Today In Poorly Formed Thoughts

Last week I wrote one of my ten stray thoughts on Jim Edmonds’ recent retirement announcement and how it seems as though it’s the duty of every baseball blogger to examine a player’s Hall of Fame credentials the moment he informs us that he’s done playing baseball (see: Pettitte, Andy).

Last night, Dan McGrath of the Chicago News Cooperative used Jim Edmonds’ recent retirement announcement as an entry into his own examination of how some baseball stories can’t be told through the numbers.  If McGrath was trying to bait numbers guys into blog linkage and argument through title alone, it wouldn’t have worked.

I imagine that most would agree with the sentiment.  Personally, I’ll look at statistics for their predictive qualities, but the majority of my favourite baseball memories have nothing to do with numbers, like the very first game I went to, or watching my favourite team win the World Series for the first time.  In fact, Jim Edmonds is a great example of a player whose story can’t be told through numbers alone, and I’m inclined to agree with every word that McGrath writes in the following paragraph:

I loved the way Edmonds played center field. He always seemed to have a shot at catching any ball that stayed in the park, as well as some that were leaving if they lacked proper clearance. Sure, he embellished a little, diving when it might not have been necessary, but drama was part of the package.

Just because an analyst will look at a player’s numbers first when it comes to predicting future performance, it doesn’t mean that they can’t enjoy the unmeasurable aspects of a game that a player like Edmonds brings.

Edmonds was dangerous at the plate, too, though not really a good enough hitter to make the cut for Cooperstown.

Whoa.  What?  I’m not sure where the Hall of Fame debate came from, but it’s really not helping McGrath’s case that this piece isn’t trolling for blog links (mission accomplished) when he writes nothing to support his claim that Edmonds wasn’t a “good enough hitter.”  In fact, Edmonds was probably more than a good enough hitter to get Hall of Fame credibility with a career .903 OPS that’s better than notable Hall of Famers Willie McCovey, Willie Stargell, Harmon Killebrew and Jackie Robinson, as well as contemporaries like Fred McGriff and Rafael Palmeiro.  Ken Griffey Jr. is only five places ahead of Edmonds on the career leaders list.

Somewhere there’s a number that quantifies how good Edmonds was in the outfield, a number more esoteric than fielding percentage, putouts, assists — the usual suspects. There’s just as likely a number that will suggest he wasn’t any good at all, that other metrics like his range factor or his total zone runs or his win-probability-added don’t measure up to the immortal Willie Tasby.

Instead of hypothesizing, McGrath could’ve actually looked up the different defensive metrics that Drew Fairservice examined earlier today to see exactly how Edmonds was rated defensively.

The only time there’s a disparity worth noting between DRS and TZL is the 2010 season.  Other than that both metric systems agree that years in which he was good, he was good, and the year in which he was bad, he was bad.

Numbers. They are the lifeblood of baseball, but I fear we have gone too far in our attempts to quantify everything that happens on the diamond, from a pitcher’s ground-ball frequency to a hitter’s productivity when the moon is in the seventh house and Jupiter aligns with Mars.

I don’t believe the sample size of McGrath’s example would necessarily tell you much, but his words make it sound as though analysts are forcing situations in baseball to be quantifiable, and that’s not the case at all. Baseball lends itself to statistics because of the enormous sample sizes of situations throughout the game’s history.  Statisticians don’t have to force anything because so much of baseball is quantifiable.

It’s not a dry, lifeless science either.  Figuring out what statis are useful to measure and what stats aren’t requires a lot of imagination and critical thinking, something that McGrath seems to have a difficult time recognizing.

It started with “Moneyball,” Michael Lewis’s 2003 best seller chronicling how the financially ailing Oakland A’s came to rely on cold statistical analysis to shape their baseball decisions. I read it and liked it. Now I hate it, because the numbers revolution that it touched off has overtaken the game and threatens to squeeze the life from it.

Not to split hairs, but if he had truly read and liked Moneyball, McGrath might remember the chapter which points to Bill James as the origin for advanced statistical analysis.  And after learning that, he might have tried reading a book or two by James to realize that you can indeed have your cake and eat it too.  You can enjoy the stats that James introduces just as much as the anecdotes that he shares which have nothing to do with numbers.

Unless, by “life” McGrath means uninformed opinions based on faulty observation, he’s completely wrong about what statistics threaten to squeeze from baseball.  As I wrote earlier, baseball fans can use metrics for their predictive qualities and still enjoy the actual game.  There’s no mutual exclusivity and it’s insulting to fans to think otherwise.

The other day, an occasionally reasonable radio host shouted down caller after caller, insisting that there was no such thing as a “clutch” hitter, that statistical probability could determine the best man for the job with two on and two outs in the late innings of a tight game.

“That guy never had to face George Brett,” said Steve Stone, the White Sox’s television analyst and an 11-year major league pitcher. “I’m probably prejudiced, because George hit about .470 off me, but there were times when you just didn’t want to face him if you couldn’t pitch around him. Thurman Munson was the same way. Reggie Jackson may have been the straw that stirred the drink, but every pitcher I knew would rather go through a lineup full of Reggies than face Thurman Munson with the game on the line.”

Let’s compare the OPS of the three players mentioned here in different situations:

George Brett:
.857 Career, .886 2 Out RISP, .865 Late & Close, .847 Tie Game.

Thurman Munson:
.756 Career, .753 2 Out RISP, .756 Late & Close, .763 Tie Game.

Reggie Jackson:
.846 Career, .851 2 Out RISP, .804 Late & Close, .901 Tie Game.

Brett is likely the closest thing you could possibly call a clutch player and his OPS goes up less than 30 points in a 2 out RISP situation, up a whole eight points in situations where he’s at the plate in the 7th innning or later with the batting team tied, ahead by one, or the tying run at least on deck, and actually 10 points less when he’s batting with the game tied.

But let’s not think about the numbers for a second.  Let’s just use plain reason.  What would seem to you to be a better analysis or predictor of Brett’s future performance: the times that Steve Stone has remembered him hitting in a certain situation or how Brett has actually hit in every situation ever?

Look up any player on Baseball Reference that you consider to be “clutch” and compare his “clutch” numbers to his career, and there will almost always be little difference.

Sox fans are hoping the free-agent slugger Adam Dunn is like that; their centerpiece off-season acquisition is expected to add some left-handed thunder to a potent lineup. “The projections will say we can expect 35 to 40 homers, 110 to 120 R.B.I.’s and about a .390 on-base percentage,” Stone said. “Those are impressive numbers that have made Adam Dunn a very wealthy man. But I defy Bill James or any computer expert anywhere to tell me how Adam Dunn is going to do in the heat of a pennant race. I don’t know, the Sox don’t know, and Adam Dunn doesn’t know, because he’s never been through one. How do you measure that?”

I’m not quite sure how I feel about even dignifying this argument with a response because the majority of baseball players, just in order to get into the situation that they’re in as Major League Baseball players, have been in winning situations all their lives.  If they crumbled or couldn’t handle themselves, I doubt they’d be in the baseball business.  That’s also putting aside the fact that the randomness of baseball can dictate anything happening over such a small sample of a couple of months at the end of a season.

Not to mention that Adam Dunn was traded to Arizona in 2008 in the midst of their pennant drive and in 187 plate appearances put up an OPS of .889, a whole .011 off his career OPS at the time.

Gary Hughes, a special assistant to the Cubs’ general manager, Jim Hendry, has been scouting baseball talent for 43 years. A prospect’s “makeup” — his emotional and psychological stability, along with his self-confidence — is as much a part of the assessment process as his physical tools, and it’s an intangible.

“We’re in the information business, and numbers can be helpful in terms of learning about a guy, providing there’s some context to them,” Hughes said. “But there’s no way to measure what’s inside a guy’s heart, and if you’re going to last in this business, you’d better be able to tell.”

I wonder how many championships the Cubs have won while Hughes has been scouting talent.  Okay, that’s low, but honestly, why should a team care if a guy’s heart is filled with ectoplasm, as long as he can get on base and contribute to a team’s chances of winning baseball games?  If makeup is so important, wouldn’t baseball teams be better served by replacing scouts with psychologists?

I’m sure that from day to day, a player’s mentality can change his approach to the game.  No one would deny that, but there is absolutely no way for any of us to know how to measure that.  If John McDonald’s father passes away, no one knows if he’s going to react to that by hitting a home run.  He might just as easily strike out under the heavy hand of sadness.  While statistics might dictate that John McDonald probably shouldn’t be receiving any more at bats than he has to, it’s not going to stop a person who looks to numbers from appreciating a truly great moment.