Author Archives: Tim L.

Fun with World Series Run Differentials

The Red Sox and Cardinals meeting in the Fall Classic represents the top run differentials in each league squaring off. Baseball statheads should feel the warm glow of empiricism peeking through, especially after last year when we had to hear from some about the overrating of run differential. Why is it at all controversial to say that the team largest difference between runs scored and runs allowed over 162 games? Is that a radical notion? I think part of it is the basic notion that most people don’t understand randomness (or “luck” or “fortuosity” or “midichlorians” or whatever you want to call it) and that even in a large sample of 162 games, you can have smaller sub-samples (like the Orioles’ 38 one-run games last season, in which they went an insane 29-9) where randomness can take over, and then the whole sample ends up a bit screwy.

But I digress, the Boston Red Sox scored 197 more runs than they allowed, more than any other AL team and the St. Louis Cardinals scored 187 more runs than they allowed, more than any other NL team. So we are poised to see the Pythagorean Pennant winners face off. How does this compare to previous years’ match-ups? I’m glad I asked myself, because I spent some time compiling the run differentials of each league’s WS representatives, plus the overall WS run differential, as well as each teams’ rank in their respective leagues since 1990 (remember that there was no World Series in 1994.) I highlighted the teams who lead their league in run differential in gold, cause they’re special, you know?
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This doesn’t mean all that much, I suppose. But it’s hasn’t been exactly common for each league’s top run +/- team to get to the WS to square of, so I thought I’d look at some stuff.  And also, I made a couple little bubble charts to visualize the run diffs of the respective teams. Of course, the cumulative run differential means only so much. The best cumulative run differential was from 1998, but that was the historically great 1998 Yankees team, who have the best run differential in the last 24 seasons (the also historically great 2001 Mariners are second best, with 301 to the Yanks’ 309. After them, it’s a long fall to third place). Because of this, I made a second graph that plots the difference (the run differential is NL team minus AL team, so negative values represent a matchup favoring the AL). With this, you can see just how much better the Yanks’ run differential was than the Padres, and the Padres had the third best in the NL in 98. In this chart, I also put the WS numbers in red when the team with the better run differential lost. (click to enlarge, please. )
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Here are some interesting facts I gleaned from this exercise- The Red Sox have played in three WS since 1990 and each time they’ve had the best run differential in the AL* have faced the best run differential from the NL. In fact, there have been four WS with the best vs best, and the only non-Red Sox one is the 2002 Series between the Angels and Giants. The worst WS in terms of total run differential was 1997, where Florida and Cleveland had a cumulative run differential of +124 (compare that with the best team in each league, the Yankees, who had a +210, and Atlanta, at +203). The worst in terms of rankings (and barely missed cumulative), was the 2000 Subway Series, where the Yankees and Mets were each the fifth best in their leagues, and the had a cumulative total of +126 (Giants had the best in the NL at +178 and the White Sox were the AL’s best at +138.) The team with better run differential has lost 13 of the 22 series (with 2013 outstanding, obviously). What does that mean?  A seven game series features a lot of that randomness. The Marlins were 102 runs were than the Yankees in 2003, and won in six. The 2006 Cardinals were a whooping 128 runs worse than the Tigers in 2006 (that’s right, Detroit managed to outdo their OPPONENT’s run differential by more than the cumulative totals of either the 1997 series or 2000 series teams) and the Cards won in five.

* One fact that always seems to be left out when narratives are being created about the 2004 Red Sox is that they led the AL in run differential and it was about as close as Reagan vs Mondale. The Red Sox scored 181 more runs than they allowed. The second place AL team was the Angels, at +102, third was the Yankees at +89. The Red Sox’ expected record  was 98 wins, same as their actual record. It was the 2004 Yankees whose record was grossly out of tune with their expected win-loss, as they won 101 games but were expected to win only 89 (which actually would have placed them behind the A’s for the Wild Card). It wasn’t that the Red Sox were scrappy and overcame obstacles, it was more that they were the much better team, best in the AL, and the Yankees’ magic dust finally wore out. It’s not as fun of a narrative, but it’s got a better empirical basis. Of course, it still doesn’t explain why the Yankees never bunted on Curt Schilling and his bloody sock, but that’s strategy, not empiricism.
What we can say is that the 2013 World Series features two teams whose run differential is very close. We’ve also had 10 World Series since 1990 (including this one) that features teams within 20 runs of each other. You cannot predict the outcomes of these matchups. The old adage that “good pitching beats good hitting” is literally meaningless. Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander did not trump the  Red Sox and their MLB-best offense, and Zach Greinke and Clayton Kershaw did not silence the NL-best Cardinals offense. Anything can happen in a short series, and seven games is pretty short in baseball. But 162 is anything but short, and we do know that based on a whole season’s worth of data, in 2013, we get to see the two best possible teams playing each other. Let’s hope it’s worth watching.

Week 6 NFL Playoff Probabilities

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The Bears seem to be trying to echo last year, where they spent most of the season as the NFC North’s favorites until they ceded ground to the Packers. Meanwhile, the Saints didn’t take too much of a hit from that heartbreaking last-minute loss to the Pats, while the Jets did. And, I guess, better luck next year Chargers and Raiders (sorry, Terrelle). Click the image to see this baby in its full-sized beauty.

Week Five Playoff Probabilities (stylish version)

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Done up stylish-ly, as we did last year. Just in time for them to not actually matter. Thank you, week six.

Jim Caple and the pitcher win

ESPN’s Jim Caple just posted an article about the win statistic. This seems to be a response to Brian Kenny’s all-out assault on the win. Kenny is attacking the old stat as a grossly misleading, if not useless, statistic in measuring how good a pitcher is. I don’t really care if Kenny’s “kill the win” campaign gains steam or not; frankly, I don’t really care about wins (outside of my fantasy leagues where they count). I do think it’s outdated and doesn’t tell us much of anything. Matt Harvey has nine measly wins while having (pre-injury, obviously) a rookie season for the ages. Harvey still ranks second in pitcher WAR on Fangraphs (as of September 18- Kershaw, at least, will eclipse him before season’s end). Of course, it’s not Harvey’s fault he plays for the Mets (I suppose he could have refused to sign, like Elway and Baltimore or Cushman and Denver) but poor Harvey was enjoying the 13th lowest run support of all NL starters.

Caple admits to some shortcomings, but comes to the defense of the win:

Perhaps stat-heads would appreciate the win more if it was something else, though, something much more complicated and mathematically challenging. Maybe they would like it more if it included complex calculations that account for run support, adjusted ERA, advanced fielding analytics, WAR, stadium factors and humidity and was called tWIN.

I do love the idea that the win is simple and other sabermetric stats are, by definition, not. Caple talks about the “uncomplicated” win in an article that also discusses how on September 13, Cleveland starter Danny Salazar struck out 9 in 3.2 innings, but couldn’t get the win, because he didn’t go the required five innings. He talked about Drew Smyly vulturing Max Scherzer’s 20th win, after Smyly blew the lead. The rules on how wins are awards are full of inane loophools and requirements. Caple doesn’t even mention my favorite part of the win rule, which I’ll quote right out of the official MLB rules:

Rule 10.17(b) Comment: It is the intent of Rule 10.17(b) that a relief pitcher pitch at least one complete inning or pitch when a crucial out is made, within the context of the game (including the score), in order to be credited as the winning pitcher. If the first relief pitcher pitches effectively, the official scorer should not presumptively credit that pitcher with the win, because the rule requires that the win be credited to the pitcher who was the most effective, and a subsequent relief pitcher may have been most effective. The official scorer, in determining which relief pitcher was the most effective, should consider the number of runs, earned runs and base runners given up by each relief pitcher and the context of the game at the time of each relief pitcher’s appearance. If two or more relief pitchers were similarly effective, the official scorer should give the presumption to the earlier pitcher as the winning pitcher. [emphasis added]

The win isn’t a simple statistic just because it doesn’t have a mathematical formula. Like the RBI, there’s so many things that the player collecting it doesn’t control. That alone is why its value is so limited.

Caple boils down his argument to this with this:

Could the win be better? Sure. But one of the reasons I like the win is its simplicity. Despite its clear limitations, the win is a long-established and fun statistic that quickly tells us something about a pitcher — how many bad pitchers win 18 games in a season or 200 games in a career? — though by no means everything. Nobody is saying the win is the ultimate arbiter of anything for a pitcher. It’s just one of many stats for your consideration.

As I’ve already said, the win is not simple, and Caple makes the point himself. And he’s right, it’s one of many stats for you consideration, like paying $3 for a tin of Pringles on your next US Air flight is a food option; it’s not necessarily the best option for you to take.

As for players who accumulate big single season win totals or lots of wins over a career- does this mean much? In the days of complete games, when pitchers would rarely be lifted, the win meant something though still less than it seems lots of folks want it to. These days, with increased specialization and pitch counts and so on, it means even less. Christy Mathewson, to pick a random old-timey pitcher with longevity, averaged 8.67 innings per start for his ENTIRE 552-start, 17-year-long career. Mike Mussina is the closest modern starter in terms of games started to Mathewson, as Moose started 536 games. For his career, Mussina averaged 6.67 innings per start. Mathewson would need one out from a reliever, but he still needed the run support. Moose needed two innings and an out plus run support. To turn this a different way, Curt Schilling and Mike Mussina were both terrific pitchers in a big offensive era. Both were regular starters from 1992 until 2007. Schilling started 569 games to Moose’s 536, but Moose threw almost exactly 300 more innings (Schilling averaged 5.7 innings per start.) Schilling ended up with 54 fewer wins. Why? Mussina played for the generally good 90s Orioles while Schilling was pitching for the generally bad 90s Phillies. Similar service time, huge difference in win totals. Incidentally, Mussina is at 83.0 in rWAR and 82.3 in fWAR, while Schilling is 79.9 and 83.5. What seems like the better comparison? Wins, where Schilling is only 80% the pitcher Mussina was or WAR where they were equally good?

As for the specific win-totals Caple mentions, to counter that point I do need some fancy sabermetric, context-controlled stats, specifically FIP- and ERA- (each stat takes into account park factors and the league average numbers and compares them to other pitchers of that specific era;  100 is average, and the lower the number, the better. Someone who has an FIP- of 80 is 20% better than their peers) Lew Burdette was a solid pitcher from 1950 to 1967, mostly for the Braves. He collected 203 wins. He had a career ERA- of 101 and a career FIP- 103, both slightly below average. Denny McClain in 1966 won 20 games, and had an ERA 13% worse than the AL average and a FIP 23% worse. It’s actually not hard to find other examples of pitchers who were average or worse and managed to still win 18 or more games (here’s the custom search) but I suppose I can be discounted because I used ERA- and FIP-. Are any of these pitchers bad? No, none of them were Jose Lima for the Royals bad (incidentally, Lima had a 21 win season for the Astros in 1999. He was pretty good that year. I’m pretty sure there were a dozen or two pitchers in 1999 that weren’t named Jose Lima you’d have preferred on your team.)

I understand a desire for a simple number that can be understood quickly and tells us who was a good pitcher and who wasn’t. What escapes my understanding is this luddite position that Caple and others like him take, where they run towards this an archaic stat. I suppose there’s a bit of “it’s always been there.” But it strikes me a bit like someone in 1920 saying “we can’t get rid of the guys making horseshoes.” Horseshoes might be interesting, and occasionally might be useful, but they’re not longer a critical part of our world.

See more from this Tim guy at his blog or at Saturday Morning Deathgrip

An empirical look at PEDs in baseball

When the Biogenesis news hit during the offseason, anyone who follows sports should have been able to see what was coming. Essentially, PEDs in baseball elicit two responses – the moralizing type wherein the players involved are evil and the is-nothing-sacred type wherein heads shake at how sacred baseball numbers have been rendered meaningless. We get them all the time, but most often the first type tends to crop up whenever a ballplayer gets caught and suspended, while the second usually descend upon us along with Santa, every December when Hall of Fame ballots are cast.

This essay started as a joke-filled response to a specific article responding to Ryan Braun’s suspension. I think it mutated somewhere along the way into something more than a critique of what I thought was just a poorly considered opinion with hackneyed hyperbole, to the point I dropped all references to that article (except that previous sentence, natch.) What I hope it has become is a examination of what we know about PEDs and how people think about PEDs in baseball. Before getting into that, I want to be as clear as I possibly can be: I am extremely anti-cheating. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn instituted the first MLB Drug Policy, which prohibited the use of prescription drugs when not prescribed by a physician for a legitimate medical purpose. In 1991, a year after Congress decided to list steroids as a controlled substance (contrary to the recommendation of the DEA, FDA, NIDA and AMA, btw), Commissioner Fay Vincent issued a league-wide memo emphasizing that steroids were prohibited by the MLB Drug Policy. In 2005, MLB and the MLBPA implemented PED testing and suspensions, and modified it later that same year (the full list of banned substances under the MLB drug policy can be found here). It could not be made clearer than it is now: PEDs are prohibited and constitute cheating. Some folks think the penalties can be made even stiffer and some question whether testing is at all effective, but the rules and the penalties are in place and are being enforced*.

* As an aside, I’m going to indulge myself in something that bothers me. Playerssportswriters (that article is, in my opinion, an embarrassment) and Bud Selig all advocate harsher penalties for PED users. Which, as I said, is fine. But the NFL routinely docks players four games and that’s that (four games, being a quarter of the NFL season). But, while baseball’s stars end up almost-pariahs (unless you’re Andy Pettitte or David Ortiz), football players serve their suspensions and move on. Meanwhile, Mark McGwire had to apologize just to coach for the Cardinals (and that still wasn’t good enough for some folks). I know I’m not the only person who doesn’t understand the football/baseball double standard, but it bothers me that Ryan Braun and Alex Rodriguez getting caught for PEDs are national crises, but eight Washington football players getting PED suspensions since 2011 is no big whoop for football.

Cheating is cheating; if there is a rule, you break it at your risk of punishment. Pete Rose is banned from baseball because he broke the cardinal rule in all of baseball: never gamble on games. He was caught, he was banned. PED users are breaking the rules, and they are tested. Those who are caught are punished. It’s a system that is working, because we have players getting caught (the issue with baseball from 1991, when Vincent sent his memo, until 2005 when the Joint Drug Agreement was enacted, was that steroid use, though banned, wasn’t tested for or punished.) My issue isn’t with that. I think it’s incredibly important we all acknowledge that cheating is a part of competition (yes, I’ll even cite Aussie rules writers), and in American sports with money, prestige, fame, endorsements and whatever else on the line, the incentive to cheat is going to be that much stronger. Heck, cheating was a part of the ancient Olympics, long before billion dollar TV contracts and sneaker endorsements. But it doesn’t inevitably mean it should be condoned (an obvious statement that I stress only to make my own point below). I don’t really have any issue with people who want to argue stiffer penalties or even how the Hall of Fame should treat cheaters. But there is still a fundamental issue that people ignore entirely.

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To be clear where I’m coming from, I have to point out that, by profession, I am trained in reading and interpreting scientific studies. It’s a critical skill if you want to be able to sift through things that purport to be science, and it has made me something of an empirical skepticist. Empirical skepticism leads me to not buy into things (or at least try very hard not to) until credible evidence exists to support them. It’s an approach to making sense of every day life and big picture things. It’s the reason why, for example, when I read an article like this one on CNN talking about how men with higher omega-3 fatty acid intake have a higher risk for prostate cancer, I don’t immediately fear a salmon dinner. I try to look into what exactly they’re reporting on and it turns out, it’s this study, which didn’t actually examine the connection between taking omega-3 supplements or eating lots of fish. The study actually compares the level of free fatty acids in the blood between men who developed prostate cancer against men who didn’t, and they found that those men in the study who did develop prostate cancer tended to have higher circulating fatty acid levels. It’s an interesting study, but it does not conclude that men should, as the CNN article is headlined, “Hold the salmon: omega-3 fatty acids linked to higher risk of cancer.” There appears to be an association with blood levels of certain fatty acids and prostate cancer. We don’t know what the actual risks are, and that also means we don’t know if the risk of prostate cancer outweighs the benefits of the healthy types of fatty acids. We can’t know that until we have more data. Correlation doesn’t mean causation (Nate Silver’s third point from his talk at JSM).  This study just provides a base that further research can explore and illuminate.

You may ask, “what the heck does prostate cancer and fish oil have to do with baseball and PEDs?” I share the bit about the fish because, to set up what my issue with the whole PED argument in baseball, you need to understand how science looks at these issues. I love baseball and have for my entire life. The emotion surrounding the idea of breaking the rules of baseball is something I feel deeply about, so I understand where a lot of the moralizing comes from just as I get the emotion behind an interpretation of the fatty acid study of, “we need to be careful of fish oil because it gives us cancer!” Sometimes, though, in order to actually understand issues like this, the emotion needs to be separated from how we actually consider the issue. Likewise, with PEDs the emotion of how we feel about players cheating must be overcome if we are to actually take a look about the larger issue of the impact on PEDs on the sport of baseball.

So what’s my big issue? Well, it stems from the fact that we don’t have an answer to the most basic question involved: how much do PEDs help someone play baseball? I know what the consensus opinion is. Everybody seems to think they know, because, deep down, they have to help. What most people don’t realize is that there’s actually a broad gap between what you think you know and what you actually know (if you want to learn to bridge that gap, may I recommend starting here and here. That’s purely an aside.)

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Careful scientific investigation has certainly revealed what performance enhancing drugs do under controlled circumstances. We basically know what PEDs do only in limited context. Most real science examines the potential uses from a therapeutic standpoint. It’s easy to find out what anabolic steroids do for cachexia patients or in hypogonadal men, but reports of what happens to athletes largely come from self-reporting via surveys. That sort of information is useful, but it still is limited because of a variety of biases you’d expect from self-reported users who volunteer their experiences. The gold standard of scientific inquiry are randomized controlled studies- taking two similar groups of subjects, in adequate numbers, with maximally controlled variables and measuring differences in outcomes. We have very few such examples, to the tune of practically none.

This is not to say, we don’t know what PEDs do in sports. EPO, or erythropetin, is a popular PED in endurance sports, such as cycling. We know exactly what EPO does, because it is well studied. EPO (the drug) is synthetic version of the EPO (the hormone) the body naturally produces to upregulate red blood cell (RBC) production. RBCs carry oxygen to body tissues, and natural EPO levels are increased when athletes train at altitude. The effects of EPO on endurance athletes is supported by scientific evidence- EPO upregulates RBC production, increasing total oxygen carrying capacity, decreasing muscle hypoxyia (lack of oxygen) by increasing oxygen availability for working muscles.

What we know about anabolic steroids and HGH in sports is murkier. As I said, the effects on individuals suffering from particular diseases are well documented. Anabolic steroids are essentially testosterone precursors. Anabolism literally means “building up”, and anabolic steroids are prescribed for individuals that cannot produce testosterone (e.g., cancer patients, trauma victims), individuals suffering from wasting syndromes (e.g., HIV/AIDS, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), among other, less well studied treatments. HGH, likewise, has a number of therapeutic uses, some understood well, some more experimental, but essentially it has some anabolic properties and some lipolytic (fat reducing) effects.

But what about ballplayers? The connection between EPO and endurance athletes is linear; distance runners and cyclists uses their muscles for long periods of time, so increased available oxygen will let the muscles work more efficiently. The link between what anabolic steroids and HGH will do for a ballplayer is not quite so clear cut.  Anabolic steroids do indeed lead to an increase in lean muscle mass and body strength, though the benefits to athletes taking HGH is much more questionable. An article in the May 2008 Annals of Internal Medicine,“ titled “Systematic review: the effects of growth hormone on athletic performance” concluded:

Claims that growth hormone enhances physical performance are not supported by the scientific literature. Although the limited available evidence suggests that growth hormone increases lean body mass, it may not improve strength; in addition, it may worsen exercise capacity and increase adverse events. More research is needed to conclusively determine the effects of growth hormone on athletic performance.

Clouding the picture further is the complexity of the mechanics of hitting or pitching. A baseball swing, for example, is reasonably well studied. Bat speed, pitch recognition, hip rotation, lower leg movement, and reaction time are all key components. The only component of a swing that studies indicate improves from increased muscle strength is bat swing velocity. Beyond that we don’t actually have a clear idea. Furthermore, we lack clear evidence of what specific PEDs would do in improving the components of the actual swing. If there was a more obvious connection between strength and hitting, that’d be something; guys like Ozzie Canseco,  Wily Mo Pena and Gabe Kapler would hit like Ruth. Now, in the interest of empiricism, I’m willing to accept that these guys could be exceptions rather than rule. My overall point is that we do not know if hitters are helped when they look like pro-wrestlers*. But, unfortunately, data simply doesn’t exist. We assume that it’s steroids that helped Mark McGwire’s Bunyanesque arms hit all those taters (and some try to figure out how many he would have hit if he wasn’t fueled by steroids), and we lament that Ken Griffey Jr. is “The Last Clean Superstar”. People just don’t seem to realize that those assumptions are based on one humongous chunk of speculation.

* Macho Man Randy Savage, a WWF wrestler in the 80s and 90s, was signed by the St. Louis Cardinals in 1971 and played three years in the minors until he hurt his throwing shoulder in a catcher collision. I wonder what he would done at DH at his most pumped up.  

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A strawman that I just conjured up is going to counter my argument- “If PEDs didn’t help ballplayers hit or pitch, why would anyone take them?” And that would be a very reasonable question to ask, since there looks to be one heck of a number of players caught for using PEDs. But go to GNC and look at the number of tubs you can buy for $40 or more. All of these supplements, at best, have questionable evidence to support them, and at worst, none. As a comprehensive review from the University of Texas puts it “Many weight lifters [sic] swear by their own combination of magical supplements that have no scientific basis whatsoever.” The evidence we have for their efficacy is scant, and yet Americans spent $2.7 billion in 2008 on exercise supplements, some of which are made in people’s garages.

(As an interesting tangent, regarding anecdotal evidence and these sorts of things, a study published in the September 2004 issue of the journal Addiction recruited 80 weightlifters, 43 of whom were admitted users of anabolic steroids. The investigators surveyed the participants about their attitudes towards physicians knowledge regarding a variety of health related topics, including anabolic steroids. Both users and non-users had similarly high ratings of physicians’ knowledge about almost every health topic except steroids. Users rated physicians no more knowledgeable than friends, the Internet or the folks who gave them their steroids, and 40% trusted their dealer’s information at least as much as their physicians’.)

The problem is, with both supplements and PEDs, we have extremely limited scientific data to support the claims about what they do. What we have in spades are anecdotes and locker room talk about what you should take to blast your delts or to hit some dingers. The fact that it’s anecdotal and not based on rational scientific study seems to be lost on not just the users, but even some very smart observers (if you read that, keep in mind the physicist is suggesting that Manny Ramirez should have been hitting about 60-80 home runs or maybe he was doing steroids wrong— Manny being Manny, I guess.) For supplements, a big reason we don’t have the data because of the arcane way the FDA regulates (to wit, does not regulate at all) and the money the industry makes; randomized controlled trials would accomplish nothing positive for the manufacturers. For PEDs, I suspect the biggest issue is stigma. Imagine that you’re an exercise physiologist at a university and you wanted to study what an anabolic steroid does to a healthy, college-aged athlete. You need someone to actually fund your study of a taboo topic plus an adequate sample of college-aged athletes that are willing to volunteer to take banned substances in the name of science. The contribution to the collective knowledge would be great, but the obstacles seem even greater.

If you’re still into anecdotal evidence, I can offer some via the king of the juicers himself, Jose Canseco. For a number of years, Canseco was the world’s biggest steroid advocate.  In his book Juiced, Canseco said, “I would never have been a Major League-caliber player without steroids.” But, in 2010, his song changed as he attempted to repair his image. This is the most interesting thing, I think, Canseco has to say:

Let me give you a perfect example. I have an identical twin brother, Ozzie. He is the closest thing to me genetically. And in my prime I was a super athlete. I was the fastest guy in the game. I was 240 pounds and I could hit a baseball 600 feet. The best arm in the game. My twin brother used the same chemicals, same workouts, the same nutrition. Why didn’t he make it in the big leagues?

That is the perfect example that we are giving steroids way too much credit. If steroids are that great it would have made him a superstar.

This suffers from both small sample size issues as well as being purely anecdotal. Ozzie was also drafted as a pitcher, so maybe he cared more about pitching than power hitting (though he was converted to a hitter in the minors.) I don’t know for sure that Jose is being truthful, and Ozzie and he did use the same drugs and workout the same way (and it’s believable based on his baseball card I linked to above.) But we apparently have identical twin brothers, on presumably identical regimens for training and both trying to be major league ballplayers; one ends up with a 17 year career, 462 HRs and Baseball Reference most similar players are all good-to-great hitters, while the other played in just 24 games and was a total washout. How do we account for the stark difference between the Canseco brothers? The differences, as I said, are purely anecdotal, but without empirical studies, that’s at least interesting and based on something that happened.

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In Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book The Black Swanhe describes what he calls “the narrative fallacy”: the tendency for people to construct a story around facts regardless of whether the story itself is true. It’s also known as the “Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy,” based on an old joke about a Texan who shoots at a barn and afterward paints targets around the clusters of shots (I discussed this before when talking about box-office receipts.) We know that anabolic steroids help build muscle, and there is evidence that exercise endurance and healing may improve, and we determined that homers are flying because of them. The steroid era, we decided, coincided with the offensive explosion of the 90s, so it’s the cause of it. The consensus story is a compelling one, but there are many who still believe stories regarding vaccines and autism or dental amalgam and multiple sclerosis, despite refutation or lack of evidence.  We collectively decided that winstrol and deca-durabolin turned Barry Bonds from extraordinarily great baseball player to a homer-hitting monster, while we ignore Tom House saying that he and teammates had been using steroids in the late 60s and 70s, because, in part, opponents were using steroids.

It’s easy to construct a narrative around the types of players who have been caught. Looking down the list of the names of suspended players, the majority are fringe guys with some older players mixed in. There are very few solidly-established players in their prime. A story about most PED users are just players trying to stay on the roster. But while these facts may support that particular story, and some folks buy into this, we don’t really have the information to make that call either.

I am not suggesting that Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens would have performed just as remarkably into their 40s without their (alleged) chemical help. Likewise, maybe Ryan Braun wouldn’t have been the 2011 NL MVP or Ken Caminiti the 1996 NL MVP. Maybe they’d have been bad, or mediocre, but maybe there’d have been no difference at all. The fact it is, we don’t actually know what PEDs do for baseball players. But because of what we assume about PEDs, we have a 2013 Hall of Fame induction for three long-deceased guys, players being made out to look like mustache-twirling villains, and so many remarkable feats accomplished on a field stirring a knee-jerk response of, “well, he must be on steroids.” And I think it’s entirely understandable to feel a bit jaded. But those emotions end up clouding everything from individual game broadcasts (Michael Kay and John Flaherty, in A-rod’s first game of 2013, all but called him selfish for not accepting his 211 game suspension) to the aforementioned Hall of Fame weekend to the sport in general (NFL gets the Super Bowl, MLB seems to have had a month-long funeral leading up the Biogenesis suspensions). And they, naturally, cloud the very basic that we have no real clue what PEDs do for a player?*

* As a return to my aside about the double standard between football and baseball, my favorite sports writer, Joe Posnanski (how can I not love a guy as loquacious as I am?) recently wrote about this topic, and pointed out a few of the same points I have (but in a much more professional and entertaining way), but also something that I hadn’t quite been able to articulate.  Doubtlessly, Poz says, at least some of the NFL’s concussions and subconcussive injuries and ACL tears and whatever else were caused by players made stronger because of PEDs. And that is something we know PEDs do. Which makes that double standard all the more perplexing to me. 

Now, there are still a lot of ethical issues with PED use in general. Fringe players or minor leaguers trying to hang on (regardless of whether or not they’re the majority of users) is still a problem. Regardless of whether or not PEDs do actually make for better ballplayers (which, remember, we don’t actually know), the perception that they do is still present. Similarly, the perception (or knowledge) that other players are taking PEDs , and the temptation will be there. In the end, PEDs don’t actually have to help a player hit homers; he just needs to think they might. That same perception is why the weight lifters buy those foul smelling powders for outrageous sums of money, irrespective of their actual impact.

In the end, I can’t help but feel that this is a problem that people will be content enough to ignore. While some people seem to have an evolving point of view, I suspect they, for now at least, will prove the exception. Which is a shame. If one accepts the basic premise- PEDs are cheating, baseball tests for PEDs and punishes those who are caught- PEDs can be tucked into the same parts of our brain that have already squared away (consciously or not) some of baseball’s other seedier issues: amphetamines, doctored balls, and creative groundskeeping. Cheating is part of the game; if you can make a cogent argument that there is a clear distinction between cheating by using amphetamines and soaking an infield for ground ball pitchers and cheating by using PEDs, I’d love to hear it (and I mean, it has to go beyond the appeal to emotion in the above-linked Willie Mays article.) The sport is not ruined. And if we can all accept a little bit of empirical skepticism, it might just be easier to accept that fact. Maybe baseball (and this is the only time I’ll ever say this) could finally be a little more like football— punish the cheaters, and move on.

Tim is an orthodontist by training and trade. He also writes, performs comedy, is a part time (generally unpaid) artist, and once did the art design for a iOS game (dontfrythefrog.com). You can read a earth shattering exposé he wrote about ALF Colorforms at www.saturdaymorningdeathgrip.com, where you can also listen to the podcast he co-hosts about 80s and 90s cartoons. You can visit him at tpxdmd.blogspot.com, follow him on twitter @tpxdmd, and listen to “Saturday Morning Deathrgip.” Also, if you want your teeth straightened, he can do that too.

Ask Nick Cafardo: Don’t expect an answer.

Hey everyone! I’m back with another Ask Nick. The last Ask Nick was boring. Nothing worth my time to compose a thousand words in response to his banal and vapid thousand words. Also, don’t make the mistake of watching A Thousand Words. It’s awful. Like today’s Ask Nick!

There are some ellipses to indicate where I’ve skipped over bits that I’ve deemed either too boring (likely) or actually reasonably well answered (less likely, but it actually does happen…).  Today’s Nick features him spurning Rene from Lawrence in favor of an identical suggestion from Josh from Brooklyn as well misunderstand randomness and a very public love affair with Jake Peavy.

Your key to this world of Cafardification is: Bold = question from a reader, Italic = what passes for a response in the dark world of Nick Cafardo’s brain and Unformatted = some smart alec who doesn’t really care for Nick Cafardo.

… Try to work out a package for starter Jake Peavy and reliever Jesse Crain, solving both a rotation issue and a bullpen problem.

Obviously, you have to see if Crain is healthy. He could start pitching again as soon as this weekend and the Red Sox will have scouts watching both pitchers. Peavy is ideal because he’s got that bulldog mentality and can handle postseason.

Jake Peavy, career postseason ERA- 12.10, WHIP- 2.379. Now, that covers 9.2 IP, and that really means almost nothing. But he is 178 Bulldog Mentalities Above Replacement, and that means everything.

The biggest positive is that both pitchers have worked with Red Sox pitching coach Juan Nieves, who speaks highly of both of them. Matt Thornton has already come over from the White Sox per Nieves’s recommendation. For a pitcher to be able to have familiarity with a pitching coach when you change teams, I think is huge.

Thorton’s comfort with Nieves has really been huge so far, as he jumped into being just as crappy as the rest of the Red Sox bullpen.

Yes, you have to give up someone you don’t want to lose to make a deal like this happen, but you have to do it. This is Boston’s chance to win the AL East and really, to win it all. You don’t have this chance very often so when it’s there and you have the chips in your farm system to obtain veteran talent, I think you need to go for it.

This isn’t the time to hold back. The one advantage Boston has over Tampa Bay is the resources to make something big happen, to acquire players that can make an impact. If you have that advantage and don’t use it because of being afraid to trade prospects, that could backfire.

Here’s this week’s mailbag:

With the bullpen crumbling due to injury and with the uncertainty in the starting rotation, it seems the Sox have no choice but to part with some young talent. They don’t have young arms to spare, so they’ll have to deal from areas of depth like the left side of the infield. If the Sox could get Matt Thornton for Brandon Jacobs, what impact arms could they expect to get in return for Will Middlebrooks, Iglesias, and Jackie Bradley?
Peter, South Hamilton
Don’t think they’ll deal Bradley (for Ellsbury protection) or Iglesias (their future SS). I think Middlebrooks could be in play, but not one of the guys other teams are knocking the door down for at the moment. I agree, if they want a good veteran starter they have to give up somebody they don’t want to give up. That’s all there is to it. When you have a chance to win like they do this year, I think you have to go for it.

A win-now mentality is justifiable, since the Red Sox are atop the AL East but given their recent pitching woes and the Rays’ surge of late, it is perhaps a tenuous hold. But here’s the thing- Middlebrooks’ value is probably lower now than it has ever been. He’s not exactly tearing up AAA (.270/.326/.467 in 132 PAs). Meanwhile, Iglesias has never been more valuable, as his superficial numbers look good despite his outrageous (and declining) BABIP of .393 (take a look at his season graphs http://www.fangraphs.com/graphs.aspx?playerid=10231&position=3B/SS&page=1&type=mini and find me one positive trend). Also, he had a huge hit with Willie Nelson http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yi2AX14eRbk. I understand optimism- you have a prospect that does not hit and suddenly in the bigs it looks like he’s hitting like crazy cakes. But this is when I think you sell high on Iglesias, not sell low on Middlebrooks. Middlebrooks will likely never be as valuable as he was last season, but he’s bound to be more valuable than he is now.

If you were to make one trade right now who would you go for? If it was me, I would trade for outfielder Giancarlo Stanton.
Rene, Lawrence
That’s a good one Rene, but right now I’d trade for a starting pitcher (Peavy) and a reliever (Jesse Crain).

Yea, Rene. Good one. Plus, does Giancarlo have a bulldog mentality?

If Clay Buchholz isn’t sure of himself he won’t be able to “let it go.” The Sox need to get another top of the line starter like Jake Peavy or, better, Cliff Lee. Does Cliff Lee put them in the playoffs?
Dick, Yarmouth Port
I agree they need another starting pitcher. Peavy seems to be target No. 1 for the moment because of his familiarity with Red Sox pitching coach Juan Nieves, who had him in Chicago. Peavy seems like the veteran presence they need. I know he’s injury prone, but he could be a factor and you’d also have him next season.

Did Jake Peavy sponsor this mailbag? Does Nick want to comment about Cliff Lee at all? I’m pretty sure Cliff Lee is at least as good as Jake Peavy [checks files], oh yeah, he’s actually better.

And Peavy has made 30 starts just once since an arbitrary cut off of 2008 (he did in 2007, but that was six years ago. Also, 2007 was six years ago!), while the most Cliffly pitcher around  (yes, I know, I’m clever) has only missed once in that span (28 starts in 2010). He also missed it in 2007, which again, SIX YEARS AGO. Anyway, Peavy is a decent gamble, he could be the best pitcher available now that Garza is out, but since this is idle speculation anyway, I’d say at least TALK  about Lee. You know, like your reader asked.

Who is the man who always sits behind home plate and has a yellow head set on. I think he is talking to someone or broadcasting.
Marilyn, Sharon
That’s Jeremy Kapstein, senior adviser for the Red Sox.

I must give Nick credit for answering the question. I’m sure Marilyn has no interesting in knowing what Mr. Kapstein is doing with the yellow headset on, behind homeplate every game. If she wanted to know she should have asked.

Jose Iglesias has been touted for his defensive skills, but I think Stephen Drew has a much more accurate and stronger arm. Flashing the leather is only good if you can complete the play to get the out, wouldn’t you agree? I’m sure John Farrell and he coaching staff recognize this. Is Iglesias working on improving his throwing?
Denise, Sedley, Va.
Iglesias has a much stronger arm than Drew. Lazy on his throws might be accurate. He can throw the ball off balance with accuracy which few SS l can do.

How do you know Nick? What are you judging his ability to throw the ball of balance with accuracy and how are you comparing it to other shortstops? For that matter, how are we judging arm strength? Is Nick arm wrestling these guys? And then telling them to throw a ball at a target while tripping them? Because this seems like Nick Cafardo’s opinion more than anything else. And we know what that is worth. (I’m  Johnny Clever, over here today.)

The whole issue with Buchholz is kind of puzzling. Everyone on the blogs is ripping him. I am not one to judge what someone feels for pain but I do believe he doesn’t help himself with saying he is not going out to pitch until he is 100% especially after the teams clears him to pitch. This seems like a reoccurring theme with the Red Sox and physical issues. They should have sent him to Dr. Andrews right after initial diagnosis if that’s the peace of mind he needs. Your take on the situation?
Frank, Middleboro
Second opinions are up to the player, not the team. The Red Sox have the best MGH orthopedists. It’s not a Mickey Mouse operation. It’s all about individual pain tolerance. Buchholz doesn’t feel comfortable pitching right now. What can you do? We’ve gone through this with Ellsbury taking forever to return from injuries. Everyone’s different I guess.

My main criticism here is that this is all subjective. If Buccholz isn’t comfortable pitching, what can you do? Are you saying he’s lying? He should pitch hurt? I get fans complaining about a player that never seems to come back from injury, but where is a measured response from the professional baseball writer “Everyone’s different I guess” sounds an awful lot like he thinks Buccholz and Ellsbury are babies.

I constantly see Jose Iglesias taking the first pitch, and it is always right down the middle of the plate, as opposing teams have probably seen the same thing I have. Wouldn’t he be better off if he started to swing at some of those pitches rather than start off the count 0-1?
Joe, Rehoboth, Del.
Yes! It’s always good to change patterns. Hitters are so pig-headed sometimes.

Those pig-headed hitters.  The guys at Fangraphs looked at this as a league wide phenomenon. They concluded that there wasn’t much of a clear conclusion.  The fellas at Baseball-Reference actually tried to parse out how often Boggs, who was famous for taking the first pitch. They used their pitch-by-pitch data from after 1988, and they basically discovered that he very rarely put the first pitch in play (323 PAs), and ended up in 3418 1-0 counts versus 2905 0-1. Meaning even if he took 2905 first pitch strikes, he still saw more first pitch balls than not. And this is Wade Boggs, everyone knew he was likely to take the first pitch, and pitchers still couldn’t throw him a strike more often than not. They also looked at Tony Gwynn, who had a similar career, and found he put the ball in play thrice as often (1009 PAs) but the 1-0 to 0-1 ratio is very similar, as was Don Mattingly.

We don’t really know what Iglesias’ true talent level is. We have ideas from his minor league numbers, and they’re not promising. But professional ballplayers have been playing baseball for ages, and we know that plate discipline isn’t easily improved. Most probably have an approach that has serve them for decades and those kind of habits are tough to break. Sort of like sportswriters and lazy opining in place of empirical analysis.

Incidentally, first strike swing percentage still seems to be tough to track down (retrosheet doesn’t publish the play by play results until after the season is over. But, using the same numbers as the Boggs study, Iglesias (through June 26) has 18 PAs in 223 ending on the first pitch and he’s had 0-1 counts in 123 PAs. So he’s had at least 37% of his PAs with a first pitch take. And if all 0-1 counts came on a first pitch take, then its 92% of the time. The interesting thing is that, unlike Boggs, Gwynn and Mattingly, Iglesias (when the ball hasn’t been put in play) finds himself behind in the count three and a half times more often than ahead. What does that mean? I have no idea.

Is Ben Cherington a better GM than Theo Epstein? It sure looks that way based on the last 12 months.
Alan, Tucson, Ariz.
Theo won two championships.

Theo also snuck out of Fenway in a Gorilla suit before he sulked off to Costa Rica for a few months. Top that Ben.

Or perhaps a team that is still more than half Epstein-acquired players doesn’t actually offer us a good chance to properly assess Cherington quite yet.

What do you think about the Sox continuing their run of going against the grain and instead of going after starting pitching like everyone else they go Giancarlo Stanton with a package of Bogaerts, Ranaudo, and either Webster or De La Rosa?
Josh, Brooklyn
Not bad at all. To obtain a talent likle Stanton, sure you’d have to give up someone like Bogaerts to get it done in a package similar to what you mentioned. He would be worth it, I think. The Red Sox feel Bogaerts will be a special hitter in the majors.

Rene had that idea like five questions ago. Where’s your  “Jake Peavy is the handsome baseball player that the Red Sox should be going after,” now Nick?

Between Mike Napoli’s alarming drop of power at the plate since late May, I’m wondering if we will see Napoli in Boston in 2014, let alone as the regular first baseman come September. Would Will Middlebrooks move to 1B?
Mike, Hendersonville, Tenn.
Napoli is a streaky hitter. He’s turning on the power again now. As for 2014, I question whether he’ll be resigned. A lot depends on how well Middlebrooks finishes things off at Pawtucket and if he comes up here again shortly and hits. If Napoli drives in 100 runs, they’ll probably offer another one-year deal.

This calls to mind one of my all-time favorites XKCDs http://xkcd.com/904/- Mike Napoli (like all baseball players) has certain baseball talents. He has played (up to June 25) 819 games. We have an idea of how good of player he is- his career OBP is .355 (his 2013 is .349), his career SLG is .503 (his 2013 is .477). His season is pretty much in the parameters of his career (in fact, only his outstanding 2011 wasn’t). Is he actually streaky? How do you measure that? (You can’t, it’s an illusion and Amos Tversky and Thomas Gilovich demonstrated it.)

What I know for sure is that a) driving in 100 runs is largely unrelated to any skill he has, b) he has never driven in 100 in his career and c) if he ends the season with 100 RBI and THAT’S what causes the Red Sox to try and re-sign him, the answer to Alan from Tuscon is “Theo is a much better GM than Cherington”

Is there an “amount of games played” incentive in Napoli’s restructured contract? It seems like he gets a day off once a week and I was curious if you think there’s anything behind it from the Sox perspective. He’s stayed healthy and is on pace for only about 140 games. I understand he has a shaky medical history and they want to keep him fresh but it’s not like he’s catching.
Wade, Brighton
He gets $8 million in bonuses if he’s on the active roster for 165 days. So far, so good. He’ll likely earn $13 million this season.

Hi, folks. My name is Nick Cafardo. I have a periodic column on boston.com called “Ask Nick”. You can send in emails with questions and I, a professional sports writer who apparently doesn’t even warrant a Wikipedia entry, will answer something. Not necessarily the question you posted. Like say, if you wanted to know if there is a floor to the number of games a player would need to hit some contractual bonus and if the team is purposely sitting him once a week to avoid it. But I willl answer something. Maybe I’ll answer “What’s your favorite kind of dog?” or “Which cut of Bladerunner do you prefer?” That’s what we call “Ask Nick!”

Guest Post: Pittsburgh Pirates and Playoff Probabilities

At the close of baseball on Thursday, June 27, the Pittsburgh Pirates are in a crazy situation. No, they didn’t accidentally agree to go to their girlfriend’s sweet sixteen at the SAME TIME as going to their friend’s dad chance to become the WWF number one contender (that was Cory Matthews*). Even crazier, the Bucs have the best record in baseball, tied with St. Louis at 48-30. Generally speaking after 1992, you’re far more likely to find Bing Crosby’s old club in the basement than the penthouse.

* That was the single most Bill Simmons-like joke I’ve ever made. I regret it now and vow to do better in the future.

In honor of the Pirates’ outstanding performance thus far, I thought I’d take a look at the Pirates since 1992. This graph shows the coolstandings.com weighted playoff probabilities for Pittsburgh’s on June 27 of each season.  Coolstandings.com calculates the weighted playoff odds using fancy-pants math to simulate the rest of the season millions of times. Because it’s using team performance weighted against opponents, this gives us situations like what we have today, where the Yankees, in third place in the AL East have a lower playoff chance than Tampa.

Tampa’s remaining schedule favors them compared to the Yanks’ schedule, because it’s based on how they’ve performed, even though, record-wise, the Rays have been worse… seriously, look at this lineup– what a crappy collection of hitters). Anywhere the Pirates had a 15% chance of making the playoffs or better on the graph, I labeled it with their final record and standings.

Pirates

Rather infamously, Pittsburgh hasn’t finished better than .500 since 1992, when the lost their third straight NLCS. Sid Bream apparently killed a franchise. This graph shows just how dismal it’s been. Between 1996 and 2009, on June 27, the Pirates hadn’t had a playoff chance higher than 13.6%. And in four of the last five seasons, the Pirates have had a respectable (as in, over 15%) playoff chance. The last few years, though, the Pirates have done surprisingly well, at least in the early going, only to fall so rapidly and so Pirately in the second half.

Of note: in 1995, a third division was added to each league, along with a Wild Card, and in 2012, a second Wild Card was added. 1992 is included only as a reference to the Pirates’ last winning season, even though making playoffs from 1992-1994 (despite no playoffs in 1994) was much harder than 1995 through 2011, and even harder than 2012.

In 2009, the Pirates were crappy. Plain and simple. But so was the NL Central. On June 27, the Pirates sat in last place at 35-39, but only five games out of first, behind the Brewers. The Buccos had a 18.8% playoff chance, despite being four games under .500. Part of that is the NL was crappy, by and large. Not only were the six teams in the NL Central separated by five games, the Pirates were five games out of the Wild Card, where only Arizona and Washington were double digit games out. The Pirates, naturally, would never be as close to either the Division or the Wild Card again, as they’d go on to record a 27-60 record to finish the season. That is crappy.

In 2011, things were rosy, but somewhat superficially. On June 27, 2011, the Pirates were 39-38, with their weighted playoff chances at 15.1%, and they sat in fourth in the NL Central, four games behind the first place Brewers. Their peak win percentage and playoff odds came following a 12-6 streak, the Pirates sat at 51-45, in first place and enjoying a weighted 40% playoff chance. They actually were tied with St Louis for first as late as July 25. But a second half record of 25-47, including an 8-22 August (ouch). How could they only have 40% chance of making the playoffs while in first after 100 games? The Cards had an easier schedule (hence a 41.4% weighted playoff chance, vs the Pirates’ 29.3%). The Brewers (the eventual NL Central champs) were only a half-game out. The Reds only four games out. The Pirates, despite being in first in the Central were 4.5 games out of the Wild Card. The Atlanta Braves 2011 (and the Red Sox) is a whole other adventure in playoff chances.

Last season, the Bucs actually had a good chance. On June 27, 2012, they had a 39-35 record, two games behind the Reds (41.3% weighted playoff odds). They actually had first place as late as July 5, and, after going 15-5 after June 27, were 54-40, a half-game behind the Reds and enjoyed a their peak playoff odds of 82.1%. They were even 2.5 games back on August 8 (with a weighted 74.6% playoff chance). As you can see by their chart, they started losing rapidly thereafter. In fact, they clinched a twentieth straight losing season on September 30, when they lost their 82nd game against the Reds.

In 2013, the Pirates are a far more balanced team than before, rather than Andrew McCutchen and a bunch of other guys. Their pitching is first in the NL in ERA, BAA, Runs Allowed, fourth in Strike Outs. Offensively, they’re lower half, 10th in Runs Scored and OPS. At +36, they are third in the NL Central in Run Differential, fourth in the NL. They have the misfortune of playing in the same division of the Cards and Reds, first and third in Run Differential. St Louis is first in Runs Scored and third in Runs Allowed, so it’ll be tough to keep up. But this is (literally) the best chance they’ve had in decades).

Tim is an orthodontist by training and trade. He also writes, performs comedy, is a part time (generally unpaid) artist, and once did the art design for a iOS game (dontfrythefrog.com). He enjoys baseball and movies, which is often what he writes about, and he tries to do so in comic fashion. He has interviewed for Jeopady! several times in the last 8 years, and still hasn’t been on; if you know the secret, please tell him. You can visit him at tpxdmd.blogspot.com, follow him on twitter @tpxdmd, and listen to “Saturday Morning Deathrgip”, a bimonthly podcast about 80s and 90s cartoons he co-hosts- saturdaymorningdeathgrip.com.  He also won $32,000 on Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, but he downplays that for some reason.