I was preparing another installment of the weekly TSTOAF feature when what to my wondering eyes should appear, but a Geoff Baker blog post written solely for my sneer. Yes, the master troll was at it again, attempting today to express his observations on a supposed disconnect between advanced statistics and how a Major League Baseball club actually operates.
It’s a comedic read full of all the straw man fallacies and assumptions that you’d expect. It acts as the perfect skeleton for this week’s Ten (Not So) Stray Thoughts On A Friday.
Stats In The Clubhouse
From Mr. Baker:
While it’s true that virtually all teams now employ some type of advanced statistical consultants, the idea that players and coaches are sitting around the clubhouse conversing about xFIP, WAR, wOBA and any stats that don’t revolve around “Batting average” and “RBI” and “ERA” simply is not the case.
I know we all want to think that is what’s happening. And some in the mainstream media — even national-level favorites — help encourage this type of thinking with stories on the one pitcher out of hundreds who knows the difference between FIP and ERA+. Nothing wrong with those stories, since they are fun and we’ve all done them. But they do not reflect the current reality in baseball.
Perhaps I’m missing something, and unlike Mr. Baker, I’m open to the idea that I am, but I’ve never seen anyone claim that advanced metrics are being discussed between players and coaches across baseball. On certain teams? Yes, definitely. On our podcast today, the wonderful Jordan Bastian of MLB.com spoke about Cleveland Indians manager Manny Acta frequently referring to FanGraphs.
I’m certain that anyone who would know enough about advanced metrics to make such a claim would have seen far too many instances of small sample sizes given too much weight and even more moments in which the percentages are completely ignored by managers to make such a claim with a straight face.
From Mr. Baker:
The reality is, most players still don’t have a clue about advanced stats. They don’t have time to sit around worrying about their ground ball tendancies versus left-handed pitchers in high leverage situations. Their thinking is still more fundamental. They know when they are putting good wood on the ball. They know when they are chasing bad pitches that are unhittable. And they know from video how a certain pitcher they will face that day might try to work them. Many good players keep detailed logs in books about those pitches they have seen and could see again. It’s pretty detailed stuff, not uneducated scribblings.
But start talking situational OPS with just about any player and you will get a scrunched up face staring back at you.
Situational OPS? Really? That’s the best example that can be used?
Again, no one is making a claim that most players have a clue about advanced statistics. That’s why it’s news when one does. That’s why “some in the mainstream media — even national-level favorites –” cover it when they find a player thoughtful enough to use statistics in a way that helps their game. It’s a unique event.
You don’t see a whole lot of stories about an individual player using cleats. That’s because an idea actually exists among baseball fans that all players use cleats. If Mr. Baker were to find and write about a misapprehension that exists about footwear in baseball, I would be interested in reading that story.
Players And Coaches Speak In HRs & RBIs
From Mr. Baker:
The guys in charge of players — who have to lead them into on-field combat — have to be the ones most trusted by the rank-and-file. The ones who grew up in a baseball environment like they did — I’m talking professional baseball, not high school or college — and know the score.
And unfortunately, despite what you may read places, in 2012, the score is still largely told in terms of home runs, RBI, ERA and what baseball has been scoring for 100 years.
Well, that’s just wonderful. Good for them. But why is that relevant to people using different metrics? Is Mr. Baker suggesting that these are better metrics because they’re the ones players are using?
Are movie critics subject to criticism because they don’t talk in the same terms as actors and actresses do while they’re on set? No, we disparage movie critics for entirely different reasons, mostly related to their own failed ambitions.
What’s frustrating from a fan’s perspective is to hear people speak in terms of RBIs and ERA to the media is because, quite frankly, these statistics don’t measure what they purport to measure nearly as well as other measurements.
And also, no one ever suggests that home runs aren’t worth mentioning in any baseball conversation about talent.
The Reason We Talk In Stats
From Mr. Baker:
Daily baseball life does not have the stats world as its center of the universe. For many baseballfans it does. But for those in charge of living and playing the game that is modern Major League Baseball, stats are only one part of it.
This is not a revelation. It’s been said many, many times before and most people just nod their head and go “of course, we know that!”. But then, the minute the conversation turns elsewhere, those fans promptly forget what was just said and continue to watch and analyze baseball as if stats are indeed the be-all, end-all.
They are not.
Once again, we come to another straw man in Mr. Baker’s writing.
No one imagines that stats are indeed the be-all, end-all. No one talks as if they are. Who are these people that Mr. Baker writes about and where can I find them online?
The reason Mr. Baker is confused into believing this is that he doesn’t extend the same courtesy to those using numbers as part of their analysis that his readers extend him for whatever it is that he provides. All things being written are done so with the caveat that it’s to the best of the writer’s knowledge.
We use numbers as the basis for arguments because it’s what’s available to us. We don’t fancy ourselves psychologists capable of understanding human motivation like the weaker of Mr. Baker’s colleagues. We don’t pretend to understand the personal lives of players. We don’t imagine ourselves to know more than we do. And we certainly don’t draw conclusions based on limited observations.
This creed removes us from being candidates to fill Mr. Baker’s position at a newspaper, certainly, but why would we ever want to do that? We have numbers available, and because there are so many available, we can derive a pretty good idea of what’s happening if all the other factors beyond our understanding are neutral.
So, instead of pretending to be something that we’re not or imagining our view of isolated incidents to be the truth, we take what I believe to be a largely more honest approach to baseball, one that supposes little and attempts to gain a deeper understanding of why things happen on a diamond.
The Human Element
From Mr. Baker:
Stats are a tool that those in more advanced front offices can use to narrow down the list of players that might be chosen from a wide-ranging assortment. But the best front offices will then be open-minded enough to go back to their field-level baseball people and engage in discussions about why the stats might be misleading.
Other than the connotation that stats are “misleading” rather than lacking in terms of the entire picture, I have nothing to dispute here.
I’ve heard Milwaukee Brewers General Manager Doug Melvin speak about this very issue. I’m certainly paraphrasing, but he suggested that the exact same hunger and search for as much information as possible when making baseball decisions that led to the incorporation of statistics into the analysis of players will alternatively never allow for the human element, or what Los Angeles Angels GM Jerry DiPoto referred to as a player’s “will to,” be dismissed.
Video Is Best
From Mr. Baker:
Most teams now employ skilled video people — the Mariners do as well — who can shoot and edit the types of high-definition video packages needed by players. Why video? Because it simulates real baseball life better than stats do. A player will get more out of seeing what type of pitch might be coming their way than they will reading about it in a stats booklet.
Does Mr. Baker not remember when video people were first starting to be employed by clubs? Was it not a process for which some players were hesitant to engage? Are there not some players who still don’t use video to better understand their opposition?
It’s a process, and it only serves to show the writer’s ignorance that he’d suggest that video does a better job of showing something than stats. These are mutually exclusive items in a baseball player’s arsenal.
I’ve had the privilege of seeing some of the features of the Bloomberg player application. This software, that’s loaded onto player iPads, connects video to analytics so that if Player A wants to see what Pitcher B is most likely to throw in a 2-0 count after missing with an off speed pitch, he can see the percentages and, if the sample exists, video of what Pitcher B threw to Player A in that exact instance.
The application of stats is best used with video, and again, as players and managers progress along with technology, that application will become more and more used, just as video alone has done.
Dominating Daily Baseball Life
From Mr. Baker:
This isn’t meant to minimize the fun that fans have with stats, or the cottage industry built up around the more advanced stats. I’m not poking fun at anyone’s livelihood. But the thinking that these stats are dominating daily baseball life is just not accurate.
It wouldn’t be a real Mr. Baker post without at least one condescending paragraph, and here we have it.
Yes, the fun that we have with stats is used by every organization in baseball, to the point that what was essentially a conference for baseball bloggers put on by SABR was attended by representatives from two thirds of the franchises in Major League Baseball.
It’s funny, you know, I can’t remember an organization like Bloomberg becoming so interested in a cottage industry quite like this before. I also can’t remember the last beat writer to be hired by a team for any purpose whatsoever. Or the last beat writer’s game story to be quoted as being meaningful in the least by any sort of baseball management. But I’m sure Mr. Baker must know of such moments to use such disparaging terms.
Once again, no one believes that statistics are dominating daily baseball life. We all watch baseball games, and we all see what most of us believe to be foolish decisions. We know that our way of thinking isn’t the dominant one. But we also see a shift, if you’ll pardon the pun. We see that poor decisions, especially at the front office level are fewer and farther between.
And we see that ideas rooted in advanced metrics, ideas like the infield shift, are being used more and more as part of in game strategy. And we see a corresponding decline in batting average in balls in play. And we take these signs to be encouraging.
From Mr. Baker:
And those human managers all know about baseball. More importantly, they know about managing in baseball and the human subtleties that come with the job. The human politics that must be played. The pressures that younger players fall under versus the more experienced ones. How those pressures might impact daily play on an individual and overall lineup basis.
I actually think that criticisms aimed at managers can be over played, but no more so than the importance of a manager at all. Certainly, there are things that a manager does that are good for the team that we don’t understand, and are unlikely to ever understand. There are also a lot of decisions that a manager makes that would turn out a whole lot better if he were to look at past information regarding the decision he has to make, and then decide accordingly.
It’s neither one way or the other, as Mr. Baker would like to have us believe.
Again, we can only speak from the best of our knowledge, and unfortunately, it doesn’t read as well if we preface everything we write with that disclaimer. When we criticize a manager for the moves he makes, we do so with numbers in mind because it’s all we have at our disposal.
From Mr. Baker:
Anyone expecting a manager to start speaking about OPS and wOBA in a conversation about baseball is missing the point. These managers know baseball. All of them know baseball better than you do, or I do.
Doesn’t mean we can’t question their decision-making. Doesn’t mean we can’t ask why they do the things they do.
Yes, they are sometimes wrong. But that’s because they are human — not robots.
As a human and not a robot, I am confused because apparently Mr. Baker will allow us the thrill of questioning decision-making, but not via statistics because in his mind that’s not what managers talk about.
When we use numbers, at least we’re providing something to back up our opinions as opposed to the alternative … which is, I’m not sure I know, and I’m not sure even Mr. Baker knows.
The piece reads as though Mr. Baker had something stuck in his craw and the only way to unstick it was to take an enormous shit on the work of people who rely on numbers to form opinions. There are a great many better targets. Most notable from the alternative targets are those among his ranks who would seek to offer similar criticisms without the benefit of anything resembling fact.
To go to the trouble of building multiple straw men and assume to know the motivations behind what he classifies into a group of people is an effort I can’t understand. I’m fine with Mr. Baker writing his little stories and engaging in the self indulgence that is his blog all he wants. If people enjoy reading that work and find his opinions informative, then that’s just great.
It doesn’t really work for me.
But I’m not going to dance through multiple logical fallacies as a means of expressing the childish point that I think I have a better understanding than him or his type of what’s happening in a given situation.
But that’s just me. Something to think about.