Buster Olney strikes again

Joe Christiansen passes along a tidbit from Buster Olney's ESPN blog, where Olney wonders if Johan Santana, at age 29, is already past his prime.

Personally, I've never been much of a fan of Olney, despite his very high standing in the baseball writing community. Even so, I can't take much offense at his conclusion, as passed along by Christiansen:

This question remains: Will he be worth to the Mets what they will pay him over the duration of the contract? We’ll see.

Well, for starters, I can't really take much offense because there isn't much here to take offense to -- Olney doesn't even have the confidence in his analysis to make a definite statement that Santana either will or won't be worth his contract at the end of his seven year deal. The strange thing is, though, if Olney did say that Santana wouldn't be worth his contract at the end, I couldn't really argue with him: while we're able to project careers better than we have at any other time in baseball history, and we're in an era where ballplayers are playing effectively much longer into their careers than they normally have, it's impossible to say with any confidence precisely how Santana will be pitching six years from now, which is the main reason why the Twins were so reluctant to sign him to the long-term deal he wanted. It doesn't matter who'd make that argument, be it Olney, Aaron Gleeman, or Stephen A. Smith -- if you have to choose 'will he or won't he be worth the money at the end', the odds are he probably won't.

The problem I have with Olney isn't so much his writing, or even his conclusions -- it's that he sometimes tries to be a newer-model sportswriter, aware of and even able to use statistical and sabermetric analysis in his work, yet he almost always ends up botching the analysis because Olney tends to use statistics, to borrow a phrase, the way a drunk uses a lamppost -- for support, not illumination. (For example, consider Olney's season-and-a-half long quest to get Productive Outs accepted in the baseball and sabermetric communities, despite almost universal disdain for the stat in the latter community.)

Olney provides two pieces of information -- one traditional, one sabermetric -- to back up his assertion that Santana ain't what he used to be. The traditional information is that Santana's fastball is slipping in velocity; an observation that Olney notes has been confirmed by other major league scouts who have written him since he first published that Santana was losing zip on his fastball. I can't argue with that observation; I'm not a big-league scout and I don't have access to a radar gun (unless you count the one on Gameday webcasts that seems to be ridiculously out of calibration at times).

The other piece of information Olney supplies is a comparison of Santana's numbers from this season as compared to previous seasons, and that's something I can make an argument against. Olney shows the following numbers...

With that said, here are the primary indicators:

  • Opponents’ OPS over the past six seasons: .607, .642, .564, .594, .616, .678. This year: .723.
  • His ratio of strikeouts per nine innings over the past six seasons has been 11.38, 9.61, 10.46, 9.25, 9.44, 9.66. This year: 7.79.
  • His strikeout-to-walk ratio over the past six seasons: 2.80, 3.60, 4.91, 5.29, 5.21, 4.52. This year: 3.87

...and clearly wants you to believe that they are conclusive. They certainly look damning, to say the least. Of course, if you're a Twins fan who's watched Santana over the past few years, you may have a tickling little doubt at the back of your brain, as I did: hasn't Santana historically been less than himself in April and May, and wouldn't quoting this season's numbers be just quoting numbers from April and May and comparing  them to full seasons' worth of numbers where we know Santana has pitched better?

Yes. Yes it would be. In Santana's career prior to 2008, he's been 25-19 with an ERA of just over 4.00 from the start of the season through May 31; from June 1 to the end of the season, he's 73-28 with an overall ERA of less than 3.00.

So how do Santana's numbers so far this year compare to his overall numbers in his career, looking just at April and May?

Opponent's OPS:
This season - .723
Overall April/May, not counting 2008 - .747

Santana's K/9I:
This season - 7.79
Overall April/May, not counting 2008 - 9.4

Santana's K/BB:
This season - 3.87
Overall April/May, not counting 2008 - 3.59

So, this season's OPS is actually better than his career average for this time of year, while his K/BB ratio is better than his career average. The K/9I ratio is clearly down, which might be related to the observational drop in Santana's velocity; on the other hand, the overall numbers include all of Santana's relief appearances, where a pitcher's K/9I ratio tends to be higher. (In the interest of fairness, it would take a lot of work that I'm just not up to right now to separate all of Santana's relief appearances from the overall numbers, and removing every season where Santana made no more than one start in a month actually causes his career K/9I ratio to go up, not down.)

So Olney's watered-down conclusion is impossible to argue with, but would be hard to argue with even if he took the obvious stance, and his observation that Santana's velocity is down does seem to be validated by his K/9I numbers compared to his career numbers during the same period of the season. On the other hand, Olney's statistical argument that this means Santana may be in decline at age 29? Much less credible. After all, Santana's ERA in 2008 is also lower than his career average in March through May (though ideally you'd adjust both sets of numbers for park effects and league effects and possibly even use a defense-independent ERA measure, it's still clear that Santana isn't pitching significantly worse by an ERA measure).

It seems much more credible that each of the following is true:

- As an East Coast writer, Olney never really paid much attention to Santana until it was clear that Santana was in the Cy Young race, and thus either never noticed his tendency to start slowly or never made much of it.

- Olney looked at the numbers, found a few that supported his argument,
and simply stopped looking.

Have I ever made an argument, looked for a few numbers to support my position, and stopped looking? Sure -- I'd guess we all have. Then again, most of us aren't being paid to write credible opinions, nor are we likely to be quoted by Joe Christiansen even if we do.

Then again, it is his blog, not an essay for the Journal of the Society for American Baseball Research, so maybe I should cut him some slack.

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