive. Neither is necessarily relevant. But both of them will tell you the truth in a way you can’t otherwise understand.  And I’ll say this for sure: in life or in baseball, if you ignore the truth, you’ll more often than not find yourself walking into big piles of suck left and right.

Trade This: Z Shouldn’t Swap Teams. Catchers Maybe

For one night at least, Carlos Zambrano looked like a guy who deserved every penny of his $91.5 million contract, let alone the right to stay on this Cubs team. He might not be that guy, but he sure looked the part as he outpitched de facto Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum on Friday night. Carlos matched the Giants’ two hits and drove in two more runs than they did during his complete-game shutout. And it left Len, Bob, and the depressed Cub faithful wondering why he couldn’t look like that more often.

As Koyie Hill congratulated him on the too-late gem, I wondered how much difference Koyie Hill makes for Zambrano and if he should become Z’s personal catcher. Baseball-Reference had some fun answers for me.

Geo has caught Z 14 times to Koyie’s 13 proving at the very least that Z does NOT have a personal catcher. The rest of the stats suggest he should. (Note: I don’t know the number of innings pitched or ERA, but what’s there is pretty telling.)

With Geo catching: 2.09 SO/BB; .273 BA; .351 OBP; .414 SLG; .765 OPS
With Koyie: 1.88 SO/BB; .215 BA; .315 OBP; .278 SLG; .593 OPS

The only number that’s more favorable with Geo behind the dish is the strikeout-to-walk ratio. Everything else points dramatically to Koyie being the ideal Big Z handler.

I just hope Lou (or whoever the manager will be) glances at these numbers at some point in the offseason.

Calling (out) All Cubs Fans

Milton Bradley has brought this into stark relief, but the problem has been going on as long as I’ve been alive. It’s a sensitive topic, so I’ll keep it short, easy on the sweet.

The following are true, albeit made up:

Cub fans are 85% more likely than other fans to believe they control the outcome of the game.

Cub fans are 77% more likely than other fans to think that a players looks significantly influence their on-field play.

Cub fans are three times as likely as Reds fans to blame a loss on a post-game press conference.

98% of Cubs fans have credited “supernatural forces” with the result of at least one entire Cubs season; of those, 89% believe they can control the aforementioned supernatural forces; 17% of Cub fans think those numbers are a little low.

86% of Cub fans are annoyed at baseball record keepers for not statistically tracking “clubhouse vibe.”

2% of Cub fans are billy goats.

.01% of Cub fans were alive the last time they won a World Series.

100% of Cub fans who just read that winced.