Monday, January 23, 2006

It's The Environment, Stupid

Recently, I've seen some ridicule of the Soriano trade that doesn't make much sense to me. Leaving aside the off-the-field crap, and his apparent bad attitude (which I know you can't do in real life), the most common refrain you hear centers around the difference in park.

"Wait til the Nats see what kind of numbers he puts up in RFK. When he hits 20 homers, they'll see what a bad player he is."

This line of thinking is usually accompanied by comparisons to Brad Wilkerson and the 30 home runs he'll probably approach in the lefty-bat-favoring Texas ballpark.

On one hand, they're discounting Soriano's numbers because of the favorable ballpark (although it's not really that favorable to RHB), but they're not necessarily making the same adjustment when it comes to Wilkerson's numbers.

They key, in all those cases, is to put the numbers the batters put up into context. 20 homers in an extreme pitcher's park in the lower-scoring NL is quite possibly equal to 30 homers in an AL hitter's park.

A note before I go too much further. As you know, I'm not much for numbers. I use them very selectively, because I think they have a tendency to be misused, manipulated, and misunderstood. I'm not trying to make a definitive argument here, just throwing some general ideas out there in a qualitative sense. I'm just not smart enough to do the hardcore quantitave analysis, which would just scare the average person away anyway.

If you watched Texas games last year, you saw a crapload more runs than us woe-filled Nats fans did. Texas hitters and pitchers combined to produce and yield 1723 runs. Nationals hitters and pitchers managed just 1312.
           R/G  Lg R/G  Difference
Nationals 8.09 8.96 -9.7%
Rangers 10.63 9.43 12.7%

Certainly some of that is a product of the difference in quality of the respective pitchers and hitters, but it's probably safe to say that Alfonso Soriano could have his raw numbers (homers, rbi, doubles, etc) reduced by twenty percent or so and still have a similar value in terms of the run environment Washington played in.

Wouldn't a three-run homer, for example, on average, have a lot more value to the Nationals than to the Rangers? If there are fewer runs scored, each successive run becomes more important.

Certainly A three-run blast in a 9-7 Texas win is more important than one in a 4-3 Nats loss even though nine fewer runs were scored. But, for the sake of argument, we're dealing with a more macro level approach.

All of this is a long way of saying that Soriano can have his numbers go down and still have similar effect on his team's W/L totals.

  • Another importance of considering the teams' run environments is on the importance of their other statistics. Brad Wilkerson gets on base more, but Alfonso Soriano slugs more. Which is more important?

    Most people would say that OBP is life. I'd certainly agree. If two players have equal OPS, the one with the higher OBP typically has more value. People have cranked out fancy Excel charts to show that you should weight the OBP portion of OPS by around 1.8 to get a true value.

    But RFK might change that, if only slightly.

    Let's consider two parks, and prepare to suspend disbelief for a moment or two.

    Let's say a team plays in a park where the run enviroment for the two teams is 1,000 runs per game. (silly, I know) With teams scoring that many runs, is there really any difference between a single and a home run? Not really. Since runs are so common, slugging doesn't have as much value as on-base percentage. Your value in that park is tied up to your ability to not make outs since you need so many runs (and baserunners) to win.

    Compare that with a park where the average game ends 1-0. Since offense is so much more difficult here, a two-out walk does you zero good. And in an environment where runs are scarce, slugging is at a premium. That solo home run has a lot more value here than a single (or even a walk).

    It's not so much that OBP isn't important in the second park, but that slugging takes on an increased importance. The parallels with RFK aren't perfect, obviously, and RFK certainly isn't that extreme, but I feel comfortable saying that an extra point of slugging at RFK is worth a lot more than an extra point of slugging at Ameriquest.

    To use a crude example, which would you rather have? A Soriano solo home run or a lead-off walk by Brad Wilkerson? (Don't point out the flaws in this 'argument', I know what they are!)

    I'm not smart enough to figure out how much more value it has, but Soriano's home runs are going to be very important to the Nationals runs scored totals, and accordingly, wins -- even if there are fewer homers and runs scored than in Ameriquest.


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