Quote of the Day: a fabulous explanation of the interplay between stats and baseball’s human element

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Over at the Angels blog Halos Heaven, they’re interviewing their own writers so that readers can get to know them.  The man who goes by the name of Suboptimal was asked about his thoughts on the “stats vs. chemistry” debate. Or, as I took his answer to mean, the interplay between statistical analysis of baseball and coverage of the personality-based aspects of baseball by the traditional media.

In my view, there is a balance. You have to understand what happens in baseball in objective terms (the stats), but you also must know the limits of statistical analysis. Especially the fact that they do a way better job of explaining what happened as opposed to what is happening or what will happen in the future. Suboptimal seems to grok this concept quite well, and his answer is pretty much the best take on the basic problem I’ve ever read:

I like advanced metrics. As fans, we don’t have access to what happens inside the clubhouse. Unfortunately, the people who get paid to tell us what happens inside the clubhouse are autocratic, pretentious, and incoherent. Sabermetrics is a fantastic critique of bad sportswriting, bad broadcasting, and downright bad thinking. On the other hand, even though heavy stats are great for beating the shit out of bad ideas, it’s much harder to use them constructively. The system is built on correlations and probabilities, which can never predict the result of a single event like a critical late-inning pinch-hit appearance. The ebb and flow of the game is still a human drama, so I don’t think the “stats” and “chemistry” perspectives are necessarily in opposition, although many years of arguing has made them appear so.

I’d only add the words “some of” in between “unfortunately” and “the people” in that third sentence, but otherwise he’s spot on.

Things are way better than they used to be. A great many of the people covering games — especially the beat writers, who tend to skew younger — seamlessly blend stats and non-stat analysis and reporting, giving us a holistic view of things.  As is almost always the case in this world, however, you gotta beware of the people who believe that they and their fellow travelers have a monopoly on wisdom and who speak in absolutes.

Max Muncy and Matt Beaty step on Rhys Hoskins’ ankle on consecutive plays

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In the 10th inning of Game 4 of the NLCS last year, infielder Manny Machado — then with the Dodgers — stepped on the foot of Brewers first baseman Jesús Aguilar. Aguilar, understandably, wasn’t happy about that and both teams’ benches spilled onto the field. It was a continuation of a tumultuous series for Machado, who was also vilified for not hustling and sliding hard into Orlando Arcia twice. The Machado-Aguilar dust-up served as a referendum on Machado’s character until he finally signed a 10-year, $300 million contract with the Padres.

Recently, Machado criticized the analysts on MLB Network for holding double standards. Dan Plesac and Eric Byrnes argued with Greg Amsinger about the Jake Marisnick collision at home plate with catcher Jonathan Lucroy. Amsinger felt Marisnick was in the wrong; Plesac and Byrnes defended Marisnick. On Instagram, Machado said if he had been the one who bulldozed Lucroy, Plesac and Byrnes wouldn’t have defended him, in part because he is Latino. Diamondbacks outfielder Adam Jones said earlier this year that Machado would “one hundred percent” be treated differently if he were white.

With that context in mind, something interesting happened in the fourth inning of Thursday afternoon’s game between the Dodgers and Phillies. Leading off the top of the fourth inning against Aaron Nola, Max Muncy grounded out to shortstop Jean Segura. As Muncy crossed the first base bag, he stepped on first baseman Rhys Hoskins‘ ankle. On the next play, Matt Beaty beat out an infield single hit to third baseman Maikel Franco, shifted up the middle. As Beaty crossed the first base bag ahead of the throw, he tripped over Hoskins’ ankle. MLB.com hasn’t posted video of the incidents yet, but here’s a look at both plays from @jomboy_ on Twitter:

We rarely see runners tripping over the feet of first basemen, but here we have it happening on back-to-back plays. Hoskins’ footwork around the bag was textbook given the situations. The commentators on the exclusive YouTube broadcast gave the runners the benefit of the doubt. Other than that, there has surprisingly been little discussion of these plays. A July 18 game isn’t exactly Game 4 of the NLCS, but look at how much conversation the Marisnick-Lucroy play generated and that was less than two weeks ago. These plays deserve a “Was it dirty?” conversation.

One wonders what the conversation would have looked like if it had been black or Latino runners stepping on Hoskins’ ankle on back-to-back plays. Would they have gotten the immediate benefit of the doubt like Muncy and Beaty? Would malicious intent have been ascribed to them instead? That, really, is Machado’s point about the double-standard applied to non-white players. It doesn’t excuse any of his obviously terrible behavior, but if we’re going to criticize players for bad behavior, we should do so evenly and fairly. Muncy and Beaty deserve criticism for their poor, sloppy, dangerous base running. Frankly, Major League Baseball should consider fines and/or suspensions. Machado was fined for stepping on Aguilar.