Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Can a leopard change its racing stripes?

Pardon the lame, "Wheel of Fortune"-esque, before-and-after mixed metaphor; or, "Hey, let's pile on Endy Chavez"

Blame Dave Sheinin of the Washington Post; he's the scab at Barry Svrluga's "Nats Journal" while Svrluga writes the definitive history of Panera Bread, or something.

Sheinin, after spending approximately 1,267 paragraphs saying essentially, "Hey, it's cool to be blogging," provides some quotes from Frank Robinson on Endy Chavez---who is, according to Sheinin (per his Post chat yesterday), the only "pure leadoff hitter" on the Nats, whatever that means.

Specifically, the quotes focused on Endy's OBP, patience at the plate (or lack thereof), etc. A representative sample:

On whether a player can learn to be selective at the plate: "It is something that some guys are born with. But you can learn it. I think it comes from experience and having confidence in your own skills and abilities. That's why you see a lot of guys who swing early in the count all the time, because they don't feel confident that they can hit the pitches they're going to see with two strikes. You see some guys come up and take a strike, because they
have confidence in their skills to hit with two strikes. It can be taught, but
it's easier if you bring it to the table in the first place."

. . . and . . .

I asked Frank if it was reasonable to expect Chavez to have a .350 or better on-base average after hovering around .300 thus far in his career. "I want him higher than that," Robinson said. "I want him around .380. I don't want it to be realistic. I don't want it to be easy for him. But I want to give him something to think about. He knows he really has to work at it to be
able to achieve that." [stuff on 100 runs scored snipped]

Can it be done? Can Endy become a reliable (read: on base regularly) lead-off man?

Well, as an initial measure, perhaps I should echo George Costanza's desultory evaluation:

"Where are you living? Are you here? Are you on this planet? It's impossible. It can't be done. Thousands of years people have been trying to have their cake and eat it too. So all of a sudden the two of you are going to come along and do it. Where do you get the ego? No one can do it. It can't be done."

But Endy doesn't need to be "this, that, and the other"; he just needs to be a lead-off guy. So, can it be done?

Well, frankly, I'm at lunch. This is a one-hour analysis; take it or leave it. I'm not spending three nights poring through Total Baseball or an online database trying to find an inspiring comp or two. Instead, I'm going to take a look at Endy's Top 10 comps through the age of 26 and see if we can find signs of optimism. Not exhaustive enough for you? Try writing Bill James.

Okay, here's Endy + his comps (through their age 26 seasons), expressed in terms of OBP and what I guess is called "Isolated Patience" (just like Isolated Power, except substitute OBP for SLG):

Endy: .303 OBP, .39 Isolated Patience
Comp 1 (J. Allensworth): .341; .78
2 (E. Cabell): .297; .45)
3 (H. Jeffcoat): .300; .38
4 (J. Beniquez): .322; .55
5 (S. Finley): .316; .45
6 (W. Williams): .308; .42
7 (T. Holmes): .343; .51
8 (J. Delahanty): .317; 51
9 (J. Walton): .324; .66
10 (M. Wilson): .316; .53

Well, that was fun. Two notes that are obvious, but should be mentioned:

1) The comps are based on "Similarity Scores," which of course take more into account than OBP and (AVG - OBP).
2) Endy's comps cut across eras, from Delahanty's ("dead ball") to Finley's ("steroids"---er, "high offense"), so comparisons must be contextualized. (I'm just joking, of course. Finley's mid-late-90s power surge is rather interesting, but I'm not accusing him of steroid use.)

That said, Delahanty and Finley aside, these guys either didn't develop appreciably more patience at the plate (or, rather, declined; check out Mookie Wilson's 1989 season, one of my favorites of all baseball history) or didn't stick around long enough to show that they could.

So, no, I'm not saying "It can't be done," Jerry. But I am saying that the players most similar to Endy at his current age (concededly, based on what may not be faultless criteria) overwhelmingly don't provide much more support for the proposition that he can be a killer on-base machine---or even meet Robinson's standards. Disturbingly enough, Endy's best OBP/"Isolated Patience" comp is actually Hal Jeffcoat, who was such an awesome hitter that he switched to pitching mid-career.

Of course, some of these guys had lengthy major league careers. But, as to the question of "learning" to become more patient at the plate, I'll have to be directed elsewhere to see it. Consequently, my advice to Endy is to work on slap-hitting his way to some .320 seasons.

Or else maybe he should work on his breaking ball.

Sammy Sosa is the "traditional" example of somebody who "learned" plate discipline.

His numbers over his career:

1989 20 .257 .303 .046
1990 21 .233 .282 .049
1991 22 .203 .240 .037
1992 23 .260 .317 .057
1993 24 .261 .309 .048
1994 25 .300 .339 .039
1995 26 .268 .340 .072
1996 27 .273 .323 .050
1997 28 .251 .300 .049
1998 29 .308 .377 .069
1999 30 .288 .367 .079
2000 31 .320 .406 .086
2001 32 .328 .437 .109
2002 33 .288 .399 .111
2003 34 .279 .358 .079
2004 35 .253 .332 .079

Of those, 2001 is the only season that is disproportionately driven by intentional walks (he drew 35; in no other season did he even reach 20).

It seems to me like something *started* to click during his age-26 season, and it really started to "stick" when he turned 29 in 1998.

Of course, it's hard to say if improved plate discipline drove his power surge, or if his power surge caused pitchers to pitch around him more, making it easier to be selective.
True, Yuda; very good point.

I thought of including Sosa, but I figured, like you did, that Sosa's not a sufficiently comparable player, and there were other factors/skills that might cloud things.

FWIW, I'm sure there's a possibility/probability that fast, speedy guys have improved their walk rates significantly, but I'm guessing that many of those (a) showed more of an inclination to walk in the first place than Endy, and/or (b) weren't 26 (well, 27 now) when they started walking a bunch.

Take Brett Butler, for instance. His age 26 season looks at least somewhat similar to Endy's (well, somewhat), but then, he walked quite a bit in his age 24-25 seasons, and IIRC he did so a lot in the minors. (At least I personally remember him doing so at Richmond; my dad used to tell me to watch how patient Butler was.)

So, conclusion . . . I'm probably not saying a whole lot---just dubious that patience is a "skill" that Endy's gonna learn now. (The old Bill James/age 25 saw also comes to mind.)

Anyway, great insight, Yuda---and nice chart. I reckon there's a better way to do it than I do . . .
Also, Yuda, I just noticed your post on King Kaufman's p.o.v. on steroids in that other thread from yesterday. I don't want it to seem that you bothered to (and were courteous enough to) summarize King's position, only to have me completely disregard your post. ;-)
Oh, I wasn't offended at all; conversations move on all the time.

That said, your comment about the short films got me to start a response -- and it's gotten long enough that I'm going to massage it into a post before I leave for Austin on Friday.
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