Wednesday, February 29, 2012

I Learned About Sabermetrics Playing Strat-O-Matic

I began playing Strat-O-Matic in the late '70s. My next-door neighbor and I started with the football board, dice and cards game, but quickly added Strat-O-Matic Baseball to our arsenal. We even dabbled with Strat-O-Matic Basketball a bit, but it didn't take long to realize it was a little boring.

Strat-O-Matic Football was fun, but baseball was definitely where it was at. Not because it involved a great deal of strategy—other than setting lineups and making pitching changes, it's mostly about the luck of the dice—but because baseball is, and has always been, about statistics.

The statistics some of emphasize have changed over the years, but they've always been a huge part of any serious fan's enjoyment of the game. Obviously, the kind of kid who got into a game like Strat-O-Matic was also the type who didn't mind digging into the numbers in an attempt to determine who was worthy of playing time and who wasn't.

It didn't take long for us to start figuring out the probabilities of each roll of the dice. It's pretty simple math, really. By determining, when rolling two dice, there are six possible ways to roll a seven, five ways to roll a six and eight, four for a five and nine, etc., we were able to determine the percentage chances of each outcome.

Eventually, my standard practice became to write each batter's total hit chances, on-base chances and home run chances versus both right-handed and left-handed pitchers directly on the card. Of course, I similarly evaluated each pitcher against each type of batter. I did this all in pencil, of course, which seemed like a good idea in theory. But, as you can probably imagine, eventually those numbers gave way to smudge marks.

Still, writing those numbers on the cards, and realizing a player with 54 on-base chances has only a 50% chance of making an out if the roll refers to his card* influenced me to emphasize on-base percentage and power. For some reason, when you're the one rolling the dice for each play, the value of avoiding outs becomes more obvious than usual. And, of course, what's better than a home run? Right, a home run with runners on base.

*When rolling two dice, there are 36 different potential rolls (6 times 6). A third die is also rolled, which determines which of six colums to refer to. 1-3 are on the batter's card, 4-6 on the pitcher's card. Remember how I said there were six possible ways to roll a seven? That would count as six total chances. 36 chances per column times three columns on the player's card equals 108. Now, of course, you see that 54 is exactly half of 108.

So, long before I had ever heard of Bill James, it was Strat-O-Matic Baseball that introduced me to the world of advanced statistics. Sort of. OK, not really advanced statistics, but we all know OBP was essentially the gateway to OPS+, wOBA, WAR and some even more advance sabermetric statistics.

After my initial purchase of the most current set of cards that came with the game, I developed an interest in the old-timers sets. I'm not sure why, except I'm pretty sure it was less jarring to my sensibilities to make what sometimes seemed like unorthodox personnel decisions with players I wasn't all that familiar with.

1956 was one of the first old-timers sets available, and when I bought it I had no idea how interested in some of those older players I would become. OK, well I will admit one of the catalysts for said interest involved a lot of drinking while in college.

I'll explain. One of my college roommates and I played a 162-game series between the '56 Reds and '56 Tigers, which we called the Busch Drinking Series.** Yeah, I know 162 is an even number, so in reality it was a 163-game series, since if it ended in a tie, we would have had to play the extra game. But, we wanted it to be the equivalent of a full season of games, although I'm not really sure why we played 162 instead of 154.

**The Busch Drinking Series, I would be embarrassed to admit if I wasn't in college at the time, was named after the 16 oz. cans of Budweiser's cheaper—but not necessarily inferior—cousin we drank while playing a drinking game which revolved around the "on-field" outcomes.

The defensive manager drank a sip of beer for each total base (one for single, two for double, etc.), walk, HBP, stolen base and run scored by the offensive team. I think he even had to drink when his team committed an error. The offensive manager drank once for each out his team made. Some simple math will tell you a grand slam meant eight sips, or about half of a 16 oz. beer. Needless to say, the drinks added up, especially considering we chose two strong offensive teams with mediocre
at bestpitching, and it was kind of an unwritten rule you never started a player for his defense if it meant sacrificing offense in the process.

What does the drinking series have to do with sabermetrics? Not much, really. But, a couple of those '56 Tigers players—the team I managed to a somewhat dubious 76-86 record—were among the prime examples of hitters who seemed much better to me than I would have otherwise thought.

Earl Torgeson was a .264 hitter with above average power, above average speed, and average defensive skills at first base. Not much to write home about, right? Except for the fact he walked 78 times in exactly 400 plate appearances, for a .406 OBP. Despite the fact he wasn't a base-stealer, he instantly screamed leadoff hitter to me.

Now, I must admit I don't necessarily deserve a lot of credit for looking past his lack of base-stealing ability to make him my leadoff hitter. Harvey Kuenn led the team with a grand total of nine stolen bases. But, Kuenn's .332 batting average better fit the bill—by the standards of those days—despite the fact his .387 OBP was almost 20 points lower, so in real life, he batted primarily at the top of the order.

Torgeson was a platoon player, but when he played, he mostly hit second. Since he had only one sacrifice hit that year, this probably means Detroit had the right idea with the way he was used. He simply was another guy at the top of the order who had the ability to get on base in front of Charlie Maxwell, Al Kaline and Ray Boone. But, I still thought it would make more sense to swap the two in the order, to have the higher OBP guy batting in front of the better run producer (Kuenn out-slugged Torgeson .470 to .425).

Another player on that team whose ability to draw a walk enhanced my desire to over-use him, somewhat unrealistically, was a catcher named Bob "Red" Wilson. Also a platoon player in real life, Wilson got the bulk of his playing time versus left-handed pitching, with Frank House being the other half of the platoon.

Wilson hit .289 with a .393 OBP and a .452 slugging percentage in 1956, and he was equally as good vs. RHP as he was vs. LHP. Of course, the batting average and slugging percentage only hint of a pretty good offensive player, but it was the OBP that made him stand out. So, despite the fact he wasn't quite as good as House defensively, he was an easy choice as my full-time backstop.

I guess the point of this all is to say playing Strat-O-Matic taught me to appreciate players who I might not have otherwise thought very highly of. Sure, I learned "a walk's as good as a hit" back when I was an eight-year old playing organized baseball for the first time. But, somehow those words never rang true. Even at such a young age, I knew, in most cases, a hit was actually better than a walk. As I got a little older, I realized those adults who were saying that really just thought of a walk as a consolation prize for kids who had difficulty reaching base otherwise.

What most of those adults probably never realized was they were making a case for why the ability to draw a walk is such an under-appreciated skill. Of course, when the pitchers are so young, we're probably talking more about their lack of ability than the batter's eye for the strike zone.

But, what I didn't realize was so important until playing Strat-O-Matic taught it to me many years later, is a walk accomplishes two really important things: it puts a runner on base—with the exception of a home run, a runner has to reach base before he can score—and it avoids an out (you only get a finite number of those).

It's a pretty simple concept, really. And, let's not let our judgment be clouded by what we've always thought to be true, the ability to draw a walk at competitive levels is a skill, perhaps even a talent. Dare I say, but maybe—in the discussion of what's often referred to as the five tools of a ballplayer—it's about time the ability to hit for average be replaced by the ability to get on base.

Anyway, what reminded me of this is that I recently signed on to "absentee-manage" the '58 Tigers in Jeff Polman's Mysteryball '58 Strat-O-Matic replay and murder mystery blog. Unfortunately, Torgeson has since been traded to the White Sox, but Wilson, Kuenn, Maxwell, Kaline and Boone—for a couple months, at least—remain. Still, it's a much weaker offensive team than the '56 version, partly because Maxwell is a shell of his former self, Boone's now a platoon first-baseman rather than a third-baseman (and on his way out), and Kuenn's offensive contributions come from center field instead of shortstop.

But, my excitement about this particular project, while it initially had to do with my minor involvement in it, is now more a product of my interest in the tale that Jeff will be telling via new entries to the blog three times a week. Let's just say he had me at "Tough to make out a dead body when it’s covered in peanut shells and Royal Crown Cola," the opening line to the story's first entry, "Unsafe at Home."

Only three posts have been written so far, so there's not much catching up to do if you're a fan of baseball murder mysteries, or if that concept intrigues you as much as it does me. I can almost guarantee you won't be disappointed. Just don't get your hopes up for my Tigers.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Harvey's Wallbangers

Because parenting duties have become my #1 priority of late, I've taken to revising and re-posting some of my old favorites. This one originally ran on September 22, 2009.

In the 1981 World Series, after the Yankees had taken a two-games-to-none lead over the Dodgers, I commented to a fellow eighth-grader that the team's success was beginning to get a little boring. Of course, they had won the 1977 and 1978 World Series, and were poised to win their third in five years. But, they didn't. The Dodgers returned the favor for 1978, winning four straight games after trailing 2-0.

Still, this began a brief period where my interest in baseball in general, and the Yankees in particular, waned a little. The Yankees' lack of success in the '80s may have had something to do with it, but it seems I already had the feeling the team's win-or-else mentality took much of the fun out of being a fan.

In 1982, though, another team captured my attention, led by American League MVP Robin Yount and a utility player-turned-star named Paul Molitor. In his four previous big league seasons, Molitor played 304 games at second base, 53 at shortstop, and 46 in the outfield. Then, for the 1982 season, he was switched to third base, a position at which he had previously appeared in only two major league games.

Long before I developed a fascination for players like Marco Scutaro and Casey Blake, I had always been an admirer of versatile players. Quite possibly it's because of my own experience. In my three years of little league (ages 10-12), I had spent full seasons as a left fielder, first baseman and center fielder, and then became primarily a second baseman at the senior league (13-15) level.

The 1982 Milwaukee Brewers featured three future Hall of Famers—Yount, Molitor, and Rollie Fingers—in key roles, and a fourth—Don Sutton—acquired for the stretch run and the playoffs, as well as a borderline Hall of Famer in catcher Ted Simmons. They were also powered by 30 HR, 100 RBI seasons from Ben Oglivie, Gorman Thomas and Cecil Cooper.

On the mound, they were led by the starting efforts of Yankee killer Mike Caldwell and 18-game winner Pete Vuckovich, while Fingers anchored the bullpen. However, it was their offensive prowess, as evidenced by 216 home runs as a team, that earned them the nickname Harvey's Wallbangers.

Harvey, of course, was manager Harvey Kuenn, who took over the reins of the club after their 23-24 start got Buck Rodgers fired. Kuenn, a .303 lifetime hitter who accumulated over 2,000 hits in his playing career, led the Brewers to a 72-43 record and a first place finish in the AL East. He also previously played for another team—the 1956 Detroit Tigers—that I have a certain fondness for. But, that's a story for a different day.

The Brewers seemed to be a team of destiny in 1982. After falling behind the California Angels two-games-to-none in a best-of-five series, they won three consecutive elimination games to advance to play the St. Louis Cardinals in the first World Series in team history. But, after rallying from a 5-1 deficit to win game four and tie the series, then taking a 3-2 series lead to St. Louis for the final two, their luck ran out.

Not helping matters was the absence of Fingers, who missed the entire postseason due to injury. So, while fellow future Hall of Famer Bruce Sutter was saving game seven for the Cards, Milwaukee's bullpen was being touched up for seven earned runs in 6 1/3 innings in the final two games of the series.

My 1982 Brewers capHarvey's Wallbangers fell short of a World Series victory in 1982, and the Brewers didn't return to the postseason until 2008, when C.C. Sabathia carried them there on his overburdened shoulders. But, this particular edition of the team was a truly remarkable group, not to mention they wore one of the greatest caps in baseball history.

I'm a little embarrassed to admit, however, that until about eight years ago, I never realized the baseball glove that was their emblem consisted of an M and a B.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

New York Giants All-Lifetime Team

Following the Giants' 21-17 victory over the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI, I asked my old pal Brian in a text message where this one ranks to him among the Giants' four Super Bowls. His response, verbatim:

4th out of 4...This one I thought the Giants were likely to win going into it, unlike 2 and 3. The first will always be special because I never thought I would live to see it.

I don't disagree with this, although being a Giants fan in Patriots country makes this one a little more special for me, at least partly because it denied them a measure of revenge for four years ago. But, mainly because it's nice to be on top for a second time in five years, although any talk of a dynasty is tempered by their underdog status in both recent postseasons.

But, the one thing about my friend's statement that I found funny is the part where he said "...I never thought I would live to see it."

The Giants won their first Super Bowl in 1986. Well, actually the game was in January 1987, but it was the conclusion of the 1986 season. Brian was 20 years old, so the idea that he didn't think he'd ever live to see the Giants win a Super Bowl is a bit laughable. I get what he means, since the team was terrible during our formative years of fandom. But still, it's kind of like a kid born in 1984 considering himself a long-suffering Red Sox fan.

Anyway, here are my thoughts on those four Giants Super Bowl championship teams:

1986-87: The team was almost as dominant as the Bears team that did the Super Bowl shuffle the prior year, but as the long-suffering fans we were (tongue firmly in cheek), there was still some concern they'd come up short on the big stage. When they trailed John Elway's Broncos 10-9 at halftime, those doubts seemed warranted, but the Giants exerted their dominance in the second half of a 39-20 victory. Although it was a one-sided affair, Big Blue's first Super Bowl was pretty special.

1990-91: The Giants were underdogs to the Buffalo Bills in this one, mainly because of the Bills' high-powered offense and the fact Phil Simms was injured and replaced by Jeff Hostetler. Hostetler proved a more than capable backup, though, and the Giants slowed Buffalo down by controlling time of possession with a grinding running attack. Running Back Ottis Anderson won the MVP, but the game is most known for Scott Norwood's last-second missed 47-yard field goal. Because it went right down to the wire and was somewhat unexpected, there was something a little more satisfying about it than the first.

2007-08: Possibly the greatest upset in the history of professional sports, I don't think there are many Giants fans who don't rate this at the top of their list.

2011-12: Despite being slight underdogs, the Giants were kind of expected to win. Personally, going into the game, I thought they were good enough to win by two touchdowns, and the way most of the first half went, it looked like I could be right. But, I also had a feeling the game was going to be tougher than that, and when Brady engineered two consecutive touchdown- scoring drives in a span of about eight minutes, you could see why. In the end, all the Giants' Super Bowl wins have been special for their own reasons, but this one was probably the least so.

Anyway, let's finally get to the all-lifetime team that the post's title promises. This, of course, is an all-pro team consisting of players who played at least the majority of their careers with the Giants from the mid-'70s to present.

In researching this, I came across an advanced statistic on called Approximate Value, which more closely resembles Bill James' Win Shares than the more commonly used baseball metric, Wins Above Replacement (WAR).

Since I was going to look primarily at games and seasons as a starter and Pro Bowl selections, especially for the non-skilled positions, this metric was a helpful alternative to that. I did, of course, add a little extra credit to those who were starters or played significant roles on Super Bowl champions, but otherwise Approximate Value really helped me measure the contributions of those who played positions without quantifiable statistics.

An asterisk (*) denotes an active player still with the Giants.

Offensive Skills Players
QB - Phil Simms (1979-93)
RB - Tiki Barber (1997-2006)
FB - Maurice Carthon (1985-91)
WR - Amani Toomer (1996-2008)
WR - Plaxico Burress (2005-08)
TE - Mark Bavaro (1985-90)

Most people are ready to anoint Eli Manning as the greatest QB in Giants history, and I think he'll get there eventually. But, as of right now, I still think he trails Simms. Let's not forget his legendary performance in Super Bowl XXI.

Carthon's career started around the time the fullback position was transitioning to more of a pure blocking role. At the time, it was pretty rare for a true blocking back to make the Pro Bowl. I'm convinced he would have been selected for a couple otherwise.

You're probably surprised to see Burress here, and I don't blame you. But, after Toomer, there was really no obvious choice. Burress's game-winning catch in Super Bowl XLII gives him the edge over Chris Calloway, Ike Hilliard and Lionel Manuel.

Offensive Line
C - Bart Oates (1985-93)
G - Chris Snee (2004-2011)*
G - David Diehl (2003-11)*
T - Brad Benson (1978-87)
T - Doug Riesenberg (1988-95)

I don't think it's any coincidence that these five guys have eight Super Bowls among them. On the offensive side of the ball, in fact, Barber is the only player who doesn't have at least one ring.

DE - Michael Strahan (1993-2007)
DE - Leonard Marshall (1983-92)
DT - Keith Hamilton (1992-2003)
LB - Lawrence Taylor (1981-93)
LB - Brad Van Pelt (1974-83)
LB - Jessie Armstead (1993-2001)
MLB - Harry Carson (1976-88)
CB - Mark Haynes (1980-85)
CB - Perry Williams (1984-92)
SS - Beasley Reece (1977-83)
FS - Terry Kinard (1983-89)

When I started following football, 4-3 defenses were more common than 3-4s. Then, the 3-4 became all the rage, but now the 4-3 is back in vogue. Because picking Armstead as a fourth linebacker option was better than Erik Howard or Jim Burt as a second defensive tackle, this defense plays a 3-4. This does mean I picked three outside linebackers and only one inside linebacker, but I couldn't justify leaving Armstead or Van Pelt off in favor of Brian Kelley or Pepper Johnson.

Carl Banks being left off in favor of Van Pelt and Armstead might seem surprising, but Banks is not necessarily the most deserving linebacker not on the team. Brian Kelley just might be that guy.

Hopefully, Justin Tuck will take Marshall's place in a few years, but he's not quite there yet.

Special Teams
K - Lawrence Tynes (2007-11)*
P - Sean Landeta (1985-93)
KR/PR - Dave Meggett (1989-94)

Brad Daluiso might otherwise have been my pick at kicker, if not for Tynes's two overtime NFC championship-winning field goals.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Locust Grove

Because I haven't had much time to write of late, I thought I'd re-run this (slightly revised) post from a couple years ago that I stumbled across recently. It's a short one, but for some reason, it's one of my favorites.

During the summer between my sophomore and junior years in college, I worked a third shift job as a security guard at the Young/Morse Historic Site—otherwise known as Locust Grove—in Poughkeepsie, New York. For about a quarter of the 19th century, the grounds were home to the family of Samuel F.B. Morse, the inventor of the telegraph and, of course, Morse code.

A couple years ago, KJ and I visited Locust Grove and toured the home and its lovely grounds, while also learning a couple things that even I didn't know about Morse. First of all, I'm almost embarrassed to admit I wasn't aware he was a painter long before he became famous as an inventor. Most importantly, though, his motivation to create the telegraph was that his wife died while he was traveling far from home, and by the time he received word by horse messenger and returned, she had already been buried.

Young/Morse home
After Morse's death, his family remained for a few years, but eventually sold the estate to the wealthy and politically connected Poughkeepsie couple William and Martha Young. The Young family was dedicated to the historical significance of Locust Grove and its preservation as it existed during Morse's lifetime. When their daughter Annette died in 1975, her will established a trust to maintain the estate for the "education, visitation and enlightenment of the public."

Pets were an important part of the Youngs' existence, and Annette's will also provided for the care of any living pets and their descendents. The summer I worked there, 12 years after her death, I worked with a "guard dog" named Linus. I don't know his entire story, but I was told he was willed to the estate. Since he wasn't old enough to have been alive during Annette's lifetime, I always assumed he was the offspring of her dog.

Linus wasn't really a guard dog per se, but I can tell you I was a little nervous to get out of my car the first time he introduced himself to me in the way territorial canines often do. We became fast friends, though, and he turned out to be a welcome companion as I'd make my rounds of the dark estate two or three times per hour. He also served as my personal alarm clock, warning me as the supervisor's car approached, which was important on the nights I needed a few winks to get me through to 8am.

The only time Linus wasn't there for me was the night a pack of coyotes had been seen and heard patrolling the grounds. I'm not exactly sure where he ended up hiding that night, but observing how scared he was caused me to spend most of the night inside my car, rather than at my usual post on the veranda of the Youngs' and Morses' former home.

Linus' head stoneThe Youngs' reverence for their pets is evident at the estate by the fact there are three pet cemeteries on the grounds. Well aware of this from my time spent as a guard there, I knew our visit would give me the chance to pay my respects to one of my all-time favorite dogs.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

The New Market Efficiency?

In celebration of the Giants' fourth Super Bowl championship in my 35ish years as a fan, I'm working up a post on my all-lifetime team. But, that one's dragging on a bit, so I thought I'd share an unscientific observation I made on Twitter the day after the Super Bowl:

"Barely Making the Playoffs is the New Market Efficiency."

It was really kind of a joke, but at least one St. Louis Cardinals blogger understood what I was getting at.

In addition to last year's World Series winner, the past two Super Bowl champions qualified for the playoffs on the season's final day. In fact, this year's Giants team finished the regular season at 9-7, while last year's version missed the playoffs at 10-6, losing the wild card tiebreaker to the eventual champion Green Bay Packers.

The 2011 St. Louis Cardinals clinched the NL wild card with a game-162 victory, but were also aided by a less-than-stellar stretch run from the Atlanta Braves. Even the 2010 World Series champion San Francisco Giants only won their division by two games.

So, that's four consecutive champions in the only sports that matter—half the teams make the playoffs in those other two major sports, after all—who had to play hard right up to the last day(s) of the season.

What am I trying to say here? That there's a competitive advantage to be gained by not clinching a playoff berth early? No, not really. That to win a championship you have to be a little lucky, in addition to being good? No, that wasn't my point.

OK, maybe I am trying to say a little of both of those things. But, mainly it was just an interesting—at least to me—observation.

Anyway, stay tuned if you can't stand the suspense of waiting to find out if Brad Van Pelt made my New York Giants all-lifetime team.