Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Media League Three-Pitch Softball - with Mike Wilner!

Once again, we're endeavouring to launch a new regular feature, which may or may not reappear. We shall see. Media League Three-Pitch Softball will feature those members of the mainstream media who a) we think are pretty cool and b) will answer our emails. We lob in three questions (nice and easy, right over the plate), and our pals grip and rip at them.

First up: Mike Wilner. You know him as the insightful and imperturbable host of the Jays Talk on the Rogers Sportsnet Fan 590 Blue Jays Radio Network, as well as the overseer of the Home Hardware Out-Of-Town Scoreboard during the radiocasts of Jays games. He also hosts a liveblog during every Jays game, and is a newly converted Twitter fiend (@Wilnerness590). And if we'd thought of it, we would have asked him about Strat-O-Matic. But we forgot.

Play ball!

1) Is there one old wives' tale/old saw about how the game of baseball should be played of which you wish fans and callers would let go? Something that continually comes up that the Jays should be doing in order to win, but that you think is bunk?

-There are a few, but the biggest one I wish people would let go is the idea that "active" baseball is winning baseball. That is, a team that bunts, attempts a lot of steals, hits-and-runs all the time is likelier to win a game than a team that doesn't. I believe that the sacrifice bunt is a losing strategy the overwhelming majority of the time. There's an assumption out there, as well, that the player asked to bunt will get a successful bunt down 100% of the time, which isn't even remotely true. Teams run themselves out of innings all the time, and often bunt with a better hitter to move runners along for a poorer hitter on deck.

Sure, sitting back and waiting for a big hit isn't fun to watch (until the big hit comes, then it's awesome), but I think that preserving your outs and being smart about the chances you take on the basepaths are the way to win over the long haul. And by being smart I mean I'm totally good with Travis Snider and Aaron Hill running the bases like their hair is on fire - so long as they're doing it at the right times, with the right batteries, as they have been. Corey Patterson trying to steal third with one out in the 8th down by five with the pitcher on the hill set to implode? Not so much.

2) Is there a go-to metric that you look to first to get a quick sense of a player's performance? Something that you can see at-a-glance when the need arises that you find most meaningful?

Nope. And I know this is going to upset the WAR crowd, but when I want to see how a player is performing, I look at the slash stats: AVG/OBP/SLG. I find that's the best thing that tells me how someone is doing. I'll admit I have a bit of an issue with the whole idea of "replacement level" and the idea of quantifying how many wins someone's contribution is worth. It's good work that's been done to establish these stats (even though different places measure WAR differently), but I like my stuff a little more concrete. For pitchers, I look at their WHIP, I look at their home runs and strikeouts per nine innings.

I know there have been great advancements in trying to get luck and other variables out of the equation, but stuff like FIP and BABIP don't tell me how a player is performing - they tell me how, all else being equal, a player should be performing. But luck is a factor, teammates are a factor, ballparks are a factor. When I'm looking at how a player has performed in a given year, how a player is performing in a given year, I don't want to "neutralize" everything.

3) Given the number of new metrics that have become somewhat standard for baseball fans (WAR, OPS, ISO, what have you), is there a historical Blue Jay who you think would be more appreciated by this new generation of fans that they were at the time or have been since?

It's funny, because the first name that popped into my head is Rance Mulliniks. I wanted to pull up someone far more esoteric, like Tom Lawless or Barry Bonnell, but I don't really think either one of those guys was particularly good, no matter how you slice it (though Bonnell had a WAR of 2.1 in 1983 - who knew?). Now that we're into the whole stolen base efficiency, rather than just raw numbers, I think we'd have appreciated Lawless for the 12 of 13 he put up in just 59 games in 1989, though we did love him at the time.

Anyway, I thought of Mulliniks because the dude was a platoon on-base machine who grew into some power near the end of his career. He was a guy who Blue Jays fans thought of as a "professional hitter" (I think it was the glasses) when we weren't just thinking of him as half of Gance Mulliniorg, but dig this - in his 10 years with the Blue Jays he posted an OBP of .370 with an OPS+ of 118. In 1983, he hit .280/.378/.472 against righties. In 1984, it was .321/.380/.440. In '85, .299/.382/.462. In that great '87 season, he hit .306/.367/.490 against righties, and screw the platoon, .389/.450.667 against lefties (tiny sample size alert - 23 PA). He reached his zenith in 1988, with an OPS of .868 against righties and .870 overall. These numbers aren't overwhelming, I know, but his OPS+ from 1983-88 was 124, and he had a .417 OBP in 1990, mostly coming off the bench. This is not the guy we all thought Rance Mulliniks was back then.

I mean, would you have believed that Mulliniks finished in the top 3 on the Blue Jays in OPS every year from 1983-88 save one? And yes, I'm counting 1984, even though he was fourth - it was only one point behind George Bell, and Rance's OPS+ was higher. Seriously, though - name the top three hitters on the Blue Jays through the mid-80s, does anyone mention Mulliniks? Nerp.

Photos courtesy of Fan590.com and
Altamonte Springs Recreation. Nice shorts.


Bret said...

Cool feature, nice interview!

Dewey said...

Really like the answer to number 2... I base everything off the advanced metrics, but he makes a great point re: how players are performing vs how they should be... all I seem to care about these days is how they should be...

Tao of Stieb said...

I liked that point as well. Some of the more advanced metrics work well when you have a full season's worth of data to input. (WAR and UZR specifically.)

Frankly, when I'm looking at the minor league hitters, I sort by total bases, and then start to look around from there. It's an old, dopey counting stat, but it says a lot about what a guy's done.

Gruber's Mullet said...

Great feature Tao. Who's the next great member of the mainstream media that gets 3 pitch softball from the great stache?

mike in boston said...

great feature, and great answers by Mr. Wilner. One question for the local intelligentsia: he raises some doubts about the idea of being able to turn a player's contributions into wins.

"I'll admit I have a bit of an issue with the whole idea of "replacement level" and the idea of quantifying how many wins someone's contribution is worth."

I have been led to believe that the W in WAR is less of a predictor of actual wins (taking the team from 90 to 95, let's say, by adding 5 WAR to your roster) and more of a theoretical value for inter-player comparisons (a player with a higher WAR will be more valuable to the team than a player with a lower WAR). On the second analysis they could have called it VAR (value above replacement) rather than WAR and nothing would be lost. On the first, they are actually trying to predict wins, so the literal analysis of the stat is accurate.

could someone clarify how we should be using the W in WAR?

Mark said...

I love how he says luck is a factor and then says he ignores BABIP. Isn't that a contradiction? I mean, even if a guy has a low BABIP, that still at least can lead you to figure out why (low LD%, high FB% etc). It doesn't necessarily mean the BABIP will revert to 300 everytime.

To use Aaron Hill's 2010 season as an example - yes, his BABIP was 196, but that doesn't mean we could add .100 to his BA because his BABIP should revert to 300. With a 54% FB rate, a 13% IFFB and an 11% LD rate, odds are his BABIP would have only been closer to 240. FB are easier to make outs on then GB (please don't make me find the research), a high IFFB rate is automatic outs, and a low LD rate means you're not going to get many hits to begin with.

So it was a terrible season for him, and I think we can all agree he was a little unlucky. But the point here is that his BABIP wouldn't have been 300, so not all of his struggles were luck.

I don't think he understands how FIP is created, because if he says for pitchers he looks at K/9 and HR/9 and WHIP...he's essentially talking about evaluating pitchers using FIP. Because FIP is just focusing on HRs, BB's and K's.

It's not a matter of neutralizing the stats - it's not fair that players are punished for their teammates. It'd be like calling a guy a bad hitter because he doesn't have a high RBI or runs scored total - that's a reflection of his teammates, and not the player (and yes, RBI/runs are dumb stats, which is my point). And yet we punish pitchers like this all the time.

Far be it for me to say what's right or what's wrong. I just prefer to look at things from a predictive perspective (ie is a player capable of sustaining the production or will it improve/decline) vs a reflective approach.

Peter DeMarco said...

For a brief moment I thought you were suggesting setting up a 3 pitch softball game consisting of Bloggers vs. mainstream media. (Which I would have been all over).

However, when I realized that wasn't what this was all about, I still enjoyed the piece. Keep em coming.

Chad said...

Nice feature and great answers from Wilner. I definitely never appreciated Rance Mulliniks. I was all about George Bell and Tom Henke.

Hopefully, plenty of other main stream media guys will stoop to answer your questions.

Drew said...

Really quickly Mike:

Everything in WAR is converted to runs, runs above replacement and so on and so forth.

Years and years and years of information shows that, based on Pythag or third order wins, every 10 runs a team scores more than they allow equals one team win.

Therefore a player who adds 10 runs above replacement level to his team adds one win to the team total.

The WAR figure is just runs divided by 10 - the runs are calculated relative to replacement level.

mike in boston said...

Drew - thanks for the clarification.

So to test to usefulness of WAR one could look at a team's off-season roster moves, come up with a WAR improvement number (+5 wins in net roster additions, let's say), and then compare that to a team's eventual WIN-LOSS record at the end of the season. if WAR is reliable then there should be a close correlation between the overall WAR additions and the final record.

i wonder if anyone has done this.

Peter DeMarco said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Peter DeMarco said...


I did something like this on my blog to estimate the number or wins the Jays would have this year.


The problem is you have to make a lot of assumptions when speculating a players projected WAR. Also, it is impossible to account for injuries, etc.

Ty said...

Great feature, and great answers by Mr. Wilner as well.

I agree that the triple slash line is a bit underrated these days. As far as "classic" stats go, I think SLG and OBP specifically are a lot more useful than the rest, and give a pretty good summary of a hitter's performance.

I've been wondering what the anti-advanced stats crowd thinks of Travis Snider's season so far. He has a terrible batting average but he leads the team in RBI's. Buck Martinez's head must be exploding.

Gil Fisher said...

Buck: `nother ribbie for Snider.
Tab: He`s sooo strooong.