March 21, 2006
THE NUMBERS DON'T LIE (BUT THEY DON'T MANAGE EITHER):
The Mystery of the Numbers: We all love movies that make us laugh, even in the worst of times—and from B&C's annual baseball preview, 2006 edition. (Michael R. Stevens, 03/20/06, Books & Culture)
I can't begin to cover all the angles that 27 essays in the volume use to approach the game, let alone account for the motherlode of new formulae and extensive acronyms that now apply (my favorite, from a rhetorician's perspective, is PAP—Pitcher Abuse Points). But I'll mention a few of the essays that reveal the tension of the old-school baseball fan in the face of the new statistical onslaught. Chapter 4-1, "What If Rickey Henderson Had Pete Incaviglia's Legs?" by James Click, is an extended meditation on the overvaluation given to stolen bases as compared to simply sound baserunning. Now here is the difficulty: those of us who watched Rickey in his prime know that he was among the most exciting, nerve-wracking players of our time (and that's a long time, since he played for a quarter century!). But the harsh numbers reveal a different story. After factoring in the sliding-scale (no pun, I swear!) for stolen-base value by inning, and the damage done by the infamous "caught stealing," James Click reveals the unthinkable: "In a typical season, the difference between a great baserunner and a terrible one is significantly smaller than between the best and worst hitters in the league. If Henderson hadn't stolen a single base in 1982, the A's would have lost about 2 runs on the season, or about one-fifth of a game. If he'd been as good as Incaviglia on the basepaths over his career, he would have contributed about 5 fewer wins in 25 seasons. He was fun to watch, but the first rule of baserunning is 'don't get caught,' advice Henderson disobeyed more than 700 times. Taking the extra base is good, but getting on base and eventually scoring is better." Scoring runs and accruing wins—that resounds like a chorus throughout the essays, biting into our nostalgia and sentiment. It is clearly a book written for General Managers and their ilk, guardians of efficiency and maximum return on investment.Posted by Orrin Judd at March 21, 2006 2:17 PM
But there is a bit of baseball's poetry still flowing amidst the numbers. In Chapter 2-1, "Why Are Pitchers So Unpredictable?" by Keith Woolner and Dayn Perry (a chapter of immediate interest to any Cub fans glancing at the table of contents), we witness the question eloquently analyzed: "An intricate web of interrelated and overlapping actions must ultimately align to deliver a successful pitch." The faultiness of the notion of ERA, which doesn't even correlate to runs scored or winning and losing, and is tied painfully into defensive performance, invites the creation of DIPS ERA (defense-independent pitching statistics). Here, only the situations that a pitcher can control—strikeouts, walks, hit-by-pitches, and home runs—are factored in. Then, the authors apply the kind of exactitude that makes this book maddening and compelling by further tweaking home-run rate into groundball-tendency rate, to get as accurate a read as possible on what a pitcher can control. The final claim is thus a bold departure from the usual head-scratching about finicky pitching stats: "Pitchers are unpredictable in that they're more likely to get injured or fatigued than any other player on the diamond. But when it comes to measuring a pitcher's performance by the numbers, only flawed, context-dependent measures such as wins and ERA make them unpredictable. Use the right measures, and pitching performance becomes less enigmatic."
Indeed, many of the essays thrust daggers at the heart of cherished baseball stratagems, daggers wrought of carefully derived numerical margins and the bottom-line of scoring/preventing runs and earning wins. The onslaught is most obvious in the provocative Chapter 3.4 "Is Joe Torre a Hall of Fame Manager?" by James Click, where we are introduced to the rather startling notion that almost all traditional managerial moves are destructive! Hence, "the primary conclusion to be taken from this analysis is that nearly every manager costs his team wins through overuse of these strategies. Only six times in thirty-three years has any manager used sacrifice attempts, stolen base attempts, and intentional walks to increase his team's win expectation over an entire. Even the best managers cost their team more than a game per season by employing these tactics." So much for "the inside game"!
Elsewhere, in the essay "Was Billy Martin Crazy?" (bite your tongues—I'm a virulent Yankees fan), we hear from James Click that "Batting order simply does not make that much difference … Teams without a player of Bond's caliber could gain about 10 runs (1 win) a year by routinely batting their players in order of descending OBP [on-base percentage]." Another item mentioned in several of the essays is the misuse of bullpens in contemporary baseball; James Click laments "the near complete absence of bullpen innovation in modern baseball," and Keith Woolner responds to his own question "Are Teams Letting Their Closers Go to Waste?" by pointing out that "This is one area where the refinement of strategy has actually taken us away from the optimal usage pattern. During the 'stopper' era of the 1970's, it was common to see a relief ace such as Rollie Fingers or Goose Gossage come in as early as the sixth inning to halt a nascent rally. That was the smart way to go. Focusing on situational leverage, rather than the accumulation of easy ninth-inning saves, is the best way to get the most out of a relief ace." Once again, a commonly held strategy is shown to be counter-productive, and we are left enlightened and yet frustrated. We have to rethink the basics of the game.