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Kevin Slowey was Framed!

Introducing the Gagne Threshold

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Originally posted at Kevin Slowey was Framed!

The most recent episode of Gleeman and the Geek touched on a familiar topic for Twins fans. The middle infield has been a consistent area of need for the Minnesota Twins, since the days of Greg Gagne and Chuck Knoblauch. It was discussion of Gagne that specifically interested me. I remember Gagne as a kid. He was a player that I never really thought a whole lot about. Now that I am older, I understand his value. The Twins haven't had a consistent shortstop since the days of Gagne. In the coming weeks, I want to investigate just how rare good middle infielders are. Are the Twins in a unique situation, or are most teams in consistent need for quality middle infielders?

I want to focus on this quandary from a few different angles. This week, Greg Gagne is my muse. How rare is a player like Greg Gagne? I intend to find out.

We need to start with some GAGNE FACTS!

  • Greg Gagne debuted in 1983.
  • Gagne played 1765 games at shortstop.
  • In his 15 season career, Gagne accumulated an fWAR of 26.1
  • At his peak, defined as his best 5-year stretch, Gagne had an fWAR of 15.0.
  • Gagne posted three seasons with an fWAR greater than 3.0.

Let's talk WAR for a bit. WAR is not a perfect stat. WAR has major limitations. The fact that three different sites have their own version of WAR and they do not match up is troubling. All that being said, I like WAR. In my opinion, WAR is the best way to look at the overall value of a player and compare that value to other players. In addition, the comparisons translate to past eras, which is very useful when looking at players from the 80s and today, like I did here. WAR includes offense, defense and baserunning. Many do not trust the defensive metrics, but I don't trust your eyes.

I couldn't tell you how WAR is calculated. Think about all the things you use on a daily basis that you would have no idea how to construct, create or compute. I use an electric toothbrush a few times a day and I have no clue how to put one of those together. Does that mean I shouldn't use it? I don't think so. I trust people who put more time into innovation to create things that I do not need to understand or create on my own, but still plan to use. WAR is one of those things for me.

I chose to use FanGraphs' version of WAR for this study.

Back to the research. I used GAGNE FACTS! to define some research terms. I wanted to find how many middle infielders were Gagne or better. FanGraphs.com helped me create a custom spreadsheet for middle infielders who debuted in 1983 or later. I defined a middle infielder as a player who played more games in the middle infield than any other position. I made one exception (Alfonso Soriano) because he provided so much value at second base early in his career. From there, I included only players who could match or exceed Gagne's career fWAR, his 5-year-peak fWAR, or are active players with three seasons greater than 3.0 fWAR (pro-rated based on how many seasons the player has actually played). I call this the Gagne Threshold.

The result is this spreadsheet. I included wOBA, Fld, and BsR. wOBA is a great measure of offensive production. It is much better than OPS because the importance of each type of hitting result is weighted properly in line with their actual run value. Fld is the fielding component that FanGraphs uses for WAR and BsR is their baserunning component. You can see just how good each player is in each area, with these segmented numbers.

I found 63 players who met the Gagne Threshold. 33 primarily played second and 30 primarily played short. Basically, there have been 62 players as good or better than Greg Gagne (Gagne makes 63) who have debuted since 1983. Perhaps Greg Gagne is even more special than I thought. I wanted to look at some data related to these players, so I looked up whether they had been drafted or signed internationally. Here are a couple of facts:

  • 42 of these players were drafted and 21 were signed internationally
  • Of the 42 drafted, 29 were drafted out of college and 13 were drafted out of high school
  • 18 of those players drafted were selected in the first round
  • 12 players were selected in rounds 2-5

Out of curiosity, I looked to where these players were from. Here are the most common results:

California Dominican
Republic
Florida Venezuela New York Puerto Rico North Carolina
13 11 5 5 4 4 3

Back to the original premise. 63 players in 30 seasons is roughly 2 new players per season. If only two middle infielders are added to the quality player pool each year, it would stand to reason that many teams are looking for middle infielders. 35 players are active, which might indicate an uptick in the talent pool, but many of these players have not reached any sort of career Gagne Threshold, but simply have a few good seasons early in their careers. They may never have another good season, then drop out of this pool. Regardless, there aren't many quality middle infielders to choose from. Here are debuts by year:

Number of Debuts by Year (* not possible based on Threshold)
1983 3 1993 0 2003 3
1984 0 1994 1 2004 1
1985 0 1995 4 2005 5
1986 4 1996 3 2006 6
1987 0 1997 3 2007 2
1988 2 1998 2 2008 2
1989 1 1999 1 2009 2
1990 2 2000 3 2010 2
1991 1 2001 2 2011 *
1992 5 2002 3 2012 *

There isn't a pattern, but the 80s certainly look leaner than the 90s and 00s. It does appear that there are more quality middle infielders entering the pool in recent years. Add in young, promising players who have not qualified or have large chunks of their careers remaining, and you could see this pool expanding in the coming years. The question remains, is this a Twins issue, or a league issue?

Here is a team chart:

Team Signed/Drafted Peaked With
Arizona 1 0
Atlanta 5 4
Baltimore 1 2
Boston 4 3
Chicago C 1 1
Chicago W 2 2
Cincinnati 1 2
Cleveland 1 4
Colorado 1 1
Detroit 0 2
Houston 3 1
Kansas City 1 0
Los Angeles A 3 2
Los Angeles D 0 1
Miami 2 3
Milwaukee 2 2
Minnesota 2 3
New York M 1 1
New York Y 4 3
Oakland 1 1
Philadelphia 2 3
Pittsburgh 2 2
San Diego 4 1
San Francisco 1 4
Seattle 5 2
St. Louis 1 1
Tampa Bay 0 1
Texas 2 4
Toronto 4 3
Washington/Montreal 6 4

The Nationals franchise leads the way with 6 players, while Detroit, the L.A. Dodgers and Tampa Bay have zero. From there, I looked at when these players reached their peak. I didn't necessarily mean their best season, but more or less when they became a notable player. Atlanta, Cleveland, San Francisco, Texas and Washington/Montreal had 4 each, while Arizona and Kansas City had zero. Basically, the Twins do struggle to find quality middle infielders, but this seems to be more of a talent pool issue, rather than a Twins ineptitude issue. At least, that is how I see it, as no team is miles ahead of the Twins.

Interestingly enough, many of these players who were traded while very young, netted big name players in return. Here are just a few players that these middle infielders helped bring back in trades: Bert Blyleven, Randy Johnson, Fred McGriff, Josh Beckett, Mark Teixeira, and Scott Rolen. Not bad.

There is much more to this story. The Twins are in a 20 year Gagne Threshold drought, but does that mean the middle infield has been a constant gaping hole?

In the near future, I want to look at each individual season from 1983 to 2012. How many good middle infielders were there in each season? Who were these players and why didn't they all reach the Gagne Threshold? I'm already working on another spreadsheet, and I am excited to share it with all of you.

Comments

  1. Jim H's Avatar
    Let's talk WAR for a bit. WAR is not a perfect stat. WAR has major limitations. The fact that three different sites have their own version of WAR and they do not match up is troubling. All that being said, I like WAR. In my opinion, WAR is the best way to look at the overall value of a player and compare that value to other players. In addition, the comparisons translate to past eras, which is very useful when looking at players from the 80s and today, like I did here. WAR includes offense, defense and baserunning. Many do not trust the defensive metrics, but I don't trust your eyes.

    I couldn't tell you how WAR is calculated. Think about all the things you use on a daily basis that you would have no idea how to construct, create or compute. I use an electric toothbrush a few times a day and I have no clue how to put one of those together. Does that mean I shouldn't use it? I don't think so. I trust people who put more time into innovation to create things that I do not need to understand or create on my own, but still plan to use. WAR is one of those things for me.
    I find it troubling that people will use a stat that they do not understand. How can you say it is the best way to compare players when you don't understand how it is created? People on this site argue about stats and their sigificance all the time. And that is about stats that they understand.

    People use WAR because it is easy to use. The idea is that somebody can take a bunch of stats, weigh them according to the value THEY PERCEIVE them to have, and then combine them into one number that allows you to compare players from disparate eras playing different positions with roles that have changed over the years, and actually have that number mean something? All that and you don't even know what stats the various sites are using and what weight they are giving to each stat.

    WAR isn't really a stat. It is a convenient fiction that allows people to do some things that would be difficult to do with real stats.
  2. The Wise One's Avatar
    "Better than Gagne" using war. Accumulaed WAR? average WAR/year? Did better one time than than Gagne ever did? This article makes as little sense as what the guy who used to post on Yahoo wrote.
  3. The Wise One's Avatar
    It is as good as tool as the one Thyrlos designed for starting pitchers.
  4. Brad Swanson's Avatar
    A couple things.

    I do know how WAR is calculated and I do understand how it works. I said I couldn't explain it, but maybe I should have simply written that I won't explain it. I chose not to explain WAR because it would have doubled the length of this post. I did want to address the concept of WAR and explain why I use it. I find issues with the stat, and I was very up front about that. However, I stand by its use and I think it is a good tool to evaluate players. I can understand why some would prefer to use a stat without fully understanding how it works, especially a stat as complicated as WAR. Thus, my toothbrush example.

    Also, I think this measure makes good sense and I apologize if I did not explain it better. Basically, I wanted to find players who had careers similar to Gagne's or peaks similar to Gagne's or who seemed to be on an equal or better career path to Gagne. In this way, I was able to discover just how few players actually reach the level of a player that I don't think many realized was as special as he was.

    Finally, when we get to a point in society where we can seek to understand things better rather than attack other people for their ideas, we will have a much better Twins site and a much better society. I can handle criticism and I am happy to respond to it. I know there are flaws in my logic at times and I am working to be a better communicator. However, there are good and bad ways to frame an argument. If you find something you don't like about my information, please tell me. It isn't just about me either. I see plenty of people on this site who get major criticism for their ideas or ideals. Maybe that is just the way the internet works, and there is nothing that can be done about it. I will say, no one wants to feel personally attacked and no one should be personally attacked on a baseball website.
    Updated 03-02-2013 at 12:13 PM by Brad Swanson
  5. Jim H's Avatar
    I am sorry you perceive it as a personnal attach. But using a one number to compare players playing different positions from different eras has so much margin for error in it as to be almost completely meaningless. At least that is my perception.

    You did say in the original post that you did not know how WAR was calculated. Now that is quite a bit different from not wanting to explain it because it is complicated. You also said there at least 3 different versions of WAR with strikingly different numbers. So there is no standard way to calculate it. You picked one because-why?

    This is the reason I have trouble with these new stats. You are taking or perhaps asking other people, to take on faith that these stats really mean much and the calculations actually lead to what they purport to represent. The problem is they are taking the original stats(which all have flaws) weighing them in some porportion which might distort them even more, perhaps leaving out stats that might even be more useful and creating one number. Now I understand why people use them, and I appreciate your disclaimer. But other than as fun and simple way to look at and compare players, it isn't very useful. It is also likely to be very misleading.

    Finally again, I am not attacking you personally. But I really think if you are or anyone is going to use these new stats, they better understand them, completely. They also better be able to defend them, because I feel they often lead to some very misleading conclusions about various players.
  6. The Wise One's Avatar
    You would not get "criticized" if you worked on your writing before you put it out there. Run it by someone before you publish. Then you do not have to apoligize for putting out ill defined ideas.
  7. Jim H's Avatar
    One last thought on WAR. A major component of WAR is UZR. I dislike UZR because I believe the whole concept backing UZR is flawed. UZR gives a grade to every play a fielder makes. That grade is based on where the ball is caught. There are adjustments based on how hard the ball is hit and the handness of the batter. The problem with the concept is that where the ball is hit has no real correlation to how difficult the play is. That depends on where the fielder started from. Fielders position themselves differently for every hitter, often making further adjustments based on the pitcher, the pitch, the count, the number outs, the score, etc.

    The whole idea that a ball hit to a particular part of the field has the same difficulity no matter who the batter is just wrong. Clearly Thome and Revere would be positioned entirely differently even though they are both left handed hitters.

    There, I hope you understand where I coming from, even if I am a old, cranky man.
  8. Brad Swanson's Avatar
    Jim - I apologize for the insinuation that you had attacked me personally. I responded to two thoughts at the same time, which was lazy and irresponsible. I think your original argument and subsequent follow-ups are logical and well-reasoned. I completely understand why you do not like WAR and I can fully appreciate that.

    You make some great points about the fielding component and that is definitely where WAR can get a bit fuzzy. I would agree with your point about positioning as well. I can't say for sure that UZR is accurate. For me, WAR is the best measure that we have to compare a player like Greg Gagne to someone like say, Rafael Furcal. If something better comes along, I'll gladly use that instead.

    Wise One - Fair enough. I thought this through carefully and thought it made sense. Obviously, my work is always going to make the most sense to me. If I failed here, then I failed. I can accept that.
  9. Oldgoat_MN's Avatar
    The calculations to arrive at WAR are sure to be refined over time, but I think it has clear value.

    It appears that MI is an ongoing issue for all MLB teams. An excellent fielding SS who can hit well is sadly rare. I suppose it's helpful to know the Twins aren't the only team struggling at MI.

    Gagne was special. A guy you could really count on.
    And some of us remember Zoilo Versalles. He was fun to watch.
  10. Jim H's Avatar
    Brad, I owe you an apology as well. I guess it seems to me that WAR is the new hot stat, and it is clear far too many don't understand its limitations or even acknowledge that it might have some.

    Many of us are drawn to baseball in part because of stats and their historical importance to baseball. I enjoy reading well researched stat based stories. I didn't mean to imply your story was lacking in those areas. But I will say that I don't have much faith in conclusions based on WAR. For all the reasons above, and maybe a few I didn't get around to stating.

    And the general premise of the article. Yes, the Twins have not had many outstanding middle infielders. A few at 2nd, headed by Carew and Knoblach. I remember Versalles as well. 1965 was special, he deserved the MVP award. Gagne and Smalley are really the only other shortstops that were noteworthy for more than a season or 2.
  11. Brad Swanson's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by Jim H
    Brad, I owe you an apology as well. I guess it seems to me that WAR is the new hot stat, and it is clear far too many don't understand its limitations or even acknowledge that it might have some.

    Many of us are drawn to baseball in part because of stats and their historical importance to baseball. I enjoy reading well researched stat based stories. I didn't mean to imply your story was lacking in those areas. But I will say that I don't have much faith in conclusions based on WAR. For all the reasons above, and maybe a few I didn't get around to stating.

    And the general premise of the article. Yes, the Twins have not had many outstanding middle infielders. A few at 2nd, headed by Carew and Knoblach. I remember Versalles as well. 1965 was special, he deserved the MVP award. Gagne and Smalley are really the only other shortstops that were noteworthy for more than a season or 2.
    No need to apologize at all! I appreciate the discourse and I am definitely starting to think about other potential ways to follow up this same idea.
  12. John Bonnes's Avatar
    It seems to me you were very clear on your criteria:

    "From there, I included only players who could match or exceed Gagne's career fWAR, his 5-year-peak fWAR, or are active players with three seasons greater than 3.0 fWAR (pro-rated based on how many seasons the player has actually played). I call this the Gagne Threshold."

    Was the 3rd Twins player Bartlett?
  13. glunn's Avatar
    It seems to me that Brad must have put a lot of effort into this blog,and a few of the responses have shown little respect for that effort.

    Most of our members are not professional baseball writers, but we want to encourage people to be creative and put their ideas out there to be discussed. When another member is clearly trying his best to provide an interesting blog, please respect the effort that went into it and try to be constructive in your criticism.

    Personally, a lot of this blog exceeded my statistical vocabulary, but the parts that I did understand were very interesting to me, particularly the analysis about how it's not easy to acquire Gagne level middle infielders. I am grateful to Brad for his hard work and hope that he posts more soon.
    Updated 03-05-2013 at 02:14 PM by glunn
  14. Brad Swanson's Avatar
    Yep, Bartlett was the third Twins player. He actually had a really nice 5-year peak.

    And thank you, glunn. I appreciate the kind words and I am glad you enjoyed the post!
  15. ALessKosherScott's Avatar
    I think the problem for using WAR with a player like Gagne is that the play-by-play data to create an acurate UZR didn't exist until 2002. Since so much of Gagne's value is in his glove and that's where his WAR value lies.

    But it 's an interesting read and the point is clear that developing a good shortstop is hard to do.
  16. Brad Swanson's Avatar
    I would fully agree. The total zone rating that is used for WAR prior to 2002 really likes Gagne's defense. I think he was 6th in that span, behind guys like Ozzie Smith, Cal Ripken and Omar Vizquel. Of course, the way TZ is calculated is not perfect. It does seem to confirm some form of the eye-test though.
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