Unconventional Success

The Moneyball revolution in sports performance analysis, in which the value of on base percentage was hammered into the consciousness of the reader over and over, has perhaps led to an oversimplified vision of what a successful ballplayer’s stat line should look like. Walks are great; it’s been said that walks, like defense, never slumps, and there’s a kernel of truth in that. A good degree of plate patience and discipline helps buffer the hitter from the inevitable streaks in batting average. However, just because a hitter doesn’t walk much doesn’t mean he cannot be successful.

Furthermore, said hitter doesn’t even need to hit for prodigious power to overcome from the lack of walks either. And he doesn’t have to play a premium position either. Ichiro Suzuki who ended up spending the majority of his time in right field this season, and incidentally had close to his worst offensive season of his Major League career and his worst UZR marks in right field ever, still put up 3.3 wins for the Mariners, a total worth just shy of $15 million in value, 26th amongst all outfielders in baseball.

The point of this is not just to spend a little time extolling the excellence of Ichiro, but also to point out this valuable lesson. Anytime that you try to evaluate based on sticking things into pre-determined buckets or roles, you are doing yourself a disservice and providing an opening to your competition to exploit your inefficiency. Ichiro isn’t your prototypical right fielder but he makes it work. Tim Lincecum is under six feet tall and some teams passed on him in the draft because of that.

Baseball is a really simple game and its core; hitters try to avoid outs, pitchers and defenders try to generate them. Always make sure that you are tethered to only that paramount principle and you’ll avoid letting your judgment being clouded by ancillary concerns.

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Matthew Carruth is a software engineer who has been fascinated with baseball statistics since age five. When not dissecting baseball, he is watching hockey or playing soccer.

24 Responses to “Unconventional Success”

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  1. Chip says:

    Ichiro also put up his best UZR (period, not per 150) mark in CF, where he played 43% of his innings. If Ichiro is an above average (even if only slightly) fielder in CF then his offense in 2008 makes him a good player, if Ichiro is a below average corner OF (again, even if only slightly), then, with his offense in 2008, Ryan Howard thinks he’s overrated.

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  2. recca says:

    Ryan Howard is a fat idiot.

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  3. JWay says:

    Are they called tits on a guy?

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  4. Jeremy Wilson says:

    tell, Ryan Howard he has “moobs”, to his face, the truth is he has established himself, as the top HR and RBI man in the game, moobs or not, he can rake!!!!!

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  5. NickP says:

    Ichiro also had more PA than anyone.

    Obviously part of that is remaining healthy, but the rest is the fact that he hits leadoff.

    I wonder how many players after Ichiro in the WAR list would have jumped him if given another 15, 30, 45, or 60 PA.

    For instance, #27 on the list is Jason Bay, who had 80 fewer PA than Ichiro. If his team had chosen to hit him 1 in the lineup instead of 3 (for Pirates) or 5 (for Red Sox), his WAR would have been higher just as a function of getting more PA.

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    • NickP says:

      To add on to this, a player’s time in the field is always going to be a constant. (for the most part), so a guy like Adam Dunn or Manny who are butchers with the glove, have a largely fixed negative value for the fielding component of WAR.

      But, if Adam Dunn/Manny/etc. were given more PA, his total WAR would look better.

      I guess I’m arguing for managers to realize if they have a bad glove guy, that is some theoritcal fixed number, and they should be moving them up in the lineup to maximize their value and offset their gloves (which aren’t a function of manager choice).

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  6. NickP says:

    Trey: That’s my point. Defense is independent of coach’s choice. A bad defender has some fixed negative value from their glove that can be offset by their offense, depending on PA.

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    • Trey says:

      The game is not played for the glory of the individual. You don’t construct lineup cards with the aim of maximizing one player’s overall value at the expense of another’s. A guy with Dunn’s offensive skillset *should* be batting in the one or two hole, but not for the reason you stated.

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      • NickP says:

        For almost exactly the reasons I stated.

        You want to maximize a .390 wOBA (hypothetical Dunn, Bay, Manny type) and minimize a .339 wOBA (Ichiro-type).

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      • Trey says:

        Do you honestly think that I’m somehow incapable of scrolling up and seeing the brazen manner in which you chose to revise the rationale of your original argument ex post facto in what seems like some sad attempt to save face to a complete stranger on the internet? This isn’t some verbal argument where you can go back and say you never said it. You’re on record as saying that defensively challenged offensive dynamos should be moved up in the lineup strictly to offset their fielding woes, and now you’re trying to tell me with a straight face that you were merely advocating maximizing a team’s scoring output all along?

        You’re not fooling anyone, kid.

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      • don says:

        That’s an interesting question IMO. Where should a guy like Dunn be in the lineup? While something like wOBA doesn’t take it into account, a HR with guys on base is obviously better than one with the bases empty when trying to win games… and drawing a walk if you’re the guy batting ahead of Pujols is better than a walk if you’re the guy batting ahead of Generic Replacement Catcher and the pitcher. Is there statistical analysis done on how to place guys in the lineup? How well does convention stand up to statistics? Not touching for a second setting the right and left handedness of your batters to inconvenience the other team’s bullpen specialists.

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  7. NickP says:

    I guess I’m arguing for managers to realize if they have a bad glove guy, that is some theoritcal fixed number, and they should be moving them up in the lineup to maximize their value and offset their gloves (which aren’t a function of manager choice).

    Trey: the above is a pure cut and paste job. Then, you assert that I think defense has something to do with lineup optimization, which is clearly stupid on your part.

    Of course, it’s all from the team perspective, but in the hypothetical Dunn/Ichiro example.

    Dunn -15 defender, Ichiro +5 (make your own numbers up)
    Ichiro +9 hitter, Dunn (+15) (make your own numbers up)

    Now give Dunn all of Ichiro’s PA, and Ichiro Dunn’s PA.
    It will look like Dunn +20, Ichiro +7 (again, make your own numbers up)

    The defense isn’t changing, but you gain +3 runs of offense.

    That isn’t personal glory. That is more team runs.

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    • NadavT says:

      NickP, I believe your point is valid, but dumb.

      The valid point that you are making is that batters with higher wOBAs should be given more plate appearances. The dumb part is that this somehow “offsets” their poor defense. The thing is — defense has absolutely nothing to do with it. In your Ichiro/Dunn example, you could make Dunn a fantastic fielder and Ichiro a bumbling clown, and you would still want to give more PAs to Dunn in order to maximize your offense.

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    • Trey says:

      “…they should be moving them up in the lineup TO MAXIMIZE THEIR VALUE AND OFFSET THEIR GLOVES.”

      You just made my argument for me. You’re clearly advocating giving bad fielders more plate appearances for the sole purpose of padding their WAR and not as any sort of lineup optimization strategy. Why would you even mention their defense if it had nothing to do with anything?

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  8. joeld says:

    NickP: I’m not sure why you assume that the impact of bad defense is fixed. The worse the glove, the more likely they become a late-game defensive substitution, the fewer chances to butcher a routine fly. High leverage situations as well, when the presence of their bat in the lineup would do the most good.

    Dunn fielded 0.7 of a inning per game less than Ichiro last year; what part of the difference in PA is not lineup order, is not missing games/injuries but is just Dunn getting pulled because his glove sucks?

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  9. Jon says:

    This is way after the point has passed, but I thought I would chime in anyway. Nick P, your argument is interesting and has some truth to it. Yes, if a guy like Dunn were moved up in the lineup, and given more PA, his wOBA might theoretically increase. Therefore, if the ultimate goal is to maximize value, a manager would be well served to move someone like Dunn up.

    What you fail to realize is that Dunn and Ichiro’s baseline wOBas, which you use to compare the players, are derived from their actual lineup positions during the season. That is, Dunn batted 3 or 4 last season, and his role was to hit for power rather than simply get on base. Owing to this, his HR total was higher than it would have been had he batted higher in the lineup, let’s say leadoff. You can’t just move Dunn up in your theoretical lineup, keep his wOBA based on batting 3 or 4, and then give him more PA. Instead, what is more logical, and what is omitted from your reasoning, is the fact that he would lose HR at the expense of hitting higher and consequentially receive more PA.

    Likewise, it has been well documented that Ichiro possesses the requisite power needed to hit homeruns. However, because of his role on the team (the value of which HE apparently understands), Ichiro conscientiously tries to get on base rather than swing for the fences. If you are going to suppose that Ichiro’s wOBA is inflated, in part, because of his increased PA in the leadoff position, why don’t you increase his HR when you take away his PA and move him down in the lineup?

    Those are my two cents.

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