Those Darn Humorless Number Crunchers…

April 30, 2010

Because I miss reading Fire Joe Morgan so much, I’m going to have my own fun with Steve Cameron’s piece entitled, “Baseball Has Gone VORP Speed Ahead,” which ran in the Merced Sun-Star earlier this week. FJM may be no more, but those guys should take heart in knowing that they really touched at the heart of what so many knowledgeable baseball fans think, while listening to broadcasters or reading sports journalists flap their overstuffed gums:

“What the hell are these guys talking about, and why are they getting paid to do it?”

Cameron’s writing is in boldface. My response follows.

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies and statistics.”

— Mark Twain

When Cameron unloads the Mark Twain early to let us know just where he stands, we know he means business. Dave Cameron is going to bust through the Matrix like Neo and free us Sabermetric robots from our soulless, number-crunching existence!

It is interesting that Cameron uses this Twain quotation, because Twain, in his autobiography, actually credits former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli for those words. Regardless the message is clear. Pin-heads with calculators can throw around a lot of fancy numbers, but real baseball fans don’t need them. We know what’s good. We know what’s right. Robots and numbers are neither good nor right.

As a lifetime fan who also has been a sports journalist for a good share of my adulthood, I think I’ve earned the right to an opinion on numbers. And what they mean to these games we love.

Well that last sentence fragment certainly conveys your love of Baseball.

OK, here’s the first — and most critical — thing to remember about statistics of any kind… Anybody can be right, depending on what stat you choose and how you turn and twist the thing to fit your argument.

I suppose anyone can be right when you are making an argument based on a subjective point of view. What Sabermatricians work to do is take the subjectivity out of the equation and see the true value of a player. Very often a true picture of who a player is can be obscured by such over-emphasized, “tried and true” statistics as Batting Average and Runs Batted In. To judge a player based on those numbers is a disservice to both the player and one’s understanding of the game.

So why am I revved up today?

Keep your diaper on, pops.

Well, I suppose it’s because a very talented sports columnist, Bill Simmons of ESPN.com, seems to have sold himself out to the humorless number-crunchers who have buried baseball in something called “sabermetrics.”

That sell out. He’s worse than Bob Dylan going electric! Or Ice-T playing a cop on Law & Order.

What’s that sound you hear? That’s baseball being buried beneath an avalanche of soul-crushing, mind-boggling Sabermetric numbers. AAARRGH! Run for your lives! No longer will you be able to sit back and enjoy a game, now that you know that RBI just aren’t really indicative of a player’s hitting ability.

I was shocked when Simmons wrote a piece admitting that he’d fallen into the clutches of people like Bill James and others who have managed to convince baseball executives, mainstream journalists and even some serious fans that the sport is ALL about numbers.

Bill James: “Now that we have Simmons, nothing will stand in the way of our fully operational Sabermetric battle station.”

*Gasp* Not only are people whose livelihoods depend on their analyses of the game of baseball being swayed by the ever-increasing volume of quantitative information available. Now the fans themselves are taking another look at the numbers behind the game that they love. Too much book learning ain’t no good for a baseball fan. “Makes the blood angry,” as Satchel Paige would say!

Players aren’t humans, they’re statistics with uniforms. The sabermetric crowd laughs aloud at the old, now-disgraced numbers we used to study on baseball cards — batting average, homers, runs scored and RBIs. These have been replaced with formulae like “OPS-plus.”

Actually baseball players are humans, each with an infinite variety of skills and abilities, which makes analyzing their baseball playing abilities a rather tricky business. Some people aren’t content with the old ways in which player’s abilities are judged, since they can often be very misleading. Some of those people are paid a lot of money to evaluate players, so they feel they should make an informed decision. The nerve of those guys.

What it boils down to is that people into Sabermetrics actually form an evil cabal that seeks to destroy the game of baseball. They like numbers more than baseball players and are working their evil magic to somehow turn baseball players into numbers!

(This is a complicated equation to combine on-base percentage plus slugging percentage, adjusted for the player’s home park. When numbers are compared against a norm of 100, you wind up with something like Albert Pujols being 44 percent better in this category than an average player in 2009.)

It’s really not that complicated. I didn’t graduate college and I’m not particularly good at math, but I understand this formula:

100 x [(Player OBP)/Park-Adjusted League OBP) + (Player SLG)/(Park Adjusted League SLG) – 1]

The tricky part is the Park-Adjusted League averages. To find this out, we need to do a bit more digging into each ballpark’s average numbers. The point is to not penalize Adrian Gonzalez for playing in big Petco Park, while not getting too nuts about Todd Helton‘s career numbers in Coor’s Field. All the while we are trying to find out how much better “Player X” is than the average guy at that position. Sound fair?

No offense to Bill James, the guru of sabermetrics and a man determined to remove baseball’s soul,

Look at that soulless sea of Red State fans bowing at James and Epstein’s unholy altar of VORP and RC. I suppose if by “remove baseball’s soul,” you mean, “help The Red Sox win two world series,” we are in agreement that Bill James is a bad, bad man. If you mean that Bill James has done a great deal of work that has given baseball front-offices, journalists and fans alike a better way of understanding what they are seeing when they watch a baseball game, then I’m not sure what this statement means.

but I don’t need “OPS-plus” to know that Pujols was miles better than an ordinary schmuck.

Right, we all know That El Hombre‘s the best in the game. But wouldn’t you like to know if Scott Podsednik is actually a good hitter since his AVG is currently .359 or if he’s just got a lucky .424 BABIP?

The sabermetricians now have so many baffling stats within other stats, combined with idiotic acronyms, that the whole thing is laughable.

Because players should be judged solely on hits divided by at-bats and how many runners are on base when those hits occur. On the other side of the ball, we know how good a pitcher is by how many games he wins. Good fielders don’t make errors. ‘Nuff said.

How does Ribby not sound funny and VORP does? Mister Cameron has a strange sense of humor.

How much time does a fan want to spend at the ballpark learning about UZR (a defensive stat that supposedly tells you about a player by dividing the field into 64 zones), VORP, BABIP or FIP?

Cameron should be thankful that people care enough about baseball to want to understand it better and come up with their own methods of valuation to better appreciate what’s happening on the field. If fans didn’t spend time caring about baseball, he wouldn’t have a job.

I suppose heavy drinking and shouting about guys being clutch would be better usage of one’s time at the ballpark to Mister Cameron.

Does that sound like fun?

I actually explained UZR to my father in about 5 minutes, while we watched a televised game on opening day. It was one of the best times I’ve had with my father in recent memory.

Cameron goes on to tell a brief story about a play in a Royals-Blue Jays game the other night, to illustrate for us glassy-eyed Saber-zombies that he knows what good baseball is and is not. He don’t need no cockamaimy numbers to tell him his Royals stink. Fine. But what if you came from another planet and really wanted to know whether Scott Podsednik’s a good hitter or not?

My first clue that we were headed down the wrong road occurred when pro football scouts began judging potential draftees by measuring things like vertical leap, time to run a course around cones, etc.

Shame on those football scouts for wanting to know exactly where their money is going. To hell with jumping, running and throwing. Let me see how the player looks in his uniform and if he’s got heart. And grit. Don’t ever forget grit.

Me, I’ll trust my eyes to see if a guy can play.

So why are you a writer and not a scout?

But personnel directors are terrified to buck the computer — that same device that claimed Mike Singletary was too short to play middle linebacker in the NFL.

Did scouts even use computers back when Singletary was taken by The Bears in the 2nd round of the 1981 NFL draft? Really poor example, since Singletary at least went in the 2nd round. It’s not like he was undrafted or even taken in the 6th round, like Tom Brady, back in 2000.

I love these guys who can judge if a guy’s going to be great, “just by setting eyes on him.” Joe Morgan made the same remark about Jason Heyward during a Mets-Braves broadcast on ESPN last week. Joe said it as though he saw something in this kid that no one else did. I bet someone brought Morgan to see Heyward and said, “Hey Joe Morgan, this kid’s going to be great,” and Joe said, “Yup. When’s lunch?”

Now if Heyward had started off his season going 2 for 49 and got sent back down to AAA, would we hear Joe saying how he thought Heyward was going to be great? How many players has Mister Cameron given his stamp of approval on and how many winners are there in the bunch?

Do statistics have a place in sports? Sure, if you take them in the proper context. And they don’t have to be complicated, either.

The proper context meaning that they do not replace the time-honored, written-in-stone statistics drawn up in the last century. Whether they are indicative of anything important or not, the old statistics are simple and I really don’t want to have to learn a new language in order to relate to a new generation of fans who are better informed than I am.

Even using the most basic stats — like runs scored in baseball — if you take a 3-year or 5-year sample you’re going to find that really good players have really good numbers.

Sure Runs are good to keep track of. That’s not good enough though, as Runs Scored do not tell the entire story. It’s certainly not good enough for baseball front-offices who spend millions of dollars on players based on their performance. It’s not good enough for the fans who want to better understand the game either. If we’re going to follow Cameron’s line of thinking to it’s logical end, why bother keeping track of statistics at all? Why do we care how many home runs Hank Aaron hit or how many hits Pete Rose collected?

Because the pace of baseball allows us the time to ponder these things. I may be in the minority (according to umpire Joe West) but one of the things I love most about the sport is it’s slow pace. Since there is not constant action happening on the playing field, we can talk endlessly about different facets of the game. With so many games played, more than any other professional sport, we get a large sample size with which to test hypothesis and theory, to see if numbers can be duplicated or replaced.

Leave VORP to Mr. Spock, thank you.

One day in the future when we’re all flying around in cars and have vacuum cleaners that talk, my great-great-grandkids will care about VORP, but I’m really far too lazy to try and figure out why The Red Sox signed Mike Cameron.

Phew! That was fun. I’ve been meaning to do a piece like this for a while. I even have post-its filled with stupid things that Michael Kay says, but Cameron’s piece was just an inspired waste of virtual ink. It was like seeing a grapefruit tossed down the middle on a 3-0 count. I just couldn’t help myself to not swing for the fences here, since I’m not even sure if he knows what the hell he’s arguing about in this piece.

At the end of the day, it saddens me to write stuff like that, even while I’m enjoying myself. It’s a shame that many journalists (and people in general) feel so threatened by any new idea that threatens their narrow perception of the world. A piece like this just shows me how complacent Mister Cameron is with his cushy little gig as a journalist. So complacent in fact, that he feels he’s too smart to even bother learning anything new about the game, let alone fact check.

Anyway, back to the basement. I’ve got some more writing about numbers to do.

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Opening Day With Pops

April 5, 2010

Easter has passed, Passover’s passing, the leftovers are in the fridge and the first game is in the books. I’m glad I was able to get home in time to catch about half of Yanks vs. Sox Part 1 and I feel lousy for JP who had both CC and Beckett going against one another and expected a low scoring affair. I hate to say it but I’m happy I didn’t bet the house on CC or Beckett in my draft/auction this year. I just hate having my pitchers get pummeled by those AL East lineups, especially when they play in favorable hitters parks. A lot of fantasy baseball owners don’t seem to put much stock in that, but it definitely entered my mind when I passed on Beckett in the 3rd round of my keeper league draft and went with Nelson Cruz. I wasn’t aware of Beckett’s 4.53 ERA lifetime at Fenway at the time, but there’s one more ‘actual fact to snack on and chew.’

This morning, I raced my friend over to Kennedy Airport (you know ‘Goodfellas?’ that’s where the Lufthansa Heist was held) so she could catch her flight back to Frisco and I could make it back to my folks house in time for Johann’s first pitch. It’s always a festive atmosphere on opening day over there in Flushing, as Met fans gather with naive optimism and tailgate it up beneath the Northern Boulevard overpass. It may just be another day at the chop shops across the street, but today’s a holiday Flushing and I was glad I could spend some time watching a game with pops.

See my father is old school baseball, like Willy, Mickey and The Duke. He was a high school baseball hero at James Monroe in The Bronx, playing alongside Mets great, Ed Kranepool as both a pitcher and a catcher. Pops lit it up from both sides of the plate and got a look from a few big league scouts. He was on some Hank Greenberg, Original Hebrew Hammer shit. As fate would have it though, he injured his throwing elbow and what might have been a professional baseball career ended prematurely. Of course today he would have had Tommy John Surgery and still might have had a shot at a comeback, but back then it wasn’t even an option. His love for the game never waned and he’s passed it on to me – along with a clear instructions to not throw too many breaking balls. So for better or for worse, (I’d like to think better) there we were in their two bedroom apartment in Flushing, watching the game that he taught me to love.

Pops is a Mets fan and he follows The Yankees too, but he isn’t up on all but the biggest names outside of the two teams respective divisions. He’s still very knowledgeable and has a treasure trove of baseball memories in his head, but he’s not up onĀ  Sabermetrics or “Moneyball,” outside the casual reference a color guy may spit out on TV. Pops likes to hear about my fantasy baseball team even though he’s never heard of half of the guys.

“Fuckin’ Pujols is the best, huh?” he says to me, as we watch the first of Albert’s two, leave Great American Bandbox. “Fuckin’ A right. That’s why I keep him.” I replied. “We use OBP too, so he’s got even more value in my league.”

“So he walks, his OBP goes up, and you get credit? Not just for his average?” He asked, His interest peaked.

“Yeah. He’s always got an insane OBP.”

“Of course. Nobody wants to pitch to him!” He stops and thinks for a few moments.

“So a guy like Swisher’s pretty good in your league then.”

“Yup. Got him too sometime late in the draft. He may drag down my average a bit, but he’s a walk machine and he should be able to hit 30 in the new Yankee Stadium.”

“Man. That place is a lot different than the old Stadium. With death valley in left center. If you could hit it out past the monuments, that’s some shot!”

461 feet out to left center to be exact when pops was growing up over there. Some shot indeed.

“There must have been a lot of extra basehits in that park, huh? Outfielders better have good legs. Like Citi I guess.”

“Of yeah. That’s why The Yanks always had those great, athletic Centerfielders, like The Mick before his knees went.”

“Like Mookie!” My mom chimed in from the kitchen.

Bottom of the 4th. The Mets are leading The Marlins 2 – 0 and threatening with bases loaded and one out. Unfortunately the next better is Alex Cora and not Jose Reyes. The left handed hitting Cora smokes a line drive off of Josh Johnson to the left of second base. The liner looks like it’ll end up a basehit, until Hanley Ramirez lunges to his left to snare the ball about an inch before it hits the infield dirt. Ramirez steps on second to double off Jeff Francoeur, and end the inning.

“Nice play” I say, switching over to Cards – Reds on ESPN. “Hanley’s not really know for his D.”

He wrinkles his bearded mug and waves a dismissive hand, “He’s supposed to make that play. He’s positioned perfectly against the lefty hitter.”

I nod in agreement. Neither Gary, Keith or Ron make any mention of the perfect positioning of the Marlins infield before they go to commercial. To be fair, I wouldn’t be surprised if they mentioned it when they returned from break though, since those guys are pretty much on the ball when it comes to the game within the game.

“The Marlins pitch well. They’re going to be better then The Mets again this year.” Pops says.

“Wouldn’t surprise me. Their D is terrible though. They give away too many outs. With a bullpen as lousy as Florida’s, you can’t do that. They just don’t seem to get the value of defense.” He turns and listens. “That’s the new shit. Like The Rays and The Mariners. Defense is the new OBP. It’s an undervalued commodity. See there are all kinds of new defensive metrics being used now that try to get a better picture of how good a fielder a player really is.”

“Well it’s pretty easy to see. If he drops the ball, he drops the ball.” He laughs.

“That’s not the whole picture though. Sure you want good hands, but what good are they if the guy never gets to the ball?” I shuffle two steps to my right and backhand an imaginary grounder to demonstrate. “What about the guy that never gets to the ball though? He sucks worse than the guy who drops it. At least the guy who drops it, has a chance at it right?”

He sits back and ponders quietly.

“But how do you measure that?” He asks. I’m a little in over my head now but I’ll give it a go.

“Well there are a bunch of guys who record every game and come up with an average. Like player X will get to a ball hit ten feet to his right X number of times… They get an average and then from there you can measure individual players and say Derek Jeter had a rating of 6.6 over the average replacement player last year. That’s called UZR or Ultimate Zone Rating. You add all that in with the player’s offensive Value Over Replacement Player and you can get a more accurate idea of how good a player really is.” I think I’m going a bit to fast but I want to illustrate a point.

“So smart teams are saying, ‘why should I spend 16 and a half mil on a home run hitter like Jason Bay, when I can get a guy who can be about as valuable with their glove, like Mike Cameron for five million.’ Not to say they’re equal, but obviously Cameron’s going to cost a lot less and he’ll help your pitchers a whole lot more.”

He soaks it in for a bit. “So the Marlins should spend what little money they have on defense I guess.”

“Probably. They still get a lot more out of their money than The Mets.”

He shakes his head in bewilderment mutters “Fuckin’ Muts,” before getting up to leave with mom and enjoy the lovely weather. They won 7-1.