Baseball’s official historian slams statistical analysis

49 Comments

What’s more unexpected: me linking a Bleacher Report column or baseball’s official historian — and sometime sabermetrician — John Thorn talking about how apocryphal tales are preferable to the actual nuts and bolts of what happened on the baseball diamond?

For a whole generation of fans and fantasy players, stats have begun to outstrip story and that seems to me a sad thing. Even the unverifiable hogwash that passed for fact or informed opinion in baseball circles not so long ago seems today wistfully enticing, for its energy if nothing else … Frankly, in today’s baseball writing I miss such [broadcaster Bill Stern’s] balderdash: the wink and the nudge of a Barnum or the tall-tale bluster of a Davy Crockett. Amid today’s mix of straight-on account and sabermetric analysis, I miss the fun …

… A decade ago, when counterintuitive strategy briefly was fashionable, someone thoughtfully provided a list of the all-time leaders in receiving intentional bases on balls with no one on base. This put me in mind of Thoreau’s remark in Walden: “It is not worth the while to go round the world to count the cats in Zanzibar.” Fixate on the particular and you miss the big story.

Except, the big story is often baloney without the particulars.

The reason why someone might measure intentional walks with no one on base is to figure out how fearsome the hitter was at the time in the eyes of his contemporaries.  To take that analysis away and rely on “ripping yarns,” you get people simply asserting that a certain player — like, say, Jim Rice — was feared when, in fact, he really wasn’t as scary as everyone says. Oh, and then that allegedly fearsome guy gets elected to the Hall of Fame based, primarily, on the strength of a ripping yarn as opposed to merit or even fact.

There is such a thing as bad or pointless statistical analysis, sure, but one of the biggest reasons sabermetrics exists is because there was so much bad narrative history being done that it left a significant segment of the fan base (i.e. the future statheads) dissatisfied with the way baseball was handling its history. It’s entirely possible to lose sight of the big picture when you dig into the numbers, but it’s just as easy — I’d say easier — to lose sight of what actually occurred when you rely on anecdote and memory.

The point of any worthwhile sabermetric analysis is to answer a human question, not to traffic in numbers for numbers’ sake.  Human questions that help illuminate baseball’s history in ways that, one would hope anyway, would inform someone who was just named baseball’s official historian.  That he seems to be missing this is somewhat unsettling.

Agent: Nick Senzel’s reassigment “egregious case of service time manipulation”

Rob Tringali/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Reds prospect Nick Senzel is ready for the majors. Although he battled injuries, the 23-year-old performed well with Triple-A Louisville last season, batting .310/.378/.509 with 20 extra-base hits, 25 RBI, 23 runs scored, and eight stolen bases in 193 plate appearances. Senzel has also performed well this spring, batting .308 across 39 at-bats.

The Reds, however, announced on Friday that Senzel was among a handful of players reassigned to minor league camp. Senzel was drafted as a third baseman, began playing second base last year, and had been playing in center field during spring training. The common thought is that the Reds, who have built a competitive roster, will keep Senzel at Triple-A to begin the season and call him up right after the club secures an extra year of contractual control.

Per ESPN’s Jeff Passan, Senzel’s agent Joel Wolfe calls Senzel’s reassignment an “egregious case of service time manipulation.” The full quote:

I don’t believe I’ve ever made public statements on this issue in my career, but I feel compelled to do so in this case where it feels like a simply egregious case of service time manipulation.

We are well aware of the mandate from ownership for the Reds to win this year — and this seems to fly in the face of it. The NL Central was decided by one game last year. Every game matters. This is a shortsighted move that may be frugal now but could cost them dearly later.

Nick Senzel is not a young prospect. He’s a major league-ready impact-type player. He has done everything they’ve asked this spring, including working hard to become a major league center fielder.

Nick takes pride in wearing the Reds uniform. He appreciates how much support he’s received from Reds fans. He’s going to go to Triple-A and prove every day he belongs in MLB.

We have covered the service time manipulation issue pretty extensively here, so Wolfe’s statement doesn’t come as much of a surprise. Prior to an injury, the Blue Jays were going to undeservingly stuff Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. — baseball’s No. 1 prospect — at Triple-A for the first two weeks or so of the season. The White Sox were going to do the same with Eloy Jiménez before using their leverage to nudge him into inking an extension. The Braves toyed with Ronald Acuña Jr.’s playing time last year. Kris Bryant and Maikel Franco filed respective grievances against the Cubs and Phillies for service time manipulation several years ago.

Team executives don’t outright admit to gaming a prospect’s service time to gain that extra year of control because that’s how one loses a grievance. They dance around the topic by making a nebulous claim, typically about the player’s defense needing to be worked on at Triple-A. That’s what the Cubs said about Bryant, and it’s what the Jays said about Guerrero. It’s a subjective enough evaluation that it can’t be falsified. It’s why the grievances that have been filed over this have fizzled out and it’s why more and more teams have brazenly joined the service time manipulation bandwagon.

Senzel’s case is, admittedly, a bit more murky. Though he performed well this spring, Scott Schebler has outperformed him, batting .379 with five extra-base hits and 11 walks in roughly 40 trips to the plate. The starting spot in right field is taken by Yasiel Puig and left field is taken by Jesse Winker. Schebler has ostensibly earned the starting job in center. I can’t imagine Wolfe having a compelling case if he were to file a grievance on Senzel’s behalf.

That being said, it is important that agents (and the MLBPA) speak out about this when they can. Senzel’s case may not be open-and-shut, but bringing service time manipulation into the public consciousness will have a lasting impact ahead of the December 2021 expiration of the current collective bargaining agreement. Holding team executives publicly accountable may make them less willing to manipulate their players’ service time going forward, as it may sour what could otherwise be a terrific relationship between team and player. Service time manipulation is an important piece of the labor puzzle and those on the players’ side have to seize whatever they can to potentially gain leverage. Awareness leads to solidarity.