Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Big Shot Bob: Robert Horry and the Hall of Fame

Let's take up a burning question in NBA circles: is Robert Horry a Hall of Famer?

OK, maybe it's a smoldering question, but it was burning during this season's playoffs, and among many other writers, J. A. Adande said yes, Horry belongs.

Those who know the general inclinations of stat geeks know that we tend to give less weight to postseason performance and to clutch performance than most other fans and analysts. Therefore, it's probably not surprising that I think Horry, whose only claim to the Hall involves some clutch shots in the postseason, is nowhere remotely close to a Hall of Famer. Many others could make that case better than I.

What separates this from a number of parallel cases (that of Jack Morris in baseball, for instance) is the media coverage of the incident in the 2007 playoffs when Horry pushed Steve Nash, and the resulting scuffle brought about suspensions to Horry, Amare Stoudemire, and Boris Diaw.

Reading and hearing reactions to this incident, I noticed a consistent pattern: in all the disputes about the dirtiness of Horry's push and about the fairness of the suspensions, everyone seemed to agree that Stoudemire's absence would hurt his team much more than Horry's would hurt his--even though Horry was suspended for two games and Stoudemire one.

My sense was that this consensus was exactly right: for all of Horry's previous clutch shooting, and even though Stoudemire hadn't won a thing, everyone seemed to understand that even in the playoffs, Stoudemire was the true star, Horry only a role player. This wire report offered the standard account:

The Spurs probably can do without Horry, a role player known for his clutch 3-point shooting. The Suns, however, will sorely miss Stoudemire, a first-team all-NBA selection and their leading scorer and rebounder in the series.

Precisely! And the League had to justify the suspensions in terms that acknowledged the obvious competitive unfairness of the suspensions:

"It is not a matter of fairness, it's a matter of correctness," said Stu Jackson, NBA executive vice president.

For almost a year, I indulged the fantasy that the comparison of Stoudemire and Horry had clarified for all the world that even in the playoffs, Horry's value couldn't touch that of a truly excellent player. That was a good year.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

What might have (previously) been: Socks Seybold and retrograde projection

Can you project a baseball player's performance into the past?

I have an unusual interest in Socks Seybold, who played for the Philadelphia A's in the first decade of the 20th century. He was my great-great-great (I think) uncle--by marriage, so he deserves no blame for my own limitations as a player.

My man Socks was an excellent hitter. After a brief stint with the Reds in 1899, he began playing full-time for the A's in 1901. According to Jack Kavanagh, Connie Mack brought Seybold with him to Philadelphia when the American League commenced operations. In his second full season, Seybold set an American League record for home runs with sixteen, a record that would be broken by Babe Ruth 17 years later.

Seybold hit very well from 1901 to 1907, all of his seven full seasons: he was in the league's top ten every year in slugging percentage, and in the first six of those seasons, he was also in the top ten in OPS and OPS+. His career OPS+ mark (probably as good a quick indicator of hitting quality as any) of 130--that is, 30% better than league average--ties him with Roberto Clemente and Wade Boggs, and puts him ahead of the likes of Dave Winfield, Carl Yastrzemski, Eddie Murray, and Jim Rice. Obviously, his was a short career--only seven full seasons--and Kavanagh writes that "an injury in 1908 ended his major league career."

Simple enough, right? A good career shortened by injury. So it goes.

But here's the key fact: when he incurred that injury in 1908, Seybold was the seventh-oldest player in the league! He was already 37 and almost certainly at the end of his playing days. Born in November of 1870, Seybold was on the old side of 30 when he began playing full-time, already in the typical declining years for a baseball player. I don't know why didn't begin playing earlier: in those days, I imagine he might simply have gone unnoticed as a local star for years, or wanted to stay in a safer or more respectable trade until a solid professional opportunity came along.

We have lots of tools, such as similarity scores and Bill James's favorite toy, to look at a career cut short and project a hypothetical future. As far as I know, we have none that help us see what the missing first half of a career might have looked like. I can say that eyeballing the thirtysomething years of the Hall of Famers I mentioned above, only Clemente (definitely) and Winfield (possibly) look like they might have posted an OPS+ of 130 or better at the ages Seybold played.

I wonder whether a retroprojection tool might be useful not only for cases similar to Seybold's but also for examining more recent players who might have been brought up from the minor leagues too late.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Why have the Rays gotten so good?

When I see that a baseball team has improved dramatically, I enjoy watching the popular narratives of the success develop. Usually, some combination of these four reasons comes up:

1. Charismatic leadership
2. General team chemistry (perhaps resulting from the departure of one or more bad apples)
3. Better players
4. Chance
5. Avoidance of major injuries

My sense is that dominant media narratives generally emphasize the first two factors, whereas statheads emphasize numbers three and four. Both sides are just beginning to catch up to the importance of injuries, an area that seems to capture everyone's interest these days. (Tom Verducci's recent article on Tim Lincecum captures the drama of biomechanical analysis beautifully.)

Incidentally, I see one of the most interesting questions in contemporary sports to be whether statheaded skepticism about charisma and chemistry in baseball should apply equally to sports such as basketball and football, where sustained concentration and teamwork matter so much more.

Anyway, to the Rays: listening to Chicago sports radio on a recent travel day, I heard four analysts in two forums describe the success of this year's Tampa Bay Rays almost entirely in terms of charisma and chemistry, with only an occasional mention of whether the team simply got better at playing baseball this year.

Given the fact that Nate Silver predicted in February that the Rays would experience precisely this kind of improvement (to the tune of 22 more wins, said Silver) and correctly pegged the key factor to be team defense, I have wondered whether any mainstream outlet would pick up the fact that Silver's model, which cares not a whit for chemistry, got this prediction so right. Granted, Silver wrote his article for an obscure regional rag called Sports Illustrated, but still, you'd think someone would pick up this story and run with it, right?

I lost all hope last week, when Silver's own organ, Baseball Prospectus, put out a podcast in which host Brad Wochomurka referred to the Rays' season that nobody saw coming. If the success of Silver's model hasn't convinced his own colleagues, I'll wager we have a long way to go before other outlets engage it.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Baseball team stats and individual stats

In the course of making its funnies, Fire Joe Morgan applies statistics to baseball as well as just about anyone, but I think Ken Tremendous makes an interesting mistake in this takedown of the site's eponymous punching bag. Joe Morgan writes that the Red Sox are "the best team in the game," and KT replies, "The Cubs have a better team ERA and a better team OPS. For the record."

Leaving aside the question of whether a snapshot of team performance is a good way to call one team better than another, I want to focus on the use of ERA and OPS as measures of team performance. They are generally excellent measures of individual performance. The best quick justification of OPS, however, is that it basically explains where runs come from--team OPS correlates better with team runs than, say, batting average. And OPS scales well to the individual: one player's OPS gives you a pretty good sense of how much that player contributes per plate appearance to his team's scoring.

If we want to look at team performance, however, we can eliminate the middleman: it's all about the runs. Forget stats that correlate well with runs--use runs! And on the pitching side, we can drop the "earned" component of ERA, since the whole point of that is (however roughly) to separate individual from team performance. Again, use runs!

A recent Rob Neyer column about the Tampa Bay Rays touched on another case where statistics work fundamentally differently at the team and individual level. Neyer points out that the Rays have taken a huge step up in defensive efficiency this year:

[T]here's an incredibly simple statistic that tells us almost everything. Defensive Efficiency -- invented by Bill James in 1975 -- never really has caught on, which is sort of bizarre because it essentially answers a most basic question: "When a batted ball is put into play against a team, what percentage of the time does that team succeed in turning that ball into an out?"

In 2007, the Tampa Bay defense turned 66.2 percent of balls in play into outs. That figure was 30th best in the majors.

In 2008, the Tampa Bay defense has turned 72 percent of balls in play into outs. That figure is second best in the majors.

Defensive efficiency is like measures of individual fielding that attempt to discover a player's ability to convert balls hit near him into outs; at the individual level, such statistics are always beset by the difficulty of establishing the player's zone accurately. At the team level, aside from relatively minor park effects, the problem disappears: every team is responsible for the whole field. And for a single team playing in the same park, year-to-year comparisons become sublimely simple.

The moral of my story: sometimes the nuances of measuring individual performance cause us to overlook simple, powerful team statistics.