Wednesday, January 17, 2007


Apparently, there was nothing to say about the Yankees today.

The Phillies are built upon old-fashioned scout values, which figures, because general manager Pat Gillick is still an old-fashioned scout, prone to traveling thousands of miles on late notice to see a low-level minor league player or an amateur prospect with his own eyes. He often makes these trips clandestinely, sometimes without telling even some of his colleagues, because he does not want his whereabouts revealed.

Sportswriters love this kind of stuff. See, it’s not exciting if you say, “Gillick spends many hours in front of his computer and talking to his well-paid staff of scouts and consultants, in an effort to decide which players he’ll acquire. Gillick says it’s a good thing he has a comfortable office chair, because he never leaves the fucking thing. And he’s got the sores to prove it.” It is exciting, however, when you romanticize and mythologize the process of scouting and selecting players. People think there’s something to it, that maybe Gillick has a special, bionic eye that will take an x-ray of the 17-year-old pitcher on the bump and measure heart, or gumption, or extrapolate future injuries. But none of that’s true. All Gillick will do is sit in the stands with a radar gun, just like every other scout, and try and figure out a new phrase for “throws hard/shitty curve ball.” And then, he’ll go to a bar, get drunk with all the other scouts, swap new phrases for mundane baseball abilities, and try and commit an act of infidelity with some townie skank.

Here’s my real question, though: If you’re the owner of the Phillies, and you’re paying Gillick millions of dollars, do you really want him clandestinely traveling to rookie ball games in Tacoma? Isn’t this a total waste of time? You’re the fucking G.M. of a major league franchise, one that employs a small army of scouts. You don’t expect the CEO of Home Depot to go slag 2x4s, because it would be inappropriate, and the job of a high-level administrator is to supervise and delegate, not do the fucking work himself. This anecdote alone makes me think that Gillick is in the running for the annual Steve Phillips Memorial Shittiest GM in Sports Award, presented by Rubio’s.

The modern-day trend is for teams to shift more resources into the structure of the bullpen. The Mets, for example, have three excellent left-handed relievers in Billy Wagner, Scott Schoeneweis and Pedro Feliciano, and solid right-handers Duaner Sanchez, Aaron Heilman and Guillermo Mota, with Ambiorix Burgos coming in as a high-ceiling candidate from Kansas City. And the Mets have made a calculated gamble that they can piece together enough starting pitching to consistently get a close game into the hands of that bullpen.

The Phillies, on the other hand, have stacked their rotation, the way teams have been trying to win for, oh, about a century. They have All-Star Brett Myers, star talent Cole Hamels, veterans Freddy Garcia and Jamie Moyer, and free-agent signee Adam Eaton. They've got Jon Lieber for depth, as well, although it is still possible that Lieber will be traded for offensive help.

On it’s face, I don’t have a problem with what Buster’s written here, except he’s missing a crucial piece of information that provides context to what the Mets are doing versus what the Phillies are doing, and it has to do with resource allocation he glancingly mentions. The starting pitching market is total batshit right now, as proven by the fact that virtual corpse Gil Meche will be making $11 per season. The Mets, who have spent an assload to put together the NL’s most complete and powerful lineup, wisely decided it was better to take $10 million and get three good-to-great bullpen arms than it was to get one mediocre starter. Well, at least I think it’s wise. Others disagree, which is cool. But the point is, it’s not just that the Mets think stacking the bullpen is a better strategy, regardless of the financial concerns. But Buster makes it sound that way, which I have a small problem with.

What I have a big problem with is the absolutely retarded “old-school vs. new school,” shit, because it’s stupid. To think that something done in the 20s is automatically applicable in today’s game is asinine, and intellectually lazy. I realize the Buster’s opening blog entry is supposed to be pithy, but why even bring this shit up if you’re not actually going to explore it? In the two following paragraphs, he mentions something about the number of outs each team expects from the respective units, which is pointless and doesn’t really add anything to the argument. So, all Buster’s done is add a stamp of credibility to what Gillick’s done, because maybe Connie Mack used to feel the same way, back when mounds were five feet off the ground and there used to be memorials in the center fields of certain stadiums.

He also fails to mention, anywhere, that Jamie Moyer once soft-tossed with the Peking Man and that Adam Eaton sucks ass.

And while most teams are relying on on-base percentage, the Phillies have traded some of the crown princes of on-base percentage (Jim Thome and Bobby Abreu), while making a concerted effort to create a lineup of players
who score high in intangibles among scouts, like Shane Victorino, Aaron Rowand, Chase Utley, and, of course, NL MVP Ryan Howard. High energy, high intensity, major effort guys in their daily preparation. Wes Helms, who will share time at third base this year, is never going to be confused with Miguel Cabrera in his production, but he is a well-respected professional and of the players with at least 150 plate appearances, he led all major league hitters in average after the All-Star break last season, hitting .385.

I … just … can’t … take … it … anymore. I really thought you were better than this, Buster. You read more on a daily basis than maybe any sportswriter in America. I assumed that, along the way, you would have read enough convincing arguments (like those made by your colleague Rob Neyer) that you would at least quit with the OBP baiting. There isn’t a single, respected baseball mind that really doubts that OBP is the most central statistic to a hitter’s efficacy, the one that you choose if you’re forced to only choose one (if we’re ignoring the more esoteric sabermetric stats, which the readers of this blog are wont to do). The one stat that tells you why both Mark McGwire and Tony Gwynn were awesome and extremely valuable to their teams, even if they looked totally different and had different ancillary stats and hit in different spots in the lineup.
You know why scouts love “intangibles,” folks? Because, since they don’t exist, a scout can then never be wrong. They also have nothing to do with actual quality of play; to say someone “hustles” gives little insight into exactly what one can expect from the player once they’re on the field, outside of knowing that he’s going to bust his ass running out grounders.

But here’s the best part: You mean to tell me Utley and Howard score high in “intangibles?” No shit? Who gives a flying fuck?!?!? Ryan Howard is probably the most-feared hitter in the NL (or second behind Pooholes) and Utley is so far and away the best second baseman in the league, it’s actually kind of silly (especially when you consider that two seasons ago, he was stuck in a R-L platoon). Utley’s intangibles are absolutely, completely irrelevant to any discussion of his value as a baseball player.

As for Victorino, Rowand and Helms? I hope their intangibles involve explaining to Utley and Howard why no one’s ever on base when they’re up to bat. But, more than likely, they’ll be too busy to talk, what with all the goddamn wind sprints they’ll be running in the tunnel.

Gillick sounded optimistic on the phone Tuesday night, liking the makeup of his team, raving about Hamels and what he could do. Once a week in spring training, Gillick said, Moyer -- who has won 216 games in his career because of his understanding of how to change speeds -- will meet with other pitchers on the Phillies' staff to talk about pitching. "If you have a guy like that around, you might as well take advantage of it," Gillick said.

I agree, Moyer was an excellent choice as pitching coach. Hold on … oh, you’re paying him millions of dollars to be an effective starter? Oh. That kind of changes things.


St said...

As usual, you're mostly right, but you take it too far near the end.

First, I don't think Olney is "baiting" anybody in that quoted passage -- he's just pointing out that the Phillies don't seem to be valuing OBP as much as most MLB franchises.

And second, I agree that intangibles are almost always wildly overrated in baseball, but to say that they "don't exist" is just as batshit as the school of scouting you're arguing against. Correct me if I'm wrong, but this seems like a rewording of the argument your baseball posts typically imply, which is that statistics are not only the best way to evaluate a player (I might agree with you more often if you stopped there), but the only way to do it.

Take Utley, for example. If you want to talk about intangibles, you'll discover why he was in a platoon two years ago (other than the fact that he was a rookie and that Polanco raked lefties): he wasn't a good defender. I realize that defensive stats are improving, but it's still the area of baseball least quantifiable by data. So I think his intangibles are or have been somewhat useful in discussing his value.

Howard's a different story, because even though he sucks on defense, so do most MVP-caliber first basemen.

The problem is when GMs do the opposite of what you're doing and value a player based primarily or even solely on "intangibles." Roward is the perfect example; I keep hearing how good he is, but have yet to see any evidence that he's anything better than average, other than the word of a bunch of "old-school" baseball execs and scouts.

Your bullpen/rotation argument strikes me as dead-on, and the Mets and Phils are great examples. Which is why the Mets are virtually a lock to win the division again, and the Phillies will no doubt finish within a few games of the WC for the fifth straight season. I can't fucking believe we just signed Alfonseca. He's our answer to last year's bullpen disasters? I sure hope they move Leiber for bullpen help.

St said...

Phil Sheridan has an interesting column disagreeing with you:

Diesel said...

One of the dangers inherent in writing angry posts about baseball while at work is that it leaves one scant time to edit. My sentence should have read, "since methods of measuring intangibles don't exist," or something to that effect. I'm not dumb; I know that some guys are better dudes than others, and that having good, high-energy guys around can have a positive effect on the spirit, if not the play, of a team (I'm wary of the latter being true, but I'll leave that alone). However, those high-energy guys can have the same effect on a clubhouse if they're pinch-hitters. Wes Helms has bounced around the league because he's not very good, superior intangibles notwithstanding.

The reason I wouldn't shy away from saying statistics are the only way to judge a player (even though I wouldn't say it in earnest) is because I believe that if you can't quantify something, it carries little or no value. It's great that Utley's a swell guy (by all accounts, he's taken the leadership mantle in the clubhouse), but the bottom line is that he's not hired to be a cheerleader, he's hired to be a baseball player. He has value because he's the best player at his position in the major leagues. And that's essentially my point.

As for Sheridan's column ...

I love the fact that guys routinely write columns dismissing (or outright insulting) sabermatricians and their love of stats, and then use convenient stats to back up their anti-stat argument. Take the W-L records before and after Abreu got shipped; are you fucking kidding me? Beyond the fact that the law of small sample sizes is that small sample sizes are virtually useless, Sheridan conveniently ignores the myriad other factors that go into building his particular stat. Did Howard have a monster second half because Abreu left (or Utley, for that matter?) Did Rollins start drawing walks because Abreu left? Did Cole Hamels hit his stride because Abreu left? I am flabbergasted that someone would actually trot that out and imply (since Sheridan didn't come out and say it) that the Phillies were better off trading one of the top 20 players in baseball for little more than a song.

You know what the Bill James and the Billy Beanes don't get, Phil Sheridan? Why something so simple to understand (and prove) is still so far above the heads of so many "baseball men."

AnEasyMark said...

"I believe that if you can't quantify something, it carries little or no value."


That is what scouts and GM's were saying, effectively, to Billy Beane. The inability to quantify the value of Hatteberg, Justice, Zito, Swisher or Jeremy Brown by every other team was the PRIMARY reason they became Oakland A's.

The value of something that cannot be measured is UNKNOWN. The person, team, organization (army, general, stock broker, hedge-fund manager, venture capitalist, diplomat) that can best estimate the value of: disipline, prepartation, esprit de corps, hustle, grit, blah blah, et cetera et cetera, will have an EDGE.

Simply put, there is a GM position for the person who can determine a Maddux from an Ankiel, a Vinatieri from a Vanderjagt when they are 15,17,20 years old. Because it is much harder to turn Rick into Greg or Mike into Adam than it is to just sign or (ideally) draft them (the diamonds in the rough).

Ultimately, this is what Billy Beane was doing, if you believe Lewis, overlooking the five-tool players in favor of the Dykstras.