Thursday, June 29, 2017

Thoughts on What Went Wrong Part 3: Theories of Relativity

In any competitive business, it never matters if you are just as good or better than you were last year.  It's whether you are better than your competition.  Although I cannot prove it, there is statistical circumstantial evidence the Giants may be on the wrong side of this equation in 2017.  First, a bit of history.

As the "Silly Ball" and Barry Bonds eras drew to a close in the mid 2000's, Giants GM Brian Sabean went public with a theory:  Home Runs in particular and run production in general were about to take a prolonged dive.  On top of that, the Giants played in an extreme pitcher-friendly ballpark as did two divisional rivals, the Padres and Dodgers as well as their interleague rivals, the A's.  The Giants would be playing a lot of low scoring games.  The way to win games in that environment was to suppress opponents BABIP with great defense and maximize the Giants BABIP with hitters who hit a lot of groundballs and line drives and could drive balls into the large gaps of the stadiums they played it.  Sure, that approach might not work so well in Phoenix or Coors Field, but those places accounted for a small enough percentage of games that the overall odds would still favor the Giants.

Sabes backed up his bold prediction with action.  In 2008, he could have drafted Justin Smoak, a college first baseman who hit lots of HR's but didn't do much else.  More than a few Giants fans wanted Justin Smoak.  The Giants drafted Buster Posey, an excellent defender at a premium position who hit for a high average with gap power and modest HR power.  In later years they drafted Joe Panik and Christian Arroyo.  When questioned about Panik's and Arroyo's ability to stick at SS, Sabean's response was we drafted them for their bats which left a lot of people in the dinger-loving crowd scratching their heads.  Pablo Sandoval and Brandon Belt, although not exactly in the same mold as the Posey/Panik/Arroyo cookie cutter, really had many of the same attributes.  They bolstered their homegrown core with trades for similar players in Freddy Sanchez and Marco Scutaro.

It all worked out exactly the way Brian Sabean drew it up on paper.  League Average R/G, which hit a peak of 5.14 in 2000 took an extended dive and reached a nadir of 4.07 in 2014, more than 1 R/G difference.  HR/G took a similar dive descending from a peak of 1.17 in 2000 to the lowest level since before 1993 at 0.86 in 2014.  It's no accident the Giants thrived in that atmosphere, winning an almost unprecedented 3 championships in 5 seasons.

So, what does this all have to do with the Giants current struggles?  Probably a lot.  League conditions Brian Sabean built his teams for in the early 2010's have taken a sudden reversal.  Both R/G and HR/G rose dramatically since 2014 with R/G this season at their highest level since 2000 at 4.67 and HR/G possibly their highest ever at 1.26, significantly higher than the previous peak of 1.17 in 2000.  The high contact/high BA/gap power approach works great when other teams are trying and failing to hit dingers, but it gets left in the dust when opposing teams are hitting more than a HR/G, many with runners on base.  Combine these league-wide trends with a highly unusual, probably mostly luck-driven BABIP aberration described in detail in Part 2 of this series, and you have a harmonic convergence of of negative forces driving the Giants dismal first half performance.

Many analysts attribute the spike in R/G and HR/G to juiced balls.  Hey! The players can't juice anymore, let's juice the balls!  The balls are probably juiced alright, but there has also been an historic influx of highly talented young players into the league over the past 5-6 years.  While the Giants maintained a steady flow of very good players in that time, players added by rival teams are even better.  Just within the NL West we've seen the emergence of Corey Seager, Nolan Arenado, Charlie Blackmon and numerous other impactful entries.  The Rockies have a whole stable of high ceiling young arms.  In other divisions, we see tremendous young talent like Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Bryce Harper and many others, and we haven't even mentioned the AL.  By historic standards the Giants have drafted and developed very well.  Compared with other teams over the past 5 years, maybe not so much.  Some of that is due to drafting late in the first round where the odds of success drop dramatically, but there are other avenues to talent acquisition they have done poorly at such as the international market.   Combine a relative slippage in talent with some expectedly poor performance from several long term contracts and they suddenly are not fielding a very good team.

So there you have it.  Changing league factors, historic level of bad BABIP luck and a slippage in relative talent due mainly to unprecedented league-wide talent improvement all contribute to the Giants current first half disaster.

23 comments:

  1. Really good stuff Doc, thanks for your thoughts. Had I a bit more time, you might get a more interesting comment out of me, but for right now, that's the whole sha-bang.

    I'd rather my team going into a full tailspin than become middling - the top-5/10 draft pick, coupled with a sell-off of a few contracts could move this club in the direction to be very competitive again by 2020.

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    1. I agree with the middling part, but there's just enough of this that is due to bad luck I think it's possible to do a re-tool rather than a rebuild and be competitive again next season, but it's a very delicate mission.

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  2. Doc B, great diagnoses. I would add...

    1. Drafting Starting Pitching. Post-Bonds, Sabes also foresaw the value of dominate pitching winning in the postseason, drafting post-season stud performers Cain, Timmy and MadBum. The last nine years the Giants have been unable to draft and develop even one consistent starter or bullpen stud. The cost of this is seen in being forced to take high-risk/high-cost FA or trade gambles, which mostly have not paid off - Moore, Shark, Melancon, Smith.

    2. Bullpen. Even more prescient Sabes saw the value of a deep and match-up driven bullpen and hired a skipper in Bochy who knew how to win one-run games with a match-up pen. Bochy's wins-above record until the last three years was remarkable. The league caught on to Sabes strategy and deep bullpens are now the norm. This has made it much harder for the Giants to draft, trade and dumpster dive for cheap bullpen talent. Again the Giants have not had one solid replacement for Romo/Affeldt/Lopez/Casilla/Wilson. This has greatly weakened the Bochy's effectiveness as a manager and the team's legendary ability to stay close and grind out and win one-run ballgames.

    3. The Giants system-wide malaise. Talk about falling off a cliff.
    SF Giants 30-51
    AAA River Cats 31-46
    AA Flying Squirrels 33-44
    A+ SJ Giants 33-44
    A GreenJackets 27-45
    A- Volcanoes 4-10
    AZL 1-3
    DSL 10-12

    What is going on here? And please don't give me the Bobby Evans line, "The system is bare because the Giants graduated and traded their top talent away". Not buying it. The system is bare because the Giants amazingly passed on years of opportunities to simply spend money to buy talent in the IFA market - witness almost no bought players - system-wide - from Cuba, Japan, Korea, or Latin America. And when they did make a lone splash in Mr. Fox, they promptly refused to spend additional dollars, traded away the upside and were stuck with the penalties. No bueno.

    The Giants have been unwilling to leverage their remarkable run into spending freely when the IFA market window emerged and before the penalty rules kicked in. Contrast this with the Dodgers IFA history.

    4. Drafting. Finally the Giants are drafting 5-tool athletes again, too little too late. They should have used the winning window to take 5-tool risks - when you are drafting with low picks and your MLB team is winning. This, combined with the lack of IFA aggressiveness, has neutered the Giants farm system from top to bottom. Young athletic talent is what is winning now - the Giants not so much.

    Shout out (since can't leave on a down note) Malique Avery Ziegler!

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    1. I agree with #'s 1 and 2 and that the Giants need a better IFA plan.

      As for the farm system, W-L is a terrible way to evaluate a farm system and I don't agree that it is barren. Yes, graduations, trades and draft position are all part of the equation but the Giants have a lot of very interesting prospects in the system that don't necessarily get a lot of national press. You named one in Malique "5-Tool" Zeigler.

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    2. Aggressive promotions have done a lot to affect the W-L. And injuries. Sac would have been better with Duggar all year. Sam Jose with Jebavy and Quinn. Late starts hurt.

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    3. Adding to #1, the Giants have traded a ton of young pitching over the years for good reason to complete deadline deals to win 3 WS. We're already starting to see former Giants farm hands pitching for other MLB teams such as Alberto Mejia traded for Edwin Nunez. Mejia is currently in the Twins starting rotation. Maybe they need to stop giving away the young pitching they have? Joe Biagini was a 26 round pick in 2011, and was lost in the rule 5 draft to the Blue jays. He's currently in the Jays rotation. Looks like the Giants made a mistake in their evaluation of him since they didn't protect him from rule 5 so that hurts.

      LG

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    4. I think the Giants knew full well what they had in both Mejia and Biagini. In Mejia's case, you have to give to get, In Biagini's case, there was a long list of prospects who had to be protected that year and was left off the bus because it was full.

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    5. Wonder if part of the reason Biagini was left unprotected was that he was a low 26 round pick. Heard in an interview with a former minor leaguer that he felt teams give their higher round picks more chances to succeed which makes sense. Sorry, I saw Biagini pitch a great game against the Yankees and thought to myself, wow how could
      the Giants let him go for nothing.

      LG

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    6. I saw a story recently where Biagini was telling a story about how he got hit around pretty good in a game at UC Davis and apologized to the Giants scout who was in on him. The scout told him that he actually threw great and the Giants later drafted him. I think Biagini just got caught in a numbers game. Shows how much depth the Giants farm system has had all along.

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  3. And other random factors come into play. As Yogi Berra said, it gets late early this time of year. Well, pitchers like Lincecum and Cain got old early. Two major contributors to a winning rotation were ineffective before their 30th birthdays. Now, this happens to other pitchers on other teams but for two pitchers who symbolize the Giants return to prominence, it's a bit of a bitter pill.

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    1. Some of that may be a byproduct of success. When you win a WS, your pitchers have to pitch an full extra month under high stress conditions. Giants did that 3 times in 5 years.

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    2. I'm pretty sure part of the reason Timmy fell to the Giants (10th pick) was because organizations felt he didn't have the body that would hold up. So we knew that early breakdown was a real risk going in with him.

      But, moreover, pitchers break down. Pitching effectively for 10-12 years in the majors is pretty rare, and you can't really expect very many starters to hold up too long.

      When the Giants traded Wheeler, they believed the system could keep up with the attrition. It has failed to do that.

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    3. Are we still grinding on the Wheeler trade? I mean, how many championships have they won since then? And it not like Wheeler would be the answer to the Giants problems now.

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  4. Another speculation: teams that depend on power can afford high-K players in exchange for high HR rates. Why worry about moving a base runner ahead with a contact out rather than a K if you plan to score via the long ball? The Giants, playing at AT&T with a team best suited for that park, are far more interdependent, relying on each other to keep the line moving, as Bochy puts it. Therefore, falling off in parts of the lineup has a greater effect on the lineup as a whole than on the bop-and-whiff teams. When players lose faith in the guys who hit after them, they start to press (as Krukow said recently), amplifying bad BABIP luck to a degree less pronounced in less interdependent teams. If this hypothesis holds water, it might help explain the extreme streakiness of 2016, where the best team in baseball by W-L became the worst after the A-S break, and the ghastly doldrums of 2017. It points to a simplified theory of contagion, on the up-side as well as the down, in terms of which teams perhaps would be more vulnerable to team- wide falloff as the result of individual players' underperforming.

    I have no statistical evidence to present for the theory, only hypothetical logic.

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    1. Makes sense. The Saber enthusiasts who are all about walks and HR's lave long seen no value in "productive outs."

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    2. I think you've hit on something here, campanari. Good thinking!

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  5. The Giants don't lack power in the sense they're a 'no-power' team, though they're not particularly a 'power' club. Right now they're ahead of the Dodgers, Rockies and Diamondbacks in road home runs. They're 17th in road home-runs from 2010 through 2017.

    But that aside, as I've stressed many times, environment matters. And if you normalize the results to the environments, your perspective can change. For example if the Giantsy played in Arizona, where HRs are (over a neutral park) 43% greater than a neutral park rather than AT&T where they're 45% under a neutral park.... The story would be considerably different. (182/(1-0.45)) * 1.43 and Bob's your uncle. Or, if the same crew, with park factors played in Arizona, they'd have hit 473 HRs at home and everyone would be marveling over the Giants' offense while the pitchers would be getting routinely slammed. At a neutral park, it's 330 home-field home-runs.

    Though I must caution pure normalization can skew the results (up or down). But even then, the broader point holds -- the Giants are severely punished at home and if they played in a cheesy HR park, they'd look a heck of lot better (and we'd be complaining even more about pitching).

    I mean, let's face it. When your park eats 45% of the home-runs and a team like AZ gets an extra 43% in home runs... Non-normalized stats will make the "Easy" difficulty team (Diamondbacks) look good while the Giants keep playing on the 'Insane" level and 'look bad.' And you can see it their splits (home/road -- 2014 through yesterday)

    Giants: 182/282
    Diamondbacks 307/259

    Pretty much what you'd expect given their respective playing fields and HR talent/totals over the past few years.

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    1. Those are good points. I would add though, that in 2014 the Giants hit 132 HR's and allowed 133. The HR's were even which allowed the Giants to win by making more contact. In 2017 so far, the Giants have hit 66 dingers which is roughly the same pace as 2014 but have allowed 91. Whether the increase is HR's allowed is due to bad pitching or whether it is just a reflection of the overall league increase in HR's, might be difficult to separate.

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    2. Most every pitcher on the roster is giving up one-third to a full-run HR/9 with only a few bringing it down (Cain & Osich). Cueto is probably the biggest offender as he's gone from 0.61/9 to 1.61/9. But there are plenty of dingers to go around.

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  6. Regarding the article about predicting the next AB or win or whatever from the last being debunked, and that one only likes analysis that agrees with one's opinions, I'd rather face a guy that's 0-5 with the game on the line than one that is 5-5.
    And, conversely, I'd rather the guy on my team who is 5-5 be up with the winning run on 3rd in the bottom of the 9th than someone who is 0-5.
    Individually, NOT collectively, someone who just squared a pitch in more confident than a guy who whiffed on 3 pitches the last time up.
    Momentum counts.
    Of course, if you believe that, you agree. If you believe your last AB is not predictive, you don't!

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    1. Not sure that this comment has to do with this post or any of the other comments, but it's an interesting question. In general the results of any single AB are not related to any previous AB's, but as Kruk and Kuip like to say, "ownage is ownage." There have been 75 players in MLB history to get 6 hits in a 9 inning game and 43 to get 6 hits in extra-inning games. I don't know how to even start looking for how many players have gotten a hit after going 0 for 5. I'll take a wild guess and say it's probably pretty close, but it's a guess.

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    2. Moses, I think, linked a Scientific America study a few days ago that was quite interesting, that debunked, I think, momentum, and said, among other things that Republicans like Fox, Democrats like MSNBC because it reinforces what they believe.
      There was a distinct tie to baseball, cognitive dissonance, and reinforcement, and a little psycho babble, but definitively thought provoking.
      Over my head by a couple rungs.
      Kinda like BABIP.

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    3. OK. Well, thanks for sharing.

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