"The stats geeks win" and other bits of Cy Young idiocy from ESPN's Rob Parker

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I’m sure some of you are tired of our seeming fixation on the commentary surrounding the AL Cy Young race, but when you see something as aggressively stupid and as hostile to rationality as the column ESPN New York’s Rob Parker posted in the wee hours this morning, you’ll understand why we go on like we do.

Indeed, the piece is so bad that I have no choice but to fisk the sucker. And it starts out with a bang:

The stats geeks will win.

Yay! Wins! That’s the most important thing, right? If we win, we’re better!  Parker proves that himself beyond the shadow of a doubt and with geometric logic! In your face, dude!

Matched up against Rays ace left-hander David Price,
Sabathia could have made it nearly impossible for the guys who value
stats over wins to deny him the league’s best pitcher award. Sabathia, however, picked the wrong time to be flat-out awful.

Last I checked, “wins” were a stat. One definition of the word “geek” is a person with a strong, near-fetishlike fandom of some narrow thing or another.  Parker obsesses on wins more than anyone at GenCon obsesses over Magic: The Gathering. How does that make him less of a stat geek than someone who looks at multiple metrics to analyze a pitcher’s value?

Over the past few weeks, some potential voters have been making a
statistical case for King Felix, who leads the AL with a stingy 2.31
ERA. He also has the most innings pitched and the most strikeouts. He
hasn’t won more often because his team has a woeful offense, one of the
worst in a long time. Still, Sabathia, who entered the game as the
AL’s only 20-game winner, had to be the favorite. Those other stats are
fine, but they should never be more important than winning.

See, if you simply say “wins are teh awsum!” I can at least forgive you because, hey, maybe you’re just ignorant and you don’t know any better. But if you actually acknowledge that win totals are at least in part a function of the run support a guy gets — and if you acknowledge innings pitched and strikeouts — yet you still make wins the determining factor in your analysis, it shows that you are simply unable to comprehend the game of baseball. Not just stats, mind you. It shows that you really do not understand what is going on on a baseball diamond. It’s the equivalent of watching Payton Manning go 40-44 with 500 yards passing, 6 touchdowns and no picks and then saying he sucks because the Colts lost the game 53-50 in overtime.

It would be one thing if Sabathia had 20 wins and a 5-plus ERA. By any
standards, that’s not a good ERA, and it would signal to you that that
he’s won games despite mediocre pitching. But that’s not the case.

No, it’s not. He’s pitched just fine, in fact. But the Cy Young isn’t about whether someone has merely pitched well or if he has avoided mediocrity. It’s about whether he has pitched better than every other pitcher in his league. To judge CC Sabathia’s actual performance against some hypothetical CC Sabathia performance is to totally miss the point. And why the hypothetical Sabathia’s ERA is more relevant to Parker than Felix Hernandez’s actual ERA is beyond me.

Plus, Sabathia is pitching in the toughest division in baseball with the Red Sox, Rays and Blue Jays. 

Dan Levy pointed out this morning that the Yankees’ AL East opponents have an average of 78.25 wins while Seattle’s AL West opponents have an average of 78.7 wins.  Hernandez didn’t get to face the dreadful first-half Orioles. Sabathia never had to face the Yankees. There are many ways to slice this argument, but there’s no way to slice it that shows Sabathia facing significantly tougher competition than Hernandez over the course of the season.

He’s also on the biggest stage in the game.

Note: Henceforth every Yankees player automatically gets a three-length “big stage” head start in postseason awards voting.

And let’s not forget that
Sabathia has pitched in games that matter.

I would like for a writer to once — just once — ask a player from a losing team how he feels about playing in games “that don’t matter.”

And for all those geeks who believe Sabathia’s success is based on run
support by the mighty Yankees’ lineup, they couldn’t be more wrong. If
that were the case, A.J. Burnett would have 20 wins, too. But he hasn’t pitched well enough to win.

There is no American League starter with at least 140 innings pitched who has had worse run support than Felix Hernandez. There is no American League pitcher with at least 140 innings pitched who has had better run support than CC Sabathia. The difference is over three and a half runs per game. We can quibble about what it would take to get A.J. Burnett 20 wins (Radioactive spider bite? Tainted cold cuts in the opposing team’s pregame spread each time he starts?) but if Parker cannot grasp that the difference in run support accounts for Sabathia’s advantage in the one stat in which he bests Hernandez — wins — he’s either dangerously stupid or sickeningly dishonest.

If Sabathia, indeed, lost the Cy Young on this night, Price should
become the front runner. He has 18 victories, and he won the big game in
a big spot on the biggest stage. That’s what Cy Young winners do.

If wins are truly the measure of a pitcher, why doesn’t Parker acknowledge that Sabathia still has more wins than Price? Doesn’t that matter? Is this one game — last night’s game — more important to the Cy Young race than the 30+ starts each man had before it? I mean, applying a preposterous, willfully ignorant standard for the Cy Young Award is bad enough as it is. Applying that preposterous, willfully ignorant standard unevenly just compounds matters.

But despite all of the stuff above, my biggest beef with Parker’s piece is not its logical flaws. I don’t care if he’d vote for Sabathia if given the chance. I know Sabathia and Price will get votes, and that’s fine. People have different standards with this stuff, and everyone who is given a vote is entitled to vote the way they choose as long as they follow the rules set down by the BBWAA.  And even though it seems like it at times, I’m certainly not going to rip apart every writer with whom I disagree when it comes to awards voting.

No, what has me so angry with Parker’s piece is that he does the two things which sabermetically-oriented writers are constantly criticized for doing: (a) fixating on a single metric — here wins instead of WAR or VORP or whatever — and letting it almost totally dictate his choice; and (b) insulting those with whom he disagrees.

The premise of the piece — that Sabathia won’t win the Cy Young Award because of last night’s game — is a perfectly defensible one. I agree, it almost certainly cost him votes. The premise could have been supported, however, without the ill-informed and mean-spirited swipes at writers who look beyond wins in their assessments. Indeed, it could have been supported without reference to Felix Hernandez at all.  If Parker truly thinks it came down to Sabathia and Price, great, write a column about how Price bested Sabathia. It would have drawn no ire from me.

But he didn’t do that. He decided to go after people. I and many others have been taken to task by mainstream writers for such an approach countless times over the years. Will anyone besides the sabermetrics guys hit Parker for doing the same thing?

I’m not holding my breath.

The New Zealand World Baseball Classic team performs the Haka

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It’s World Baseball Classic time again. Just the qualifying rounds. The actual tournament happens in 2017. Qualifiers will happen in Sydney, Australia, Mexicali, Mexico, Panama City, Panama and Brooklyn, N.Y., periodically, between now and September.

The Sydney round just got underway yesterday, so yes, some actual baseball is going on. As I’ve written and ranted before, the WBC is not my favorite thing that happens in baseball and certainly not the most important thing, but it’s pretty fun. Especially when there are displays of enthusiasm and pageantry and the like.

Such as the Haka, which basically every New Zealand sports team does and which never gets old:

 

Down in Sydney, the Australia, New Zealand, Philippines and South Africa teams are competing in a six-game, modified double-elimination format. In the other three qualifying rounds, Mexico, Czech Republic, Germany, Nicaragua, Colombia, France, Panama, Spain, Brazil, Great Britain, Israel and Pakistan will compete. Each qualifying round puts one representative in the WBC.

Those four qualifiers will compete in the WBC itself against countries that performed well enough in the past that they need not submit to qualifying: Canada, China, Chinese Taipei, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Italy, Japan, Korea, Kingdom of the Netherlands, Puerto Rico, United States and Venezuela.

Someone make sure Jon Morosi is well-hyrdrated. It’s gonna be a long year.

Yovani Gallardo and the Orioles are both “optimistic” about a deal

Yovani Gallardo
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Multiple reports Wednesday had the Orioles and free agent right-hander Yovani Gallardo deep in negotiations on a multi-year deal. Nothing has been finalized yet, but Brittany Ghiroli of MLB.com says “both sides appear to be pretty optimistic still.”

Ghiroli adds that the “ball is in the Orioles’ court,” although that may simply reveal her likely source to be Gallardo’s agent. Whatever the case, Baltimore is apparently now willing to forfeit their first-round draft pick to sign Galllardo and he may lead to a domino effect in which they also forfeit a second-round draft pick to sign outfielder Dexter Fowler.

The idea being that if you’re going to cough up the 14th overall pick to sign a mid-level free agent with spring training right around the corner you might as well cough up a lower draft pick to sign a second one. Gallardo has shown signs of decline, including a big dip in strikeout rate, but he logged 184 innings with a 3.42 ERA for the Rangers last season.

Chipper Jones says the Mets are his pick to “go all the way”

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Chipper Jones may believe some weird things but he’s pretty savvy and clear-eyed when it comes to analyzing baseball.

Remember back in 2013 how he picked the Dodgers to beat the Braves in the NLDS? And how, because of his perceived “disloyalty,” Braves players had an immature little temper tantrum and refused to catch his ceremonial first pitch? Yeah, that was a great look. If I was more inclined to the hokey and irrational, I’d say that created “The Curse of Chipper” and that it condemned the Braves to two straight years of sucking. Hey, people have built careers on curses sillier than that.

Anyway, kudos to Chipper for apparently not giving a crap about that sort of thing and, instead, saying what he thinks about baseball. Stuff like how he thinks the Mets are going to win it all, saying “They’re really setting the bar and they’re my early-season pick to probably go all the way.”

Keeping in mind that anything can happen in baseball, it’s as good a pick as any other I reckon. Even if it means he has to say that the team who was his greatest rival during his playing career — and whom he thoroughly owned during that time — is better than the one that pays his salary now. Or any other one.

Did Tony La Russa screw Jim Edmonds’ Hall of Fame candidacy?

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Yes, that’s a somewhat provocative question. But it’s still an interesting question, the relevancy of and merits of which we’ll get to in a second. I pose it mostly so I can tell you about some neat research a friend of mine is doing and which should make Hall of Fame discussions and the general discussion of baseball history a lot of fun in the coming years. Bear with me for a moment.

There has long been a war between metrics and narrative. The folks who say that so-and-so was great because of the arc of his story and his career and those who say so-and-so was not so great or whatshisface was way, way better because of the numbers. Those views are often pitted as irreconcilable opposites. But what if they weren’t? What if there was some data which explained why some players become narrative darlings and others don’t? Some explanation for why, say, Jim Rice is in the Hall of Fame while Dwight Evans isn’t despite having better numbers? An explanation, that isn’t about voters being dumb or merely playing favorites all willy-nilly? What if there was some actual quantitative reason why favorites get played in the first place?

That’s the thesis of the work of Brandon Isleib. He has just finished writing a very interesting book. It’s not yet published, but I have had the chance to read it. It sets forth the fascinating proposition that we can quantify narrative. That we can divine actual numerical values which help explain a player’s fame and public profile. Values which aren’t based on some complicated or counterintuitive formula, but which are rooted in the very thing all baseball fans see every day: games. Wins and losses. The daily standings. Values which reveal that, no, Hall of Fame voters who made odd choices in the view of the analytics crowd weren’t necessarily stupid or petty. They were merely reacting to forces and dynamics in the game which pushed them in certain ways and not others.

“But wait!” you interject. “Jim Rice and Dwight Evans played on the same dang team! How does Brandon distinguish that?” I won’t give away all the details of it but it makes sense if you break down how the Red Sox did in certain years and how that corresponded with Rice’s and Evans’ best years. There were competitive narratives in play in 1975, 1978 or 1986 that weren’t in play in 1981 or 1987. From those competitive narratives come player narratives which are pretty understandable. When you weight it all based on how competitive a team was on a day-to-day basis based on how far out of first place they were, etc., a picture starts to come together which explains why “fame” works the way it does.

From this, you start to realize why certain players, no matter how good, never got much Hall of Fame consideration. And why others’ consideration seemed disproportionate compared to their actual performance. All of which, again, is based on numbers, not on the sort of bomb-throwing media criticism in which jerks like me have come to engage.

Like I said, the book won’t be out for a bit — Brandon just finished it — but in the meantime he has a website where he has been and, increasingly will be, talking about his quantification of narrative stuff, writing short articles posing some of the questions his book and his research addresses.

Today’s entry — which is what my headline is based on — isn’t really numbers-based. It’s more talking about the broader phenomenon Brandon’s work gets at in terms of trying to figure out which players are credited for their performance and which are not so credited and why. Specifically, it talks about how Tony La Russa, more than most managers, gets the credit for his success and his players probably get somewhat less than they deserve. In this way La Russa is kind of viewed as a football coach figure and his players are, I dunno, system quarterbacks. It’s something that is unfair, I think, to guys like Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen and will, eventually, likely be unfair to players like Adam Wainwright and Matt Holliday.

It’s fascinating stuff which gets to the heart of player reputation and how history comes together. It reminds us that, in the end, the reporters and the analysts who argue about all of these things are secondary players, even if we make the most noise. It’s the figures in the game — the players and the managers — who shape it all. The rest of us are just observers and scribes.