Monday, October 31, 2011

The Otherwise Great Joe Posnanski Goes All Easterbrook On Us

In an ill-advised screed against the intentional walk (a right-minded complaint but with a strange hysteria that seems poorly fitted to the magnitude of the relatively infrequent free-pass), Joe drops this gem on us:

But win or lose is not the point -- I'm really not second guessing the strategy. I'm second-guessing the conviction. My old pal Herm Edwards became famous with his "You play to win the game" classic rant -- it even led to a book by that title. But I don't think many do play to win, not in any sport. You play to extend the game and hope that it works out for you. You play to delay the big confrontation until you have no choice. I don't know if it was ever different. But it sure feels like now coaching and managers try to avoid the big moment as long as they possibly can.

Oh Joe, what's next? A "Buck-buck-a-brawck" award for Ron Washington?

Also there's this:

And the incentives within the game tell you what kind of game it is. If you made pass interference a 5-yard penalty with no automatic first down, well defensive backs are going to mug receivers all over the field. If you made a half court shot worth 20 points, players would practice and practice and practice the half court shot until they could make them a staggering percentage of the time. The intentional walk is a case where the negative incentive simply doesn't work well enough. One base and no advance is not enough of a deterrent for managers, and I think that's a flaw in baseball rules.

I'm a little bit surprised at this given Joe's connection with all-around superhuman Bill James (whom Poz namechecks later in cribbing Bill's suggestion for an intentional walk rule change), who wrote the following in his Historical Baseball Abstract (fanboy alert: probably the best baseball book ever written):

[Walking every time up vs. pitching to a hitter even better than Babe Ruth in his best season with a terrible lineup around him is] not even close. Walking Ruth every time up does far, far more harm than good, even under these impossibly extreme conditions. The team for which Ruth hit .385 with 61 homers a year scored 601 runs per season, and finished with a winning percentage of .326. The team for which Ruth was walked every time up scored 667 runs per season, and finished with a winning percentage of .380. As great as Ruth was, as terrible as his teammates were, he was still nowhere near the point at which it made sense to simply walk him every time he came up to the plate.

So in other words, walking a hitter every time--even in the most extreme example imaginable--is a swing in runs produced of more than 10%. In a more realistic yet still extreme scenario (think Barry Bonds in 2001) where the hitter is not quite as good and the lineup around him is not quite as bad, it probably gets closer to a 15% edge. In a  closer-to-the-mundane example of an Albert Pujols surrounded by Matt Holliday and Lancer Berkman, the edge becomes closer--pulling numbers out of my ass, to 25%. This means that managers don't walk Pujols very often.

And here's Joe arguing that we need more extreme penalties--even though the current system fits to a tee his definition of a self-correcting set of penalties--because....why? He doesn't like it when people intentionally walk people?

Hell, baseball's odd. It's an odd game. Maybe we should get rid of the intentional walk. I don't know. I don't like the INT, per se. In fact, I dislike it. Actively. But if I had to list the things that bother me in baseball, it probably wouldn't crack the top 10:

10. Payroll disparity
9. Mike Scioscia
8. Too many pitching changes
7. Umpires who are huge fucking assholes like Joe West
6. The fact that the above umpires are never held accountable because...I don't know why. Didn't the umpires' union lose their strike?
5. Long running times of games.
4. Even longer running times of games involving the Yankees
3.'s absolutely awful video-clip policy
2. People pissing and moaning about instant replay
1. Joe Buck

Whatever, though. To each his own. Maybe intentional walks happening every three games or so is higher on your list than those. Maybe it's not. But it's absolutely asinine to say that a manager with a poor grasp of baseball strategy (eg Ron Washington) misreading the percentages and making a horrible percentage play in a key game (one of his many poor percentage plays in the World Series) means

a.) Managers don't play. To win. The game. and in fact are really trying to play to prolong the game (say....huh?)

b.) We need a radical rule change

You know what it is? It's downright Easterbrookian!


Biggus Rickus said...

This kind of argument also ignores the fact that avoiding the confrontation as long as possible is a sound strategy when you're overmatched. Take the Tennessee-Alabama game a few weeks ago. Does anyone think that Tennessee was better served by going for it on 4th and 1 rather than punting from their own 39 down by seven in the third quarter? Alabama was clearly the superior team, and giving them a short field was a risk not worth taking. At least make them work the ball down the field to more or less ice the game. And that's leaving aside the psychological effect on your team of failing in that situation.

Anonymous said...

Of course if you walk a guy every time, it would be a bad idea.

But you should almost never look at an intentional walk based on expected runs and only look at it in terms of expected WINS.

In that case, you'll see that an IBB in most cases only barely decreases Win Expectancy or changes it not at all, and in some cases in the right manager's hands, actually increases Win Expectancy.

Chris W said...


That's a really good point. I hadn't considered the WPA angle. What an age we live in where that information is readily available.

That seems to me to be even stronger evidence that Joe is freaking out unduly. If it's a strategy which is generally a bad things but which in capable hands in the right situation can be effective, doesn't that seem--to the unbiased observer--to add to the nuances of the game rather than take away?

Larry B said...

I didn't read the article, but did Joe bother to address the point that if you were to somehow make the IBB more damaging to the team that gives it you'd simply see pitchers giving a whole lot more "unintentional intentional" walks by throwing four balls in the dirt/at eye level? That likely outcome to a rule change pretty much makes his complaints moot. Unless you're going to penalize any four pitch walk when there's a base open or something, which is a worse idea than starting Tim Tebow. HEY OH

Adam said...

The examples for rule chanegs that he gives are retarded because they would become the normal strategy and fundamentally change the game and make it stupid and boring. IBBs don't really change the way the game is played.

Last time I checked teams don't IBB the bases loaded so who cares.

Chris W said...

That's the thing. There are a lot of statistically bad moves that are part of the game. The sac bunt, stolen base, hitting behind the runner, blah blah blah. I don't like the intentional walk. I mean, yeah, it's boring and it seems counterproductive to the purpose of the game, which is what James and Posnanski were getting at with respect to their rule change, but

a.) If that's your argument, make that your argument. That avoiding hitters outright is counter to the spirit of the game. That's James's argument in his 1988 Baseball Abstract where he published that suggest rule change. Joe refuses to let it go at that. It has to be because "managers don't really want to win, they just want to avoid losing" and "the penalty system of the walk is broken" even though it's relatively rare and the penalty seems perfectly balanced where I'm sitting

b.) Don't use an INT walk that hurt the team who used it publicly and dramatically as the reason we should change the rule.

Joe's a smart guy, and a brilliant writer, but some of his obsessions (the INT walk, why Tiger Woods isn't as good as Jack Nicklaus and won't make a comeback, etc) border on hysterias