Michael Young: statistical visionary

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Michael Young hasn’t hit well lately, but he does not believe he’s in a slump, per se:

“I’ve never really bought into the idea of slumps,” Young said. “There are going to be times you just don’t get the results that you want in this game. It’s just the nature of the big leagues. But what you’ve done in the past has nothing to do with what you’re going to do the next game. You’re allowed to wipe the slate clean and get back to work the next game.”

Given how much fun we’ve had picking on Michael Young around here, your first impression may be that I offer this to mock him for being in denial.  Not so!  I think he’s actually making a comment about people’s inability to properly understand randomness and random events which, inevitably, leads to things like the “hot hand fallacy.”

Yes, players have what we call “slumps.” And we use that term because it is useful. It describes events which did, in fact, occur.  When someone goes 0 for 32, he did suffer a slump.

But it’s wrong to stretch the concept into something predictive. To say that, because someone went 0 for 32, that at bat number 33 is doomed. Or, as it comes up more often, to make strident predictions about what the slump means as it relates to the player’s value and future prospects.  Fact is: players with any kind of track record are, in a significant enough sample size, going to perform pretty close to that track record and within norms for someone of their talent level, with a usual mild downward slope as they age and get more fragile and stuff.

I know that this has little to do with Young or even with what he’s talking about, but any chance we have to stamp out things like “the hot hand” or the related gambler’s fallacy (“he’s due for a hit!”) verbiage from the discourse, we should take it.

This stuff isn’t magic. There is no whammy. Stuff just evens out over time. Unless you think Michael Young was really a .400 hitter, that’s all that’s going on with him here, even if you want to call it a slump and he doesn’t.

Zack Greinke understands that “the opener” isn’t just about in-game strategy

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Over the weekend, Craig was among those cited as having criticized the Rays by Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times. Craig wrote about it in Sunday’s And That Happened. Many of the responses from Rays fans to him on Twitter, at least most of what I saw, conflated distaste for ownership’s penny-pinching for a belief that the team is bad. Indeed, the Rays enter Tuesday’s action 64-61 and their position above .500 has something to do with “the opener” strategy, which is when they have a reliever like Sergio Romo start the game before handing the ball off to an actual starter after an inning or two. Other teams, like the Twins, have taken notice of “the opener” and have begun experimenting with it.

On Monday, Bleacher Report’s Scott Miller published a lengthy column discussing how recent changes to the game of baseball have made it a worse product. He quotes a lot of old-timers, which I discussed yesterday. Miller also quoted Diamondbacks starter Zack Greinke on the subject of “the opener.” While quotes from the likes of Goose Gossage and Pete Rose were a bit more eye-popping, Greinke’s thoughts shouldn’t go unnoticed.

Greinke said:

It’s really smart, but it’s also really bad for baseball. It’s just a sideshow. There’s always ways to get a little advantage, but the main problem I have with it is you do it that way, then you’ll end up never paying any player what he’s worth because you’re not going to have guys starting, you’re not going to have guys throwing innings.

You just keep shuffling guys in and out constantly so nobody will ever get paid. Someone’s going to make the money, either the owners or the players. You keep doing it that way, the players won’t make any money.

Back in May, I wrote about how the overarching concept of “bullpenning” creates a serious labor issue in baseball. Greinke touched on exactly those points. An elite starter makes significantly more money than an elite reliever. Compare contracts signed by David Price (seven years, $217 million) and Max Scherzer (seven years, $210 million) to the contract signed by Aroldis Chapman (five years, $86 million), which is currently the most lucrative contract signed by a reliever. It wouldn’t crack the top-85 contracts in baseball.

A starter’s number of starts and his innings pitched total are both cited in arbitration filings and contract negotiations. A pitcher who made 33 starts in a season will have more leverage than a pitcher made only 15 starts. Meanwhile, Romo and Ryne Stanek‘s innings totals aren’t much different than a normal year of relief. Thus, if you’re Rays president of baseball operations Matt Silverman and GM Erik Neander, spreading the number of starts (and innings) between the “rotation” and bullpen will reduce the cost of pre-arbitration and arbitration-eligible starters. The owners save this money and pocket it instead of reinvesting it into the team. Then they’ll turn around, cry poor, and ask residents of Tampa to foot the billion-dollar bill for a new stadium in Ybor City, roughly 25 minutes from their current digs.

Greinke is right and we should pay attention to what he’s saying. While “the opener” has some strategic merit, particularly for teams with less-than-complete starting rotations, it also conveniently helps save money for stingy and exploitative front offices. We’ve already accepted that a third of the league gave up on the season before it began. Let’s not accept that teams can give up on their pitching staffs as well.