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2013 Midseason Evaluation of Cubs Hitters

The Cubs have scored a surprising 384 runs in the first half of the season, good for sixth-best in the NL.

It has been another tough summer for baseball fans on the north side of Chicago. Save for Travis Wood’s fantastic first half, the front office making serious moves in the international market by signing Baseball America’s top two international prospects (Eloy Jimenez and Gleyber Torres), and the recent signing of second overall draft pick Kris Bryant, the Cubs have done nothing to make headlines or tickle anyone’s fancy. Fortunately, no one in their right mind came into the 2013 season with any expectations after the embarrassing 61-win performance we witnessed last year. However, it has been hard for Cubs fans to feel anything but discouraged as we approach the dog days of summer with no hope and minimal interest in the actual product on the field.

Amidst all the trade talk over the past few weeks and negativity coming from talking heads, the Cubs have surprisingly played borderline watchable baseball. The Pythagorean Theorem suggests they should actually be three games better than they are now (45-48 compared to 42-51), which would put them only two games out of the fifth and final wild card spot instead of the five games that currently separate them. That theorem, which takes into account runs scored (384) and runs given up (394), indicates that, if the Cubs can minimize the unfortunate late game collapses that have haunted them all season, they should be able to finish the season with 79 wins, a major improvement from last year and an encouraging progression going forward. Their starting rotation, no thanks to the overpaid Edwin Jackson, has been great, ranking seventh in the National League in ERA (3.76), second in opponent batting average (.238), third in WHIP (1.21) and third in quality starts (57).

On the contrary, their bullpen has been absolutely abysmal, ranking second to last in the NL in ERA (4.35), and their hitting has been sub-par. The Cubs rank 11th in the NL and 25th in the Majors in team batting average (.243), yet they have somehow scored a pleasantly surprising 384 runs – good for sixth best in their league. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why that is, but it certainly doesn’t hurt that they lead the NL with 28 home runs hit with runners in scoring position. Individually, though, which hitters have specifically helped transform the Cubs from one of the three worst run-scoring teams in all of baseball to middle of the pack?

**For all of you who happened to read my posts from last summer evaluating Cubs and White Sox hitters, the next few paragraphs will sound identical in order to explain the math behind everything (since it has been over a year), so feel free to skip to the chart.**

If you can recall from last summer, I wrote a post titled “By the Numbers: Evaluating the Impact of Cubs and Sox Hitters,” in which I used Bill James’ Runs Created Formula in an attempt to compute the number of runs “created” by a hitter throughout the course of a season (refer to the book Mathletics). Simply put, if a team consisted of nine of the same player, such as nine Starlin Castros, approximately how many runs would they have scored thus far this season and, more importantly, how many runs would they score for their team per game? Instead of using sabermetric measurements that most casual fans don’t understand, such as wins above replacement (WAR), the runs created formula gives us the ability to evaluate the true value that each hitter has brought to his respective lineup so far. Like last time, I gathered each player’s statistics and computed the runs created and game outs used for each hitter using:

Runs created = ((hits + BB + HBP) X (Total Bases))  ÷   (AB + BB + HBP)

Game outs used = .982(AB) – hits + GIDP + SF + SAC + CS

As pointed out last year, according to Mathletics, “approximately 1.8% of all at bats result in errors. Hitters also create ‘extra’ outs through sacrifice flies (SF), sacrifice bunts (SAC), caught stealing (CS), and grounding into double plays (GIDP).” Hence why we must take .982 of every at-bat instead of 1. Game outs used must then be divided by 26.72 (the total number of game outs available in a game, taking into account the .018 approximate number of errors per 27 outs in a MLB game) in order to determine the number of games’ worth of outs used by each hitter. That, ultimately, leaves the most important equation as the final step:

Runs created per game =  runs created  ÷  games’ worth of outs

Obviously, runs created per game tells you more about a hitter’s value than total runs created because the latter does not differentiate between bad hitters with a lot of plate appearances and great hitters with less plate appearances. That being said, take a look at the numbers below:

Capture

Overall, the Cubs have gotten a lot more production at the plate out of the catcher, third base and right field positions. Cody Ransom may be leading the way with 8.45 runs created/game, but his 97 at-bats is nowhere near enough to justify his true worth to the lineup, so it’d be best to look past him. This year’s version of Luis Valbuena, though, has been much better at the plate than last year’s version, and he has been a saint compared to the atrocious excuse for a Major League third baseman that was Ian Stewart. He’s fifth on the team in homers (8), fourth in RBI’s (29), and first in on-base percentage (.345) amongst all Cubs hitters with more than 125 at-bats.

The backstop combination of Dioner Navarro and Welington Castillo has been serviceable, which is an enormous upgrade from Geovany Soto and his .199 batting average. At the All-Star break last year (right before he was traded to Texas), Soto was sporting a measly 2.80 runs created/game. Through this season’s first half, the switch-hitting Navarro and right-handed Castillo are creating a combined 4.99 runs per game, almost twice the value of Soto. Navarro is hitting an incredible .536 (15-for-28) against lefties, while Castillo is hitting .290 (51-for-136) against righties, making them a very formidable duo at the plate. Neither of them remind anyone of Yadier Molina when it comes to defense and calling games (Castillo leads NL catchers in errors with eight), but given how few hitting catchers there are in the league these days, both men have ultimately made the Cubs a better hitting team.

Nate Schierholtz has become a legit trade piece for the Cubs.

Nate Schierholtz, whom the Cubs signed in the offseason to platoon in right field, has been one of the better players on the team from the start. His positive play has helped him gain the trust of Dale Sveum, who continuously slots him into the lineup whenever the Cubs face a right-handed pitcher (holds a superb .862 OPS against right-handers this season). Although he’s not an every day player (he rarely plays against lefties), Schierholtz ranks third on the team with 34 RBI’s and holds the highest batting average (.269) of any Cub with over 200 at-bats. He has already hit a career-high 11 home runs and is on pace for 483 at-bats, which is nearly one and a half times his current career-high at-bat total of 335. It’s nice to see a player of Schierholtz’ caliber having this kind of success for such a young team lacking talent and plate discipline, and he has turned himself into a legitimate trade chip for contending teams, such as the Pirates, looking for a left-handed bat. Whether the Cubs pull the trigger and trade him for a piece or two at the deadline remains to be seen.

Outside of a solid six-week span from the middle of April through the end of May, Anthony Rizzo has been somewhat of a disappointment with a 17.9% strikeout rate and lowly .241 batting average. However, he leads the team in RBI’s (54), extra-base hits (42), and walks (41), so we can’t sit here and nit-pick.  He’s also creating over five runs per game, which should increase significantly over the next couple of years as the Cubs begin to surround Rizzo with the influx of talent that’s currently dominating in the minors. It shouldn’t shock anyone to see Rizzo improve upon his .267 BABIP (it was .310 last season) in the second half and boost his average to around .260-.270 by season’s end.

Starlin Castro has been a massive disappointment this season.

Starlin Castro has been absolutely brutal in all aspects of the game this year. Not only are his numbers laughable, but his fielding has not improved a damn lick as he, once again, ranks second in the Majors in errors (14). There’s really no explanation for Castro’s regression as he gets older and approaches his prime (ages 27-29), but his lack of focus, immaturity and mediocre work ethic sure as hell aren’t helping. At the dish, he has been arguably the least valuable Cub to date with his 3.43 runs created/game, .243 batting average (compared to his career .287 BA), and nearly 5:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio (72 K’s, 15 BB’s). Just two years ago, during his 21-year-old season, Castro created a solid 5.47 runs per game, which puts into perspective how far he and his bat have plummeted since then. With this being the first full season of Castro’s 7-year, $60 million contract, Cubs fans can only pray that what they’re witnessing is nothing more than a three and a half month-long slump. Look for him to pick up his game over the next few months. If he doesn’t, those “trade Castro” rumors may quickly turn into something of a reality.

There’s a lot to look forward to as the trade deadline nears, with the usual suspects, namely Matt Garza and Alfonso Soriano, back on the market. The Cubs lineup has been much more productive than anyone expected this season, giving them more intriguing bats to trade than they had at this point last season. Over the past year, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have proven that no veteran with a team-friendly contract is safe. Players such as Schierholtz, David Dejesus, Valbuena and Soriano (he certainly doesn’t have a team-friendly contract, but he’s still on the trade block) have all had relatively good seasons and can bring something positive to the table for a contender looking for an extra bat. As the month winds down, the professional fate of these men will be decided, and Cubs fans can gear up for yet another meaningless October.

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By the Numbers: Chances Bulls beat Rockets in 1994 and 1995 with Michael Jordan

The debate over whether or not the Bulls would have beaten the Rockets with Michael Jordan will never go to rest.

Think about it: how many times have you gotten into a conversation or an argument with someone about whether or not the Bulls would have won eight straight championships had Michael Jordan not retired to play baseball? For me, it must be a good five to ten times and counting. It was only a few years ago when I got into a heated debate with two Rockets fans about this very topic. Punches were nearly thrown and veins began popping out of our necks and foreheads. Fortunately for me, those punches were not thrown, as I would have easily gotten my ass kicked.

This topic has been debated amongst diehard fans, casual fans, “fans” who think they know basketball because they’ve heard of some guy named Jordan, writers, analysts, and scrubs off the street. It has probably also been debated amongst current players, former players, coaches and even front office personnel. The main argument for the Rockets: Hakeem Olajuwon. Of the six championships the Bulls won, they never had to play a team with a legitimate center (Vlade Divac, Clifford Robinson, Tom Chambers, Shawn Kemp/Sam Perkins whom were both true power forwards, Greg Ostertag twice). He averaged 29-11-4-4 during the ’94 playoffs and 33-10-5-3 during the ’95 playoffs. That’s fair. The main argument for the Bulls: Michael Jordan. The Rockets didn’t have him. The best player in the world retired right smack-dab in the middle of his prime after winning three straight championships. No team could have stopped him no matter how hard they tried.

Of course, no one really knows what would have happened had Jordan not retired during the summer of ’93. However, that doesn’t mean we should stop arguing about it. What fun would that be? Everyone is entitled to their own opinion – as long as they can back it up with some sort of logic. For all these years, I’ve always argued just for the sake of arguing – some of it out of bias for my hometown Bulls and my sick obsession with M.J., some of it out of thinking that a Jordan-led Bulls team was truly better all-around than the Rockets. But, being the number-loving guy that I am, I surprisingly never took the time to come up with an answer from a statistical point-of-view. So, after a fellow sports fanatic and buddy of mine, Adam Singer, posed the very question about Jordan’s Bulls beating Olajuwon’s Rockets to me last week, I decided to do something about it. I asked myself, “What are the chances the Bulls would have won championships in 1994 and 1995 with an unretired, cannibalistic Jordan?”

To figure this out, I used a very similar approach (that I learned about in a book called Mathletics) to one of my posts from May, titled By the numbers: Chances the Bulls get to the Finals with a healthy D-Rose. I used Microsoft Excel Solver to power rate each NBA team during every postseason from 1990-1995 using season-long data from nba-reference.com. I calculated the home team’s margin, prediction of each game, and the squared error of each game, which equals (home margin – prediction)^2. The sum of the squared error acts as the “target cell” in Solver and must be minimized in order to come up with accurate team ratings. Assuming that the average NBA playoff team had a rating of 0, you can see below that the Bulls, as expected, received the highest playoff rating during each of their first three championship runs with 15.88, 20.54 and 9.59, respectively. The Rockets, of course, rated the highest during the 1994 and 1995 postseasons with 5.74 and 16.08, respectively.

Before we get into the nitty gritty, let’s take all this in for a second. Based on just the numbers above, it’s no coincidence that the Bulls went from making everyone their bitch from 1991-93 to just above average in the two postseasons that followed. They also ranked first overall in offensive rating (points scored per 100 possessions) during the 1990-91 and 1991-92 seasons and second overall in 1992-93, then plummeted to 14th overall in 1993-94 and 10th in 1994-95. The impact that MJ had on the Bulls can obviously go without saying. Even without him, though, they finished their first Jordan-less season with 55 wins and the third seed in the playoffs. Had Hue Hollins not made one of the most controversial foul calls in the history of the NBA against Scottie Pippen during Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, the Bulls would have likely won the series against the Knicks and could have been one step closer to playing the Rockets without Jordan. But, it clearly didn’t work out that way, and they were sent packing before the Finals for the first time in four years.

Anyways, it’s time to get back on track and calculate the chances that the Bulls would have beaten Houston using Excel’s @RISK. The first step was forecasting the average scoring margin for home and away games. There was no right way to do this, so I had to get creative. I figured the most logical way would be to:

  1. Take the Bulls’ average playoff rating over those three seasons above (15.34) and put it up against the Rockets’ ratings in their respective championship seasons (5.47 in ’94, 16.09 in ’95).
  2. Assume the Bulls would have had home court advantage (5.85 points) both years because they finished with only three less wins than Houston in ’94 (55 to 58) and the same amount of wins in ’95 (47 each). I’d like to think that the Bulls would have won at least three extra games each year had Jordan been playing.
  3. Assume they would have beaten every Eastern Conference opponent because it just makes my life easier.

For home games, I took (Home Edge + Bulls Rating – Rockets Rating). For away games, I took (Bulls Rating – Home Edge – Rockets Rating). The projected margin was then calculated using the average forecast and standard deviation (Mathletics states that ”12 points is the historical standard deviation of actual scores about a prediction from a ranking system”). If that number was greater than 0, then the Bulls were given a 1 (indicating they won) and were given a 0 if the number was less than 0 (indicating they lost). If the sum of the wins was greater than or equal to 4, then the Bulls would have won the series. With that being said, take a look at the 1994 Finals simulation results:

After running 1000 iterations, the Bulls won the series a ridiculous 966 times, meaning they would have had a 96.6% chance of beating Houston with Jordan playing. In other words, had the Bulls played as well in the 1994 postseason as they did the previous three seasons, the Rockets would have stood virtually no chance of winning. Seven championships instead of six? Yes please.

The 1995 playoffs were a completely different story. Houston played with much more of an edge after finally winning a championship the year before, and Hakeem Olajuwon was simply unstoppable, as he solidified himself as the best center in the game. Jordan also came back and played in the playoffs, but I’ll get to that in a minute. Check out the 1995 Finals simulation results:

This time, the Bulls won the series only 504 times – you can’t find a more even matchup than that. The split was nearly dead even at 50/50 so, based on numbers alone, it’s very hard for me to argue for any one side. However, I will say this: I understand that Jordan came back near the end of the season and played in the playoffs, but he wasn’t quite the same player that everyone was accustomed to watching until the playoffs actually started. He was very rusty in a majority of the regular season games he played in and shot a career low 41% from the field.

Yes, Jordan’s numbers against Charlotte and Orlando that postseason prove that he finally got his mojo back (31.5 points per game), but the team’s chemistry wasn’t even close to where it once was during their three-peat. The Bulls had added Toni Kukoc, Luc Longley, Ron Harper and Steve Kerr since Jordan left, and they lost Horace Grant and John Paxson. It was probably very difficult for Jordan to adjust to playing with a completely different group of players and vice versa. Imagine playing two years with Scottie Pippen leading your team and then watching him hand over the reigns, just a month before the 1995 playoffs, to a legend who takes about 22 shots a game and approaches every play, every set and every opposition unlike anyone you’ve ever seen. It takes longer than a month to get used to, so the Bulls entered the playoffs during a honeymoon period, and Shaquille O’Neal’s Magic took advantage. Needless to say, they went on to win a NBA-record 72 games the next season and obliterated everyone en route to their fourth of six championships (finished the postseason with a 15-3 record). Surely, a little chemistry, as well as a little Dennis Rodman, never hurt anyone. Well, except for any women who claim victim to Rodman’s misdemeanor and domestic violence charges. But that’s besides the point.

Look, I don’t want to take anything away from the Houston Rockets. They were an incredible team led by two Hall of Famers in Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler and supported by Kenny Smith, Sam Cassell, Robert Horry and Mario Elie. After Jordan, Olajuwon may have been the best player in the ’90s and is widely considered the greatest defensive player of all time. Coming up with probabilities is fun and all, but it’s not a final indicator of who would actually win the series. The games would still have to be played. Maybe the Rockets weren’t going to lose that year no matter who they went up against, but I still can’t help but think about what could have been.

From Charles Barkley to Karl Malone to John Stockton to Patrick Ewing to Reggie Miller to Dominique Wilkins to Shawn Kemp to Brad Daugherty to Tim Hardaway, the list of Hall of Famers or great players that never won a ring because they couldn’t beat M.J.’s Bulls is endless. Had Jordan never retired to play baseball, who’s to say that Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler wouldn’t have joined that list as well?

Midseason Evaluation of White Sox Hitters

The White Sox lineup is one of the best in all of baseball.

We are now halfway through the MLB regular season, and the Chicago White Sox are still holding their own and sitting in first place in the AL Central with a three game lead. Amazing. Whether or not the Detroit Tigers will finally start playing up to their potential remains to be seen, but it’s hard to see this White Sox team slowing down anytime soon. They rank fifth in the AL in runs scored (409) and sixth in team ERA (3.91). Since the addition of Kevin Youkilis, the Sox are 10-4, including series wins against the Rangers (sweep) and Blue Jays, and are averaging an incredible 6.14 runs per game.

If you can recall from a couple of months back, I wrote a post titled “By the Numbers: Evaluating the Impact of Cubs and Sox Hitters,” in which I used Bill James’ Runs Created Formula in an attempt to compute the number of runs “created” by a hitter throughout the course of a season (refer to the book Mathletics). Simply put, if a team consisted of nine of the same player, such as nine Paul Konerkos, approximately how many runs would they have scored thus far this season and, more importantly, how many runs would they score for their team per game? Instead of using sabermetric measurements that most casual fans don’t understand, such as wins above replacement (WAR), the runs created formula gives us the ability to evaluate the true value that each hitter has brought to his respective lineup thus far this season. Like last time, I gathered each player’s statistics and computed the runs created and game outs used for each hitter using:

Runs created = ((hits + BB + HBP) X (Total Bases))  ÷   (AB + BB + HBP)

Game outs used = .982(AB) – hits + GIDP + SF + SAC + CS

Remember, according to Mathletics, “approximately 1.8% of all at bats result in errors. Hitters also create ‘extra’ outs through sacrifice flies (SF), sacrifice bunts (SAC), caught stealing (CS), and grounding into double plays (GIDP).” Hence why we must take .982 of every at-bat instead of 1. Game outs used must then be divided by 26.72 (the total number of game outs available in a game, taking into account the .018 approximate number of errors per 27 outs in a MLB game) in order to determine the number of games’ worth of outs used by each hitter. That, ultimately, leaves the most important equation as the final step:

Runs created per game =  runs created  ÷  games’ worth of outs

Obviously, runs created per game tells you more about a hitter’s value than total runs created because the latter does not differentiate between bad hitters with a lot of plate appearances and great hitters with less plate appearances. That being said, take a look at the numbers below:

Youk’s numbers are clearly inflated due to how great he’s been in a White Sox uniform in only 49 at-bats, so the 10.05 runs created per game is bound to go down. However, it’s important to point out that, between 2008-2010, Youkilis managed to create 8.39, 8.61 and 8.92 runs respectively. Although he only averaged 427 at-bats the last two seasons of that span due to a variety of injuries, those numbers are still pretty unbelievable. If there’s anything to take away from the chart, it’s this: Brent Morel is bad. Like really bad. Sox fans should be kissing Kenny Williams’ and Rick Hahn’s asses every single day for the rest of the season for trading a couple of crackerjacks for Youkilis. That should end up going down as the best trade of the year for any one team.

If you move on down the line, everything seems to make sense. Paul Konerko continues to do what Paul Konerko does, taunting opposing pitchers to the tune of a .329 batting average and .904 OPS. The dude just doesn’t seem to let up and remains one of the most consistent hitters in all of baseball. He has been the most valuable hitter in the Sox lineup all season long, but at this point in his career, no baseball fan needs statistics to help him/her figure that out.

The biggest surprise this season has to be Alex Rios. He’s quietly having a monstrous turnaround season, ranking fifth in the AL in hits with 101 and 11th in total bases with 166. He’s also second on the team with a .318 average and leads the team in extra-base hits with 36 (tied with Dunn). To put into perspective how truly great he has been this season, take a look at last year’s numbers:

Rios has already created more runs midway through this season than he did all of last season. Quite frankly, he was atrocious last year, and Sox fans had all but given up on him. But, as Rios has proven, it’s never too late to turn things around. Somewhere, Adam Dunn is nodding aggressively.

Alexei Ramirez has certainly gotten better since we last calculated these numbers (was creating 1.75 runs per game seven weeks into the season), but he still remains dead last among every day Sox hitters in runs created per game. He barely ever walks (his on-base percentage is a measly .287) and only has 17 extra-base hits, also good for last on the team. It seems as if Ramirez will continue to shit on White Sox brass as he rakes in his $8 million per year, but as I just pointed out, there’s always room for improvement.

The 2012 season is moving fast and the dog days of summer are rapidly approaching. With only 77 games left, the White Sox are in position to make the playoffs for the first time since 2008. The second half of the season is going to be a grind, but if the Sox can maintain these hot bats, they should have no problem getting to October.

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