Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Some Like It Hot: The St. Valentin's Day Massacre

From Jon's writeup of Jose Valentin today:

[F]rom July 1, 2004 through the end of the season ... Valentin was awful every which way - particularly so against right-handed pitching, which the Dodgers are counting on him to face at least at the outset of the 2005 campaign. 170 plate appearances is a tiny sample size.

As with Choi, you must always take sample size into account while judging a player. On the other hand, Valentin’s second-half features more at-bats than Choi had, and it comes attached to a player who has been declining for most of the century.

I absolutely cannot agree with this assessment. 175 plate appearances against RHP in one half of a season is a pretty tiny sample size. If you took Derek Jeter's first 175 PA of the year and attempted to conclude that he'd lost it, you'd be dead wrong. The fact that a failure in a player's performance is more recent is of extremely limited predictive value - see Mitchel Lichtman's study on hot and cold streaks. It is much more useful to look at Valentin's season as a whole; in-season trends are of very limited significance.

To say that Valentin had more PA than Choi is a little crazy, since Choi's sample size was microscopic. The lesser of two wrongs is still wrong.

Furthermore, though I think this effect was unintentional, Jon seems to be punishing Valentin for hitting poorly against his core constituency, right-handed pitchers. But his relative success against left-handed pitchers can't be thrown out the window because he won't be asked to face many LHP this season; those plate appearances still reflect his overall hitting skill. It's much sounder to actually use his full .162/.241/.350 line and adjust it upward based on the number of PA he had against LHP. His true talent against RHP relative to his true talent against LHP almost certainly did not change over this period of time.

In addition, there are a number of factors outside of Valentin's actual talent that could be intervening here. It could easily be that Valentin was facing tougher pitchers over that sample. It could also be that Valentin faced more fly ball pitchers over that sample, and the effect of that is almost as significant as the handedness of the pitcher, as Thomas Hanrahan has shown. He also could have had many more games in ballparks that reduced his effectiveness. I don't know if any of this is true, but over such a small sample size there's a good shot that some combination of the above is factoring somewhat heavily.

Furthermore, if we talk about a player's decline it's not very worthwhile for projecting a player's future to talk about a player's decline in total. Let's break down Valentin's performance by component:

$BB $K $HR $H $XB

1st H 0.085 0.261 0.134 0.301 0.277
2nd H 0.089 0.288 0.064 0.167 0.125

1st H 0.103 0.426 0.029 0.353 0.308
2nd H 0.074 0.36 0.125 0.167 0.231

1st H 0.09 0.306 0.11 0.314 0.283
2nd H
0.084 0.311 0.083 0.167 0.162

The walks and strikeouts stayed virtually the same. Home runs declined somewhat, and particularly against right handed pitchers. However, we're talking of a very marginal difference here - had Valentin had 11 HR against RHP in the second half and 12 in the first half, there would be no difference. Instead he had 16 in the first half and 7 in the second half. I'll leave to you to decide whether a difference of that magnitude constitutes true decline, keeping in mind both the size of the sample and the lack of controls (park factors, strength and type of opposition).

The other key difference was the number of hits on balls in play and the number of hits on balls in play that went for extra bases. This can be significant, yes; it can indicate a loss of bat speed or running speed or a change in type of swing. It can just as easily reflect changes in competition strenght and type, ballpark, opponent's defense, and luck, with luck being the most likely culprit. While the data may reflect an actual decline, the extent to which this data actually suggests an actual substantial decline in talent is very low. If anything, I think it suggests a serious decline in luck, so improvement may be more likely going forward than decline. Keep in mind, too, that his $H in the first half was much higher than it has typically been in the past, and that he has historically trended toward lower second half $H's:

2000: .294 1st half/.302 2nd half
2001: .321/.244
2002: .279/.248
2003: .268/.227

Now, it is significant that Valentin's $H's are declining from year to year; that does indicate decline. But it does not indicate overall decline, as the other components of his performance have not shown any substantial decline over the course of the century. If his $H had stayed constant over the past five seasons, Valentin's GPA's would look like this:

2000: .261
2001: .269
2002: .261
2003: .263
2004: .259

Given the relative variability of batting average on balls in play, it's actually fairly likely that Valentin's $H is set for a rebound.


Jon also states that "perhaps he is the hitter’s Derek Lowe - someone that general manager Paul DePodesta has figured will take unique advantage of Dodger Stadium." Jon hit this one on the head. I don't want to get into it here since I have a forthcoming article which will explain it in detail, but Valentin is the kind of hitter that benefits most from Dodger Stadium. The short version is that Chicago and LA both turn a lot of fly balls into home runs and stop them from being doubles and triples. Chicago does this moreso than LA, but LA does it much more than you think. However, Chicago is otherwise pretty much neutral, while almost all other aspects of Dodger Stadium hinder hitters. Thus, Valentin's relative value in Dodger Stadium is maximized.


In the comments to Jon's post, somebody quoted a previous post I'd made at length, and one of the things I'd pointed out in the post was that Valentin had been a much better performer with runners in scoring position. Jon took issue with that, arguing that batting with runners in scoring position is likely not a tangible skill. Here I'll first reference Andy Dolphin's study on clutch hitting, which is a must-read. Clutch-hitting is a skill with little spread in true talent, and a good deal of the observed spread is sample noise. However, for some players clutch hitting (and "choking") are real and significant factors. This is not necessarily an issue of performing under pressure; rather, it reflects how a batter's approach fits the situation. If a batter goes to the plate in a tie game with one out and a runner on third in the ninth and swings for a home run, the batter is not providing optimal value. A good batter can change their approach based on the situation. So there is certainly a skill involved.

Does Valentin have this skill? I would argue that he does. With runners on, he strikes out substantially less than he does with the bases empty, and his $H is much higher with runners in scoring position. Obviously, there are sample size issues here, but having a lower $K and higher $H in concert is pretty indicative of an alteration in approach.

Jon rightly points out that one should measure a batter's skill with runners in scoring position "by comparing players to each other, not by comparing a player's RISP stats to his own non-RISP stats. What kind of skill is it when a player is worse when the pressure is off?" That's an excellent point, but it's not relevant to the point I was making when I wrote about Valentin's RISP record. The point I was making is that Valentin's raw numbers undervalue him because his successes are concentrated in places where they are of more value. If you have two .250/.320/.410 hitters and one hits .245/.310/.400 with RISP and the other hits .290/.375/.480 with RISP, the second hitter is more valuable but the raw totals don't reveal it. This is a result not of clutch ability and high moral fiber but of the hitter adapting their skills to the game in better ways.

I'll use Valentin's 2002-2004 situational hitting to demonstrate this point. The base/out data is not freely available, but the baserunner data (i.e., none on, runner on first, etc.) is. Using Tango's base state linear weights, we can compare what Valentin's raw totals indicate to his actual totals. For the period, Valentin's raw lwts are -12, or -4.6 per 600 PA. Using base state data, however, he was +1 or +.3 per 600 PA. That's a 5-run swing per season or roughly half a win.

Now, sample size is still a major concern here, but Valentin had established a substantial trend here and the 02-04 data includes the only season from the 2000 and on data (i.e., what's publicly available) in which he did not demonstrate a large split, and the split for every season but 2003 was of roughly the same size. We should still regress the split, but my very cursory research suggests we should add a +3 RISP adjustment to Valentin's projection.

Once again, this is not an argument that Valentin is particularly clutch or of high moral fiber or whatever; this is an argument that his raw numbers slightly underestimate his value.

On top of all this, of course, is that Valentin is an excellent defender and very good baserunner; those components figure to add about 20 runs to his value (I have +13 for 3B range, +1 for double plays, +2 for baserunning, and +2 for runner advancement and avoiding double plays). Factor in position adjustment, and Valentin has to be a -25 or so batter or worse to be a below average third baseman. If you'll recall my comparison of Marcel, ZiPS, and PECOTA, he was -7, -9, and -25 in those projections. Given that none of those projections, with the possible exception of PECOTA, factors in his likely reduction in PA against southpaws or the +3 RISP adjustment, Valentin's a pretty solid bet to be above average.

This is a great article!!! Very effective & persuasive, well-argued, and well-written. You have convinced me once again to expect good things from the Dodgers this year. Thanks.
Stephen Bright
This is a great article!!! Very effective & persuasive, well-argued, and well-written. You have convinced me once again to expect good things from the Dodgers this year. Thanks.
Stephen Bright
Don't ALL hitters perform better, on average, with RISP? The presence of baserunners pulls infielders out of position. Plus, the quality of pitcher in these at-bats should be below average (since he has allowed runners to reach base). The question should be: is Valentin's RISP edge larger than average?
In the excerpt you're quoting from me at the top of your excellent piece (to which you have added a phrase that I didn't write, by the way), I'm not sure what part of my writing you're disagreeing with.

My comment that Valentin was awful is limited to the period from July 1 on, and qualified by saying that it was a small sample size. With that qualifier, are you saying that Valentin was not awful during that period?

Beyond that, I'm just stating facts - Valentin had more PA than Choi in that period, and has been declining in seasonal OPS for years. I never said that Valentin's July 1-on sample size was large enough to be conclusive.

Indeed, my point was not that we have conclusive evidence that Valentin will stink in 2005 - my point, from the first paragraph of my piece to the last, was that there is more reason to be concerned about Valentin than there is about Choi. The case you make for Valentin is well worth reading on its own right, but it has little to do with the argument I was making.

As far as the comments I made about clutch hitting, they were in response to commenter Jason, not to you. But again, your overall points are well taken.
Thanks again for (in my opinion) coupling with Jon in providing Dodger fans with the two of the best baseball blogs around.
Jose Valentin is by all the accounts I've seen a fine man and "a good influence in the clubhouse," but the positive comments I see about his on-the-field skills apparently come from people who are unfamiliar with his career before he signed with the Dodgers. I think most White Sox fans (Sabermetricians or not) would agree that: 1. He was not a very good SS for the White Sox -- he lead the league in errors at least once and especially seemed to have problems with easy plays (actually his error-pronedness goes back to his days with the Brewers); 2. he wasn't a very good base runner -- if I remember right, last year he got caught stealing about the same number of times he successfully stole a base (and there were a few non-stealing RWB [Running While Bonehead] plays too); 3. he struck out more times last year than Sammy Sosa in fewer ABs; 4. his OPS last year was barely average, and I can't see how a move to Dodger stadium will turn that around; 5. finally he gave up calling himself a switch hitter -- I guess the logic was that he was so awful batting righthanded that he couldn't possibly be any worse batting lefthanded all the time. About the only positive remark I can make on his on-the-field skills is that he hit (when he hit) for more power than most shortstops.

As we have seen on this website, there is data and statistical analysis to support the thesis that Jose will play better for the Dodgers this season than he did for the White Sox over the past five years. I hope he does well for the Dodgers (they are my adopted team), and I hope they are happy with him too, but I think what we saw of him in Chicago -- that's the real him.

Valentin was one of the most underrated players in the game. He may look like a poor defender, but that's because what we tend to remember most from watching fielders is their errors. Well, Valentin gets to a lot more balls than the average shortstop - he's been at the top of the UZR charts each of the last few seasons. Errors aren't nearly as bad as typically assumed, and his overall defensive value is outstanding.

You talk about him making baserunning errors frequently. He was caught stealing often last season, but 14 attempts is a small sample size and he shouldn't be asked to steal anyways. Also, on baserunning events besides stolen base attempts Valentin has been pretty good according to Mitchel Lichtman's metrics.

Yes, he strikes out often and at this point in his career he's a slightly below average batter. That doesn't make him a bad player.
I still think Jon had a good point about the perceptions of Valentin relative to Choi. The only explanation for Choi's poor late season performance meaning more to Dodger fans than Valentin's is that Dodger fans watched Choi's happen. Of course, this is idiotic, as is the perception that Choi some kind of a bust.
I know your gone and I'm a bit late, and this is OT except that it relates to Valentin. But as I told you during the offseason trade, Valentin cannot play an effective defensive 3rd base. About 1/10 of his career has been played there.His limited time with the Dodgers before his injury would bear this fact out.

His career FPCT and ZR is poor at third. I know you are romantically involved with UZR, but any favorable light UZR projections may have put Valentin in have yet to be realized. Yes, Yes; limited sample size. I don't know why, but I feel the need to tell you the obvious: don't put your faith in just one metric.
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