Ranting and Raving About Baseball With Mike Carminati (Part One)
Mike Carminati is one of the "old timers" when it comes to baseball blogging. He started Mike's Baseball Rants in July 2002, and it has become one of the most widely read in the blogosphere. Mike recently switched from Blogger to Christian Ruzich's All-Baseball.com, a loose affiliation of several baseball blogs (including Ruz's The Cub Reporter and The Transaction Guy, Alex Belth's Bronx Banter, and Will Carroll's Weblog). Mike is also the lead baseball analyst at Baseball Interactive.com.
Mike was born in the suburbs of Philadelphia in 1965. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a major in Computer Math and minors in English, Philosophy, and Physics. Mike claims that he wanted to be a Renaissance man but missed it by a few centuries. He is making a living as an IT professional instead.
I had the pleasure of corresponding with Mike by email and talking with him over the telephone during the past week to find out his latest opinions on his beloved Phillies, Joe Morgan, baseball statistics, general managers, sabermetricians, and a few other rants.
RWBB: Mike, you seemed a little hesitant about doing this interview.
Mike: I have to admit that I feel a bit self-conscious doing this. I mean, I'm just a guy who has lots of opinions and gets very little sleep. I purposely keep my blog and my "about me" impersonal to keep the focus on baseball (and to assuage my wife's fears that some clod would stumble upon my site and be able to track me down). I don't even mention my last name. I think it was mentioned in a link once and other people picked it up.
RWBB: When did you begin following baseball?
Mike: I've been a baseball fan as far back as I can recall, but the first season that I remember distinctly was 1976. I was around 10. I remember keeping a scrapbook with box scores and day-to-day happenings for the Phillies. I was devastated when that Darth Vader of the diamond, Pete Rose, and his evil empire, the Big Red Machine, swept my Phils that year in the playoffs.
I still memorize numbers--at the deli, for takeout food, etc.--based on mid-Seventies Phillies jersey numbers (Number 23? Downtown Ollie Brown. Number 38? Larry Christenson. Number 40? Warren Brusstar.)
RWBB: Who was your favorite player as a kid growing up in Philly?
Mike: Greg "The Bull" Luzinski. Number 19. He was a big fan favorite with the Phils in the mid-Seventies, maybe because he looked like most of the fans at the game. Philly's that kind of town: John Kruk and little Lenny Dykstra became working-class heroes there. The Schmidts and Carltons seemed a little too esoteric or inaccessible though they merited respect.
Anyway, Luzinski had this big upper body and these little legs. He was a horrendous fielder in left and the Phils always threatened to move him to first but never did. He had this great straight-up stance, the first batting style I emulated. Ever since then, I have always gotten number 19 whenever I've done anything related to sports--intramural team, company softball team, etc. And "The Bull" was just a great nickname from an era in which it was still OK to give players nicknames.
RWBB: Speaking of numbers, what kind of impression did the man wearing #20 have on you?
Mike: Impression? My ultimate job would be to play third base for the Phillies but, as Austin Powers said, that train has sailed. Everyone growing up in Philly in the Seventies or Eighties wanted to be a third baseman. We would practice his bare-handed grabs and throws all the time. I remember doing that in the field, the Luzinski stance at bat (or Richie "The Hack" Hebner's when I attempted to switch-hit), and a combination of Steve Carlton's nervous tic on the mound into Gene Garber's corkscrew delivery.
Mike Schmidt is still the best player I've ever gotten to see on a regular basis. He was famously booed, on occasion, by the home fans in Philadelphia. I never booed him or any other player who was trying to help his team. I can, however, understand why they booed Schmidt.
Schmidt came in and batted .196 with something like 130 odd strikeouts in his first year and then became the best player in the National League. The fans were awestruck by him and placed all their hopes and expectations on every swing of his bat. It was too unrealistic.
RWBB: Those Philly fans are as tough as they get. They even booed Santa Claus once.
Mike: It goes back to Philly's basic inferiority complex because of its proximity and inherent inferiority to New York. It's a problem for Boston as well, but it at least has its own identity, which Philly lacks. I've lived in NYC, Philly, and Boston, so I've witnessed it.
Anyway, the Phils fans became so enamored of Michael Jack Schmidt (I have to say that in my Harry Kalas voice) that they expected, when Schmitty moved to first for a year, that his replacement, Rick Schu, would be a star, too. It was just assumed. Schu failed and was shipped to Baltimore. Schmidt moved back to third and then was replaced after he tearfully retired by the definition of mediocrity at third, Charlie Hayes. Schmidt replaced Cesar Tovar in '73 at third. That's the Phils for you, a vast wasteland of fungible Steve Jeltz types.
RWBB: Eighteen years of Mike Schmidt and a few years of Rick Schu, Steve Jeltz, and now David Bell is like going from one extreme to the other.
Mike: I like what Bill James said about him, that if he hit .320 instead of .270 he could have been the greatest ballplayer of all time. At .270, he was just the greatest third baseman of all time. People remember the homers, but he was a very good base runner before his knees went, hit well to all fields, and, I believe, was the best defensive third baseman of his era--better than Brooks Robinson. Another thing people forget is how much he developed as a hitter throughout his career. He was a better hitter after the age of 30 than before. He dropped the strikeouts.
RWBB: Speaking of swinging and missing, let's talk about your Joe Morgan Chat Day reviews.
Mike: They're fun. They're something that my college friend Mike and I started doing, just sending emails back and forth with the outrageous comments that Morgan said. It was before I had even heard of blogs and blogging. He just says the most gloriously, blatantly ludicrous statements. I wish Morgan no ill will. He seems like a nice guy after all. He is just sort of a symbol for poor baseball analysis. He beats the pants off of Steve Lyons though.
RWBB: Why do you think Morgan the ballplayer and Morgan the analyst are so diametrically opposed?
Mike: I guess it's just human nature. Why aren't there more great players who become great managers? Joe Morgan was a player who knew that working the count and, therefore, increasing the possibility of getting on base was an important way to help your team win. Yet, as an analyst, Joe downplays on-base percentage and overrates batting average and runs batted in. Go figure.
RWBB: What is the most outrageous comment that Li'l Joe has ever made?
Mike: There are so many, but I think the worst was his "I'm a baseball analyst, I see things that the average fan doesn't in a game" comment during the playoffs. I mean, c'mon.
There was also the time that someone questioned him on something he had said the previous day in his ESPN article about the Toronto offense and he denied it. The guy quoted the article verbatim, and Joe disavowed any knowledge of the statement. And he had just made it the day before.
RWBB: I don't think Joe is one to let facts get in the way of his opinions. My goodness, he still thinks Billy Beane wrote Moneyball.
Mike: Yeah, that was another good one. He said for two or three weeks straight that Beane wrote "Moneyball". He's commenting on something that he obviously did not read nor did he even have passing knowledge of. Someone at ESPN must have told him because the statements just stopped. Maybe they read my comments on Joe's Moneyball gaffe? Doubtful.
RWBB: How do you make it through the off-season without these chats?
Mike: My cousin asked me what I would do last year when there was a players' strike looming. I told him that sometimes the actual, pesky games get in the way. That I have all sorts of things that I want to hit that I never have time to get to because of all the damn games pulling me away. It's the same thing with the chat sessions: they're fun but exhausting and they monopolize my time. There's only so much sleep I can forego for the sake of baseball.
RWBB: Let's switch over to Joe's favorite topic--sabermetrics. (Laughs.) When did you begin analyzing baseball statistics?
Mike: I charted pitchers' performances on bar-graph paper starting in the 1976 season. I remember writing up stats-based team histories in junior high. It impressed the ladies.
I didn't really get turned on to Bill James until after college. But when I read his stuff, it just clicked for me. He had the same problem-based approach as I (math background, you know) except he is tremendously better at it. The thing I like best about James is that he is a storyteller. He just uses a lot of stats to help tell the stories.
RWBB: What are the most important metrics you use to evaluate hitters?
Mike: Hitting Win Shares is probably the best though it fails the Occam's Razor test. And somehow Albert Pujols was about 3 Win Shares ahead of Barry Bonds last year, so it's far from perfect. OPS+ and Runs Created are good, too.
RWBB: What are your favorite tools for comparing pitchers?
Mike: I think Support Neutral Wins Above Replacement Level is one of the best for starters and Adjusted Runs Prevented for relievers. Pitching Win Shares, league-adjusted ERA, WHIP, strikeouts-to-walks, strikeouts per nine innings. DIPS, Defense-Independent Pitching Stats, is a very interesting tool, but it is problematic in comparing pitchers and there is still some debate over its usefulness.
RWBB: Do you think OBP is superior to, equal to, or inferior to SLG as a singular measure of value?
Mike: Today it is superior. I ran a study some time ago that looked at every team since the advent of major-league ball and tried to find the stat that correlated to runs scored the best. I think that batting average was the best tool in the 19th Century and then OBP took over. Of course, OPS eclipsed OBP, I think, in the Twenties, but OBP has consistently been a better indicator of runs than slugging.
RWBB: Which GM "gets it" the most?
Mike: I guess this is where I invoke the name of Billy Beane. I think he really did revolutionize the GM position by coming up with a statistics-based approach to optimize performance. I think it's very interesting that it was borne of necessity. He needed to save money because of the financial limitations of the team. He developed an approach.
RWBB: Which ones don't get it at all?
Mike: If you mean among GMs, well, they've cleaned up their ranks pretty well in the last few years. Gone are Cam Bonifay , Dan Duquette, Steve Phillips, Jim Bowden, Randy Smith--did I forget anybody? The idea that you are going to turn over the reigns to some guy that most roto GMs could swindle the pants off of is obsolete or becoming so. Teams are starting to turn to men who have an approach based on factual information: Beane, Theo Epstein, J.P. Ricciardi, and their ilk. And you still have the traditionalists who do a decent job: Brian Sabean, Brian Cashman, Pat Gillick (until he forgot how to make a mid-season trade), and John Schuerholz.
Don't get me wrong, there are still a good number of bunglers about. Omar Minaya gets a free ride with every terrible trade because he's tied to the Expos. The guy goes through talent like Rush Limbaugh goes through pills. Milwaukee's Doug Melvin just exiled its best player, Richie Sexson, for a collection of Arizona's problematic players. It was like one of those ridiculous roto trades where an experienced GM fleeces a first-timer. The only difference is it would have been vetoed by another GM in a roto league. Talk about getting a Melvin. And then there's Ed Wade, who I'm still not convinced is anything more than a corporate shill. Jim Hendry, Chuck LaMar, Allard Baird, Dan O'Dowd, and Joe Garagiola Jr. don't do much to impress. It's getting harder to even evaluate transactions because some are made solely for financial reasons. Look at Schuerholz dumping Kevin Millwood last year for Johnny Estrada. That's a ridiculously bad trade, but Schuerholz's hands were tied. He had to get rid of Millwood because of the money involved, and Estrada was the best he could do.
If you are talking about who gets it in general, I don't think any of us do. I know I don't. Some are worse off than others but it's just a matter of degrees. It reminds me of that Donald Rumsfeld pearl of wisdom about knowing your known unknowns but not knowing your unknown unknowns. I think that we either put too much faith in numbers or none at all. Like Lili Von Shtupp, we've had our fill from below and above. We, even we sabermetricians, use numbers out of context or assume that because we adjust for the league, era, park, etc. all things are equal.
We take OPS and divide it by the league average and then divide it by the park factor. OK, that's a great stat, but how do we know that we can compare accurately across eras, especially when OPS's meaning has changed over time. Using OPS+ for 19th century players, it looks like Lip Pike, Ross Barnes, Cal McVey, and Dave Orr were almost as good as Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire.
The Pythagorean winning percentage, which uses runs for and against to calculate the expected number of wins for a team is a great tool, but it can be swayed by a team that scores a lot of runs in just a handful of games. I did a study about this last year. The Red Sox expected won-loss was over 5 games higher than the actual, and by isolating 8 games in which the Sox won by over 10 runs, I accounted for the shortfall.
Even when you try to compensate via standard deviations from the norm, you get unexpected results. Rob Neyer did this with his dynasties book a few years back. He took leagues of different sizes and compared the best teams' standard deviations above the norm. Well guess what? The teams from the expansion era looked better than the '27 Yankees. That's because as you add more teams, your standard deviation gets smaller. It has to. So the 1986 Mets look really great. You can't compare standard deviations across populations of different sizes.
Anyway, stats are tools and we should treat them as such. Some are better for certain situations and some are not. Look at another tool, a hammer. It's a perfect tool for what it does, but it does diddly for screws.
RWBB: I feel humbled.
Mike: Oh, and I forgot to mention my friends, the owners. Most certainly the owners and their leader Bud Selig don't get it. They are more concerned with driving down players' salaries than with attracting fans to the sport. They thank that promoting the game is analogous to tinkering with the home field advantage in the World Series by giving it to the All-Star winner. This was their brilliant solution to the tied All-Star game. Everything is a reactive, band-aid response. Anyway, baseball has arguably the greatest player in its history playing today, Barry Bonds. And they have no idea how to promote him.
Baseball's stat arm, Elias Sports Bureau, doesn't get it either. They should have been pioneering the stuff that Retrosheet has been doing on their own dime. They should be making as much historical data, including starter-reliever splits for pitchers and situational batting for position players, as a service to the fans. They can charge for it. Just make it available. Until we have all that, statistical analysis will be fragmented and research will be difficult to impossible.
RWBB: All right, Mike. It's time to make you GM for a day. You've got a budget of $60 million and $10 million is reserved for backup players. Based on last year's salaries, put together the best team possible for 2004 at each of the eight positions along with five starting pitchers and one bullpen ace.
Mike: $50 million for eight position players, a starting rotation, and a closer? What about the team mascot?
RWBB: Take the Rally Monkey, please.
Mike: OK. If it's based on last year's salaries regardless of contract situation, etc., and expectations for 2004 alone, how's this for starters:
And I'll go with Albert Pujols as a DH in case we play in the AL. I'll get to shortstop and left field later.
RWBB: I see where this is leading.
Mike: Of those players, only Wells (about $500 K) and Pujols (under $1 M) make much more than the league minimum. With these 7 players we have used about $3 M.
Now, pitching. Eric Gagne is the obvious choice for closer. He makes about a half-million. Starters: Mark Prior ($1.5 M), Barry Zito ($1 M), Johan Santana, Carlos Zambrano, and Brandon Webb (all around league minimum). I'll even add Esteban Loaiza ($500 K) for emergency duty. That's about $4.7 million for 7 pitchers.
So now, we've used $7.7 million and have over $40 million left.
Now back to SS and LF: Barry Bonds, LF ($15 M) and Alex Rodriguez ($25 M). You've got an extra $2.3 million or so to spend on the bench and the minors and just signed the two best players as well as two of the most expensive. This team has All-Stars or potential All-Stars at every position.
RWBB: That's an awesome team. You might be able to afford the players on that budget. But how about your scouts? Man, those guys deserve huge raises.
Mike: I think this team would do pretty well for itself. 120 wins and a starting rotation that puts Palmer, McNally, Cuellar, and Dobson to shame are not out of the question.
RWBB: Switching gears here. In reviewing your "About Me" page, I noticed you listed Cal Ripken as one of the most overrated players of all time, yet you have included him on your all-time all-star team among players you have seen.
Mike: Ripken was a great ballplayer and he started a revolution in the way people view the shortstop position. That said, Ripken didn't save baseball. Jimmy Stewart plunged into those icy waters and saved baseball all those years ago before baseball showed him what life would be like without him and in turn saved him. Ripken had a lot of up and down years and he was just about an average hitter after turning 30. I think if he hadn't been a slave to The Streak, he would have been a more productive ballplayer all around. But then again, it's what made him such a big name.
RWBB: I was also fascinated to find out that Rube Foster and Monte Ward were two of your baseball heroes. Tell us about these pioneers.
Mike: John Montgomery Ward was just a larger than life personality that somehow got forgotten. He was a great pitcher and then when his arm gave out he became a great shortstop. That was just the start for him. He was a highly successful, Columbia-educated lawyer. He started the players' brotherhood that would eventually split from major league baseball and create its own league, the Players' National League, in 1890. He challenged the reserve clause decades before Curt Flood. He eventually bought an interest in the Braves and became their president. He almost became the NL president but lost by one vote due to old enmities. How bizarre is that? Imagine Marvin Miller being named commissioner now.
Andrew Foster is perhaps the most tragic figure in baseball history. He was the greatest African-American pitcher of his era and was in the top two or three in Negro League history. There are apocryphal stories of Foster teaching Christy Mathewson his famous "fadeaway" pitch. He then turned to managing and led one of the greatest black teams in history, the Chicago Leland Giants. Foster moved quickly into team ownership taking over the Leland Giants and winning a lawsuit from the ersatz team owner, Frank Leland, even though the team still bore his name.
Foster created the Chicago American Giants in 1911. He was a great innovator, employing any and all strategies to win a game. He was credited with inventing a number of them. He was also one of the most disciplined managers of all time. He was also a great showman, drumming up interest in his team as they traveled from town to town.
He, of course, founded and ran the first successful black league, the Negro National League, in 1920. But he had been invited to join other attempted leagues. He just wouldn't do it until the situation was right. He was adamant about all black ownership but was open-minded enough to include the Kansas City Monarchs with white owner J.L. Wilkinson in the NNL (and he had a white business partner on the American Giants). He had such a disciplined mind that he could remember the finances of the league down to line items like balls and such. I loved the NNL motto: We are the ship, all else the sea.
Foster was tragic, in the Greek sense, because his great mind was his eventual undoing. He went mad dealing with the incongruity of being arguably the best person on the planet in so many facets of the game and yet not being able to compete at the highest rung because of something he had no control over and couldn't change--his skin color. Just imagine Christy Mathewson, John McGraw, Bill Veeck, and Ban Johnson merged into one. And yet the powers that be in the Hall didn't see fit to honor him until the early Eighties.
RWBB: Thanks, Mike. You are truly a baseball historian extraordinnaire.
Check back on Sunday for Part Two of the interview. Mike is going to tell us which players should and shouldn't go into the Hall of Fame.
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