Dream Job

Back in college there was a guy a couple doors down from me in the dorm who had interned at Apple for a summer or two. I remember thinking, “Gee, I wonder if I’ll ever be a good enough programmer to work at Apple?” Working at Apple was the dream job for a lot of programmers in those days (and still is for a lot of people these days). I’ve been working at Apple for 8 years now, and it is a great job.

Everyone wants to work somewhere where they’re basically pursuing one of their hobbies at the same time. And on that count it’s hard to beat where my friend Keith is going. Keith founded (or at least co-founded) my fantasy baseball league, which I’ve been in since he recruited me in 1999, and now he’s upgrading to “reality baseball”.

And really, can you have a better dream job than that?

Congratulations, Keith!

Alex Rodriguez

One of my favorite columns in the San Jose Mercury News is Bud Geracie’s weekly sports roundup, “In The Wake of the Week”. He averages more good zingers per column than any other columnist I read.

This week he sums up Alex Rodriguez’ overpowering start to the 2007 season in four words:

“Alex Rodriguez: Mr. April.”

Ouch.

(ARod hit two home runs last night, but the Red Sox came back to win with 5 runs in the 8th, so, y’know, nyah-nyah!)

Brett Myers

In what in my opinion is one of the stupidest roster moves in recent memory, Philadelphia Phillies manager Charlie Manuel moved starter Brett Myers to the bullpen after two bad starts this year.

If there’s a picture-perfect example of “overreacting”, this seems to be it. Maybe Manuel can see something in Myers that the rest of us can’t, but that’s one of only two defenses I think he could make here.

Baseball Prospectus author Joe Sheehan argues (in a subscriber-only article) that it’s the right move:

Manuel is trying to make lemons from lemonade. He has a roster with six starting pitchers—not swingmen, not prospects, not marginal guys, but six major league-caliber starting pitchers. He has a bullpen with one reliable strikeout guy in Tom Gordon.

[…]

Manuel tried, briefly, to use Jon Lieber out of the bullpen. Lieber hasn’t pitched in relief since 1997, and as a flyball/command guy, is ill-suited for pitching late in close games.

[…]

Going through the other choices leads to similar conclusions [that the other starters are as poorly-suited for the bullpen].

Sheehan also points out that Manuel’s problem isn’t of his own making, but rather is due to General Manager Pat Gillick collecting six quality starters while letting some quality hitters (e.g., Bobby Abreu) go. While I agree with this point, I don’t think that Manuel not having created the problem has any bearing on his choosing a poor way to solve the problem.

What this move basically boils down to (for 2007, anyway) is replacing Myers’ 200-odd starting innings with (maybe) 200 innings from Jon Lieber (and whoever in the bullpen has to make up the innings he doesn’t reach), and replacing 70-odd innings from the back of the bullpen with Myers. This is only a win if you think that Lieber is a significantly better pitcher than whomever is being replaced in the bullpen, and Lieber (who, by the way, is 37 years old) was not very good last year, with a 4.93 ERA. Now it’s certainly possible that the back of the Phillies’ pen is even worse than that, but it would have to be really, really bad to make up those 120 innings of quality starting that the team is losing.

(There’s also Myers’ big contract extension, which is a lot of money to pay a guy who isn’t going to be starting for you.)

As I said, one defense Manuel might be able to employ is that Myers won’t provide quality innings from the rotation. But so far I haven’t heard of any reasons why that’s so; two bad games is such a small sample size that it’s basically worth disregarding in isolation – and there’s no additional evidence that there’s something fundamentally wrong with Myers as a starter (and two years of evidence that there isn’t).

The other defense Manuel could employ is that Myers has some correctable problem (for which there is some evidence – Myers said as much, shortly before the demotion) which he should work out in the bullpen in lower-pressure situations so he can return to the rotation. And, since baseball teams are getting cagier about what they say, that’s entirely possible, and perfectly reasonable.

Right now, though, it just looks like Charlie Manuel is making a boneheaded move which is going to hurt his struggling team (they have a 4-10 record so far, worst in the NL).

And, of course, that’s a perfectly normal thing for baseball teams to experience, too.

Lineup Protection

Interesting article arguing that lineup protection in baseball exists. This runs counter to the sabermetric wisdom that lineup protection is a myth: Past research (if I recall correctly) has determined that having a better hitter on deck does not, over a significant number of plate appearances, result in a better hitting experience (more hits, walks and bases per plate appearance) than having a worse hitter on deck.

The author sums up this theory and suggests his criticism of it:

[J.C.] Bradbury’s regression analysis [in his book The Baseball Economist] attempts to measure the effect of the on-deck hitter’s quality on the current batter’s outcome (his regression model has the on-deck hitter’s OPS on the right-hand side and the current batter’s outcome on the left-hand side). This approach is intuitive; in fact, my initial instinct might be to perform similar research. However, at bat outcomes involve many moving parts (where the ball lands, reaction of the defense, and luck, to name a few), and Bradbury is trying to measure the effect of an outcome-based rate (OPS) on another outcome. Thus, if there is some noise or randomness within the data, the problem would be compounded in the findings.

Certainly this is true. But this is why a sufficiently large sample size is needed for the study. The question is: Is the set of data used to analyze lineup protection inadequate? The author seems to assume that it is, although that’s never been my impression.

He suggests examining pitch-by-pitch data to see whether batters see more “good” pitches (pitches in the strike zone, and fastballs rather than breaking pitches) with a better hitter on deck rather than a worse hitter. His analysis says yes:

The protection production function seems to tell us conflicting stories. The “input” findings show that protection exists, but the “output” evidence suggests that protection does not exist. So, which answer is correct? In addition to the potential randomness issue discussed earlier, outputs suffer from one other relative disadvantage – the mere volume of data being studied is different. Analysis at the per-pitch level (inputs) employs about four times the number of instances as per-at bat level analysis (outputs). Thus, while prior research may (or may not) point us in the right direction, I would argue that the production function’s inputs push us much closer to the truth.

I don’t buy this argument. The question at hand, as I see it, is not “Does having a better hitter on deck cause the pitcher to throw pitches to the batter that are easier to hit (i.e., more advantageous to the batter)?”, but rather, “Does having a better hitter on deck cause the batter to produce more runs?”

If we grant the result of his analysis (if not the conclusion he draws from it), though, then it does raise an interesting question: If a better hitter on deck causes the pitcher to change his approach, then why don’t batters in such situations experience better outcomes than in other situations? Are pitchers changing their approaches in a manner which is not actually useful? Is there something here that players and teams don’t yet understand and which might be exploitable?

He wraps up with a broader point:

I want to be clear about my broader argument. The sabermetric community will benefit as it moves away from its relatively strict reliance on outcomes and outputs. Events on the field of any sport involve a great deal of processes. While outcome data (e.g., much of what you find online at great sites such as retrosheet and baseball-reference) have generally been more widely available, a full picture of economic analysis in the future will rely much more heavily on whole processes and their inputs.

While both inputs and outputs can be interesting, neither is inherently more or less interesting than the other. It depends on what you’re trying to study. This fellow has failed to persuade me that the input side is as important as the output side in the case of lineup protection.

(I learned about this post through the Red Sox Mailing List. And boy does the list’s page need updating!)

One Week of Baseball

One should always be wary of drawing any conclusions based on a single week of the baseball season. However, I do often find it instructive to see which teams are struggling mightily in the first week, only because it’s a lot easier to squander a 4-game lead than it is to overcome a 4-game deficit.

Three teams are currently occupying the cellar in Major League Baseball:

  • The Washington Nationals are 1-6, 4.5 games behind the lead. The Nationals are widely expected to be the worst team in baseball in 2007, so this isn’t a surprise: There just isn’t much talent there.
  • The Philadelphia Phillies are 1-5, in the same division. The Phillies were expected to contend in their division, but instead they’ve lost 4 close games (3 runs or less), 2 blowouts, and won one blowout. They’re 4th in runs scored, but next-to-last in runs allowed, with plenty of blame to go around on the latter score. Their pitching’s going to have to be more consistent if they’re really going to contend.
  • The San Francisco Giants are 1-5, 3.5 games back. They’re last in runs scored and third-from-last in runs allowed, which is just all-around awful. They’re also the oldest team in baseball. While there’s some reason to hope their pitching will come around (Barry Zito always seems to be awful in April), their hitting is just not that good: Beyond Barry Bonds and Ray Durham, there isn’t a real good reason to think they’ll be above average at any other position. I picked them to finish behind even the Rockies this year, and they’re off to a correspondingly poor start.

The Phillies might just be having a run of bad luck to start the year, but being 4.5 games out with 25 weeks to play isn’t exactly a way to put yourself into contention. Meanwhile, the Nats and Giants have put themselves in position to be the worst teams in baseball.

Over in the American League, the Indians and Mariners have each only played 3 games, thanks to a goodly dose of snow in Cleveland over the weekend.

No one in the AL is looking really awful so far: Even the teams with the worst offenses have shown good pitching so far, and vice-versa. But that just means that no one’s separated themselves from the pack. I figure Baltimore, Kansas City and maybe Seattle will start declining before too long. The difference between these three teams being that KC is arguably on the way up, while the other two seem stuck in neutral (and I think the Orioles removed their clutch sometime around the year 2000).

Me, I’m still hoping this is the year that the wheels come off of the Yankees’ pitching train.

The Subtle Game

RotoWorld makes an interesting point regarding dealing with Johan Santana, the best pitcher in baseball:

Manager Ozzie Guillen plans to leave several left-handed hitters in the lineup when the White Sox face Johan Santana Sunday.

Most teams stack the lineup with right-handed hitters, but Santana has actually been significantly better against righties than lefties over the years thanks to his world-class changeup. The Orioles had success against Santana on Opening Day when their lefties smacked four doubles off him and he’ll have to adjust if other teams catch on.

It’s interesting to see what teams decide to divulge about their strategies. But in the case of the White Sox, Guillen has a strong motivation to publicize his strategy against Santana: The Twins are a division rival, and it’s to their advantage to encourage other teams to employ a strategy which could result in more losses for the Twins.

And, indeed, RotoWorld is right, at least over the last three years. Actually, he was better against lefties in 2002 and 2003, about equal in 2004, and better against righties in 2005 and 2006.

Fantasy Baseball 2007

All about my 2007 fantasy baseball team.

This year is my 15th year playing fantasy baseball, and 9th year in this very tough league. I’ve finished as high as 3rd (out of 14 – now 16 – teams), and as low as 14th. My approach to preparing and my draft strategy keep evolving, but this year I returned to some basic principles that have worked for me before: Keep it simple, and draft for youth.

My returning core was basically what it’s been for a few years: Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, Jeremy Bonderman, Brett Myers, and a supporting cast of rookies or second-year players. But I needed to fill some of the “skill positions” (C, 2B, SS) and I desperately needed to draft a better pitching staff; pitching has been my bugaboo for years.

9 hours of draft later, this is what I went home with Sunday night:

Pos Player Team Round/
Pick
Age Comments
C Miguel Montero ARI Keeper 23
C Josh Bard SDN 6/87 29
C Dioner Navarro TBA 16/247 23
1B Albert Pujols SLN Keeper 27
2B Orlando Hudson ARI 5/71 29 The 2B pool was very thin this year. I picked Hudson over Jeff Kent, picking youth and a hitter’s park over age and Chavez Ravine.
2B Adam Kennedy SLN 21/327 31
2B Todd Walker OAK 12/177 34 Not sure how much he’ll play, even though he nominally qualifies at 1B, 2B and 3B. The one pick I made that I actually regret.
3B Miguel Cabrera FLO Keeper 24
3B Edwin Encarnacion CIN Keeper 24
SS Bill Hall MIL 1/7 27 Will probably qualify at OF before long.
SS Bobby Crosby OAK 10/151 27 I decided this was a good pick to roll the dice that Crosby can be healthy this year.
OF J.D. Drew BOS 3/39 31 I put my head in my hands when I made this pick. Frankly, Drew is a great player, but only when he’s not hurt.
OF Corey Hart MIL 4/55 25
OF Chris Young ARI Keeper 23
OF Shane Victorino PHI 9/135 26 In another youth-oriented pick, I chose him instead of Ken Griffey.
OF David DeJesus KCA 8/119 27 Another guy I hope stays healthy.
OF Josh Hamilton CIN 22/342 26 My last pick in the draft. Personal problems hae kept him out of baseball for several years, but he made the Major League team and could be good.
SP Brett Myers PHI Keeper 26
SP Jeremy Bonderman DET Keeper 24
SP Chris Capuano MIL 2/23 28
SP Bronson Arroyo CIN 3/35 30
SP Zack Greinke KCA 6/83 23 Comeback player of the year? He had a great spring training.
SP James Shields TBA 7/103 25 I like guys who don’t issue many walks.
SP Joe Blanton OAK 10/158 26
SP Livan Hernandez ARI 14/215 32
SP Mike Pelfrey NYN Keeper 23
SP Esteban Loaiza OAK 15/231 25 Starting the season on the DL
RP Justin Duchscherer OAK 11/167 29
RP Scott Linebrink SDN 13/199 20
RP Cla Meredith SDN 12/183 24
IN Billy Rowell BAL 18/279 18 Orioles’ 1st-round pick in 2006.
IN Carlos Gomez NYN 17/263 21 Mets prospect; reached AA at age 20.
IN Felix Pie CHN 18/286 22 Cubs prospect, probably ready to play this year, but it’s the Cubs.
IN Jacoby Ellsbury BOS 20/311 23 Red Sox center fielder of the future.
IN Luke Hochevar KCA 19/295 23 Royals’ 1st-round pick in 2006.

The big difference between this year and last year’s team (which was awful – I finished 10th out of 16 teams) is that I don’t have Bonderman, Myers, and the four stooges (Javier Vazquez, Matt Clement, Derek Lowe, and Jeff Suppan): Instead I have Bonderman, Myers, and five young guys with some upside, plus a LAIM (League Average Innings Muncher) in Hernandez, plus a top prospect in Pelfrey. So I’m very hopeful that my pitching will be greatly improved this year.

I’m also happy that I managed to execute my draft plan: I picked Bill Hall in the first round, figuring that he should be at worst an average shortstop, and perhaps an All-Star quality shortstop/outfielder. Then I picked two of the four pitchers I was targeting in Capuano and Arroyo (Aaron Harang and David Bush were the other two), and a nice supporting cast.

Certainly I have some risk: None of my pitchers are sure things. J.D. Drew could get hurt. My catchers could potentially all be busts. But on the other hand I have a lot of useful spare parts and if things come together I could actually have a great team.

I enjoyed the prospecting this year. I knew that Tim Lincecum and Homer Bailey would be picked early, but Luke Hochevar could be an excellent pickup as well. And I’m always on the lookout for “the next Miguel Cabrera”, the 20-year-old who’s playing well at Double-A. Carlos Gomez didn’t play nearly as well at AA as did Cabrera, but he did play there, and not badly. He could be a great one.

Last year was a season mired in drudgery. I’m very hopeful that this year’s team will be a lot more fun, and more successful.

At the End of an Insane Month

My insane month of March is now over. Thank goodness. Even though it was mostly a lot of fun, it was so packed that I didn’t have a lot of wiggle room in what I had to do or much time to relax.

As I said, I spent most of last week preparing for my fantasy baseball draft. But before that, Subrata and I spent most of Saturday playing the final ultimate tournament of the season. It was warm and sunny (and windy, as the day wore on), and there was enough turnout for 2 games with enough subs to keep me reasonably rested. Only five people from our team turned out, so we merged with another team, and our team won 2 games out of 3!

I had a pretty good afternoon personally, making a couple of blocks and a few good throws. My game got more erratic as the day went on and I got more and more tired, but at least I was still running and not exhausted on the sideline by the end of the day! Then the league had a barbecue to finish off the season, and we all got our league disks for the year, as well as some other goodies (I got a bag for my cleats and a lanyard).

Boy, I sure was stiff afterwards, though. Even with doing some stretching!

And then Sunday I got up and Subrata and I headed over to our fantasy baseball draft. Our league has 16 owners, 6 of whom showed up locally, and everyone else drafted remotely over Internet chat. (Most of the others are on the east coast, especially around Boston.) We started promptly at 11 am Pacific, and made good time for the first 3 hours, and then bogged down considerably, and finally finished up around 9 pm. Yes, it was a long slog. But then, the second half usually is. I did my best to not be the guy slowing down the draft, and did better than in past years, I think.

I’ll likely post an entry about the team I drafted, but suffice to say that I think I executed my plan much better this year than I did last year. Things could still go wrong, but I think I have the potential to finish near the top of the league this year.

Finally, today I took my car in for its 75k service. It was also time to have my timing belt changed, which turns out to be a fairly pricy proposition for my 2000 Civic. But the car should be good for a number of years yet. Now I just need to get some new tires, which hopefully won’t be hard. I need to do that soon, so I can have everything in shape for when my Mom visits me later this month!

But for now, I’m just happy to have some unstructured time.

Because unstructured time is time I can spend watching baseball!

What I’m Up To

Well, most of my free time is going towards preparing for the fantasy baseball draft. Which has mostly involved remembering how to use the software I wrote for last year, and trying to fix the things which didn’t work so well for me last year (which is a lot of things, since I finished 10th out of 16 teams). It’s going, but it’s not going very quickly.

Keeper rosters were due yesterday at noon. These are the list of players each team is keeping from last year to this year. Our league has a budget based years of service in the Majors, and each team typically keeps 4-to-8 players. I kept 8. I was fortunate to be able to make a couple of last-minute trades which sent some players I didn’t plan to keep to other owners for some draft picks. Consequently, I have 5 extra draft picks, which is kinda nice.

Now I just have to figure out who I want to draft!

I had planned to spend this evening playing the pick-up Ultimate game, but I got to the field (a different one from our usual field) and there was no one I recognized, and no one with a frisbee – just lots and lots of soccer players. I stayed there for 15 minutes and then bagged it. In any event it was cold and very windy so it wasn’t a great evening for frisbee. But still, I would have been happy to play for a bit.

Debbi’s doing well, by the way. She’s back at work this week. Her mouth is still a bit sore, but she’s taking fewer painkillers and is eating a few foods she can chew – just nothing crunchy yet.

Offseason Roundup: Red Sox

A look at the Boston Red Sox’ off-season moves.

My team, the Boston Red Sox, are entering the third season of what I like to think of as their rebuilding phase. After they won the 2004 World Series, they lost three key players (Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe and Johnny Damon) to free agency, and only retained Jason Varitek by handing him a large 4-year contract.

It’s been a rough couple of years: Two of their big free agent investments – SS Edgar Renteria and SP Matt Clement – have not really panned out. Clement is mired in a cycle of injury and ineffectiveness that leaves me wondering if he’ll ever be useful again. Renteria was shipped out after one season in a pair of trades that resulted in Coco Crisp patrolling center field (which isn’t such a bad thing). Meanwhile, Manny Ramirez and Trot Nixon have continued to age, David Ortiz has continued to be one of the best hitters in baseball, and the Sox brought in Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell from Florida, and while Lowell had a bounceback season, Beckett was very uneven.

The Sox have developed some in-house talent, such as Dustin Pedroia, Jon Papelbon and Jon Lester, and there’s more in the pipeline. Nonetheless, they did have some work to do this year, and here’s the scorecard so far:

Leaving:

  • Trot Nixon, OF (free agent)
  • Mark Loretta, 2B (free agent)
  • Alex Gonzalez, SS (free agent, to the Reds)
  • Keith Foulke, RP (free agent)
  • Gabe Kapler, OF (retired)

Arriving:

  • Daisuke Matsuzaka, SP (Japanese free agent, 6 years, $52M + $52M posting fee)
  • J.D. Drew, OF (free agent, 5 years, $70M, from the Dodgers)
  • Julio Lugo, SS (free agent, 3 years, $36M, from the Dodgers)
  • Runelvys Hernandez, SP (free agent, minor league contract, from the Royals)
  • Brendan Donnelly, RP (acquired in trade from the Angels)
  • J.C. Romero, RP (free agent, 1 year, $1.6M, from the Angels)
  • Hideki Okajima, RP (Japanese free agent, 2 years, $2.5M)

Returning:

  • Tim Wakefield, SP (option picked up)
  • Alex Cora, SS (free agent, 2 years, $4M)
  • Doug Mirabelli, C (free agent, 1 year, $0.75M)

(Full free agent data can be found here, and recent Sox transactions here.)

I find it very hard to evaluate Red Sox transactions: With the second-largest payroll in baseball, they’re not quite playing the same budget-oriented game as most other teams. Is that Drew contract overpaying for an injury-prone outfielder, or is it a straightforward investment within the Sox’ budget? These last few years, I’ve found it easier on my brain to ignore the dollar signs and just evaluate the talent.

Because budget is only one constraint that baseball teams have to live within: The others are roster constraints (you can only have so many players on your team before you have to start cutting some to make room for others), and positional constraints (“You have to have a catcher because if you don’t you’re likely to have a lot of passed balls”, but of course most catchers can’t hit). So we can always consider whether the Sox have acquired good players, and look like they’re going to play their best players.

Anyway, with the Red Sox’ payroll and the savvy of their front office, they’re practically guaranteed make plenty of off-season headlines. That makes the winter almost as exciting for Sox fans as finishing below second place for the first time since 1997.

The Sox blew away all the competition in the $52M posting fee for the exclusive rights to negotiate with Matsuzaka (thus ensuring that the posting system will probably be overhauled if not scrapped next year), and then signed him to what I think is a surprisingly reasonable deal. One projection rates Matsuzaka as a very good starting pitcher in the Majors; if true, then he could be the true ace the Sox will need once Curt Schilling retires. If Beckett can work out his problems, then the Sox could have a nice rotation for the next few years.

Although, in 2007 the back end of the rotation is a bit of a concern, with Clement’s status unclear, Jon Lester recovering from cancer, and Wakefield at that age where he might collapse any year (he turned 40 in August, after all). Ace closer Jon Papelbon is slated to move into the rotation, but one wonders whether he might be more valuable in the bullpen, especially if he can’t make the transition smoothly. Still, the Sox are also bringing in several new bullpen arms, so they have options.

On the offensive side, the Sox are working through a bumpy negotiation process over J.D. Drew, who is a very good hitter with a length history of injury problems, and who’s had trouble passing his physical to finalize the deal. Whether Drew continues to be an offensive force through age 35 is a good question; it’s hard to say whether I’d be sad whether he finally gets signed or not. He’d probably be an upgrade over Trot Nixon in right field overall, though, and he supposedly can play center, too.

The Sox also brought in Julio Lugo, who is a pretty good shortstop. That’s a lot of money for a guy who looks to me like he might start a sharp decline at any time. But I think the Sox have soured on Pedroia at shortstop, which leaves them with few options for starter (and Alex Cora shouldn’t be one of them), so it might be their best option. Besides, if Lugo doesn’t completely go into the tank, then the trade market for fair-to-middling shortstops should be as strong as it has been in the last few years and the Sox could flip him for something useful.

It sounds like Pedroia might slot as the starter at second base, while some sort of Lowell/Ortiz/Kevin Youkilis tandem (plus whatever other spare hitters they can scrounge up) ought to be able to cover 3B, 1B and DH perfectly well.

In their third place finish in 2006, the Sox were outscored on the season, and finished 86-76. The Yankees might regress somewhat next year, but the Sox still need to improve to win their division. Matsuzaka, Drew and Lugo will help (assuming everyone’s healthy and performs up to their expected levels), so they’ll probably be a better team overall. But I think the Yankees will need to regress substantially for the Sox to make it a horse race. The Blue Jays are a pretty good team, too, but I suspect they’re going to regress a bit in 2007 as well.

All of which adds up to more of what we’ve seen lately: A Sox team which hasn’t quite gelled, but which feels like it’s on the cusp of being an AL powerhouse again. This is a team which could surprise in 2007, but after the World championship, I’d figured a 3-year rebuilding period was in order, so look for the Sox to work through a few more bumps and emerge in 2008.

Which is not to say that I’d be sad if they emerge a year earlier than I expect!