Saturday, July 14, 2012

Failing at Baseball Writing in the Old-Fashioned Way

Players who bunt, hit sacrifice flies, and steal bases are given the benefit of the doubt by the baseball press. Perhaps it is because they always appear to be trying so very hard, while stately sluggers are always walking or trotting around the bases. Ever since Moneyball (the book) came out, profile pieces about this sort of player have typically been accompanied by some sort of backslap at sabermetrics, always in the form of irritation with these newfangled mathematics for not seeing proper value in the author’s scrappy subject.

Marcus Hayes’ column about Juan Pierre for the Philadelphia Daily News provides a perfect specimen of such a work. All the clichés are there: bunting practice, a physical defect to overcome, having to fight through some form of baseball adversity, people from the south… Normally I would not deign to refute these concocted storylines, for such pabulum is the preferred fare of the vast majority of baseball writers. In this case, however, I am unable to restrain myself, for in addition to these harmless clichés, Hayes misinterprets and misuses sabermetric statistics on a level so basic and straightforward that his actions border on tragedy.

After Pierre assaults sabermetrics, or “cybergenics” as he calls them, for not properly appreciating his contributions on the field, Hayes produces an example from the sabermetric field that niftily proves his point:

“In fact, Pierre's sabermetric WAR-wins above replacement, the gold standard of metrics - stands at 1.4 this season.
Which, according to one pocket-protected website, rates him as a ‘scrub.’”

The “pocket-protected website” from which he retrieved the statistic, is I discovered this by looking up JuanPierre on both baseball-reference and, the homes of two dueling types of WAR and seeing which one had valued Pierre at 1.4. It did not take me long to do so, but then, I spend an embarrassingly large plurality of my spare time on these sites and was able to navigate them successfully. By neglecting to provide a link to the requisite page, or even naming the site that he then proceeded to demean and insult, Hayes failed in his duty as a journalist to cite his sources and allow his readers to check his work.

Hayes’ trivialization of sabermetrics aside, the true idiocy of his argument comes from his misuse of the statistic that he so readily derides. Wins Above Replacement (WAR) is a deceptively simple statistic. It measures the contributions of a player to his team above that which a freely available replacement from the minor leagues would be able to provide. To that end WAR includes the player’s offensive, defensive and baserunning contributions. The fangraphs and baseball-reference versions of WAR for position players function on the same principle and merely use different styles of fielding metrics (pitching is a different and altogether more complicated issue).

Now here comes the part Hayes didn’t really think through. Baseball-reference provides a helpful key, explaining in very simplistic terms what levels of performance different WAR values coincide with:

“8+ MVP, 5+ All-Star, 2+ Starter, 0-2 Substitute, < 0 Replacement level player”

Based on this key alone, it would appear that Hayes is indeed correct, the pocket-protector-platoon has failed to value Pierre’s contributions properly as it ranks him as a mere substitute player, a scrub as he puts it.

You might have already noticed the problem: that helpful key is meant to be applied to a full year’s performance. The inclusion of MVP as a category should really have clued Hayes into that fact. Pierre has complied 1.4 WAR in a mere 262 plate appearances (PA), less than half of what would be considered a full season! According to WAR, if Pierre were to double his plate appearances over the remainder of the season, to end with 524 PA (a respectable if somewhat low total for a full season), he would produce 2.8 wins for his team and be considered a solid regular producer, even a minor star!

Quite simply, by failing to take the time to understand the sabermetric realm, Hayes compromised his own argument and, even more tragic, missed the chance to write a truly original piece that could have presented sabermetrics and “scrappy” baseball players as part of the same game. As all people who take the time to play, watch, write about, and discuss baseball are equally in love with the game, such a discussion would have been powerful and, perhaps, even therapeutic for the fragmented baseball public.

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