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Slightly above average

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It hasn’t sunk in yet. It won’t, until Spring Training. Until Vernon Wells isn’t in centre field for the Toronto Blue Jays.

Over the past few days, when I thought about the Blue Jays, and thought about centre field, Devon White and Vernon Wells were the only two names that came to mind. I missed the Lloyd Moseby era; I was too young. And for the life of me, I couldn’t remember who played in centre before Wells. In my mind, there was White, and then there was Wells. Devo, then Boo. And there would be Vernon, until his mammoth contract expired. Or so the entire universe, save for a couple of crazies in Anaheim, thought.

My point is: Two years of Otis Nixon, and three years of Jose Cruz, had completely faded from my memory.

Drew at Ghostrunner On First writes:

Ultimately, I think this town will forget Vernon Wells in a hurry. Despite logging thousands of innings in the middle of Rogers Centre, his legacy will not last. Other insane contracts will shove his from the memory, other affable & well-adjusted athletes will attract our undeserving scorn.

I don’t buy it. Wells won’t go the way of Nixon and Cruz. Partly because he was a Blue Jay for so goddamn long, and, as The Tao writes, partly because he did represent an era, a decade, one that’s now officially come to an end. And because of his bloody contract. Really, how much more insane can a contract get? There should be two larger-than-life portraits hanging on the walls of the Blue Jays’ front office: One of Vernon Wells, and one of B.J. Ryan. Those contracts, those mistakes, must never be forgotten.

Actually, make it three larger-than-life portraits. This one is a must.

Looking at Wells’ numbers, shit, he was far from great. Worse than I, obviously, a devout believer, remember him. Wells’ career 108 weighted runs created plus (wRC+) proves that, offensively, he was only slightly above average. Jesse Barfield, Carlos Delgado, Fred McGriff, John Olerud, Roberto Alomar, George Bell, Shawn Green, even Shannon Stewart and Rance Mulliniks, all sport higher weighted on-base averages (wOBA), and wRC+ averages, as Blue Jays than Wells. All of them.

Defensively, according to ultimate zone rating (UZR), in the history of the Blue Jays, only Carlos Delgado was a lesser fielder than three-time Gold Glove-winner Vernon Wells. And that blows my mind. I mean, I’m still, weeks later, having a hard time reconciling the fact Roberto Alomar, according to UZR, was a below-average second baseman. My entire worldview was shaped on the belief that Alomar was one of the greatest defensive second basemen. Ever. Now this, Wells’ -38.0 UZR rating? It’s hard to swallow. I can believe Joe Carter’s -32.0, and Russ Adams’ -25.1, career UZR ratings as Blue Jays. But not Alomar’s -26.0. Not Wells’ -38.0. I don’t want to believe I was deceived by my own young eyes.

Depressed by his numbers, I’d have to say no, Wells’ name and number don’t belong on the Level of Excellence. Had he played out his contract in Toronto, there’d probably be no debate; Wells would have owned too many team records not to go up. But now that he’s gone, it’s pretty obvious Wells wasn’t excellent. He was slightly above average. There are other, more worthy candidates to be honoured. Like Jimmy Key.

I’m going to be honest: I don’t know where the hell I’m going with this. I think I might have convinced myself that Drew’s right; perhaps Wells, to some extent, will be forgotten. Not forgotten like Otis Nixon, or Jose Cruz, but not remembered like Roy Halladay, or Carlos Delgado. And that’s how I wanted Wells to be remembered. Like Doc, and Carlos. But as much as I wanted him to be, he was never as good. And as has been pointed out, once he signed that contract, it became his legacy.

I can’t say, though, that I ever thought of Wells the baseball player as complacent, or comfortable. I always thought of V-Dub as someone who busted his ass day in and day out; someone who tried to lead by example. Who dove for balls when he probably shouldn’t have, and who tried to play through injuries, to the detriment of both himself and the team. I saw Wells’ even-keeled approach and attitude to success and failure as ideal for someone who tries to hit a baseball for a living.

After writing this post, I think I feel even more melancholy about Wells’ departure. Slightly above average. I don’t know, it just leaves more to be desired. Like Vernon Wells. With four years and $86 million left on his contract, I guess I never thought Wells and the Blue Jays would have unfinished business.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m ecstatic about said unfinished business. The Blue Jays gave up more cash when they traded Doc. And Wells’ departure puts the onus on Adam Lind, Aaron Hill, and Travis Snider. Vernon was never going to be one of the feared hitters in the Toronto lineup when they were finally ready to contend.

It’s a fascinating time to be a Blue Jays fan. Halladay and Wells traded in back-to-back off-seasons, along with another Opening Day starter. Yet baseball boners abound. There’s the Red Sox inquiring about the availability of Jose Bautista. Mike Napoli acquired and dealt in less than a week. Hey, I thought Napoli was a great fit for the Jays, too. But I like that J.P. Arencibia is being given his shot. Edwin Encarnacion, too; I just can’t quit the bastard.

Whether it’s to stock up on potential compensatory draft picks, or help support a very young starting pitching staff, Alex Anthopoulos has revamped the Toronto bullpen. I’ll take Octavio Dotel’s awful splits, the personable Jon Rauch, along with “criminally underrated relief pitcher” Frank Francisco, over Napoli, and, say, Manny Ramirez, and any relief pitcher signed to a long-term, rich contract. The bullpen wasn’t strong last season. Anthopoulos set out to improve it. The kicker: John Farrell. I can’t wait to see the new manager run the bullpen. Hell, the whole ball club.

Anthopoulos always maintained that the Blue Jays wouldn’t be active in free agency. That the Jays would look to improve through trades. Brett Lawrie for Shaun Marcum. Rajai Davis for a couple of arms. Wells for Napoli and Juan Rivera (who’s my starting right fielder, with Bautista at third base). Napoli for Francisco. It continues. There’s no point in speculating whether Anthopoulos is done, because on a Friday evening in January, he pulled off the unthinkable.

It all comes full circle. Slightly above average. That’s how I’d describe Vernon Wells. And how I’d describe, of late, the Toronto Blue Jays. Slightly above average isn’t good enough.

Image of a sleeping Blue Jay courtesy Kimberly Robyn.

Written by Navin Vaswani

January 26th, 2011 at 4:25 am

Back to basics

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Writing in this space used to be easy. Writing, in general. It isn’t anymore. At least it isn’t right now. (Also, it’s official: I hate the words “blog,” “blogger,” and “blogging.”) It’s been a wild 12 months for me, personally. I haven’t been around much. I feel like I have to make up for lost time, except I’m not sure how to do that. I also feel, mostly due to Twitter, like I’m drowning in information. That if I’m not bringing a distinct opinion and voice to the conversation, there’s no point to any of this. That if I’m not writing about WAR, or xFIP, or showing you a graph of some sort, I’m bringing something to the table that’s utterly unreadable, and a waste of your time. And I’ve never felt that way before. I’ve gone as far as to comb through my own archives, in search of, I think, inspiration. Sure, some people find my writing and my twittering — surely my twittering — annoying. But that’s always going to be the case.

I read a lot. If you can’t write, read, right? In the aftermath of the Shaun Marcum for Brett Lawrie trade (or is it the Lawrie for Marcum trade?), I’ve read an inordinate amount of blog posts and columns devoted to the transaction. I’ve seen Lawrie’s infamous Eminem-inspired tattoo, and his abdominals. The amount of content out there — instant content — boggles the mind. I think it’s amazing how much, and how well, Joe Posnanski writes. Every. Single. Day. I only wish I could. I want to. And, yet, I open my RSS reader, and log on to Twitter, and I’m overwhelmed. By all of it.

On January 29th of this year, just a few days before I took off for a jaunt through India, George Packer, one of my favourite writers, wrote about Twitter (which he doesn’t use):

The truth is, I feel like yelling Stop quite a bit these days. Every time I hear about Twitter I want to yell Stop. The notion of sending and getting brief updates to and from dozens or thousands of people every few minutes is an image from information hell. I’m told that Twitter is a river into which I can dip my cup whenever I want. But that supposes we’re all kneeling on the banks. In fact, if you’re at all like me, you’re trying to keep your footing out in midstream, with the water level always dangerously close to your nostrils. Twitter sounds less like sipping than drowning.

The most frightening picture of the future that I’ve read thus far in the new decade has nothing to do with terrorism or banking or the world’s water reserves—it’s an article by David Carr, the Timess media critic, published on the decade’s first day, called “Why Twitter Will Endure.” “I’m in narrative on more things in a given moment than I ever thought possible,” Carr wrote. And: “Twitter becomes an always-on data stream from really bright people.” And: “The real value of the service is listening to a wired collective voice … the throbbing networked intelligence.” And: “On Twitter, you are your avatar and your avatar is you.” And finally: “There is always something more interesting on Twitter than whatever you happen to be working on.”

This last is what really worries me. Who doesn’t want to be taken out of the boredom or sameness or pain of the present at any given moment? That’s what drugs are for, and that’s why people become addicted to them. Carr himself was once a crack addict (he wrote about it in “The Night of the Gun”). Twitter is crack for media addicts. It scares me, not because I’m morally superior to it, but because I don’t think I could handle it. I’m afraid I’d end up letting my son go hungry.

Packer’s writing, for some reason or another, has always spoken to me. But never, ever like those three paragraphs did. I’m who he’s talking about; I’m on Twitter crack. From The Hardball Times, to Baseball Prospectus, to Drunk Jays Fans, to Dustin “Fuck Off” Parkes’ new and impressive Getting Blanked, to Pension Plan Puppets, and Down Goes Brown, to The Tao of Stieb, and MLB Trade Rumors, and Ghostrunner on First, and The Blue Jay Hunter, and RaptorBlog, and The Basketball Jones, and FanGraphs, and NotGraphs (have you subscribed yet?), and T. Jose Caldeford … You get my point: Information overload. I’ve tweeted almost 9,050 times. That’s a lot of characters. A lot of, essentially, posts here at Sports And The City. And here I am, one of those people worried about people’s shortening attention spans, and the dying art of long prose. Have you even made it this far?

I used to write for me, and you. But mostly me. I believe I’m a better writer today because of it. I’m going to try and get back to basics.

Opening Doors

You didn’t think I was going to write all of that, and not tell you how I feel about the Lawrie for Marcum trade, did you? You so crazy. It’s why I appreciate you.

I love the trade. Don’t get me wrong, it’s tough to see Marcum go. North of Steeles, forever. Well, hopefully not. I really miss living in the city, personally, but you know what I mean. Marcum pitched with pride. Not only for himself, but for his teammates. I’ll never forget how angry he was after the Balitmore OriLOLes, in late September, threw at Jose Bautista. Make no mistake about it: Shaun Marcum was taking names. I’ll miss his confidence, his leadership, and his swagger. An Opening Day starter for the Toronto Blue Jays, I trust he’s left a competent set of men to follow in his footsteps. The Marcum era will be looked upon fondly, and I wish Shaun well in the National League, where it’s even easier to pitch like a man.

To get, you’ve got to give. In return for Marcum, Brett Lawrie brings a different kind of swagger to Toronto, and as Parkes pointed out at Getting Blanked, there’s nothing wrong with that. Lawrie is a high ceiling, high reward type of ballplayer. Is he worth the risk, in dealing Shaun Marcum? If the Carl Crawford contract with the Boston Red Sox proves anything, it’s that, yes, Lawrie is worth the risk. And so is Anthony Gose. For the Blue  Jays to climb a mountain that only seems to grow higher and higher, Alex Anthopoulos has to reach. He has no choice but to play high stakes; high risk, high reward.

While it hasn’t publicly, to these eyes, the Lawrie deal puts an end to the Zack Grienke-to-Toronto speculation. The 2011 season isn’t about “going for it.” Lawrie’s all about upside, and versatility. Lord knows he can hit. Now it’s up to the Blue Jays to find him a position, and make a big leaguer out of him.

In his 1988 Bill James Baseball Abstract, James wrote:

What I wanted to write about… is a very basic question. Of all the studies I have done over the last 12 years, what have I learned? What is the relevance of sabermetric knowledge to the decision making process of a team? If I were employed by a major-league team, what are the basic things that I know from the research I have done which would be of use to me in helping that team?

Number one on his list was:

Minor league batting statistics will predict major league batting performance with essentially the same reliability as previous major league statistics.

Here are Lawrie’s and Travis Snider’s numbers from their seasons in AA-ball, when both were 20 years young:

Snider: 362 ABs, .262/.357/.461

Lawrie: 554 ABs, .285/.346/.451

Most, if not all of us, are ecstatic about a season for Snider freed from the shackles of Cito Gaston. And if you’re as excited about Snider as I am, how can you not be excited about Lawrie? He’s got a bat, and wheels. The fact that he’s Canadian is a bonus. I could care less where a ballplayer is from, Canada, Cuba, or India. Bring me the best baseball players, period.

The 2011 season is about Snider finally getting a full season under his belt. It’s about Kyle Drabek earning his stripes in the ultra-competitive American League East. It’s about J.P. Arencibia becoming a big league catcher. It’s about Adam Lind learning how to play a competent first base, and Aaron Hill returning to form. What I love most about the Lawrie for Marcum trade is that it proves that Alex Anthopoulos isn’t trying to open a window from which the Blue Jays can contend. He’s trying to open a set of French doors, overlooking the ocean.

Image courtesy This Isn’t Happiness.

Running Rajai

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Rajai Davis is fast. Compared to his new Toronto Blue Jays teammates, Rajai Davis can fly. He stole 50 bases for the Oakland A’s in 2010. The Toronto Blue Jays, as a team, stole 58.

On the surface, Davis’ 2010 .320 on-base percentage, for a Blue Jays team looking to improve their OBP as a unit, is nothing to go upstairs and tell mom about. But as R.J. Anderson points out over at FanGraphs, “Davis’ career .330 on-base percentage would’ve ranked as the fifth-highest on the 2010 Blue Jays.” Which is pretty goddamn sad.

As for where Davis fits into the Jays’ lineup, your guess is as good as mine. He could be John Farrell’s new leadoff hitter, although, again, Davis’ .332 career OBP in 133 career games, in 538 at-bats, from the top of the order doesn’t exactly get me all hot and bothered. If Davis is Farrell’s new fourth outfielder, and pinch-runner, he’s certainly an upgrade over the departed DeWayne Wise. And because the newest Blue Jay can play all three outfield positions, he probably leaps Fred Lewis on the depth chart, too.

There’s more to Rajai Davis than just his speed, though. Where he’s going to come in handy for the Blue Jays is against left-handed pitching. Because, as you know, the Jays can’t hit left-handed pitching. At least they didn’t in 2010. Davis’ slash line versus LHP this past season: .304/.349/.435/.784. A .323 BABIP, along with a .344 wOBA. For his career, Davis has hit southpaws to the tune of .292/.347/.402/.750. Good enough for a .329 BABIP, and .331 wOBA. The numbers aren’t spectacular by any means, but considering how the Blue Jays fared against lefties in 2010, they’re going to help.

How bad were the Jays this summer? Bloody awful. They scored 139 runs versus LHP; nobody scored fewer. Their AL East brethren, the Rays, Yankees and Red Sox, scored 264, 263 and 239 runs against LHP, respectively. Good for first, second and fourth in the Majors. Toronto’s .215 team batting average against LHP? Last in baseball. Toronto’s .286 team OBP against LHP? Last in baseball. Their .379 slugging percentage against LHP wasn’t thirtieth out of 30; it ranked twenty-first. Home runs will do that for you. Only Baltimore, Houston and Seattle registered a team OPS lower than Toronto’s .665 versus LHP.

Only two regulars from Cito Gaston’s infamous final lineups put up OPS’s of greater than .900 against LHP: John Buck (1.116), and Edwin Encarnion (.914). John’s Buck-ed off down to Florida, while Edwin is Encarnaci-gone. Yunel Escobar’s line of .275/.396/.425/.821 was none too shabby, but came in only 40 at-bats. You’d think guys like Vernon Wells, Jose Bautista, and Aaron Hill would feast on LHP. Instead, they were feasted upon. Hide your kids, your wife, and your husbands, too:

Wells (113 ABs): .195/.289/.354/.643

Bautista (108 ABs): .222/.333/.509/.843

Hill (120 ABs): .125/.226/.225/.451

Adam Lind (137 ABs): .117/.159/.182/.341

If there’s a silver lining in those bawdy numbers, it’s that Hill and Lind can’t possibly be that bad again. Hill’s BABIP against LHP last season was .124; Lind’s: .167.

The point is, while Toronto can certainly use Davis’ speed, they need his bat, too. Now, I’m not going to pretend to know much of anything about the two prospects — Trystan Magnuson and Daniel Farquhar, both relievers — Alex Anthopoulos sent to Oakland. But that the Blue Jays chose to trade two guys from an area of organizational strength for someone who fills two needs, and who is under team control until 2014, makes the deal a good one. All the more so when I read in the San Francisco Chronicle that Davis was “among the most popular players on [Oakland], always cheerful and respected by his teammates for his deep faith and work with his church,” and that he called the trade “a new adventure.”  Hustle, heart, and God. And, you know what, maybe the guy upstairs can help.

The more you look at the Davis acquisition, and all the numbers, the more a Fred Lewis/Rajai Davis platoon at the top of the lineup, and in the outfield, makes sense. But make no mistake about it, Davis becoming a Blue Jay is about more than just his speed.

The best part of the transaction: Anthopoulos is just getting started. Of all the offseasons in professional sports, none are better than baseball’s.

Credit to Getty Images’ Jed Jacobsohn for the photo.

Written by Navin Vaswani

November 17th, 2010 at 11:15 pm