You like me! You really, really like me!

March 21st, 2007 → 3:52 pm @

The good folks at Baseball Think Factory have started a thread about my thoughts on the Times “Keeping Score” piece and (author Dan Rosenhack’s thoughts on my thoughts). I think it’s fair to say I come out holding the shit end of the stick. (To wit: I’m a “Boston sportswriter…in the bad way,” I have a “particular blind spot with regard to Ortiz,” I’m a “front office mouthpiece,” my analysis is “simple-minded, fan-boy tripe” (that’s actually in reference to something on Joe Posnanski’s site), I’m “unwilling to entertain reasonable analysis,” my post was a “crap” “hatchet job,” and my follow-up posts don’t “help my argument” or “make me look very good.”)

On the positive side of the ledger, I’ve been elevated to Gammons’s echelon — which truly is an honor — and as far as supposed Sox mouthpieces go, I’m apparently the “updated, cooler, albeit non-rock star, version, since he writes for Slate and Salon, and, according to Posnanski ‘wears black and swears a lot.'”

Awesome. (Er, I mean, fucking awesome.)

Anyway. In the interests of fairness, or impartiality, or something, I wanted to put this out there. It seems as if both sides of this, um, discussion, have stopped listening to the other, and rather then get into a point-by-point refutation of various and sundry quibbles and counter-quibbles, I’ll respectfully bow out at this point…although, trust me, it’s hard to resist on some counts.* And, in all sincerity, I’m glad there’s apparently a goodly amount of interest in what I have to say. It’s always gratifying to know you have a passionate audience. Even if they passionately hate you.

So. This really will be my last post on the topic; I’m sure some of my two-dozen readers are getting bored, and, since this isn’t my job**, I really should get back to work…

*Ok, make that impossible. One of the BTF posters says, “I’ve spoken directly with a guy at Stats Inc, and he claimed that they had guys double checking all the field reports on video. So unless he was lying, I don’t think Seth has all the info….despite his claim to have ‘spent a fair amount of time speaking with those Stats Inc. observers.'” I’ll avoid being snarky and instead just say that that double checking is exactly what I was referring to when I said that “one crucial part of the equation that I left out of my post — probably stupidly — is that the hired-gun defensive scorers are actually fined (or docked pay) when their assessments vary too much from other assessments.” That’s why their reports are double checked.

** But writing Feeding the Monster was, at one point, anyway, my job, and even though I will never see a penny in royalties (that, sadly, really is true), I still want you to read it. It’s good! (Don’t take my word for it; read some excerpts and decide for yourself. Or just check out some of the reviews. Those of you who think I’m a talentless hack should get it too; that way you’ll have more ammo to help hone your disgust to a diamond-fine point.) Anyway, it’s available from Amazon for only $17.16 (cheap!) and, as always, free, signed, personalized bookplates are still available. (Virtual) operates are standing by!

Post Categories: Baseball Think Factory & Dan Rosenheck & Interweb spats & Joe Posnanski & Manny Ramirez & New York Times & Oblique references to Sally Field's Oscar Acceptance Sp

I reprint, you decide: the Times on Manny, pt. 2

March 21st, 2007 → 11:00 am @

On Sunday, I took issue with a New York Times “Keeping Score” article on the extent to which Manny Ramirez defensive deficiencies detracted from his overall value. Specifically, I called the piece “boneheaded,” “stupid,” and “embarrassing.”

Dan Rosenheck, the author of said piece, took issue with my criticisms, and in at least two situations, he’s totally right, First, it was stupid and boneheaded for me to call his piece stupid and boneheaded. (Ed: But isn’t the Interweb supposed to be about baseless accusations and unwarranted vitriol? Yes, but if the Interweb was jumping off a bridge, does that mean I should do it too?) (Ed: Aren’t you blatantly ripping the whole “Ed:” gimmick from Kausfiles, Mickey Kaus’s mostly political blog? Yes, except he usually has the editor assume the voice of reason. Which, you know, makes more sense.) Another good point Dan makes: from my post, it sounds as if I’m arguing that the problems with defensive metrics mean they’d (potentially) take a +30 player and make him a -30 player and that therefore PBP* stats are totally useless. I’m not arguing that…but you should read the back and forths below, starting with Dan’s initial e-mail, my response, and his response to my response. And then weigh in with your comments. There are certainly holes to be poked in my arguments. Although I’m still right…

(At this point, it probably makes sense to read Dan’s piece and my post, in that order. Or else this is all going to seem a bit obtuse.)

On using defensive metrics to evaluate Manny’s worth:

DR: I just have to ask: Are you actually familiar with the output of PBP systems? If the raw data they are based on were as haphazard as you suggest, the results would be inscrutable—you’d have guys going from +30 to -30 from one year to the next, guys who are clearly superlative defenders coming out poorly, and guys who are clearly horrific coming out well. Instead, the PBP systems pass every conceivable “smell test.” They show year-to-year consistency, with a clearly distinguishable aging pattern: players’ defense tends to improve until they are about 24, decline slowly until around 30, and then fall off a cliff. By and large, they square with anecdotal evidence: Gold Glove winner Orlando Hudson is indeed a great second baseman; the universally panned Alfonso Soriano was indeed a terrible one. And, perhaps most tellingly, they line up with each other. There are two different companies that each send observers to games, STATS Inc. and Baseball Info Solutions (BIS). Despite being based on entirely different data sets compiled by entirely different groups of observers, the PBP metrics based on STATS’ data show an exceedingly high correlation to those based on BIS’ results. None of this would be the case if the systems were half as unreliable as you suggest they are.

SM: The year-to-year consistency only shows consistency on the part of the individual scorers in each park. I can predict a counter-argument: but what about when players are traded, etc? Well, one crucial part of the equation that I left out of my post — probably stupidly — is that the hired-gun defensive scorers are actually fined (or docked pay) when their assessments vary too much from other assessments. That, combined with the fact that the training of the people who compile the PBP stats is so haphazard and varied means you get a huge amount of self-perpetuation. Finally, I know you know that I’m not arguing that a player would go from +30 to -30; I’m arguing a player could really be a -10 and, because of a combination of factors (including calcified notions of that person’s fielding), he’d consistently get rated a -20.

DR: That still doesn’t account for the agreement between BIS’ and STATS’ data sets, which are compiled independently by entirely different people and seems to me to be the biggest feather in the PBP systems’ cap. I certainly did *not* know that you were not arguing that a player would be from +30 to -30—I had nothing to go on but your blog post, which made it sound like PBP systems were completely worthless.

That said, I think you’re only slightly underrating the systems’ accuracy in your email. The consensus I was given in my interviews is that the 95% confidence interval is probably about 7 runs, meaning that if somebody is rated a -20 there’s a 95% chance he’s “truly” between a -13 and a -27. So it seems to me highly (less than 5%) unlikely that “a player could really be a -10 and, because of a combination of factors (including calcified notions of that person’s fielding), he’d consistently get rated a -20.” But if you changed your estimate to “could really be a -13,” or that a player who was rated -10 could consistently get rated a -17, I’d buy that. PBP metrics are not yet a fine-toothed comb—the main factors we are missing are positioning (extremely important!) and lots of sample size—but it’s more than precise enough to make the kind of estimates I did in my story (if the best guess we have is that Ramírez is about a -18, he’ll probably be about as valuable as Nick Swisher). I don’t think I overstated the case for the PBP stats’ reliability, either, since I made clear that the disagreement between systems was as big as 19 runs on Manny in 2006!

On moving Ortiz to first and Manny to DH:

DR: As for my proposal that the Red Sox move David Ortiz to first: I’m sure he is “more comfortable as a full-time DH.” But I find it hard to believe that from the team’s perspective, his “comfort” level is really worth 15 runs/1.5 wins/ $4 million per season. I’m not sure what “actual evidence” you’re referring to when you suggest that “part of Ortiz’s prodigious offense results from the time he spends in the clubhouse between at-bats, when he studies previous at-bats against the opposing pitcher and reviews what might lead to success.” Have you done a controlled study in which you deny Ortiz his precious clubhouse time for 3,000 at-bats and give it to him for another 3,000, and then compare the results? If not, I’m not exactly sure how you’d go about supporting that hypothesis. I acknowledge myself that he might be more vulnerable to injury if he played the field. The question is, how much more? Is it 5% more likely, 10%, 15%? And how much time would he miss if he were hurt? The team needs to come up with its best estimate for a dollar cost of the added injury risk to Ortiz, and compare that to the dollar cost of leaving Ramírez in left field. If the former is greater, then the Sox’ current alignment is the correct one (although they would be well-advised to explore a trade, since Ramírez would be more valuable to a team without a DH than he is to them). But if it isn’t, then they really should consider making a switch.

SM: As for Ortiz, I have lots of evidence to support that. I’ve spoken with him. I’ve looked at his stats from when he was in Minnesota (and playing first base more regularly), both in terms of time on the DL and offensive numbers. I’ve spoken with the people who work with him on the team’s baseball operations crew. When Ortiz strikes out, goes back into the clubhouse, studies the pitcher, and comes back and hits a walk-off home run, a couple of things could have been happening, and one of them certainly could be that he’s convinced himself this clubhouse time helps his actual batting skill more than it does…but the psychological component of the game is enormous. And this is a situation where it clearly makes no sense to try and determine whether Ortiz is 10% more likely to get injured, determine a dollar amount to correlate to that figure, and determine a dollar amount to leaving Manny in left. What you’d actually need to do is figure out the extent to which Ortiz, who is one of the people who helps keep a stressed out and often disgruntled clubhouse relatively loose (and is also a remarkably underpaid player on a team full of overpaid prima donnas), would be bothered by a move to first. Then you’d need to put a dollar amount on that. Then you’d need to put a dollar amount on the impact of his unhappiness on the other players on the team. Then you’d to put a dollar amount on the impact of Ortiz’s impact on fans. Then you’d need to put a dollar amount on the impact of a disgruntled fan base on a team playing in the most over-oxygenated city in the country. Etc.

DR: Ortiz’s stats in Minnesota suggest he hits *better* not worse, as a 1B. From 1998-2002, he had a 120 OPS+ (a combined on-base and slugging percentage 20% higher than the park-adjusted league average) as a 1B, and just a 109 OPS+ as a DH. That’s even more striking given that players usually hit worse when they DH, since they are often playing with a minor nagging injury that prevents them from playing the field. I don’t know how you could use his Minnesota splits to argue *against* his playing first base.

Do you have any actual evidence that his being “bothered” by a move to first would actually make him hit worse? If not, then the dollar cost of the move is 0. Look, Craig Biggio didn’t want to move to 2B, and his hitting didn’t suffer with the switch. You’d have to have a pretty low opinion of Ortiz’s character to think he would intentionally sabotage his hitting just to protest a position swap. Do you have any actual evidence that his being unhappy would make the *other* players on the team play worse? That’s an even less credible, and completely unsupported, assumption. These guys may not be robots, but they are professionals, and they know that their paychecks are tied to their performance. Plenty of successful teams have fought with each other—the 77-78 Yankees leap to mind. Winning creates chemistry, and winning attracts fans—not the other way around. I don’t see any more reason to take it on faith that Boston would actually win fewer games as a result of Ortiz’s displeasure at being moved to first base than I do to believe that Derek Jeter raises his game in clutch situations, or that non-knuckleball pitchers “induce” weak contact to a large degree, or that only a special club of psychologically superior relievers can pitch in the 9th inning of close games. I’m willing to be convinced of any and all these things, but you’ll have to show me something more concrete than vague comments about a “comfort level.” And you know what? If Ortiz’s OPS suddenly dropped 150 points while playing first, they could always just switch him back. Seems to me like it’s worth a try, no?


At this point, it seemed clear Dan and I were talking past each other, although at least we were doing it civilly. Since this is my blog, I’ll sum up my points in the next post…and Dan, goshdarnit, if you still wanna rumble — and lord knows I’m fully capable of going overboard when I decide to get into it — let’s do it in the comments section.
* There are some relatively esoteric terms in here (for example: PBP, which stands for play-by-play, and connotes precisely that: the effort to examine every defensive play and then find a way to systematically examine that information. Baseball Prospectus has a decent glossary of sabermetric terms, although you won’t find PBP in there.)

Post Categories: Dan Rosenheck & Keeping Score & Manny Ramirez & New York Times & Statistics

In which I get the final word: Keeping score of Manny, pt. 3

March 21st, 2007 → 10:57 am @

Right. So: here’s part 3 of this whole imbroglio. I’ll sum up my position as follows: stats are enormously useful, and the intelligent use and analysis of statistical information has revolutionized the appreciation of and understanding of baseball, just as it’s revolutionized the way smart front offices put together their on-field teams. As Murray Chass knows, I think people who argue to the contrary are, to put it bluntly, Neanderthals.

But we should be as careful in our use of (and as wary of our over-reliance on) statistics as we should be about old-fashioned scouting. The statistical analysis of baseball is most effective when it’s one part of an integrated-arsenal, and that arsenal includes scouting, player relations, and a healthy dose of skepticism. Ergo: when the very people compiling the raw data for defensive stats tell me there are situations in which it’s all but useless, I’ll be skeptical.

And we should also take care to consider the human element of the game. There are plenty of times when a player’s comfort level/happiness can effect his play and/or the general mood around the team (see: Garciaparra, Nomar). Ortiz has been vocal enough about what he sees as the advantages of DHing and the disadvantages of his playing in the field that I think that option is pretty much a non-starter.

Does that mean, as I likely implied, it hasn’t been considered? Absolutely not. But I think it’s been discarded as a serious option. And if it hasn’t, I think it should be.

Post Categories: Dan Rosenheck & Keeping Score & Manny Ramirez & New York Times & Statistics

NESN gives Boston fans reason to believe the Sox are just as selfishly stupid as they’ve always suspected

March 19th, 2007 → 5:19 pm @

I’m far from the only person who finds baseball’s exclusive deal with DirectTV to be, frankly, offensive. (The recent quasi-compromise is a complete smokescreen.) MLB has officially gotten itself in the business of forcing consumers to choose between two competing distribution channels. This is an effort to make a lot of money, yes, but it’s also an effort to bring more consumers to, which shows the Selig’s deputies don’t have the best grasp of their audiences viewing habits. The DirectTV deal not only pisses me — and you, and everybody else who currently has cable — off, it’s yet another example of baseball’s time-honored tendency to win the battle and lose the war. As John Henry told me in Feeding the Monster, baseball isn’t just competing with football and basketball and hockey for people’s attention, it’s competing with The Departed and the new Halo and YouTube and every other of the million entertainment options out there. And when you take away the opportunity for people to spend more time watching baseball, you’re simultaneously giving them more time to enjoy some other form of entertainment. The web has long prized the notion of “stickiness” — how much time a user spends on any given site. That’s an increasingly important metric across all entertainment options. Baseball is losing out on a chance to stick itself to me. And if I can’t watch the three weekday games and get to know the players and heighten my involvement with my team of choice, my overall connection to MLB is going to lessen. What’s more, online TV still has a long way to go, and MLB’s audience isn’t all that likely to sit in front of their computers for poor picture quality and choppy feeds. So, sure, baseball is making some money now, but it’s not going to accomplish one of its main goals — getting viewers to migrate over to — and it sure could end up making fans feel less connected over time.

But so what, right? It’s not like this story is just breaking. But another one is, a story in which NESN is showing it has internalized MLB’s battle/war valuation all too well. According to an article in today’s Herald, NESN (which the Sox own 80% of) will no longer permit local stations to air highlights while a game is still in progress. Think about that. You’re watching American Idol and at the tail end of an ad break, there’s a teaser for that night’s newscast. But now you won’t get, “Papi hits another two homers as the Sox face off with the Jays; full report at 11.” (Or at least you won’t get a video clip to further draw you in.) That means you’ll see less of those teasers. That means fewer people are likely to stay up and watch the sports highlights. And that means fewer people are going to realize in the middle of the game that, hot damn, they’d rather watch Ortiz crank some into the bleachers than be bored by Paula and Simon bitching at each other. And that means it’s likely that NESN’s boneheaded move with actually translate into fewer people tuning in to the team’s broadcasts. (Can you imagine another TV network actually telling its competition that they were not allowed to run what amounts to free ads in the middle of the programming? Neither can I.)

As the Herald notes, this move could very well be an antecedent to the day when NESN only allows local stations to air highlights if they license — i.e., pay for — them. If that’s indeed true, I’d expect there to be a helluva fight. There are plenty of implications here, not the least of which is U.S. copyright law’s fair use doctrine, which states that the use of copyrighted material for “purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting…is not an infringement of copyright.” Two of the four considerations the law lists as factors in this type of fair use are “the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation” to the work as a whole and “the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.” There’s not a chance in hell that the Sox will ever be able to argue that a minute or two of highlights are a substantial amount of the entire game or that watching the evening news somehow threatens NESN’s ability to benefit from its copyright. (In fact, I’m surprised none of the local stations have brought this up in relation to the use of clips that are aired while the game is still being played…but that could be because promotional ads (“news at 11…”) are, by definition, commercial in nature, while the newscasts themselves would certainly count as “news reporting.”)

I usually defend the Sox when they’re accused to trying to soak every last penny from their franchise; after all, I’d be thrilled if the team sells a million more Red Sox Nation memberships if that translates into more money for the team’s baseball operations. But this feels like one toke over the line. And it feels remarkably stupid as well.

(I’m not a big believe in the cabal — sorry, Tony — but it is interesting that this story doesn’t seem to be on the Globe‘s Red Sox homepage. The Globe, of course, is owned by The New York Times Co., which also happens to be the largest minority owner of the Sox. Or, to simplify things: the Times Company makes lots of money off of NESN.)

Post Categories: Boston Globe & Broadcasting & Cable & & NESN & New York Times

Keeping Score: The Times weighs in with another boneheaded Sox story

March 18th, 2007 → 9:30 am @

Only the most dyed-in-the-wool fanboys would ever claim that Manny Ramirez is a good outfielder; those folks that claim that he ouwits opponents by goading them into running on his (at best) average arm are as bad as folks that argue that Bush actually has a plan for getting out of Iraq. But his outfield play is not responsible for the Red Sox’s woes over the past six years, as some would argue.

Like, for instance, today’s “Keeping Score” column in the Times, which, in its own way, is just as dumb as Murray Chass’s “I refuse to learn anything about statistics because I’m a lazy toad, er, it would ruin my enjoyment of the game” gem. In today’s piece, Dan Rosenheck tries to smokescreen the reader with lots of impressive sounding, supposed truisms to argue that Manny’s defense is so bad it basically brings him down to the level of a mid-level All-Star. His central argument is this: “Accurate numerical evaluations of defense only became possible in 1987, when Stats Inc. began sending observers to every game to record the location and speed of every batted ball. This play-by-play (P.B.P.) information made it possible to measure fielding ability much more precisely, by comparing the rates that players at the same position fielded various types of balls…”

I’ve spent a fair amount of time speaking with those Stats Inc. “observers.” They are, for the most part, college kids who are given little training and are paid poorly to sit in the stands and carve up the field into zones belonging to each defensive position. The problem is, those zones are about as reliable as Mel Gibson once he’s gotten a few drinks in him. (Right, Leary?) To give Stats Inc’s P-B-P info this much weight is as dumb as, say, giving Derek Jeter the Gold Glove because you think he looks good in the field. Smart observers — and smart teams — make every effort to create their own defensive metrics, and those same observers have made cogent arguments as to why their work should not, on the whole, be considering overly reliable.

Rosenheck solidifies his Chassness with the following, completely asinine suggestion:

“The other solution would be to move Ramírez to designated hitter. That would require switching the incumbent D.H., David Ortiz, to first base. Ortiz is even less mobile than Ramírez, and given his corpulence, the demands of playing the field may substantially increase his risk of injury.”

To which I can only say: Wow. Ortiz has said clearly he’s more comfortable as a full-time DH; there’s also plenty of evidence (anecdotal and actual) that at least part of Ortiz’s prodigious offense results from the time he spends in the clubhouse between at-bats, when he studies previous at-bats against the opposing pitcher and reviews what might lead to success. What’s more — what’s more important, in fact — is the evidence that Ortiz’s well-chronicled injury history resulted from the pounding he took in the field. And bad knees plus first base is a bad combo. Right, Buckner?
Finally, “corpulence”? That’s a fancy way of saying someone’s fat. “Given his size,” maybe. “Given his history of knee injuries and attendant immobility,” maybe. But fat? David Wells is fat. I’ve seen David Ortiz with his shirt off. He’s a big man. But he’s not fat. And I bet Rosenheck is glad he’s not ever going to risk saying that to Papi’s face.

“Keeping Score” is often one of the Times‘s most interesting sports columns, especially when David Leonhardt is weighing in. Today’s is embarrassing. At the end of the day, Manny’s play in the field undoubtedly hurts the Sox. It’d be interesting to find out just what the cumulative effect of this is. We’re not going to learn that from the Times.

Post Categories: Dan Rosenheck & Keeping Score & Manny Ramirez & Murray Chass & New York Times & Statistics

Someone teach the Times how to use spellcheck before they strike again

March 12th, 2007 → 10:59 am @

I’ve been accused of being obsessed with the inability of the Times to spell Kurt Andersen’s name correctly. (They’ve gotten it wrong repeatedly in the last several months, most recently last Tuesday. The paper did seem to spell ‘Andersen’ correctly in this Sunday’s Book Review. If I ever get a front-page review like that, I don’t care if they spell my last name Mynukan.)

Andersen’s isn’t the only “en” name the paper repeatedly fucks up. Today’s paper contains a correction about the misspelling of Theodore C. Sorensen’s name — and considering that Sorensen, as one of Kennedy’s top advisers, is even better known than the founder of Spy, that’s even more embarrassing. But it gets worse: the correction isn’t just for a single story: the Times Sorensoned him on February 22 and again this past Saturday. (According to a Nexis search, the paper has made the same mistake at least 45 times since 1970; the actual number may be greater than that.)

I’ve been using computers since I was 12, when I plugged the old Timex Sinclair 1000 into a black-and-white TV. At the time, I even knew how to program in Basic. So it’s very possible that my vast computer experience is greater than the collective experience at the Times, and maybe that explains how I’ve been able to add proper names into my spellcheck to make sure, for example, that I don’t misspell Andruw Jones as Andrew Jones. Still, I need to assume that the newspaper that defines itself — and rightly so — as one of the premier news-gathering organizations in the world can somehow figure out how to write some code into their internal system to ensure they don’t repeatedly misspell proper names that appear in their pages with some regularity. But maybe I’m being overly optimistic.

Post Categories: Kurt Andersen & New York Times

The Times-Andersen files: You need to at least consider the possibility that they’re making some kind of postmodern comment on the porousness of the self.

March 6th, 2007 → 11:17 am @

Last week I was talking with some media reporters, reminiscing about the days when I had to pay attention to which mid-level editors were moving to which magazines. Conversation turned, as it often does when I’m talking to non-civilians whom I don’t really know, to the Times and my little-read (but well received!) book, Hard News, and I said how incredibly happy I was that I no longer had to read the paper as a critic but could just enjoy it as my breakfast table companion. And in that capacity, I think it’s pretty fucking great — the front page is livelier and more engaging than it’s been in years; the arts and business sections are both erudite and interesting even to those not obsessed with the minutia of those industries; etc.

All of which is true. But man, can they be sloppy. Either that or they’re absolutely obsessed with misspelling Kurt Andersen’s name, which they seemingly do every single time they write about the man. The latest example is yesterday’s review of Heyday, Andersen’s new book (which, biased or not, I think is pretty amazing). They seem to get his name write in the text of the piece, but, at least online, misspell it twice as “Anderson” — in the caption and the info box.

If this is meant as a sly shout-out to me from those Times copy editors who secretly love my work, well, I’m touched! But for some odd reason, I doubt that. And in that case, as Gob would say…c’mon!

Post Categories: Hard News & Kurt Andersen & Media reporting & New York Times & Oblique references to Arrested Development