Wednesday, May 6, 2009

A look into the past

Because the future looks grim.

In 2007, the #21 quarterback in passer rating was Damon Huard.

In 2007, the #30 quarterback in adjusted yards/attempt was Vince Young.

I'll leave it as an exercise for the reader to figure out who occupied those positions in 2008. Still want him on your team?

But, in an effort to talk about something, anything else...

I cleaned out my closet the other night and came across a few books I had forgotten about. Specifically, they're books of football and baseball essays written by the STATS Inc. crew last decade, delving into a wide range of topics, from the usefulness of the stolen base to the impact of rookie head coaches/managers to who has a chance to break Hank Aaron's home run record to whether you-know-who can break Dan Marino's's a great list of topics to not only look back upon but, at least for me, to see where I think some of my earliest ideas about stats were formed.

The earliest book I have is the Stats Baseball Scoreboard 1994. I only started getting into baseball in 1991, so this was still pretty early in my development as a student of the game. I can see in it essays that shaped my early thinking and stick with me to this day. It's also cute to look back at how they feel the need to explain such esoteric things as "on-base plus slugging percentage" and "zone ratings"...and what the heck is a "hold"? (That's what I thought, at least, when I first read the book.)

The book shaped a lot of my early thoughts about some of baseball's most traditional concepts. One essay questioned who should be a lead-off man -- someone who's fast or someone who gets on base often? The essay titled "Why were John Olerud's 107 RBI last year better than Albert Belle's 129?" explains the concept of RBI as a function of RBI available, which, if you're going to count RBI for anything, should always be a consideration. And I loved the essay that showed that after a batter was hit by a pitch, the next batter would do better than if the pitcher had just given up a hit or a walk, thus indicating that a HBP doesn't intimidate the hitters as much as it intimidates the pitchers! Yet another reason not to hate the DH.

Some of the most entertaining entries are the ones where the writers attempt to divine the future, often using Bill James' Favorite Toy formula for predicting future statistical success. After 15 years, most of the predictions can be checked against facts.

* The Boston Red Sox article (each team has its own) was titled "Can [Roger] Clemens come back?" because he'd just had the worst season of his career in 1993. I'd say he did all right, even if HGH was involved.

* "Detroit Tigers: Is Cecil [Fielder] about to suffer a power outage?" said that "Fielder may not hit 50 home runs again, but a return to 35 or more is a good possibility." He'd top that 35 mark just once again in his career, hitting 39 in 1996.

* The Minnesota Twins' article used the Favorite Toy to determine Kirby Puckett's chance at reaching 3,000 career hits. At 30.7%, he trailed only Eddie Murray (who had 2,820 at the time) among active players. Obviously, that didn't work out, thanks to Dennis Martinez. Other players with at least a 10% chance of achieving the feat included Ken Griffey Jr. (26.9%, currently 2,692), Cal Ripken (21.7%, 3,184), Tony Gwynn (14.9%, 3,141), Frank Thomas (13.1%, 2,468), and Paul Molitor (11.0%, 3,319). Thomas and Molitor ranked behind Travis Fryman, of all people, who had a 14.1% chance after accumulating 570 hits by the age of 25. He finished with 1,776.

* The Favorite Toy also gives several players a good chance at hitting 500 or more home runs. Among them are Juan Gonzalez (53%, 434 career homers), Griffey (40%, 613), Barry Bonds (36%, 762), Fred McGriff (25%, 493), Thomas (23%, 521), and Albert Belle (16%, 381). Five players are given a better than 5% shot at 600 (Griffey at 20.5% and Bonds at 13% are the only ones to do it), and thinks highly enough of Juan Gonzalez to give him an 11.4% chance (and Griffey a 2.9% chance) to break Hank Aaron's record of 756. By comparison, Bonds is given an essentially zero chance to achieve the feat (technically negative 2%, which shows why the Favorite Toy is just that -- a toy).

* "Atlanta Braves: Have they started a pitching revolution?" opines that the Braves are changing the way starting pitchers are used because they rarely let their guys go more than 130 pitches per game, with only four such outings for Braves pitchers in 1993. 130!

The book also discusses the possibilty of interleague play (saying it "will always have some appeal"), four years before Major League Baseball implemented the concept, and askes "Can anyone win 300 again?" ("We think that at least one active pitcher will win 300 before he's through, and maybe more than one.") It's a fascinating look back at what we thought then and what we think now and how the two are at once both the same and divergent.

Over the next few weeks, I'll leaf through the 1998 Baseball Scoreboard and the 2000 Pro Football Scoreboard and dig out the juicier bits. Because I'm sure you can't wait for the answers to such pressing questions as "Will Curtis Martin's workload catch up to him?" and "How will [Darryl] Kile pitch at Coors?" The answers, of course, are "Not for a while" and "Awful," but it's still interesting to see that, even 10 years ago, a little analysis and logic could get you to the same conclusion.

No comments: