Evaluating Future Stars in Baseball and Basketball

Today I want to talk about three young “stars”: Cameron Maybin, Kevin Durant, and Jamario Moon.

A Star is Benched in Detroit

Cameron Maybin was selected out of high school by the Detroit Tigers with the 10th pick in the 2005 Major League Baseball draft.  Maybin was one of the very top talents in that draft, but the signing bonus demanded by Maybin ($2.65 million) caused him to slide to the Tigers.

The 18 year-old spent much of 2006 in Class A baseball. And it was in Class A where he began the 2007 season.  After posting a 0.883 OPS with Lakeland, though, he was promoted to Erie and Double A ball.  In his first 20 at-bats at Erie he hit four home runs and his OPS stood at 1.58.  Consequently the Tigers rushed him to the big leagues, where he made his debut on August 17th

In his first game in a Tigers uniform he went 0-4 and struck out twice. The next day, though, he faced future Hall-of-Famer Roger Clemens.  In the 5th inning of that game he deposited a Clemens pitch over the fence in the deepest part of center field.  And a star was born.

Well, at least that’s what people thought.  Maybin continue to play, appearing in twelve games from August 17 to September 2.  Here is Maybin’s stat line after these first twelve contests.

At-bats: 38

Hits: 6

Home-runs: 1

Batting Average: 0.158

OPS: 0.554

In sum, Maybin’s numbers suggested quite strongly that he was not helping the Tigers win baseball games.  Consequently from September 2nd until the end of the season, Maybin had only 11 more at-bats. When the season was over his batting average stood at 0.143 and his OPS was only 0.473.  And the home-run off of Clemens in his second game turned out to be the only time he went deep.

At this point Maybin is still considered a future star by the Tigers.  But he is not expected to start the 2008 season in Detroit.  No, he will go back to the minors.  If he performs as expected, he will return to the Tigers eventually.  Of course, that’s a big if.  If Maybin doesn’t perform as expected he will join the long list of players who looked like future baseball stars, but just never developed.  And if that happens, we have seen the last of Cameron Maybin in a Tigers uniform. 

A Star is Anointed in Seattle

Now I want to contrast the Maybin story with what we have seen from Kevin Durant.  After fourteen games, Kevin Durant is scoring 18.9 points per game.  But his scoring is not a result of his ability to get the ball to consistently go in the basket.  From two-point range he is only hitting 43% of his shots. From beyond the arc, where he launches nearly five shots per game, he is only successful 28% of the time.  In addition, Durant is prone to turnovers and well below average with respect to assists. In essence, once the ball gets into Durant’s hands it is often turned over to the opponent or an errant shot is launched in the direction of the basket.  Given this propensity to return the ball to his opponent without scoring points, it’s not surprising that Durant’s WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes] currently stands at -0.056.

In baseball – as we saw with Maybin – such a performance would land you on the bench.  Durant, though, doesn’t play a sport where players are evaluated primarily on the numbers.  Durant plays a sport where if you score points (and look “good”), you keep playing.  So far Durant has started every game and has averaged 34 minutes per contest.  In fact he’s averaging more minutes than every other player on Seattle’s roster.

The Tigers sat Maybin because players who can’t produce will cost your team victories.  The same is also true for Durant and the Sonics.  Currently Durant is on pace to play 2,800 minutes this season.  An average shooting guard would produce 5.8 wins in that time.  Durant is on pace to produce -3.2 wins, or nine fewer wins than an average player at his position.  To put this in perspective, if all of Seattle’s players were average (and they are not), the Sonics would finish with only 32 wins just because Durant has played so badly. 

Now it’s possible that Durant will play much better as the season progresses.  But what we have seen so far is less than wonderful.  Again, if this were baseball I suspect Durant would be sitting a bit more often.  I certainly can’t imagine a baseball team giving its worst hitter the most at-bats.  Or its worst pitcher the most innings pitched.

A Lesser Known Star in Toronto

Okay, enough on Durant.  Let’s turn to a player who entered the league with far less fanfare.  Few people took notice when the Toronto Raptors signed the undrafted Jamario Moon this past summer.  But after a few weeks of the 2007-08 season it looks like Moon will easily produce more wins this season than Durant. In fact, Moon might have already produced more wins than Durant will in 2007-08.  After just ten games Moon has produced 1.4 victories. Durant is going to have to improve substantially to match that total this season. 

Moon is not a scorer.  He only averages 8.7 points per game and his shooting efficiency is only about average.   Moon makes up for his lack of scoring by being well above average with respect to rebounds, steals, and blocked shots. Consequently this small forward has posted a 0.239 WP48 [average is 0.100].  If he continues to play 29 minutes a night he will play about 2,250 minutes before the season is over.  If his per-minute performance continues, he will produce 11.2 wins, or about 6.5 wins more than an average small forward would offer in Moon’s time. 

Again (as I seem to say in each column I post in November) it’s early.  Moon could fall apart in the next few weeks and be out of the league by February.  Durant could suddenly start performing like the player we saw at Texas last year.  Still, in about the same time it took the Tigers to send Maybin to the bench, we have seen evidence that Durant should no longer be considered The Choice for Rookie of the Year.  And maybe Moon should be getting a bit more consideration.  I can’t help think, though, that even if Moon and Durant keep posting the same numbers, Durant will still get more consideration for the All-Rookie team (selected by the coaches) and Rookie of the Year (selected by the media).  And if that happens, what will that tell us about talent evaluation in baseball and basketball?

– DJ

Our research on the NBA was summarized HERE.

The Technical Notes at wagesofwins.com provides substantially more information on the published research behind Wins Produced and Win Score

Wins Produced, Win Score, and PAWSmin are also discussed in the following posts:

Simple Models of Player Performance

Wins Produced vs. Win Score

What Wins Produced Says and What It Does Not Say

Introducing PAWSmin — and a Defense of Box Score Statistics

Finally, A Guide to Evaluating Models contains useful hints on how to interpret and evaluate statistical models.

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