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January 20, 2010

Checking the Numbers

Valuing Volatility

by Eric Seidman

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It's no secret that the throes of the economy have affected baseball and its free agent market, especially when an All-Star player like Orlando Hudson struggles to find a one-year deal at even half of his perceived value, and the thought of Adam LaRoche turning down a two-year, $17 million deal invokes more laughter than Kingpin. Though high-end players have certainly gotten paid this offseason, teams are acting much more conservatively, especially with a higher premium being placed on the analyses of associated risks. Two of the free-agent pitchers yet to sign a deal-Jon Garland and Joel Pineiro-exemplify this risk-analysis process, as both represent examples of consistency in Garland's case versus volatility in Pineiro's. Such archetypes are often deemed opposites when it comes to risk.

Aside from one trend last season, Pineiro and Garland don't seem to have a whole lot in common on the surface. The new similarity was when the former became a ground-ball machine who also refused to strike batters out. Garland might be a formulaic romantic comedy, predictable but by no means bad, while Pineiro is the more original and creative film that could be great in the right hands but, unfortunately, is just as likely to earn a Razzie nomination as it is one from the Academy Awards. Despite the risk associated with Pineiro after last year's breakout and the suspicion he may not repeat it, and despite the common perception that consistency is valuable, in point of fact both pitchers are risky assets. Risk in this scenario covers the ability for teams to reach their goals, and how certain players may prevent the team from getting to where it wants to get. It might be easier to associate risk with Pineiro given his up-and-down performance, but Garland's consistency is equally risky in the sense that paying for his production may not get a team where it wants to go, and might instead not only prevent the team from making the playoffs or winning more games, it could also preclude more beneficial acquisitions later on.

With that in mind, a team considering either or both of these pitchers needs to not only project their performances, it also has to decide what that type of productivity is worth given their specific situation. Matt Swartz showed us last summer that certain teams gain more utility than others from players, given their circumstances. For example, Roy Halladay is worth much more to the Phillies than he is to the Astros. Projecting Garland and Pineiro is not as cookie-cutter as it sounds, though, as their skill sets can cause some concern as being either fluky, unattractive, or a bit of both.

Consistency is one of the more overvalued performance attributes in baseball, as prior studies have shown that flakiness within a given season is inconsistent from year to year, and that it correlates very weakly to bottom-line, win-based metrics. Though consistency carries value in the sense that executives, managers and fans don't need to bite their nails as frequently, it does not actually make a pitcher post better numbers and it is not always a lock to add more value to a team. Prior to last season, Garland was not only more consistent than Pineiro, he was markedly better. Take a look at their WARP3 and SNLVAR figures over the last five seasons:


WARP3          2005 2006 2007 2008 2009
Pineiro        -0.9 -2.3  1.7 -0.3  2.3
Garland         4.2  3.1  3.2  1.4  2.4

SNLVAR         2005 2006 2007 2008 2009
Pineiro        1.41 0.26 1.68 1.60 4.63
Garland        6.02 4.07 4.30 1.96 3.50

It really isn't even a contest, as Garland performed much closer to the level of an all-star than a bargain-bin innings-eater while Pineiro appeared lucky to actually call himself a major-league pitcher. A rendezvous with Dave Duncan in St. Louis cured Pineiro's pitching woes, and suddenly he finds himself not only in the same discussion as Garland, but seemingly in line to receive a much more lucrative contract. The issue here is that few know what to expect from Pineiro, while there's little doubt what Garland can bring to the table.

When it comes to consistency and volatility, a discussion of an expected value comes into play. The expected value is essentially the weighted summary of a variable: a pitcher worth two wins does not have that set in stone, because it's a projection comprised of several potential outcomes with their own respective probabilities of occurring. He may add half of a win 25 percent of the time, and three wins 30 percent of the time, and so on, with the weighted average ending up at two wins. For a more volatile pitcher like Pineiro, the expected value of his performance will include a much wider range, positive and negative.

For example, if we assume that both Garland and Pineiro will be worth 2.1 wins next season, which does not seem out of place given what we know about each, Garland's expected value might break down as 1.8 wins coming 20 percent of the time, 60 percent delivering 2.1 wins, and 20 percent 2.4 wins. In contrast, Pineiro checks in with a spread of 0.5 wins 20 percent of the time, 20 percent yielding 1.3 wins, 20 percent of the scenarios producing 2.1 wins, another 20 percent with 2.9 wins, and finally 20 percent generating 3.7 wins. Though Pineiro has more apparent upside, the distributions represent the range of possible outcomes, as the weighted mean for both comes out to the same 2.1 wins. The difference is that Garland offers a club very little wiggle room, while Pineiro could potentially add up to four wins. In a vacuum, neither is more valuable than the other, or worth more to a team monetarily. Baseball is not played in a vacuum, though, so it's valid to suggest that Pineiro is worth more to certain teams than Garland, just as Garland should be sought after more by other specific suitors.

To get into which actual teams make sense for each, consider the different expectations from the Mets and Cardinals. Given the uncertainties in the health and talent departments for an entire laundry list of Mets players, they could go 76-86 as easily as they could end up 88-74, a broad range of outcomes suggesting that, just like Pineiro, the Amazin's are pretty volatile. I'd argue that a pitcher like Pineiro becomes all the more attractive to this kind of team, due to the upside potential. Whereas inking Garland or other consistency cardholders could improve the range of wins from 76-88 wins to 77-90, bringing Pineiro aboard causes a jump from 76-88 wins to 77-92, the high end getting into territory that almost assures a playoff berth. Essentially, the Mets can only gain utility from a pitcher as volatile as Pineiro, since they have nothing to lose. It would make far less sense for them to sign Garland, as he offers less of a possibility that the higher end of potential outcomes could reap a spot in the playoff picture.

The opposite can be said of the Cardinals, who will likely be considered locks for the NL Central throne with a smaller distribution, say something in the 87- to 94-win range. Since they are already favored to qualify for the playoffs, their sights should be set on the Garland types, who will serve to stabilize the back end of their rotation. The Cardinals, ironically the former employer of Pineiro, would not gain much from his volatility, as the high end would not provide much benefit, while the low end could actually remove them from contention. Beyond Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright, the rotation is already comprised of potentially volatile pitchers like Kyle Lohse and Brad Penny, so the last thing they need is a trifecta of uncertainty beyond their top tandem.

However, all of this presupposes that Garland and Pineiro will be each other's equal next season, which might not be true, since Pineiro broke out last season, and may struggle to sustain solid performances, especially without the aid of pitching coach Dave Duncan. Plus, jumping from -0.3 wins to 2.3 wins seems like a rare occurrence, so an investigation into similarly large jumps could make assumptions of his potential value much more accurate.

Will the Real Slim Pineiro Please Stand Up?

Sleuthing my way through the WARP3 archives, I searched for all situations in which a pitcher made 20 or more starts in four consecutive seasons from 1974 to 2006, where the total number of starts was within plus or minus five of the total from the year before. This way, we can avoid situations in which someone went from 35 to 20 to 35 to 20 starts, skewing his numbers in the process. In total, 595 such four-year spans were returned, belonging to 193 unique pitchers. Of this larger sample, just 91 such spans belonging to 76 unique pitchers increased their WARP3 by at least 2.5 wins from the first to the second season, a jump commensurate with Pineiro's improvement. Of this subset of pitchers, 72 such sets belonging to 63 unique pitchers maintained a WARP3 above 2.0 in the season immediately following their jump, and 50 spans belonging to 47 pitchers accrued two or more wins in that fourth season. Putting all of that together, jumps in performance akin to Pineiro's are rare, but the improvements are largely sustained throughout history.

The table below shows the averages for the respective groups, with the W1-W4 columns representing the WARP3 totals in each of the four years and the headings 2-Year to 4-Year indicating to which group they belonged. For instance, the 3-Year group experienced a 2.5 win jump or more from the first to second years, and remained above two wins in the third year.


Group      W1   W2   W3   W4
2-Year    1.8  5.5  3.6  3.2
3-Year    2.1  5.7  4.4  3.3
4-Year    2.1  5.8  4.6  4.4

The data indicates that pitchers making vast improvements in their performance tend to differ from Pineiro in the aggregate; they went from average to All-Star, while he went from replacement-level to average. Manipulating the sample to feature pitchers worth one or fewer wins in the initial year to more closely mirror Pineiro's uptick, 32 separate spans from 30 different pitchers were returned, but practically all of them made substantial improvements, averaging 0.03 wins in the first season and 4.06 wins in the following year, before falling to 2.64 wins in the third year and remaining steady at 2.63 wins in the fourth and final year. Pineiro didn't make that large of a leap but the sample of pitchers at one or fewer wins who jump to three or fewer wins consists of a whopping five pitchers:


Pitcher      Year1 GS   W1 Year2 GS  W2 Year3 GS  W3 Year4 GS  W4
Randy Johnson 1989 28 -0.8  1990 33 2.7  1991 33 2.6  1992 31 2.8
Hideo Nomo    1998 28 -0.5  1999 28 2.3  2000 31 2.1  2001 33 2.6
Kirk Rueter   1999 33 -1.1  2000 31 2.1  2001 34 1.0  2002 33 2.9
Derek Lowe    2004 33 -1.7  2005 35 2.3  2006 34 4.7  2007 32 2.6
Bob Forsch    1976 32 -0.8  1977 35 2.0  1978 34 1.5  1979 32 1.0

The most comparable pitcher here, both in age and numbers, is Nomo, who largely sustained his uptick over the next two seasons. Johnson also sustained his improvement, boding well for Pineiro. The hope is that Pineiro does not suffer a fate similar to that of Forsch, who made his improvements and then gradually came back to earth.

Wrapping Up

This research indicates that it is certainly conceivable that Pineiro will not project as nicely as Garland, thereby decreasing the value of his high-end potential, in turn lowering the expected value of his production. Under this assumption, the comparison could end up being between a 2.1-win pitcher and one worth 1.6 wins with the possibility of finishing anywhere between 0.5 and 2.8 wins, a much skinnier range of outcomes.

Of course, the discussion of risk, consistency, and volatility suggests that teams should not be comparing these two and deciding which one to sign, given that the answer is contingent upon the projected standings. Different teams will extract different values from the same players, narrowing the field of could-be employees in the process. It is easy to look at the volatility of Pineiro and the consistency of Garland, and decide that one is better than the other, but this form of often-used comparisons only becomes valid under the lens of team context. The purpose of a free-agent signing is to increase the likelihood that a team's goals are reached. While these pitchers may seem like opposites, they are both risky, with an expected level of risk resting purely in the eye of the beholder.

Next week, we'll look at two more archetypical players on the market in a similar scope in an effort to better understand market functions, and what teams look for in signings.

Eric Seidman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Eric's other articles. You can contact Eric by clicking here

25 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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Gordon

Doesn't come down to the team wanting much more in the way of incentives in Pineiro's contract than in Garland's?

Jan 20, 2010 10:45 AM
rating: 0
 
BrewersTT

I'd be happy if the Brewers got in on the bidding for either. Risk looks different from the perspective of trying to replace below-replacement-level work, in a winnable division.

Jan 20, 2010 11:18 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Eric Seidman
BP staff

That's the next article ;-), specifically discussing a former Brewer.

Jan 20, 2010 11:24 AM
 
HalfStreet

The Nats are a team that you would probably stay should keep away from both pitchers, since they aren't going to win anyway. I am not so worried by the expenditure of ownership's money, so please answer this for me? When a team has so far to go as the Nats, wouldn't either pitcher be just as good as the other? Either would be a significant upgrade from what the team had last year.

Jan 20, 2010 11:54 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Eric Seidman
BP staff

And the Nats signed Marquis, a similar starter to these guys, all things considered. The opportunity cost comes into play -- could the $7.5 mil doled out to Marquis have been better spent on the draft or the Latin American markets to get the Nats some potential superstars? For teams in their situation that's worth exploring. You might have given me another idea.

Jan 20, 2010 12:21 PM
 
ddrezner

Good article, but I think you're confusing "risk" with "opportunity cost" when you talk about the merits of signing someone like Garland.

Jan 20, 2010 12:15 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Eric Seidman
BP staff

No, the opportunity cost is what builds the risk profile for someone like Garland. He's risky because of the opportunity cost AND because, while consistent, he just might not be good enough to get you where you need to go.

Jan 20, 2010 12:23 PM
 
LouisArighi

But that's not really "risk", is it? I'm not sure why it's a "risk" of Garland that a team might be far from the playoffs. He doesn't have anything to do with the construction of the pre-Garland team, and when you discuss his spread of outcomes, isn't the "risk" simply that he might only generate 1.8 wins instead of 2.1? Unless there was some unstated collapse risk (which I imagine is fairly small for him at this point). I agree with ddrezner, I don't think that the team's predicted wins prior to signing him is a "risk" about Garland.

Jan 20, 2010 13:45 PM
rating: 0
 
LouisArighi

I also meant to say that I generally enjoyed the article, and appreciate your tackling the subject.

Jan 20, 2010 13:46 PM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Eric Seidman
BP staff

Thanks, and I do agree that Garland doesn't represent risk in the traditional sense, but this is perhaps more closely associated with investment risk, in that the consistent stocks may not drive you batty but they also might not help you reach your goal. And that's what I'm trying to discuss here -- a team has a goal, and anything they do that doesn't truly help them reach that goal is risky, in some way, shape or form. The risk of Garland isn't that a team is far from the playoffs but that, for a team on the cusp, he isn't going to put you over the top. Now, if he isn't "the answer" and is just another signing -- like if the Mets signed BOTH Garland and Pineiro -- the risk is mitigated.

Jan 20, 2010 14:10 PM
 
Nathan J. Miller

Right... I think we're getting confused about the scope... Garland may pose a greater risk to your goal of making the playoffs, but less risk in terms of what to expect from his performance. Both are risk, but a different scope of risk: the player's performance or your team's performance.

Jan 22, 2010 09:49 AM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Eric Seidman
BP staff

Exactly -- I specified in the article that risk in this forum dealt with a team not being able to reach its goal. For a team signing someone very volatile, the risk deals with performance and how he could be boom or bust. With someone very consistent but not necessarily that good, the risk deals with the performance not being that good despite the lack of volatility.

Jan 22, 2010 10:24 AM
 
evaldi

I suppose Pineiro might sign for more than Penny - but let's say the $ & # of years (this is the problem I think) are equal--in that case, I think the Cards would be much better off if they had kept Joel. Put both on a winning team with good infield defense, I say he will have a better year than Penny.

Jan 20, 2010 14:34 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Eric Seidman
BP staff

This presents another interesting idea, as Pineiro makes little sense for the Cardinals given the previous signing of Penny, as if the team acknowledged "Hey, we're going to have a volatile/risky pitcher, but we think Penny's high end on his distribution is greater than Joel's." Pineiro may have made more sense if right now they were looking at Carpenter, Wainwright and Mitchell Boggs, not the former two, Penny, Boggs and whomever else.

Jan 20, 2010 14:46 PM
 
clachan

See these names: Dave Stewart; Bob Welch; Dennis Eckersley; Darryl Kile; Chris Carpenter; Jeff Suppan; Jeff Weaver


These are all pitchers that went to the next level under the tutelage of Dave Duncan. They were all veteran pitchers who 1) talented yet flaky 2) had lost stuff due to injury or age or had lost their "edge" and were unable to remake themselves.
Dave Duncan regularly turns these types of pitchers into 1) All-star level talent (Carpenter, Stewart, Eckersley, Kile) 2) Useful pieces (Suppan, Weaver).

The Cardinals have faith that Brad Penny can be re-made by Dave Duncan into a pitcher at least as useful as Pineiro 2009, without the cost and length of contract required to re-sign him. Having Dave Duncan on staff allows the cardinals to take have a higher degree of success with these types of pitchers that other organizations.


Jan 20, 2010 17:58 PM
rating: 0
 
MGL

You made an assumption which is not necessarily correct (as far as I can tell from reading the article) and then when you had the opportunity to investigate it within the historical data, you didn't.

The assumption you made is that a pitcher who has been consistent in the past (e.g. Garland) will have a distribution of expected performance in the subsequent year that is much narrower than a pitcher who has been inconsistent in the past (e.g. Pineiro). IOW, what evidence do you have that "we know what to expect from Garland" but that Pineiro's 2010 performance "might be all over the place" even if we expect them both to have around the same weighted mean performance?

To couch the question one more way, how do you know or even suspect that this is true:

"Garland’s expected value might break down as 1.8 wins coming 20 percent of the time, 60 percent delivering 2.1 wins, and 20 percent 2.4 wins. In contrast, Pineiro checks in with a spread of 0.5 wins 20 percent of the time, 20 percent yielding 1.3 wins, 20 percent of the scenarios producing 2.1 wins, another 20 percent with 2.9 wins, and finally 20 percent generating 3.7 wins."

When you looked at the history of pitchers with "inconsistent" performance like Pineiro, you should have looked at the distribution of their performance in the year following the uptick and compared that to pitchers who had similar career profiles as Garland. We need to know if there is any difference in terms of the spread of that distribution, and if yes, to what degree. If the answer is "little or no difference" then your whole thesis falls apart, right?

Jan 21, 2010 00:02 AM
rating: 3
 
BP staff member Eric Seidman
BP staff

You're absolutely correct if the overall goal is to literally specifically investigate just Garland and Pineiro, but this is more of using them as archetypes to discuss what teams (and what situations for teams) should be looking into guys with certain skill-sets. Garland is considered by many to be Mr Consistency while Pineiro is the crazy volatile Tracy Jordan character from 30 Rock.

Jan 21, 2010 06:16 AM
 
John Carter

Perhaps, it's too early for my brain to fully function, but I'm not sold on this. Naturally, if you are only looking at sets of data with four consecutive years of 20+ starts, then you are only looking at pitchers who were able to sustain their success. How does that show the chances of a vast improvement is sustainable at all? You are excluding all the guys who subsequently failed so badly they lost their jobs in their rotation - or hurt themselves thanks to all the sudden success from the previous season, which no doubt increased their innings total.

Jan 21, 2010 06:56 AM
rating: 2
 
BP staff member Eric Seidman
BP staff

Right, perhaps it should have been phrased better as far as saying that guys who were able to stay on the mound for the requisite sample sustained their performance, not that it was a lock for that to happen, but if they did, they were increasingly likely to remain above average.

Jan 21, 2010 07:08 AM
 
John Carter

OK, thanks, but I don't see the point of knowing that. We don't know if he will be good enough to continue to be a regular on some team's rotation. We still have no idea what are Pineiro's chances of sustaining his success from today's vantage point.

Jan 21, 2010 08:51 AM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Eric Seidman
BP staff

I'll Unfilter something along these lines over the weekend, looking for anyone who made a 2.5+ win jump from Y1 to Y2, regardless of GS, and seeing how many of them made 20+ GS the next year, and of THOSE guys, how many were above average. The numbers above are still valid to some extent, though, but perhaps not as far as determining the likelihood he falls flat on his face.

Jan 21, 2010 09:12 AM
 
John Carter

That would be super, thank you.

Jan 21, 2010 09:32 AM
rating: 0
 
flirgendorf

Is it appropriate to compare Pineiro's breakout to Nomo's or Johnson's? They achieved their breakout in a dramatically different way so I don't see how you would expect the stickiness of the improvement to be correlated. Kirk Rueter, Bob Forsch, and to a lesser extent Lowe I could see using because they are guys that didn't strike a lot of people out in their "leap" season, but I think the strikeout rate discrepancy should rule out Nomo and Johnson as comparables.

Jan 21, 2010 07:16 AM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Eric Seidman
BP staff

You can interpret the table however you like -- it's there just for that. Regardless, only five guys surfaced, and as we whittle away at the individual skill-sets of those five, there are even fewer comps in this area.

Jan 21, 2010 07:31 AM
 
MGL

"You're absolutely correct if the overall goal is to literally specifically investigate just Garland and Pineiro, but this is more of using them as archetypes to discuss what teams (and what situations for teams) should be looking into guys with certain skill-sets. Garland is considered by many to be Mr Consistency while Pineiro is the crazy volatile Tracy Jordan character from 30 Rock."

Guys with certain skill sets? How about if we determine FIRST whether the distribution of expected performance IS a skill before we talk about which kinds of teams would benefit from which kinds of distributions.

Now, I am not saying that a pitcher who has been consistent in the past (e.g. Garland) is NOT more likely to be consistent in the future (i.e., that the distribution of his expected future performance is likely to be narrower), and vice versa, but you sure implied that we know. And contrary to your quote above, you sure implied that Pineiro is likely to have a wider distribution of expected performance than Garland for 2010. Again, do you know that that is true?

And, as I said in my previous comment, you looked at the aggregate performance in Year Next of pitcher who were inconsistent in prior years (actually, those who had an "uptick" in Year Next minus one). Don't you think you should have looked at that distribution of performance among all those pitchers and then compare that distribution to pitchers, like Garland, who were relatively consistent for several years?

If you found no significant differences between the two groups, in terms of that distribution, your article would be moot, wouldn't it? Again, I don't know what you would find (and I actually expect thee to be differences), but until I know one way or another, it's lind of a leap to be talking about pitchers like Garland or Pineiro might benefit some teams more than others even though their weighted mean expected value in 2010 might be equal. Isn't it?

Jan 21, 2010 19:12 PM
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