Sunday, November 14, 2010

Differences in Philosophy

I'm kind of surprised I missed this.  The Boston Globe's Tony Massarotti said this about Carl Crawford:
"Just wondering: are we playing fantasy baseball or the real thing? Crawford (right) puts up nice numbers and, as any stat geek will tell you, he runs! Five-category player, dude: hits, runs, homers, RBI and steals. Top five pick. Yes, Crawford is a good player in the real game, too, but is he really a lineup centerpiece that is worthy of contract akin to that of, say, Matt Holliday?
If your answer is yes, we have irreconcilable philosophical differences.

A request: take away Crawford’s steal total and look at his average numbers over the last three years. Is that really worth somewhere around $18 million a year? Hell no."
Not surprisingly, my answer is yes.  Massarotti and I have significant fundamental differences with regards to baseball philosophy.  While he views the baseball world through a traditional lens, I look at it through a skeptical, statistically oriented lens.  He believes in conventional wisdom.  I question it.  I'm not saying he's wrong.  I just disagree.

Massarotti's lineup philosophy centers around a high powered offense capable of bludgeoning teams on a nightly basis.  While this isn't a bad way to put together a lineup (the Red Sox won the 2004 World Series with this type of lineup), it's not exactly the most effective method.  The problem with putting together a lineup that's primarily focused on run creation (notice that I did not say run production) is that it puts run prevention on the back burner.  It's not uncommon for the better offensive players to be weak on the defensive side of the ball.  Sure, there are exceptions who were great on both sides of coin like Barry Bonds and Willie Mays, but those kinds of players are few and far between.  The list of great offensive players/defensive liabilities is much longer.

His philosophy assumes that a run created (through offense) is worth more than a run prevented (through defense).  This couldn't be further from the truth.  A run created on offense is equal to a run prevented through pitching and defense.  His inability to understand this concept stems from the fact he doesn't understand how defense impacts pitching.  A high quality defense will convert more balls put in play into outs, thereby reducing the strain on the pitching staff.  Pitchers will allow fewer hits and runs, throw fewer pitches, go deeper into games, and reduce the strain on the team's bullpen.  As a result, the burden on the offense will be reduced.  Instead of having to score six or seven runs to guarantee a win, the offense might only have to score four or five to win.

In a dissenting response, Massarotti would probably point to the 2010 Seattle Mariners as a reason to avoid the run prevention model.  The Mariners were a model for run prevention, giving up only 698 runs all season (good for sixth in the American League).  Unfortunately, they were worst in the AL in run creation, having only scored 513 runs.  The problem with the Mariners was that they focused too much on run prevention, and not enough on run creation.  They believed they could make up for their severe offensive deficiencies with defense and pitching, and that wasn't the case.  To an extent, Massarotti would be right.  At the same time, though, he'd also be wrong.  While run prevention didn't work in this case, it doesn't mean it wouldn't work in every case.  There are plenty of examples from the past twenty years where an over-reliance on offense (while completely ignoring defense) caused teams to underperform despite scoring 900-1000 runs in a season (see the Rangers, Rockies of the late 1990s and early 2000s). 

The key to winning is balance.  The best teams are the ones that are as good at creating runs as they are at preventing them.  Players like Carl Crawford embody that mantra.  Just for fun, let's take a comparative look at Crawford and Holliday's value in 2010 to see how they stacked up:

                            Batting          Positional        Replacement      Defense        WAR
Crawford               32.3               -6.8                   22.1               18.5             6.9
Holliday                 42.7               -7.0                   22.5                8.2              6.9              

(All values are in terms of runs)

Despite Holliday's nearly 10 run difference in park adjusted wRAA, Crawford was able to produce the same amount of value simply by making it up on defense.  This is important because it shows how overvalued a run created can be.  Despite what Massarotti would lead you to believe, there is more than one way to get a final conclusion.  Just because Crawford takes a different route to 6.9 WAR, it doesn't it's a less effective (or more, for that matter) than the route Matt Holliday takes.  A run created on offense is equally as important as a run prevented through pitching and defense. 

Going back to Mazz's statement about Crawford not being worth $18M (per season) over the past three seasons with stolen bases stripped away, that's not exactly true.  Using Fangraphs WAR as a guide, Crawford was worth 2.5, 5.7, and 6.9 WAR over the past three seasons.  This equals out to be $64M in performance based value, or $21.33M per season.*   Keep in mind that in 2008, Crawford was hampered by nagging injuries, and put together his worst season since 2003.  It's not unreasonable to assume he would've been far more productive had he remained healthy. 

*Note:  Fangraphs WAR does not include base running or base stealing in their calculations.   

As I discussed in my piece last month, Crawford is going into his age-29 season in 2011.  I've projected him to be worth far north of the $18M (using Fangraphs' WAR measure) over each of the next three seasons.  While he falls below that amount in seasons 4-6 (albeit slightly below that mark in season four), he still provides enough value to justify his overall contract.  Crawford is a center field quality defensive player patrolling left field.  He also gets on base at a healthy clip, hits for extra bases (62 extra base hits in 2010), and is an excellent basestealer.  He's a complete player that will help a team on both sides of the ball.  Despite what Massarotti says, the Red Sox would be wise to sign a player of Crawford's caliber.  Players like this don't come on the free agent market very often--especially at age-29.

1 comment:

  1. The question isn't what does Tony Masserotti think, it is what does the silver haired sage Dan Shaughnessy believe. I formulate all my baseball opinions once they fall from his golden mind to my unworthy person.