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interview_with_sky_kalkman_sabermetrician_and_manager_of_beyond_the_boxscore | June | 2009 Articles

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Interview with Sky Kalkman, Sabermetrician and Manager of Beyond the Boxscore

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I conducted a lot of interviews in March and April -- including luminaries like Rany Jazayerli and Jim Callis -- but until our recent interview with beermaster Paul Philippon, we hadn't had one in quite some time. Beyond the Boxscore is one of the most interesting baseball blogs out there, with idiosyncratic and always interesting sabermetric analysis of players and teams around baseball. Sky Kalkman writes for and manages the blog, and he answered a few of our questions about the Braves. 

1. First things first: in the past week, the Braves have added two players to their 25-man roster who would seem to be a substantial improvement over the people they're replacing. Tommy Hanson slots in at 5th starter, after subpar work from pitchers including Jo-Jo Reyes and Kris Medlen, and Nate McLouth slots in as the center fielder after Jordan Schafer whiffed his way back to AAA. Two questions. How much better are Hanson and McLouth than the players they replaced?

I wrote about Jo-Jo earlier in the year as someone whose ERA deserves to be better than it is, based on strikeout rate, walk rate, etc. While posting ERAs of 5.81 and 7.00 in 2008 and 2009, his tRA suggests those should have been more in the 4.75 to 5.00 ERA range. That's 4th starter or good 5th starter material, which, well, is what it is. I'm not sure what the Braves plans for him long term are, but unless he becomes a lights-out reliever, he'll have more value at the end of their rotation.That being said, Hanson has a much higher ceiling and if the Braves are going to leap-frog two good teams -- the Phillies and Mets -- they're going to need to play lights out the rest of the way. Solidly above average just won't cut it. Plugging Hanson into the rotation is one step towards that upside possibilty.
Of course, all the smarter projection systems have him sitting at around a 5.40 FIP this year, so expecting big results isn't the smart money. To answer your question, Hanson, right now, shouldn't be expected to be much better than what Jo Jo's skills indicated he would have done the rest of the way. But on the chance he matures quickly and lives up to his potential in 2009, it's the smart move. As for McLouth, yes, he's a definite upgrade and the Braves definitely should have ditched... Jeff Francoeur or Garret Anderson. I mean, just looking at 2009 stats, Schafer actually has a better wOBA than Francoeur and is only ten points behind Anderson. You can argue both veterans should be expected to improve (Anderson more than Francoeur), but the same argument can be made for Schafer, who also has a much better track record than his current stats indicate, albeit in the minors. Plus, and this is important, Schafer's the only center fielder of the bunch. McLouth is pretty bad in center and is probably more of an average corner outfielder. You wouldn't dare try either veteran in center.
If I were the Braves, I'd keep Schafer in center, put McLouth in a corner spot, and platoon Francoeur/Anderson in the other corner spot. Not only does that optimize the defense -- Schafer is 10-20 runs more valuable defensively than anyone else -- but you're not actually sacrificing much on offense. Over the life of McLouth's contract, the less he plays center (meaning the Braves have someone else competent in center) the more games the team is probably winning.

2. Will the boost that the Braves will get from McLouth and Hanson in the lineup be enough to allow them to contend in the NL East, where the World Champion Phillies and perennially contending Mets both have significant edges in the standings and in payroll?

Going into this season, I put all three teams in a virtual dead heat, so even without those two guys I thought the Braves had a shot. Now that they're down 5.5 and 2.5 to the Phillies and Mets respectively, their mission is a lot more difficult, obviously. Adding McLouth is probably a three win upgrade when you account for platooning Frenchy/Anderson, but as I pointed out above, Hanson isn't really an expected upgrade over Jo Jo. If he turns into a 4.00 ERA guy, though (which he can do), that's a different story, and is probably worth another win or two the rest of the way. Is that enough to make the playoffs? Probably not, but they'll certainly be in the race until September. Baseball Prospectus' post-season odds of a 15-20% shot at the playoffs sounds about right, with about half that probability coming from Wild Card possibilities.
3. The Braves are 15th in the majors in OBP, but 26th in the majors in homers. (Despite being 15th in OBP, they're 23rd in runs.) Is it possible for a no-homers offense to score enough runs to stay competitive?

You know, that's a great question, and I just don't know. It's certainly something that could be researched fairly easily, but it's just beyond my analytic chops (at least given the amount of time I'd want to dedicate to it). I'm not worried that there's any special problem with being a no-homers team beyond the bigger problem of no-homers implying no-runs. If the team can hit for average, take a walk, and run the bases well, it can at least put up *some* runs so that the pitching and defense can carry them to a playoff spot. But quantifying all that would be quite interesting.
The good news is that while the Braves likely won't lead the league in homers the rest of the way, they should hit them at a higher rate than they have so far. The first base power situation isn't pretty, but McCann, Chipper, McLouth, and a the veteran corner outfielders should all see increases in their home run rates.
4. There's been a heated debate in the blogosphere recently over the relative merits of Jeff Francoeur, and whether anyone else should try to acquire him. The Royals and Red Sox are both rumored to be interested. In particular, Rany Jazayerli (whom we've interviewed on this blog) thinks the Royals should take a flyer; Joe Posnanski thinks that's insane. What's your take? Does Jeff Francoeur have any value left? How much value would a team be justified in giving up to take a flyer on him?

Right now, at his established level of performance, he has zero value. Well, maybe a touch if used as part of a platoon. But based on (long-)past performance and natural talent, it's certainly possible he can improve. Being a saber guy and saber being a method of analysis that's more about results than processes, I wouldn't claim to know the chances that Frenchy figures it out again or what situation would make that scenario most likely. I do think he's more likely to figure it out again somewhere else than as a Brave, so any sort of return would be a bonus.
5. Many Braves fans, on this blog and others, have started to question whether Bobby Cox should still be the manager. His questionable in-game decisions, from intentional walks to sacrifice bunts to double switches to bullpen management, seem to look worse with greater frequency. Is there any way to measure a manager's effectiveness and when it would be a good idea for a team to consider switching managers? With the exception of the 2003 Marlins, is it ever a good idea to switch managers midseason? When should Bobby go?

Jeff (TucsonRoyal) over at BtB has started a project he's calling a "manager's scorecard", which contains some rough tools for rating a manager. But in order to really critique them appropriately, you have to account for every sort of context of every IBB, ever y sac bunt, etc. Even just using run expectancy matrices isn't enough, because you need to know platoon effects, the speed of the runners on base, the talent of the pitcher, the talent of the hitter, the talent of the pitchers in the bullpen, the talent of the hitters coming to the plate, etc. (etc. etc.) And even a moderately bad manager will only cost his teams a few wins over the course of the season. 
To me, a manager can have a larger effect on how his players perform in all situations. Figuring out the mechanisms of motivation, coaching, etc. is really tough, but if Cox's leadership style and coaching knowledge bumps up the production of a few of his players, that's pretty important.

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