SSSS (small, stupid sample size)

hit bears repeating that spring training is a small sample size. not only is it a small sample size - with no cardinal pitcher throwing more than kyle lohse's 25.2 innings, and no cardinal position player getting more than daniel descalso's 67 PAs -- it's something more. some of a pitcher's spring training innings will be thrown in split squad games against the 4th string catchers and high-A center fielders that round out the bottom of other teams rosters. some of a position player's plate appearances will come against a pitcher who's more focused on seeing if he can make his curve snap with his new grip, or whether he can learn to throw a slider from a 3/4 arm slot, than in just trying to get the batter out. so 50 PA's in spring training, or 20 innings in spring training actually tell you LESS than 50 PA's in the regular season, or 20 innings pitched in the regular season, because the competition will be so uneven from one game - or one inning - to the next.

spring training is not just a sss (small sample size). it's a ssss (small, stupid sample size). so, be careful what conclusions you draw from spring training.

so, when you talk about the difference between matt carpenter's outstanding spring training - 1.166 OPS - and erik komatsu's still nice, but more ordinary spring training - .727 OPS - you're talking about the difference between 19-for-50 and 14-for-50 (with 6 walks versus 4 walks). the biggest difference came in the XBH category - 9 doubles, a triple, and 2 HR for carpenter versus 2 doubles and 2 triples for komatsu. the fact that carpenter actually got more hits for extra bases than singles is pretty amazing. but still - it's just spring training. the real test will be to see if that power carries over to the regular season. if carpenter really has discovered some meaningful power in the off-season -- which seemed to be his major task on the offensive side -- he will have gone from being a nice starter to an outstanding talent. but i would like to see more than spring training verify his conversion.

as the sample sizes get smaller, other striking numbers are even more ephemeral. tony cruz hit a respectable .765 OPS, getting 9 hits in 27 ABs. bryan anderson put up an amazing 1.282 OPS, getting 11 hits in 23 ABs. but look closer - you're talking about the difference of two more hits, three more doubles, and 4 more walks, in the exact same number of PAs. the margin between excellent performance and so-so performance in spring training can be tiny, when using rate stats. the effect of the ordinary luck of batted balls and the vagaries of umpiring - not to mention the unique spring training luck of whether you face the AA non-prospect reliever or the top pitching talent - makes these sample sizes pretty meaningless.

dr. strangedinger, or how i learned to stop worrying and tolerate scott linebrink's continued presence

don't get me wrong, i'm not saying he's going to be good. but there's an angle of interest on scott linebrink that's worth looking at, and from that angle, he may not be terrible.

let me start out by saying, there are lots of reasons to think linebrink may be terrible.and there are lots of reasons why he pushes all of VEB's buttons. he's old, for one. he's replacing eduardo sanchez, who is going to return, hopefully promptly. he had a fairly bad season last year.

perhaps most importantly, he looks really bad by our conventional metric, FIP. he had a 4.30 FIP last year, a 4.81 the year before, and 4.61 the year before that. sounds like a pile of suck.

but wait, as they say on the infomercials. his xFIP is slightly more interesting and slightly less full of suck. last year, his xFIP was 4.18, the year before 4.12, and the year before that 4.14.

even that is not particularly good, and moreover, the continuing pattern of xFIPs lower than his FIPs -- which means he is giving up more home runs each year than one would think he should -- is probably a sign that he's just not good at keeping the ball in the park.

here's where it gets interesting.

linebrink's major problem is home runs. until last season, he'd gone four straight seasons with HR/9 rates of 1.45 or worse. that's pretty terrible.

he's actually not bad at striking people out, although he had a minor dip last year. this year the projection systems like him for about at 7.5 K/9 rate. to give some perspective, that's worse than jason motte did last year, and a little better than mitch boggs did (and much, much better than kyle mcclellan did). his walk rate is not great, but not appalling. the projection systems all like him for a 3.20-3.30 BB/9. that's a tick worse than mitch boggs. so, really, when we leave the home runs out of the picture, he looks something like mitch boggs - if you squint a little. not great, but not horrendous.

so, the real question is -- how much of his terrible home run rate is due to linebrink's (lack of) skill, and how much to other factors?

well, the first thing that might jump out is that he spent 2008-2010 as a chicago white sock. and chicago's US cellular field is one of the worst fields in america in which to be a flyball pitcher, if not the worst. in 2010, US Cellular was the worst park of all 30 for giving up home runs. it had a home run factor of 1.545 -- meaning that for every two balls that would leave a neutral park, THREE would leave US Cellular. chicago was only in second in 2008 and 2009 with ranks of 1.194 and 1.353. and linebrink was terrible at home, giving up 18 homers at home, versus 12 on the road in those three years. applying the park factors, you'd expect that linebrink would've given up 6 fewer homers in those three years, had he been pitching in a neutral park -- that is, he would have given up 20% fewer home runs.

the magical thing is that he's not going to a neutral park. he's going to busch stadium which is the third or fourth pitcher-friendliest park in america with regard to home runs. over the last three years, busch has a park factor that runs around .75, meaning that for every four home runs that leave a neutral park, only THREE would leave busch. if you take the mean of the park factors for busch (~.75) and of US Cellular (~1.35), you see that linebrink would give up 70% more homers in US Cellular than at busch.

now, he wasn't just a white sock. last year, he was in a pretty fair park in atlanta. he gave up six home runs, but according to home run tracker, 3 of the 6 were "just enough" homers. that is, they were hit just high enough or hard enough to leave the park, as opposed to "plenty" or "no doubters." so, it may be that luck continued to play against him in atlanta. or, it is a very real possibility that he's just not very good anymore.

now, the most troubling thing to me is that linebrink clearly had a down year in 2011. he walked more people than usual, and struck out fewer than usual. if he were 28, you'd just assume he'd bounce back and the down year was nothing more than statistical variation. however, when a pitcher gets well up into his 30's, the likelihood increases that any decline is indicative of a problem, rather than mere random variation. and we've seen enough of late-30's, early-40's relievers staying on a season or two too long in the last year or so (miller, rhodes) to know what a collapse can look like.

there are certainly some red flags out there, but linebrink could show up and start striking guys out at a nice clip, walk fewer batters, and, most importantly, see more of his long fly balls end up in jon jay and matt holliday's gloves than in the stands.

to the extent matheny can plan bullpen usage, he might try to keep linebrink's opportunities at home rather than in an unfriendly environs like wrigley or GABP, as linebrink is probably the reliever most vulnerable to the long ball.

and again, i don't want to oversell my theory. a reliever with a 4.15 FIP is not exactly tremendous. and i cannot assure anyone that linebrink is not on a serious age-related downturn. but i can see how a deal with the cardinals might be a very good fit for linebrink. and i can see how luck and home park have badly affected linebrink's outcomes.

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