In defense of John Tomase*

May 16th, 2008 → 1:23 pm @

If you live in New England, watch C-Span, tune in to ESPN, or regularly peruse the Internets, there’s no way you avoided the culmination of what’s been portentously referred to, alternately, as Spygate and Videogate. (When did every flap or scandal–no matter how minor–take on the import of the only national crisis of the last century to bring down a president? But I digress.)

Tomase, as everyone now knows, is the Boston Herald reporter who wrote, in a story printed the day before the Pats lost the Superbowl to the Giants, about allegations that someone on the Patriots payroll had taped the Rams’ final walkthrough before Superbowl XXXVI. Before we go any further, let’s review what the story actually said:

One night before the Patriots face the Giants in Super Bowl XLII, new allegations have emerged about a Patriots employee taping the Rams’ final walkthrough before Super Bowl XXXVI. …

According to a source, a member of the team’s video department filmed the Rams’ final walkthrough before that 2002 game. …

When contacted last night, Patriots vice president of media relations Stacey James said: ‘The coaches have no knowledge of it.’ …

After his state of the NFL press conference yesterday, Goodell was asked if the league’s investigation into the Pats included allegations that they recorded the Rams walkthrough in 2002.

“I’m not aware of that,” Goodell said.

“We have no information on that,” seconded NFL spokesman Greg Aiello. …

According to a source close to the team during the 2001 season, here’s what happened. … According to the source, a member of the team’s video staff stayed behind after attending the team’s walkthrough and filmed St. Louis’ walkthrough. …

Asked yesterday if he believed the Pats used similar films to achieve their three Super Bowl victories, Goodell was adamant. ‘No,’ he said. ‘There was no indication that it benefited them in any of the Super Bowl victories.’

So, to review: the story made clear it was referring to “allegations” from “a source” that was “close to the team.”** Neither the Pats’ PR head nor the NFL issued a categorical denial…and in the ever-evolving dance between reporters and the people they cover, “no knowledge of that,” “not aware of that,” and “no information on that” are all the type of hedges that set off alarms.***

What else do we know? That the Pats did videotape opposing teams in ways that violated NFL rules and regs–repeatedly–even when the opposition was clearly inferior (see: Jets, regular season, 2007) and the game was less than season-changing (ibid).

There are, and should be, real debates concerning Tomase’s story, including: What is the threshold for running controversial stories? When are single sources adequate? When can anonymous sources be used? When is it appropriate to out anonymous sources? Why, with the country facing a possible recession and the armed forces stretched perilously thin, is the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee so fixated on a football game that was played more than six years ago?

(There’s also this issue, which I haven’t seen brought up once: what responsibility do other media outlets have in running with controversial stories they’re picking up from another news source, and, crucially, what responsibility do those other outlets have in making the limitations of a story’s sourcing as clear as the original article did?)

John, as he readily admits, screwed up by letting his concern about getting beat on a big story result in misplaced confidence about the story itself. (I’ll argue, as many reporters likely would, that it’s a reporter’s job to get excited about a story and it’s an editor’s job to rein him in when needed, but that’s another topic for another day.) But the vitriol and derision being directed at Tomase is over-the-top. (And getting angry at him or at the Herald is a bad way to displace frustration/anger over the Pats slightly-less-than-perfect season.) He had what he thought was a big story, and he thought he had made the limitations of his story clear in the piece itself. The allegations contained therein logically followed from what was already known. And nobody he interviewed would say, flat out, that the piece was wrong. Both Tomase and the Herald are owning up to the fact that major mistakes were made, and that, in my book anyway, involves taking a deep breath and manning up. I’ve screwed up in my career, and when I do I try to correct those mistakes as quickly and as publicly and as prominently as possible. That’s never fun, and from where I’m sitting, it’s hard not to admire a guy who sucks it up and writes the following:

First and foremost, this is about a writer breaking one of the cardinal rules of journalism. I failed to keep challenging what I had been told. … I take immense pride in what I do and the paper I work for. I truly believe it’s a privilege to serve as a link between the fans and their team. On Feb. 2, I let you all down. Today I hope to begin the long road back.

One final thought: Ironically, at the end of the day, the net result of Tomase’s story is likely positive for the Patriots. The larger storyline–that the Patriots had been caught breaking NFL rules multiple times–has become one about media malfeasance and how the team was unfairly accused of breaking NFL rules on one single occasion.

* Disclaimer: I know Tomase–fairly well, actually. He helped me tremendously during the writing of Feeding the Monster, and he gave me a much-used sandwich press when I got married. The reason I asked him to help me on the book was because of how much I admired his work as a Sox writer for the Eagle Tribune. I especially admired his resourcefulness–it’s hard, as a beat writer required to write game wraps, to also ferret out enterprising stories, which John did–and the way he went forward with a story even when he knew he was going to get the shit kicked out of him, as occurred with an ’05 piece about how frustrated the Sox brass were with Manny.

** We now know, in fact, that there were multiple sources for the story, although none with firsthand knowledge of the taping.

*** Important caveat here: As Tomase explains in his mea culpa, he didn’t give the NFL or the team adequate time to investigate the allegations.

Post Categories: Amy K. Nelson & ESPN The Magazine & Statistics & Super Jews

How to lie with statistics, academia edition: Here’s what your $40,000 a year is paying for

December 23rd, 2007 → 12:57 pm @

In yesterday’s New York Times, a pair of academics — Columbia professor of sociology Jonathan Cole and University of Chicago professor of statistics Stephen Stigler — published an article titled “More Juice, Less Punch,” which aimed to ask the question: “Do [PEDs] make a difference sufficient to be detected in the players’ performance records?” Their answer, not surprisingly, is no (otherwise there wouldn’t have been any point in publishing their story in the first place): “An examination of the data on the players featured in the Mitchell report suggests that in most cases the drugs had either little or a negative effect.”

I feel sorry for the students that are forced to sit through these boobs’ courses.

Cole and Stigler try to prove their point by comparing stats from before and after a given player is accused of using roids (or HGH, or whatever). They explain their methodology thusly: “For pitchers identified by the report, we looked at the annual earned run average for their major league careers. For hitters we examined batting averages, home runs and slugging percentages. We then compared each player’s yearly performance before and after he is accused of having started using performance-enhancing drugs. After excluding those with insufficient information for a comparison, we were left with 48 batters and 23 pitchers.” The results, they say, show no net gain in performance.

This in itself would seem to intuitively demonstrate that PEDs do, in fact, work – baseball players, like mathematicians and physicists – show a dramatic tail-off at a very young age (for the geeks, their best work is usually done in their 20s; for ballplayers, the peak years usually come between 28 and 32) and if players with extended careers don’t show any decline in performance, that would indicate an unusual pattern.

Anyone who had any slight degree of sophistication would also realize that it’s next to meaningless to compare raw data – you need to make sure you understand what the data you’re looking at actually means. In this case, that means realizing that comparing stats like ERA or home runs or OPS or anything else tells you much less about a player’s relative performance than ERA+ or OPS+. (OPS+ normalizes OPS for the park and the league the player played in; ERA+ shows the player’s ERA in relation to the league’s ERA. This explains why Pedro’s 1.74 ERA in 2000, when the league ERA was 5.07, earned him an ERA+ of 291, while Sandy Koufax’s 1.74 ERA in 1964, when the league ERA was 3.25, only garnered him an ERA+ of 187. It also helps show why Pedro’s 2000 season was arguably the best ever. It resulted in the highest ERA+ since 1880, and the second best ever. Koufax’s top season ranks as 56th.)

Let’s drill down a little more. Cole and Stigler write, “The Roger Clemens is a case in point: a great pitcher before 1998, a great (if increasingly fragile) pitcher after he is supposed to have received treatment. But when we compared Clemens’s E.R.A. through 1997 with his E.R.A. from 1998 on, it was worse by 0.32 in the later period.” As I pointed out last year, the salient point here is how Clemens performed in his late 30s compared to his mid 20s. In the 12 years from Clemens’ breakout year in 1986, when he was 23, he had an ERA+ above 180 twice; in the 10 years from age 35 to 44, he had two more. Compare that to other Hall of Fame pitchers from this era like Greg Maddux, who had four years with an ERA+ of 180 or higher before age 35 and none afterwards, or Tom Glavine, whose five best years all came before age 35. Heck, compare it to Tom Seaver, the guy who was voted into the Hall with the highest percentage ever: his six best years all came before age 34.

Cole and Stigler are just as ignorant when it comes to hitters. “What should not be overlooked,” they write, “is that Bonds’s profile is strikingly like Babe Ruth’s high performance level until near the end of his career, with one standout home run year — a year in which other players on other teams also exceeded their previous levels.”

Actually, what should not be overlooked is the fact that Bonds has put up an OPS+ of greater than 200 in three out of the last six years, compared with comperable numbers in three of his first 14 years in the bigs. Ruth also had an OPS+ higher than 200 in three of his final six years…and another eight in the previous 14. (Another thing that should not be overlooked: Bonds has played the majority of his career in a home ballpark that has a spacious right field, unlike Ruth, who got to hit in Yankee Stadium.)

I know it’s not a shocker than a pair of academics don’t really understand baseball; it has taken autodidacts like Bill James to help illuminate the game. What is shocking is how little Cole and Stigler — professors who not only deal with numbers but teach at elite institutions — seem to understand about analyzing data.

Post Categories: Jonathan Cole & New York Times & Statistics & Stephen Stigler & Steroids

Pap to the pen: A good move?

March 23rd, 2007 → 11:37 am @

So much for Papelbon’s short-lived career as a starting pitcher: yesterday, as everyone living within 500 miles of Boston undoubtedly knows, Jonathan Papelbon was named the Sox’s 2007 closer. At first blush, it’s hard to argue with this decision: Papelbon, a fourth round pick in the ’03 draft, was, for 5/6’s of the ’06 season, the best closer in the league. And lord knows I’m glad we’re not going to be watching Mike Timlin jogging out of the bullpen in the bottom of the ninth.

The move, according to everyone from Papelbon himself to the ticket takers in Ft. Myers, came after Paps himself requested he return to the bullpen, which, on a certain level, makes the whole discussion of whether or not this is a good idea moot. (After all, when you have a young stud offering to fill the team’s most glaring hole, it’s hard to marshal a good reason to deny him his request.) But will Papelbon be more valuable coming on in the ninth than he would be if he’d taken the mound every fifth day? That’s a trickier question. There’s undoubtedly a big psychological boost that comes with having a lights-out flamethrower set to slam shut the door at the end of a game. But let’s say Julian Taverez — who’s more than a little nuts — fills the fifth starter role to the tune of, say, a .500 record and a 4.43 ERA. And, for arguments sake, let’s say Papelbon would have put up a 10-6 record with a 4.07 ERA.

Actually, that’s not arguments sake: that’s Papelbon’s and Tavarez’s PECOTA projections for the ’07 season. (You’ll need a Baseball Prospectus subscription to view those PECOTA links; for an explanation of just what PECOTA, or Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test, is all about, here’s BP’s PECOTA glossary and the PECOTA Wikipedia entry.) Those numbers are a bit off, because they’re assuming Papelbon would be in the starting rotation and rack up 147 innings, while Tavarez was projected to be in the pen and amass a mere 50 innings (and everything else being the same, more innings=more value). But those stats give Papelbon a 30.1 VORP (value above replacement player), worth 4.5 wins above replacement player; they give Taverez a 7.6 VORP, good for a 1.2 WORP.

Now let’s compare two closers from last year: Mariano Rivera and Todd Jones. Jones, finishing games for the pennant-winning Tigers, ended the year with 37 saves; Mo finished up with 34. But according to PECOTA, Mariano was a lot more valuable, with a 34.9 VORP, and a 7.1 WARP; Jones’s numbers were 12.2, and 3.2. (For those of you who are interested, PECOTA has Pap as more valuable than both of them, coming in at 38.6 and 7.3)

And this means what, exactly? Well, for one thing, it shows how mutable relief pitching can be. (Anyone who bets that Jones is likely to repeat his ’06 performance is likely to lose his money. Lest anyone forget, Joe Borowski looked like an elite reliever last year.) They also give an indication that Papelbon will be a more valuable closer than he will be a starter. But that doesn’t us a complete answer as to our question; for that, we’d need to subtract Tavarez’s value as a starter from Papelbon’s value as a starter and add that to Papelbon’s value as a closer subtracted from that of whomever would have been the closer (or closers) had Paps remained in the rotation. If that number ends up being positive, then Jonathan and the Sox made the right call; if it’s negative, they made the wrong one. (Actually, it’s even more complicated than that, because you’d need to figure out the PECOTA figures of the replacement closer(s) versus their PECOTAs when they’re not closing, and also predict the likelihood that Papelbon will get injured when starting versus reliever, and add in some projections as to whether Manny is more or less likely to be paying attention when his buddy Julian is on the mound, and then try to determine what Papelbon’s presence in the rotation would mean for, say, Lester and Clement, and finally throw in whether John Henry & Co. would be more or less likely to go after Clemens in each imaginary scenario…well, you get the idea.)

This, of course, is the type of hypothetical argument that takes place in a vacuum, and it’s the type of number-crunching exercise that makes Luddite’s like Murray Chass wince. But it’s interesting, and the fact that this kind of analysis is getting little (read: no) attention in what those kooky wingnuts in the blogosphere like to refer to as the MSM is indicative of the extent to which baseball reporting by the mass-market professionals lags behind baseball analysis by specialized writers and amateurs alike.

And to get back to the main point of this here post, it’s the absence of this type of discussion that helps show why precisely this is such a good move, numbers be damned. Even if Papelbon performed above expectations as a starter — say, 13-6, 3.60 — if the team’s closer(s) blew a handful of games, they’d be cries for blood. If, on the other hand, Tavarez goes 4-10 with a 4.79 ERA, there’ll be bitching about his performance…but precious little discussion as to whether the Sox made the wrong move by putting Papelbon back in the pen. Which means that Paps in the rotation has the potential to be huge distraction. And that would be bad for everyone.

In a couple of hours, I’ll offer up an historical example of just how distracting that type of situation can be. And — surprise! — Grady Little plays a central role in that tale.

(Update: the good folks over at SoSH have started a thread on the relative value of relievers versus starters thing; I’m about to run out so I haven’t had a chance to fully check it out, but it’s bound to be interesting.)

Post Categories: Jonathan Papelbon & Julian Tavarez & Red Sox Fans & Sosh & Sports Reporters & Statistics

Manny and defense, part 4: The links

March 21st, 2007 → 11:33 am @

I’ve been deficient in time spent on Sons of Sam Horn, and quick trip over there this morning turned up an interesting and informative thread on the whole Manny/defense/overall worth debate. Not surprisingly, there’s a lot of good stuff in there. (Most of it supports my arguments. I rule!)

Other good discussions: a February ’06 SoSH thread that specifically addresses Manny’s fielding; a March ’06 Inside the Book piece titled “What Is Manny Really Worth?“; and the resulting SoSH thread of the same name. More recently — as in last week — Baseball Think Factory ran an analysis of the Sox’s defense.

There. That should take up most of your work day. Enjoy.

Post Categories: Dan Rosenheck & Defense & Manny Ramirez & Statistics

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

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