Today In Poorly Formed Thoughts

For fans of the Toronto Blue Jays, Richard Griffin’s is a familiar voice. He has covered the team for a number of years, writing for Canada’s largest newspaper. He fulfills the role that every baseball team’s fan base should desire: the seasoned baseball columnist who shows up at every game and is unafraid to share his opinion no matter if it ruffles feathers or not. Although he may veer toward being unreasonable from time to time, he’s a good writer who doesn’t give his subject matter more seriousness than it deserves. It helps matters rather tremendously that Mr. Griffin also seems to be good-natured even about the more disparaging responses he often elicits from the Blue Jays blogosphere in response to his writing.

Yesterday, Mr. Griffin posed the following question: Is Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon to blame for Ricky Romero’s struggles this season?

Maddon suggested on May 23 that he would put more left-handers into his batting order if he had them. Romero, when asked about Maddon’s comments, did not react well. The fact is lefties for the year batted .310 with an OPS of .899 vs. Romero. Right-handers hit .268 with a .782 OPS.

What Mr. Griffin is describing is Mr. Maddon’s employment of  the Danks Theory, which is about a manager constructing a lineup that neutralizes an opposing pitcher’s best weapon. In the case of Mr. Romero, his change up against right-handed batters has been proven to be the most effective pitch in his repertoire. So, by putting as many left-handed batters in the lineup as possible, Mr. Maddon renders the southpaw’s out-pitch irrelevant.

Mr. Griffin goes on to not only correlate, but also force causation between Mr. Maddon’s comments and Mr. Romero’s declining record and earned run average.

Was he bothered? Consider that prior to May 23, Romero was 5-1, with a 3.84 ERA. After that game, dismissed as he was by Maddon, he went 4-13, with a 6.81 ERA.

The Toronto Star columnist then makes a strange claim that would be difficult to prove.

There is statistical evidence that even within his starts, Romero’s primary issues were mental, not physical. At moments when he should have stepped up to the challenge in his role as the staff ace, he seemed to shrink away, his performance anticipating the worst — which is of course what you get.

The statistical evidence that Mr. Griffin speaks of is the cherry-picked innings of work following his team scoring runs, which are arbitrarily claimed to be one of the two sets of circumstances in which a number one starter must “step up.” He refers to these as shutdown innings.

The Mockingbird’s Jon Hale believes that the term belongs on the statistical wall of shame.

Imagine there was a guy who for some freakish reason only allowed runs immediately after his team scored. So the worst example of this supposedly lead-killing, win-stealing phenomenon. Compared to other pitchers with the same ERA, he would actually have the lead much more often, since he would never give up a lead before the offence got going, and also get more wins — since he would never give up leads when his offence went cold (i.e. he would pitch better in higher-leverage situations).

Mr. Griffin’s so-called evidence hinges on a small sample of incidents throughout a rather bad season. However, even if there was proof of this phenomenon occurring over the course of a larger sample, it’s not nearly enough to suggest the causation of Mr. Maddon’s comments, let alone that Mr. Romero’s issues are mental.

This is what bothers me most about arguments that hinge on intangible factors. Far too often, some sort of magical quality is attached to an otherwise worthless argument. Think about what Mr. Griffin is suggesting here: Ricky Romero had bad numbers in particularly important situations this season, therefore it’s a mental issue. Even if he’s correct in the massive assumption that Mr. Romero’s faults are mental, it only explains the cause of the cause of his struggles. There should still be physical evidence associated with his mental state that’s causing the lousy numbers

Nakedly suggesting that intangibles are the root of anything is akin to believing that literal angels are helping Mike Trout be awesome or that Jeff Francoeur is being hindered by devils. That’s not to suggest that intangibles don’t play a role. I’m certain that they do. But we should be able to see what role they play by examining what’s happening under whatever the circumstance that’s deemed to be the cause of the success or failure by the narrative. For instance, if it’s believed that a player is having trouble focusing in a particular situation, we should be able to see something different in a dynamic sense to his approach during those specific instances.

Even if we discover a glaring difference, we still can’t say for certain that a mental issue is the cause of the poor command or the drop in velocity, but we will be able to have a pretty good idea that the poor command or drop in velocity is why the player is terrible in that situation. And isn’t that the interesting part of player analysis? It seems to me that the cause of struggles is far more fascinating than the cause of the cause of the struggles anyway, especially when the cause of the cause is an obvious assumption based around a preconceived narrative.

For more investigation into what’s been different this season for Ricky Romero compared to the rest of his Major League career, check out the following:

What’s Wrong With Ricky Romero? [Getting Blanked]

How Romero Has Changed. [The Mockingbird]

What Happened To Ricky Romero? [Fangraphs]

The Lost Season Of Ricky Romero. [Baseball Nation]

Comments (19)

  1. “It seems to me that the cause of struggles is far more fascinating than the cause of the cause of the struggles anyway, especially when the cause of the cause is an obvious assumption based around a preconceived narrative.”

    Gayest sentence I’ve ever read.
    Narrative. lol

  2. While, as per usual, Mr. Griffin’s thoughts are incredibly poorly formed, the role of Mr. Maddon’s strategies in Mr. Romero’s demise is open for debate. As Hale points out, Romero’s pitch usage this year has “changed” for the worse – perhaps it is as an overreaction to the success of lefties in 2011.

  3. I really hope that Ricky’s ego isn’t so fragile that stacking the lineup with LHBs — a sensible strategy, as it was against Jim Abbott and others of his ilk — would cause him to slip into a near-catatonic depressive state while on the mound. (Exaggerating for effect; hold your cards and letters.)

    Seriously, though, I could see Ricky worrying that someone had “found him out” and that he’d lost his “secret weapon”. This would point to a serious insecurity — impostor syndrome — that many elite performers in all fields have. If, by chance, Ricky feels this way, then he alone can fix it by deciding that he is, in fact, not an impostor, worthy of performing on baseball’s greatest stage, and capable of making whatever adjustment he needs to improve.

    I mostly hope he has a relaxing winter and feels good in his first few spring appearances.

  4. Doesn’t matter if it’s a righty or a lefty – Ricky just needs to get laid. Work on his screwball if you know what I mean.

    • “Romero has stopped using his slider…notoriously hard on the elbow”. Would the screw ball be any less hard on the elbow?

      • You’re most likely not being serious, but I’m in this thread and thought I’d add that yes, the Screwball is the most elbow-destroying pitch of all time. Pronating your arm that way has wrecked every arm that has ever tried to throw it, which is why the pitch is basically extinct at this point. There was a guy in the minors last year who was never going to make it anyway so threw it for half a year with crazy results before blowing out his elbow. I think it’s kind of cool that there is a pitch that could theoretically be very effective that nobody can throw without extreme personal danger.

  5. “But we should be able to see what role they play by examining what’s happening under whatever the circumstance that’s deemed to be the cause of the success or failure by the narrative.”

    Come on… that’s really wishful thinking. A great many things that do actually occur do not produce measurable signals with signal/noise ratios that allow conclusions to be drawn. That’s the whole reason why the intangibles debate makes both “traditionalists” and “sabermetricians” look like bleating children: the former say that it exists because it does (as they always do) and the latter say that if no evidence for it exists in my currently available data set, then it does not exist (as they always do). Both positions are just dead wrong. The truth is that some questions simply cannot be answered from the available data. Mystery! Wonder! Speculation!

    • That’s a heck of a straw man you just set up there for sabermetricians, and WHOOSH! It blew down. This particular one would say that most “intangibles” can be tested and/or measured reasonably well if you are creative enough, willing to do enough work, and have good enough data. Sometimes it takes a couple of different looks at the issue, but there aren’t really any black boxes in baseball — there’s just a lot of fog to peer through.

      And c’mon…any competent analyst knows the difference between when something is not measurable under the current data set and when you actually can and should conclude that the phenomenon doesn’t exist based on what you’ve got. That SHOULD be the most important part of any statistical argument. You only have to settle for mystery and wonder if you’re not willing to seek out rigorous and thorough and competent work and debate.

      • Oh yeah, what I actually meant to comment on was I think he’s just saying that we should be able to test out almost every narrative (or intangible) to some degree. That’s not to say that numbers can capture everything that happens on the field, but if you have some sort of clearly defined and easily-addressed-with-statistics theory like “Ricky Romero has a mental issue with lefties”, and you choose to rest entirely on your wild theorizing and that-makes-senseness without so much of a dollop of all the readily-available and fantastically-informative information out there waiting to back you up (or not), then you should not be paid to give your opinions on baseball. There are so many ways to get at this stuff these days, it is the NAKED intangible argument that is embarrassing. At least Griff is trying these days, although his latest attempt was brutal.

        • Simply put: bullshit.

          “This particular one would say that most “intangibles” can be tested and/or measured reasonably well if you are creative enough, willing to do enough work, and have good enough data.” – That last if is hilarious.It is the whole point of my argument and it is often out of your control regardless of the effort you put, as any “competent analyst” knows.

          “if you have some sort of clearly defined and easily-addressed-with-statistics theory like “Ricky Romero has a mental issue with lefties”” – If you think that is easily addressed with stats, you are extremely methodologically lax. Unless the data is sampled properly, you might as well just choose which data points you want in your analysis. That is called ESPN.

          You’re right that it is the naked intangible argument that is the worst… along with the naked no intangible argument. When you see a signal in the data, you have the plausibility of something being there; when you see no signal, you have the possibility of nothing being there. Huge fucking difference. When folks say, I cannot see it so it is not so and think it is the same as saying I see it so it is so they are simply not using the math properly. Might as well waste your time trying to prove that god does not exist.

    • It’s really not wishful thinking at all. I’m not just talking about data. I’m talking about dynamics as well. So much data is collected and so much video is now available and so many opinions are online, it’s getting progressively easier to spot trouble with analysis.

      I agree that “a great many things that do actually occur do not produce measurable signals with signal/noise ratios that allow conclusions to be drawn,” and that’s part of the point of looking at numbers, charts and action. We want to separate the randomization that gets mislabeled as meaningful from the meaningful that gets mislabeled as random. This is exactly where the fun of examining things closer comes from.

      • “This is exactly where the fun of examining things closer comes from.”. Fun, for sure, so long as one does not fall into the trap of believing that finding something meaningful is in any way inevitable given enough effort. That would be wishful thinking in the extreme.

  6. When I play hockey, if I’m nervous or otherwise lacking confidence (say, if there are players far better than me – either teammates or opposition), I can’t do *ANYTHING* right. It’s yips city. Even though I’m skilled and have played all my life, I bumble. The simplest maneuvers rest out of my reach. But when I’m feeling good, confidence soaring, I can bust out moves I never knew I had.

    This experience leads me to believe that mental state and “intangibles” contribute to physical performance much more than anyone will ever be able to prove.

    • Totally agree — the problem is when people start trying to predict whether an individual is in that good mental state, confidence, etc, based on a superficial analysis of recent results, ERA, etc. It is not that your mental state or other intangibles do not matter, it is that we cannot in any way predict it by say, your performance over your last 5 games or limited results against these opponents this year. So we shouldn’t try. If we don’t have intimate knowledge of what’s going on inside your head, we should steer clear instead of spouting nonsense like “well, AEP will be brimming with confidence in this game since he’s scored four times against these guys over the last two months”…I mean, who knows? Maybe you just broke up with your girlfriend. Maybe there was a lucky game against a totally different roster. Maybe you have a tummy ache. There are just too many intangibles when it comes to performance to say anything intelligent about one of them. Statheads aren’t against the existence of intangible factors, but the people who lay bogus claim to be able to predict them with not enough evidence. And there is usually not enough evidence from where we all sit.

    • Yeah, I don’t think anyone would say that there are intangible factors at play in physical activity such as playing baseball. The point of what I’m writing here is that I don’t really care about that as much as I care about the traceable changes that an intangible is causing. So, you might be nervous and suck, but I don’t really care about you being nervous as much as I care about what you’re nervousness is causing you to do which results in you sucking.

  7. Can we quit with the “Mr.” bullshit already? This isn’t real journalism, it’s sports blogging.

  8. “Nakedly suggesting that intangibles are the root of anything is akin to believing that literal angels are helping Mike Trout be awesome…”

    …is that an “Angels in the Outfield” reference??

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