Why Mike Cameron is to blame for the Reds’ decade of futility…

In case you hadn’t heard, 15-year-veteran Mike Cameron retired on Sunday.  I’m not going to go into detail about his career, but if I may give an opinion, I’d say it was a quite successful one.  Cameron was often cited as one of the more underrated players in baseball (somewhat of contradiction, I know) especially during the later stages of his playing career.  This was likely due to his unimpressive batting averages (a stat that is historically overvalued) and the value that he added in centerfield (defense is difficult to measure).

As a Reds fan, I always had a liking for Mike Cameron.  Looking back, I had sort of forgotten that he only spent 1 year in a Reds uniform, but I remembered him as a productive player while he was in Cincinnati.  Not to mention the fact that he was here in 1999, the year any Reds fan will remember as the time we won 96 games and lost a 1 game playoff to Al Leiter for the wild card spot.  Despite the lousy ending, it was the last time the Reds were a productive baseball team for quite some time.

Something I also hadn’t remembered is how the Reds acquired Mike Cameron… in a trade with the White Sox for Paul Konerko.  No Reds fan enjoys reading that sentence.  As I recall, the Reds had 2 promising young first basemen at the time, and picked one.  Sean Casey was a good player for a while, and of course became known as the friendliest player in baseball, but the Reds clearly passed on the superior player.  Paul Konerko has gone on to anchor the middle of the White Sox lineup for 13 years and counting (not to mention win a World Series).

But of course, the Reds got a very good player in return.  In fact, if you go by Fangraphs WAR (which some say puts a bit too much emphasis on defense) Cameron has a sizable, and likely insurmountable, lead over Konerko.

Problem is, after the Reds successful 1999 campaign they of course included Cameron in a somewhat notable trade with the Seattle Mariners for Ken Griffey Jr.  No Reds fan could have imagined that over the next 4 seasons, Cameron would produce 10 more wins for the Mariners than Griffey managed for the Reds.  Of course, that was due to the fact that Cameron played in 231 more games and came to the plate over 1000 more times.  Griffey’s rate stats easily bettered Cameron’s (.271/.374/.530 versus .256/.350/.448).

Not helping the cause was the fact that in the second season following the trade, the Mariners tied the Major League record for most wins in a season.  Cameron played a huge role on that team with 25 homeruns, 110 RBI, 31 stolen bases, an All Star appearance, and a Gold Glove.  Coincidentally, Griffey suffered his first major injury with the Reds and played in only 111 games.  It was probably around this time that people started to wonder if the Reds would have been better off keeping Mike Cameron, without even factoring in the other players surrendered (which included Brett Tomko, the Reds’ latest signee… awesome).

I was probably bitter toward Mike Cameron at first, though for no logical reason.  Here we go and trade for the best player in baseball after winning 96 games, and it turns out we would have been better off with a guy who ended up playing for 8 different teams and had a lifetime batting average under .250??  Well, to put it simply… yeah sorta.  But really, at least to me, the Griffey situation became so absurd in Cincinnati, that soon it didn’t matter who he displaced (it also helped that the Mariners were perennial disappointments in the playoffs for a few years).

I imagine the Reds weren’t the only team who regretted losing Cameron.  He was a productive player for many years.  However, it turns out that he cost the Reds a franchise first baseman in Konerko, and then became the centerpiece in a package sent over to the Mariners in exchange for a player who came to epitomize the disappointing Reds teams of the 2000s… big and slow with a little power and no defense.  Let’s take a look at these three players’ WAR totals over a ten year period and note when each played for the Reds.

Mike Cameron vs Reds Players

The flurry of deals worked out at first, netting the Reds the highest performing of the three in 1999 and 2000.  However that trend turned quickly as Griffey clearly performed the worst of the three over the next 5 years (and surely beyond).

So, to Mike Cameron, congrats on a great career.  But know this: I blame you for the Reds decade of futility.

Baseball Trivia

If you’re like me, you love baseball trivia.  It’s a chance to show off your knack for recalling mostly useless facts about players who probably don’t play anymore.  It’s a way to reminisce about the days of yore, when baseball was played with rocks and baserock was played with knives.

K, sorry.  Anyways, if you’re like me you probably also hate baseball trivia, because with all the details and stats that are recorded, there’s an opportunity for endless amounts of pointless and unfun baseball trivia.  To steal a line from the man to whom I’m about to link, unless your Floyd Robinson’s mother, you don’t care who led the American League in doubles in 1962.  You either know it or you don’t, and no amount of thought is going to help you.

That’s where Rich Burk’s baseball trivia (and baseball-reference) comes in.  Rich feels your pain, and has done something about it.  You can read about all the gruesome details over on his site, but be careful!  This isn’t any ordinary baseball trivia site.  It’s slightly old school, in that there are no interactive answer fields or names that get automatically revealed when you type them.  Each question is accompanied by 3 hints that are listed directly below it, and at the very bottom of the page are all the answers.  This makes things tricky, especially if you choose to skip a question or come back to it later.

The first thing I’d recommend is reading the “About Rich Burk’s Baseball Trivia” followed by the “Ground Rules“.  Those will tell you what it’s all about and how to play.

If you don’t feel like jumping right in, I’ll give you a question here to get you started.

The Victors

A couple of days ago, we were discussing the years 2000-2011. During those 12 seasons combined, which major league pitchers have the most wins? Name the top ten in any order.

Step 1 is writing down your best guess.  Don’t be afraid to spend a few minutes (or longer) mulling it over.  Even if you’re not too sure, or can hardly name 10 decent pitchers period, it doesn’t hurt to guess.

After your done you can check out Hint 1.  Use the information provided to change your answers how you see fit.  Make sure you have a way of knowing when each player is guessed.  Correct guesses made without any hints receive the most points, which each hint reducing the points awarded by 1.

Here is Hint 2 (remember to change your answers accordingly)… Hint 3… and finally, the Answers.  Again, I recommend giving it some thought between each hint.

Now you add up your score: 4 points for answers without any hints, 3 points after the first hint, 2 after the second, and 1 point after the third.  Any blanks or incorrect answers don’t affect your score.

How fun was that?  Did you beat me?  I got 28 points… 5 players with no hints, 3 players after 2 hints, and 2 players after 3 hints (sadly, I had one of my 3-hint players listed after 1 hint, but took him off after the hint 2).

And finally, two thoughts: (1) Don’t cheat, and (2) If you write an answer down that ends up being correct, but then you remove it after one of the hints, and then you write it again after a later hint, you don’t get points for the first time you wrote it.  It has to be on there every subsequent round in order to get the higher point total.  Make sense?

10 Best Transactions of the Winter

Dave Cameron of Fangraphs has put together a list of his 10 best transactions of the winter.  Considering the amount of activity coming from the Reds’ front office I was curious to see what he came up with.  Right off the bat I can tell you that the Sean Marshall deal won’t be on there, and that the Ryan Madson deal will.  The Latos trade was kind of a long shot, though I think if Reds fans take a moment to be really honest with themselves, it might make this a little easier to swallow:

#3 – San Diego Padres Acquire Yonder Alonso, Yasmani Grandal, Edinson Volquez, and Brad Boxberger for Mat Latos

The Reds needed to make a deal like this, but I love this trade for the Padres. Alonso might not have star potential, but as a left-handed hitter with opposite field power, he should be able to hit well enough in Petco to be a useful piece, and there’s value in having six years of a cost controlled Wally Joyner hanging around. Grandal is the real key to this deal, though, as a switch-hitting catcher with power and patience who could easily be more valuable than Latos over the next six years by himself. Toss in a terrific buy-low arm in Edinson Volquez, who is a perfect fit for Petco, and a good young bullpen arm in Boxberger, and the Padres restocked their talent base in a hurry without drastically making their team worse for 2012. In fact, if Alonso and Volquez perform as expected, the team could actually be better than they would have been with Latos and some random first baseman. Toss in the long term value, and this deal was just a huge win for San Diego.

A couple things.

Cameron throws us a bone in the beginning, admitting that yes, the Reds needed to make this deal.  What immediately follows, however, left me kneeling on the mat.

I can’t figure out for the life of me what people are seeing in Volquez.  Every single commentary on the trade sees him as a high upside piece.  I mean, maybe Reds fans are being a little reactionary, but it irks me a little that he’s viewed as more than a throw in.

As most pro-Padre analyses have done, Cameron highlights Alonso’s and especially Grandal’s upside, while glossing over Latos.  I know Latos has some risk, but so do the youngsters (wait a minute, Alonso is how old?).  I was just reading Rotoworld’s top 100 prospects (might be subscriber only – sorry), which notes that Grandal is “already 23 years old and doesn’t have much projection left” and “could be an above-average regular”.  Yes, I cherry-picked a little, and it’s one source’s opinion, but let’s not get carried away.  He’s no Meso (ranked 14th to Grandal’s 45th) and all reports seem to point to Grandal being less likely to stick at catcher.

I don’t mean to knock Grandal here, and I realize I’m getting a little defensive.  But hey, that’s what fans are supposed to do.  Ultimately, I admit that Cameron’s take is convincing, and he may well be right.  But I do think he overstates it a bit.

Anyhow, you should go read the whole thing, but before I quit here I will reveal that (***SPOILER ALERT***) Madson came in at #8, and the yet-to-be-completed Roy Oswalt signing clocks in at #4.  Cameron seems to be optimistic on everyone with an injury history on this list, and Oswalt is no exception.  As you’ve probably heard, the Reds have been popping up more and more in Oswalt speculation, and though I know it’d be a gamble (I’m as big a Homer Bailey fan as anyone), I can’t help but get excited over the possibility.

Baseball Movie #3: Mr. Baseball

Immediately after making Jayne sit through The Final Season, I decided to change my plans for baseball movie month. Instead of 29 movies in 29 days, I’m going to shoot for 15 in 29. At least 8 of which have to be non-documentaries. So today I had a doubleheader. After going to the Hawkeye basketball game, I watched Catching Hell and then Mr. Baseball.

Years ago I saw a little bit of it on TV, but you don’t really get the glory of Tom Selleck’s hairy ass until you watch the unedited version. I was a bit concerned when it was categorized under romantic comedy. I didn’t remember the romantic part of the movie when I saw part on TV. I do remember the comedy part which is interesting because they must have edited in the comedy for TV. This time around there wasn’t much to laugh at.

I wasn’t expecting a whole lot. Tom Selleck’s more geared toward mother-in-laws. Although that is pretty good casting for a burly first basemen. I love that they addressed shaving his mustache once but then never again. I thought for a second we’d see a clean shaven Tom Selleck. I was forgetting this was his prime. I’m sure now he’ll shave anything for a job that’s not CBS Friday nights.

I don’t know what Japanese baseball or culture is really like, but if it’s like any other comedic film, I’m sure this was a racially-tinged exaggeration. Possible political incorrectness aside, I did again enjoy the baseball action. This time I especially enjoyed the stadium, surroundings and scoreboard. One of my (and I’m sure most’s) favorite elements about baseball is the different settings. I’m sure watching a baseball game in Stade Olympique wasn’t a super pastoral experience but it’s just cool to know that you could watch baseball there. No one ever strives to visit all the NBA arenas but tons of people would love to see a game at every baseball stadium. As a kid, I would draw up or imagine all sorts of places baseball could be played. Let’s be honest I still think about that. Maybe I’ll unleash my master plan to “save” Tiger Stadium someday. The Japanese games in Mr. Baseball looked totally different. The huge scoreboards were really cool and the whole set had one of those 70s-80s futuristic (but in retrospect, not-so-futuristic) feels.

Mr. Baseball – 1 for 4, hard-fought bunt single not breaking Uchiyami’s record (spoiler)

Baseball Movie #2: Catching Hell

For my second movie, I started already chipping away at my documentary limit, but it was worth it. For a while now, Jayne and I have been wanting to watch Catching Hell, about the Steve Bartman incident and scapegoating. We are both fans of the 30 for 30 series on ESPN. The first one we ever saw was the one about the death penalty on the SMU football program. It must be good because I have no interest in SMU football and Jayne certainly doesn’t.

So I figured if we’re going to spend a disc it would be on a movie that Jayne would watch too. I think Catching Hell did its job because Jayne seemed really into it. The movie did a great job of conveying the living nightmare Bartman must have gone through with the entire stadium chanting “Asshole” at him.

The story of Bartman is fascinating because he is someone who did not want to capitalize or respond to the situation. The stories of him turning down six figure amounts for card shows or $25,000 to sign a picture of himself are pretty amazing. I mean if I went through that crap I’d be tempted to harvest it some.

Like most decently done documentaries, the score is a cakewalk. It’s hard to strike out with me if you’re a documentary. The only strikeout for this movie was when it tried to reach a little further and make further scapegoat connections including a minister who gave some sort of sermon on Steve Bartman and scapegoating. I understand the stress a minister must have of coming up with a topic every week but her story seemed pretty fluffy and not really needed for the movie.

Catching Hell – 3 for 4, strikeout, two singles and a homerun

As you’re probably aware this scoring system is already pretty weak. I’ll just say this was a good movie. It made me feel for Bartman and made me want the Cubs to win a World Series for him but to never win a World Series for the rest of the fans. The homerun was definitely for the selection of the topic. It was a great choice to get the ESPN Films treatment.

Fantasy Baseball Valuations, Pt. 1

I realize that this topic will not interest everyone, and in fact may be the most limiting thing I’ve written about so far when it comes to audience appeal.  I’m going to go ahead and apologize now because this is fairly self-indulgent, and very nerdy.  I’m also going to apologize to Zach for plopping this down right in between his movie month intro and the subsequent followups.  However, this has just been on the forefront of my mind, and I have confidence Zach and his wonderful idea will rebound.

I have been playing fantasy baseball since college, and my involvement has gone through several stages.  I don’t really remember my first fantasy baseball league, but I’m going to assume I was pretty pumped about the idea of being in charge of my own team, drafting players and setting lineups.  I’m pretty sure these are the same reasons most people get into it.  And as most serious fantasy baseball participants soon discover, some of our favorite aspects of the game aren’t fully captured in your most basic fantasy league: setting the batting order, evaluating prospects, deciding how much value a player loses when he undergoes Tommy John surgery.  So of course, we search for more.

I don’t really remember the first time I joined a keeper league, but I’m going to assume it was pretty soon after I joined a non-keeper league and realized how much awesomer keeper leagues sounded.  And it didn’t take long until even that didn’t satisfy me.  I wanted to build a roster, contemplate middle relievers, and not have every guy in my starting lineup bash 20+ homeruns.  So I did the only logical thing and joined a 30-team sim league.

I’m going to pump the breaks a little here.  I don’t want to get too far into this, partly because my apology at the beginning of this post would be a severely sub-sufficient warning for what would transpire.  I will say that I spent hours and hours looking at every major league player’s three previous years of stats, ranking every position.  And by the way, this is weird to think, but I’m realizing as I type this that it doesn’t sound as crazy now as it would have in 2003 when I was doing it.  I won’t speak definitively on the nature of the universe of baseball stats and analysis, but at least to me, it was nothing like it is now.  No Fangraphs, no exportable stats, no easy and convenient way to get everything in one place.  I remember I spent one summer vacation pouring over pages and pages of printouts, taken from ESPN’s stats pages and sloppily copied and pasted into Excel.

But anyhow, hopefully some of your faith in me is restored when I tell you it didn’t take much more than a season for me to determine that it wasn’t sustainable.  Perhaps the realization that I was in college and shouldn’t spend hours alone in my room played a part, I dunno.  But let’s get back to the point.

The point is, despite the ups and downs, I would never lose the desire to build my own successful baseball team.  Generally speaking, my fantasy baseball involvement has leveled off somewhat to a place I’m comfortable with.  Specifically speaking, Fangraphs introduced a fantasy game last year with stat categories deviating from the norm, and that’s sort where all this starts.

For a while now I’ve had this end-goal in mind when it came to evaluating players for fantasy.  Yes there are tons of rankings out there, and even some that give you auction values and yada, yada, yada.  But honestly, I’ve wondered where those came from.  How do they come up with a dollar value for what a player is worth.  Any maybe it’s not such a difficult question on an abstract basis, but if I literally wanted to start writing formulas and crunching numbers, how would I do it.  This became even more necessary when I joined a Fangraphs league, because most rankings out there consider stolen bases and wins, and those were stats I needed to completely ignore.  What had been a dream was going to have to become reality: I needed to develop my own system for valuing players.

Whenever I had attempted to tackle this topic, my idea had typically centered around the idea that every run, every homerun, has a dollar value, and as a player accumulates these stats, he accumulates value.  For counting stats this is somewhat simple.  How many homeruns are hit in the National League?  How much money do you have to spend?  Some quick division and you have a dollar value per homerun hit.  Obviously there’s a lot more to go through but the general idea is there.

Rate stats threw a wrench in it all.  Players don’t accumulate on base percentage.  How do you give a dollar value to a percentage point of OBP?  And really, more importantly, you can’t just consider pure OBP because it doesn’t account for playing time.  A starter with an OBP of .360 obviously has more value than a bench player with an OBP of .360.  Additionally, a player with a .220 batting average doesn’t add value.  Logically speaking, there is a point at which a player’s batting average is low enough that it hurts his value.  And if you think about it, this is true for counting stats as well, though I didn’t realize it at first.  When Juan Pierre is on your team, he generally helps in stolen bases and average (stick with me here, I know he’s old).  But his homerun and RBI totals are deficits to your team, and it all contributes to the net value that he provides.  I realized that instead of benchmarking every player at zero, the benchmark should really be a league average, and to the extent a player is above or below that average in a given stat category, he adds or subtracts value.

What I would like to do now is show you what I’ve started doing, and then reveal an interesting result that came out of my league.  Like I said before, this is somewhat self-indulgent, but I also see it as documentation, as well as an opportunity to share some knowledge/ideas to whomever wishes to consume it.  Finally, if you see anything that doesn’t make sense, or you want to yell at me about how much of an idiot I am, I welcome that too.

First I will tell you that this Fangraphs league includes runs, homeruns, on base percentage, and slugging percentage for offensive players.  There are 12 teams in the league, with each team allowed 40 roster spots and $400 dollars to spend.  Let’s start with runs and homeruns.

Actually, let’s stop here to remind ourselves that there must be several assumptions that go into a process like this.  The first, and possibly most important, is the data source.  I am trying to predict 2012 value, so I need 2012 stats.  The obvious problem here is that there aren’t any yet.  So of course I go to trusty ol’ Fangraphs who generously provides us with projected 2012 stats thanks to RotoChamp.

With that out of the way, let’s say we want to determine how many dollars Prince Fielder’s league-leading 117 runs are worth.  As I mentioned before, you might first decide that the place to start is determine how much a single run is worth.  However, we can’t simply look at a single run out of context.  If Prince Fielder were to score 1 run the entire year, he would actually provide negative value.  Instead, we need to compare his aggregated total to that of the average player.  To do this, I introduced our second assumption, which is that the average number of at bats for a typical major league starter is around 550.  I honestly don’t have a lot backing that up.  I mostly based it off of the idea that 600 AB is a full season, and then I wanted to account for routine off days, minor injuries within our pool of players, etc.  (I might also argue that what this exercise is really doing is calculating relativities, so the exact number I picked here doesn’t really matter much.)

Ok, so what we’re left with to compute the average number of runs is:

  1. Take the total number of runs for the entire league (23,393)
  2. Divide it by the total number of at bats for the entire league (169,705)
  3. Multiply by 550 to get 76 runs (all numbers from RotoChamp projections)

This is the average for the league.  Clearly, Fielder is projected to be above average for this particular category, while other players will be only slightly above average, and still others below average.  So, instead of assigning a value to the run itself, we are going to assign a value for every run above or below the average.  The first step then, is to determine how many above average and below average runs there are.  I do this by taking the absolute value of each player’s total runs minus the average (in Fielder’s case the result would be 41).

Next, sum up number of runs above and below the mean (13,851).  And finally, we can assign a value, which brings us to assumption #3.  I mentioned before that each team has $400 to spend, which results in a league-wide total of $4800.  Since there are 4 hitting and 4 pitching categories, we could just divide $4800 by 8.  Problem is, that is essentially stating that a fantasy player should spend the same amount on hitting that he does on pitching, which probably isn’t the case (I sort of file this idea under “fantasy rules that are mostly assumed”, but I believe the reasoning is that pitching is much less reliable/predictable… there are probably other reasons too).

So what I wanted to do was determine a split between hitting and pitching dollars.  I did this by taking ESPN’s auction values from last year and calculating how much they allocated to hitters and pitchers, respectively.  This resulted in about a 65/35 split between hitting and pitching, so I divided the league’s dollars accordingly: $3120 for offense, $1680 for pitching.  Now, I think you can argue that each category within hitting and pitching are worth the same (I can’t think of any reason why they wouldn’t be) so I divided each number by 4 to get a dollar amount per category.

Back to runs.  We’ve now determined that there are 13,851 runs above or below the average, and that $780 league dollars will be spent on the category.  Some simple division (780 / 13,851) tells us that each marginal run is worth 5.6 cents (we’re almost there I promise).  Now multiply 0.056 times each player’s number of runs above or below the average, and you get a dollar value for that player’s run stat (be sure you use the actual difference this time instead of the absolute value because we want to reflect players who contribute negative value due to their low run totals).  For Prince Fielder, we get 0.056 * 41 = $2.31.  You will see later that there are actually a few more league-wide adjustments to make based on roster size and total league dollars, but for now our run component is done.

This same process is done for all counting stats.  I included a portion of my spreadsheet below to provide a visual.  In part 2 I’ll cover how to adjust the calculation for rate stats, and how we come up with final dollar values.  Thanks for reading.

Baseball Movie #1: The Final Season

I wanted to kick off Baseball Movie Month with a movie that’s been on my list for a while. It’s not been on there because I anticipated it being awesome but it was one of those “I have to see it”s because it is based on a true story from Iowa and was shot entirely in Iowa. In fact, several scenes were shot down the road from my folks’ place along a road I drove down twice everyday for three years. It’s no Hollywood blockbuster but it’s cool to see things you know in the pictures.

Barn with the sign on Sutliff Road

Cedar View Farms

Sutliff Bridge - This is no longer there thanks to the flood of '08. Bonus Iowa law reference

Sutliff Bridge - This is no longer there thanks to the flood of '08. Bonus Iowa law reference

That said, this movie was terrible. Baseball movies are bad, I think. One thing I typically hate is the action in baseball movies but this was actually The Final Season‘s strong suit. I felt like the action was more realistic and interesting. In fact, sadly, probably my favorite part of the entire movie was a montage of the team taking infield. It was beautiful. So there you have it, the rest of this movie was worse than watching a team take infield.

The rest of the movie was a huge cliche. I feel like I’m more sensitive to cliches but this one was way over the top. Just about every line of dialogue was just cliche responding to cliche. There’s a scene where Tom Arnold argues with his son about smoking and it has everything. The crumpling up of the remaining cigarettes, the “Mom did it too”, the “these things killed your mother”, the “your high stress job and lack of fathering has led me to these cigarettes.” This was all in like one minute.

The only other good thing I can say about this movie is it is the first one I’m reviewing which gives me the chance to unveil my scoring system.

Final Season, The – 1 for 3, walk, infield single

The walk was a gimme. The movie took place in Iowa and had shots of places I knew. The movie gracefully took this walk and while simplifying Iowans somewhat it was quite true to the look/feel of rural Iowa.

The infield single is really another gimme. But, I might say this is the best baseball action I’ve seen in a movie. What kept that dribbler fair down the 3rd base line was Rachael Leigh Cook. I guess I really haven’t thought about her since high school but she was a good bonus to keep me going through a shitty movie. I’m not saying she was spectacular and my reasoning’s pretty basic and patronizing but she looked cute in a baseball glove.

Up next: Mr. Baseball most likely.