Saturday, January 02, 2010

Chapman and International Free Agents

Aroldis Chapman, a pitcher out of Cuba, has reportedly caught the attention of at least three teams in the American League East and seems to be on the verge of landing a fairly lucrative contract.  I wanted to just briefly comment not so much on Chapman but much more generally on international free agents.

Most readers who have read our materials over the years know that I highly value statistical information.  I  often remind readers that this does not mean viewing statistics to the exclusion of scouting information.  In other words, at the purest level, statistics are anything which can be quantified.  For example, a pitcher's average velocity can be quantified into a statistic even though that information is widely viewed as scouting information rather than statistical information.  A player's height and weight, even, is another statistic and I wrote about this particular example a few years ago in an essay called Size as a Statistical Field.

There is one area, though, where I am often challenged to make a reliable forecast and that is when a player comes over from a foreign league and gets consideration for a major league job.  The challenge isn't so much that we can't get a reliable scouting report.  In this era, there is not only often a surplus of information on the Internet about just about every player who's even thinking of signing a contract but usually even video in actual competition if you dig hard enough.

The challenge is translating this scouting information into a forecast in which you can be confident.  This is because when I'm building most forecasts, the usual scouting information can be used in tandem with a much more reliable series of performance outcome statistics (i.e. what we often refer to as the "results" rather than the skills) accumulated in an environment for which we are comfortable translating data to a neutral major league environment.  The days of being completely unable to interpret Double-A data, for example, are long behind us and it's not coincidence that while many of the forecasters out there have different methods for translating minor league statistics, we all come up with a fairly consistent reading of what a player's minor league performance would have looked like had he been in the majors instead.  We may not always agree on what that means for his future but we do tend to view those past performances in pretty much the same light.

This brings me back to Aroldis Chapman.  We do have data on him, albeit limited, and we all had the opportunity to see him pitch in the World Baseball Classic.  But two games do not usually make a meaningful scouting experience and when we do eventually publish a forecast for him, assuming he signs with a team willing to show him the fast track to the majors, any forecast we publish will have the most limited of reliability.

Today's entry isn't so much to tell you that we don't know how Chapman will do.  Rather, it's to remind readers that the vast majority of international free agents are absolute crapshoots, especially when you're dealing with fantasy leagues.  Everyone wants to be the fantasy owner who managed to pick up Ichiro or Hideki Matsui when they first arrived in the majors.  But for every one of these who comes to Major League Baseball from an outside league and has immediate success, there are so many who take time or never pan out at all.  Daisuke Matsuzaka was as close to a sure thing as you can get when he first arrived in Boston and while he did have an excellent 2008 season (18-3, 2.90 ERA in 167.2 innings), to get that year if you went after Dice-K from the moment he arrived in the majors, you would have had to settle for a more ordinary 4.40 ERA in his first season and then a fairly miserable 2009 campaign right after the 18-3 year.  If you have had Kendry Morales stashed away since he first signed with the Angels, even with his superb 2009 season, how much did it cost you to endure three whole previous seasons of carrying him on your roster as he battled it out in the minors?  Those are just random names I picked and there are examples covering the entire range of the success spectrum, going from immediate superstar to players who never panned out at all no matter how much time they got.

In short, I'm telling you that while it's fun to make a best guess for a new player coming over from an international environment, your fantasy league will not usually be won by having knowledge of such players.  That's because there is going to be at least one owner in every league who will overpay for such a player, either drafting him earlier than the risk would justify or overpaying in an auction simply because a big league team with lots of cash did the same.  That should not be you.  No doubt, we can guarantee that you will miss out on getting the next Ichiro.  But you'll also skip drafting the next Hideki Irabu as well.