Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Execs Love Stats, Thinking: Players Hate Stats, Thinking

MLB.com's Bryan Hoch examines the curious case of Derek Jeter's 2009 resurgence at baseball - particularly his defensive numbers. I think the following article supports a pair of postulates:

1. The "Derek Jeter is bad at defense" debate will continue to rage as a corresponding countercurrent to all the adulation he currently gets from the press for being clutch and a leader and such.

2. Baseball players, famously undereducated, are nevertheless managed by a group of executives who are increasingly statistically-savvy. It seems like this causes a bit of resentment.

Interestingly, Hoch interviewed some of the Yankees' brass for the article. Then, he went and got Jeter's own opinion. Here's the text:

It was last spring that Derek Jeter offered dismissive smirks to a small gathering in front of his locker at the Yankees' Spring Training complex. He chose his words carefully, but expressed clear skepticism regarding a statistical study that pegged him as the worst defensive shortstop in the big leagues.

Well, there's Bill James' very interesting analysis. This, by the way, is based not just on a bunch of numbers but on an analysis of 40 video replays of Jeter vs. Adam Everett.

There's also reports of a study done at UPenn which concluded, after analyzing every ball put into play from 2002 to 2005, that Jeter was the worst defensive shortstop. By the way, some of the quotes from that NY Post article are worth reprinting:

"I don't know what they're smoking down at Penn," said Yankees fan Mike Birch, 32. "That's preposterous. I completely disagree. Jeter's a clutch player. [dan-bob's note: I did not fabricate this quotation]"

"It's ridiculous," said fan Jay Ricker, 22. "Jeter is all-around awesome. He's better than A-Rod any day. Character has a lot to do with it. He's out there for his teammates, not just himself. He does it for the good of the team. That's the kind of guy you want on the field."

"He has intangible qualities that can't be measured with statistics," said East Village bar owner Kevin Hooshangi, 28.

"He's he ultimate teammate. It doesn't matter what his percentages are when he's making big plays in big games. He's the one with four World Series rings."

... awesome.

Jeter didn't buy into that brand of defensive analysis then, and he still doesn't.

Interesting that after Jeter's boss made him change his workout routine based on statistical evidence, and after that routine has helped him become a better defensive shortstop, he still doesn't believe in it. Stats to Jeter are like dinosaur bones to Carl Everett: they're only there to confuse you.

But Jeter had another reason not to worry about the data that computer programs had spit out concerning his fielding ability: Upon recommendation from the Yankees, Jeter had already started working to improve his range and mobility.

About time!

The Yanks saw some improvement in 2008, and as Jeter's second full season under the new conditioning program passes the midway point, the numbers are again focused on one of their favorite subjects. But this time, the raw data claims that Jeter, 35, is playing his best defensive baseball since he was in his 20s.

Good old raw data.

"You have to make adjustments throughout the years, and if things don't go the way you want them to go or you don't feel the way you want to feel, you make adjustments in order to compensate for it," Jeter said. "I just wanted to be healthy; that's it."

Right: and the adjustments you made were a direct result of your team's statistical analysis of your poor defense. I like how Jeter minimizes the whole thought process behind this by claiming "I just wanted to be healty" - even though he was never injured.

The pivotal conversation with team brass took place after the '07 season, when it had become clear to Yankees general manager Brian Cashman and his staff that his shortstop's defense was an issue that needed to be addressed.

Obviously.

"Whatever weaknesses we may see develop in our players, we talk to our players about it," Cashman said. "We look for ways to attack it. He changed his workout routine to improve his lateral defense, and that took place before last year. He's been better the last two years."

Gosh, what a sensible thing to do. Good work there, Cashman!

According to FanGraphs.com, a sabermetric analysis Web site, Jeter's 2007 Ultimate Zone Rating (or UZR) was -15.3, projecting that Jeter cost the Yankees 15.3 more runs than the average Major League shortstop over the 155 games in which he played. That ranked worst among American Leaguers.

Ouch. No matter what your opinion of UZR is... that's some bad defense there.

"I don't really sit around and look at that," Jeter said. "You can criticize -- everyone gets criticized. I don't pay attention to it. If someone wants to write an article, let them write it. It doesn't really matter to me. My job is to come out here and to improve and try to help this team win. That's all I've been doing. All the other stuff, I don't pay attention to."

That's probably a healthy attitude for a major leaguer to take. God knows anyone would go nuts reading about themselves. But Jeter could be a little less ignorant and admit that the statistical analysis of his defense contributed to his new workout regimen that has improved his defense.

But Jeter -- who claims to not even use the Internet

... awesome. Also, I bet he's full of shit. Everyone uses the internet at some point.

-- isn't about to crunch his own numbers to check up.

Maybe because the last time he took a math class was Algebra II in like 1992?

He still turns a quizzical eye toward an analysis performed at the University of Pennsylvania, which read every ball put in play between 2005 and 2007 and labeled him at the bottom of the pack.

I wonder what grounds Jeter might cite to suggest some sort of invalidity to the studies done at UPenn.

"You can't sit around and figure out a defensive chart on somebody," Jeter said. "I mean, that's impossible to do, so I don't pay attention to it. There's different pitchers, different hitters, different runners and different people playing different positions. You cannot do it."

Well, that's settled.

"Everybody doesn't play the same position, everybody doesn't get hit the same ground ball, everyone doesn't have the same runner. So you can't figure out a mathematical equation on it. If Ichiro hits a ball in the same spot that a slower runner does, how can you compute that in a computer? You can't do it."

Well, you don't have to, Mr. Jeter. That's what's great about taking large sample sizes (like, for example every single groundball from 2005 to 2007). There are a few Ichiros in there, but there are also a few Prince Fielders and some Bengie Molinas. Overall, looking at the thousands of ground balls you fielded during those years, Derek, it doesn't really matter that Ichiro exists.

You don't have to compute it in a computer, either.

[bunch of stories about Jeter working on his defense in the minors are omitted due to the fact that they are boring]

With the next statistical study no doubt already in the works, Jeter will continue to pick his spots to discuss his defense.

I hope the stats continue to tell us how good players are, instead of being completely irrelevant. Fortunately, I think they will!

But with more pep on the bases -- he has already stolen 18 bases, his highest total since 2006 -- it seems clear that Jeter has found a new gear to work with.

"People always try to overanalyze things," Jeter said. "I mean, sometimes, some years, you may feel better than other years. That's pretty much it. I think people always try to figure out, 'Well, what's the reason?' I just feel good. I just think there's really not much more than that."

Well, Derek, you might attribute it to "just feeling good" - but I think the rest of this article, including the direct evidence of your general manager - suggests that the statistically-informed training program you're on, which works to increase lateral movement, has been the primary cause of your resurgent defense.

But maybe you're just feeling good. Yep.

13 comments:

Tonus said...

"You can't sit around and figure out a defensive chart on somebody," Jeter said. "I mean, that's impossible to do, so I don't pay attention to it. There's different pitchers, different hitters, different runners and different people playing different positions. You cannot do it."

Same with offense and pitching! Not every pitcher throws the same way, and not every batter takes the same approach to hitting, and ball parks are so different! It's impossible to judge hitters and pitchers via statistical analysis.

I wonder if Mike Birch was really Tawmee from Quinzee in disguise, making fun of Yankee fans.

Larry B said...

CRAZY CARL EVERETT DON'T LIKE WHAT YOU'RE IMPLYING ABOUT DINOSAUR BONES. NOTHIN' CONFUSING ABOUT 'EM. DEVIL PUT 'EM THERE. SAYS SO IN THE BIBLE.

/smashes water cooler with bat

Jack M said...

Mike Birch doesn't know what he's talking about. No one at Penn would smoke drugs because then they'd be at risk of having fun.

John Foley said...

It's extremely difficult not to feel ashamed at almost everything in this article.
I will say one thing: intangibles are 99% bullshit, but every fan uses them to defend one of their players. It helps if the player is homegrown, has been with the team forever, and is on the decline. Sox fans use it to defend Jason Varitek all the time. It can also be used as a bogus rationale to make a white player seem better than a similarly-skilled or superior non-white.
Exacmples: David Eckstein>every other shortstop, and Jason Bay>Manny Ramirez.

rich said...

Penn kids don't smoke drugs, they can afford the drugs you snort using hundred dollar bills or at least they could before the economy collapsed.

I also forgot that character is what makes a player all around awesome. No wonder Pujols is so awesome.

rich said...

Top stories on ESPN right now:

1. Brett Favre stays retired
2. Burress might testify
3. Jim Johnson succumbs to cancer.

The top two stories are things that don't change what was known weeks/months ago. You stay classy ESPN.

RIP Jim, NFC East divisional games just got that much less exciting.

Dan said...

Shouldn't the point of this article be that Jeter's a selfish pile who doesn't care as much about winning as he or the Yankee fans think since he wouldn't let Arod play short?
Arod's UZR for the two previous years before joining the Yankees was 12.6 and 10.9.

Chris W said...

Larry--

God help you if you EVER make fun of my main fucking man Crazy Carl Everett again. Ever.

Bengoodfella said...

Dan, Jeter was not being selfish by not letting A-Rod play short. He was just trying to show A-Rod how to attain the intangible qualities of a team leader by moving having him learn a different position and sacrificing better defense for the sake of the team's overall goal of making sure The Jeter's ego is soothed.

Nothing selfish about hurting your team defensively.

Bengoodfella said...

I meant to type "moving HIM AND having him learn..."

Proofreading is fundamental.

Dan said...

good point. I was out of line by suggesting that

Bengoodfella said...

As long as you are sorry for even suggesting Jeter was selfish. I believe those were statistics you threw up there to prove a point of yours also...Jeter feels better now, screw the statistics that say A-Rod would have been a better shortstop.

The only time statistics should be used for a baseball player is when that player is trying to make the Hall of Fame, and then statistics are their friend.

Iridescence said...

I hate when people use "intangibles" to defend players. Like the Varitek example, he used to be really good but he's getting old, can't throw anymore and his hitting isn't great. Some Sox fans will defend any shortcoming of his because of his supposed leadership and would get furious at me for even pointing out his shortcomings.

I think that's the attractions of intangibles to dumb people. They can't be DISproven so they can back up any dumb sentimental argument you want to make.

I mean fine to root for and like a player, but when the stats tell you that player is past their prime (or really was never very good) just accept it and move on.