Quality of competition basically unimportant

How players perform with respect to their quality of competition doesn't seem to be that important after all.

Originally Published: January 16, 2004
By Rob Neyer | ESPN.com

For the sake of those among us with short-term memory problems, let me review last Friday's column ... The gist, in a general sort of way, was that there might be, in fact there probably are, significant differences in the quality of competition faced by various major league players (and teams, too).

    In doing some preliminary research based on your column about level of competition, I did come across one interesting Raul Ibanez tidbit. I isolated his OPS against each team in the Central and each team in the West last season, and he absolutely destroyed the Mariners to the tune of a 1268 OPS overall and 1811 OPS at Safeco. I hope this was not the impetus for the Mariners signing him. His OPS split against Oakland? 449 overall, 385 in Oakland. Ouch.

    His OPS's against the Tigers (1042), Indians (942) and Twins (858) were higher than his overall OPS (799) as well.

    -- Matt Meyers

Specific numbers aside, Matt brings up an interesting possibility: the Mariners signed Ibanez because he's performed so well against them. It wasn't just last season, either. In 84 at-bats against the M's over the last three seasons, Ibanez batted .369 with big-time power (14 extra-base hits). And he did most of that damage in Seattle -- where all the brass could, of course, see him in living color -- batting .381 with 10 extra-base hits in 42 at-bats (for an .881 slugging percentage).

Raul Ibanez
In 34 at-bats against the Mariners last season, Raul Ibanez batted a whopping .412.

You think it's crazy to covet a player because of 42 at-bats, or even 84? Yeah, me too. But if you think a player's never been acquired by Team A because he ripped Team A's pitchers, you haven't read enough baseball books; happens all the time, or at least it used to.

Which isn't to say that's what happened here. Yes, Mariners manager Bob Melvin did say, "Raul is a perfect fit for our ballclub. He's got a great swing for our stadium ..." And yes, The Seattle Times did report that Ibanez might have been particularly attractive to the Mariners because he actually likes hitting at Safeco Field (most players don't). He even likes the hitter's background (no other players probably do). Of course, a skeptic might suggest that instead of hitting well there because of the hitter's background, he likes the hitter's background because he's hit well there. If you take my meaning.

Anyway, in last Friday's column I reported only Ibanez's stats against AL West pitchers, which was a problem because 1) I made a mistake when reporting the numbers (he was bad, but not that bad), and 2) it would have been more instructive, perhaps to look at three seasons rather than just one. As it turns out, Ibanez fared decently enough against both the Angels and the Athletics over the last three seasons. So while it's true that Ibanez's performance for the Mariners isn't likely to match his pay, his past performance against various teams should not be a real cause for concern (remember, I speculated that it should be).

Yes, I've now devoted the better part of two columns to analyzing subsets of Raul Ibanez's performance, and if you think that's pretty pointless ... well, I wouldn't blame you. But there is a point. In that column, I suggested that this line of inquiry might be particularly useful to major league teams as they're making personnel decisions. But Ibanez certainly doesn't support my suggestion, and in fact there might not be any support.

At the end of the column, I threw down the gauntlet: be smarter than me, and actually figure this thing out. Figure out if teams should consider quality of competition when they're making personnel decisions.

Well, Mickey Lichtman, who (as "MGL") posts with great frequency and intelligence over at Baseball Primer's Clutch Hits, took up the challenge with his usual gusto. You can read more over there, but Lichtman's essential conclusion is, "Quality of competition is not very important and hardly worth the effort."

This surprised me, but I'm not smart enough to quibble with Mickey when he gets on a roll. He computes the "true quality" of the competition (as opposed to just looking at those silly old "actual" numbers), which means all sorts of adjustments and regressions and other stuff I would have forgotten by now even if I'd paid attention in school.

How unimportant is quality of competition? Last season Damian Rolls faced the best pitchers (3.86 "true" ERA) and Shannon Stewart faced the worst (4.19). Those are the extremes, and obviously the difference between them is less than extreme. When it comes to pitchers, the results are equally minor and congruent: Baltimore's Eric DuBose took an ERA hit of 0.20 because he faced good hitters, and Houston's Ricky Stone's ERA was boosted by 0.21 because he faced crummy hitters.

These differences could be instructive if (for example) we were trying to decide between two very evenly matched Cy Young candidates, but if Mickey's right about the effects of differences in quality of competition, then it really isn't worth considering except in the most extreme circumstances.

I still think considering quality of competition (QOC) might have some merit for people trying to answer academic questions ... How good were the Yankees, really, in the late '50s and early '60s? Were some old-time pitchers even better than their stats, because they pitched a disproportionate number of games against the better teams? ... but on a practical level, the differences may just be too small to significantly impact the decisions made by general managers. And let's be honest, some not-insignificant number of baseball men still don't understand park effects, which should significantly impact baseball decisions. Which brings us full circle, to Raul Ibanez ...

Senior writer Rob Neyer writes three columns per week during baseball's offseason. Next spring, Fireside will publish Rob's next book, "The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers" (co-authored with Bill James); for more information, visit Rob's Web site. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.