Sunday, December 09, 2007

Another Win for the Home Team

ogc brief

Pitching is king, so says study.

Giants have strategy around pitching, no use trading away developing pitching for lesser value, we need to learn what we got first.

Rebuilding is hard, have to be patient, let prospects develop and go from there, not trade in desperation.

In 2008, progress not measured in wins or losses, but in knowledge gained on our prospects capabilities.

Study Says Pitching is King

I was perusing the 2007 Baseball Forecaster - and anxiously awaiting the arrival of the 2008 - and ran across another interesting finding that supports the whole premise of what I have been advocating for the Giants strategy going forward, which is simply: pitching rules.

In the 2007 book there is a study of "Home Field Advantage" by John Burnson on page 34. He examined how runs scored and runs allowed affect winning percentage, modeling the results. He did this study because some fantasy leaguees put a premium on guessing the outcomes of single games.

What he found was that "All in all, the mission for the home team should be to allow fewer runs." And his finding "reinforces a fact of baseball: Run prevention is king. A team that scores 10 runs can still lose, but a team that allows 0 runs can't." His conclusion? "If you are betting on single games, go with pitching, and do not underestimate home-field advantage."

Giants Thoughts

I know that by now I'm probably either preaching to the choir or falling on deaf ears. But like a barnstorming evangelist, I seek additional converts. I seek to find the key that will unlock more minds, to convince them that I am correct, or to find the person who is able to set me straight.

From my previous posts, I have been trying to make the case that pitching first is the ideal strategy for the Giants (really for most teams). Having a park that favors certain pitchers - while it has become a neutral park over the past few years, it still inhibits HR hitting by hitters, particularly for lefties - the Giants are better off being in the position of trading pitchers, because pitchers will look better than they really are pitching in AT&T, while hitters will look worse than they really are in AT&T.

Also, studies have shown that offense don't play much of a role in the success of a team in the playoffs, whereas pitching and defense does. Obviously you need to score enough to win in the regular season and get into the playoffs, but once there, it is pitching that makes a difference in who wins the series and who doesn't. So the smart team and GM starts from there and build around that core of pitching and defense, not trade it away to at best do a sideways move, because as much as Rios improves the offense, the starting pitching is probably that much worse, if not more since Lincecum is better than Rios.

Some have been advocating trading off our pitching now because we have to improve our offense. We are rebuilding and rebuilding takes patience and belief in the plan. In life, as in baseball, the adage that those who fail to plan, plans to fail. This is very true in the Giants case.

Cain and Lincecum are perfect pitchers to build around for a successful run in the playoffs, with high K/9 pitchers like them being very rare and their low H/9 is just as rare. Those advocating trading either basically agree that any trade of either would not finish the rebuilding job of the offense, that it would only incrementally improve the offense. They acknowledge that further moves are necessary. Some say that they will worry about the pitching when they get to the point of getting into the playoffs, but pitchers like Lincecum are rarely available via trade or free agency but 24 HR outfielders like Rios often are.

So why overpay for Rios now? Rios is nice but he was no underaged wunderkind, like Cain or Lincecum. It took him a couple of years of struggle to figure things out in the majors. Neither Cain nor Lincecum had much struggle - about a month's worth - to become consistently good. So why trade now when Rios is not the final answer plus Lincecum could improve his value immensely with another good season.

I think the analogy to a farm is apt here, particularly since we call it a "farm system." Just because the team is struggling, it does not mean you go ahead and sell the fruits of your farm before they are fully ripe and mature. You need to be patient and allow them to be fully developed before you go to the market to sell them off.

As I've been saying for a while now, the Giants are just getting to the tipping point, but they are not quite there yet in regards to top pitchers. However, we do have mid-range pitchers like Lowry, Hennessey, and Sanchez who we could deal as we have pitchers like Correia and Misch who can come up and take their places. But obviously this is not an area of depth, particularly after we lost Blackley in the Rule 5 draft, so that's why the Giants have been sniffing around free agent starters.

Those worried about pitchers and injury miss the big picture. They are just advocating Cover Your Ass (CYA) behavior, which is what the Giants have been doing since the 2002 World Series, covering their ass by getting a bunch of experienced vets instead of taking a risk and shooting for greatness by signing good players like Vlad or Carlos Beltran.

The fact is that not every pitcher performs badly or become injured, else teams would have a hospital at the park to save the travel. If you are going to live in fear of pitchers falling apart, then you may as well stop drafting pitchers or trade all the young ones away for veteran pitchers who are more sturdy (in whatever way you define as sturdy). Obviously, the bed the Giants have made revolves around young pitching, for better or worse (I believe better), but we are not at the point yet in our development where we can just go off trading off great pitching just to cover your ass on offense.

As I've advocated before, my Phoenix Theory of Rebuilding requires a period of pain where the team is going to stink, where you give players who appear to have some potential a chance to show whether they have it or not. 2008 is that year of pain. That's why you give Ortmeier a chance, unless you can pick up a failed 1B free agent prospect (like Tampa did in 2007 with Carlos Pena) and give him a chance, but you don't waste a good pitching prospect trading chip just to trade for a failed 1B prospect when you have Ortmeier already. If he fails, then you can trade for that better 1B prospect mid-season, he should still be available somewhere, whether you do that trade now or then don't really make a big difference, so why not give Ortmeier a chance, however brief.

Hopefully, prospects develop as you hope, particularly from the 2007 draft, and you proceed from there. It will be incremental step, by incremental step, some giant leap, with some steps backward. But you short change the rebuilding process by trading off one of the best pitching prospects around for an OK outfielder when he won't make a huge difference to the offense, as the offense will be that much worse unless you think that he's a better hitter than Barry Bonds (since the offense as it exists now, with Bonds, was anemic still). So why not find out in 2008 what our position prospects are made out of before you make drastic moves like moving Lincecum? Why not be patient?

Trades made out of desperation - which is how I read the position of all the people I've seen advocating the trade, they are desperate for more offense - are rarely a good trade, rarely a good position to be in when in negotiations. Because then you make deals that don't make sense, that is short term rather than long term, that are knee-jerk reactions, instead of following some sort of plan.

The plan is pitching dominance. With Lincecum and Cain, we have dominance, then we build around them. People point at the offense and the losses with Cain especially, but the Tigers were in that situation a few years ago too, with Bonderman (their Lincecum/Cain) taking a beating in losses even though he pitched well, because they had a poor offense. They rebuilt the team over a few years and now Bonderman is pitching with a good offense.

I'm not saying the Giants will have such a great offense, but I'm saying the Tigers bit the bullet with a number of poor years as they built up their farm system with high draft picks (Maybin, Miller, Porcello), signed some select good free agents like I-Rod and Ordonez, and turned themselves around. They didn't trade, say, Verlander away in 2005 when they were 71-91, to get more offense (they were 11th out of 14), they picked up a nice free agent in Kenny Rogers to improve the pitching even more, plus let their offense develop.

I don't know how many years away we are, so that's sure to be scary for some. I think we are closer than most think, as our team underperformed in 2007; they should have been much closer to .500 than they were. So the loss of Bonds should be offset a lot by the regression to mean of the team offense overall. So it would take some development of our young players, both position and pitchers, to progress from where we were last season, as we have some pluses in 2008 that didn't exist in 2007.

One is that Roberts will be healthy as a leadoff hitter and platooning with Davis, who should be good in that role - he should not be starting, at least not until he can prove that he can hit well over a season. Two, Zito should be fully over his contract-itis-oopsy, and can pitch as well as he did in the second half of the season, if not better. Three is Cain and Lincecum should be over their learning pains - Cain in trusting his fastball, Lincecum in truly believing he belongs in the majors - and, as scary as they may sound to the NL West, they could even be better than they have been. Four, 2B should not be a sink-hole like it was in 2007, either Durham rebounds or Frandsen will take over and be a decent 2B, his history in the minors suggest that he can do at least that much. Even if not, at least we would have learned what his capabilities are, rebuilding is about learning what we got, plus giving prospects who have performed in the minors a chance.

Then we need a bit of luck. One would be Schierholtz doing it again: during his career, he is powerless his initial run at a new level, then the lightbulb turns on and he is superman again. He had an extended run in 2007 in the majors, hopefully if he is given the chance to start in 2008, the light bulb will turn on. I am hopeful that he will be one of the unexpected surprises that will make 2008 a better season than thought.

Two would be Ortmeier. Yes, his history is not the greatest in the minors and that counts greatly against him. However, he handled two separate stints in the majors nicely, and while that is small samples, unless we can get a 1B alternative that doesn't cost us anything, he should get a chance to see whether he can do that over a full season, I respect when a player can deliver in the majors. Yes, he could turn out like Gladden and Herndon and not be as good as initially, but what do we have to lose? If we are rebuilding, we should not be caring much about the win-loss and more about whether the player we have is good enough or not, then move on and trade then, only then, as losses don't matter, in fact, it's even good, as it gets us a better pick in 2009.

Three, we will need our pitchers in new roles to come through: Wilson, Walker, Correia, Sanchez, Misch. If Wilson and Walker can solidify the end of game roles, particularly closer and setup respectively, that would fix a big problem area of 2007 - for example, Cain lost 5 wins because of the bullpen, he could have been close to .500 instead of 9 games under .500. The others could be new starters in the rotation, and if they can duplicate past performance, we can safely trade away Lowry or Sanchez without a loss of performance.

But in any case, whether they do or not, that is what we have to learn, we have to be patient, we have to accept that most probably 2008 will be a learning year where progress is not measure in wins and losses but in finding out what our prospects got, which will guide us in the 2008 off-season on what we need to do next going forward. It is like Edison testing out thousands of materials to find the best light filament, each failure is not a true failure because you now know what doesn't work and you can move on from there. That's how it should be with our prospects, unless we can get someone without losing prospects - say players who are non-tendered this month or released for whatever reason.

4 comments:

  1. Martin, I think this is one of your best posts ever. I am a little alarmed at the length of your new postings - I think it makes it much harder to respond - but this post really draws together much of your thinking and serves as kind of your manifesto for the Winter of '07.
    I was very happy to see the piece as I've just writtena testy bit at McC Chrons as it so aggravates me that all the people that roasted Sabean for holding on to Morris too long and traded him at very low value, are now unbelievably anxious to trade off Lincecum at a point when his trade value is still very much on the rise. So your idea of playing our young guys to see which of them have MLB potential makes tons of sense to me. Next year, we will have a better idea of what we do have vs what we need. And, while we struggle thru '08, amy of our pitchers will raise their trade value - so that in 12 months we will be able to not only identify with more precision what we need, but also have more - and more valjuable pitching trading chips, both on our 25 man roster, our 40 man roster, and down through the system.
    BTW, keeping in mind we won only 39 of 94 games decided by 2 or fewer runs, AND that Pythagoranally speaking, we should have won somewhere around 78 games in '07, having gotten rid of Morris, Ortiz, Benitez, I think we win at least 5 or 6 more of those games in '08, meaning we are likely to win 76 or 77 games based on that alone. I don't think there is anyway we contend (whcih would require 90+ wins) but I think there is a good liklihood we win 76 - 81 games next year - and I would not be surprised if we won as many as 85.

    ReplyDelete
  2. An excellent post Martin, a very good analysis of the Giants situation right now. The Giants are in a transition period right now (to state the obvious). Patience is a virtue. Anyone who follows the Giants can see their current formula for future success is in pitching, defense and speed, which has been mentioned many times before on this site. All of this can be seen in the lower levels of the Giants farm system. As the cream of the crop of these players rise up and develop into solid major league players the Giants will begin to see a great deal more wins and become a force in the playoffs. As us die hard Giant fans are chomping at the bit for these days to come, we should in the mean time take comfort in the fact that we can continue to take pleasure in watching two brilliant young pitchers (Cain and Lincecum) mature into what could be future greatness and not worry about the win-loss column, at least for now. This is just one man's opinion; take it for what it's worth. As for pitching being more important than offense, one needs to look no further than the New York Yankees, an incredible modern day murders row lineup, with a mediocre pitching staff, and they have not won a World Series since 2000. That should say everything right there. I have always looked at the correlation between pitching and offense as the same as driving and putting in Golf. As in the adage: drive for show, putt for dough. A high powered offense puts on a better show but pitching is how you win.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Wow, didn't expect two replies already. Thanks for the comments.

    I was thinking over my post again and wanted to emphasize that risk-taking is what is going to get us moving forward in leaps instead of steps.

    Selecting college players who are experienced and shown what they are worth, particularly position players, to a large degree, is the safe way to do things, but selecting high school prospects allows you to shoot for the moon, assuming your scouts have some modicum of skill in evaluation.

    Betting on the best free agents, and not filling the roster with roster fillers, is also risky but again, the rewards are great if they deliver.

    It is like the stock market, if you select the low beta stocks, there will be low volatility, but no great gains either. What you want to do with your portfolio is to spread the risks among a bunch of high risk items and portfolio theory says that risk is then lowered for the overall portfolio. And you risk the success of finding that one great player.

    That works when drafting pitchers in high volume. That works when drafting a bunch of high school prospects. That's one thing I admired and learned from Atlanta's draft M.O. They pick a lot of high school prospects, but they are shooting for gold with them, whereas when picking college prospects you are hoping for someone usable. The other thing I learned is that they pick local guys, and local guys, I believe, will work that much harder to achieve their lifelong goal of playing for their boyhood team.

    It is exactly as I had written years ago about the budget squeeze, you can go for mediocrity by signing a bunch of guys to fill the holes, or you can risk greatness by signing Vlad and rolling the dice with the other positions. I would rather the Giants go for greatness, and right now that means having Cain and Lincecum as the core of the future for the Giants, and figuring out everything else around them.

    Again, so what if the offense stinks. We know the starting pitching works fine (and hopefully great) and the bullpen is shaping up. We'll have Roberts playing a full season (hopefully) and maybe Schierholtz making a splash similar to Francoeur. Accept that success can be measured in ways unrelated to wins, take pleasure in our prospects' steps forward and cheer them on when the inevitable step back occurs.

    ReplyDelete
  4. If anything, I hope we'd deal Sanchez before anyone else. He has the most upside of any of the pitchers that we should have available. But I don't think he's as great as some other people do. I'd prefer to keep Lowry. He doesn't have the electric stuff that other teams pay high prices for. Also, if we keep him, he becomes one of the best #4 starters in the game.
    I'd love to see if the Gomez for Sanchez rumors were true and I'd do it in a heart beat. We don't need another outfielder but Gomez is a top tier prospect. We could get him and deal Roberts or Winn to make room.

    ReplyDelete

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