Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A Rant on Baseball (Ending with a Link on Jeff Francoeur)

While talking to my brother on Sunday (the same brother who pointed out that Joe Johnson had an 84% chance of hitting his last free throw against the Celtics, the same way that a coin has a 50% chance of coming up heads even if it has come up heads on the last five flips), I realized that I like baseball much more as an intellectual proposition than as a sport. The game itself is too slow. If I've started watching soccer more and more in place of the NFL because soccer is constant action and the NFL is intermittent action broken up by interminable commercial breaks and trips to the peep show hood by an official, then what does that imply for my consumption of baseball, a sport that is even more intermittent in its action. Is there anything less exciting than a batter stepping out after every pitch to adjust his batting gloves as some sort of nervous tick? Baseball is crying out for an initiative like the one the NHL successfully executed after the strike where they cut a half an hour out of games by speeding up line changes and faceoffs. I still like the idea of going to a baseball game, but that's more because I enjoy the company of the people with whom I attend games. Baseball games are a good trigger for conversation.

I'm also disillusioned by baseball because of the way the Yankees and (to a lesser extent) the Red Sox dominate attention to the sport. This offseason has been frustrating as a Braves fan because the team has money to spend and pitching holes to fill, but it is priced out of the market because the Yankees can afford to take dumb risks that Atlanta and just about every other team in baseball have to eschew. No other team in baseball can afford the prospect of paying A.J. Burnett $16.5M for his age 36 season. As the last several years have shown, spending 30-50% more than their nearest competitors hasn't guaranteed success for the Yankees, but the mere fact that the Yankees were dumb with their resources in recent years doesn't mean that it's any less annoying now that they are slightly smarter (or at least in an early spending cycle, prior to looking dumb again in 2012-3 when they have a pile of dead money on their books).

(For those of you who might point out that I'm a bit of a hypocrite rooting for Barcelona and ripping on the Yankees, I have three responses. First, Barca don't spend any more than Real Madrid, the Big Four in England, the two Milan sides, and Bayern Munich. Second, half of Barca's current side is composed of products of the youth system, including the team's three best players: Messi, Xavi, and Puyol. Third, Barca are a club that never had a shirt sponsor until they put Unicef on the front. They actually pay another entity for the space on their shirts instead of the reverse. In a way, the club are the antithesis of a team that wins through the projection of raw economic power. Barca are an institution owned by their fans; the Yankees are a profit machine that wins through good marketing paired with the fact that they were born on third base.)

Despite the fact that I'm not at all enthusiastic about sitting down to watch a baseball game, I do like the idea of analyzing why teams win and lose. I don't like the game as a spectacle, but I do enjoy reading the Baseball Prospectus. I like being educated about the Braves. More generally, baseball lends itself to statistical analysis more than any other sport because performance can be isolated so precisely, so I enjoy reading that statistical analysis done properly.

With that unintended diversion aside, the Prospectus has a lengthy analysis of Jeff Francoeur's 2008 collapse($). The conclusion is that he has no sense of the strike zone. Early in his career, he swung at everything. As time went on and pitchers started throwing him crap, he started taking more pitches, but he's indiscriminate in the pitches that he takes. Rather than swinging at strikes and looking at balls, there is apparently no rhyme or reason to when he swings and when he takes. Here's the money graf:

Jeff's plate discipline is a major, major concern, and unfortunately he has done literally nothing to show any hint of improvement. In his rookie season, he swung at 34.7 percent of pitches thrown out of the strike zone. In 2006, this rose to 36.7 percent, and over the last two seasons, to 36.7 and 36.3 percent. Granted, he has not gotten any worse in this regard, but maintaining the status quo in this situation is not a positive. Curiously enough, his rates of swinging at pitches in the strike zone have declined, from 85.8 percent in 2006, to 76.1 percent in 2008. Francouer still cannot lay off of pitches he shouldn't be swinging at, and is keeping the bat on his shoulder on called strikes. I don't know how anyone can truly succeed like that. Compounding the problem is that Francouer is now seeing more pitches out of the strike zone. And why not? If opposing pitchers know he can't resist them, why bother giving him anything in the zone? Even with an increasing rate of contact on balls out of the zone, his overall numbers speak volumes for the type of contact he is managing.

Francoeur knows what the problem is and has every incentive to solve it. I'm leery that he actually can. The list of players who have developed a batting eye over the course of their careers is a short one.


Anonymous said...

Good stuff

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Peter Robert Casey

Scott said...

Baseball is the only sport I can watch with any real interest the whole season through. Baseball and MMA. I watch the Falcons, Hawks, and Thrashers if they are playing but I would never just watch a random NBA game or NFL game. Baseball is different. It's like a drug for me.