Wednesday, November 18, 2009

He Came Dancing Across The Water

One of my favorite people in Yankee history is Billy Martin. He was serving his fourth stint as Yankee manager when I attended my first Major League game, and was in his fifth and final go-round when I began following the team in earnest. In between, I can recall watching the ceremony on WPIX when the club retired his number. A few years later, after Martin died in a 1989 Christmas Day drunk driving accident, I began devouring books about the Yankees. Three of my favorites were Number 1, Billyball, and The Last Yankee, all Martin biographies.

These days I might dismiss Martin the player as the over-heralded, "scrappy" underdog that David Eckstein is too often made out to be, or Martin the manager as an irrational martinet, too often trying to put his fingerprints on the game, much the same way that Tony LaRussa is often criticized elsewhere or Joe Girardi was here over the course of the season.

But to the twelve year old me, reading those books, Martin was a captivating character. He was the undersized overachiever who fulfilled his dream by playing for the Yankees, elevated his play to another level in the World Series, stopped at nothing to win, and never backed down from a fight. What characterized Martin above all though, and perhaps what most drew me to him, was that more than anything else, he wanted - he almost needed - to be a Yankee.

While that skill set left Martin with a middling career as a journeyman infielder, it primed him for a mangerial career that was as volatile as it was successful, and now has him under consideration for induction to the Hall of Fame as a manager. Despite his well-documented butting of heads with George Steinbrenner and with his own players, Martin's smarts, daring, and insatiable desire to win made him a continually desirable managerial candidate, even in light of his paranoid and perpetually self-destructive behavior. It's also what kept him coming back to the Yankees over and over and over and over and over again.

Steinbrenner was perhaps the only person who could understand - if not commiserate with - Martin's maniacal obsession with winning at all costs. And while Martin enjoyed successful managerial stints with four other clubs, Steinbrenner needed Martin as his manager just as much Martin needed to be a Yankee. It was a bad relationship, but it was also the reason that Martin and Steinbrenner, both intensely proud individuals, repeatedly forgot their past problems in hopes that, this time, it would work.

I bring all this up because The Hardball Times' Chris Jaffe has a book being released in December: Evaluating Baseball's Managers. THT is publishing excerpts over the next several weeks and yesterday they had a lengthy look at Martin: why he was unique, why he was successful, and why his managerial stints necessarily had short shelf lives. It's a highly worthwhile read on a fascinating and complicated subject:
The man most comparable to Billy Martin was not Herzog, but Hernan Cortes, the Spanish conquistador who defeated the Aztecs. In 1519, he landed in Mexico to face the hemisphere’s mightiest warrior nation with only 600 men. Upon arrival, he burnt his boats, giving his men no way to leave. That move was pure Billy Martin. Safe to say, that in the military science version of sabermetrics a general would be poorly regarded for intentionally destroying his communication lines, supply routes and exit strategy. It was possibly even worse than having two men steal home with Killebrew batting.

However, like Martin, Cortes had an underlying rationale. The act was not the important part. All that mattered was the message it sent the men: there was no going back—they needed to win. He cared only about coming out on top and ensured his warriors must think likewise. They might lose and die, but with God as their witness no failure would stem from lack of effort on anyone’s part. That was Billyball, 16th century style.

You could have given me a hundred years and I wouldn't have come up with that comparison. See you tomorrow.

Game Six In Three And A Half Minutes

The clinching game of the World Series as you've never seen it before (h/t Bronx Banter):

This was shot and compiled by photographer Robert Caplin and here is what he had to do to put it together:

This was probably one of the most tiring and time-consuming processes I've undertaken with still-photography. I arrived at Yankees Stadium around 3PM prior to the game and began scouting out locations for the time-lapse. The process itself took many hours and required me to rush around the monstrous stadium - scaling the upper decks, zipping back and forth from the outfield to the infield, and inside and out. Finally, I arrived home around 1:30AM and began downloading to my computer the 125GB (12,000 images) of RAW footage I'd collected.

After properly organizing all the files, I set my computer to stitch and render all the still images together in a low-resolution format just so I could see if the time-lapse actually worked. Exhausted, I finally got to bed around 5:30 AM while my computer rendered the files down. Given that the time-lapse consisted only of still images and not video, the files were 3-4 times the size of HD video! Needless to say, my computer spent a good chunk of time rendering all the data.

The next morning, I woke up early to check out what I'd shot, and was truly excited by what I saw; the already visually interesting images came to life in a surreal way.
Surreal, indeed. The game is already preserved through video (the TV broadcast) and still images (taken by the countless other photographers in attendance) but thankfully Caplin took the time and effort to capture the events of that night in a unique (and pretty awesome) way.

Mr. Caplin was also kind enough to answer some questions about the process for us via email:

FY: What inspired you to try something that was so time-consuming and ambitious (and hit or miss)?

Caplin: I've been a photographer for the NY Times and other clients for 5 years and I've realized what makes photography stand apart from the rest is trying something different. I was in a unique situation where I had no obligations, so if I failed, it wouldn't have been the biggest deal, and I'd still have had a learning experience.

FY: Was this the first live event you attempted to do this at?

Caplin: This was my first live event attempt.

FY: What is the piece of music that you used called? Is there a reason you chose that one specifically?

Caplin: It's Chopin's Waltz #5, I chose it because I felt it worked perfectly with the pace of the time-lapse. I also felt the classical nature of the music would be widely accepted by viewers. Last thing I'd want to do is turn off the audience by music choice.

FY: How did you pick the places that you set up? Was the foot traffic a problem?

Caplin: I chose on the fly where to place the cameras... I tried to find locations that werent too in the way, at the same time trying to find cool compositions and angles that showed a lot of moving parts.

FY: How many memory cards did you go through?

Caplin: I went through 7 8GB cards and 2 16GB cards.

Thanks a million for answering our questions, Robert.

You can find more of Mr. Caplin's work (much of which is New York City-centric) at his blog.

Does Zack Greinke Really Understand FIP?

Yesterday was a banner day for those who value advanced baseball statistics. Zack Greinke rightly won the American League Cy Young Award, and did so in convincing fashion, sparing us all a host of indignant rants about how the voters got it all wrong again for an award that the stats community clearly states doesn't matter anyway (see Gold Gloves and Rookie of the Year).

But whatever joy statheads derived from Greinke's victory pales in comparison to the giddyness and the sense of vindication that's spreading from a Greinke quote in this NYT piece from Tyler Kepner, emphasis mine:
“But I’m also a follower, since Brian Bannister’s on our team, of sabermetric stuff and going into details of stats about what you can control.”

Bannister, a right-handed starter, is known for his appreciation of modern pitching metrics, which emphasize the factors for which pitchers are essentially responsible: walks, strikeouts, home runs and hit batters. In Greinke, he found a like mind.

“He’s extremely bright, and he’s really picked up on using all the information out there to make his game better,” Bannister said by telephone. “He’s always had the talent. His confidence level, which is extremely high, combined with his knowledge of the numbers behind the game now, definitely makes him one of the best pitchers in the world.”

Bannister said Greinke has learned to adjust his pitching based on the advanced defensive statistics. Because of the size of the outfield at Kauffman Stadium and the strength of the Royals’ outfielders, relative to their infielders, it sometimes made more sense to induce fly balls.

“David DeJesus had our best zone rating,” Bannister said, referring to the Royals’ left fielder. “So a lot of times, Zack would pitch for a fly ball at our park instead of a ground ball, just because the zone rating was better in our outfield and it was a big park.”

To that end, Bannister introduced Greinke to FIP, or Fielding Independent Pitching, the statistic Greinke named Tuesday as his favorite. It is a formula that measures how well a pitcher performed, regardless of his fielders. According to, Greinke had the best FIP in the majors.

That’s pretty much how I pitch, to try to keep my FIP as low as possible,” Greinke said.
I've referenced FIP many times here over the course of the year. I think it's a telling, if imperfect, statistic that gives better insight into a pitcher's performance than traditional metrics like ERA. I'm glad that at least some players are aware of these new metrics, and not at all surprised that one of Bannister's teammates would be amongst those to pick up on them. That said, I think the items I highlighted are absolute hogwash, and fly in the face of what FIP is supposed to represent in the first place.

First of all, for Bannister to credit Greinke's knowledge of advanced metrics as an element of his success is misleading at best, dead wrong at worst. Greinke is successful because he's a tremendously talented pitcher who strikes out a ton of batters, doesn't walk very many, keeps the ball in the park, and strands a higher than usual percentage of baserunners on base. Whether or not he's cognizant of the value of these attributes is inconsequential. You or I or any number of other baseball loving Americans know that these factors are key to a pitcher's success, but without Zack Greinke's arsenal of pitches, that knowledge isn't going to turn any of us into a Major League pitcher, much a less a Cy Young Award winner.

The rest of it demonstrates a complete misunderstanding of what FIP is. It's Fielding Independent Pitching. As such, balls in play - line drives, groundballs, flyballs, whatever - have absolutely no impact on a pitcher's FIP. And while it might behoove a pitcher to pitch for flyballs if his team's outfield defense is superior to his team's infield defense, attempting to do so demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding of how FIP works. No matter how bad of a shortstop Yuniesky Bettancourt is, 0% of groundballs result in home runs while approximately 8% of flyballs do. And since FIP values HRs four and a third times as much as BBs and six and a half times as much as Ks, allowing just one HR has a momentous impact upon a pitcher's FIP. Greinke's infield defense could give up basehits on a dozen seeing-eye singles a game; it won't make a bit of difference as far as FIP is concerned. But no matter how great David DeJesus's zone rating is, it doesn't extend any further than an arm's length beyond the left field fence. A single flyball extending an inch beyond that range has a major effect on Greinke's FIP.

Of course, of all that is predicated upon the assumption that a pitcher actually has control over the type of contact made against him. This is not a universally accepted principle in the stats community. In fact, the assumption that a pitcher has no control over such things is often cited as the reason that the vast majority of pitchers, irrespective of talent level, will finish the season with a BABIP against that's within 10 points or so of the league average. Any pitcher who doesn't is considered a statistical outlier rather than some sort of pitching prodigy capable of inducing favorable balls in play. That said, even if Greinke could actively select what type of contact is made against him, shifting groundballs to flyballs would have a favorable impact on his expected BABIP against, since groundballs generally result in hits more often than flyballs, but as described above, would actually have a negative impact on his FIP - which Greinke states he is actively trying to minimize.

Which brings me to last my last gripe. Whether Greinke knows what FIP is or not, isn't trying to keep it as low as possible the whole point of pitching? I mean, unless he's on the hill intentionally handing out HRs, or refusing to strike batters out, or continually plunking batters and issuing unintentional intentional walks, every pitcher - Greinke, Bannister, or the less enlightened - is attempting to keep his FIP as low as possible, consciously or not.

Don't get me wrong. Zack Greinke is a most deserving Cy Young Award winner, and I think it's a good thing that he and Bannister and others are embracing some of the more forward thinking ways of evaluating the game. But, I think Kepner's piece jumps to some conclusions that aren't quite evident. Performance is still predicated on talent level. Advanced metrics like FIP and zone rating are intended to illuminate quality performance in a better manner than their more archaic and generally accepted counterparts (ERA, fielding percentage). Greinke's awareness of these metrics doesn't make him any better, it just makes him smarter. And yet The Times article paints his knowledge as a hidden secret to his success despite the fact that many of the statements are in fact contrary to what the metrics are intending to measure. I wish more in the stats community would take a minute to look at that, rather than simply being happy their work was being acknowledged by the best pitcher in the game.

Yanks Decline Option On Mitre

Good morning Fackers. Yesterday the Yankees declined their $1.25M 2010 option on pitcher Sergio Mitre. However, this does not necessarily spell the end of Mitre's time with the Yankees. He has not accumulated enough service time to be eligible for free agency, so the Yankees can retain his services by offering him arbitration prior to December 1st.

Last week, Joel Sherman reported that the Yankees intended to keep Mitre but were in the process of determining if his arbitration figure would be less than the value of his option. The organizational meetings began yesterday, and apparently the club wasted little time in determining they stood to pay Mitre less through arbitration. They had until Thursday to make a decision on the option.

I was fairly critical of Mitre as he faltered through his twelve appearances with the Yankees during the second half of last season. However, as the old adage goes, you can't have too much pitching. The front end of the rotation is well set with CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and presumably Andy Pettitte. I'd prefer to see Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes occupy the final two slots of the rotation, but the presence of Ian Kennedy, Alfredo Aceves, Mitre, presumably Chad Gaudin, minor league prospects such as Ivan Nova and Zach McAllister, and whatever spring training invitees are in camp will provide needed depth and competition.

While no one will ever confuse Mitre with a Cy Young Award candidate, he has shown signs of promise during his career. By the time next season begins, Mitre will be twenty one months removed from Tommy John Surgery. He made a relatively quick return from the procedure and was likely still finding his way back during his struggles last season. While I don't expect him to make the Yankees out of Spring Training, you never know what could happen with injuries and such. As a sinkerballer, Mitre may be more effective as a reliever, a role which he served for the majority of the 2005 and 2006 seasons.