Crash Bag, Vol. 12: Last Call at Red Hot Tomatoes

I have a confession to make: As I write this, I’ve been up more than 24 hours straight, so this might make even less sense than usual. Which, I suspect, is how y’all like it.

Sleep deprivation is a fascinating experience. Two years ago, when I was in grad school, I wrote two 25-page research papers in four days, each in one massive sunset-to-sunrise binge, one on Thursday night and one on Sunday. I woke up around 11 a.m. on Thursday and went to sleep at about 2 in the morning on Saturday, then woke up around 10 a.m. on Sunday and went to sleep at around 1 in the afternoon on Monday. Pulling a 39-hour waking period and a 27-hour waking period in one long weekend does bizarre things to the mind, believe you me. While at the train station on Monday morning, on my way to turn my final paper in, a bird flew overhead and its shadow passed over me. I believed I was under attack and flipped out, nearly punching an unsuspecting stranger in the face. Hardly a Great Moment in Baumannian Savoir Faire.

Suffice it to say, I’m a little punchy. Almost punchy enough to trade Cliff Lee.

@SJHaack: “What shape would you have your money topiaries made into if you were Cole Hamels this week?”

We start with this week’s big story. Cole Hamels got paid. Big time. Now, I’ve already gone on the record as saying that if I were to come into nine figures’ worth of David Montgomery’s money, I would not be one of those tasteful, discreet rich people. I would be as vulgar as my means and the boundaries of human decency would allow. I’d hire Clemson’s starting defensive line to carry me about on a litter, because they’re certainly no good at actually playing football. I’d drive my Ferrari to get the mail–no, better yet, I’d pay my manservant to drive my Ferrari to get the mail. I’d install a curling rink in the basement of my palatial manse. And the money topiaries? In the shape of the Euro symbol, because it looks cooler than the dollar sign.

Cole Hamels appears to have more sense than I. Much of his absurd salary will go toward good works. The balance, I imagine, will pay for dog backpacks.

But in all seriousness, I, for one, am thrilled that Cole Hamels will be with us six more years. When I’m griping about his contract in 2018, remind me that I wept like a child when he re-signed.

@SpikeEskin: “I would like to see an ‘unlucky’ rankings. A combination of stats that suggest bad luck and the worst luck hitters/pitchers. Also, I would love to know if there is a way to know if if you can quantify a certain skill level that overcomes bad luck. Like this: I could never imagine Roy Halladay in his prime being 1-6 in August, regardless of his bad luck.”

Spike, in case you hadn’t noticed, is a big shot. He hosts a radio show on WIP (which he’s been gracious enough to invite me on), so he thinks he can spend three tweets asking a Crash Bag question. He thinks he’s that important.

But this is a good question. Baseball is perhaps the only area of life in which I am a determinist. There might be free will, but it’s dwarfed by the randomness and the whimsy of the fabric of space-time. The broken-bat blooper is a double. The line drive crushed to the warning track is an out. So it goes. If a foreigner asked me to describe baseball, I’d say: “Life sucks, then the Yankees win.”

Because so much of baseball is luck (or random variation if you prefer), it’s important to recognize where that pops up. Follow me to FanGraphs.com, where I’ll take you to a set of player pages to illustrate these points. (I realize that the readership of this blog is, in large part, more statistically savvy than even I, so feel free to skip ahead to the next question.)

The prevailing study of pitchers right now involves defense-independent pitching statistics, or DIPS. The theory is that pitchers can control how many batters they strike out, how many batters they walk and how many home runs they give up. Any ball put in play is subject to factors outside their control, including defensive quality, weather, stadium design and physics. There are some qualifications to this. To some degree, home runs are subject to luck as well, so some DIPS-based ERA estimators take that into account. There’s evidence to suggest that pitchers can control what type of hit they give up. Sinkerballers give up more ground balls, guys who throw hard and up in the zone give up fly balls, and guys who just suck give up lots of line drives. It’s also been speculated that pitchers can control, to a certain extent, how hard the ball is hit. To my knowledge, this hasn’t been empirically proven, but it seems plausible logically.

Anyway, for a pitcher, you’ve got options. There have been several DIPS ERA estimators that try to show what a pitcher’s ERA would have been using only the things he can control and holding all other variables constant. I give you Cole Hamels’ FIP. In 2008, he posted a 3.05 ERA, won NLCS and World Series MVP honors, and was the toast of the town. A year later, he fell on hard times, his ERA spiked to 4.32, he melted in a playoff game with his wife in labor and the fans who had adored him a year earlier turned on him in favor of J.A. Happ, who we’ll talk more about in a moment. Hamels’ 2009 woes were largely the result of bad luck. How do we know this? His strikeout rate, walk rate and home run rate stayed more or less constant and his FIP was literally identical in 2008 and 2009, 3.72. So look at one of the ERA estimators (FIP, xFIP, SIERA, I don’t care), and if it’s higher than a pitcher’s ERA, usually he’s getting lucky. If it’s lower, he’s unlucky.

Back to J.A. Happ. A crude way to tell if a pitcher’s skating by on good fortune is his BABIP. Generally, pitchers tend to have a career BABIP of .300, demonstrable by the fact that Roy Halladay’s career BABIP is roughly equal to Adam Eaton‘s. Some pitchers (including Hamels) tend to sit lower. But as a rule of thumb, .300 is the norm. If a pitcher, in a small sample, even a season-length sample, posts a BABIP lower than .300, he’s probably getting lucky. Happ, in 2009, posted a 2.93 ERA, which was nearly a run and a half lower than his FIP. This was thanks in part to a .266 BABIP. Now that Happ’s BABIP (which is a fun phrase. I was in a folk-rock band called Happ’s BABIP for a while) rose to roughly .300 the past two seasons, he’s fallen on hard times. Poor guy. I always liked him.

For hitters, that’s not the case. There is a certain measure of skill in a hitter’s BABIP. For instance, fast guys who hit ground balls tend to have high BABIPs because 1) grounders tend to turn into hits at a higher rate and 2) they leg out a lot of infield singles, while the reverse is true for slower fly ball hitters. For instance, Ichiro’s career BABIP is .347, and was higher before he posted back-to-back career lows in 2011 and 2012. On the other hand, Jose Bautista‘s career BABIP is .270.

For a hitter, it’s best to compare BABIP to his career average, particularly if he’s built up something of a track record. Hunter Pence, for instance, is not one man, but two: The High-BABIP Lion of Judah and the Low-BABIP Salieri of Outfielders. In 2007, Pence’s rookie year, his BABIP was .377. In 2011, his BABIP was .361. Pence’s wOBA in those years? .384 and .378. Superstar stuff.

However, in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2012, Pence’s numbers have been more pedestrian. His BABIPs over that span: .301, .308, .304, .299. His wOBAs in those years: .334, .351, .341, .338. All fine numbers, even for a corner outfielder. But not worth trading Singleton and Cosart for. And yes, I’m watching you @mferrier31. Don’t you think I’ve forgotten about my trombone promise. So if prime Ichiro clubs out a .370 BABIP for a season, that’s no big deal. But if someone like Pence does it, that’s a different animal. There’s a lot of nuance to using hitter BABIP to gauge luck. If a guy’s BABIP is up over a full season and so is his line drive rate, that’s probably more an indication of him becoming a better player than being lucky.

I could go on, of course, but this answer is already way too long. There’s strand rate, HR/FB rate, and a host of other ways to find out what’s real and what’s an illusion. But above all else, beware small sample sizes, or even sample sizes that last months. Even Michael Martinez can look like Barry Bonds, and vice-versa if the sample is small enough.

Simply put, there’s no omnibus luck stat, though Cliff Lee this season is a special case. I’ll say this much: enough bad luck can overwhelm just about any amount of skill. His peripherals are slightly worse than last season, plus he’s taken a little bit of a beating in just about every luck-related stat, from BABIP to HR/FB rate to strand rate, even to run support, plus he hasn’t exactly had the cooperation of his bullpen. Add in that he’s only won one game and every Lee start is watched with a hyperbolic intensity. We try to assign meaning to too much in sports, writing about an individual game as if it’s a morality play. Better to sit back and embrace the randomness.

Remember, Spike, “Life sucks, then the Yankees win.”

1,171 words, that response, and I didn’t really even answer the question. We might have to dedicate a book to this topic. And by “we,” I mean someone who’s got a better handle on the cutting edge of baseball statistics than I do.

@Estebomb: “Why is fat Ryan Howard better than the trimmer version? Does it have something to do with gravitational pull?”

I can only assume so. It’s possible that his girth is actually affecting the break on the 57-foot offspeed pitches he usually gets himself out on. But I have an alternative hypothesis. Fat equals happy.

I used to be skinny. But then I went to college and Chick-fil-a was on the meal plan (back in 2005, before they became the third rail of American culinary politics, so relax. Those were the days when a man’s choice of junk food wasn’t taken as a political statement, or as I like to call them, The Days When Men Were Free and Life Was Worth Living). Anyway, then I stopped playing organized sports. Then I graduated and didn’t have to walk everywhere. Now I’m the opposite of the narrator of Stone Temple Pilot’s “Creep.” I’m twice the man I used to be. And I’m okay with that because getting skinny means not eating the food I like and exercising a lot. Or at all. Ryan Howard and I are in a similar situation in that respect–both of us are bigger than usual, but engaged to be married, and thus, if all goes according to plan, will never need to impress strange women again. No need to make myself unhappy, and I suspect the Big Piece feels the same way.

The way I see it, a fat Howard is a happy Howard. And a happy Howard is a productive Howard. He’s like a Soviet coal miner in that respect. You wanna know why Nick Frost is so hilarious and jocular and Kristen Stewart is a grouch and has never smiled, on screen or off, in her life? Because fat people are happy and fun and skinny people are miserable and mean. That’s why Fat Howard is more productive than Skinny Howard.

@Framed_Ace: “If not Chase Headley who WOULD you like to see as the Phils 3B next year? Both dreaming and realistically.”

Yes, I wrote a hit piece on Chase Headley two day ago, essentially saying that Headley’s a nice player at a position the Phillies need, but Ruben Amaro would have to be a lunatic to trade for him. Which he probably will, because Ruben Amaro is a lunatic. Also, it appears that the comment section on that post has gotten away from us in the past 36 hours. 46 comments…yeah, I’m never going back there. Who knows what’s going on in that darkness?

But that’s a fair question that I meant to answer in the original post but frankly forgot to. If I’m dreaming, the Phillies find some sort of rejuvenation machine and return, like, George Brett to factory spec. If I’m actually dreaming and not hallucinating, the Phillies find a way to get their hands on Mike Olt without giving up Cliff Lee, which would be even more insane than trading for Chase Headley. That, too, is unlikely. I like Olt, but I’m not convinced enough that he’s going to be a star to give up four years of Cliff Lee, even if he is aging and unlucky. Maybe I’d take a flyer on the guy behind Headley on the depth chart in San Diego, James Darnell, who, at 25, hasn’t broken into the majors full-time yet, but has shown some patience and pop in the minors. He’d be a low-risk, moderate-upside type of player and almost certainly better than Ty Wigginton.

So failing Olt or some other young up-and-comer, I’d just as soon see the Phillies punt third base entirely as try to reach for a minor upgrade. Third base is completely barren, and I’m okay with them playing some yannigan there full-time until an obvious answer comes along. I’m going to tell a parable to illustrate my point.

Back when I was in college, the place to be on weekends was Five Points, where all the cheap college bars were. Now, most of those places tended to shut down between 1 and 2 on weekends, but there’s a place called Red Hot Tomatoes. It stayed open until 3 a.m. I went there, I believe, twice in the three semesters in which I was 21. I hardly ever went there for two reasons. First, it was a dancing club, and I, like Kompressor, do not dance. The second is that it’s the last-ditch hookup central, and I had a girlfriend all 4 years of college. But Red Hot’s used to fill up around closing time for the other bars full of sloppy drunk kids in their early 20s trying desperately to find someone to hook up with. It was a spectacle. And according to a friend who’s been in Columbia more recently than I, it’s only gotten worse.

Anyway, as far as third basemen go, it’s last call at Red Hot Tomatoes. Everyone wants one, and everyone who already has one has gone home long ago. Anyone left on the dance floor when the lights go up and the last A Chi O who can’t stay upright in heels eats pavement is stuck with limited selection and the mistaken impression that leaving with anything is better than leaving with nothing at all. It’s not.

The kingdom of third base is like last call at Red Hot Tomates. Value is scarce at third base right now. Even average third basemen are expensive. Why would the Phillies overpay for value at third now when value could be had cheaply elsewhere? Just accept that you’re going to get replacement-level third base play for the next year or two until a better solution presents itself. I don’t believe that every team with designs on a playoff spot needs to fill every vacancy with a quality player right the hell now. That’s how bad trades get made. So let’s accept that it’s a seller’s market at third, accept a less-than-optimal outcome there for the time being and exercise a little bit of patience. You know, like grown-ups do. The Phillies are going to stink on ice at third. So will everyone else. We’ll all live.

@SoMuchForPathos: “Who is the last dragon? Who possesses the power of the glow?”

Well, according to the song, you are, and you do. In baseball terms, I’m pretty sure Cole Hamels will be the last player from this team to remain on the Phillies. Which makes him the last dragon. And I think that we can all agree that he possesses the power of the glow.

Though if he doesn’t, I’m sure he can buy it with $144 million.

@JakePavorsky: “Bigger folk hero: Sal Fasano or Eric Kratz”

I’m going to say Fasano, still, for now, if only because of his glorious mustache. Though if Kratz participates in a few more game-winning rallies, we could see that change in a hurry.

@jtramsay: “Dear #crashbag, say we trade our starting outfield. Who replaces them this season?”

I want to apologize to those of you who wrote in asking me to speculate on what trades the Phillies will make this week. I know we’re coming to the trade deadline, but I can’t answer those questions. I don’t have the first clue who the Phillies will trade, if anyone, or what, if anything, they’ll get in return. One day, I hope, I’ll be in the know about such things, and I promise I’ll tell you. Until then, I’d rather not contribute to a public panic that could cost lives.

With that said, I think the Phillies really should trade their entire starting outfield. Pierre offers them nothing beyond this season. Nor does Victorino. Pence could help next year, but with his likely arbitration award and the sudden urgent need for payroll flexibility with Cole Hamels’ contract extension, the Phillies would be best served dumping him for prospects when his value is highest. Which is to say, now. So the Phillies would find themselves with three outfielders–a pretty decent outfield, if I’m honest–on July 27 and a totally different one on August 1. What an interesting turn of events that would be.

Left field would probably be a Laynce Nix/John Mayberry platoon. Nix can hit against righties, and Mayberry can’t hit against anyone, but he’s right-handed so we’ll run him out there against lefties anyway. In right, I hope, we’d find a healthy Domonic Brown, the way finally cleared for him to make his big impact. In center, however, we reach a moment of indecision. The only current Phillie capable of playing center anywhere close to competently is Mayberry. And I’d rather not hand over a starting outfield spot to a guy with a .276 OBP. So where do we turn? Well, we could pull Jason Pridie off a landscaping crew again, or sign some similar quad-A guy with wheels to hold down the fort until the offseason comes and the Phillies can get their hands on what’s actually a pretty deep free agent crop in center. Maybe a young outfielder comes back in a trade. Who knows?

Though really, if it is Mayberry, what’s the worst that can happen: the Phillies miss the playoffs?

@cwyers: “If you sleep, will clowns eat you?”

Well not now, because I don’t think I’m going to be able to sleep with the threat of flesh-eating clowns hanging over my proverbial head. Thanks, buddy.

@skyboner: “is there an ideal place to take a dump at CBP? (besides batters box w. RISP)”

Well, I’ve never pooped there myself, but I believe the bathrooms would be the preferred place from a stand point of pubic health….oh. Jokes. Nice job. Hunter Pence doesn’t think it’s funny. He’s standing in the corner with his head hanging and expression on his face like a puppy who just, well, pooped in the batter’s box.

My eyes have stopped focusing, so this is going to have to be the last one.

@nicksaponara: “How would you like to see a return to 80’s unis? Cole looked pretty suave in them last year”

I wouldn’t like it at all. I don’t care how suave he looked. And this is coming from someone who’s on his second powder blue Steve Carlton shirsey. I went 12 rounds with a couple friends in Baltimore because they loved the white front panel on the Orioles’ cap and really got behind the orange alternate jerseys. I couldn’t stand them.

In order to wind up with such a uniform, the following exchange must have happened somewhere.

“Hey, let’s redesign the uniform to look like something from our history.”
“Great idea. When do you want to pick from.”
“Well…wait! It just came to me!”
“What?”
“You know when fashion was really great?”
“When?”
“The late 70s and early 80s.”

Someone must have thought that and he should be found and executed right now. Please, let’s not encourage Stagflation Nostalgia. Yes, the late 70s and early 80s, when cinema was at its peak, producing Saturday Night Fever. When Reagan and Brezhnev were in a race to see who could bankrupt his country first by overspending on the military. I’m feeling my heart go pitter-patter.

Seriously, I think the Phillies have great uniforms as-is. They’re classic: white with pinstripes at home, gray on the road. No fuss, no drama, just some good old-fashioned shut up and play baseball. I’d make two changes. First, ditch the hideous home day alternates. I know everyone likes that uniform but I can’t for the life of me figure out why. It’s like it was designed by a committee of eight-year-olds, a hodgepodge of eras and colors. I’m all for getting more blue in the uniform, but there’s got to be a way that doesn’t make Ty Wigginton look like a family of four that’s gone camping at Ocean Grove.

Second, I’d change the “Phillies” across the front of the road grays to “Philadelphia.” Just about every team that wears words on the front if the jersey puts the city name on the road uniforms. It’s time to join the party. And if you can fit “Baltimore” or “Los Angeles,” you can fit “Philadelphia.”

Thanks everyone who wrote in. This was the most bountiful harvest of tweets yet, and I look forward to to being able to say that again next week. Keep writing in, and we’ll resume our regularly-scheduled crashbaggery in seven days’ time. Enjoy the weekend.