Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Pedro and Maddux

The amazing Joe Posnanski has a post today proposing that Greg Maddux and Pedro Martinez have posted the two best seven-year stretches for pitchers in baseball history. I was dubious at first, but I'm convinced he's on to something. Good stuff and totally worth reading.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

New iPhone App: MLB World Series 2009

A new baseball game has hit the iPhone App Store: MLB World Series 2009. My colleagues at Slide to Play have done a great job reviewing it, so I encourage you to check it out. The key quote:

[W]hile MLB's World Series 2009 does the hitting, pitching and catching well, its lack of any substance beyond that leave it an incomplete game at best.
It looks like we're still waiting for the perfect baseball game for iPhone.

Billy Beane and Moneyball

Somehow, it looks as if a movie is going to be made based on the seminal baseball book Moneyball, by Michael Lewis. I'm as dumbfounded as you about this development, but Steven Soderbergh is a pretty great director, so I'm sure he'll figure out something good.

The key protagonist of Moneyball is Billy Beane, the GM of the Oakland A's. So I thought it'd be worth a few moments to take a closer look at Beane.

Beane, the player, qualifies as one of the biggest busts in the history of the amateur draft. Beane, the general manager, qualifies as one of the most successful team-builders in the history of baseball.

As described in Moneyball, Beane was one of the most coveted amateur players in the nation when he was taken in the first round by the New York Mets in the 1980 draft. Everything came easy to Beane—until he got to the minors and he wasn’t able to adapt to the higher-quality pitching. Scouts loved him; he was built like the star ballplayer they all thought he would become. But Beane never succeeded at the plate, and he finished his major league career with a .219 average and 3 homers over parts of six seasons.

Before the 1990 season began, at the age of 28, Beane abruptly walked into general manager Sandy Alderson’s office and asked for a job as a scout. Imagine turning down a chance to play on a major league team in order to drive around small towns scouting amateurs. It shocked Alderson so much that he gave Beane the job and kept a close eye on him.

It didn’t take long for Beane to work his way up to assistant general manager, and when Alderson left the A’s in 1997, Beane took charge. During his tenure, the A’s either made the playoffs or at least contended more often than not, despite one of the league’s lowest payrolls. He did it the way a good investor operates: by buying low and selling high. For example, Beane believed that ace closers are overvalued. So he would sign an unknown or out-of-favor hard-thrower to be his closer, watch him succeed, then trade or let him go when he became too expensive. This tactic worked with, in order, Billy Taylor, Jason Isringhausen, Billy Koch, and Keith Foulke.

Beane’s most glaring failure as GM has been his team’s inability to win in the post-season. Pundits claim it’s because his teams rely too much on walks and home runs and can’t play “smallball”—bunt, steal bases, hit and run, and so on. In fact, I think the reason his teams haden’t won in the post-season (until 2006, when they won a first-round series) simply comes down to bad luck. In a short series, almost anything can happen, and blaming Billy Beane because Jeremy Giambi failed to slide or Miguel Tejada didn’t take an extra base is just wrong. Still, despite the A’s victory in the 2006 ALDS, the lack of significant post-season success is a stain on Beane’s record and will remain so until his A’s win at least a pennant or two.

And now he's going to be played in a movie by Brad Pitt. Not bad. Not bad at all.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Sabermetrics and baseball

Another "traditionalist" has decided to flaunt his ignorance by writing a blog post bashing sabermetrics and the people who love it.

I don't know who this guy is or why he hates me (and people like me who like numbers). But his attitude tracks the attitude of many old school sportswriters -- Murray Chass among them -- who thing modern statistical analysis has no place in baseball and is practiced only by guys living in their mothers' basements.

The original blogger, "Alex," says a lot of stupid things and they're not worth refuting. But one point I want to make regards math:

These traditionalists revel in basic baseball stats: batting average, ERA, slugging percentage, and maybe on-base percentage. But they seem to have forgotten that those stats all involve math!

What's the difference between batting average and VORP or WARP or Win Shares... other than the lengths of the formulas?

So I guess the traditionalists are OK with math until it gets complicated. Which means they're not traditionalists at all but rather anti-intellectuals.

It's one thing to be ignorant. It's another entirely to hate knowledge. But that's what people like Alex do. Bravo, Alex.

Friday, April 17, 2009

iPhone App: MLB At Bat

MLB At Bat is the big daddy of iPhone apps. It comes in two versions:

Lite - Free

The lite version is nothing more than a real-time scoreboard. It's barely worth the price (free).

Full - $9.99

The full version gives you so much more. In a word, it's awesome. Here's what you get:

- Real-time scores, including box scores and scoring summaries, of every game
- Video highlights of key plays minutes after they happen. Not just scoring plays, but key defensive grabs and other important moments.
- Live play-by-play using the GameDay engine. You get pitch-by-pitch updates and more.
- Best of all, radio broadcasts of every game. You can even choose home or away broadcasters.

How well does it work? Not perfect. I've experienced quite a few kinks in the system. Last night, for example, I wanted to listen to Vin Scully's play-by-play of the Dodgers-Giants game, but I kept getting an inexplicable error message. The Giants broadcast worked fine (and Jon Miller is the best in the business anyway, so it wasn't much of a problem), but I was disappointed in not hearing Scully.*

*In fact, listening to Vin Scully is the main reason I bought the At Bat application. He's been with the Dodgers for 59 years, but I've never lived in L.A. so I never really got to hear him except occasional TV broadcasts. This is my chance to hear him before he retires, whenever that will be.

I've used the audio over both Wi-Fi and 3G, and both generally worked. There are occasional hiccups and you'll lose the feed periodically, but in my experience, the feed comes back pretty quick (except the Scully example above).

The GameDay play-by-play is spotty at times. It doesn't always keep up with the action, but it usually catches up after a while.

Bottom Line

In spite of the hiccups, which I'm sure MLB Advanced Media is working on, getting the At Bat app is a no-brainer. The audio is rekindling my love for play-by-play broadcasting (which I used to do myself, though not very well), and I'm finding myself listening to games I don't have much interest in. The live box scores are great for tracking my fantasy players. And the GameDay updates are great for following games at lunch or on the couch.

If you're an iPhone-owning baseball fan, what are you waiting for?

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

iPhone App: Baseball Statistics 2009 Edition

The first app up for review is Baseball Statistics 2009 Edition, by Bulbous Ventures LLC.* Price: $1.99

This is version 2 of a formerly free application previously called "Baseball." It's pretty simple, really: it uses data from Sean Lahman's Baseball Archive to deliver up-to-date statistics for everybody who's ever played baseball. You can view stats by team and year, or you can search and view by player.

If you have the free edition from last year, the only things you're missing are 2008 statistics, plus salary data and a few other pieces of information.

Bottom Line

This is a very functional and utilitarian application, and it doesn't blow your socks off. If you're at the ballpark and you want to know the career stats for a particular player, you can do it with this app. If you don't want to pay $1.99 for a dedicated iPhone interface, you can do the same thing for free by visiting Baseball-Reference.com in the Safari browser. The no-cost method is harder on the eyes, but you can always apply the $1.99 you save toward the price of a hot dog at the park.

*Note: Link opens in the iTunes Store.

Baseball Apps for iPhone

Now that the season has started, iPhone-owning baseball fans have numerous ways to track the sport using their miracle phones. The iTunes App Store has a helpful page linking to some of the latest baseball apps and videos. In the next few days, I'm going to test out several of them and provide reviews. Check back tomorrow and later in the week.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Back to blogging: Joe Carter

OK, no more blogging vacations. I'm going to get back into it starting today.

Today brings us news that Joe Carter believes his Game 6 home run against the Phillies that ended the 1993 World Series gets overlooked:

"Mine, it will make the top 10 but it's never No. 1, it's never been No. 2, it's always been in the middle of the pack," Carter said Thursday. "Had it been for the Yankees or the Dodgers, then I think it would have been No. 1. But because it was in Toronto, it has not gotten the respect that I think it really should deserve."

For some book projects, I've done a lot of research into clutch baseball moments, and I can tell you exactly why Carter's home run isn't the greatest clutch performance in the history of the World Series:

1. Stakes

2. Drama

First, in Carter's favor, I should point out that his home run came in the bottom of the ninth with the Jays trailing by one. If Carter had struck out, the Jays might have lost and the series would have headed to game 7. There was a lot at stake.

But there was more at stake when Bill Mazeroski hit his famous home run in game 7 of the 1960 World Series, with the Pirates and the Yankees deadlocked. There literally was no tomorrow. (On the other hand, the game was tied and a Mazeroski came to bat with no outs.)

As for Kirk Gibson and his home run in game 1 of the 1988 World Series, there was much less at stake when he hit it than during either Carter's or Maz's moments. But what he has going for him is drama. He limped to the plate. He had two strikes against him. He grounded a foul ball up the line and could barely run it out. It looked like The Natural come to life.

Also working against Carter is that the Blue Jays simply aren't a high-visibility team in the U.S. Carter is right about why people don't remember his shot. But he shouldn't whine about it.