Monday, July 7, 2008

Debating Baseball at the Witching Hour

Just before midnight last night, I received a phone call from my buddy Jeff, a guy with whom I've watched more sports than any other person I've ever known. While I am about ready to settle down with Jim Bouton's Ball Four before nodding off, Jeff's end of the line is abuzz with the unmistakable cacophony of a party. I fully expect to get talked into making a series of poor decisions, ending with me bringing a bottle of Gatorade and a handful of Advil to work today. Luckily for me, Jeff has other ideas.

"Ace, I have a quick baseball question," Jeff yells over the party noise. "This girl insists that an offensive lineup of nine Placido Polanco's would be better than nine Marcus Thames'. Please tell her that she's wrong."

He then handed the phone to some girl who I've never met, who said she saw that Polanco has one of the AL's highest on-base percentages with runners in scoring position. On top of that, he hits over .300, and is widely considered a clutch situational hitter. I pulled up ESPN's stat page, read off that Thames had a higher OPS (On-base Plus Slugging), and used that as the basis for my argument. It was a somewhat weak one, since I wasn't exactly prepared for a full-out baseball purist vs. stat geek smackdown at midnight on a Sunday, especially since it sounded as if my foe had put down a few.

Before I break down my argument for Thames in greater detail, let me just say that I am not making any of this up. As absurd as this situation sounds, I can't truthfully say I was surprised that I was fielding a baseball question from my intoxicated best friend at midnight on a Sunday. This is one of those moments that I will either look back on fondly, as a memory of how routinely absurd college was, or with embarrassment that I ever cared about whether nine Thames' could beat nine Polanco's. I swear I am not fabricating this situation for the sake of a blog post. If that was the case, I would live quite a sad life.

Anyways, here is my argument for fielding a team of nine Marcus Thames', in much greater detail than the one I gave Jeff's anonymous baseball-watching friend last night:

Placido Polanco is a tremendous hitter, a guy who seemingly always finds a gap in the defense to drive in a run with a single in the clutch. This year he is hitting an astonishing .342 with runners in scoring position, with a .402 On-Base Percentage, which was the basis for mystery girl's argument that Polanco is the more valuable hitter. However, I find a couple things wrong with this point of view.

Firstly, looking at Placido's average with RISP narrows down the context of his hitting to a very small sample size. Only 76 of Polanco's 313 At Bats this year have come with RISP, which allows for a wider variation in his statistics than if we looked at his entire body of work. Looking at all of his At Bats this year, Polanco is still putting up solid numbers (.313 batting average with a .360 OBP), but they aren't as extraordinary as his stats with RISP.

My second issue with using average and OBP with RISP as the basis for wanting nine Polanco's is that those statistics do not take power into account. Of Polanco's 26 hits with runners in scoring position this year, 23 are singles, with two doubles and a triple. Yes, Polanco is driving in runs by hitting in those clutch situations, but he isn't exactly a threat to drive himself in with a 3-run blast. Polanco is a singles hitter, albeit a very good one, which limits his ability to make a huge contribution to the team offensively.

Here is where I attempt to pull out the big statistical guns. Although, as a history major, I have issues fully comprehending the math behind the more complicated baseball statistics, I find the theories behind the Sabermetric stats to make a lot more sense than simply looking at batting average and RBI's to try to understand a player's true worth. For the argument of who, if theoretically cloned into nine identical players, would make a better offensive baseball team, one statistic comes to mind for me. Runs created per game is a statistic that was created by the legendary Bill James. It gives a positive value for a player's hits, walks, home runs, steals, etc., and a negative value for a player's outs, caught stealing, and number of times grounding into a double play, and then equates these values into the number of runs this player would create if he theoretically was the only player on a team. In other words, this statistic is exactly what our argument is, except instead of just yelling about power and slugging percentage versus average and clutch, there is an actual number that the entire argument boils down to.

This season, Placido Polanco has a runs created per game of 5.4, which falls in line with his career RC/G of 5.1. This is, without a doubt, an impressive number. Nine Placido Polanco's, if put on the same team, would average 5.1 runs a game, which would be good for second in the American League right now, behind only the Texas Rangers (5.48 runs per game).

Marcus Thames, however, has an RC/G of 6.5, which would make him the best offensive team in the American League, despite batting only .259 and not stealing a single base this year. In 2006, the only other year where Thames consistently started for the Tigers, he put up a RC/G of 6.8, so I don't consider this to be an anomaly. Thames' incredible power (he averages a home run every 10.4 at bats, good for 5th in the AL) more than overcomes his below average batting average and OBP.

It has always driven me crazy that Thames has not received more playing time as a Detroit Tiger, especially when such luminaries as Craig Monroe and Jacque Jones have been the players starting in left field over him. Hopefully, Thames' recent streak of power, combined with the lack of viable alternatives in left, will keep him in the lineup for the rest of the season and beyond. The man has 40 home run potential, but so far in his career that potential has remained untapped.

Placido Polanco Statistics (Baseball Reference)
Marcus Thames Statistics (Baseball Reference)
Placido Polanco Situational Statistics (Yahoo!)
2008 American League (AL) Statistics (Baseball Reference)

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