Archive for the ‘Sample Size Theatre’ Category

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Kansas City Royals

Despite all the rainouts and postponements, the baseball season is a week old. Most teams have six games under their belt, some seven, and the poor old Tigers have played just five.

It is obviously way too soon to draw any grand or sweeping conclusions about the year. There are hot starts and cold April slumps well under way, but nothing one good day at the dish can’t fix. Any time a couple base hits can raise your batting average by 50 or 100 points, you know it’s early.

It is not a time for making bold pronouncements about the season but there is no reason we cannot shine a light on some of the early season quirks and oddities.

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MLB: World Series-Boston Red Sox at St. Louis Cardinals

Opportunity isn’t a given. When a baseball player signs a contract, there is no language that ensures the player will be given ample opportunity to succeed and work through struggles. It’s why the option system exists, so teams are free to churn players at the end of the roster, looking to catch lightning in a bottle.

Mathematically, this makes little sense, of course. Chasing small samples with more small samples does not give you a larger, more reliable sample. Roster churn for the sake of “finding something that works” is an exercise in randomness, albeit one that occasionally pays off.

Despite the proliferation of sabermetric analysis in baseball, teams and players still mostly operate in inefficient ways. Decision making will never be perfectly rational in baseball, owing to tradition, moving statistical targets and, perhaps most importantly, psychology.

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Garbage in, garbage out. This is an everlasting truth of just about any system. If you’re writing code or brewing beer, the quality of your ingredients and inputs greatly effects the quality of your product.

When we’re evaluating baseball players, the quality of the inputs has the same impact on the product that comes out on the other end. For fans arguing in the bleachers or front offices carefully weighing their trade options, there is no way around this. Many folks balk at the comprehensive measures like Wins Above Replacement because of the cryptic and unreliable nature of defensive measurement. It is much easier to take offensive stats at face value. The math is just as gory but the events are discrete and easily countable.

This is slowly changing, of course. As we saw earlier this week (read Ben Lindbergh for a deeper look at what the new tracking system can do), the manner in which we measure and monitor defensive contributions are changing but quick. Beyond the “zone” based approach of most defensive measures, we can track the reaction time, running speed, distance traveled and overall “efficiency” of the route each fielder takes to a batted ball.

It’s a huge step in an incredibly promising direction, though one with a future very much in doubt. How much information will trickle down to the fans? What will this information mean for the way we watch the games?

For now, this remains a bit of a mystery. Fangraphs unveiled a new tool to better tackle the present as we patiently wait for the future to arrive. Inside Edge and their video-based fielding carefully pours over each and every ball in play, grouping plays based on their likelihood of being fielded.

Fangraphs and Inside Edge make use of six different buckets, grouped by the chances of fielding a given ball in play: impossible (0%), remote (1-10%), unlikely (10-40%), about even (40-60%), likely (60-90%), and almost certain/certain (90-100%). While it is a less precise measure than the tracking systems provide, it does offer a window into how we think about players.

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Boston Red Sox v Toronto Maple Leafs

The position of shortstop hasn’t really changed in recent years. It has, in terms of perception more than reality, returned to its roots as home to slap-hitting glove-first guys. After a “golden generation” of power hitting shortstops like Alex Rodriguez, early-career Derek Jeter and Nomar Garciaparra; the position is once again home to many baseball players who wouldn’t be in the big leagues were it not for their ability to play a mean short. The ability to hit is an added bonus for shortstops, not a requirement.

Jeff Sullivan showed the start difference between the elite offensive shortstop(s) like Troy Tulowitzki and…nobody else in his Fangraphs positional power ranking at the beginning of the year. There is Tulo and then there is everyone else.

When a player is as strong defensively as Jose Iglesias, the Red Sox shortstop by way of Cuba, any thing this player offers in terms of offense is a bonus. Free money. A gift. Yet offense is just what Jose Iglesias has provided the “surprising” Red Sox, according to his early numbers. Iglesias owns a .441 wOBA in the early stages of 2013, good for fourth among big league SSers with 20 plate appearances. That’s terrific, isn’t it?

Well, yes and no. Fun? Yes! Meaningful. Not in the least.

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Washington Nationals Photo Day

The start of the season is a special time, statistically. The fresh canvas yet unspoiled by slumps and significant sample sizes makes for beautiful art, where one good day at the dish can turn an ugly start into business as usual. Hot Aprils live much longer in the memory than any other time of year. April’s edition of Arbitrary Endpoint Theatre is Shakespeare when compared to the Byzantine off-off-off-off-Broadway performance of a May 3-June 2 hot run.

No player wants to be the last on the club to collect a hit. No player wants their slash line to start .000. Currently five players are on the hitless schneid, provided 10 plate appearances. In a stunning bit of journalism, I predict at least four of them to get a hit at some point during the remainder of the season. But don’t quote me.

The woes of the hitless are well known and routinely documented. But what about the other side, those who can hit but cannot walk? Can we spare a feeling for those who sport an on base percentage identical to their batting average? Getting Blanked would like you to meet the Rascal Scooters – the players unable to walk.

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