DMB News August 2001

Diamond Mind Email Newsletter

August 30, 2001
Written by Tom Tippett

Welcome to the fourth edition of the Diamond Mind email newsletter for the year 2001. Through these newsletters, we will try to keep you up to date on the latest product and technical information about the Diamond Mind Baseball game, related player disks, and our ongoing baseball research efforts. Back issues are available on our website.

Topics for this issue:

From the mailbag
Technical tips
New season disks (1978-81) almost ready
SABR convention report

From the mailbag

We respond to an awful lot of email every week, and from time to time a subject will come up that we think would interest others. So here are a few recent exchanges, with the questions paraphrased for brevity:

<< Some other games display a chart showing what would have happened had a different player (such as a higher- or lower-rated fielder) been involved in the play. Will you be adding this feature to Diamond Mind Baseball? >>

In our next major release, we'll be adding a lot of new material to the play-by-play library, and quite a bit of that new material is aimed at providing a better sense for how the fielder's skill (or lack thereof) factored into a play.

Our goal is to improve the commentary so that it's more clear when a fielder robbed the batter of a base hit or turned what should have been an out into a hit. But we're against the idea of putting something on the screen that says the outcome would have been this or that if a differently-rated fielder was involved in the play.

We want our game to feel like real baseball, and when you go to a real game or watch one on TV, nobody puts up a graphic like the one you're proposing. Baseball fans know that a better player MIGHT have had a better outcome in a given situation, but they never know for sure. If a poor shortstop boots a routine grounder, it's easy to say that Omar Vizquel would have made that play. But what do you say when Vizquel boots one?

The point is, there's nothing in baseball that's guaranteed. Manny Ramirez sometimes misses a fastball right down the middle. Pedro Martinez sometimes throws a wild pitch. Andruw Jones sometimes drops a routine fly ball. Tony Womack sometimes gets a bad jump and gets thrown out.

The difference between the best players and their weaker counterparts is that the best players make great plays more often and bad plays less often, and there are enough of these plays to add up to meaningful differences over the course of a season.

So, in the course of a DMB season, you'll see average shortstops make outstanding plays, just not as often as a great shortstop does. And you'll see a great fielder make some bad plays, but not as often as the low-rated fielder. We think that's what baseball is really like, and we're striving to get this across through our commentary. In addition, we may add some notation in our play-by-play scoresheet to highlight those good and bad plays.

But we don't plan to put up a chart showing what the outcomes would have been with a different combination of players on the field. That might make sense if our game worked like a board game, where some dice rolls tell you to go to a certain chart and look up the result based on a player's rating. Diamond Mind Baseball has never been based on a board game, and we have a more sophisticated model for generating the outcomes of various plays. If we do our jobs right, we'll get that across through the play-by-play commentary.

<< I'm interested to know what adjustments, if any, will be done to account for the unbalanced schedule? >>

We're going to take the unbalanced schedule into account when we prepare our 2001 Season Disk. Fortunately, a few years ago, we developed two new programs that will help us in this regard.

The first computes a personal park factor for each player. Once we've come up with the factors for each park (and we'll adapt our methods to take the unbalanced schedule into account at this stage of the process), we use this program to compile a park factor for each player based on how often he batted or pitched in the different parks.

The second computes an average strength of opposition for every batter and pitcher. In the past, we've used this program mainly to assess which closers faced above-average hitters (because closers almost never get to pitch to the opposing pitcher or the weakest hitters in the opposing lineup) and to make appropriate adjustments in their event tables. But we can and will use this tool for all players to assess the strength of the enemy pitchers and hitters they faced this year.

<< I recall seeing a game between Atlanta and New York in which a New York pitcher was replaced with a 2-0 count on the hitter. Cook was brought in to complete an intentional walk that was charged to the first pitcher. Atlanta then used a pinch hitter, prompting New York to change pitchers once again. The umpires allowed the move even though the intentional walk was charged to the first pitcher and, according to the statistics at least, Cook did not face a batter. >>

This is an interesting question.

We'd argue that there's no contradiction here. The rules say that a "substitute pitcher shall pitch to the batter then at bat, or any substitute batter, until such batter is put out or reaches first base...", and Cook did that. So it seems to me that Cook can be replaced.

In another part of the rulebook, it's clear that the walk should be charged to the first pitcher because Cook entered with the count already 2-0 on the hitter. But just because the statistical part of the rulebook says the walk is charged to the previous pitcher doesn't mean that Cook didn't face a hitter for the purposes of the substitution rules.

We tried this sequence with DMB to see whether it was being handled correctly. In version 7, the game got two things right (it correctly charged the walk to the first pitcher and it allowed us to change pitchers after the IW was given) and one thing wrong (it charged the BF to the second pitcher). Version 8 gets all three things right.

Technical tips

1. A few customers have asked us to add the ability to back out of lineup changes during a game. This feature is already in version 8, but because it may not be obvious to everyone, let's take a moment and go over how it works.

While selecting starting pitchers and lineups before a game, you can click on the Cancel button or press the Esc key at any time to abandon the process. DMB removes the lineup selection window from the display. You can then start that game again and make different choices.

If you are making voluntary substitutions during a game, the same approach will work. Either click on the Cancel button or press the Esc key to return to the game without making any changes.

If, however, you are making substitutions that are required because a player was injured or ejected, DMB will not allow you to cancel out of the lineup selection window. In this case, if you have made one or more moves and then change your mind about them, you can still abandon them and start over. To do this, click on the "Other actions" button and choose the "Undo all changes" command.

2. The Team Status report (in the Team Roster category) in version 8 provides you with a quick snapshot of the injury status, usage information (for pitcher and catcher fatigue), and playing time usage for all of the players on a team.

This report offers some options that allow you (or your league commissioner) to suppress the display of any player whose playing time is below a threshold that you set. This makes it easy to identify players that have exceeded league-mandated playing time limits or who are on pace to do so.

There are five options, three for batters and two for pitchers, and all are percentages. Entering the value 50 says you want to show anyone who has used up at least 50% of his real-life playing time. For example:

- if you leave them all at zero, the report shows everyone on the roster

- if, for batters, you set "Overall PA" to 50 and both "PA vs LHP" and "PA vs RHP" to 100, it will show all batters who have used up at least 50% of total plate appearances OR who have used up all of their plate appearances against one type of pitcher or the other

A key point to understand is that it only takes one option to qualify a player for display. If, for instance, you set "Overall PA" to 50 and leave the LHP and RHP values at zero, you'll still see all of the players, because everyone will have used up at least 0% of their appearances against LHP and RHP.

So if you want to set a limit on total playing time by batters but ignore left/right breakdowns altogether, enter high numbers (such as 999) for the LHP and RHP settings. That ensures that nobody qualifies on the basis of their left/right usage, and the overall PA number will then determine which players appear in the report.

New season disks (1978-81) almost ready

We expect to begin shipping the 1978 through 1981 seasons in about two weeks. All of the stats and ratings have been loaded, the real-life transactions have been entered and validated, the schedules and game-by-game starting lineups are in place, and most of our testing has been completed. The results look great so far, but we have a few more tests to run, and we'll be taking the next few days to finish that process.

You can place an advance order for one or more of these seasons through our web store (anytime) or by calling us at 1-800-400-4803 (9-5 eastern, Mon-Fri). When we begin shipping, we'll do the orders specifying overnight delivery and email delivery first and all other orders on a first-ordered-first-shipped basis.

Or, if you prefer, you can wait a couple of weeks and place your order after we begin shipping.

SABR convention report

From July 11th to 15th, three members of the Diamond Mind team flew to Milwaukee to attend the 2001 national convention of SABR, the Society for American Baseball Research. It turned out to be one of the most-attended and best-run SABR conventions we've been to, and we thought you might be interested in hearing a little about it.

A lot of well-known people in the baseball community were there, and it was great fun to touch base with them. This isn't the sort of event that attracts media stars like Peter Gammons or Bob Costas. But those of you who are into baseball research will recognize the names Bill James, Rob Neyer of, Mat Olkin of Baseball Weekly, and Clay Davenport and Chris Kahrl of the Baseball Prospectus.

There's an awful lot going on at these conventions -- panel discussions, research presentations, ballgames, trivia competitions, committee meetings, vendor tables, and more -- so there's no way any one person can attend or do everything. Here are some of the highlights that we were able to experience ourselves:

One panel discussion featured six women who competed in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League in the 1940s and 1950s. For an hour, they answered our questions and delighted us with stories about being recruited, convincing their parents to let them leave home to play baseball, attending charm school, wearing those silly dress-like uniforms (the players hated them), living under strict rules about consorting with men during the season, getting hurt and playing hurt, going all out to win the championship each year, and (in the case of three of the women) appearing in and being technical advisors for the movie "A League of Their Own".

Most recent conventions have included a panel of Negro League players, and this one was no exception. It's always interesting to hear their stories and their opinions about Jackie Robinson and the others who helped break the color barrier.

On Friday afternoon, we spent a glorious three hours at sun-splashed Wrigley Field as the two Chicago teams met in an inter-league battle featuring starting pitchers Mark Buerhle and Kerry Wood. The most interesting aspects of this game, a 7-2 victory for the White Sox, were a couple of decisions by Cubs manager Don Baylor. Here's the story:

- in the bottom of the first inning, with runners at the corners and nobody out and a 3-2 count on Sammy Sosa, Baylor chose to start the runner at first. Sosa swung and missed at strike three, Gutierrez was thrown out at second, and a promising rally had suddenly become a two-out situation. Coomer then struck out to end the inning.

We couldn't figure out why Baylor would send the runner in this situation. If the runner stays put and Sammy whiffs, there's only one out and a sac fly scores the runner from third. Putting the runner in motion reduces the chance of a double play, but only if Sammy hits the ball on the ground (he's a fly-ball hitter), and a run is likely to score even on a DP. The quickest way to end the inning with no runs would be a strike-him-out/throw-him-out double play, and that's not an unexpected outcome with a high-K hitter like Sosa at bat.

Perhaps the runner on third was supposed to break for home and missed the sign. Other than that possibility, there seems to be little to gain and a lot to lose by starting the runner in that situation.

- Wood started strong, taking a no-hitter into the fourth inning and throwing first-pitch strikes to seven of the nine hitters his first time through the order. But he gave up two runs in the fourth and needed 30 pitches to escape that frame, walking two and hitting two batters in the process. And he gave up another run in the fifth after walking the first two batters and throwing a wild pitch.

With the Cubs trailing 3-0, Wood came to bat in the bottom of the fifth with a runner on second and one out. Wood had thrown 99 pitches and had delivered first pitch strikes to only two of the last eleven hitters he faced, so it seemed like a pinch hitting situation. But Baylor let Wood bat for himself anyway.

Wood lined out to deep right-center, Young struck out, and the inning ended with the Cubs still down 3-0. Wood then tossed another 27 pitches, bringing his total to 126, before being replaced to start the seventh inning. He failed to throw a first-pitch strike to any of the five batters he faced in the sixth.

Even if Wood, a decent hitter but still a guy with only a .181 lifetime batting average coming into this season, had come through with a base hit in the fifth inning, it still seems like a strange decision. Wood was struggling, already at 99 pitches, down 3-0, and he has a history of arm trouble. Why not get him out of there?

Moving on to Saturday, the big luncheon featured Commissioner Bud Selig as the keynote speaker. Many of us figured that Selig would give a canned speech and take only a handful of questions, hoping to get out of the room without saying anything of importance. But he spoke for only a few minutes before candidly answering a slew of difficult questions on inter-league play, the wildcard, contraction, realignment, Pete Rose, nutritional supplements, the new strike zone, the pace of the game, post-season games that don't finish until after midnight in the east, and the upcoming labor negotiations. It was an impressive performance.

Before Mr. Selig took the stage, we were treated to a debate between two teams of local high school kids. The proposition was that baseball must speed up the game to appeal to younger fans. Two of the six debaters were girls, and one of those girls stole the show with a spirited, humorous and persuasive argument that baseball is and should remain an oasis of relaxation in an increasingly fast-paced and frenzied world. After she was done, we overheard a few SABR members saying they wanted to introduce her to their teenage sons as soon as possible.

Between sessions, we had time to wander through the vendor room, where a dozen or so small businesses displayed baseball books, videos, audio recordings, and photos that were for sale at discounted prices. We picked up a ballpark book we hadn't seen before, and were tempted by many of the other offerings.

Saturday night was set aside for a trip to Miller Park to watch Minnesota take on the hometown team. The game was a good one, and proved to be one of the last chances to see the first-half Twins, the ones who threw enough strikes and made enough defensive plays to keep the game close so they could win it with a couple of clutch hits in the late innings.

Miller Park was okay but nothing special. Perhaps because it was their biggest crowd of the season, traffic crawled for the last mile or two leading to the grounds. It seemed to take forever to get into the parking lot. Once there, we were greeted by hundreds of football-style tailgate parties, a sight I've never seen at a baseball game. That was one of the highlights.

Our seats were in the uppermost deck down the third base line, where we had a clear (but distant) view of the field and the many exposed (but painted) girders that support the retractable roof. The roof sections fan out from the middle to either side, producing a very unnatural pattern of sunlight and shadows on the field in the early evening hours. Picture in your mind a large area of sunshine shaped like a pizza slice that slowly moves across the field until the sun sets. Even though the roof was open, this served as a constant reminder that I was in a mostly-enclosed structure rather than enjoying a perfect summer evening in an outdoor stadium.

After the game, we oohed-and-aahed for a while as the roof was closed to a series of classical music pieces that included the theme from "2001: A Space Odyssey". Even though we waited through that performance, it still took quite a while to make our way out of the stadium and through the crowds jamming the single pedestrian bridge that leads to the main parking lot. And it took even longer for our bus to crawl through the traffic and get us on the road back to the hotel.

Among the research presentations that were scheduled throughout the four days of the convention, we sat in on several interesting ones:

- Sky Nicholas Andrecheck presented a method for computing the value of a player by measuring the number of runs he would add if he were placed on each roster in the league. On some teams, his value would be very small because that team already has a better player at his position. On other teams, it would be very large because he would supplant a marginal starter. By averaging these values, he produces a measure of the overall value of that player.

- Brian Morrow presented a model designed to predict the outcomes of individual games based on the past performance of the starting pitchers. Brian's work confirms that anything can happen in a single game; his predicted outcomes correlate positively with real outcomes, but the correlation is almost totally drowned out by randomness. Interestingly, Brian selected the statistics and weights used in his model by studying tons of game data from the past several years, and his values turned out to be fairly similar to the ones in our projection system.

- John Rickert studied whether a big crowd can give the home team a lift and produce a higher winning percentage. He was careful to identify and adjust for external factors that might pollute the data (e.g. crowds may be larger when good teams come to town) . . . and he found absolutely no correlation between crowd size and team performance.

- Dave Smith won the convention's "best presentation" award (sponsored by Baseball Weekly) for his animated and highly insightful statistical analysis of the 1951 "shot heard round the world" pennant race. Dave also appeared on HBO's documentary on this Giants-Dodgers battle that aired the first night of the convention.

- Bill James gave us a glimpse of his new Win Shares method, a technique for assigning credit for team wins to individual players. Unfortunately, the 20-minute limit on presentations didn't give Bill anywhere near enough time to get into the details, so we'll have to wait for his book on the subject to appear later this year.

There were a couple of dozen other presentations that looked very interesting, but we didn't have a prayer of getting to them all. Next year, the SABR convention will be held here in Boston, and if all goes well, we'll be making our debut as presenters in the research track.

If you have any interest in learning more about SABR, its regional chapters and/or its national conventions, check out I've been a member for about sixteen years and have thoroughly enjoyed about a dozen of the national conventions in that time.