March 31, 2009

The Legend of Mark Fidrych: baseball’s one year wonder

Filed under: Sports — Tags: , , , , , , — skeptisys @ 9:17 am
Mark Fidrych exudes boyish enthusiasm while signing autographs

Mark Fidrych exudes boyish enthusiasm while signing autographs

Mark Fidrych was a gigantic baseball star: a tremendous fan attraction seemingly created in Bill Veeck’s basement with ample portions of OCD, ADHD, and amphetamines. At a glorious time when cocaine, big hair, and disco were considered to be safe and fun, Fidrych was ultra boogie. He put his full intense positive energy into everything he did, and the fans loved him.

Before every inning, Fidrych would get on hands and knees and smooth the mound dirt with his hands. Before each pitch, he would bark at himself to stay focused; a habit often misconstrued as ‘talking to the baseball’. After good or bad plays, he would run full speed at his teammates to exuberantly pat them on the back.  If you weren’t a baseball fan in 1976, you would have a hard time believing the legend of ‘The Bird’. If you were a baseball fan in 1976, you will never forget Mark Fidrych. And then, in a flash, it was over…
Mark Fidrych was a great pitcher for only about 1 full season (I believe the standard soul contract with Satan is 1 year duration). He made his first career start about 1 month into the 1976 season, and was an active starter for about 1 month of the 1977 season before he tore his rotator cuff and was done as a dominant pitcher. This Fidrych active period lasted only 171 team games (not including his time on the injured list) producing this pitching stat line:
37 games started, 25 wins and 11 losses (.694 WP%) 2.31 ERA 319.3 innings pitched 61 walks and 136 strikeouts.
Astonishingly, of Mark’s first 37 career starts, he completed 31 games! Let’s put this in perspective, Grandpa Jaime Moyer has completed only 31 games in his entire 22 year career (584 starts)! Some people think Johan Santana is the best starting pitcher in baseball. He has 9 career complete games. CC Sabathia (26 career CG) Tim Hudson (22 career CG) and Andy Pettite (25 career CG) are considered durable pitchers by today standards, but have completed fewer games in their career than Fidrych did in his estimated one season.
Starting 37 games in a season was not uncommon in the 1970’s, but 31 complete games is such a rare accomplishment (or torture), I could not locate 1 pitcher with 31 CG in any of the last 50 seasons (1959-2008). Catfish Hunter did complete 30 games in 1975, his 1st Yankee season.  Catfish was 29 that season but only won 40 more games in his career.

Would Fidyrch have been a great pitcher if he remained healthy?  Bill James opines, “…in fact, it was always very unlikely that Mark Fidrych would have a career of more than a few seasons.  There is simply no such thing as a starting pitcher who has a long career with a low strikeout rate” – The New Bill James Historical Abstract. Bill James is probably right, but his analysis ignores the 1977 season, and Bill has also said that strikeout rates that increase in the pitcher’s 2nd season could be more indicative of long term potential. Prior to hurting his arm(and after he tore the cartilage in his knee) Fidrych pitched in 8 games in 1977, with these dominant results: 6W 2L 1.83ERA 69IP 61H 8BB 39K 234ERA+.  We should also take into account the following:

1. Fidrych’s strikeout rate was 5.1 k/g, up significantly from 3.5 k/g in 1976 – and above the 4.5 k/g threshold Bill noted in his article.  Also the 4.9 strikeout to walk ratio is extremely high (the career record in this category is only 4.4 by Tommy Bond).

2. Offense in 1977 was up significantly from the previous year (league ERA went from 3.70 to 4.28), and Tiger Stadium was an extreme hitters park.  Also, Fidrych was maneuvered to pitch at home, where he could draw the largest income for the Tigers.  In his first 37 starts, 24 were at Tiger Stadium.

3. Unique players, like Fidrych, are much harder to predict than more common types.  I looked for the most ‘Fidrych type’ seasons of the last 50 years, as a basis of comparison.  A Fidrych type season contains: a right handed pitcher with many complete games; excellent ERA+; an average to below average strikeout rate; good strikeout to walk ratio; young in age and major league experience.  By far, the most similar season I found was by Mike Mussina in 1992.

Mussina 1992: 32GS 8CG 18w 5L .783wp 241 IP 212h 2.54era 16hr 48bb 130k

Mussina won 20 games last season, to bring his career win total to 270.

Nowadays, a pitcher like Mark Fidrych could not exist.  His pitch count would be reduced to save his arm from injury.  The tiniest show of emotion on the baseball field would be criticized and possibly fined, and he would be pumped full of Ritalin before he puts on his first little league outfit.  Heck, maybe he is a baseball Big Foot, not existing at all except in grainy photographs and the memories of whiskey smelling sportswriters.

I ate Sugar Fristed Flakes until I got diabetes, and all I got was this baseball card

I ate Sugar Frosted Flakes until I got diabetes, and all I got was this baseball card

Photo via Corbis, and Vintage Baseball Cards.

Image: © Bettmann/CORBIS
Collection: Bettmann
Standard RM
Date Photographed: August 3, 1976, Bronx New York

April 7, 2008

Can the Detroit Tigers turn around their slow start?

Filed under: News, Sports — Tags: , , , , — skeptisys @ 11:47 am

Ee-Yah!  Hughie Jennings Detroit Tigers.

The Detroit Tigers have been one of baseball’s most successful teams over the past 2 seasons, winning 183 games and one league championship.  This past offseason, they got stronger, adding peak performing Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis to their already very strong lineup and pitching staff.  Many experts predicted the playoffs for the 2008 Tigers. Instead, the Tigers have started the season 0-6, the Tigers first 6 game losing streak since 2005.  Can they turn it around, or are they really this bad a team?

After looking at the evidence, I believe that luck is the major contributor to the Tigers’ poor start, and they can turn it around.  Here is the evidence pointing to a possible turnaround:

1) Tigers have slightly outperformed their record.  Their expected won/loss based on their run differential is 1-5, rather than 0-6 – and that is skewed by one blowout loss.

2) A team can lost 6 in a row and make the playoffs.  Just last season, the Yankees lost 7 in a row at one point – but ended up winning 94 games and making the playoffs.

3) Their runs allowed (39) are due, to a large part, by luck.  Only 62% of base runners have been left on base, by far the worst in the league.  An average performance could result in 10 fewer runs.

4) Their batting .149 with runners in scoring position (RISP). This also will improve due to regression to the mean.

5) Their underperforming players can reasonably be expected to perform much better over the course of the season.  Cabrera and Ordonez have been horrible this season, but were expected to be MVP candidates and have been in th past.  Six poor games does not change that.  The pitcher’s have been walking too many, also reasonably expected to improve based on anticipated performance.

I fully expect the 2008 Tigers to get back into the pennant race, if they keep their confidence.  Six games is too small a number to make a significant conclusion.  Don’t write them out just yet.


March 7, 2008

Bill James starts online pay site

Filed under: Sports — Tags: , , , , , — skeptisys @ 9:16 am


The first time I read a book by Bill James, I jumped out of my bathtub, and ran down the street naked and wet. After that moment, I obsessively read every word that Bill James wrote. I have read all his published books multiple times, including the Abstracts back to 1977 and “This time let’s not eat the bones”. The only publications I have not read are: the latest Gold Mine and various articles he had written for magazines and compilations (Baseball Analysts and the like). If anyone has copies of those articles, please let me know.

As soon as I heard Bill James had an online website, I reached for my wife’s credit card. Well, I say ‘wife’, but really it’s an 80 year old neighbor who always forgets to double lock her door. Anyway, the intention here is to provide some information to anyone considering paying $9 per 3 month subscription to join the Bill James online site.

As soon as I provided credit card information, an onerous disclaimer agreement came up, asking for my acceptance. These legal documents always pop up when you are anxious to use software or a website, and you were sure the transaction was already complete. I read every word written in these documents, on very rare occasions. This was one of those rare occasions.

One part of the document stated that no ‘offensive’ material can be posted on this website. Eh? This is a Bill James website. The same Bill James that wrote, “Rick Cerone is more or less to catching as Thurman Munson is to aviation”. Not offensive? Hey buddy, part of the reason I read Bill James is that he doesn’t hold back. Also in this document was strong language regarding not sharing information and limiting written posts. This ‘agreement’ was completely unacceptable to me. So, I clicked ‘accept’ and continued on to the site.

On the site there are 49 Bill James written articles and columns. These are the main reason I joined, and I poured through them with great enjoyment. Let me explain my expectations for the website:

Level 1: his most dedicated work, for the Red Sox is confidential. This includes any work that analyzes how a team wins and builds a winner in MLB. How does a team evaluate trades and drafts, current players and teams in a way that gives a team an edge over another. All of this work would presumably fall under confidentiality and is owned by the Red Sox. It is also the most interesting subject for fans. Level 1 work most likely will never be seen by the public, which is just sad.

Level 2: His meta work on baseball history and baseball analysis other than Red Sox work. This includes Win Shares and Gold Mine type work, and is meant for publication. You pay for this separately, it doesn’t come with the subscription price of the website.

Level 3: The dregs of his articles. This is what I expected from the online work (I do not pretend to know his work schedule at all, I’m just guessing). The stuff he does after he plays with his kids and family events, after he sends out emails, paints the dog – or whatever. The online work even has basketball and other non-baseball work.

The articles are very entertaining and well written, absolutely. I would read a grocery list that Bill James jot on a napkin. To me, the online articles are Level 3. The topics are about past players like Blyleven, and potential rating systems in their early stages. If you are a big Bill James fan, the 49 articles and columns will be worth the $9. Keep in mind that only one article has been added in the past 4 weeks (sine Feb 11), so it might not be updated frequently enough to be worth the subscription.  If you read Bill James books and want more of his writing, these articles are for you. They are like DVD extras for the books – bloopers and cut out scenes.

Also included on the website:

1) articles by others. Not many here, and I wasn’t interested in this anyway. You can find others’ work elsewhere for ‘free’.

2) Stats and data displays for each current player. Some of these are interesting, but the players have to be chosen one at a time – which is cumbersome. These are baseball lists, like in a book appendix, put on a website one player a page. He could have used a computer programmer to display this data in a manner more consistent with the internet. Some stats are meaningless Elias or Baseball Digest type stuff.

3) “Ask Bill James”. Bill (Mr. James?) answers questions from the public. This is currently the most frequently updated section, and is quite entertaining – even when Bill refuses to answer the question.

4) polls and arguments. Frankly, lame. This has potential, but so far a miss.

Conclusion: if you are not a big Bill James fan, there is no good reason to pay for this site. If you are a big fan, you should consider joining, after you finish reading all his books. In the meantime, I will keep looking for his RedSox work to show up on Wikileaks.


I think this kid owns the Red Sox or is Theo Epstein, I don’t know. 

The Baseball Abstracts pic at the top of the article is from the excellent baseball website Baseball Analysts.

January 3, 2008

Steroid Era in Baseball and Rice

Filed under: Sports — Tags: , , , , , , , — skeptisys @ 1:48 pm


The voting for the 2008 baseball Hall of Fame will soon be here, heating up the intense debates on baseball websites. Since Bill James popularized scientific method in baseball, discussions have been intense between those who want to enhance understanding of the sport and those that are insulted to have their beliefs challenged. Like Intelligent Design fanatics, they get upset if study results reveal a different outcome than their prior beliefs, and lashing out is not uncommon. Also like ID folks, they will attempt to sound scientific, while not actually following scientific method. This results in some absurd arguments. This Hall season has one particular candidate supported by the ID folk, Jim Rice.

Rice was a very strong hitter who played for the Boston Red Sox from 1974-1989. If we assume the criteria for the Hall of Fame is based on:

a) objective analysis

b) the Hall remaining approximately the same % of total MLB total players

c) induction is based on quality of play, or contribution to team pursuit of wins

Then Rice is not qualified for the Hall of Fame.

Jim Rice’s only real qualification is that he had a high slugging percentage relative to his competition(86th all time). Some other potential qualifications:

1) fielding. Rice was a poor fielding LF/DH, so it is difficult to give him anything but the lowest score.

2) Avoiding outs. This is more valuable to scoring runs than slugging percentage. However, Rice rarely walked and he hit into a tremendous number of double plays, so despite his high batting average, he was average in this category. At least until…

3) Context. Rice hit in one of the best batting parks in the country, Fenway Park. On the road his slugging was 87 points lower (.459 – .546). The era was a relatively strong offensive era, inflating data compared to the 1960’s, but deflating them compared to the 1990’s.  Rice’s career adjusted OPS is barely within the top 200 all time.  OPS+ underestimates OBP. so Rice’s offensive winning % is barely within the top 300 all time.

4) Speed. Rice was very slow, so again this is a big negative.

5) Attitude. Fans, writers, and other players considered him a prick, gruff and prone to rage. I personally did not witness any of this behavior and place little credence in reputation and rumor, but certainly there is no reason to give him credit in this department.

6) He won an MVP award. Big whoop, Maris won 2 and isn’t in. No really, this is important if we are trying to predict the likelihood of Rice being elected, because the same group of people (BBWAA) vote on the Hall as the MVP. The BBWAA have not done a good job in electing MVPs, and I see no reason to believe that winning one award makes a better candidate.

As a comparison, let’s take Frank Howard, who was a distinctly better hitter than Rice. In 1968 AL, the worst hitting major league since before the Yankees won anything, Howard hit 44 home runs (8 more than anyone else) and led the league in slugging %. He ended 8th in the MVP voting, right behind Dick McAuliffe. A catcher who hit .263 with 25 HRs was 2nd in the voting (Bill Freehan). So Howard went out the next year and hit 48 HRs, increased his batting average 22 points to .296, and his walks from 54 to 102. He ended 4th in the MVP.

Howard again improved , drawing 132 walks and hitting 44 HRs, but he dropped to 5th in the voting. The MVP voting was and is irrelevant to how many runs he put up on the scoreboard.

7) absurd arguments. Among those I read are for Rice going into the Hall are: he was a feared hitter; and he played up to 23 games in the senior league. I am not kidding, people made these arguments. Also, they won’t vote for any recent player, because he played in the ‘Steroid Era’.

I have heard people talk about the ‘steroid era’ for awhile now, and I am trying to figure out the exact dates of this era. Tom House claimed that he and many other pitchers took steroids in the 1970’s to enhance their baseball careers. Anabolic steroids date back to the 1930’s. So apparently, the start of the baseball ‘steroid era’ is between the 1930’s and 1970’s.
Every recent candidate played during the ‘steroid era’. Candidates from the ‘steroid era’ include(d): big feared muscle guys who hit the ball hard (Jim Rice); people with uncommon durability (Ripken); big strikeout pitchers (Blyleven); and big power middle infielders (Trammell).

Jim Rice, like Mark McGwire, was a big strong power hitter (although not as good) who never tested positive for steroids. Only Rice is know for his rage, however. I don’t know if either took steroids, and I have yet to see any data supporting the theory that steroids cause home runs. It is very selective to apply the steroid stigma to McGwire, while ignoring those with similar opportunity.

I do want to mention that a childhood favorite of mine, and contemporary, had a slightly higher OBP than Rice.  This player played most of his career in pitcher’s ballparks, so the value of his OBP was much higher than Rice’s.  That player was Steve Henderson.

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