Friday, November 20, 2009

Keith Law Is Smarter Than You...Get Over It

The Common Man is very amused by the controversy generated by Keith Law’s 2nd-place vote for Javier Vazquez on his Cy Young Award ballot. Law, as most of the Interwebz has learned since yesterday, crunched some numbers and came up with a very convincing argument that Vazquez provided the second most value in the National League, and that the innings Chris Carpenter did not throw while on the disabled list dropped him below Adam Wainwright in terms of overall value. Law has been accused of bias and incompetence (which, really, is a normal day for him, given how pig-headed and traditional analysis-minded many ESPN.com readers and baseball fans in general are) because of his vote. It’s a shame, because unlike some other voters, the diminutive and cherubic KLaw lays out a thoughtful and transparent reasoning for his vote on his ESPN blog, and has clearly done his due diligence in preparing his ballot.

For the better part of two days, on Shyster’s Hardball Times site, there has been a proxy battle raging between Law’s champions and detractors (okay, mostly one or two detractors) that seem to be raising the same concerns that writers and pundits are raising nationally. When he was on the mound, these detractors argue (often without this amount of coherency), he was at least one of the three best pitchers in the league, if not the best (AND LOOK AT HIS W-L RECORD AND ERA !!!!11!!!!11), and that the award is meant to honor the best pitcher in each league, which is not necessarily always the most valuable. Quantity, they seem to argue, is trumped by quality.


While the argument is relatively (ahem) by numbers, some interesting points were brought up over the course of the discussion. One commenter in the Shyster thread, a “civilwarmike,” wonders, “To dock Carpenter because of innings pitched? Does that mean Joe Mauer will should not[sic] be the MVP because he missed the first month of the season? Just wondering. “ It’s an interesting idea, Carpenter and Mauer both missed roughly a month of the season, and were huge question marks as they came back from their shoulder and kidney problems, respectively. Both ended up being big time performers for their clubs, who both (largely on the strength of their stars’ performances) won their respective divisions. And if we are going to count the time and innings Carpenter missed against him, don’t we also have to do the same to Mauer.

The answer, obviously, is that of course we have to count Mauer’s time and plate appearances missed against him. In 226 plate appearances, Minnesota’s non-Mauer catchers hit .277/.335/.335 with no homers. In April, Jose Morales and Mike Redmond combined to hit .297/.358/.351. It’s almost assured that Mauer would have outperformed that duo. So his absence not only hurt Mauer’s individual stats, but it undoubtedly hurt his club. In April, the Twins scuffled out of the gate to an 11-11 mark, and finished the month in fourth place, a game back of (chortle) the Kansas City Royals.

But Mauer’s absence does not tell the whole story. On the first pitch of the season, Mauer lined a bullet into the leftfield bleachers in the Metrodome and didn’t stop hitting from then on. Mauer finished with an ungodly .365/.444/.587 line, with 191 hits, 28 HR, 96 RBI, and 94 runs scored. It was one of the two or three best seasons ever by a catcher. His OPS+ was 170 (Mark Teixeira was second at 149). Despite missing a full month, Mauer led the American League in Runs Created, and contributed more than a win more to his team than any other American League hitter according to Adjusted Batting Wins. According to Baseball Prospectus, Mauer contributed almost 18 more runs versus replacement level to his team’s offense than Derek Jeter (89 to 71) and 1.4 wins more than Ben Zobrist in WARP, the second leading hitter (9.0 to 7.6, though Zack Greinke actually led the American League with 9.5). Fangraphs lists Zobrist as the Major League leader in WAR, with 8.6 wins, but a) Mauer finished just behind with 8.2 wins and b) as Jeremy Greenhouse pointed out for Baseball Prospectus last Tuesday, catcher defense and catcher replacement levels are not properly valued yet by WAR. No matter what stat you use, it’s pretty clear that Joe Mauer has lifted and separated himself from the rest of the field of AL MVP candidates simply because the value he added during the time he was on the field was so far, even quantitatively, beyond what other hitters contributed over the full season.

Carpenter, on the other hand, suffers in this analysis because of the quality of his competition. While Carpenter was terrific while he was on the field, the other competitors for the NL Cy Young were almost as good if not a little better. Carpenter finished sixth in the National League in WAR behind Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum, Vazquez, Dan Haren, Wainwright, and Ubaldo Jimenez. He finishes 6th in WARP behind those same five minus Wainwright, but plus Jair Juerrens. He finishes second to Lincicum in VORP for pitchers, and third behind Lincecum and Vazquez in FIP. With fewer K/9 and K/BB and fewer IP, it is impossible to construct an argument for Carpenter beyond looking at his W-L record and ERA. And in a packed bunch of starters, it is entirely reasonable that the value lost by the month he missed knocks Carpenter out of the race.

It’s really that simple. On the one hand, the players’ individual seasons are very similar in terms of the paths they took. However, the contexts in which they are competing for their respective post-season awards are completely different. There is far more evidence than Joe Mauer belongs in the top spot of every single AL MVP ballot than evidence that Carpenter even belongs in the top three of the NL. Sorry Cardinals fans.

16 comments:

Bill said...

Well said. And I like the title.

Anonymous said...

Keith Law worked for JP Ricciardi up in Toronto from 2002-2006 and he was instrumental in convincing JP to remove Carpenter from the Blue Jays 40-man roster.

So of course Law didn't vote for Carpenter, doing so could have possibly helped Carpenter win the Cy Young ... which would have made Keith's & JP's 2002 decision look even worse.

Do you really think Law would vote for the same guy that he convinced JP Ricciardi to dump?

The Common Man said...

Hey random anonymous guy, thanks for visiting and reading and bringing your conspiracy-theory seeking brand of crazy to The Common Man's little corner of the Intertubez.

Aside from your assertions, I have never read anything from Keith or from anyone else who suggested that he had any role in removing Carpenter from the Jays' 40 man. He may have, but I don't know. If you have evidence of Law's involvement, please let the world know.

That said, let's pretend I believe your assertion for just a second and go through a short thought exercise:

In 2002, after a season in which he went 11-11 with a 4.09 ERA in 200+ innings as a 26 year old, Carpenter suffered through an injury plagued season in which he made just 13 starts, went 4-5, and had a 5.28 ERA. To that point, he was 49-50 with a 4.83 ERA, coming off a major injury and with a history of arm troubles, and would have been 28 years old. In 2002, he made almost $3.5 million and probably would have made at least as much in 2003.

Meanwhile, Carpenter had major labrum surgery that required him to sit out all of 2003 (except 8 minor league starts), which would have been his final arbitration year before entering free agency. What you're essentially saying is that the Jays should have payed Carpenter to rehab with them with no guarantee he would stick around afterward.

So why in the world, even if he was responsible for convincing Ricciardi to drop Carpenter, should Keith Law at all feel like he made a mistake? In fact, it was the right decision.

Carpenter, or course, was lucky enough to hook up with Dave Duncan and has become one of the premiere starters in the National League. But there was a) little in his profile that suggested that he had this kind of dominance in him and b) no guarantee that, even if the Jays had kept Carpenter around for 2003, he would have stuck around in 2004 (when he began to dominate for the Cards).

Finally, I think you're awfully cynical to believe that a man who has consistently discussed and admitted mistakes he made as a scout and front-office type would care about how a roster decision made 7 years ago would affect his reputation if that player were honored with a post-season award. Put your tin foil hat back on and let me know when the Xebu contact you through the New York Times crossword.

gooseneck said...

Great site, Common Man. And I think we have some common ground here.

BikeMonkey said...

You need some photoshopping help dude? I could recommend someone...

Isis the Scientist said...

Dude! Did you die?

JohnMcG said...

Well, Law was certainly vindicated by the 2010 performances of Vasquez, Wainright, and Carpenter.

Oh, wait... Vasquez was such a disaster in New York that the Yankees left him off the postseason roster. The Braves missed him so much that they made the playoffs for the first time in five years. And Carpenter and Wainwright both were again among the top 10 starters in the NL.

Good thing we have smart people like Keith Law to show us the way.

How many titles did the Blue Jays win while Law was working for them again?

The Common Man said...

That's amazing. A rage so palpable. So visceral. So strong as to span, literally, a year before it could calm down enough to form words. Was it just unintelligible screaming until now?

The Common Man makes no apology for this argument. After all, if we awarded Cy Youngs based on a previous year's performance, we should just keep giving the award to Greg Maddux and Pedro Martinez, since no one has matched their dominance at their respective peaks.

And even when a player has a down year, that doesn't eliminate what they did before, nor preclude them from future success. Look at Jimmie Piersall or Dennis Eckersley.

Finally, while it's true that Vazquez was held out of the Yankees rotation in the playoffs, The Common Man can play your game too. After all, Carpenter couldn't even get his team to the postseason, so who's laughing now?

The reality is, John, that Vazquez had a terrific year in 2009, and was pretty clearly one of the best pitchers in the National League. If you can make an argument that Carpenter was better, please do so, especially if you're not referencing W-L record or ERA. Until then, The Common Man will continue to believe that Keith Law did his due diligence and turned in a completely reasonable ballot given the performances of the pitchers in question.

JohnMcG said...

Isn't the superiority of these advanced metrics based on them representing a more stable measurement of a pitcher's performance, independent of outside influences like team support, and thus should be more useful in projecting a pitcher's future performance?

Thus, if the advanced metrics point to Vasquez's superiority, whereas we Luddites thought were wowed by Carpenter and Wainwright just being winners since we rely on broken metrics like Wins and ERA, then absent injury or Vasquez getting old, I would expect Vasquez to maintain his performance, and for other pitchers' luck to catch up with them and they would regress to the pack.

That doesn't seem to be what's happened in this case.

--

You can't be serious about your "turning the tables," can you? Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright would have started one of the first three games for any team that made the playoffs, except perhaps the Phillies. The Yankees postseason rotation consisted of CC Sabathia and hopes for bad weather, and Vasquez wasn't even seriously considered as a starter.

--

I don't mind so much that you (or Law) got this wrong. I do mind the contemptuous smarter-than-thou they-should-take-everyone's-keyboards-away attitude that comes with it. It's 1true that ERA and Win/Loss records are not perfect measures of pitcher performance, especially when used to project pitcher performance. But it now seems apparent that your preferred metrics aren't either. Obviously so in this case.

I wish you and Law would have the humility to admit that.

Anonymous said...

"Isn't the superiority of these advanced metrics based on them representing a more stable measurement of a pitcher's performance, independent of outside influences like team support, and thus should be more useful in projecting a pitcher's future performance?"

Not the ones Law upon which Law based his decision. The stats Law used focused on the 2009 performances only, given that the Cy Young is meant to be awarded to the pitcher who performed the best in a given year. The rest of your post is thus moot.

You are a Cardinals homer and embarrassing yourself. Stop.

The Common Man said...
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The Common Man said...

John, I'm just blown away by this. A year later and you are still hot over this issue.

There are a number of potential reasons why Vazquez couldn't duplicate his performance. He switched leagues and went into the toughest division in baseball,a fter all. His defense behind him may have been worse. And luck may have played a part. However, a more likely and telling reason for Vazquez's poor performance is here: http://www.fangraphs.com/pitchfxo.aspx?playerid=801&position=&pitch=FA (Keith actually also pointed this out on Twitter before TCM could get this comment up). A lower velocity tends to mean that the pitcher is throwing through injury or has declined physically in some way. While it's possible there is some mental block with Vazquez in 2010, The Common Man still doesn't see how his performance this year should have any bearing on how we evaluate how he pitched last year for the Braves. After all, we don't give out Cy Youngs to pitchers based on how we think they'll do in the future.

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Settle down, Chief. Of course, The Common Man wasn't being serious. Get your sarcasm detector checked. But TCM's point is simply that the finish of the Cardinals in 2010 should have just as much to do with the award voting in 2009 as Vazquez's disappointing year.

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Don't like TCM's tone? Don't read. Obviously, TCM would rather you stuck around. For one thing, your own blogs are pretty interesting, so you're probably a pretty smart guy. But you're way lost on this analysis. Were Carpenter and Wainwright better pitchers in 2010? There is no doubt that they were. And they're both supremely talented guys. But their 2009 were, in the least, comparable in value to Vazquez's. And TCM's point that Keith Law turned in a responsible ballot that corresponded well with the seasons of each of the pitchers in question (in 2009) still seems pretty sound.

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Finally, these are not TCM's numbers. Nor are they Keith Law's numbers. These are statistics that seem to demonstrate effectiveness and value in pitchers. To use those statistics to support a case, and to believe those numbers are correct, and to defend those stats as both useful and representatives does nothing to glorify either Keith or TCM. If anything, it seems your beef should be with the statistics. They are, after all, arrogant little bastards. Go get 'em.

JohnMcG said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
JohnMcG said...

I'm not really still obsessed about this over a year later. I just happened to be looking through my archives and found a link to this post, and thought I'd get a tweak in. I'm sure that if the situation were reversed, and Wainwright and Carpenter tanked, and Vasquez was the toast of New York, you would do the same.

I'm long past the stage in my fan-life where I get that upset over awards and All-Star selections. I don't need the BBWAA to validate my opinion of various players. I suppose I am happier if my favorite players are recognized, but I'm not the type to call into talk radio and engage in lengthy discussions of what "valuable" means or

--

Still, I must confess that the Vasquez > Carpernter & Wainright decision has stuck in my craw a bit. Yes, I do live in St. Louis, and the Cardinals are my second favorite team, and the result was that neither of the Cardinals pitchers won the Cy Young Award, but I don't think that's it.

I think what bugs is the "A Ha! Aren't I clever! Those morons think Wainright and Carpenter are better because they have more Wins and lower ERAs.") When you do that, and subsequent evidence suggests this conclusion was incorrect, then those on the receiving end are going to enjoy pointing it out.

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Getting back to the substance, I was sincerely of the opinion that the value of statistics like FIP was that they provided a more reliable predictor of future performance that conventional statistics like ERA and Won/Lost that are impacted by things like defense and ballpark effects. Obviously this is as small a data set as one can create, but it does seem that when the pitcher favored by advanced analysis falters and the ones favored by conventional analysis continue to thrive, then perhaps some reconsideration is in order.

Obviously, a pitcher's effectiveness can vary from year to year for any number of reasons. Tim Lincecum's terrible August doesn't invalidate his previous two Cy Youngs, as he proved in the postseason. Cole Hamels seems to have shaken off whatever ailed him in 2009.

Perhaps Vasquez will do the same this year.

I'll just leave it that it wasn't at all clear last year that the Vasquez vote was rewarding the intrinsically superior pitcher, and that subsequent events haven't done anything to change that.

And, I'll also state that at least Law had the decency to publicize and defend his votes, which sets him apart from the majority of BBWAA.

Bill said...

I think it's true that FIP and xFIP are more predictive of future performance than ERA is. That's probably not their main purpose, but I'm fairly certain that's an accurate statement.

The bigger point is that it's beyond silly to look at one player who had a bad year (especially one player who switched leagues into the toughest division in baseball) as evidence that those numbers -- or any "predictive" numbers -- don't work. There are obviously other factors in play, like (as TCM and previously KLaw noted) the big drop in velocity in both his fastball and slider.

The other thing about it is: I don't hear anybody saying "Ha! Those morons." I heard (and continue to hear, from very bitter Cardinals fans) people calling Law a moron for the vote itself, not the other way around. No doubt sabermetrics types can get awfully full of themselves, but I think it worked in reverse in this case.

Another point: no, it's not at all clear that Vazquez was an "intrinsically superior" pitcher to Carpenter or Wainwright, and in fact I suspect that even at the time, Keith and everyone else would've said the opposite was probably true. But there's plenty of evidence to suggest that Vazquez had the superior season in 2009, which is what the Cy Young Award is supposed to be all about.

The Common Man said...

See, this is better. As Val Kilmer said in Tombstone, now we can be friends again.

That said, TCM doesn't think that there's any evidence that's been presented here that demonstrates that Carpenter and Wainwright were better pitchers last year. Again, based on what? Vazquez's performance this year? His velocity was down and his context changed radically. And it takes nothing away from the excellence of either Cardinal hurler to point out that, last year, Vazquez was probably better.

The stats in question may have some predictive value. After all, the goal of any statistic should probably be to understand the past better, so as to understand the future. To do that, many of today's stats are trying to separate what a pitcher does on his own from what he does because of the defense behind him, with the idea that contexts change, but pitchers generally don't (at least not rapidly).

But these stats are not perfect predictors of future success. They can't anticipate an injury, or a sudden onset of Steve Blass Disease, or a pitcher suddenly falling off a cliff like Bob Welch in 1991. No predictive model is going to be 100% accurate because of all the variables involved in making a prediction.

Finally, the Cy Young does not reward the pitcher who is the "best pitcher" but the pitcher who was best in a given year. Greg Maddux wasn't any less of a pitcher just because John Smoltz had an incredible year in 1996 and beat him for the Cy Young, after all.