Thursday, January 3, 2008

Homeward bound…

Well, after about a week on the road that included an unsuccessful trip to Cooperstown to do research (they informed me the library would be open but neglected to mention that the archives room would not) I’ll be returning to the boonies of Eastern Ontario.

As to the Hall of Fame—the last three times I have been down there the research area has been locked. This was my fear about this trip and a phone call reassured me all would be well but nope—the reason for the trip would be off limits after all.

Here’s the thing, you can call the Hall and ask for research but it takes close to a year before they get the materials to you; if you decide to do it yourself they lock it down for the same reason gas prices take a jump. In other words they do it, but don’t expect a satisfactory reason for doing so. In this case, it was closed for the holidays but would re-open on New Years Eve.


New. Years. Eve.? Are they serious with that?

Look, either digitize the information in there and charging a fee for access or keep it open during regular hours. They needed two employees to work the cash register in the library and cannot spare one to make sure the archives room isn’t overrun by the Mongol Hordes.

I doubt they have a real problem with rogue thugs who get their jollies overturning filing cabinets. Yeah, I’m pretty ticked about this. It takes a lot of work to arrange things to get down there and there’s absolutely no guarantee that you’ll get what you come for. If they’re so paranoid about things getting damaged, ask for a deposit; if they’re worried about theft simply check the possessions of the persons using the room after they leave—make it a condition of using the area.

At the very least, make copies of the data and donate those to a local library or research center. Money is tight and I spent a fair bit to make the trip and it went for naught. Bottom line, if I decide to try again I will stop by the souvenir ship and purchase a bat before proceeding to the third floor. If it’s locked again, I’m not responsible for what happens. Deduct the costs of my actions from the money I’ve wasted going down there the last three times and we’ll call it square.

(shakes head)

I would like to say the following to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown N.Y.—thanks for nothing. If I get around to writing a book I’ll make sure they get a full mention in the acknowledgements section that states that it would have been finished much earlier except I needed to use the Hall of Fame.

(deep breath)

(exhales slowly)

Moving on…

I’ve decided to open the New Year by getting folks riled up on me by discussing my views on the sac bunt as it pertained to the 2007 Blue Jays on THT tomorrow. Yup, I’m still quite unrepentant about creating an unstable fecal-based weather system last summer. While I appreciate the study of sabermetrics and am grateful for more accurate ways to measure pitching and hitting, there is no way I’m changing my mind about the human element of the game.

The thing with baseball is this: it’s been often stated that it’s a game where something can happen on the field that has never occurred before. As Joaquin Andujar once memorably stated “youneverknow.” I cannot imagine that any mathematical matrix can account for all the variables that occur on the field—yet alone one that comes up with a hard-and-fast formula for success.

There are a lot of ways for baseball games to be won and lost. To state that any one approach is the Holy Grail for baseball success simply tells me that they have not been watching baseball long enough. Pennants have been won with power, with pitching and with speed … you name it. The “Hitless Wonder” Chicago White Sox, the Bash Brothers Oakland A’s, the 1985 St. Louis Cardinals, the 1927 and 1961 Yankees, the Miracle Mets of 1969, the 83-79 1972 team, the 1998 New York Yankees all demonstrate that games and seasons can be won and lost with all manner of philosophies. There is no one uber-approach that exceeds all others.

It depends on whatever team scores more runs than another team the most often by whatever talent happens to be on hand at the time.

To me, that’s the No. 1 difference I had with those wholeheartedly embracing the sabermetric approach is that they feel it applies to teams of all stripes. If you do it that way, you are guaranteed maximum production from your lineup, rotation and bullpen.

I happen to disagree.

To me, a game, a series, a season are things always in flux. The team with optimum talent (no substitute for that) to adapt to the ebbs and flows of these things will succeed. They find ways to push whatever runs are required when the hitting runs cold. Likewise, they manage to keep other teams from scoring more runs than they whenever the pitching or fielding is inconsistent.

They’re flexible, they adapt and they win. A rigid, dogmatic approach is neither flexible nor adaptable and a team with an inflexible approach only succeeds as long as the variables are kept to a minimum. Billy Beane alluded to this with his famous “My [bleep] doesn’t work in the playoffs.” In other words, that particular approach could be overcome by a team with approximate talent that was able adjust to the A’s approach.

Further, as I’ve said ad infinitum ad nauseum too many things occur in a game that are simply not found in the numbers. There are no stats kept for double plays not made, throwing to the wrong base, missing the cutoff man, not advancing an extra base when the opportunity arises, or passed balls and wild pitches corralled by the catcher. The only place these things show up are in wins and losses.

No, I don’t think I know everything about baseball nor do I cite myself as an authority. Quite the opposite—I think I have a lot to learn. Sadly, certain advocates of sabermetrics feel that they do hold the Holy Grail, that they have mastered the secrets of winning baseball games. Those who disagree will be ridiculed for not embracing the new orthodoxy.

The only absolute truth in baseball is this: the team with the most runs after all outs have been used is the one that wins. It’s not like figure skating or gymnastics where points are awarded for style or artistic merit. The only thing that matters is that one more run than the other team—and a run is a run regardless of how it is generated whether it is a ball clearing the fence or a runner crossing home with a suicide squeeze.

They all count.

It’s up to each team to use the talent on hand to find a way to get that one more run than the other team. If they do it 57-60% of the time, chances are they'll play October games--how ever they accomplished that can be considered a winning approach.

Best Regards



Bill B. said...

Did I just have a fun time reading about why I'm wrong?

To defend Sabermetrics, though, I don't think they aim to establish a certain formula for success, it's simply a byproduct. Sabermetrics are just more advanced ways of discerning value in a player, and noticing the qualities of the most valuable players (note: not Most Valuable Players, tee hee) gives us an indicator on what may be the most successful way to build a ball club.

And Billy Beane's A's were built not around using numbers to get the best players; rather, they were built with the restriction of a low budget and the idea of finding value in areas other teams tended to ignore, such as on-base percentage. That's why you see the A's of the early 2000's stocked with OBP's between .350 and .400 -- all above league average.

You're too right when you say that there are events that go unnoticed in the box scores. But two items about that:

1) Sabermetrics don't claim to take into account all factors of a baseball game. Simply, they just use what is logged either in the official box scores or in the accumulated data from a host of sources.

2) The items that don't get logged in statistical tables are few and far between, especially with the advent of the Pitch F/X system.

That said, I'll look forward to your article, and I'm sorry your trip couldn't have gone without a hitch. Next time you want to do some research at a hallowed baseball landmark, go to an amusement park instead. You'll get just as much accomplished, and you'll throw up just as much, only you'll leave with your heart in your throat, not in the pits of your bowels.

John Brattain said...


There’s no need to defend sabermetrics. You’re not wrong. I’m a big believer in it myself. For the most part I agree with most of its precepts. It’s increased understanding of the game. I’m hugely grateful for the new frontiers of research it is traversing. My only real issue with it is that baseball in not entirely quantifiable. You acknowledge this yourself—a lot of sabermetricians do not. To me, it’s not unlike the classic gag ‘Who are you going to believe—me or your own lying eyes?’

I know what I saw over 162 games—for people who didn’t have the same point of reference telling me that you should always let guys like Sal Fasano, Jason Phillips, Hector Luna etc. swing away in any and all situations doesn’t ring true. I noticed a problem in May and was told early, often and repeatedly that the Jays were handling things correctly only to see in June-end of season that approach cost the Jays runs and games.

When the Jays finished with one of the lowest scoring teams in the AL and being told that it was still the correct approach … well you can see where I might have a problem with that. As I wrote throughout last season the philosophy utilized by the Jays was based on a certain set of circumstances: a batting order of a healthy and productive Reed Johnson, Lyle Overbay, Vernon Wells, Troy Glaus, Frank Thomas, Alex Rios, Aaron Hill, Gregg Zaun and Royce Clayton (heh). They had the personnel at the beginning of the season for that. When the roster and expectations changed due to injuries and slumps Toronto never stopped to reassess things. Even though they no longer had the pieces in place, they continued as if they had. It would be like the 1985 Cardinals getting injuries to Willie McGee, Vince Coleman, Andy Van Slyke, and Ozzie Smith and being replaced with Matt Stairs type fill-ins and still playing the speed game.

As I wrote, baseball is probably the game with the most variables to it. There is no one matrix of any kind that can capture all of them.

Mathematics is the ultimate truth: 2+2 will always equal four. However, to paraphrase Jimmy Dugan (with a slight alteration) “There is no ultimate truth in baseball.” It’s the classic square peg in a round hole conundrum.

As I said, I’m a big believer in sabermetrics but when you’re using the perfect, flawless system that is the study of mathematics in assessing a uniquely human endeavour in all its flaws and quirks there is going to be a lot leakage around its boundaries.

Best Regards


Pete Toms said...

J, read your THT piece on Jays, sac bunt, Sabermetrics etc.

Coincidentally I was out with Neate Sager last nite - Happy Birthday to him BTW - and amongst the sports topics discussed was the saber dudes. Neate & I are both saber friendly but as I mentioned to him - and as you point out - how do you measure what DOESN'T happen? I see stat analysis guys writing about baserunning stats. I don't get it - although never underestimate the math heads - how can you measure that a guy DIDN'T tag up & advance when he could have. That he DIDN'T advance on the curveball in the dirt when he could have...

Just thinkin out loud.

Jonathan said...

You measure it in the same way that you do when a guy DOESN'T hit a single, the overall rate to the rest of the league. To use tagging up as an example, THT recently measured outfield arms by how often they held runners from advancing compared to league average. You could do the exact same thing to figure out how often teams tag up.

Being too passive in situations that should be taken advantage of is pretty hard to measure (the "when he should have" factor), but that's not what the stat heads are talking about or advising against.