By Eric Neel
Page 2

The good folks at Baseball Prospectus have written the first must-read baseball book of the season. "Baseball Between The Numbers" takes on the classic bar-stool debates -- Bonds vs. Ruth, is there such a thing as "clutch," is A-Rod worth the money -- with the signature BP blend of statistical scrutiny and a fan's fervor. It's smart and entertaining, and it will change the way you think about the game you love.

Excerpts from "Baseball Between the Numbers"
Chat with Nate Silver about the book
Is David Ortiz really Mr. Clutch?
Why doesn't Billy Beane's stuff work in the playoffs?
Does baseball need a salary cap?
ESPN.com MLB coverage

Jonah Keri, who edited the book, was kind enough to do an interview via e-mail with us this week. Here's what he had to say:

What don't most of us (fans) understand about the role of luck in baseball? Why don't most of us understand or recognize its importance, do you think?

Jonah Keri: As with anything, it's a matter of human perception. As human beings, we're determined to find a cause we can embrace for everything. You'll see this in everyday life situations, even serious or grave ones: A friend contracts a disease and we search for answers, wondering how this could have happened. In baseball, if a batter knocks in a run in a key situation, we say that he's "clutch," or that he's on some kind of higher moral plane. Stuff happens, randomly, all the time. It doesn't make for sexy headlines, and it may confuse our ability to assign credit and blame to all events, but it's the truth.

Imagine you have King Felix under glass as we speak; he's yours to use, preserve, exploit or coddle. How do you handle him this season?

JK: We're proud of the contributions Baseball Prospectus has made on the topic of handling pitchers, through years of research and writing. Today you'll see pitch counts in box scores, just as surely as you'll see hits and runs. A system like BP's Pitcher Abuse Points allows us to gain some insight as to how pitchers operate and what their limits are.

At the same time, it's not realistic to say that all pitchers follow the same patterns. Felix Hernandez doesn't turn 20 years old until this weekend, so I'd definitely use caution, given what we know about young arms and their propensity for injuries. At the same time, blending scouting and statistical research together can help us better understand how a pitcher like King Felix will perform. The scouting side would argue that he's a big, strong kid with a big lower body. You think of durable, successful pitchers like Roger Clemens, Livan Hernandez and Carlos Zambrano as also fitting that mold. So I'd say you approach this season with a plan that accounts for both Hernandez's youth and his body type.

If the M's have a comfortable lead, have him hit the showers early. If he's being efficient with his pitches and not facing many high-stress innings in a given start, go ahead and stretch him into the eighth and ninth innings. Just monitor him closely, and always come in with a plan, rather than pulling him out of panic or getting complacent and forgetting he's on the 35th pitch of the seventh inning, struggling to get anywhere close to the plate.

Looking back over the whole arc of it, what happened to/with Paul DePodesta in L.A.?

JK: The acerbic L.A. media and a weak-willed, poorly prepared owner happened. The skinny on DePodesta is that he's an extremely intelligent man who has a great understanding of how to build a ballclub, but he's not necessarily as cuddly as some of the other, more gregarious GMs. Combine DePodesta's keen understanding of numbers with the great fear that many mainstream media members have of statistical analysis and you get a situation ripe for the GM to get ripped in the papers, on the radio and elsewhere in L.A. on a constant basis. When Frank McCourt saw how unpopular his general manager was in the local media -- despite DePodesta shepherding the Dodgers to a division title in his first season and being at the helm only two years total -- he gave in to the pressure and replaced him.

I will say that a big part of a GM's job is just that -- to be a smiling, accessible figure for the media, to reach out to fans and to generally be a strong PR man for the team. You need those skills in today's media-saturated environment to gain job security. The long tenures and multiple opportunities some of the shakier front-office types have had over the years underscore that point. Baseball Prospectus founder Gary Huckabay (who's now a consultant within the game) has a great essay in the "Baseball Prospectus 2006" book on the need for aspiring GMs to have greater people skills if they're to hold down a job. Not every smart guy with a great projections model or an understanding of replacement level can be the next Billy Beane or John Schuerholz. Very few can.

OK, we have to ask: Sox or Yanks? (Coco or Johnny?)

JK: Sox. The Yankees overpaid for Damon because they can, but the bottom line is he's on the wrong side of 30, and the Yankees are paying him for four years past his prime. Crisp is 26, just entering his peak years, with a broad base of skills that at the very least compares favorably to Damon's. They'll likely put up similar numbers this year, with Crisp passing Damon soon. The Sox had to make a couple of trades to get Crisp, but if you break the deal down as an overpaid, questionable Edgar Renteria for a young, relatively cheap, productive center fielder in Crisp, it's a slam dunk.

Will the NL West be any better this year? Will anyone care?

JK: Check back in '07. The Arizona Diamondbacks could reel off three or four division titles in a row starting very soon with all the young talent they've assembled, both on the field and in the front office.

Until then, you've got a Bonds-or-bust Giants team, a Padres team that's short on starting pitching and a Dodgers team that has more injury risks than anyone that should still be considered the favorite in the West. The Rockies try to try to find a plan that works but have never come up with one that has staying power.

At one point not so long ago, Kenny Williams was a just-doesn't-get-it guy. Now he's the defending world champ GM. What's your take on him today?

JK: The key word in that first sentence is "it". What is "it"? Is it the ability to grasp statistical concepts, to recognize replacement value, to place extra emphasis on positions where talent is scarce, to build a great farm system, make savvy trades, build a great staff under him, work with the scouting and [player-development people] to draft and develop the right players? Like every other GM in baseball, Kenny Williams does some things well and some things not as well. His success rate on various moves has been higher in the last couple of years, that's for sure.

What I really liked was the aggressive approach Williams and the White Sox took after winning it all. We've talked about how the Sox can expect some natural falloff this season, especially in their defense and possibly their pitching, as well. I think Williams recognized that everything fell into place almost perfectly last year. Acquiring a player like a Jim Thome is a nod to upgrading the team offensively, to help make up for some of the likely regression in other areas.

Who are your likely breakouts in 2006 and why? Who are your flameouts and why?

JK: On breakouts, I look for players getting their first shot at regular playing time, or entering an age range (especially 25-28) where they're likely to take a step up given what we know about development paths. Jonny Gomes, Nick Swisher, Casey Kotchman, Curtis Granderson, Coco Crisp, Rafael Soriano, Brian McCann, Austin Kearns, J.J. Hardy and Ryan Madson.

On flameouts, injuries are often a killer. I had concerns about C.C. Sabathia maintaining his early-career pace before he went on the DL this week. Ben Sheets has injury issues. Then you have players likely to come down due to age. This will be the year Jim Edmonds starts to drop off quite a bit. Garret Anderson's body is already falling apart.

We're good at measuring so much of the game now; where do numbers still fail us?

JK: One of my favorite chapters in "Baseball Between the Numbers" is the final chapter by Dayn Perry titled: Can Stats and Scouts Get Along? A pitcher could be going along fine numbers-wise during a season, but an astute pitching coach or eagle-eyed scout may spot a flaw in his mechanics that could become a major problem later. Taking a holistic approach and applying the best of statistical analysis and informed scouting is how the best teams approach team-building and player development.

The other area where numbers can fail is when we use the wrong numbers.

Another chapter in "Baseball Between the Numbers," What's the Matter with RBI?, discusses the flaws of many of baseball's bubble-gum-card stats.

A lot of people still equate great pitching to how many games a pitcher wins, sometimes at the expense of all other numbers. This ignores the fact that the single best predictor of win-loss record is the support a pitcher gets from his team -- through run support as well as defense. What we also found in the book is that winning percentage has the lowest likelihood to repeat itself year-to-year among any of the major pitching categories. By focusing on elements such as walk rate, strikeout rate and ground-ball rate, you can gain a better understanding of how a player is going to perform.

One of the most conventional bits of conventional wisdom says guys perform particularly well during their contract years. Is it true? Does the answer surprise you?

JK: The answer we found in the book is that, yes, players do perform better in contract years than otherwise. One thing to remember is that players hit their first contract year after six major-league seasons. So in Year Six they're likely in their mid-to-late 20s, prime years for baseball players. But even after adjusting for age, we still have some evidence of better performance in contract years.

This was a surprising answer, but in a sense it was a great surprise. Much of what you read in "Baseball Between the Numbers" ends up bucking conventional wisdom -- that bunting is almost never a good idea or that batting order doesn't matter much. But sometimes when you go in and do the number-crunching, you find that conventional statistical wisdom can be off the mark, too. It's great to be proven wrong once in a while. It keeps you honest and it forces you to keep an open mind and to always be thinking of new areas to explore and new lessons to learn about the game.

Your book tackles a host of big questions/persistent myths. Which "obvious truth" do you want to explore next, and why?

JK: There are 29 of these big questions in the book -- this is the kind of stuff you'd argue in a bar or at a ball game with buddies, only now you've got some real ammo to back up your argument. It's tough to find new debates after tackling so many of them in the book. I think a lot of what we can explore next can be offshoots of topics already broached in the book.

There's a chapter titled What Do Statistics Tell Us About Steroids? -- which is a good first step in making sense of the performance-enhancing drugs debate that's such a big topic in the game right now. But as we get more information, we can take the discussion further. We ask, Did Derek Jeter Deserve the Gold Glove? ... in discussing defense -- but we can do more to get at defensive measures as the tools to do so get more sophisticated.

I'd say No. 1 for me would be getting a better grip on the impact of injuries, how to predict them and how to prevent them. Teams tend to take this sanguine approach toward injuries sometimes, like, "We would have been right there, but there's no way we could have predicted all those injuries." The human body is incredibly complex and everyone is different. But throwing up our hands in defeat isn't good enough, not when there's hundreds of millions of dollars and the World Series on the line for 30 teams every year. Our injury columnist, Will Carroll, has done a great job of making better sense of the issue, and all of us at BP will continue to work to find solutions to this issue. The first team to make significant strides in this area is going to have a huge advantage over everyone else.

Eric Neel is a columnist for Page 2.




Eric_Neel
Eric
Neel
Q&A WITH BP