A few days ago I sent the following question to half a dozen men who work with statistics for major league teams, either as consultants or salaried employees.
When you're analyzing player performance, do you consider quality of competition?
My inquiry elicited three responses, two of them from team executives who asked that I not reveal their names. One of the anonymities, who works for a team that's not in immediate danger of winning more than it loses, said that such analysis might make sense for a good team. The other nameless one, who does work for a good team, told me that quality of competition has been a part of his analysis for years.
The non-anonymous responder was Bill James, who works for the Red Sox. Here's Bill:
No, I generally don't, in the sense that I think that you mean it. If I'm looking at minor league players, at college players ... sure, quality of competition is big.
I tend to agree that this might be a productive area of research. For example, comparing two Cy Young candidates from 1957, in retrospect, we might find that Bob Turley, while he was 21-7, was 14-1 against bad teams, while Bob Friend (the alternative Cy Young candidate that year) pitched a lot more games and won more often against good teams. This is theoretical as opposed to an actual example.
I did a study one year in the Abstract of the quality of pitchers faced by two teams. I think this might have been the 1985 Abstract, and I think it might have been the San Diego or Los Angeles comment. I found, as I recall, that San Diego had had a blitzkrieg season, in substantial measure, because they simply didn't face nearly as many good pitchers as their competition did. Just the luck of the draw -- they didn't happen to face many good opposing pitchers, and had derived a very substantial competitive advantage from that. But I never really followed through on the study ...
This study actually appeared in the 1986 Baseball Abstract, wherein Bill reported that in 1984 the Padres had faced fewer front-line starters than every other team in the National League West, and many fewer than the Reds, Braves and Dodgers had. "Which," and Bill concluded, "I think helps to explain, in retrospect, why that essentially unremarkable team was able to win the National League pennant."
This opens up one obvious line of general inquiry. I once co-wrote a book about great teams, and the analysis relied largely on two things: wins and losses, and runs scored and allowed. (OK, maybe that's four things. You get the point.)
But if you want to know, really want to know how good a team was, wouldn't you want to know the quality of the teams they faced? Of course, we can get a damn good idea of that quality just by looking at the wins and losses, but as James discovered many years ago, sometimes teams simply get lucky when it comes to which pitchers they face.
I'd forgotten about Bill's study. But I did know that Warren Spahn, for a number of years, was rarely allowed to pitch against the Brooklyn Dodgers, especially in Ebbets Field. I did know (because crack researcher Dick Thompson told me) that for a stretch in the early 1930s, Lefty Grove was rarely allowed to pitch against the Yankees. Which meant that in an eight-team league, Grove wasn't pitching against either of the two best teams (the Yankees and the Athletics). I did know that when the Yankees were running roughshod over the American League from 1949 through 1964, a great majority of the great black players were in the National League, which perhaps should give us pause when considering the true greatness of those Yankees. And a helpful reader pointed out, just a few months ago, that in 2003 there was a significant difference between the competition faced by Esteban Loaiza and Roy Halladay (Loaiza having things a lot easier).
Of course, those are matters for academics. As a practical matter, it doesn't really matter if maybe Lefty Grove was slightly less brilliant than we think he was. And whichever of them wins the Cy Young Award, Loaiza and Halladay can both afford to build bowling alleys in their basements.
But as a practical matter, it does matter to major league teams if they're being fooled by the statistics that we assume are accurate representations of a player's performance. Just looking at one contemporary example of many we might choose ...
Raul Ibanez has just moved from the American League Central to the American League West.
In 2003, Ibanez totaled 130 at-bats against West pitchers and batted .208. He totaled 282 at-bats against Central pitchers and batted .333.
Maybe that huge difference -- .208 and .333 -- is due to nothing more than luck. But maybe, just maybe that difference is due, at least in part, to the difference between the pitchers in the West and the pitchers in the Central. And if you're running an American League West team and you're thinking about signing Raul Ibanez, wouldn't you at least want to think about that?
I don't think the Mariners thought about it. I think they saw Ibanez's numbers -- he batted .294, with respectable (if less than brilliant) on-base and slugging percentages -- and they thought, "Well, there's no reason he can't do that for us."
Except maybe there is a reason. Maybe he can't do that for the Mariners because he won't have the Indians and the Tigers to kick around any more. At least not as often. Instead of racking up 75 at-bats against the Tribe and the Tiges, Ibanez will be running up those AB's against the A's and the Angels, and things might be different.
Then again, maybe this is nothing. Piffle. I'd like to know, though. One way or the other. Every few days, a bright young man tells me that he's smart and loves baseball and by the way how does a bright young man who loves baseball get his foot in the door with a baseball team?
Well, here's my advice ... Figure something out. Voros McCracken figured out that pitchers don't have nearly as much control over what happens to a batted ball as people thought, and now he's working for the Red Sox. So figure this out. Figure out if the Mariners really should be frightened by Raul Ibanez's performance against American League West teams in 2003. Figure out how many Cy Young Awards and MVP trophies are won not because one player was better than another, but because the competition made his job a little bit easier. Thanks to Retrosheet and the Internet, there's more than enough readily available data to get you started. Figure out ... and this is where I wrap this all up and send you forth with my best wishes ... figure out if we have, for all these years, been missing something pretty damn important.
Senior writer Rob Neyer writes three columns per week during baseball's offseason. Next spring, Fireside will publish Rob's next book, "The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers" (co-authored with Bill James); for more information, visit Rob's Web site. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.