Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Ernie Banks, the Cubs Greatest Hitters, and Javier Baez

Here's Ernie at the tender age of 24. (source)
It's not just that Ernie Banks was a great baseball player or that he was a long-time member of the Cubs; it's that he was both. That's why he mattered so much.

And he brought a measure of joy to a business that can still feel like a game sometimes. That's the kind of player that makes watching baseball fun and working in baseball easy. All this leaves a bigger empty space without him.

By my count, only four people are still alive on that list of all-time great Cubs hitters. I think that's both a testament to the age of the franchise, and the paucity of great players recently. As comparison, the Red Sox have 7 of their top 11 hitters still alive and kicking.

In other news: Joe Maddon's advice to Javier Baez is both (1) typical of Joe Maddon and (b) just amazing:
"He's trying way too hard," Maddon said. "I want him to back off. The last thing I want him to do is try to impress me tonight. ... I said, 'Hit a couple singles and, above all, I want to see you smile.'"
I wrote about Baez for the 2015 Hardball Times Annual, and basically I said: Holy crap, this kid is off to a very scary start. He was striking out like a tee-ball kid in bad need of sports glasses.

I think/hope Maddon is the right guy to get Baez on track, and fast.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Jimmy Clausen is Better Than Jimmy Clausen

The Chicago Bears have decided to bench Jay Cutler heading into this Sunday's game against the Detroit Lions. Former second-round draft pick Jimmy Clausen will be getting his first start since 2010. And this kind of typifies the response from the media and fans:

Welp, he's worse than Blake Bortles; let's shut it down; all hope is lost.

But seriously: Let's be smart about this. Jay Cutler is not terrible -- at least statistically. He's around a 55 QBR, which is just a tick above average. Of course, scouting sources like Pro Football Focus (PFF) have rated him among the worst QBs this season -- maybe in part due to fumblitis, but it's hard to say.

Either way, the offense has been terrible, hasn't broken into 30-point territory, and now Jimmy is starting. What can we expect?

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

GRAPHIC: Jay Cutler's Rapidly Deteriorating Season

Click to Embiggen.
Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom

For Thine is
Life is
For Thine is the

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

- T.S. Eliot, suspected Bears fan

At a time like this, it is easy to lose one's faith. At least one's faith in Jay Cutler.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Bears Defensive Stats Update

Last week I laid out a simple paradigm for estimating the quality of an NFL defense. I said I was predicting the Bears defense, but really the formula is regression based and therefore backwards looking (like SIERA, for the baseball-inclined) rather than forward looking or predictive (like ZiPS or Oliver, which are actual prediction models).

Anyway, this last Sunday, the Bears defense looked intermittently strong and floppy, but all told, the Bears won despite only moderate help from the offense. So how did the defense do?

Team Y/P Start Point*
Chicago Bears 5.9 34.2 34±7

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Predicting the Bears Defense

Last Sunday's loss to the Bills stung. More than anything, I was bummed to see so little of Jared Allen, Lance Briggs, and Charles Tillman -- the veterans who I expected would at least perform up to recent standards. (Of course, of those three, Tillman not having any big plays could very well be just him having a solid game and pushing plays towards the other DBs.)

As a whole, though, I am worried like most Bears fans that the defense is poised once again to lead the league yards allowed per play and likewise finish as or near the bottom in points allowed per game. In 2013, only the Vikings were worse than the Bears in preventing scores, and they were worse by only 2 points. Ouch.

But here's a fun fact: Almost all of point scoring can be captured by two basic defensive stats.
  1. Y/P: Yards per play, or the total yards allowed by the defense divided by the number of defensive plays.
  2. Start: The average starting position for the defense -- i.e. where the defense takes over after the most recent Jay Cutler interception.
Given 2013's numbers, these three statistics explain almost all of the variations in points allowed per game (82% or 0.82 R-squared). And if we run a linear regression on these items, we get a formula like this:

Points/Game = (6.72 * Y/P) + (1.12 * Start) - 44.2
Using this really basic formula, we can make primitive predictions about the Bears defense (Note: There is no shortage of complex and more reliable predictions on Advanced Football Analytics and Football Outsiders; go there for those aims).

So far in 2014, the Bears have allowed 6.4 yards per play and have had to start on the 32.9 yard line. What's fun about these stats is that they represent components controlled by the defense (Y/P) and the offense and special teams (Start).

Given they continue their previous performance, the Bears defense will allow something between 30 and 42 points per game in a typical Sunday. That's not good.

But let's say the offense is what we thought it is, and the average starting position moves to a league average 28-yard line. The defense then improves to a 25 to 35 range -- much better, especially if the offense is scoring more than 20 points. Looking at it from the other direction: What if the field position issue doesn't resolve, but the defense manages to reduces the yard-per-play issue? With a league average 5.4 Y/P, the Bears would give up somewhere between 24 and 34 points per game -- almost the same impact as a league average starting position.

This leads me to suspect this is not just a defense problem. The Bears offense must sustain drives and give the Bears defense a better chance. Both sides (and special teams too) appear to blame so far.

"Lion Chicago Bears Helmet" by Original uploader was ShadowJester07 at en.wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia; transfer was stated to be made by User:Poromiami. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Luis Valbuena Should be a Starter in 2015

Look, I was the hardest sell on 3B Luis Valbuena since day one. When the Cubs got him in 2012, they said they liked his defense, but all the data we had at the time -- which was just 806 PA -- said he was bad in both offense and defense:

But now, with Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro out of the lineup, Valbuena is hitting cleanup. And he's not just hitting cleanup because the lineup is broken (see: Javier Baez and Jorge Soler); he's hitting cleanup because he's hitting well. And he could very well continue to do as much.

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Cubs and Pitchers

Yesterday, Dave Cameron kinda said what we're all starting to think:

Besides Jake Arrieta — who continues to pitch like a legitimate front-line guy — the Cubs rotation might not be full of potential aces, but there’s nothing wrong with having one good starter and four decent guys.

I have never hidden my affinity for NPB and Cuban exports (those league feel so exotic and unknown!), and so I accept the accusation I might be overly optimistic on Tsuyoshi Wada. That being said, was good -- if not great -- in Japan, and now even Dave Cameron lists him among the positive surprises in the Cubs pitching universe.

Add to that: Jason Hammel, Scott Feldman, and Paul Maholm. Since 2012, the front office has managed to add at least one low-risk, medium-reward starting pitcher to each rotation. If nothing else, this means they've learned to how to make smart gambles on pitching (because, let's observe here, free agent pitchers are gambles, and there is no guarantee the next Jason Hammel they sign will do anything but plop a big ol' turd on the staff ERA).

So do the Cubs need Jon Lester? No, but that'd be huge if they got him. Do they need to trade Javier Baez or Jorge Soler? Nope. Not at all, unless they're getting a whopping doozy in return.

In fact, given a few prudent acquisitions here or there, I think we could be seeing a really good team on the northside. World Series good? Maybe not. A winning team though?

Definitely next year.