Saturday, March 31, 2012

Hilariously Inaccurate

            Something I have learned while writing history papers is that if you have already decided what the evidence will show and what your conclusion will be before you even begin researching your world will not completely collapse. It will, in fact, be remarkably easy for you to write a quote-filled, argumentative paper that seems to prove exactly what you expected. This monumental success can be had by any researcher and writer so long as they are willing to sacrifice but too inconsequential things: quality and accuracy.

            In baseball writing, as in historical analysis, this easy tradeoff is made all too often. This is not entirely a bad thing, after all, baseball reporting does not attempt to define patterns of human existence, and the choice of topics and opinions are necessarily subjective. The evidence used in support of these positions should not be subjective, however, and it is the lack of subjectivity in the presentation of “evidence” that dooms the reactionary forces of Old School Baseball.

            The statistics used to describe the game are so varied, expressive and complex that presenting evidence in an attempt to back one’s own argument is remarkably easy. Thus, it is somewhat of an indictment of the entire human race and the American educational system that Jerry Thornton, a reporter for WEEI (Boston), compiled an article attacking Sabermetrics two years ago in which he presented evidence that directly disproved his argument.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Five Statements

            The best way to illustrate the lack of objectivity in Old School Baseball is to play my new favorite game: Guess Who Said It!  

            The rules are simple, I will present a quote pulled from the greatest site on the web: It will be filled with irritating bias and clichés. And you will pretend to guess which of the legion of virtually identical commentators said it. The purpose of this exercise, as you might imagine, is not to win the grand prize (a lifetime supply of dirt stained David Eckstein jerseys) but to realize how astoundingly repetitive and pointless these clichés are.

1)    Sometimes home runs are rally killers, because they clear the bases.”

2) “...the scrappy Theriot would just as soon tells those statistics to shut up. Theriot doesn't hate baseball, but the stats-oriented crew probably can't find much love for him. Theriot is one of those throwback players who'd rather get his uniform dirty than impress the pencil pushers at Baseball Prospectus.”

3) "Those intangibles ARE important. To hear people downplay them, means to me that they don't understand them. The computer age that we are in does not look for intangibles or reward them or recognize them."

4) "(Jeter) has intangible qualities that can't be measured with statistics."

5) "I believe that there is too great a reliance on statistical forecasts; too little on judgment. We all know the old one about lies, damned lies and statistics, and I do not wish to condemn statistics out of hand. Those who prepare them are well aware of their limitations. Those who use them are not so scrupulous. The truth is that statistical results do not displace the need for judgment, they increase it. The figures can be no better than the assumptions on which they are based and these could vary greatly. In addition, the unknown factor which, by its very nature is incapable of evaluation, may well be the determining one."

Now guess.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Intellectual Rigor

So much is written about baseball on a daily basis that it is sometimes difficult to keep up with the impressive variety of idiocy and brilliance that is produced. From the perspective of the increasingly shrinking bastion of Joe Morgan-style Old School Baseball, the parade of statistics and the objective approach to baseball that they require and reinforce is classified as idiocy. All too often the language used by these “experts” is so manifestly illogical and poorly thought out that it is easy to dismiss their claims that stats created by the crouched denizens of mother’s basements everywhere detract from the majesty and mystery that is baseball.

            Yet not all of the rhetoric employed by the self-appointed keepers of the keys of baseball knowledge is so readily dismissed. Quite often their arguments contain some semblance of truth, and the fracturing of sabermetrics orthodoxy in recent years has given these arguments credence. When Moneyball first emerged the sense throughout the sabermetrics community was that there were several immutable laws of baseball optimization: stats trumped scouts, BABIP was luck and there was nothing anyone could do with defense. As all of these assumptions were modified, weakened and eventually entirely reshaped through experience and research, the cry of the old guard that the judgments of scouts and old baseball men were valuable came to seem more credible.

            Quite simply, the fact that Sabermetrics has come to embrace certain elements of Old School Baseball is not a sign of the weakness of the Sabermetrics approach, but of its strength. Like any intellectual discipline: biology, genetics, economics, but obviously far more important than those examples, the search for objective baseball knowledge has progressed and evolved over time. Researchers have delved deeply into the numbers that have been accumulated over the last few decades and improved their analyses. From VORP to WARP to WAR the metrics used by the community have grown more precise, all encompassing and challenging. Where new evidence flew in the face of principles of Sabermetrics orthodoxy, the evidence was decried, tested, tweaked and accepted. And so, slowly, Sabermetrics has grown to consider scouting useful, high school prospects interesting and UZR, DRS and TZL to be partial solutions to the eternal problem of defense. Thus, some aspects of the discipline have come to agree with Old School Baseball. Sabermetricians have tested their theories and now advanced statistics are more broadly accepted within baseball than ever before.

            You will not, no matter how hard you search, find such rigorous self-scrutiny on the part of Old School Baseball adherents. They will not test their theories of grit and hustle and intangibles against facts and data. This reluctance is not caused, as it would at first seem, because they are well aware that the facts and data will not agree with them, but because such an analysis simply would never occur to them. This is because Old School Baseball, as a method of analysis and an overall worldview is not an intellectual discipline. It contains none of the best attributes of Sabermetrics: objectivity, intellectual curiosity, and openness.

Old School Baseball has heart, and as Tim Kurkjian has said, “Baseball is a game of intangibles,” so perhaps that is enough. It certainly is for them; for many in Old School Baseball Marty Noble is right in saying that “computers have contributed to a current glut of statistics that, to a degree, distort the picture. We have so many now that we lose focus on what is most important.” Yet to many in the baseball community the statistics are what are important. Not important in and of themselves, but important when they acquire the power of language, and speak articulately about the character of baseball.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

A James Shields Changeup

March 15, 2012

There is absolutely nothing wrong with liking baseball for the statistics. Statistics are entirely inextricable from baseball, they are the core of the game and provide meaning to otherwise obscure events.
            Consider that you are an uninformed observer at a mid-August game against the Rays, perhaps dragged to the game by your significant other for his birthday. James Shields is on the mound and he stymies your team through six innings. Then, he gets into trouble, a few hits drop in and Shields walks a batter to load the bases. As an uninformed observer you can read the tension in the building; the budding enthusiasm of the home fans who know that with the bases loaded and no one out their team stands a good chance of scoring a few runs. As an uninformed observer you might notice Shields return to throwing from the windup, or you might not, you certainly see Shields buzz 91 mph fastballs past the batter for strikes one and two. The fans recover, some who are inconveniently located directly in front of you stand up and wave signs. Shields throws a pitch that registers at 81mph on the scoreboard, the batter swings through the pitch and ends up in the other batters box before he can arrest his momentum. The entire crowd is deflated, and some turn to each other and shake their heads, muttering words like “unhittable,” “pulled the string,” and “Big Game James.” As an uniformed observer, these phrases, particularly the last one, are remarkably confusing. Even more confusing to you is how a slow pitch that didn’t seem to do anything particularly exciting could excite such a near-universal reaction of disgust tinged with admiration.

To the well-informed baseball fan, however, each event on the field is accompanied by the whispered context of the game’s history and statistics. These whispers do not appear distinctly or even consciously. They are instead summoned into the mind of the baseball fan by every twitch of the pitcher, every action and reaction on the field, mixed together and half apocryphal, these whispers give drama and meaning to baseball.

Shield’s masterful change-up, his superb control, his fluctuating relationship with balls in play… all these factors are immediately apparent to the well-informed fan. When Shields gives up two bloop hits the whispers of his BABIP issues comes to the fore. The ill-timed walk is even more meaningful to the fan who knows how rarely Shields surrenders a free pass.

The change-up is what separates the true baseball fan from the uninformed observer. Or rather, it is not the change-up itself, but what the change-up represents. James Shields has one of the best change-ups in baseball- 4th best over the last three years to be precise. Thus, for the fan that knows how good James Shields’ change-up is, the three-pitch strikeout is not an isolated example of physical dexterity and mental trickery. It is instead James Shields, recently christened “Big Game James,” deploying his most dangerous weapon to combat the evil luck dragons that had conspired against his ERA in seasons past.

Bill James would say that that change-up gains the power of language when its proper context is understood. To an uninformed (uninitiated would be a more accurate term) observer, 81mph and strike three are just numbers, James Shields is just a name, and bases loaded is a phrase overused by popular culture. To the rest of us, that change-up is baseball.
The Cry of A Sabermetrician

March 15, 2012 

            The baseball season never ends. Not these days at least. Spring Training flows smoothly into the Regular Season, which proceeds for six months with only one three-day break; a break that is now required to be a classic, not a respite. The regular season then transitions into the postseason, now a month-long classic driven by viewership demands to last deep into October.

Then, the Hot Stove Season begins. The Hot Stove Season comes into spontaneous existence the moment the last out of the World Series is recorded, but in an absurd ritual, the various networks and websites insist on spending a week fêting the newly crowned champions and pretending that the fans of the other twenty-nine teams actually care how they feel about finally winning it all. Then, once the midmarket team that everyone with a monetary stake in the playoff television ratings now despises has been suitably interrogated, dissected and dismissed, the real Hot Stove Season can commence. Hours of speculation, top ten prospect lists and sightings of this year’s disgraced former superstar/revealed steroid user cannot approach the excitement of the Regular Season.

Thus, the first day of February is met with a plethora of articles pining for those four inestimable words: “pitchers and catchers report.” Spring Training has become such an institution for true baseball fans and moneymaker for Arizonans and Floridians that it is difficult at times to remember that what occurs on those sun-destroyed fields is neither meaningful nor entertaining. Traditional baseball fans soak up the banter and gossip about the battle for the Cub’s fifth outfield spot with all the enthusiasm of a newly minted second lieutenant told that the artillery will flatten the wire and his men should walk across No-Man’s Land. (There’s my cynical military history education for you.)

The desolation of the Hot Stove Season makes the incessant workouts and the split squad games seem fun, meaningful. The pointless statistics produced during spring training games present a tantalizing paradox for the sabermetrically inclined baseball fans. On one hand, these sabermetricians are so starved of new inputs at this point in the baseball cycle that they are desperate to embrace any numbers so long as they are accompanied by an acronym or percentage sign. Yet their sabermetric souls, their bastions of inner reason and objectivity cry out against such statistics.

“Park effects!” cries the bereaved Fangraphs writer as the couple in the row behind him remarks about how many homeruns Travis Ishikawa has compiled in the last two weeks.

“Inconsistent competition!” cries the desperate Hardball Times writer as he attempts to convince the man beside him in the Rangers hat that Nelson Cruz’s .500 batting average is not a sign that he is “peaking after thirty.”

Back at the hotel, a young man who comments incessantly on Hardballtalk whenever Ryan Howard’s RBI’s are mentioned weeps the immortal refrain of the sabermetrician into his thin pillow: “small sample size.”

Despite the pain and anguish that the annual pilgrimage to Spring Training entails, these men and women put in the effort every year because the month of March is actually the worst month of the baseball year. It is not the dog days of winter that suck the soul out of a baseball fan, it is the hollow statistics of Spring Training that can drive a baseball fan, sabermetrically inclined or otherwise, to do something crazy like predict a Pittsburgh World Series appearance.

The only difference is, the sabermetricians are painfully aware of every moment of their month of torture, while the traditional fans have evolved mentally to the point where watching Emmanuel Burriss bat third for a team claiming to be the Giants seems like fun.