Oddly, a Bidder in Kansas Won a Boat Auction
There were three notable, albeit barely noticed, analytics-related items to make the news during the 2014/15 MLB off-season. Working backwards chronologically, the third occurred earlier this month when Charles Barkley emphatically denounced analytics as a tool to construct a basketball team. Of the three, this one probably attracted the most attention.
There’s a lot of different ways to react to Barkley’s remarks but I can’t do any better than former Nevada-based bookmaker, unparalleled story teller, and friend of Trading Bases, Chris Andrews who noted on Twitter, “Seems like there is a correlation between Charles Barkley, his hate of analytics, and (his) losing money gambling.”
Just after New Year’s, when the 2015 landing spot for free-agent starting pitcher James Shields appeared to be wide-open, Diamondbacks GM Dave Stewart used the local press as a messenger to convince Shields to sign with Arizona. He told the Arizona Republic, “He probably sees us as a true baseball team versus some of the other teams out there geared more toward analytics.”
There’s a lot of different ways to react to Stewart’s remark but I can’t do any better than Baseball Prospectus co-founder, and my writing-crush Joe Sheehan who noted Stewart’s equating progress to a moral failing while making this comparison in his newsletter, “You wouldn't step into a plane piloted by a person unwilling to use the avionics” because using electronic instruments doesn’t make one a real pilot.
Shortly after the end of last year’s World Series, Pablo Sandoval effectively kicked-off the 2014/15 free-agent signings when he inked a 5-year, $95 million contract with the Boston Red Sox in time to baste his Thanksgiving turkey with actual gold bullion instead of a more traditional bouillon cube-based stock. For Giants fans, Sandoval’s departure took a tiny bit of shine off of the club’s third World Series title in five seasons (although notably, it did not diminish my youngest daughter’s desire for a Panda Hat for Christmas.) As such, it inspired a number of retrospectives from local sportswriters. In one such piece in the San Francisco Chronicle, Ann Killion, comparing the disparate environments of playing in San Francisco versus Boston, wrote the following, “Oddly, Sandoval has always hit better at AT&T than on the road.”
There’s a lot of different ways to react to Killion’s remark and because it leads into my opening team preview of the 2015 season, I’m going to take a shot at this one.
Killion’s remark comes not from an ex-athlete with an ax to grind against those “who never played the game” but from a professional sportswriter with more than two decades worth of California-based bylines as a beat reporter, as well as five-plus years at Sports Illustrated. Granted, she earned her chops covering the 49ers, but she is a professional Bay Area-based sportswriter and native who describes herself as a life-long Giants fan. Her surprised reaction to Sandoval’s superior home field production is somewhat stunning, and frankly, treads on malpractice.
First of all, on average, all Major League players hit better at home than on the road, usually to the league-average tune of 9, 13, and 18 percentage points worth of Batting Average, On-Base Percentage, and Slugging Percentage respectively. (It equates to roughly eight-percent more production at home once you adjust for the fact that home teams play less innings due to frequently not batting in the 9th inning.) So even if he plays in an offensively-challenged environment at home – which is surely what Killion was getting at – it’s still a pretty big hurdle for any player to be more productive on the road. It’s often the case that an offensively-challenged home field merely negates the normal home field boost. (For instance, the Giants did score 15 more runs on the road last year than at home but did it with 191 more plate appearances. Once you factor in all those missed 9th inning at bats at home, the Giants offense was slightly more productive at home than on the road.)
But that is minor compared to the larger point. Ms. Killion, a professional sportswriter based in the Bay Area is baffled that Pablo Sandoval hits better in AT&T Park than on the road. In no way should that surprise anyone whose job it is to cover sports, especially in San Francisco. To me, that is the equivalent of a veteran reporter on CNBC commentating on the bond market and exclaiming, “oddly, bond prices fall when interest rates go up.”
Pablo Sandoval has hit better at home – way, way, way better – than on the road over the course of his seven-year career because he has a skill-set tailor-made for AT&T Park. (His career home over away AVG/OBP/SLG splits are +36/+37/+45 – compare those numbers with the league-average, above.) He’s a switch-hitting, line-drive machine with extremely low strikeout and walk rates who doesn’t drive the ball for power. His offensive profile is one who makes contact nearly every at-bat and hits the ball into the field of play at the expense of walks and power. For that trade-off to be most effective, for it to have the most intrinsic value to an employer, one would want to play as many games as possible on big fields where power is not rewarded. That’s why Pablo was so perfect for, and performed so well in, AT&T Park. Coors Field is bigger, but it also rewards power. Petco drains as much power as AT&T but its playing field isn’t as big. Sandoval’s skill-set was as perfectly matched to his home environment as that of a Sherpa born in Nepal.
That’s what makes the comment of a professional sportswriter like Ann Killion, so disappointing. It’s often assumed that with all the data that’s available that there’s nothing left to learn. But Killion’s musings show why the new breed of data-driven sportswriters must never stop trying to educate their fellow fans and professionals.
The ironic thing is, Killion was right to find something “odd” about the entire Sandoval free-agent process – she just missed the real query.
A free-agent signing is more or less an auction with soft factors such as location, co-workers, etc. infrequently playing a minor role over monetary considerations. If you really want to be a skeptical reporter, this should have been your opening paragraph lede last November, “Oddly, the Boston Red Sox outbid everyone else for Pablo Sandoval.”
Odd, because Fenway Park has the smallest field in the major leagues by a sizable margin. Odd, because while the Red Sox have regularly been one of baseball’s highest scoring teams for more than a decade they have done it with a very consistent “take and rake” formula. Their hitters traditionally sacrifice strikeouts for the sake of power and walks (2nd in runs, 1st in walks, 1st in SLG, 16th in Ks over the last ten seasons.) It’s literally part of the development culture in the Red Sox organization. In a stadium where there is less area for batted balls to land, that makes sense.
Pablo Sandoval, of course, plays an entirely different type of game. Look, the Red Sox brass aren’t stupid and since they have more money than all but a handful of teams, any auction they participate in isn’t level ground. Maybe they think Pablo has a swing from the left side of the plate that will result in a lot of doubles drilled off the Green Monster.
I’m skeptical. Not just about Sandoval’s production with the Red Sox – I’m skeptical of the outlook for the entire team. I’m skeptical about a defense that finished 19th last year (declining from 14th and 13th the prior two years) adding Pablo at third base, and Hanley Ramirez in left field. I’m skeptical about a pitching staff that is loaded with injury-prone starters and very well may lack a starter that will finish with an ERA under 4.00. And I’m very skeptical about their bullpen. In a day and age where just about every over .500 team has two to three lights-out, one-inning relievers, with the departure of Andrew Miller to the Yankees I’m not sure who fills that bill in Boston, especially since closer Koji Uehara is no longer untouchable. (Opposing hitters doubled their line drive rate off him last year from 11.3% in ’13 to 22.6%, while his strikeout rate dropped and groundball rate plunged. That’s a huge red flag – and not just for fantasy baseball drafters.)
With the exception of David Ortiz, the Red Sox aren’t particularly old, and the team has been unquestionably aggressive in restocking its roster with an eye to future years. But this still looks like a team in transition to me and while they will be an undeniable force on offense, in a league that continues to evolve into one driven by defensive and bullpen-centric teams, constructing a roster with the idea of winning a bunch of 8-6 games seems a little out of place.
Just like buying a boat in Kansas or, ominously for Red Sox fans, a low-walk, low-power hitting corner infielder for Fenway Park.
Oddsmakers’ expectations: Admittedly, I fully expected the Red Sox market to open, at a minimum of 87 wins, and just like every other opening essay dating back to 2012, I expected an under call to be one of my strongest of the preview season. However, the Red Sox opened at 86 in Reno, followed by 86 in Vegas and it’s stayed sticky there even though the juice at over 86 is climbing higher, at least at my New York based bookmakers. At 86, I still firmly support the under but there is a chance, by the time this preview series is over, that it won’t make the final cut of ten or so official plays – unless the line creeps up to 87, or even better, 87 ½. Still, put me down for an under.
While we’re at it, put me down for a career-low batting average (< .268) for Pablo Sandoval that is not accompanied by a slugging percentage above his career average (.465).
83-79 – Third in AL East
755 Runs Scored 731 Runs Allowed
Mop Up Duty:
Joe Peta is the author of Trading Bases, A Story About Wall Street, Gambling, and Baseball* (*) Not necessarily in that order, a Dutton Books/Penguin (U.S.A.) publication currently available wherever books are sold. Here are three on-line booksellers you can currently choose from:
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