Monday, June 25, 2012

How To Analyze a Baseball Player

Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News chose to analyze Michael Young this afternoon. Specifically, he chose to discuss the recent calls from the sabermetric, and observant, circles of the baseball world, which have been calling for Michael Young to be removed from the Fifth spot in the lineup. He chose to do so by discussing statistics that Michael Young has produced in this year and in years past, as well as the performance of his peers in important situations. By doing so he upheld the required traditions of the sports-writing profession:

He presented statistical evidence
He interpreted it
He offered his conclusions

And, in the finest tradition of the sports-writing profession, he defiled those concepts with a thoroughness and rapacity that would amaze and disgust the most virulent trumpeter of calumnies in the Roman Senate of Antiquity.

Let us, the discerning sabermetric public, analyze the five points that he presents from the perspective of someone without a deadline to meet, an agenda to fulfill and a locker-room to gain access to.

  1)    “Young’s track record is that he hits.”

Grant’s first point is somewhat longer in actuality, but the entire argument can be rendered in this single declarative phrase. And he is, in the strictest sense, correct. Michael Young, as a player of the batting/fielding persuasion in the sport/game known as baseball swings his bat at the onrushing ball and makes contact 83% of the time (a full 3% of the time above average for his career). To be more specific, Young has, for his career “hit” exactly 5% better than the average major leaguer. When he was a decent fielding shortstop that made him a minor star. As a defensively challenged designated hitter, his career rate would make him a below average player. His production THIS SEASON = 30% BELOW average, makes him a bad player.

  2)    Whether he puts up the typical numbers of a No. 5 batter or not, Young is the Rangers’ veteran leader.

Questions of clubhouse leadership aside, suffice it to say that this quote was written about a man who publicly complained about team management and demanded a trade when he was replaced by a superior player not once but twice. That he has been feted instead of disemboweled by the national sports media speaks to their remarkable penchant for terming white infielders scrappy leaders regardless of their on or off the field performance.

  3)    No Replacements”

The title of the third section of Evan Grant’s article is perhaps the most remarkably and obviously idiotic pair of words since “Mission Accomplished.” To claim that there are no replacements for Michael Young in the Fifth spot in the lineup requires a dexterity with statistics that would flummox most congressional chart makers. Mr. Grant does his best by explaining why Nelson Cruz, Texas’ slugging right fielder, and decidedly not the best statistical choice to move up in the lineup right now (that would be Mike Napoli), would fail at the role:

“For his career, Cruz is a .253 hitter with an .819 OPS. In the sixth spot it’s .862 and in the seventh spot it’s .928. When the Rangers’ lineup works right, it’s most dangerous because Young does his thing in the fifth spot and Cruz and others do theirs lower in the order.”

Notice that Mr. Grant is not arguing that Cruz has struggled with runners in scoring position this year, he hasn’t, or that he has hit worse than Young historically, he hasn’t (14% above average for his career versus Young’s aforementioned 5%). Instead, he trots out Cruz’s statistics based on where in the lineup he is hitting. Now let me be clear, I believe that Young should bat lower in the lineup because the fifth spot comes to bat more frequently than the seventh or eighth spots, where his production suggests he belongs. I do not believe that a player’s production is adversely affected by what spot they are placed in, as Mr. Grant seems to most fervently believe. Or if so the decrease in production caused by a player being in these “high-pressure, run-producing spots” is more than outweighed by the additional at bats that the better (if supposedly stressed) batter receives.

Mr. Grant’s fourth point so depresses me as to the state of statistics in baseball reporting that I am not sure if I can go on. I shall, however, because evil must be opposed… even when it is incredibly tiresome to do so and the evil itself has no real effect on the lives and livelihoods of human beings.

Here it is, quoted in its entirety:
  4)    Grade on the curve: Young is hitting .200 with runners in scoring position since May 1. That’s very out of character and ranks in the bottom 15 among 79 AL players with at least 40 plate appearances with runners in scoring position. But, here are guys who are batting less in the same period with RISP: Alex Rodriguez (.196), Curtis Granderson (.190), Derek Jeter (.171) and Robinson Cano (.156). For the year, Young is still at .269 with RISP, a touch better than Cruz (.268) and significantly better than Ian Kinsler (.254) and Napoli (.231). Offensive numbers are down all across baseball.”

Instead of using florid prose to convince you of the idiocy of this statement, I will simply list things that are wrong with it:
A)   Arbitrary starting point of measuring period. (baseball players, unlike May Flowers and April Showers, are not affected by when months begin and end)
B)   Cherry picked statistics: Young is batting .200 with runners in scoring position… and on a 2-1 count Young is batting .227… you now know just as much about Young’s hitting this year as you did when you read Grant’s statement.
C)   Cherry picked comparisons: Rodriguez’s, Cano’s and Jeter’s batting averages have nothing to do with the discussion, and by admitting that Cruz’s batting average with runners in scoring position effectively disproves his point, as if Cruz is a better hitter overall, and a better hitter in the clutch, then… #clubhouseleader, debate over.

Number 5 makes little sense from a statistical, logical, baseball, or strategic perspective, here it is in its entirety:
  5)    The Angels aren’t doing any better: The Angels split the No. 4-5 spots between Mark Trumbo and Kendrys Morales. Morales is hitting .269 with RISP for the year, tied with young. Since May 1, his OPS of .533 with RISP is worse than Young. The Angels aren’t panicking and stay on a stalking pace with the Rangers. For the year, Morales has shown a tad more pop than young, but the numbers are otherwise similar. Why should the Rangers be the ones to break stride and make a change. They are leading this race.”

After conveniently ignoring the slugging ways of Trumbo moments after mentioning him, Mr. Grant chose to excoriate Kendrys Morales and his .533 On-base+slugging percentage with runners in scoring position (since May 1).

Putting aside the fact that over the season as a whole, with runners in scoring position Morales beats Young in terms of OPS .683 to .644, I would like us all to merely appreciate that Evan Grant actually knows what OPS is. That does not redeem him or his writings, I would merely like it to be noted that Evan Grant knows what OPS is.

I am enjoying the small sabermetric victories today.

From a strategic standpoint, if your primary opponent chooses to do something that hurts them, you do not have to match their self-destructive tendencies point for point. For the same reason that Francisco Pizarro did not give up his artillery and arquebuses when he battled stone-sword waving Incas, the Rangers should not bat a bad hitter fifth just because the Angels have been batting a mediocre hitter fifth from time to time.

Evan Grant used statistics, he interpreted, and he drew conclusions, but at no point did he do so correctly, and everything he did was colored by bias. In short, this was not how to analyze a baseball player.


  1. The short of it seems to be that Grant likes Young and wants to keep him batting fifth, regardless of all else.

    The point that really matters here is how much is owed to a batter for past performance when the time comes that the batter no longer performs at a previous level.

    Young had had some good, even great, years for the Rangers but has shown decline this year.

    Like it or not, "Winning Baseball" is a game of "what have you done for me lately?" and Young is no longer doing the job.

    1. What it comes down to is deciding when a players stops slumping and starts sucking. Anyways with how good the Ranger's lineup is several player could sit comfortably in Young's spot.