Sunday, February 25, 2018

What Makes a Dynasty in Baseball?

Spring Training is finally starting, bringing and end to the long, dull offseason. Naturally, this seemed like a good time to talk about the postseason.

Well, sort of. This was actually sort of inspired by the recent Super Bowl, the ongoing NHL and NBA seasons, and (of course) not having much baseball news to chew over in the offseason. Obviously, although they lost to the Philadelphia Eagles, the lead-up to the Super Bowl saw much talk of the NFL’s modern New England Patriots dynasty. At the same time, the NHL and NBA have seen their own share of dynasty-like teams as of late, including the Pittsburgh Penguins, Chicago Blackhawks, Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs, and LeBron James & Co. Meanwhile, I’ve seen some people contrast this with baseball, with its relative lack of dynasties at the moment.

So, this seems like a good chance to discuss sports dynasties. I’ve always wanted to discuss it in some capacity, although I’ve never gotten a good chance to do so, so I may as well take advantage of the relative lull. Let’s start with the first question: what makes a dynasty?

The obvious is championships; you need some amount of titles in a short span of time, although we don’t really have a hard and fast number. I’d say there are other factors as well, though, like title game appearances, playoff appearances, and win totals. Also, I’d argue that those carry even more importance in baseball compared to other sports, since the baseball playoffs are easily the most random (which makes sense; all playoffs are of somewhat similar length, but baseball’s regular season is much, much longer, so the playoffs are a much less indicative sample size). This, in turn, means there are a lot more edge cases for what might make a run of years a dynasty or not. Helpfully, there are some recent National League teams that make for interesting demonstrations of this effect.

First, let’s look at the recent Giants. They fit the most conventional definition of a dynasty, with three World Series titles in five seasons (2010 to 2014, if you forgot). But you could also easily argue that they weren’t dominant in that stretch, either; they actually had fewer division titles than World Series titles in that stretch, they never won more than 94 games in any season, and the odd numbered years in that stretch were pretty mediocre, leading to an average record of just 87-75. Also, even if you think they’re a dynasty, does that span extend to 2016? While they only won 87 games that year, that’s just one win less than their 2014 total. And we’re already skipping mediocre odd years to count the even years, so why draw the line there? And what if they win it all in 2018? Would we extend that dynasty label then, even with their awful 2017 season in between? More on that in a bit, though.

The Cardinals of the 2000s also make for an interesting test case. They have two titles, in 2006 and 2011. They have two more pennants in that stretch as well, in 2004 and 2013, plus five more NLCS appearances and plenty of 95+ and 100+ win teams. You could easily break it into two successful runs, given that they missed the playoffs in 2007, 2008, and 2010. But at the same time, there was a good deal of continuity throughout, and that 2011 title year looks a lot more like the 2000-2010 period than the 2012-present period, given the departure of Tony La Russa and Albert Pujols that followed. Also, two of the years of missed playoffs in the middle (2008 and 2010) saw them win more games than their 2006 title run.

If the Giants are one extreme, the Braves run would be the other end of the spectrum. They appeared in every postseason between 1991 and 2005 and picked up five pennants in that span. They averaged a .606 winning percentage in that time, which translates to a little over 98 wins. But on the other hand, they only won one actual World Series in that time. Does that count against them enough to make them not a dynasty?

Ultimately, this is just going to come down to personal preference. Personally, I think all of those things should be a factor in determining a dynasty, and I’d count all three of those as examples. Of course, if someone thinks that ultimately titles outweigh the rest and only the Giants count…the definition is fuzzy enough that I don’t think I can really argue against it. Really, with any combination of those, it just comes down to personal preferences; as long as your reasoning is internally consistent, it is what it is.

The one other factor that’s harder to quantify is continuity; it’s sort of a mini Ship of Theseus paradox. As you continually replace players, the team eventually no longer looks like it once did. At what point is it just become a new “dynasty”. See the 1947-1964 Yankees for an example of this; sure, they appeared in all but three World Series in that span, but they also went through four managers in that time, and had enough roster turnover that the 22-year-old rookie catcher on the 1947 team was the manager of the 1964 team. Do you draw a line in there? If so, where? It’s another factor that just muddies the water some (more on this later).

Of course, the other thing about dynasties is that they’re really only clear in retrospect. We don’t really have many teams at that stage yet, but I’d argue that there are some teams that could become dynasties depending on how this year (and maybe the next couple after that) play out. Multiple dynasties seem like the starting place for determining a dynasty, so let’s play a game of hypotheticals: if the 2018 World Series winner is one of the most recent champions, would that make their run a dynasty?

Monday, February 19, 2018

Predicting Today's Future Hall of Fame Starting Pitchers, 2018 Edition

And finally, we have the second part of my annual series predicting active players’ chances of one day making the Hall of Fame. If you missed the first article focusing on position players, you can find it here.

As a quick recap of the methodology: first, I find the median Wins Above Replacement among Hall of Famers for each age (that is, the median WAR for Hall of Fame careers at age 20, then age 21, and so on) up until it matches the overall median for Hall of Famers. Then, I look at how many players in history have matched that total at that same age, and take a simple percentage: how many of the players who hit that Hall of Fame median would go on to make the Hall of Fame?

So, if for example (to pick easy numbers to work with), there were forty Hall of Fame starters, exactly half of them had 10 or more WAR at 24, and twenty-five total players had 10 or more WAR at that age, we’d use (20 Hall of Famers)/(25 total at the median)=80% chance of making the Hall. It may not be exact, but it’s a good starting point to visualize the odds, especially for young stars.

There are the normal caveats with this, too. Since Hall status is still up to voters, using precedent assumes that the standards the voting body uses won’t change. Players who aren’t in might be inducted by the Veterans Committee later. And of course, since I’m using medians, half of all Hall members didn’t hit these marks themselves, so no one is totally out of the running. This is more focused on finding early favorites. Pitchers have a few extra things to note: I’m focused on just starting pitchers, not relievers, since there aren’t really that many of them to be trying to compute a hard “Hall standard” for. This means I focused on pitchers who started 10% of their games when I was drawing historical standards, to cover young starters while being eased into the roll from the bullpen while ruling out straight-up reliever. Also, I limited my study to post-1920 pitchers, because I needed to separate “modern” pitchers from the very-different early days of the sport, and the start of the Liveball Era seemed like a good place to do that.

With all of that out of the way, let’s move on to looking at the modern aces:

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Predicting Today's Future Hall of Fame Hitters, 2018 Edition

We’ve reached the point in the offseason where it’s time for my annual Predicting Future Hall of Famers article. For those who haven’t read one before (past entries can be found here), this is my attempt to try and determine which players are on track for a Hall of Fame career. Instead of focusing just on players who are already in the homestretch of their careers, though, I extend my analysis to even the youngest of players.

I do this in a pretty straightforward mathematical way. First, I look at the sample set of Hall of Famers (divided into position players and starters). Then, I use Baseball-Reference’s Play Index to look at their Wins Above Replacement at every age during their careers. Next, I take note of the median WAR total for Hall of Famers who were active at that age.

Once I have this Median WAR (which will be noted for each age group in this article), I also look at the total number of players in history who have met this marker, Hall of Fame or not. Then, I take a simple percentage: how many of the total players who have hit this mark went on to make the Hall of Fame? I also remove players not yet eligible or still on the ballot, as their Hall fates are still uncertain. In the end, though, the result is a rough guideline to what a Hall of Fame player’s career looks like, as well as odds that even the youngest players in the league will see the inside of Cooperstown.

Of course, there are some other disclaimers necessary here. This is strictly descriptive of what has happened, and can’t really foresee changing standards in voting. Similarly, it doesn’t factor in non-numerical arguments. Though it’s also worth noting that, by definition, half of all Hall of Famers didn’t hit these standards, so a current player missing them doesn’t mean all is lost.

And of course, the Hall itself has some rather amorphous standards, so players who hit these cutoffs may not make the Hall anyway, even if they end up with deserving careers. Conversely, players who are currently not in the Hall may eventually be added via the Veterans Committee. So maybe these odds actually underestimate players’ chances, in the long view of things.

With all of that preamble out of the way, let’s look at which active position players appear to be on pace for Cooperstown!

Monday, February 12, 2018

International Baseball Representation in the Hall of Fame, Now and in the Future

An interesting bit of trivia about recent Hall of Fame inductee Vladimir Guerrero is that he is just the third Hall of Famer from the Dominican Republic, which seems almost surprising considering how dominant they players from the island have been for years now. A friend asked me about the potential future members of this club, and it was an interesting question that lead me to do some research on baseball’s history and make some future projections.

First, though, let’s go through the history of international players in the Hall of Fame. As is, there are a dozen players who have been voted into the Hall of Fame by either the Baseball Writers or Veterans Committee* who were born outside of the 50 states. Overall, they represent six nations and Puerto Rico.**

*There are a few other international inductees from other groups like the Early Game Committee and Negro League Committee, but those groups aren’t really my area of expertise (and some of those aren’t inducted as players anyway, complicating comparisons further). But, for reference, those inductees are: Harry Wright, Henry Chadwick, Tommy Connolly (all born in the United Kingdom), Martin Dihigo, Jose Mendez, Cristobal Torriente (all three born in Cuba), and Barney Dreyfuss (Germany).

**Puerto Rico is a tricky case. It is part of the United States, even if it isn’t itself a state. But it has a notably different history with Major League Baseball than the rest of the US. Puerto Ricans were for the most part kept out of the league by the color line, although the light-skinned Hi Bithorn and a few others like him managed to debut a few years before the league began allowing Negro League stars to play. Players from the island were signed rather than drafted like young stars from the states until 1989 (just two years before Canada was added, interestingly enough), and even to this day, there are usually Puerto Rican teams separate from US teams in international competitions like the World Baseball Classic, the Little League World Series and the Baseball World Cup.

The first of these dozen players inducted into the Hall was Roberto Clemente, fittingly. Following his untimely death of the Puerto Rican star on New Year’s Eve 1972, he was inducted into the Hall in a special election the next year. It would be more than a decade before the next inductee, Dominican Republic native Juan Marichal, in 1983, followed by Venezuelan-born Luis Aparicio the next year. 1991 saw the first double-induction of international stars, with Fergie Jenkins (Canada) and Rod Carew (Panama). The Veterans Committee elected Orlando Cepeda (Puerto Rico) in 1999, while Tony Perez (Cuba) was inducted the following year by the BBWAA on his ninth try.

We’ve really seen the rate pick up the last few years, though. 2011 saw another dual-induction, between Roberto Alomar (Puerto Rico) and Bert Blyleven (born in the Netherlands). In 2015, Pedro Martinez became the second Dominican Republic native in the Hall. Last year, Ivan Rodriguez became the fourth Puerto Rican in the Hall*, and that brings us to Guerrero this year.

*Fun fact: if you’ve been wondering what he’s up to these days, Rodriguez was recently named a member of Puerto Rico’s five-person shadow delegation to the House of Representatives.

Overall, it’s a really solid batch of players right now, but it also looks like we’ll begin to see the membership in the group expand rapidly. Baseball has become increasingly international over the years, and now that we’re three decades out from the big jump in international players we saw in the late eighties and into the nineties, the best players from that period are finally hitting the Hall ballot.

Let’s start with the next few years of voting. Next year, Mariano Rivera will join the ballot and almost certainly get above 95% of the vote. That would make him just the second Panamanian Hall member after Rod Carew. Also, Edgar Martinez finished about 20 votes shy of induction and will almost certainly make it in 2019. Although Martinez was born in New York City, his family returned to Puerto Rico when he was just two years old, and he grew up on the island.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Op-Ed: Baseball Teams Should Retire More Numbers

The Giants announced on Tuesday that they will be retiring number 25 for Barry Bonds. They’ve held the number out of circulation since he retired (or forced out of the league, depending on your view of things) after the 2007 season, but will formalize the whole thing now, after over a decade in a sort of limbo.

This makes Bonds the third confirmed player to see their number retired this coming season, after the Tigers announced that they’d be honoring both Alan Trammell and Jack Morris follow the Veterans Committee electing both of those players into the Hall of Fame.* Like Bonds, both had seen their numbers unofficially removed from circulation following their retirements (although Trammell’s #3 found its way back into use a few times in the meantime).

*I expect we’ll see a few more announcements on this front soon. The Indians still haven’t announced anything about Jim Thome’s #25 since his induction was announced. Ditto the Angels and Vladimir Guerrero, who will be the first player with an Angels logo on his plaque, but his case is maybe more complicated given that his #27 has since been reissued to Mike Trout. We’ll see how that plays out. Also, I wouldn’t be shocked to see one other announcement; there always seems to be a wild card or two in the mix.**

**Edit, February 12: This year's wild card is Roy Halladay .

All of these points factor in to a couple of my strong opinions on baseball teams retiring uniform numbers; I guess writing a couple hundred pages on the topic will give you some of those. Namely, I think teams are making some errors in their judgment of what makes someone worthy of getting a number retired, and this is manifesting in a couple of notable ways that could best be summarized as “teams are being a little too cautious in their decisions”.