Eric Milton, Park Effects, and Bad Contracts

Asher and Keith Debate

Fall 2004

 

Asher: I have given much thought to your comments concerning whether pitchers should be paid more to play for teams in hitters park vs. pitcher's parks, or vice versa. As I am sure you remember, you took exception to my notion that a pitcher should not be paid a lot of money to pitch in a hitter's park.

 

While momentarily flustered by your opposition, as it was quite vehement, I have since recovered and now, for the most part, stand by my assertion.

 

I would never, as a team, pay a bad pitcher good money to pitch in a hitter's park. And why would I? A bad pitcher in a hitter's park is the worst possible combination of attributes, with a good pitcher in a pitcher's park being the best possible.

 

 

In short, if I had a team which played in a hitter's park, I would pay top dollar to get a top flight pitcher, and probably stick to bargain basement pitchers otherwise. While Coors field is the most extreme version of this, I think the same stands for other hitter's park. If it is harder for a pitcher to succeed in a hitter's park, then I would only sign top pitcher's to big contracts because there is simply more value there.

 

Is the reverse true? Should a bad pitcher be paid good money to pitch in a pitcher's park? I don't think so. But, if I had a pitcher's park, I would be less inclined to throw big money at a top flight pitcher than if I had a hitter's park. The pitcher is simply less valuable.

 

 

So, my point about Eric Milton when I thought Cincinnati was a hitter's park remains - why would you ever pay a bad pitcher good money to play in a hitter's park? Not that he deserves good money to pitch in a pitcher's park, but rather it simply makes less sense to pay him big money the worse his situation is going to be.

 

 

I also think that you contested my assertion that Milton is a bad pitcher. Consider:

 

In his last four full seasons, his ERA+ has been 108, 105, 91, and 92. His actual ERAs over that period were 4.86, 4.32, 4.84, and 4.75. His career ERA is 4.76, ERA+ 99.

 

 

Last season, he set a career high for walks with 75, despite the fact that he only pitched 201 innings. His K/BB was a pedestrian 2.15. But his most glaring number was the 43 (43!) home runs he gave up, good for sixth all time.

 

Now, as it turns out, the GABP is actually more of a pitcher's park, so my analysis backfires onto me. Nonetheless, Milton is a bad pitcher who will making 25.5 million over three years. THAT is a lot of money or a guy who hasn't been much better than Jon Garland.

 

Keith: First of all, how can you use the phrase "only 201 innings" in this era? Milton (and Garland) are both big inning-eaters, which does add to their value. A 2.15 K/BB ratio is better than average. His 2.55 career mark is downright admirable. I did not realize that he was so prone to giving up homers . . . park size should be taken into account for him.

 

But on the larger issue, you're absolutely wrong. The Rockies tried to sign marquee pitchers to big contracts: Hampton, Neagle, Astacio, Kile . . . they all failed horribly. Yet guys like Joe Kennedy, Julian Tavarez, and Brian Bohannon had some success there. It seems to me that paying for an upper echelon pitching doesn't do squat for a team playing in an extreme hitter's park. And what in season did the Rockies make the playoffs? 1995, when they had 4 players hit 40 or more homers.

 

Now I'm not saying that the converse of your assertion is necessarily true (i.e. Rockies should go all out for hitters), but I'm certain that what you're saying is complete bafflegaff. Jeffrey Hammonds is no more valuable to the Rockies than he would be to the Giants; the Rockies can find someone of comparable skills to do the same job (remember Jay Payton?) and so can the Giants (anyone who can manage a .700 OPS). I'm not sure why you even bother to look at park adjusted stats if you don't think they mean anything. Eric Milton is just as likely to post a 99 ERA+ in a pitchers park as in a hitter's park. That's what the + means. That's the whole point. I don't care what team pays $8 million per year for Milton's services; they're all equally nuts. I suppose you could defend the Reds by saying that Milton immediately becomes the ace of that staff, but I don't see any reason to chastise them more than any other team that had offered the same contract.

 

Asher:

a) when I said "only 201 innings," I was referring to his home runs given up. Most players in that range of HRs given up pitched 250-350 innings. 201 is low for a player so high on the list.

 

b) his K/BB last season was .40 lower than his career total. Which way does it sound like his career is headed?

 

c) Any argument with respect to hitter’s parks and pitcher's parks will be skewed when Coors is the example - for that matter Astacio was never an elite pitcher and Neagle was a couple of years removed from any claim to being elite.

 

For that matter, lets not get too fired up about Tavarez, who in one season with the Rockies started 12 games and pitched 120 innings; Kennedy, who had a dandy year last year but still only pitched 162 innings, and Brian Bohanon, who has put up ERAs of 6.20, 4.68, and 7.14, while walking nearly as many as he struck out (265/209) and has given up 64 home runs in three seasons as a Rockie.

 

The analysis I had in mind has less to do with paying Mike Hampton to pitch in Coors and more to do with paying Curt Schilling to pitch in Fenway. Coors is and will continue to be a unique situation.

 

You argument with respect to hitters is tenuous because, again, you use the Rockies as an example. I think a better example would be paying left handed power hitters to come play in Yankee stadium because of the home run porch, or paying speedsters to come to St. Louis because of the turf and the size of the stadium (though this is a 1985 argument to be sure).

 

Fact is, Eric Milton gets a lot of innings, and gives up a lot of home runs. If I had a hitter's park, I would never pay a premium to him because I am not getting value in return. But, if I have a pitcher's park, and I think that neutralizing his propensity to hit home runs will make him a better pitcher, I would be willing to pay more money because he would be more valuable.

 

Why would you ever pay a premium to get a guy who probably won't succeed in your system, and why wouldn't you pay good money for a guy that you think will? These guys don't exist in vacuums - their success, and thus their value, and thus how much money they are worth depends in many ways upon external factors, including park size.

 

d) you park adjusted theory is, as you say, bafflegaff. It ignores the fact that he could be successful in one park, for one team, and not in another park for another team. If a home run pitcher pitched in a hitter's park with a poor defense (say, Fenway last year) behind him and posted a 5.00 ERA, then moved to a pitcher's park with a solid defense behind him and suddenly lowered his ERA to 3.00, these are not the same ERA+. A change in ballpark, defense, team, can change the whole story, not just adjust a pitcher's performance by the difference in park factor.

 

Surely you can see this!

 

e) We never disagreed that paying Eric Milton $8 million/year is nuts. You just disagreed with me that paying him that much in a hitter's park is crazier than in a pitcher's park. What Milton does well, which is simply eat innings, will be of more use to a pitcher's park team than a hitter's park team, and thus more valuable. But now I am just repeating myself.

 

f) I like your labelling of Neagle, Astacio, Hampton, and Kile as elite. Neagle and Astacio I have already dismissed.

 

The easy thing to miss about Hampton and Kile, and what makes them not elite, is their BB numbers. They both were pitchers who, even before joining the Rockies, suffered from high walk totals. Hampton even had mediocre K/BB totals. It would be difficult to look at these guys and call them elite, at least when talking about them joining the Rockies. I think a better example of what I am talking about would be the Red Sox signing Pedro.

 

Keith: Elite:

 

Kile was 3rd in the NL in ERA the year before he joined the Rockies. Hampton was top-5 in ERA in the two seasons prior to entering the realm of Coors Neagle posted ERAs of 3.55 or lower every year between 95-98, and still had a better-than-league average ERA the two seasons prior to joining Colorado.

 

I'll give you Astacio; he was never elite. He was actually darn effective for the Rockies too, which actually supports my point, just not the way I thought it did!

 

And since Colorado is the most extreme hitters park ever, shouldn't it be the most illustrative in proving my point?

 

If not, how about a healty dose of logic, mmm? If you argue that Milton, a home run pitcher, should not pitch in a ballpark that allows lots of home runs, I would tend to agree with you (although the aforementioned Curt Schilling, a home run pitcher, seemed to do pretty well in BOB). If you argue that Milton, a bad pitcher, should not play in any hitters park, you're bonkers.

 

Player salaries are a matter of supply and demand. The Dodgers, for example, could find dozens of mediocre pitchers able to post ERA's around 4.00 in their pitcher-friendly stadium, including Eric Milton.

 

Why would they pay Milton a premium to do what dozens of others could? If Milton rejected your low salary offer, then doubtless one of the other candidates would take it. The Rangers would be hard pressed to find anybody to post an ERA around 4.00 in their ballpark. Most pitchers will have ERA's around five, and Milton is no exception. So why would you pay Milton a premium to do what any other mediocre pitcher could?

 

The situations are the same! Each team would be equally silly to give Milton $8M, because there are pitchers who you could pay $2M to do basically the same job. Of course ballpark and defense affect pitchers, but they usually affect pitchers equally. Pitcher A is going to benefit from pitching in Safeco Field with all gold glovers behind him as much as pitcher B. The only exception would be in extreme cases. Instead of ruling out illustrative extreme cases like some might, I'll explore them. I have to admit, I was shocked to learn that Milton had the highest FB/GB ratio in baseball last year. This means that teams with spacious park dimensions and good defensive outfielders should have pursued him. He would have been an outstanding fit for the Mets, a terrible fit for the Diamondbacks (Cruz Jr. in center, huh?). But that is what you have to look at, not just "is he a good pitcher?"

 

You also cannot judge a player by just one stat. Bert Blyleven was a pretty good pitcher in '86 and '87 despite allowing 96 homers those two years, because his K/BB ratio was good. Nolan Ryan was excellent in 1977 when he walked 204 batters, because he rarely allowed hits or homers. Likewise, you cannot judge Milton just by his homers allowed (or Hampton and Kile by walks allowed).  

 

A pitcher who has lots of homers and lots of K's should pitch for the Giants, since SBC depresses homers and increases hits. A pitcher with a 5.00 ERA should not pitch for the Padres just because his ERA might go down a point. A pitcher with a 4.00 ERA might have his ERA drop one point as well. Let's try and sign the best pitcher for the least money, regardless of our home ballpark, okay?

 

Are we clear yet?

 

 

Asher: Surely you can realize that it is not always that simple. These days,  most of the pitchers in the league have at least one serious weakness, and the beauty of baseball is that a weakness can be minimized in one ball park or on one team while being maximized on another team.

 

Lets avoid the Rockies and Milton for a second, shall we . . .

 

Olympic Stadium and Jacobs Field both play like pitcher's parks for home runs and runs/game.

 

But Comiskey Park and the Angels Stadium both play like hitter's parks in both stats.

 

Is it really that surprising that Bartolo Colon, a guy with a propensity for giving home runs even with the Indians got his ass lit like a firecracker this year?

 

Network Associates Coliseum is 10% higher homerun/games wise than Pro Player, while about 12% higher for runs/game.

 

But Mark Redman gave up 12 more home runs after moving from Florida to Oakland this season, and his ERA went from 3.59 to 4.71. That is more of a drop than simply the 12% difference between pk factors. Ironically, his ERA+ changed by almost twelve percent, from 112 to 99. Under your theory, moving Redman would have resulted in an ERA drop of about the pk factor, since he is the same pitcher, and his ERA+ would stay relatively the same. Instead, he got lit like a candle on a park more friendly to home runs, and his ERA plummeted.

 

It seems to me quite silly to say something like "pick the best pitcher without reference to ballparks." You have to reference ballparks. The best pitcher available in one may quite possibly not be the best available in another . . .

 

You are the owner of a Major League Baseball team. You have limited resources.

 

You have not had very good pitching for several years. You are now ready to turn to a guy who will help your team for the next four years. And oh by the way, you play in a park which gives up a lot of home runs. You have money to spend on a mediocre pitcher who can nevertheless get innings for you. This being the era that it is, even the mediocre pitchers command decent money because pitching is a commodity and pitchers who can eat innings are not all that common.

 

There are two pitchers who get innings, but have mediocre ERAs and have had spotty success in the last few years. One of them has solid K/BB numbers, but is long ball prone. The other can get into a strike out guys with the best of them when he is on, and does not give up the long ball very often, but walks and hits batters like its going out of style.

 

You want the best return for the money, and in this market, you want to get a guy with a mid-range to long term deal. The pitcher market is inflated, with pitchers going for way more than they are worth (unless you lead the American League in ERA, W%, Ks, H/9IP, WHIP, and Shutouts, and win the AL Cy Young, in which case you get underpaid), so you have to pony up to get one of these guys. Who do you get?

 

You take the guy who does not give up home runs.

 

You know, its strange, but I also think that the Dodgers signing one of the most one-sided ground ball pitchers of recent times may not have been that bad (to the extent that signing Derek Lowe for 9/year could possibly not be an error). Dodger stadium is less than league average for Runs/game, but more than league average for HR/game. Which might mean that Dodger Stadium plays like a pitcher's park when the ball stays in the park, but a hitter's park with respect to home runs. Its a theory. I'm not married to it.

 

Keith: ---------------------R --- HR<

17 Angel Stadium (Angels) 0.972 1.062

18 Jacobs Field (Indians) 0.960 0.742

 

I probably wouldn't call Angel Stadium a hitter's park then Jacobs Field a pitcher's park in the same email. And if park factor was the only factor that determined

 

Colon's effectiveness, he probably wouldn't have had such a good season with the Sox in '03.

 

Similarly, it's not that hard to believe that Mark Redman got worse between the ages of 29 and 30. I mean, he might have declined the same way had he stayed on the Marlins.

 

The case of Milton vs. Lowe is an interesting one. I would pick Milton for the Reds because:

 

1) Milton is two years younger

 

2) Milton is more likely to return to his 2002 pre-injury form than Lowe is to his 2002 pre-inexplicable sucking form.

 

3) Despite Ken Griffey's overratedness, I would tend to put a little more faith in the Reds' outfield defense than their infield defense. Or, Lowe forces the Reds to use Lopez over Aurilia when he starts, and that obviously has offensive consequences.

 

In 2002, Eric Milton had a K/BB of 4 and a WHIP of 1.19. He was just perfecting the changeup that Brad Radke had taught him and seemed poised to have a breakout season. I don't remember what injury he suffered, but it's reasonable to believe that he wasn't 100% his first year back from injury.

 

Derek Lowe had a phenomenal season in 2002, then sucked dick the next two seasons, despite the Red Sox BUILDING THEIR TEAM AND THEIR DAILY LINEUPS AROUND THAT SONOFABITCH. He was given every chance to succeed, yet was only successful for about 10 playoff innings, which was enough to convince Paul "I.M.A. Genius" DePodesta to sign him to a $36 M contract. But I think that on the larger issue, we're at about the same place on how to take park factor into account

w/r/t free agent signings.