WAR in baseball statistics

WAR in baseball statistics

One of the new-school baseball statistics goes by the curious acronym of WAR. Here’s what WAR in baseball statistics means.

Essentially, WAR is an attempt to measure the value of a player more completely than traditional statistics. It’s more thorough and much harder to calculate than OPS, but these days, we do have computers readily available to help us calculate difficult statistics quickly.

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Al Pedrique: RBI Baseball mystery man

Al Pedrique: RBI Baseball mystery man

RBI Baseball was the first hugely popular baseball game to appear on the Nintendo NES. It featured real baseball teams who’d done well in 1986 and 1987 with actual player names, so kids could replay the 1986 and 1987 postseasons. It also featured two All-Star teams. The National League All Star team included a mystery man: Pedrique, a shortstop. His real life counterpart was Al Pedrique, who briefly played shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Today, if people remember Al Pedrique, it’s probably for his appearance in RBI Baseball.

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Most valuable baseball cards of the 1970s

Most valuable baseball cards of the 1970s

Although the 1970s may not have been quite the golden era for baseball that, say, the 1950s were, the decade produced a good number of stars. An important thing to consider, too, is that many players Generation X grew up watching came up in the 1970s. That, along with lower production numbers, makes it an important decade in today’s market. Let’s take a year by year walk through the most valuable baseball cards of the 1970s.

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1981 Fleer baseball cards

1981 Fleer baseball cards

It’s just my opinion, but I think 1981 Fleer baseball cards get less respect than they deserve. It ended Topps’ 25-year monopoly on baseball cards and, frankly, I think it’s a nicer set than the Topps or Donruss sets from the same year.

Yes, compared to the smooth and polished Topps, the Fleer set at times looked like amateur work. But they didn’t make as many mistakes as fellow upstart Donruss did. And they tried some things with their set that Topps had been unwilling to do. The 1981 Fleer baseball cards got some critical accolades at the time, and frankly I think it’s an underrated ’80s set. It didn’t contribute a lot to the most valuable cards of the 1980s, but it certainly helped shape the decade.

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Will baseball cards ever be valuable again?

“Will baseball cards ever be valuable again?” someone asked me recently. The answer is that it depends. Not all cards were valuable in the first place.

Part of the problem is there was a time when 90% of boys collected cards. Now they don’t. Prices dropped due to simple supply and demand.

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Will Buddy Bell turn it around in Kansas City?

Well, the Royals hired their new manager today. I didn’t feel like they got the best guy available last time around when they hired Tony Pena, and I really don’t feel like they got the best guy available now with Buddy Bell.

So let’s look at the situation.Buddy Bell has a losing record as a manager. That’s bad. Of course he managed some bad teams. He did coax winning (or near-winning) seasons out of Detroit and Colorado, which is encouraging. But I would have rather seen them get someone who’s actually taken a team to the postseason.

The bright side?

I believe a manager’s record as a player is relevant. Tony Muser was a good-field, no-hit first baseman and he liked players like him. Had he not been forced by injuries, he never would have noticed Mike Sweeney, who is arguable the only player on the team now who would be a starter on any other team in the majors. The teams Muser fielded were reflections of him.

Tony Pena was a catcher with a legendary arm but a free-swinger at the plate. Pena’s teams were reflections of him too: Lots of strikeouts, no walks, and later, not much else either.

The best players don’t necessarily make the best managers, because guys with lots of raw talent often don’t know how to relate to players with less. Bell was an All-Star but not a Hall of Famer. So presumably Bell is one of those guys who was able to do more with less and hopefully can teach young players how to do the same.

And let’s look at how Bell played baseball. His career batting average was .279 with a .341 on-base percentage. Not bad. He could draw a walk. That’s good. Most years he was one of the toughest guys in the majors to strike out. That’s really good.

He hit 201 home runs. So he was more like Joe Randa than like Mike Schmidt or even George Brett. That’s fine. If Kansas City had George Brett now, they wouldn’t be able to afford to keep him.

And Bell, like his son David who is currently playing with the Phillies, had a good glove. His career fielding percentage of .964 at third base is exemplary.

So Bell will presumably gravitate towards players who can swing the bat a little but exhibit patience at the plate and who save runs with the glove, rather than giving runs away. That’s good. The Royals have a lot of players who give runs away, and that’s not good when they don’t score a lot.

I guess it comes down to this. A team with 8 Tony Musers in the field would lose a lot of 1-0 games. We’ve seen what a team with 8 Tony Penas on the field can do. A team with 8 Buddy Bells on the field isn’t going to be terribly inspiring, but it would be a good way for a small-market team to win some games.

And when he can’t find players who remind him of himself, hopefully he’ll look for players who remind him of players he played with. Bell played on teams that emphasized speed and defense over home runs. The Royals can’t afford lots of big boppers; they do have some guys who can field. If Bell looks for some guys with some speed, the team has some hope.

At least there’s reason to believe Bell will put together a team with better balance than his two most recent predecessors.

Time will tell.

When will we learn to ignore Pete Rose?

I’d really rather not acknowledge that Pete Rose is in the news again. I love baseball, and Pete Rose did a lot to hurt it, and talking about him doesn’t do much to help it.
I’d much rather talk about how the Royals just signed Juan Gonzalez and he’s a huge upgrade over anything the Royals have ever had in the lineup to protect Mike Sweeney. With Beltran, Sween and Gonzo in the lineup, this looks like it’s going to be a good year.

For that matter, I’d rather talk about Tug McGraw, one of the great characters of the game and probably the first of the great colorful relief pitchers, who died this week of brain cancer, much too young at 59.

But Rose’s half-hearted confession will appear tomorrow, so nobody’s going to be talking about any of that. It doesn’t change anything. Some people would argue that Rose’s never betting against the Cincinnati Reds somehow excuses his gambling, and his betting on his own team, while the manager of the Cincinnati Reds. It does not.

Contrary to what one might think, a good manager does not set out to win every game. You can’t. You have to pick your battles. You might rest your star players when you’re playing a team like the Detroit Tigers because chances are you could beat that team with your 92-year-old grandparents in the lineup. Or you might play your star players against Detroit, in order to ensure victory, and rest your stars when playing a strong team you’re not likely to beat, such as the New York Yankees or Seattle Mariners.

The reason is pretty simple. The season is 162 games long, and not everybody is Cal Ripken Jr. Play everybody every day, and your team will break down. Witness the Oakland Athletics of the early 1980s. Fiery manager Billy Martin came in, and in 1981, it looked like he’d succeeded in turning that young team into another dynasty. He had young, energetic players, and he played them hard. In fact, he played them too hard. Within a year, all of his talented young pitchers had sore arms and while most of them stayed in the majors for a few more years, none of them ever lived up to their initial promise. For that matter, outside of Rickey Henderson, none of the 1981 Athletics’ everyday players had particularly and distinguished careers either.

It’s in the best interests of a Pete Rose who’s not betting on baseball to manage his team wisely by resting his star players when they look tired, pulling his starting pitcher after he’s thrown about 110 pitches, and using opportune times to give his inexperienced young players some playing time. Betting on your own team changes the equation. Suddenly meaningless games become must-win games. You leave your 20-game winner in the game longer because winning that bet becomes more important to you than the risk of hurting his arm. You take other unnecessary risks.

Rose tries to justify his actions by saying he never bet from inside the clubhouse. Well whoop-dee-do. I’m sure he never beat his wife or cheated on her in church either. That doesn’t make those action OK either. When asked why Rose bet on baseball, he said it was because he thought he wouldn’t get caught. There’s a long list of illegal things that I could do and not get caught, but that doesn’t make any of them right either.

It’s like a little kid, caught in the act of bullying, forced to tell the other kid he’s sorry. So he lets off the words, insincerely, and does the minimum, and spends the rest of his time trying to justify his wrongdoing.

Now Rose says he’s confessed and he wants reinstatement, and induction into the Hall of Fame.

Some people argue that Rose belongs in the Hall of Fame because he hit the ball between the opposing fielders 4,256 times. Fine. Let’s look at what constitutes a Hall of Famer.

Hall of Fame rules state that induction is dependent upon “the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.

One at a time: Record. Rose has more hits than anybody else, partially by virtue of having more at-bats. But his statistics, while not as great as his fans remember, are better than some people who are in the Hall of Fame.

Ability. His playing ability is probably adequate. But Rose was a one-dimensional player. He wasn’t a particularly good fielder, he hit for very little power, and he was at best an average baserunner. Andre Dawson, Jim Rice, and Ryne Sandberg, three players on this year’s ballot who are unlikely to make it in, all had far more ability than Rose. Pete Rose was Wade Boggs with a character disorder.

Integrity. Besides betting on baseball, Rose served prison time for cheating on his taxes. He beat his wife and cheated on her. Pete Rose isn’t the kind of guy you want hanging around your daughter, if you catch my drift, nor is he the kind of guy you want your son to model his life after. Pete Rose ain’t no Roberto Clemente.

There are lots of unsavory characters in the Hall of Fame, yes. Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, and even Joe DiMaggio all have skeletons in their closets. But last I checked, none of them ever stooped as low as Rose, and they also had Rose beat in the other categories.

Sportsmanship. In the 12th inning of the 1970 All Star Game, Pete Rose plowed over American League catcher Ray Fosse, dislocating his shoulder and destroying his career. It was a game that didn’t even count. Fosse, who had drawn comparisons to Johnny Bench, was never the same.

Character. See integrity.

Contributions. To Rose’s credit, he moved around a bit on the field to make room for other players. The Reds had a young power-hiting outfielder named George Foster sitting on the bench. Rose was playing the outfield. The Reds’ weakest position was third base. At the request of his manager, Rose learned how to play third base, which opened the door for Foster to get into the lineup, giving additional protection for Johnny Bench and Tony Perez. In 1980, Rose signed with the Philadelphia Phillies, who had a Hall of Famer named Mike Schmidt playing third, so Rose moved across the diamond to first. Philadelphia was a better team with Rose than without.

Late in his career, this changed. An aging Rose became a part-time player in Montreal. When Cincinnati traded for him and made him player-manager, Rose made himself a regular again, at the expense of playing time for younger players like Nick Esasky and Eddie Milner, and Hall of Famer Tony Perez. Esasky, who usually would have played first base, instead played left field, where he wasn’t as good defensively. Milner was a better defensive player, had good speed, and was at least as good at getting on base at that point as Rose. The Reds had a better lineup with Esasky at first base and Milner in left field, possibly in a platoon situation. People were more likely to buy a ticket to see Rose play than Eddie Milner, but the Reds were a better team with Rose on the bench.

Milner was never much more than a fourth outfielder. Esasky fared better, putting together a couple of really good years after the Reds traded him to Boston, before an injury ended his career.

Playing ability tends to get judged higher than all the rest, so I’ll grudgingly admit that if Rose were eligible, he’d probably get elected.

So what’s one to do?

Here’s my Solomon-like solution. Rose has been banned for life. What’s banned for life mean? He’s banned until he dies. So reinstate him after he dies. Then the Veteran’s Committee can evaluate him on his merits.

But there’s no precedent for reinstating a player banned for life.

Fine. Make one.

Shoeless Joe Jackson by his own admission took money to throw the 1919 World Series. He was one of the eight Black Sox who so accused. There’s also some indication that Jackson, unlike some of his teammates, played to win anyway, because he put up good numbers in the series, although his detractors point out that in the games the White Sox lost, Jackson never drove in any runs. Of course, it’s harder to drive in runs when there aren’t people on base.

Jackson may not have known what it was he was agreeing to do. Jackson was uneducated, and, by some accounts, not terribly bright. Even dumber than Pete Rose.

After the series, Shoeless Joe, like six other players who took money from gamblers and like one player who knew what was going on but didn’t participate, was banned from baseball for life. Thus the owner of the third-highest lifetime batting average in history, and the youngest player ever to hit .400, was denied his otherwise certain entry into baseball’s Hall of Fame.

Joe Jackson has been dead for 52 years. Baseball still has never seen fit to put him into the Hall of Fame. Baseball has never seen fit to clear the name of Buck Weaver, the teammate who found out about the conspiracy but didn’t report it.

So reinstate Jackson and Weaver. For that matter, reinstate the other six guys as well. Let the Veterans Committee evaluate them for Hall of Fame entry. Then, when Rose dies, they can do the same for him.

Meanwhile, the best thing to do is just ignore the jerk.

Pete Rose, that is.

Phillies’ signing of Thome is about confidence, not wins

The Phillies just signed the most popular slugger in Cleveland Indians’ history, inking a 6-year, $87 million deal.
Analysts note that with Thome in the lineup instead of Travis Lee, the Phillies would have scored about 70 more runs last season. They still would have been fourth in the league, even with those extra 70 runs. That’s not enough to guarantee you’ll be the fourth team in the playoffs.

Analysts also noted that for the past few years, Thome has spent a good deal of time as the DH rather than playing in the field, and they doubt Thome will be capable of playing first base for the last year or even two years of his contract.

Also, last week, Philadelphia signed David Bell to play third base, replacing Placido Polanco. Bell’s a better hitter than Polanco, but not by much. Bell’s a better fielder than Polanco (at least at third), but not by very much.

But this trend isn’t about fielding. It’s not so much even about scoring runs. I’m not even convinced it’s about winning ball games. This is about confidence.

You see, a year ago, the Phillies had the best third baseman in baseball and the second-best third baseman in their team’s history (second only to Mike Schmidt, who is one of the three best third basemen who ever lived). The Phillies offered Scott Rolen a pile of money to sign a long-term contract. But Scott Rolen wasn’t convinced the Phillies wanted to win badly enough. He refused a couple of offers, slumped, got into some arguments with manager Larry Bowa, and eventually was traded to the Cardinals for whatever they could manage to get for him, preferring that to losing him to free agency.

It wasn’t that long ago that Philadelphia lost Curt Schilling, one of the best pitchers in the game today, pretty much the same way.

Rolen rediscovered his swing, and helped the Cardinals get to the postseason. Schilling dueled Randy Johnson for the Cy Young Award two years straight, and along with Johnson was the hero of the 2001 World Series, and was practically unbeatable up until the 2002 postseason.

Meanwhile, the Phillies looked like they’d given up and entered a rebuilding phase as they got ready to open an expensive new ballpark. And Philadelphia fans are notoriously unforgiving. We’re talking fans who’ll boo Santa Claus.

And the Phillies have lots of young, exciting players whose contracts are running out.

Signing David Bell and Jim Thome proves the Phillies are willing to spend some money. This will make unhappy players play better (witness Scott Rolen’s performance after coming to St. Louis versus his so-so performance in Philadelphia last year). Bell has become one of those players who always seems to find himself playing for a winner. Young players need that influence. Bell, at least theoretically, brings value beyond the numbers he puts up. If it were about numbers, the Phillies would have acquired Joe Randa, who makes much less money, and the Phillies could have had Joe Randa for a bag of baseballs and a vial of dirt scraped off one of Mike Schmidt’s spikes. But Joe Randa’s never played for a winner.

And Jim Thome’s a big, burly, buff guy who hits monsterous home runs by the truckload and excites fans. The Phillies haven’t had a truly great power hitter since Mike Schmidt. In his best year, Schmidt hit 48 home runs and batted .286. Jim Thome hit 52 home runs and batted .304 last year.

In 1997, the St. Louis Cardinals were missing something. They had the opportunity to trade for Mark McGwire. McGwire hit a bunch of towering home runs and captured the fans’ imagination and helped the Cardinals lure some other great players, most notably center fielder Jim Edmonds, to St. Louis.

The Phillies want Jim Thome to come in and be Mark McGwire.

The Phillies covet former Braves pitcher Tom Glavine. Glavine’s been one of the best left-handed pitchers in the National League for the past decade. The Braves and Mets are also interested in Glavine. But the Braves made him a half-hearted offer and seem to be more interested in unloading salary than in making another playoff run. The Mets are coming off a last-place finish and they’re trying to find someone willing to take Jeromy Burnitz and Mo Vaughn’s contracts. Meanwhile, the Phillies have just signed two of the most coveted players in the free agent market. The Phillies’ offer is comparable to the Mets’ offer. Glavine wants money, of course, but he also wants to win another World Series before he retires. Who do you think he’s most interested in pitching for now?

David Bell alone doesn’t make the Phillies a better team. Jim Thome alone makes the Phillies a marginally better team. David Bell plus Jim Thome plus Tom Glavine signal a commitment to win, at least for the next few years, which will draw out the best in the players they have and make other players interested, as well as draw fans, which creates revenue, which can be used to pursue other quality players.

Those are the ingredients of a dynasty.

Now the Phillies just have to figure out how to mix them properly.

A kids’ game

The Philadelphia Phillies have one of the brightest futures in the National League. Sure, the Mets and the Braves grab all the attention. But look at them. They’re old. The Mets have Mo Vaughn and Roberto Alomar and Mike Piazza, and all of them are probably still in their prime, but they only have a couple more years of prime left. The Braves have Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux and Gary Sheffield, but that’s indicative of the same problem.
The Phillies are loaded with young stars. The Phillies once had a better third baseman than Scott Rolen. His name was Mike Schmidt. I can only think of two third basemen in the history of the game who deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Schmidt. In about 15 years, Rolen looks to join them. And the Phillies have a great young catcher in Mike Lieberthal and a great young outfield in Doug Glanville and and Pat Burrell and Bobby Abreu. They also have one of the best young shortstops in the game in Jimmy Rollins.

The Phillies’ payroll is going to be $60 million this year. And Rolen, surrounded by these young stars, questions the Phillies’ ability or commitment to win. At the end of the year, he’s out of there.

The Phillies’ strategy should be really simple. Let these young stars get a little better, sign them to the longest-term contracts they’ll take, and play as hard as possible for two years, knowing they’ll probably finish in third place with a winning record, all the while waiting for the Mets and Braves to fall over. If everything were to stay the same, in three years the Phillies would no longer be the third-best team in their division. They’d cruise right past the gray-headed Mets and Braves.

But nobody really knows what the Phillies are going to do. In the past, when they’ve developed minor stars, they’ve frequently traded them. The last time they won anything was 1993, but that was an old team. It’s hard to look to that team for a precedent to suggest what they’ll do now, because keeping their aging stars in the mid-1990s didn’t make much sense. It’s hard to look at the way the Phillies handled players like Mickey Morandini as well. Morandini was a minor star who faded fast. Rolen and Lieberthal are superstars. Future Hall of Famers even, maybe.

In any other sport, there wouldn’t be any question what to do. They’d lock in their six young stars and tell their fans to get ready to enjoy a dynasty. But baseball isn’t any other sport. There’s very little revenue sharing. And Philadelphia’s not a major market. The Yankees are going to spend twice as much as the Phillies spend this year. It’s hard to imagine Philadelphia not being a major market, I know, but that’s how things have become in this sport.

Twenty years ago, players used to express amazement at signing six-figure salaries to play a kids’ game. Today, baseball’s still a kids’ game. And the players have the maturity of children. So do the owners and the commissioner.

There’s a solution to this madness. Bob Costas wrote a short book about it two years ago. It’s short and simple enough that even a moron like Bud Selig could understand it. Today, things have only gotten worse. Fans read Costas’ book in droves and took it to heart, but few of the owners seem to have done so.

If Selig gets his way, the Twins and the Expos will fold at the end of this season. That won’t do anything to stop the same teams from making the postseason again and again. It’ll be the Braves, Mets, Diamondbacks and Cardinals in the NL postseason again this year. And probably the year after.

The Phillies will find that without a salary cap to keep salaries from artificially rising and without revenue sharing to give them their fair share (The Mets have to have someone to play, so why doesn’t the visiting team get half the revenue?) they won’t be able to afford to keep their players. Scott Rolen will test the free-agent waters at the end of this season. I expect he’ll sign with the Braves or the Red Sox. If he signs with the Braves, the Phillies will almost certainly dismantle, because there’s little difference between finishing third and finishing fifth, and it’s a lot cheaper to finish fifth.

And people will wonder what if. Except for Bud Selig and his buddy Carl Pohlad, who got what they wanted. They can just keep counting their money and complaining about how unprofitable baseball is.

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