We, as human beings, derive no shortage of pleasure from our ability to gain understanding. While the curiosity that we exhibit as a species is neither good nor bad, the actions that we take to satiate our drive to find explanation can be both.
Among the more willing and noble, the search for understanding holds the potential to result in discovery, which in my mind at least is the greatest achievement possible. However, for others, the need for explanation will result in easy answers based on generalizations and conclusions drawn without ample evidence, a dangerous occurrence which has led to many of our greatest shames.
Today, Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports offers us a glimpse into the human psyche with his column on the struggling Los Angeles Dodgers. In Mr. Rosenthal’s mind, the immediate failures of the recently bolstered roster of the Dodgers is best explained by a lack of team cohesiveness.
The Los Angeles Dodgers have not yet jelled, and might not jell until next season, after their players have experienced a pennant race together and bonded over a full spring.
Yes, I’m talking about chemistry. Cohesiveness. Intangibles. All of those funky things that a computer cannot measure. All of those funky things that make the sport an enduring mystery, yet drive the statistically inclined to distraction.
Mr. Rosenthal then proceeds to use a number of logical fallacies to prop up what he admits is an unsupportable theory in his opening paragraph.
Yes, the Dodgers have managed to acquire a large influx of talent in a short period of time, and they have undoubtedly struggled since replacing lesser talented players with more talented players. However, there is no link between these two facts other than the random occurrence of their timing.
The Dodgers have lost seven of their last twelve games since acquiring Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, Nick Punto and Carl Crawford from the Boston Red Sox. We’re dealing with such a short span of time – or in the parlance of popular sabermetrics, a small sample size – that the results of those games are far less meaningful that what Mr. Rosenthal would suggest. The outcomes of a dozen games cannot tell us enough about a group of players to come to any sort of judgment on them as individuals, let alone as a whole.
Even the most cursory of glances at the seven games that the team has most recently lost would reveal that two of those losses came in extra innings and two were by one run, but that’s neither here nor there. The point is that twelve games tells you nothing about a team. Take the Washington Nationals as an example. This season, the Nationals have managed to collect more wins than any other team in baseball. Between April 26th and May 9th, over a span of twelve games, Washington lost eight.
A fuller look into what twelve games mean for the Los Angeles Dodgers over a 162 game schedule is supplied by Colin Wyers over at Baseball Prospectus.
Over a 12-game stretch, we should expect a team with a “true talent” of .583 to fall somewhere between .441 and .725 62 percent of the time. Okay, so over that stretch, we have the Dodgers winning at a .417 clip, or at 1.17 standard deviations away from our initial estimate, so we go from about 62 percent to 75.8 percent—in other words, three quarters of the time, we should expect teams to fall that close to their true talent. So that means a quarter of the time we should expect teams to be more extreme than that. Given how many 12-game sets there are in a 162-game schedule, we should expect to see results like this several times per season.
You don’t need to understand standard deviations or symmetrical margins of error. Even the most basic understanding of baseball statistics reveals that there’s a whole lot of random occurrences happening in every pitch, every swing, every plate appearance, every ground ball, every line drive, every umpire’s call, every everything. The best players are ones that have proven to be successful over long periods of time, and the same holds true for teams. We need those long periods because over a short term, so much of the weight of what’s happening can be determined by random occurrences. Over a longer period of time, these random occurrences tend to be evened out by skill or lack thereof. This is why baseball has such a long schedule of 162 games.
However, even if we give Mr. Rosenthal’s theory more credit than it deserves, a lack of team chemistry wouldn’t magically manifest itself in losses alone. There would be evidence of a team not playing cohesively. We could point to hit and run opportunities wasted, base runners and batters not communicating, double plays lost, and cut off men missed. We could look to the pitch selection of newly acquired pitchers and how those decisions impacted the game. Then, we could compare all that data to teams like the Tampa Bay Rays or San Francisco Giants, clubs that Mr. Rosenthal uses as examples of deriving value from playing together for a longer period of time.
However, the writer in this case is resigned to voice only his unfounded theories without doing the necessary work to find legitimacy.
That’s my theory, and I can’t quantify it, can’t prove it.
This is true, but Mr. Rosenthal could’ve provided more circumstantial evidence than he did, if it at all exists.
All I know is, the games aren’t played on paper or on a computer.
True, again. But I’d also suggest that games aren’t played in the minds of sportswriters looking to take data and cram it into their preconceived narrative classification holes until it fits.
They’re played by individuals, and the relationships between those individuals can influence the team’s overall dynamic and quite possibly its performance.
Again, we all want so desperate to explain outcomes that in that desperation to supply a narrative or force the outcomes to fit a narrative, we lose track of the possibility that there is no reason for the outcome. This is why that drive to understand can be such a blessing and a curse. Yes, it can motivate us to discover, but it can also cause us to rush for answers to questions and problems for which simple solutions simply don’t exist.
The Los Angeles Dodgers are a good team, and while that may not be proven over a twelve game stretch it has nothing to do with anything intangible magically precluding the club from winning. It’s merely something that happens several times a season, whether you have a roster of the same players all season long or a newly constructed one making its first appearance.