I don’t plan on doing this all year, because quite frankly, it would be exhausting. But the fact the Kansas City Star is running the “Judging The Royals” blog again this summer begs at least a one-time rebuttal.
(Honestly, I wouldn’t even be aware they were doing this if it hadn’t been for a barrage of Tweets Nick unleashed a few days ago.)
For the uninitiated (consider yourselves lucky) this web feature from the Star has their political cartoonist (and avid baseball fan) Lee Judge watching every Royals game and subjectively grading what he sees. He assigns points based on things like a great catch or a home run or an RBI. In the old days – when newspapers were the primary source of news – this would have been a novel idea. However, in the years AJ (After James) there are a number of systems available to determine who had the greatest impact in a game. And none of them have to do with adding up points.
For Opening Day, Judge, though the system devised by Ron Polk, deemed Jeff Francoeur the most valuable Royal of the day. If you just look at the box score, I can get that, I suppose. He hit a home run, drove in a run and gunned down a runner at home in the eighth. That’s a decent day.
If you watched the game, you probably would have drawn a different conclusion.
The Royals entered the eighth inning trailing by three runs. According to statistics (developed by guys who, you know, look at numbers) the Royals stood an 8.9% chance of winning the game at that point. When Aviles led off the inning with a home run, that cut the Angels lead to two and slightly increased the Royals chances of winning the game to 17%. At that point, it was kind of a one man rally.
Obviously, at any point in the game, one of two things can happen. A player can either help or hurt his teams chances of winning the game. It’s helpful to get on base (or hit a home run) and outs hurt. Of course, what stats like Win Probability and Leverage Index do is take into account the game situation. Under the Polk system that Judge uses, Francoeur’s home run in the seventh is worth the same as Aviles home run in the eighth. The great thing about WP and LI is you don’t need to know advanced mathematics to know that the assumption that both home runs are equal in value just isn’t true. Yes, they are both worth a single run, but there is a difference because one comes later in the game. Each team begins with an equal number of outs and as the outs become more scarce, the value of a run (in a tight game like the opener) becomes much greater. I’ve written this before, but it makes sense. A leadoff home run is nice because it gives your team the lead, but there are still 27 outs to go. A home run in the eighth that gives your team the lead carries more weight because there are only four to six outs to go.
The flip side is also true. If a player makes an out with the bases loaded in the first inning of a tie game, it’s not as harmful if that same event occurs in the eighth. Again, it all goes back to what I call the scarcity of outs.
That is exactly what Ron Polk’s system ignores.
The key play in the game last Thursday wasn’t even a hit. It was a walk.
After the Aviles home run, Melky Cabrera walked. That increased the Royals chances of a comeback to 24.9%. See how that works? Yes, the Aviles home run was important, but the Melk Man getting the free pass was almost equal in importance because it brought the tying run to the plate with six outs to go. After an Alex Gordon ground out (cutting the Royals chances to win to 19.8%), Billy Butler walks. With runners on first and second and one out, that bumps the Royals chances back to were it was previous to the Gordon groundout – 25.8%. And now, believe it or not, comes the most important plate appearance in the game for the Royals in that after it was over, it gave the Royals their best chance of winning the game all afternoon. Kila Ka’aihue walked to load the bases. In a game where the home side is trailing by two with one out and the bases drunk, the team (the Royals) held a 38% chance of emerging victorious. That base on balls by Kila was the closest the Royals got to winning the game since Torii Hunter uncorked his home run to give the Angels the advantage in the third.
That’s why that walk would be my Royals play of the game.
So who happens to come up with the bases loaded and with the Royals holding their best (and it turned out, last) chance to pick up the win? Jeff Francoeur… Judge’s player of the game.
With the game on the line, the ideal (and obvious) outcome would be for a base hit. A walk (yeah, right) would be fine. A fly ball would be OK. Even a ground ball could be productive if Frenchy could bust it down the line and beat a throw. The two worst outcomes for his plate appearance would be a double play (which would end the inning) or a strikeout (which would subtract an out from the Royals “bank” without advancing the runners.)
And Frenchy struck out.
Sorry, Lee… There’s just no way Francoeur can be the best player on the Royals that afternoon when he struck out with the game on the line in the late innings. No. Way.
Despite being on the wrong side of the POG debate, I don’t begrudge the Star or Mr. Judge to run the feature. I believe that baseball is a big tent of ideas… Stats and scouts… And we can – and should – coexist. Sometimes your eyes tell you something that stats can’t… And sometimes stats tell you Let them have their exercise. It just so happens that I disagree. That doesn’t make me right… But I do have this platform where I can refute and rebut. (In fact, Lee, if you’re reading this, we should go to a game together sometime. I imagine we would have a great time debating value of certain plays.)
I hope his readers know that there are plenty of other options out there that measures value on a game by game basis. I hope they explore the interwebs to find a good alternative.