Splitting Kendry Morales

Kendry Morales
Kendry Morales

 

First base is Kendry Morales’ job to lose this year, so sabermetricians are spinning their statistical heads trying to prove he’s the next big bust.

Sam Miller at the Orange County Register, who’s doing quite a nice job breathing fresh air into the paper’s Angels coverage, posted a blog entry on February 25 reporting that a formula concocted by Baseball Prospectus writer Nate Silver called PECOTA predicts that in 2009 Morales will post an AVG/OBP/SLG of .253/.295/.389.

Part of the denigration, Sam writes, is due to PECOTA trying to adjust for Triple-A Salt Lake’s hitting friendly environment.

What PECOTA knows is that Morales has spent most of his minor league career in extreme hitting environments. It adjusts his minor league numbers to Major League Equivalent numbers. Going from Salt Lake City (elevation: 4226), in the Pacific Coast League, to the majors strips Morales’ numbers of most of their shine.

For instance, his .341/.376/.543 Salt Lake line of 2008 translates to .262/.297/.422 in the majors. The first line looks like a star; the second line doesn’t deserve a starting job in the majors. Giving credibility to PECOTA’s translations, Morales has hit a very similar .249/.302/.408 in 307 real major league at bats, which gives us more reason to be suspicious.

To quote Shakespeare, “Ay, there’s the rub.”

If you’re a regular reader of my blogs, you know I’m hard on statheads, and this is one reason why. They look for macro-trends and then apply them in individual examples, which is the lazy way out. What they should be doing is analysis of the individual player.

I’ve written many articles in the last couple years about how to properly analyze Salt Lake players. You don’t just look at home/road split, or the nonsensical Major League Equivalent formula.

In the PCL, there are five hitter-friendly parks — Salt Lake, Albuquerque, Colorado Springs, Las Vegas, and Tucson. So what you do is look at a player’s performance in those five parks versus the rest of the league.

It requires a little bit of effort, namely collecting the game-by-game data in a year for a player, then sorting them into “hitter-friendly” versus the rest.

I spent a half-hour last night looking at Kendry’s splits for 2007 and 2008. Here’s what I found (AVG/OBP/SLG):

2007 (Age 24):
OVERALL: .341/.385/.486 (255 AB)
HITTER-FRIENDLY: .359/.406/.503 (181 AB)
THE REST: .297/.342/.446 (74 AB)

2008 (Age 25):
OVERALL: .341/.376/.543 (317 AB)
HITTER-FRIENDLY: .323/.362/.494 (164 AB)
THE REST: .359/.404/.595 (153 AB)

2007 is what you’d expect, better numbers in the hitter-friendly parks. But in 2008, Morales had much better numbers in the neutral/pitcher-friendly parks!

I checked those 2008 numbers looking for any mistake I may have made, but it looks legitimate. And the sample size is about the same for both groups (164 vs. 153 AB).

So does this mean that Morales is a future Hall of Famer?

Of course not.

But what it does show is that off-the-shelf statistical formulas designed for fantasy leagues are no substitute for context.

If Morales had posted that .359/.404/.595 line in a neutral park instead of Salt Lake, he might not have been dismissed so easily by the calculator crowd.

The Register‘s Angels blog is becoming quite the place to be. Sam and the paper’s other sports writers participate all day long, interacting with readers. Click Here to read the blog and join in the fun.

5 Comments

Pecota’s line of Morales is the weighted mean, relative to the 50th percentile. Silver also says that Morales “could be a real sleeper in 2009″ and Baseball Prospectus’ bevy of writers have also said the same in oodles of other posts.

In life, I prefer to not get mad at a computer. Statheads are not spinning their wheels trying to prove he’s the next big bust (Is ‘next big bust’ related to next big bat?). They’re looking at a ton of comparables with similar lines, body makeup and environment (specific park factor IS actually included because his comparables played in the same situation – in the other parks). End of story.

‘Statheads’ and ‘calcuator crowd’ aren’t ‘trying to do’ anything. They’re simply averaging out historical data using a ton of peripherals to come up with a comparable line. They are NOT saying this is what’s going to happen. They’re saying this is what the numbers say. They routinely scream this from the highest mountaintop and it seems people still don’t hear it.

For instance:

The BABIP for Morales the last two years were .373 and .359. That’s unsustainable. .290 is MLB typical. That is historically proven and can’t be disputed. The major league equivalent formula is part of that. Given his walk and k rate, his comparables saw a drop-off. That’s all. Now, that’s not to say Morales can’t have a .370ish BABIP next year and have a great season (In fact, his 90th percentile prediction has him having a pretty good season – .285/.332/.479). And he can use that season to adjust to major league pitching over the long haul and have a great career. No projection system disputed that. None.

Heck, the CHONE projection system, run by a hardcore Angel fan, gives a line similar to BP’s 75th percentile.

Your splits are nice but it’s a terribly small sample size and not that predictive. For example, it doesn’t take into account the possibility that Morales caught a string a crap-*** pitchers or what his BABIP was. It’s one year and only about 160 ABs in each.

And respectfully, the idea that PECOTA, Bill James, etc is designed for fantasy leagues is patently ridiculous. Read up on it.

They’re not telling you to believe anything. It’s just delving into probability, working to take advantage of the human irrationality for continuing to believe commonly-held theories and use it to find market inefficiencies.

They’re not using macro-trends. In fact, some are as micro as it gets. Critique the entire methodology if you find issues with it instead of basically labeling them geeks and leaving it at that.

I think Morales is being undervalued by PECOTA. And so do a lot of BP writers. His comparables tell a different story, sure. I look at that and it might give me a brief pause but I still think he has a great chance to go .290 with 20-23 hr and 85-95 rbi in his first full season in the majors.

Believe what you want to believe. No stathead is telling you to do otherwise. Your denigration calls to mind the Shakespearian phrase “Me thinks thou doth protest too much.”

Apparently we’ve had different experiences with sabermetricians.

There are some analysts with a statistical bent, such as John Sickels at MinorLeagueBall.com and Sam Miller at the Orange County Register, whose work I respect because they understand that stats have their limits. They also acknowledge that there’s a “lunatic fringe” out there in the sabermetric world. Here’s what John wrote in the introduction to his 2000 Minor League Scouting Notebook for the now-defunct STATS Inc.:

*****

I come from a sabermetric background. I believe that on most issues, the number crunchers are correct. Which makes it all the more painful when some of my sabermetric allies act more like inquisitors than searchers for the truth. Some people in the sabermetric community demonstrate excessive zeal in the prosecution of “heretics.” Some authors attack their fellows for being insufficiently sabermetric, which sounds almost Stalinist. People are forgetting that numbers are a tool to find the truth, not the truth itself …

Sabermetricians, we need to be more humble. Our tools are good, very, very good, better than what anyone had before. But they aren’t perfect. Our job is to study baseball, not attack people who don’t buy every bit of sabermetric orthodoxy.

*****

John wrote that nine years ago. Since then, he’s gone independent, publishing his own annual prospect handbook. He’ll tell you that he’s moved further away from sabermetrics and spends more time doing traditional scouting. He’s travelled with professional scouts from time to time to learn their craft.

But his sentiment about some zealots acting “Stalinist” still rings true.

I’ve been bombarded many times over the years by these zealots with hate messages on bulletin boards and in e-mail because I dared question sabermetric orthodoxy. For example, about 5-6 years ago I coined the phrase “Contactball” to describe the Angels’ style of play — they would rather be aggressive by advancing and scoring runners than taking more pitches waiting for something to happen. I showed that the Angels were able to score runs just fine despite a low OBP, and that when their rate of scoring was down it might have something to do with other factors than OBP (e.g. more strikeouts or otherwise failing to make contact in a way that advances/scores a runner). This created quite a fury on stathead sites. Then an analyst on (I think) ESPN.com came up with a “Productive Outs” formula, which led to more howls of outrage. How dare we question the mantra that OBP is the Rosetta Stone of all analysis?!

Now, if they were being like truly objective analysts following scientific method, they would have actually analyzed the merits and flaws of these out-of-the-box theories, instead of dismissing them with insults. To be fair, some analysts did. But my personal experience is that such objectivity seems to be more the exception than the rule.
Over the years, I’ve been told some truly wacky things by statheads. For example:

* “Defense is irrelevant.” That’s a direct quote.

* Personally watching or listening to a game taints the purity of statistical analysis, because by doing so you introduce subjectivity. Therefore, if you’re a true sabermetrician, you must never ever watch or listen to a game.

* Major League Equivalents (MLEs) tell you what that player would have done had he been in the big leagues that year.

* Any evidence that disproves sabermetric orthodoxy must be dismissed as an “anomaly” or a “fluke.”

I’m happy to debate the pros and cons of sabermetric analysis any time with someone actually rooted in the real world. But statements like the above are made by people who more interested in treating sabermetrics as a religion rather than “a tool to find the truth,” as John put it.

But like everything is life, you take what rings true to you. And like everything in life, you dismiss the A-holes and pay attention to people with a sound and thoughtful process.

Who has time for the dippy ramblings of people who make such statements (especially the “defense is irrelevant” comment…Wow! Heck, all of them)?

The Angels’ OBP situation is a tough one. Something that can’t be disputed is that historically, there is a direct correlation between winning and higher OBP. That’s been proven without a doubt. In fact, it’s been shown that of all the statistics in baseball – pitching, hitting, fielding – the only one that actually did have a historically direct correlation was OBP.

Now, that’s not to say teams can’t win without it. Just that there is a direct correlation. It’s something to bring into the equation if you want to eliminate some of the margin of error. What I think some people believe is that because someone talks about OBP, it means they think every guy in the lineup should walk at least 100 times. That’s not the case, it’s not realistic and would be especially counterproductive for some hitters’ approach. And a bit boring.

But to look at the case of Kendrick again. He’s probably my favorite Angel. But what we saw in the second half of last year was a case of Kendrick not owning the strike zone. He wasn’t selective (especially prone to fishing for the away slider) and pitchers began to exploit it. A little more selectivity, thereby seeing more pitches, allows to reduce the likelihood of prolonged slumps, get a better gauge of breaking pitches, thereby helping in successive at-bats and simply being on base more.

He’s never going to walk 100 times. But 50? He would be a better hitter. It’s not simply “waiting for something to happen.” It’s smart baseball. Selective and smart aggressiveness is better than unchecked aggressiveness.

The Angels have had a nice run since the ’02 Series. But they have played in a division where Seattle and Texas have steadfastly refused to field competitive teams. Interestingly, in 2002, the Angels were 6th in baseball in OBP and 6th again in 2007, when Seattle decided that winning was actually a good thing and there was a real pennant race with them. Any race with Oakland lined right up with Oakland sitting in or very near the top 10 in the league.

In short (HAHA!), it depends on the player. Kendrick would benefit from an increase. Figgins? Not really. Morales? Yes. Guerrero? Of course not. Rivera? Probably. Wood? Yeah. He’ll need to at least learn to work counts to get his pitch to succeed early on. Hunter? No. Aybar? Here’s an odd one. The Angels wanted him to work on it in winter ball and he more than doubled his walk rate to great results. Yeah, it’s winter ball but I wonder how it’s going to end up translating in his world this year. 40 walks? He’s better.

But getting back to the original point, there are oodles of dopey sabermetricians out there. And I mean absolute jerks. Pick the ones you like and see if they’re actually building a better machine and adding to real, concrete truth. The rest isn’t worth the time.

I recently bought “Baseball Between The Numbers” by the guys at Baseball Prospectus. It’s quite good and eye-opening in many respects (the article titled “What If Rickey Henderson Had Pete Incaviglia’s Legs” is worth the price alone). BP’s pretty great, Dewan’s always interesting, Bill James is usually a good kind of cranky, Fangraphs likes themselves a bit too much and so on and so on.

It’s just tough not to take issue with the across-the-board lumping in of all sabermetricians without at least acknowledging the good work being done and the fact that a better evaluation system has actually been built. Heck, that’s exactly what John Sickels said.

And I’ll certainly acknowledge there are people for a non-sabermetric bent who make foolish demands all the time.

The difference, though, is that sabermetrics is supposed to be a scientific approach to baseball analysis. I’ve had plenty of these people tell me they’re “objective” while in the same breath they dismiss any evidence that disproves their “theories.” And that’s why I think it’s up to people who call themselves sabermetricians to police their avocation. One reason I admire John Sickels is that he called out these wackos in print, risking their ire (and loss of their business).

A few weeks back, I started work on a blog entry called “Contactball Revisited,” but got distracted by other priorities. (When you’re unemployed, finding income takes priority.) I wanted to see if the links between contact and run production still held from a few years ago. I’ll try to pick it up when I have some time.

But one problem I think exists in deifying OBP is that it assumes that a walk is better than advancing (or scoring) a runner. You write that there’s a “direct correlation between winning and higher OBP.” Well, yes and no. OBP has nothing to do with the quality of a pitching staff. And it has little to do with the ability to score runs. The idea is win ballgames. You can win them 1-0, 10-9, or 10-0. They all go in the win column.

The Angels preach an aggressive offense philosophy, but that doesn’t mean chasing bad pitches. That’s a common false interpretation by statheads. I’ve watched this philosophy evolve over the years in the Angels’ system. They do NOT tell batters to swing at bad pitches. I’ve got plenty of managers and coaches on the audio record saying that. What they DO preach is that if a batter sees a pitch he can drive, either for a hit or to advance/score a runner, he should swing. If it’s not a good pitch, they shouldn’t swing.

Using your example of Howie Kendrick, he got into a bad habit there late in the season. No one in the Angels’ organization told him to swing at those bad pitches. That’s his problem. Brandon Wood had a similar problem; even at Rancho in 2005 when he hit the 43 HRs, I saw pitchers get him plenty times on two-strike breaking balls down and away.

The cause isn’t Angels management telling batters to swing at bad pitches. The cause is very young batters learning to master pitch recognition. Major league pitchers have a lot nastier stuff than in the minors. You don’t learn how to adjust to that stuff until you actually face it. Some guys never adjust; but that’s true of all 30 organizations, not just the Angels.

I suppose you could make the argument that the Angels’ “Contactball” philosophy makes it harder for young hitters to make that adjustment. But that’s an argument that would require a lot more evidence than currently exists.

Continuing to use Kendrick as an example, I did some simple math and found that for Howie to bat .330 he’d need 165 hits in 500 at-bats. Now, let’s see how many walks he would need to jack up his OBP:

* Add 20 walks and his OBP goes up to .355.

* Add 30 walks and his OBP goes up to .367.

* Add 40 walks and his OBP goes up to .379.

Howie’s career minor league AVG was about .360, so I don’t think a .330 AVG in the big leagues is all that unreasonable.

If you assume six games a week in a 162-game schedule, that means the Angels will play for 27 weeks. 20 walks is less than one walk a week. To get to 40 walks, he’d need about 1.5 walks a week.

It just isn’t that big a difference, in my opinion.

The big advantage of hits over walks is that they advance runners. A walk doesn’t advance a runner unless there’s a force.

Let’s also take this hypothetical situation … The Angels have a runner on third with one out. The batter sees a pitch he can drive that may be an out, but it would probably score the runner. He could let the pitch go by, hoping to coax a walk, but what’s to say the next batter will see a pitch he can drive to score a run?

That’s the crux of the difference in approaches. The Angels’ approach is to score a run. The sabermetric orthodoxy is to maximize OBP, regardless of whether it generates a run.

I don’t know how you’d go about measuring missed opportunities, because you’d need to know if a batter saw a pitch he could have driven to score a run but let go by in the hope of coaxing a walk.

Now, this doesn’t excuse stupid stuff like having Aybar try to suicide squeeze Willits in the playoffs. That was wrong, and I wrote at the time it was wrong. But that’s one play, not an entire season’s worth of offense philosophy.

I don’t have any particular animus for the Angels’ philosophy. I can’t speak for what the saber-guys said to you. I don’t know them.

I think when you talk of sabermetrics, you may be talking of Billy Beane’s OBP at all costs Moneyball-type philosophy. Or what those guys may believe. But that idea is at the extreme end of the spectrum.

In your example, Kendrick should absolutely swing at a pitch he thinks, or better yet, has proven that he can drive. The idea of an OBP philosophy would be to carve up the strike zone into quadrants and thoroughly understand what you can do with each. Wait for a pitch you can actually do something with. In other words, know your strengths and know limitations. It’s about taking back control of the strike zone from the pitcher. Walks are a benefit relating to that.

It’s not about ‘hoping to coax a walk’. It’s about having enough discipline as a hitter to know there are pitches he can’t do something productive with.

Two walks a week for 27 weeks equals 54 walks. It’s also not unreasonable to think that could generate about 10 extra runs over a season without any effect on an aggressive approach. 10 extra runs equals a win by pretty much every measure in the statistical world. Nothing to squeeze at. Means a lot, actually, if you can get three guys in your lineup to increase their walk rate on par with the example. Not 100 walks. Just 54. That’s three extra wins averaging things out and taking into account historical probability. Again, not saying that’s going to happen, just more probable given everything we know about history.

I know you disagree, but that’s what made Kotchman expendable in my book. He was regressing in his ability to control the strike zone and his decreased walk rate was a by-product of that.

And if Kendrick were to lead off, seeing more pitches – not even talking about walks – benefits everyone who hits after him. How a slider breaks, how the pitcher sets up his fastball, how he nibbles, what he does in deep counts, what he thinks his out pitch is, all these things are things Kendrick can pass on to the rest of the lineup by virtue of his at-bat. A high rate of swinging at the first pitch can actually be a huge detriment.

Again, I’m a big fan of Kendrick. But if he would have had enough at-bats last year, he would have been 5th worst in the league among qualified batters in swinging at pitches outside the zone. If he’s going to be a .330 hitter in the league, that is unquestionably going to have to improve. And a by-product of that improvement would be something better than what his 30 walks in 950 at-bats in the majors has shown thus far.

Essentially, we’re splitting hairs here. We’re on the same side of the coin and debating details. We both know that pitch recognition is commandment #1. I just think it would benefit the team if a slightly higher rate pitches seen were established.

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