Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Draft Theory

Lately, I've decided I needed a programming side project, and so I'm trying to whip up a fantasy baseball draft "optimizer" that should be able to suggest the best player to take given your situation.  This, of course, relies on a whole host of variables, and being able to keep track of them all is impossible.  If it was possible, it probably would have been solved by now, and all drafts would look the same!  In this post, I'm going to try to work through how we should value players in a fantasy baseball draft.  As I design my program, I'm trying to first tackle the problem of the league I'm in (5x5 + OPS + Holds, one catcher, corner/middle infield, 5 OF, 9 pitching slots), so that's something to keep in mind.  This will probably devolve into a discussion of draft theory, so if you don't care about fantasy baseball at all, feel free to skip out.

First of all, you can't predict baseball.  There are projections, and they have a decent degree of accuracy, but they're far short of perfect.  They can try to predict injuries, breakouts, aging, regression, and minor league equivalencies, and they do a great job, but if you disagree with them, you could definitely be right.  Your draft should take into account your own opinions, so the best course of action is probably to take a projection system (or a conglomeration of them, there are a bunch) and then adjust according to what you think will happen.

Once a set of projections has been settled upon, the problem becomes deciding how these projections dictate the valuation (read: draft position) of a player.  How do we compare an outfielder with a .300 AVG, 30 homers, 90 runs, 102 RBIs, and 22 steals to a pitcher with a 2.41 ERA, 22 wins, 201 strikeouts, and a 1.050 WHIP (at the time of this post, Carlos Gonzalez and Roy Halladay have roughly the same average draft position)?  I came into last night with absolutely no idea and left with... not much better of one.

I began by thinking you could just rank the players in different categories and then combine those into a "composite ranking" that would appropriately value the player.  This doesn't account for positional scarcity, though!  (On average, you're going to get the most HRs out of 1B, the most SBs out of OF or SS, and so on.  The 12th catcher is probably worse than the 1st catcher by a larger margin than the 12th 1B is worse than the 1st 1B.  There's a lot to think about here.)  We can instead rank the players in the categories at their individual positions, but this doesn't accurately capture the information.  At 3B, ZiPS projects Brett Lawrie for 25 steals, David Wright for 18, and Chase Headley and Chone Figgins for 15.  The difference in SB ranking between Lawrie and Wright is equal to the difference in ranking between Wright and Headley/Figgins, but the difference in steals is definitely not equal.  How can we handle this correctly?

My most recent thought was comparable to how players are valued by WAR.  The goal is to find a replacement-level valuation for a player and then work from that.  I settled on doing this by grabbing the 13th best player in each category at each position (i.e. Mike Moustakas has the 13th most runs at 3B with 72, Kevin Youkilis has the 13th most HRs with 18, etc).  How does this compare to the 13th best player at each position by ADP?

Name Runs Homers RBIs SBs Average OPS
Replacement C 53 13 55 1 0.272 0.768
Yorvit Torrealba 35 5 38 2 0.280 0.724
Replacement 1B 76 23 78 2 0.268 0.806
Justin Morneau 73 16 78 0 0.269 0.790
Replacement 2B 74 16 65 12 0.270 0.766
Jemile Weeks 80 3 52 29 0.290 0.743
Replacement 3B 72 18 70 5 0.270 0.800
David Freese 69 13 70 1 0.288 0.771
Replacement SS 77 9 58 19 0.280 0.738
Alexei Ramirez 85 16 69 9 0.274 0.737
Replacement OF 63 13 57 7 0.257 0.752
Jason Bourgeois 31 1 28 31 0.300 0.693

Let's compare.  Yorvit Torrealba falls far short, but his ZiPS projection has limited playing time (and it's unclear to me why his ADP is so high to begin with).  1B, 2B, and 3B are reasonably close, Alexei Ramirez seems undervalued, and Jason Bourgeois has a very different skillset than our replacement OF and is also projected for limited playing time.  I'm satisfied with the results overall.

The 13th best player in each category should absolutely going to be better than the 13th best player you can draft - that's pretty clear off the bat by logic.  Our valuation system does seem to provide a good baseline at each position that we can compare to, and I'll stick with it in the first implementation of the program.  How, though, do we work off of the baseline?  As an exercise, here are the top five shortstops by ADP in comparison to our baseline SS.

Name Runs Homers RBIs SBs Average OPS
Troy Tulowitzki +16 +20 +49 -10 +0.023 +0.181
Hanley Ramirez +9 +10 +21 +13 +0.001 +0.075
Jose Reyes +10 0 -2 +16 +0.021 +0.068
Starlin Castro +12 0 +16 +2 +0.024 +0.037
Elvis Andrus +9 -5 +2 +20 +0.005 -0.021

Is it immediately clear that these rankings are correct?  (These ADPs are in standard 5x5 leagues where OPS is not used, so we can ignore that at this point.)  By virtue of the +20 homers and +49 RBIs, Tulowitzki rightly claims the top spot, and Hanley seems like the right choice for second.  Over the course of a season, a team will accumulate many more RBIs than steals (2nd place in standard leagues for RBIs is ~1091, for SBs is ~200), so +16 in SBs would be valued much more than +16 in RBIs, justifying Reyes over Castro.  (In the implementation, I will probably somehow measure the value provided over replacement as a percentage dent made in progress towards a statistical target.)  But why not Andrus over Castro?  And why not Andrus over Reyes, especially considering that we're ignoring OPS?  Batting average can fluctuate highly from year to year, so that projection should be the one we're most skeptical about, and Reyes is a much greater injury risk than Andrus, so what justifies the difference in ADP?  Either the drafters do not agree with the projections, do not use the projections, or have internalized different valuations of the players than the projections would suggest.  In any case this brings us to a more game-theoretical problem in drafting - how other drafters value players - but we'll get to that in a sec.

How do we value players across different positions?  I've got another chart!

Name Runs Homers RBIs SBs Average OPS
Kemp (OF) +35 +19 +46 +24 +0.020 +0.169
Cabrera (3B) +41 +14 +48 -2 +0.053 +0.199
Pujols (1B) +32 +15 +26 +7 +0.040 +0.154
Cano (2B) +19 +10 +48 -8 +0.030 +0.063
Tulowitzki (SS) +16 +20 +49 -10 +0.023 +0.181

Maybe it's only because the position is shallow in 5-OF leagues, but Kemp looks like he's head and shoulders above the competition.  In terms of positional adjustment, Tulowitzki looks to be a little more than marginally better than Cano overall, but Cano projects to put up comparable stats overall in each category (besides OPS).  Thus, positional adjustment can explain why Tulo is a mid 1st-rounder while Cano is a late 1st-rounder.  We might be on to something here!

Alright, back to that game-theoretical part.  We shouldn't change the program's valuation of players based on where other people will draft that player, but we should adjust where we are willing to draft him.  If we have a guy that is valued in the first round, but there is no way anyone else will draft him before the fourth, maybe we can wait for the third round to grab him.  This allows us to look not only for the best player available, but the best value available.  The suggestion engine has to be able to figure out how long we can wait, though.  In the early rounds, players are likely only going to be valued incorrectly by a few slots (barring some grand surprises by the valuation system), but in the later rounds, if other drafters feel great about a player in the 23rd round, they'll probably just grab him.  In this case, we should probably be looking at numbers on the highest slot in which a player has been drafted.

Another thing that will adjust valuations is if we are targeting certain categories.  In head-to-head leagues, it may be better to draft in an attempt to dominate 6/10 or 7/12 categories rather than do reasonably well in all of them.  How much higher can we be willing to draft a player if we absolutely can't win homers without him (homers probably aren't as scarce as, say, steals, but you get it)? 

Some of these questions I don't really know how to answer, but I think I've made some progress here.  If anyone wants to give me feedback in the comments, I'd definitely appreciate it.  And I'll keep this place updated with how the program is going.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Mike Minor is not Yunel Esobar

As you might have heard, yesterday, Mike Minor came out and said that if he's pitching well, he would rather be traded than sent back to the minors.  The immediate reaction was to draw up comparisons between this situation and the Yunel Escobar fiasco of 2010.

The trade of Escobar (and, of course, everyone's favorite pitcher, Jo-Jo Reyes) to the Toronto Blue Jays for Alex Gonzalez, Tyler Pastornicky, and Tim Collins was, both at the time and in retrospect, regrettable.  When it happened, Escobar's power stroke had seemingly evaporated completely.  He was a black hole offensively for the first two months of the season, and while he began to pick it up in June, it wasn't enough to counteract the real problem - he couldn't coexist with Bobby Cox.  To put it bluntly, Escobar had an "attitude," and his lack of hustle became intolerable to the organization when the talent wasn't there.

The Braves were left with Alex Gonzalez, an offensive black hole that Yunel only dreamed he could be.  (Gonzalez was in the midst of a "terrific" offensive season, so the trade was supported by the media, but everyone knew, deep down, that he couldn't keep it up for ever.  And he didn't.)  Sure, he had a glove, but Escobar was pretty good there, too.  It was a lopsided trade, and given the publicity of the Braves' dissatisfaction with Escobar, there was no way to get fair value in return.  Escobar has since matured, regained his stroke, likely become a top-10 (real life, not fantasy) shortstop, and been signed to a very team-friendly contract extension.  Pastornicky, a prospect in the trade, will be starting for the Braves on Opening Day this season, and if he turns out to be a league-average shortstop, most fans would probably be overcome with joy.

This brings us back to Minor.  It's an entirely different situation, really.  Minor has never been accused of slacking off, and his talent has always been there.  The issue has been all of the other talent clogging the rotation and preventing him from showcasing his own.  The opportunity is now there for Minor to seize, and barring a horrid performance in Spring Training, he should have the fifth spot in the rotation (and the fourth spot, while Tim Hudson is out).  Even if he doesn't get that spot, someone will get hurt (they always do) and he'll be back with the big-club in a jiffy.  In 15 major-league starts last season, Minor posted an 8.38 K/9 rate (compare to: Roy Halladay, Madison Bumgarner, C.J. Wilson) and a 3.27 BB/9 rate (...not as good, but not really a deal breaker), good for a 3.39 FIP that far outstrips his deceiving 4.14 ERA.  In the average case, Minor is a pretty damn good major-league starter this season with room to grow.  In the best case, which is not even that difficult to imagine, Minor is the Braves' best starter this season.

The most puzzling thing about this whole situation is why Minor actually said anything.  It's pretty obvious that if he's pitching well, he'd want a chance to stick in the majors.  He knows that he's being afforded every opportunity to have that chance.  Why risk creating tension with the manager, front office, and other players?  Hopefully, Minor pitches well and makes the most of his chance, and this storyline just fades away.  The kid's going to be a good pitcher, but it wouldn't hurt him to be a good diplomat, too.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The 5 Worst Offseason Signings

I've been desperately holding off on reading other people's lists like this because I wanted to write my own without any sort of bias.  Sadly, there's nothing as hilariously terrible as the Vernon Wells fiasco of yore... but it isn't like all of the GMs have suddenly become geniuses either.

5) Albert Pujols (Angels) - 10 years, $246 million
Make no mistake, Albert Pujols is still one of baseball's elite players.  This deal, though, is not one I would have made, because ten years is a long, long time.  The last two years have signaled that Pujols' decline may already have begun, and while I think the demise of  Prince Albert has been greatly overstated, it can't really be ignored.  Players age, and as they age, they get worse.  They get injured, and expecting Pujols to average the 155 games/season that he has thus far will become unrealistic soon.  Luckily, the Angels will have the luxury of putting Pujols at DH, and if they win a World Series or two, this might not matter one bit.  And who knows, maybe Albert Pujols really is a machine, and we'll look back at this contract in 10 years and see that he hasn't aged a day.

4) Heath Bell (Marlins) - 3 years, $27 million
10.21, 11.06, 7.32.  Those are Mr. Bell's K/9 rates for the last three seasons.  Just an outlier, you say?  Bell's best pitch, his fastball, didn't lose any velocity or effectiveness last season, but he threw it 15% less, replacing that 15% with a sinker that rated as below-average by PITCHf/x.  If that continues, there may be no reason to believe that he'll return to the pitcher he once was.  Leaving what is probably baseball's most pitcher-friendly park isn't going to help either.  The man is still an improvement over Leo Nunez/Juan Oviedo/no one, if whatever his name is doesn't get his visa problems sorted out, but the free-spending Marlins probably could have allocated this money better either way.

3) Michael Cuddyer (Rockies) - 3 years, $31 million
The thing is, Cuddyer just isn't a great player.  In the last four years, he's put up 0.0, 2.8, 0.8, and 3.1 WAR via below-average to dismal glovework and non-elite offense.  He's made appearances on many a fantasy team due to his positional flexibility, but the fact is that he can't play any of those positions very well, besides maybe 1B, where his bat doesn't really profile well.  He doesn't represent much of an upgrade for a Rockies team that, after the very weird offseason they had, may not end up contending at all.  Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez does not a contender make, and adding Cuddyer to the fold for $10 million per year doesn't make much of a dent.

2) Prince Fielder (Tigers) - 9 years, $214 million
These last two are, I think, on a different tier than the rest.  The only way this signing is defensible is if the Tigers actually win it all.  Some people thought Fielder put them over the top, and that they are now the prohibitive favorites... but that really isn't the case.  The Yankees were already great, and they went out and had a great offseason.  The Angels, Rangers, and Red Sox are still fantastic teams.  The AL is just really loaded with talent.  But this contract, man.  Prince Fielder, at this moment, is no Albert Pujols, and he probably doesn't deserve to be paid anything like one.
Year Albert Pujols' OPS Prince Fielder's OPS
2007 0.997 1.103
2008 1.114 0.879
2009 1.101 1.014
2010 1.011 0.871
2011 0.906 0.981
Fielder's performance at the plate has varied wildly from year to year.  Some years, he has been elite, and some years, he has been somewhat mortal.  In addition, his defense at first is definitely below average, and he runs... like he looks like he should run.  Which brings us to everyone's biggest concern about the contract: Prince Fielder is a large man.  Historically, the aging curve for heavy-set players is much steeper, and some say it's unlikely that Fielder will even be starting for the Tigers at the end of this contract.  I wouldn't be too shocked if those people were right.

1) Jonathan Papelbon (Phillies) - 4 years, $50 million
Ah, Ruben Amaro.  You just always have to have your man, don't you.  Charting the reliever market from beginning to end, you will note that Ryan Madson, the former Phillie who Amaro may or may not have planned to sign for 4 years, $44 million, landed with the Reds for a single year at $8.5 million.  Papelbon, however, was signed before any sort of market for relievers was established, and was grossly overpaid.  The issue is not even the fact that Papelbon will not produce the value of this contract, which depends on whether or not you think he is the second coming of Mariano Rivera, but the fact that if Amaro had just waited longer, he would have certainly gotten much better value for his money.  Not that I'm complaining, of course.  Between this and the Ryan Howard deal, the Phillies have a couple of the worst contracts in baseball.  (And, sadly, it may not even matter a bit.)

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Welcome to the Blog, Fredi

I had anticipated not having the opportunity to talk about Fredi Gonzalez until Spring Training had begun, but I miscalculated.  Earlier today, Braves beat writer David O'Brien tweeted that Fredi has said that Julio Teheran and/or Randall Delgado would be bullpen options if they don't make the starting rotation for Opening Day.  It might be safe to assume that we can't pin this all on Fredi, and that I'm shooting the messenger here... but it might not.  Fredi is that kind of guy.  In either case, my reaction was an emphatic "huh?"

The Braves bullpen, it has been well documented, was incredible in 2011.  Craig Kimbrel was likely the most valuable reliever in the league, Jonny Venters was certainly one of the best set-up men, and Eric O'Flaherty didn't do so bad for himself either.  The pieces beyond these three generally made solid contributions as well (besides Scott Proctor, bless his little heart).  This was accomplished despite injuries to Kris Medlen and, to a lesser extent, Peter Moylan, who were supposed to be important pieces in the 'pen.  The 2012 bullpen, before this tweet, was expected to be staffed by Kimbrel, Venters, O'Flaherty, Medlen, and some combination of Arodys Vizcaino, Anthony Varvaro, Cristhian Martinez, Jairo Ascensio, and other less likely candidates.  While some of them may regress from the stellar performances of last season, conventional wisdom would rank the Braves' bullpen as being among the best in the league in this upcoming season.

Teheran and Delgado are very highly regarded prospects, and are going to be starters for the Atlanta Braves at some point soon.  They will make starts in 2012, and if they aren't full-fledged members of the 2013 rotation (at least Teheran), I would be surprised.  Why stick them in the bullpen, then?  The whole point of the minor league system is to allow these players to develop.  These players need to improve their durability by pitching every fifth day and get a better feel for their repertoire, not be stuck in a bullpen where they are called on every... who knows how many days to pitch a single inning.  There was a case for putting Vizcaino, another highly regarded prospect, into the bullpen last year because of his history with injury, but that is not so much the case with these two.  There is no need to rush these two and possibly stunt their development.  While it may improve the bullpen, it isn't by enough that it is worth damaging the performance of the rotation in the long term, or, for that matter, the future payroll by inordinately increasing their service time without good reason.  The relievers that the club will use in high-leverage situations are set in stone, and the low-leverage relievers will be completely adequate.

So, was Fredi just letting the world know of another genius idea that occurred to him, or is this something that has been discussed with the front office and the player development staff?  Only time will tell, but I'm willing to put my money on the first.  If either one of Teheran or Delgado is sitting in that bullpen on Opening Day without a solid excuse (e.g. some disaster befalling... a large number of relievers), I will not be happy, and the future Braves might pay for it in one way or another.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The First Post

Alternatively: The Post That Should Have Been the First Post

The idea of a baseball blog has been bouncing around my head for somewhere around a year now, and yesterday I finally decided to man up and commit to it.  This is The View from Turner Field - brilliant name, I know - and I'm Daniel.  My aim for this blog is to deliver quality baseball analysis, primarily focused on the Atlanta Braves, but also reaching elsewhere as I see fit.  I'm not the kind of guy who'll be able to tell you that Player X's new batting stance has really allowed him to turn on that inside fastball, but I hope to be able to discuss signings, trades, statistics, and managerial decisions fairly intelligently.  I am not a writer by trade, and the majority of my in-depth baseball exploration to date has been conducted over Google Talk, so this blog will definitely be a growing experience for me.  I'll produce as much original, informative content as I can, and I hope to learn a lot in the process.

It's fairly likely that anyone reading this post knows who I am, but in case you don't, and you want to know more about me... I'm a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania studying Computer Science and Mathematics.  Originally, though, I hail from the great state of Georgia, home of the Waffle House and the Braves.  I've been a fan for a long, long time, and it really isn't fun sharing a city with the Phillies.  (You get over it, though.)  I've got problem sets to get to, but I'm definitely going to try to update this thing three or four times a week.  If you're interested in baseball and/or the Braves, need something to read, or just want to watch as I attempt to form sentences, feel free to come back here any time.