Saturday, May 30, 2009

Writer Attempts to Understand Fielding Statistics; Lobotomy Ensues

Paul Daugherty of the Cincinnati Enquirer is surprised by the Reds' recent stretch of reasonably good baseball. Who isn't? But this article is a slop-fest of statistical foolishness. Check it out:

[Note: this article dates to 5/18 - I simply hadn't gotten around to it till now]

Numbers Add Up to Better Defense


In baseball, defining good defense is like catching a butterfly with a frying pan.


That's why some of us are professional writers and some of us are bloggers. Similes, ladies and gentlemen: not just something your tenth-grade English teacher tested you on.

It's the team with the fewest errors, right? It's the team with the best fielding percentage. Fewer errors equals better defense. Of course it does.

This is what we call a "straw man" - Paul is setting up the old version of baseballthink and oversimplifying it. Then, he will refute it! Paul is smarter than conventional baseball wisdom. QED!

Not really. Reds center fielder Willy Taveras gets to flyballs that some major league outfielders couldn't reach in Danica Patrick's ride.

Pop culture references are not the exclusive property of Bill Simmons. Even hometown joes can use 'em!

What if Taveras gets to a ball in the gap and drops it? He gets an error. Does that make him a bad outfielder?

Can't be fielding percentage, then. Must be putouts. Has to be. An outfielder with a lot of putouts has to be good. He's catching more balls. Makes perfect sense. OK, seamhead, but what if his pitching staff includes more flyball pitchers than groundball guys?

I love the "OK, seamhead" part - as though Mr. Daugherty is conceivably addressing someone who had thought a lot about fielding, but hadn't thought of the last point (which really isn't that complex).

I hope someday I'm in an argument and someone says, "OK, seamhead, listen to THIS!" Then I will slink away like I did when I lost a sixth-grade cap war.

See what I mean?

Yes.

The Reds defense is better this year. Even as they've made more errors than 29 other major league teams.

Now we're getting interesting. They're last in the majors in errors. That's not a good sign.

I asked readers of my blog to tell me where to go. (They're very good at that.) Actually, I wanted Web sites that delivered cold, hard facts when it came to catching butterflies with frying pans. The posters delivered.

Wow, never mind. Daugherty is cool. He takes advice from his blog's commenters. I take back all the snide, backhanded insults I used earlier.

One offered this helpful tidbit: Compare "the statistics of fielding percentage, number of putouts and assists, along with doubles, triples and inside-the-park home runs allowed by the outfielders this year to the 2008 team after 32 games."

A helpful tidbit to be sure, but it's really hard to measure the stat of "doubles allowed by outfielders"... usually you measure the "doubles allowed by pitchers" stat. I hear Adam Dunn allowed 28375 doubles last year, which was only exceeded by this guy, who allowed 298329757 doubles last year.

Whuh?

I don't think this word is in the dictionary.

Who do I look like, Norman Einstein?

A veiled pop culture reference! TV commentator (and Notre Dame graduate) Joe Theismann once allegedly claimed that "A genuis is a guy like Norman Einstein".

Someone else suggested Batting Average, Balls In Play: BABIP.

BABIP sounds like the hero of a jungle movie. "Babip, come quickly! The lion is eating the little boy!"

To some people, this could be construed as vaguely offensive. To no people, this could be construed as funny. Also, most reasonable commenters who understand what BABIP is will recognize that it doesn't do a great job measuring defense. But hey! it's a funny acronym, and thus it has a place in this article.

A few offered UZR, which isn't a designer steroid

That was a joke! Did you catch it? You wouldn't have caught it if I hadn't separated it like this!

but something called Ultimate Zone Rating. I was directed to an author named John Dewan, who has published the Fielding Bibles, I and II. After the bosses said I couldn't expense the Bibles, I blew that one off,

Gosh, the newspaper industry sure has fallen on hard times when you can't spend thirty-three bucks on books you don't really intend to read because you already don't like stats.

blasphemously.

That was another joke! Get it? He blew off Dewan's book, a "Bible", so it was like committing blasphemy!

Baseballprospectus.com offers a Defensive Efficiency rating, "the rate at which balls put into play are converted into outs." The Reds rank fifth in the major leagues.

Hey! A stat! Maybe that's why the Reds are doing well at defense! Why don't you explain this, Mr. Daugherty? That would be a great way to support your claim that the Reds' defense is better this year.

There were a lot of other, very small numbers to look at, but I felt myself slipping into a coma, so I stopped reading them.


Why were the numbers smaller? I have a subscription to BP.com myself and I'm pretty sure all the numbers are the same size. Was there a font problem? Are you actually narcoleptic? [Note: the link is definitely worth the very short time you will invest in it].

Generally, I think baseball stats are like vegetables: An important part of a well-balanced diet and occasionally hard to swallow.

You just spent the whole time mocking pretty much all the statistics - from errors to fielding % to UZR to BABIP to defensive efficiency. Which stats do you like? Which stats, like spinach, are actually good for you, even though they look funny on paper and have weird acronyms? Food metaphors for everyone!

So where do we go with this?

Last year, the Reds were hurt by Ken Griffey Jr.'s diminished range in right field and Adam Dunn's general mismanagement in left.

Amen. I actually like the phrase "general mismanagement" - it aptly describes Mr. Dunn's fielding ability. These guys explain how it works. [Note: the video is worth your time if you've ever been an opposing fan in the left-field bleachers at Wrigley].

But how much better are they now, with Jay Bruce in right and the Chris Dickerson/Laynce Nix combo in left?

More importantly: What has Willy Taveras given them in center field?

What a good pair of questions to ask. Bravo, Mr. Daugherty!

For what it's worth, Nix's and Taveras' RF/9 is a bit above league average, and Dickerson's a bit below. In contrast, Dunn's and Griffey's RF/9 for 2008 are both significantly below league average. Since the Reds' staff is generally the same staff as last year, it seems that the Reds' defense has improved substantially since last year! You're right, Paul!

I asked Sam Grossman. Sam who?

The Reds Manager of Baseball Research and Analysis. Like most astute baseball people, Grossman has a degree in mathematics from Northwestern. He worked in insurance, decided he'd rather not, took a few minor league internships and was hired by the Reds in 2007. Grossman crunches the fielding numbers.

Shit. I should follow my dream like Sam Grossman.

He reads play-by-plays like they're the Dead Sea Scrolls.

More Bible allusions! Anyone who reads this post all the way through will be older than Jared!

They show where balls are hit - their "zone" - and what happened. From there, Grossman employs a double-secret formula similar to the one used by the UZR folks: How hard was the ball hit? Was it off a right-handed or left-handed pitcher? And so on. Then the numbers are compared to the league average.


I wonder how "double-secret" this formula is. I also like how he calls them "the UZR folks".

That's basically how the Reds concluded last winter that Taveras would be a great, um, catch

Another joke! Get it? It's a pun!

as a free-agent center fielder. "It was as simple as (Taveras) turning into outs a lot of balls hit to him," Grossman says. "He played in two big center fields, first in Houston, then in Colorado. He made plays most visiting center fielders wouldn't make."
He still does.

He still has a .330 career OBP as a leadoff hitter. But that's not the point.

The UZR boys

Whatever happened to "UZR folks"? That sounds nicer. Either way, the "boys" and "folks" almost makes these dudes sound like rednecks. The good old UZR boys probably still live in their folks' basements anyways.

currently rank Taveras the second-best center fielder in the game. Jay Bruce - Jay Bruce! - is seen as the No. 1 right fielder. Overall, UZR says the Reds right now have the best outfield defense in baseball.


Excellent! Stats have proved Mr. Daugherty's point, even though he likes them about as much as he likes okra!

"Our formula rates our infield as average and our outfield a little above average," says Grossman, who adds helpfully, "Another guy uses what he calls 'probablistic model of range.' " We really don't want to go there.

I kind of want to go there. When you say "we" don't want to go there, Paul, don't include me in the royal "we". "You" and some other fans don't want to go there because it probably involves too much thinking. Baseball isn't about thinking. Baseball is about turning the double-play and executing bunts.

Grossman notes his work doesn't trump the eyeball work of scouts and general manager Walt Jocketty, but supplements and often confirms it. "A scout can tell you if a guy has good range," says Grossman. "This just quantifies it."


If a scout watches a guy play one game, how can he tell the extent of the player's range in all directions? The UZR, which "watches" every game a player plays, seems to be able to define a player's range a lot more accurately than a scout watching just a few games...

While stats are certainly not the end-all of baseball analysis, you gotta imagine that it stings a little bit for Grossman when he has to say shit like this.

To me, defense is judged best through daily watching. There ought to be a Web site: Watchthedamnedgame.com.

Paul, how are the Reds supposed to watch every game of every player they might want to trade for/sign/draft? It's just not plausible. Also, there is a web site like that: it's called www.mlb.tv and it's pretty great. I've subscribed the last five summers and there's no money better spent. I say, Paul, there ought to be a web site: www.firejournalistswhowritestupidthings.com.

"That's how I do it," Jocketty says. "We use (Grossman's) information as a baseline. I use input from scouts, and add my own. It all works together." But unless you're a genetic mutant or Bill James, you can't watch enough baseball to be an expert on every team's defense.

Wait, Bill James actually watches baseball? I thought played Strat-o-matic baseball in his garage every day. Huh.

Jocketty mentioned David Eckstein, the current San Diego Padres infielder who played shortstop on the St. Louis team that won the 2006 World Series. Eckstein's defense had to be seen daily to be believed. "Below average arm strength, OK range," Jocketty says. "But he always seemed to be able to position himself and get a throw off."

YES! Eckstein! It's like an unholy rule! Whenever any journalist wants to mention the "stats are stupid and some things in baseball are just unquantifiable", they have to cite the ECKSTEIN law. Seriously: as any discussion of statistical relevance in baseball grows, the probability of a comparison involving Eckstein approaches 1. It's a law.

Let me repeat one of the most ridiculous statments I've read recently:

"Eckstein's defense had to be seen daily to be believed".

Actually, nothing Eckstein does has to be seen to be believed. I've probably seen the guy play only three or four times in my whole life, and I can believe everything the guy does: play slightly-below average baseball.

Grossman says quantifying defensive ability "was the hardest thing to nail down, in the past. We're getting there."

Hooray for stat-guys!

The past? What's harder to judge now?

"The effect of team chemistry," he says. "The manager effect."

I can't wait until we come up with stats for these ones. The acronyms will be ridiculous!

The manager? That's an easy one. Just ask the fans what they think.

What? I thought this article was about defense?

8 comments:

Chris W said...

I think erstwhile crackhead and Kate Moss beau PETE Doherty could have written a more cogent column!

so um..bazing

Tonus said...

Okra is horrible, especially if you boil or steam it (or whatever the fuck it is my mom used to do to it). It's like boiling dead slugs in rubber cement. Tastes like that, too.

Okra sucks almost as much as that article.

Biggus Rickus said...

Fried okra is delicious, and Eckstein is like a short, light-hitting Jesus.

Venezuelan Beaver Cheese said...

This writer's name alternately reminds me of a former Cleveland Cavaliers center and a bald dude who parlayed an appearance on American Idol into a career making boring, middle-of-the-road rock songs that get way too much airplay. Make him go away (the writer or the bald dude, I don't care which).

pnoles said...

This man sounds like the most confused thing alive.

Chris W said...

I'm a UZR and a LUZR and I don't mean no conFUZR to try to slag me down because I know you're right

Passive Voice said...

man, what the hell happened to that band. the political business reeeeeeally doesn't suit them.

Anonymous said...

I'm from Cincinnati, and I can't STAND Paul Daugherty. It makes me sad that the Enquirer still cuts him a paycheck.