Saturday, December 28, 2013

Did all the GM's get lost in Brad Pitt's eyes?

Don't get lost in his eyes - Brad Pitt has important things to say!

This past weekend I was enjoying an artisinal craft lager (1) with my current friend and former couchmate John Lynn when we began discussing my most recent blog post. Although John cares roughly as much for sports as I do for canker sores, he is so devoted to being an active listener that he feigns interest in my rants and even provides valuable constructive criticism. After hearing me complain for entirely too long (2) about the consistent follies of NBA decision makers and how amazing it is that they continue to give away wins by employing horribly unproductive players, John posed the following question: "Is this misguided choice to play unproductive players unique to basketball or pervasive across other sports?" 

As John wandered off to have his first cig (of the last 12 minutes) I pondered his question and decided I'd look at baseball. Baseball has long been at the forefront of the sports analytics movement, a revolution that has only gained steam since the explosion of Moneyball (3). Consequently, I presumed that this massive headstart in emphasizing data driven analysis would result in a crop of savvy MLB decision makers who are better able to evaluate production than their NBA peers and subsequently to avoid giving away wins by not playing unproductive players. Then again, one of MLB's mascots is a crack-addict so maybe I shouldn't have given the league too much credit. 

In order to test the extent to which MLB decision makers understand the value of not employing unproductive players, I turned to Fangraphs' Wins Above Replacement (WAR) statistic. WAR is a great metric because of its conceptual simplicity: it calculates the number of wins that a given player earned above a "replacement" level player (i.e. a player who could be found in the minor leagues or acquired for a choco taco). Specifically, I charted the aggregate negative WAR for the entire MLB from the years of 1984-2013 in two year increments. For fun, I looked at both all players who appeared during those years as well as strictly players who tallied enough appearances to qualify for batting/pitching titles. What I found was, well, sigh:

According to the data, MLB decision makers still give away tens of wins each year by allocating appearances to players who aren't simply below average, but are so unproductive that they don't produce at the level of a "AAAA" replacement player! Moreover, decision makers are giving away more wins now in the Sabrmetrics era than they did in the 80's and 90's!

When I saw this chart, I was convinced that something must be wrong. How could MLB decision makers, who must have seen Brad Pitt leverage easily available data to work wonders for the imaginary A's, still manage to employ such unproductive players? In order to dig a tad deeper, I counted the number of negative WAR players employed throughout this same time period(4). What I found was equally damning:

Yup, MLB decision makers are employing a greater number of sub-replacement level players now than they were in the 80's. 

So what's going on here? There are a number of explanations that likely contributed to this increase including an increase in injuries, changes to free agency/rising salaries, the steroid era increasing the performance discrepancy between the most talented juicers and least talented non-juicers as well as the expansion of the league - during their infancy, the Rockies and Marlins [added in 1993] and Diamondbacks and Rays [1998] all played some pretty horrible players (here's looking at you, Greg Dobbs!). That said, the increasing pool of talent coming from Latin America, Japan, etc... as well as the greatly increased understanding of what makes a productive player should have been more than enough to offset this change, right? 

All of which makes me wonder - did all the GM's get lost in Brad Pitt's eyes during Moneyball?

Let me know your thoughts, questions and critiques in the comments!


1. You're right - it was a Coors Lite. And that's only because they didn't serve Keystones...

2. Entirely too long = 2 Coors or 3 missed opportunities to speak to girls, depending on how you choose to measure time.

3.This trailblazing can be primarily attributed to logistical factors more than anything else:

-Baseball has been around forever (i.e. since the US of A was founded and time technically started)
-The game is (painfully) slow and full of deliberate actions, making it easy to track and quantify events
-Although there are clearly "team plays" that require teammate interaction (e.g. double-plays, sacrifice squeeze, etc...), baseball can be more easily evaluated as a series one-on-one battles between pitcher and batter as opposed to other sports (looking at you, football) in which it can be difficult to isolate an individual's contributions within a team performance.

4. In this case I strictly looked at players who had enough appearances to qualify for batting/pitching awards.

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