Blind Spot

I’ve been busy working my day job, as it were, and haven’t really been able to write anything here. I haven’t felt like I have had much to add to the general postseason hangover for Nats fans.

I have, however, been watching the World Series. I’m starved for baseball–any baseball–and this particular Series gives me the opportunity to root unabashedly for the Pete Kozma to lose. That’s good.

Unfortunately, it also obliges me to listen to the mindless blather of Joe Buck and Tim McCarver on Fox–easily the worst baseball broadcast most fans will see in any given year. Buck’s stilted cadences (more suited to the NFL than baseball) and McCarver’s senile witterings annoy the hell out of me, a baseball addict. I imagine they would drive casual non-fans (for whom the World Series is the only Series) away from the game forever. And that’s before the shameless commercial hucksterism, product-placement, awkwardly forced jingoism, and the endless in-game sideline reports!

About those sideline reports: They’re recorded between innings, but broadcast while the game is actually in progress. They disconnect the viewing public from what is actually happening in favor of what someone thinks about what just happened, which seems wrong. Besides, there is nothing that the booth can ask a manager between innings that cannot be better asked (and answered) after the game.

Not content with invading the dugout, the Fox broadcast also “floods the zone” with not one but two dedicated “sideline reporters:” the beautiful Erin Andrews and the reliably dapper Ken Rosenthal.

And yet, with all of this reporting power, they still manage to miss opportunities to bring genuine insight into the game.

One moment in particular bothers me. In the bottom of the 7th inning of Game 3, with the score tied at 2, a runner on first, and nobody out, Red Sox reliever Craig Breslow delivered a pitch that just barely grazed Carlos Beltran’s elbow guard. Beltran made some minimal effort to avoid the ball, but he showed his elbow to the umpire, who awarded him first base. Beltran, the hit batsman, made his way to first base, where he was greeted by Red Sox first baseman (!) David Ortiz. As Junichi Tazawa trotted in from the bullpen in relief of Breslow, The Fox cameras caught Beltran and Ortiz in the middle of an animated discussion. There was much gesticulation.

It did not escape my notice:

Indeed, Fox had a parabolic microphone operator nearby, just up the first-base foul line, who could have aimed his microphone at first base. The lively discussion continued, but Tim McCarver and Joe Buck paid it no mind. It’s not like on-field microphones never pick up interesting conversations between players, you know?

Then it occurred to me that Beltran (from Puerto Rico) and Ortiz (from the Dominican Republic) might not have been speaking English. So, even if the parabolic mic had been able to record their conversation, nobody in the Fox broadcast could have possibly been able to understand it or comment upon it.

Think about that for a minute. In 2013, there were  1,408 Major League baseball players. 327 of them were born in Spanish-speaking nations or territories (Colombia, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Puerto Rico, Venezuela). That’s 23% of the population–just under one in four major leaguers.

Of those 327 Major Leaguers born in Spanish-speaking countries, I count 7 on the World Series rosters.

And yet Fox Sports did not have at its disposal one reporter, sideline or otherwise, that might have shed some light on exactly what Ortiz and Beltran were so animatedly discussing at first base. Not one. Ken Rosenthal, fine baseball reporter that he is, doesn’t speak Spanish. Erin Andrews doesn’t speak Spanish either–hell, I’m surprised she can even feign interest in baseball, given her NCAA football roots. Joe Buck can’t speak Spanish. And Tim McCarver? McCarver can barely speak English.

The absence of a bilingual reporter, to me, amounts to a kind of journalistic malpractice. Fox had every opportunity to improve and enrich its coverage with a bilingual sideline reporter– It could have borrowed from its Spanish-language affiliate, Fox Deportes. By failing to do so, they passed up at least one potentially fascinating story in a tremendously fascinating World Series.

And it’s not like the capacity doesn’t exist. James Wagner of the Washington Post is bilingual, and his knowledge of Spanish has tremendously enriched the Post’s coverage of the Nationals, allowing him to speak to players like Wilson Ramos or Rafael Soriano in a language they can understand.

The linguistic blind spot manifests itself in other ways, too. The Cardinals and the Red Sox are playing in the World Series–but for every other organization in the Major Leagues, it is time to turn to off-season player development. Yes: winter ball. But players on MLB 40-man rosters cannot participate in the Caribbean Winter Leagues without a Winter League Agreement.  The Winter Agreement for this season was not finalized until October 12, one day after Opening Day in Venezuela. This was, in effect, a lockout that prevented MLB players from reporting to their Winter League teams–a story totally ignored by the English-language baseball press.

Baseball is certainly America’s Pastime. But if your organization’s mission is to bring the Pastime to America and make them understand it, you do your readers/viewers/listeners a great disservice if you don’t speak all of its languages.

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Why the Nats Didn’t Re-Sign Pudge

I got into a pretty lively discussion on Twitter today about the Nats catcher situation, sparked off by This tweet:

The #nats are horribly thin at catcher. They don’t know how Ramos will recover from the kidnapping. They need to bring Pudge back.

Let me refute the proposition that [the Nats] need to bring Pudge back by refuting, in turn, each of the statements upon which it was premised.

The Nats are horribly thin at catcher

There are a few assumptions embedded in this statement. Mostly, the objection boils down to this: Jesús Flores is not a good hitter.

This is an opinion. I’ll answer with facts. In his 2011 Venezuelan League regular season, Flores batted .332/.369/.516, with 16 doubles and 8 home runs. He posted a wRC of 27. Yeah, I can hear you saying, that’s Venezuela, a Double-A league at best. He did’t hit so good as a big-leaguer!. OK, that’s true. In 2008, his last long, uninjured season, Flores batted .256/.296./402 with 8 home runs. Not impressive–he was only worth 32 wRC to the ’08 Nats. That’s a wRC+ of 79, which is below average.

I concede that there’s a very big drop-off from Flores’s best wRC+ of 79 to Wilson Ramos’s worst wRC+ or 91 (in 2010). But, as we’ll see later, Flores stacks up very nicely against the competition–especially when that competition is Pudge Rodriguez.

[The Nats] don’t know how Ramos will recover from the kidnapping

This is a true statement in the very strict sense. We’ll never really know, because Ramos himself won’t talk much about it. The only thing we have to judge him on is his Venezuelan league performance. As I said on Sunday, the Venezuelan League numbers aren’t as bad as they might seem. Sure, Ramos batted a comparatively lousy .216/.274/.273 with 2 doubles and only 1 home run, accounting for only 11 wRC. But Ramos only got 98 plate appearances (his regular season having been disrupted by the kidnapping, naturally). When we normalize his offensive numbers to the 200 plate appearances he would have otherwise gotten (and which he did get in 2010), he would have gotten 23 wRC. Yes, exactly the same wRC as he got in 2010, a Venezuelan season in which he hit .322/.390/.567 with 17 doubles and 9 home runs.

And we cannot help but be encouraged by his performance in the Championship Series, in which he helped the Tigres de Aragua to victory batting .450/.550/.478 with 2 home runs over 20 at-bats in 6 games.

For all intents and purposes, the Wilson Ramos that walked out of the jungle a free man seems to have been the same Wilson Ramos that was taken into the jungle at gunpoint. We should expect the same from him.

The Nats Need to Sign Pudge

No they don’t.

OK, you’re saying, but what’s the harm in signing Pudge? He’s a future hall-of-famer, calls a great game, and is generally awesome. Why not have Pudge back up for Ramos instead of Flores? Well, I hate to say it, but Pudge is too old, bats too poorly, and costs too much to put him on the team instead of Flores.

Remember when I said Flores’s wRC+ of 79 in his best year made him a below-average hitter? Have a look at Pudge’s wRC+ since 2009. It’s not pretty: 69, 68, 63. In the 2010 season, the last season Pudge was the every-day catcher, Pudge hit into 25 double plays (leading a friend of mine to dub him, not so fondly, GiDPudge). There’s no denying it–Pudge has entered the autumn of the patriarch. Rest assured that having Pudge as a back-up catcher instead of Flores will mean less offense on a ballclub that desperately needs offense.

Fine, but Pudge is the best defensive catcher in the game! Yes he is. But using the same wRC projection method I use for making my 2012 season projections, Pudge is worth 24 wRC. Flores is worth 31. Is Pudge’s defense good enough to save 7 additional runs? Maybe not.

Even if Pudge’s defense could make up for his declining offense, there’s the question of money. In 2011, Pudge earned a cool $3,000,000 from the Nats. Even if he decided to take a significant discount and play for half that–$1,500,000, Pudge would cost nearly twice as much as the $815,000 the Nats are paying Flores for 2012.

If you think Flores’s future looks more like his 2011 Venezuelan League numbers, why would you pay twice as much for a catcher who will net you less offense? And even if Pudge’s defensive skills equal the difference between his offensive numbers and Flores’s, why would you pay twice as much to achieve the same net result?

It’s not that Pudge has not been an excellent catcher. But the Nats have two catchers who are perfectly adequate for their purposes right now–especially at their salary levels. If I were GM, I would worry less about catchers and more about the outfield.

Pitchers & Catchers Report!

Nats pitchers and catchers officially report to Viera today!

Of course, many of their teammates have already been in Viera for quite some time, getting extra work in before the official start to spring training.

Notably, however, a few Nats have been doing a lot more with their winter vacations than that. Henry Rodriguez, along with his fellow Venezuelans Jesús Flores and Wilson Ramos, spent the winter playing in the Venezuelan League. However many off-season workouts you can do, I imagine it’s very different to be able to work on your skills in a situation where real games are on the line, in front of stadiums packed with thousands of adoring fans.

While beat writers will be busy asking other ballplayers what they did on their winter vacation–and while those other ballplayers will reply with endless variations on “I worked really hard; I’m in the best shape of my life now,” the Nationals’ three Venezuelan ballplayers can get on with their business and let their records speak for themselves. Well, what do those records say?

First, a note about the Venezuelan League season. There is a 63-game regular season, followed by a 16-game round-robin “semifinal” that determines the two teams that face each other in the final championship series. I’m only looking at regular-season statistics here. After all, that’s all I look at when I look at a player’s MLB statistics. The Round-robin and championship series phases are “post-season,” and so won’t be counted. Besides,as I said yesterday, I’m lazy. Getting proper offensive statistics would require more data entry than I have time or inclination to do.

Henry Rodriguez: Tan Capaz de Ser Feo como Fenómeno

A few days ago, I tweeted that Henry Rodriguez was going to be someone I’ll be watching carefully over the course of the 2012 season. In his time with the Nats so far, he has shown himself capable of unbelievable feats of relief pitching dominance. But to say he had some issues getting his considerable power under control might be something of an understatement:

According to SB Nation, the 10th-worst Pitch of 2011. I still cringe just thinking about this.

The Hot Rod’s 2011 season with the Nationals split the difference between those two extremes. In 59 appearances and 65.2 innings pitched, the Hot Rod recorded an ERA of 3.56, a FIP of 3.24, and a WHIP of 1.51. On average, in any given nine-inning stretch, you could have expected him to strike out 9.59 batters, and walk 6.17 of them–and give up a measly 0.14 home runs.

How did he do in Venezuela this winter? In 23 appearances and 23.2 innings pitched, he recorded an ERA of 3.80, a FIP of 3.88, and a WHIP of 1.39. On average, in any given nine-inning stretch, you could have expected him to strike out 9.39 batters, walk 6.46, and give up 0.38 home runs.

The one thing that kills Rodriguez is his walks. His walk rate crept up during the 2011 Venezuelan league regular season, and that’s not something Nats fans wanted to see. The 1.39 WHIP is lower than his 2011 MLB WHIP of 1.51, despite an increase in walk rate and decrease in strikeout rate, so it looks like Venezuelan-league batters had a harder time reaching base safely after making contact. I can’t verify this without better information, but I’m betting the sheer speed of his pitches leaves hitters making weak, late contact–they must not have been catching up to the fastball. Of course, when they do time him, they can do serious damage. Witness the increase in home run rates (although I wonder if that’s just bad luck, rather than bad pitching).

In many ways, the 2011 Venezuelan regular season has been a disappointment for Hot Rod, because in the 2010 Venezuelan league regular season, he put up dominant numbers. The numbers speak for themselves. In 21.1 IP over 18 appearances, Hot Rod posted absolutely Strasburg-like stats: 1.69 ERA, 1.84 FIP, 0.94 WHIP. Strikeouts per 9 innings? 14.00. And, most importantly of all: 3.80 walks per 9 innings. Oh, and zero home runs.

When Henry Rodriguez is locked-in, as he was in Venezuela in 2010, he’s one of the most fearsome relievers in the game, capable of totally destroying opposing batting. But when he’s not locked-in, he puts up performances that are, well, not nearly so dominant. We saw that in DC all last summer, and fans in Venezuela saw it this winter. It will be interesting to see whether Nats pitching coach Steve McCatty can work with Henry to get his fearsome power under control. If the 2010 Venezuelan League model of the Hot Rod rolls out of the bullpen for the 2012 Nats, the National League is in for a nasty surprise. But if the 2011 Hot Rod coughs and sputters to life, fans seated behind home plate should, for their safety, carefully inspect the netting, and maybe consider buying a half-smoke while Henry goes to work.

Ramos y Flores

Let’s move on to the Nats’ two botanically-surnamed catchers. In Venezuela this winter, one of them batted .332/.369/.516, with 16 doubles and 8 home runs, posting a wRC of 27. The other batted .216/.274/.273, with 2 doubles and 1 home run, with a wRC of 11. Which is which?

If you guessed that the flourishing catcher was Jesús Flores, you are right. Flores didn’t see much action with the Nats in 2011, and we had pretty much forgotten about him in DC after he was hurt in 2009. The last good look we’d gotten at Flores was in 2008, when he batted .256/.296/.402 with 18 doubles, a triple, and 8 home runs. If his Venezuelan league offensive figures are any indication of his readiness for the 2012 MLB season, I think the Nats can expect very good things from Flores. If Flores bats in 2012 the way that he did in Venezuela, we can project him to have a wRC of 34 in 2012–4 more runs than we would have expected from his recent past.

Ramos’s Venezuelan season got off to the worst possible start–he was kidnapped at gunpoint by masked men, and the freed in what was supposed to have been a fierce gunfight. Only he can know how he was affected, but his offensive production, at first glance, looks to have dropped off considerably. If Ramos bats as well in 2012 for the Nats as he did in Venezuela, I’d project him to post a wRC of 46–3 runs fewer than I have him projected this year.

But look again. During the 2010 Venezuelan season, he batted .322/.390/.567 with 17 doubles and 9 home runs, posting a wRC of 23. But, crucially, Ramos got 200 plate appearances in 2010, as opposed to only 95 in 2011. If we give him 200 plate appearances in 2011, he ends up with a wRC of… yup, 23!

How can that be? My guess: one of the components of wRC is the league average wOBA. In 2010, when Ramos put up the gaudy Venezuelan numbers, The league average wOBA was .283. In 2011, that average dropped to .275. Perhaps Ramos’s numbers (and scaled numbers) are down because the whole league’s numbers are down. Perhaps Venezuelan league pitching improved as a whole. Either way, Nats fans can be comforted by the fact that, even after everything that’s happened to him, Wilson Ramos is the same ballplayer he’s always been.

What Nats fans should look forward to this spring, however, is an emerging Catcher Controversy. Flores did very well with the Navegantes de Magallanes–look at those offensive stats! If Flores can continue to build on his Venezuelan League successes while in the Grapefruit League this spring, we might find that it is Flores, not Ramos, who ends up as the Nats’ opening-day catcher.

Baseball Eve!

The Boys Are Back in Town!

No real insights for you today on the day before Pitchers & Catchers report to Viera. Federal Baseball already has some early photographic evidence of baseball returning to Viera. Highlights include Jordan Zimmermann and Drew Storen rocking the quasi-official Beastmode T-Shirt introduced to the ’11 Nats by Ian Desmond and made famous by Michael Morse. But who’s that shaking hands with Tyler Clippard? The #tigerbeatbaseball girls want to know. (It’s not Ryan Tatusko, though. I checked that already.)

Two statistically-related things that I’ve been thinking about lately, though:

Lost in Translation

Given the number of major league players and prospects who play in the Latin American winter-ball leagues in Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico, it’s remarkable to me how hard it is to get reliable statistical information out of those leagues. The leagues have their own stats pages, to be sure. For instance, the Venezuelan League’s stats pages are pretty comprehensive. But it’s not exactly easy to find the player you’re looking for. Moreover, calculating advanced statistics like wOBA and wRC is pretty much impossible. The worst has got to be wRC, because it depends on calculating a league average wOBA. To do that for the Venezuelan league, I’d have to key in all the data for all players into another spreadsheet and run the calculations from there. The calculating isn’t too bad, but the data entry will take more time than I’m willing to commit (it’s not like sabermetrics is my job, y’know–and if it were, I’d be pretty terrible at it).

As an aside: reading statistical tables and box scores in Spanish reminded me that my Spanish isn’t as good as it ought to be. Baseball stats are cryptic enough in English, but they can be pretty opaque in Spanish. Glossaries do exist, but I’ve had to bring in an outside consultant for help with a few.

If you’re at all interested in Latin American baseball stats, PuraPelota has the most complete database I’ve been able to find, but they can be a bit slow on the update cycle. I haven’t been able to find anything nearly as complete or helpful for any of the Asian leagues (Japan, Korea, Taiwan). I can’t understand why that would be so–surely the Sabermetric revolution has spread all across the baseball world? Nothing makes you appreciate the excellent work that Baseball Reference and Fangraphs do quite like dealing with the sparse data available for foreign baseball leagues.

Eye in the Sky

I’ve already written about this post at Línea de Fair, but I can’t help but take a closer look at one of the author’s objections to UZR:

…UZR, the measure employed to determine whether a fielder has more range than his teammates, and whether, on the whole, he can prevent opponents from from creating more runs. Joey Cora used to remind me how an infielder could be better depending on which pitcher was on the mound. This was due not only to the pitches, but also to the control the pitcher has over them. “What happens if a catcher calls for a sinker inside,” Cora asked. The shortstop moves a little, almost imperceptibly, towards the hole if the batter is right-handed. But if the pitcher leaves the ball outside, the roller could go up the middle of the infield. Result? A higher probability that the batted ball goes up the middle of the field and finds the shortstop further away from it–thus raising his UZR.

My initial reaction is that complaining that UZR may not describe that particular defensive alignment and situation like this is like complaining that the Ideal Gas Law won’t tell you exactly where to look for one particular carbon dioxide molecule in a tank full of compressed air.

Part of the problem, I think, is that UZR is the one baseball statistic in (quasi-) common use that is flat-out impossible to derive from other published statistics. As far as I can tell, the whole process depends on individual human beings watching game footage, noting where fielders are positioned, and noting where the fielder meets (or doesn’t meet) the ball.

Because I’m lazy, I figure that there must be a better way to do things–or at least one that isn’t so unbearbly tedious. We already have fairly sophisticated software that can track the location of, say, baseballs and baseball gloves as they move across a camera’s field of view. It should be a fairly simple matter to fix a wide-angle camera (or several) across a baseball field, record the whole game, and only have human intervention whenever the ball strikes the bat. An observer might tap one button when he sees the impact of the ball on the bat, and then tap another when the ball comes to rest (either in the glove of the fielder, or out of play). The end result might look something like the FlipFlopFlyball‘s defensive positioning infographic.

The genius of computing, however, would allow us to track each defensive move as a vector, with an origin point at wherever the defender started when the ball was put in play, and an endpoint at wherever he was standing when the play was over. I’m not so great at mathematics, but I imagine the resulting graphical representations (and statistical inferences!) that could be made from those data would be extremely useful in evaluating the range of any individual defender. Heck, maybe it wouldn’t be too hard to explain– if I only had a brain!

[Something I didn’t notice when I first saw that video in high school: MC 900ft Jesus is wearing a 1926 Washington Senators cap!]

Wilson Ramos on Winning the Venezuelan Series

Because Nats Enquirer somehow won’t let me comment on this item, here’s a rough transcription/translation of Wilson Ramos’s feelings on winning the Venezuelan Series with the Tigres de Aragua:

REPORTER: “I’m here with Wilson Ramos. Wilson, congratulations–amid all the confetti and the celebrations, a new season and a new title for the Tigres de Aragua.”

WILSON RAMOS: “Yeah, look–I’m very pleased with all this–with all what we’ve done. We fought a lot for this, in spite of the adversity that we’ve had, all the bad things that happened, as much to me as for everyone else, but we never hung our heads, and we gave our all all the time.”

REPORTER: “It must have been hard, but [garbled] nevertheless, you’re lifting up a new trophy.”

WILSON RAMOS: “Yeah, look–it’s something that can’t be compared to anything else. We’ve all suffered a lot. Look, each one of us carried his little grain of sand…the team really came out from underneath it all and we achieved what we desired.”

REPORTER: “Congratulations, Wilson.”

WILSON RAMOS: “Thanks”