May 13th, 2007 → 10:29 am @ Seth Mnookin
There are days when I think Murray Chass is a bad writer, or a lazy reporter, or a grudge-carrying boob. Those are the good days. Then there are days like today, when I wonder if he knows anything about baseball at all.
Pretty much everyone who is involved with, reporters on, is a fan of, or reads about baseball is aware of the laughably porous PED-testing program MLB has in place. It’s been written about again and again and again.
But in today’s Times, Chass has a typical column, which is to say, one devoid of any new information. He also comes out with this gem, which is impressive even for him:
“Because baseball tests for steroids and other performance-enhancing substances, it is unlikely that Bonds is risking his career by using them. But baseball, as all other sports, doesnâ€šÃ„Ã´t test for human growth hormone, so some Bonds critics believe thatâ€šÃ„Ã´s what heâ€šÃ„Ã´s using.”
This may very well be the first time I’ve seen anyone write that the MLB testing program is so good as to all but ensure players aren’t using. In fact, Jack Curry, one of Chass’s colleagues at the Times, wrote a long, prominent story less than two months ago that highlighted just how porous baseball’s program is.
Some of the highlights of Curry’s article:
* Baseball doesn’t test for the blood booster EPO or 1GF-1, a hormone that mimics the effects of HGH.
* If a player faces a random test on game day, he has up until an hour after that night’s contest to actually give a sample. That prompted this quote: “If a guy canâ€šÃ„Ã´t do it, he comes back in an hour?” said Dr. Gary I. Wadler, an associate professor of medicine at NYU and a member of the World Anti-Doping Agency. “Comes back in an hour? Give me a break. They should say that he will be chaperoned from the moment of notification. It shouldnâ€šÃ„Ã´t even be 30 seconds later.” The players, Wadler pointed out, are not chaperoned during this time.
* A GM told Curry that, on days in which a collector comes to spring training, a player could alert teammates who hadn’t shown up yet that testing was taking place.
* Some players are notified the night before a test is going to take place.
Chass is also wrong when he says that “all other sports” are similar to baseball in that they don’t test for HGH…unless Chass doesn’t consider what takes place at the Olympics as “sport.” Finally, HGH is no small exclusion: two seasons ago, when I was with the Red Sox, HGH was widely acknowledged throughout baseball to have replaced steroids as the juicer of choice.
August 7th, 2006 → 11:28 am @ Seth Mnookin
(A very quick primer: VORP stands for Value Over Replacement Player, and measures the number of runs a given player produces over a replacement-level backup at his position, with replacement level being more or less defined as a scrub you can promote from AAA for minimal value, or, to put it another way, someone slightly better than Kevin Millar, circa 2006.)
So far this year, Manny’s clocking in at a 55.1 VORP, tops among batters on the Red Sox* (and fifth in all of baseball). Since VORP measures both quantity as well as quality, this figure needs to be multiplied by 1.47 (the Sox have played 110 out of 162 games; 162/110=1.47) to get the projected VORP for the season, bringing Manny to 80.0 (and David Ortiz to 77.61). The only time Manny has had a better VORP score in his remarkably consistent career was in 2000, his last year with the Cleveland Indians, when he put up a VORP of 81.3, which means that Eric’s right when he says Manny’s having the second best year of his career. And it also means that it’s Manny, and not Ortiz, who should be the team MVP…never mind the league MVP. Right?
Well, that depends. First off, there are plenty of problems with VORP. (One of the biggest ones, in my mind, is the assumption that the replacement for a player will be a scrub. There are plenty of cases — injury history, an inability to hit left-handers, etc — in which a club prepares for a player not being able to suit up for 162 games.) For the sake of this discussion — which is considering whether 2006 is actually the second-best year of Manny Ramirez’s career — let’s focus on the problems with combining quality with quantity. If you look solely at the stats Manny put up in the games he did play (and average out a full season of Mannyness to 155 games, which is exactly what he’s on pace for this year), 2006 is actually the fourth best year of his career, trailing 2000, 1999 (projected 155-game VORP of 82.5), and 2002, when Manny put up a 75.4 VORP in just 120 games, which projects out to 97.4. (Since we’ve only played about 68 percent of the season, it seems more than fair to extrapolate out past years in much the same way we’re extrapolating out the rest of this season.)
As far as MVP goes, one thing VORP does not take into account is the kind of situational hitting that David Ortiz does so well, those situations being the bottom of the ninth inning with the Red Sox either tied or trailing. I’m convinced that there is such a thing as “clutch” hitting; just because we haven’t figured out a way to precisely quantify it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be considered. (There’s obviously the inverse: instances where a batter presses and therefore doesn’t perform as well. Last year, when Jason Varitek hit his first career grand slam, John Henry let out an audible sigh of relief…not only because of the four runs, but because Tek had finally gotten that monkey off his back. See also Rodriguez, Alex.) Another thing VORP doesn’t take into account–and admittedly doesn’t try to take into account–is bang for the buck. Ortiz is making $6.5 million this year while Manny’s pulling in $18,279,000, which means the Red Sox are paying Manny $228,487 for every run he scores over a replacement player, while paying Ortiz $84,440. (There are some reports that indicate the four-year, $12.5-million-a-year contract extension Ortiz signed this past April also bumped his 2006 salary up to $12.5 million. If that’s true, he’s being paid $162,337 for each run he’s worth over a replacement-level DH.)
So is Eric right? Only in a world in which stats are considered more or less devoid of context. And, as Bill James told me for Feeding the Monster, “I believe in a universe that is too complex for any of us to understand. … It is one thing to build an analytical paradigm that leaves out leadership, hustle, focus, intensity, courage, and self-confidence. It is a very, very different thing to say that leadership, hustle, courage, and self-confidence do not exist or do not play a role in on real world baseball teams.”
* All of the links to VORP comparisons (but not VORP definitions) lead to Baseball Prospectus pages in which you’ll need a subscription.
EDIT: Brain fart of the day (thus far): there actually is a formula out there to measure how much a player is “worth”: marginal value over replacement player, or MORP, which, before the season began, showed Ortiz to be worth $8.85 million this year (and Manny to be worth about $9.5 million this year). This figure averages out all players; I’d like to see something that only took into account players who have already reached free agency. In either case, as BP’s Paul Swydan pointed out in an email, if you calculated Manny’s and Ortiz’s projected end-of-year MORPs based on what they’ve done so far, they come out almost identically, with Manny performing almost exactly as expected at $9,242,560 and Ortiz bettering his forecast at $9,526,500.