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Wednesday, March 13, 2013

MLB Landscaping, Part One: Count, Age, and Experience

Something I have always been interested in doing is taking a wide-angle look at the MLB player pool.  In discussions, WAR and other statistics are most often used to compare individuals.  While this is always a fun exercise, I feel these arguments often ignore other contexts that are important.  For example, take a look at how WAR is calculated.  The baseline players are compared to is the concept of "replacement level."  While this is intelligent and is one way to look at it, this formation of value ignores the existing talent within MLB.  For example, shortstops get a big boost for replacement value.  However, what if there were, say, 45 shortstops all capable of producing three wins of value?  At the same time, what are the skills of those shortstops?  Are they more offensive or defensive minded?  Do they run the bases well?  Knowing these contexts helps form an idea of value.  Now, this isn't a novel idea, as I know teams do it all the time.  They look at skills across the board, age, medicals, and financial commitments.  For the sake of my own knowledge and to help everyone learn a bit more about baseball, I want to break things down so that we all can have a better idea of what makes up the MLB landscape.

Part One: Set Up

In short, this study looks at data found on Fangraphs and analyzes the 417 position players and pitchers that produced at least a win of value by the site's WAR calculation.  I will break down this data into categories based on age and position.  To avoid creating too much confusion in my own analysis and to save the length of this post, I will be breaking down a small collection of stats: WAR, wRC+, UZR, BsR, and xFIP.  Unfortunately, I do not have the time to break down all of the aspects of each stat so we will be taking some averages of rates.  For example, when I average out the "average" xFIP for left-handed starters, I won't have the ability to calculate it by adding up the totals in each category and plugging it into the overall formula (and I can't use fangraphs, because I only want to include these 417 players), so you'll have to take the number for what it really is.

Now, I need to talk a bit about how I collected and sorted the data.  I decided it would be best to export leader board tables from Fangraphs directly into Microsoft Excel.  Once I did this, I used the resulting table to form a pivot table.  This allowed me to sort data out by position, age, individual player, and in just about any other fashion I wanted.  I also used COUNTIF, SUMIF, and other Excel functions to create other, smaller tables.  Now that the boring part of this is explained, let's get into the study.

Part Two: Count

The first thing I really want to get into when breaking down this analysis is who we are dealing with and where they are at in their careers.  As I mentioned earlier, this study was limited to players that obtained a minimum of one win of value by Fangraphs' version of WAR during the 2012 season.  This is a position-by-position breakdown of the number of players at each position (note: players are listed by the primary position they played in 2012):

        Count by Position
1B 19
2B 26
3B 30
C 33
CF 34
DH 8
LF 28
RF 29
RPL 11
RPR 39
SPL 43
SPR 89
SS 28

This really shows some interesting results.  Firstly, I find the low numbers of first basemen and designated hitters to be intriguing.  Since I listed players who appeared primarily at a given position, this provides some interesting insight.  Only 8 regular DH players attained a value of one WAR.  Now, as you may know, the DH only existed for 14 teams in 2012, so this means that about half the teams in the AL had regular DH contributors.  This speaks to the nature of the modern DH position.  Teams prefer to use it as a platoon spot and as a revolving door rather than as a set position.  For first baseman, the count may serve as much a reflection of the position as a reflection of how WAR is calculated.  Right now, the first base position is historically weak as I wrote here.  Due to this, the position isn't as deep as normal.  Part of this could be due to the modern emphasis on other positions (make no mistake, players pay attention to modern talk about positional value), and another part of this could be that the baseline replacement level at first base makes it really hard to produce value as a first baseman.  Low replacement level reflects the difficultly of playing a position well as well as the scarcity by which those replacements can be found.  It's easy to find someone acceptable to play first base.  This does not mean, however, that it's easy to produce value at first base.  As a fun note, if I were to include secondary positions, the number of players that spent notable time at first base shoots up to 29, which hints at the fact that teams are starting to use first base a lot like they use the DH. Many players can play the position, so players get moved in and out as to create more room to create value at other positions.

On the flip side, the other offensive positions averaged darn close to one regular per position that could produce a win of value.  Some of this is due to positional depth, some of it is due to the increased importance on playing these positions, and some of it is due to the fact that playing these positions is harder which blocks the revolving door practice.

Part Three: Age

As I wrote that piece about young first basemen in the league, I began to think about what the age breakdown was across the league.  I wanted to know, among the players who produced at least a win of value, how old each position was and how value was being produced by age.  To start, here's a table showing the total count of players by each age present in my sample:

Total Count by Age
20 2
21 1
22 0
23 15
24 17
25 27
26 43
27 47
28 41
29 47
30 41
31 22
32 27
33 20
34 19
35 9
36 14
37 11
38 5
39 4
40 2
41 2
42 1

There are absolutely no surprises here.   58.99% of the players in the 417 player sample are between the ages of 25 and 30, which are often considered the "prime" years of a career.  To continue with this "prime" year thing, here's a breakdown of WAR by age:

Total WAR by Age
20 6.2
21 10
22 0
23 40
24 41.3
25 64.9
26 106
27 127.5
28 95.1
29 133.8
30 121.3
31 58.4
32 75.6
33 45.1
34 51.5
35 20.8
36 32.5
37 26.5
38 13.7
39 5.2
40 9.8
41 2.8
42 1.1

Again, absolutely no surprises here.  Players between the ages of 25-30 produced 59.55% of the value (648.6 total wins).  Before I start making some more observations, here is the breakdown of age by position:

Average Age by Position
1B 28.89
2B 29.58
3B 29.10
C 29.06
CF 28.06
DH 32.13
LF 29.43
RF 30.38
RPL 29.82
RPR 30.46
SPL 28.65
SPR 29.28
SS 29.46

Alright, finally getting to some surprises!  Unfortunately...well...there's only one real surprise here.  The average age of right and left-handed relievers seems surprisingly low to me.  In my mind, relievers have more staying power than their starting counterparts.  They log fewer innings, take less time to warm up, and in some cases have converted from being starters in their early years to being relievers later.  To see them not be noticeably older than starting pitchers was initially surprising.  Then, I began to think about how long starters can take to develop. The phrase "there's no such thing as a pitching prospect" exists for a reason. Pitching is really hard to develop, and it takes a lot of time to do so. When thinking about this, it became less surprising that relievers weren't noticeably older than starters.

Overall, I believe the league is in a typical state in terms of age.  The occasional phenom will come up early and contribute, but most of the value and performance is found in players who are in their prime years.  The positions are all relatively the same age outside of the DH.  I believe the DH is older because the position doesn't require the amount of work every day that other positions do.  Because of this, older players can feel more comfortable and theoretically last longer because they don't have to work on as many things.

Part Four: Years of Experience

I'll be frank: I've always felt that age curves are a bit biased.  I don't believe a player will progress or regress simply because they reach a certain age.  Just as with any skill, your ability to get better is a mix of your physical capabilities as well as your capacity to obtain knowledge.  To understand my point, take a hypothetical player "X".  "X" is an ex-blue chip prospect who came up at 19 years old.  After five years of playing time, he has only gotten marginally better.  However, since he is 24 going on 25, there is an expectation among some fans and media that he will get better simply because he is growing into that time period of being 25-30 years old where most value is expected to be produced.  In my mind, I believe it is a mistake to think "X" will get better. There's only so much knowledge you can obtain as a person, and your physical abilities can only peak at a certain level.  With this, I'll get into how I charted years of experience.

When I think of a year of experience, I don't just mean the passing of a year of time.  I think about taking a year, playing a lot, and being able to work on your skills and knowledge.  Because of this, I didn't want to include a 40-game, injury-riddled season for a player where he has to spend the majority of his time recovering from an injury instead of building on his skills.  This led me to the following minimums in order to count a season as a year of experience in a player's career:

1) For position players, the rule is 81 games played minimum. Anything less than half a season is not counted.
2) For starters, 15 starts is the minimum.
3) For relievers, 30 IP is the minimum (an argument could be made that this should be 45 as to eliminate LOOGY's)
4) For pitchers, I only count years at the current position.  What I mean by this is that a reliever who converts to a starter (and vice versa) will only have a year counted if it matches their current position.

Now that you know the rules, here are the tables:

Total Years of Experience by Position
1B 87
2B 127
3B 144
C 108
CF 115
DH 62
LF 119
RF 166
RPL 40
RPR 176
SPL 184
SPR 409
SS 137

Average # of Years of Exp by Position
1B 4.58
2B 4.88
3B 4.80
C 3.27
CF 3.38
DH 7.75
LF 4.25
RF 5.72
RPL 3.64
RPR 4.51
SPL 4.28
SPR 4.60
SS 4.89

Ah, now this chart is a bit more revealing than others have been.  To start, the catcher position comes with a bit of an asterisk.  Early in their careers, I found that catchers are far less likely than other positions to play enough to log a year of experience.  Given how much goes into catching, this isn't a surprise at all.  Catchers have to know upwards of 12-13 pitchers on a roster, which is a lot of information to process.  Combine that with the massive difficulty of catcher defense (let alone offense) and it's easy to understand why catchers don't have many *full* years of experience.  Another immediate observation is that the center field position is exceptionally ill-experienced, and the position is actually much younger than the other positions.  It is apparent that the position is trending upward.   Other than right field, it appears that the typical number of years of experience rests between 4.25 and 5.0 years of experience, which makes total sense.  If most of the value and talent is currently in the age 25-30 range, then these players will have come up between the ages of 21-26, which is pretty darn typical.

To get back to my initial point, here's a table showing average WAR by Years of Experience:

0 1.65
1 2.17
2 2.30
3 2.52
4 2.78
5 2.95
6 2.81
7 3.11
8 3.06
9 2.67
10 2.91
11 2.29
12 3.64
13 2.90
14 3.33
16 1.70
17 2.70

The only real noticeable pattern here is that younger players don't produce much.  In fact, it appears that performance was pretty consistent from 4-14 years of experience.  There could be plenty of reasons for this.  For one, a player is probably only playing 14 years in the Major Leagues if he is really, really good.  If he has reached the ability to produce three wins of value 14 years into his career, then I have to imagine that he was producing quite a bit of value in his prime years.  Whatever the reasons, it would appear that experience is very important in terms of producing value.  Something that is great to see here is that players with 10+ years of experience are still performing at a high level.  I think something that is often missed is that experience helps ease the pain of declining physically.  While it's quite obvious that prime years are the best for producing, it's important to remember that those players have often been in the league for 3+ years on a full-time basis.  Now, it should also be noted that older players start to retire and are weeded out by younger players who are looking for a chance.  Because of this, there are fewer bad or marginal older players than there are younger players.  Older players that can't contribute at above-average levels don't get the jobs that younger players do.

Now that I've gone on about count, age, and's time to take a break.  Part 2 is below (aka, it was posted first!)

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