The Dord of Darien

Musings from the Mayor of the Internet

What’s this I see?

A baseball article in New Scientist? It’s about how pitchers aren’t as clever as they think they are, and their attempts to mislead batters exhibit really noticeable patterns. Also they say some stuff about football; I guess dudes should pass more? I don’t know anything about football, but every time I watch football, I find myself thinking they should pass more. So the scientists agree with my guts and my well-developed scouting eye, so that means they must be right.

So, hey. Interesting stuff about baseball and game theory. But that’s outside the scope of this blog, where we’re more interested in making fun of people who say dumb things. Luckily for us, along comes John Wooders right at the bottom of the article to add some unsubstantiated crazy, under the awe-inspiring heading "What about intangibles?":

John Wooders of the University of Arizona in Tucson calls the finding "interesting" but questions whether it is a true test of the minimax theory. In particular, he points to the way that Levitt and Kovash measure the payoffs for each sport. "The objective of a team is to win the game," he says. "At the end of the day, they don’t care if they win by five points or 10 points," he continues.

So all we know about this John Wooders is that he is "of" the University of Arizona. I’m guessing he’s an undergrad, or maybe a janitor, because he’s displaying a pretty sharp ignorance of context. He’s right if you’re a bonehead, because, yeah, in any given game it really doesn’t matter how much you win by. But the obvious thing he’s totally ignoring is that, over the course of a season — which runs, need I remind you, 162 games — scoring more runs and allowing fewer runs will translate into winning more games. It won’t make you win the exact same number of games but just do it by wider margins. That is, in fact, a very weird idea in the first place, and I think even a janitor would be smarter than that. So John Wooders is an undergrad or maybe works in admissions.

Wooders, who was not involved with the study, has concerns that using OPS as a measure of a batter’s payoff doesn’t adequately capture his contribution to his team’s win or loss.

I’d like to mention that I love that he’s not involved with the study and he doesn’t know anything about baseball, and yet they still went to him for the counterpoint. They should have gotten some tribesman in like central Africa instead. At least then they’d be offsetting Ken Kovash’s Mozilla experience with a dude who was involved with Ubuntu!

That said, well, maybe John does know something about baseball after all, since he’s right: OPS is not the most rigorous of statistics. It’s quick and easy and gives you a reasonable idea of a batter’s value, but it doesn’t account for baserunning or defense or pitching at all — it’s purely a batting stat. It also values SLG more highly than it should. So, okay, it’s not the most sophisticated available stat. That’s what John’s about to say, I’m sure, right before he suggests using VORP or EqA or MLVr instead.

"There are a lot of ways that a player can help his team that don’t show up in numbers," says Wooders.

Ah… or, I guess, he could go that way.

Let’s keep this simple so even a homeless dude who makes his gin money by selling pencils out of a cup outside the U of A campus centre can understand it. No, John, you are wrong. While it is undeniably true that there are many ways a player can help his team that don’t show up in OPS — I named a few up above there — it is completely false that baseball is full of stuff dudes can do that doesn’t show up in any numbers at all. You know why that is? Can you guess, John? Real quick, just go to this page and tell me what you see. Why, it’s numbers! Numbers as far as the eye can see!

That whole page of numbers, John, is entirely concerned with the batting performance of exactly one player. And it’s not all-encompassing; over here you will find some overlap, and you will find some entirely new numbers. The point of all this? There are a lot of numbers recorded and calculated about baseball. Like, a shitload. I live in Massachusetts, where we have the University of Massachusetts Lowell Baseball Research Center, where actual scientists calculate lots of numbers about baseball. There’s the Society for American Baseball Research, the aforelinked Baseball Prospectus, and many, many others. Believe you me: if it has happened in or near or at the same time as a baseball game, somebody’s captured it in numbers. We may not have complete data for the real old-timey players like Old Hoss Radbourn, but, holey moley, look at all those numbers we do have even though he hasn’t played a game of baseball in 118 years. (Meanwhile, it’s possible to get from Old Hoss Radbourn to Young Hoss Randy Wells in only eight moves, even though Radbourn hasn’t played in 118 years).

So, hey, thanks for playing, John! Do a little reading about all the amazing things we’ve learned about baseball, and stop whining that there are no numbers that can calculate Derek Jeter’s inspirational aura or Barry Bonds’ hovering cloud of doom.

October 2nd, 2009 Posted by | Baseball | 6 comments


  1. So wait, you’re saying that there’s no possible way that Barry Bonds being a giant cock could affect the morale of his teammates?

    Comment by Dave | 2 October 2009

  2. I’m saying that baseball players are elite professionals and not fragile teenage girls, and that they’ll continue to perform even if one of their teammates happens to be a big jerk. Babe Ruth was a pretty notorious asshole, and, after the 1927 season, began a twelve-year personal feud with teammate Lou Gehrig. I guess that’s why all those Yankees teams sucked so bad! It’s also probably why Gehrig himself was completely awful from 1928 on.

    We have ways of modeling player performance on an individual bases and aggregating that into team performance (and by "we," I mean "people way smarter than I"). PECOTA exists pretty much entirely for that purpose. No verifiable change in team performance based on people being assholes has been observed through any of these methods. So, yes, I do think Barry Bonds is a dick, and I think people would rather play with people who aren’t dicks, but I don’t think there’s any evidence that it has materially altered any team’s play.

    Comment by Darien | 2 October 2009

  3. Then explain why the Texas Rangers suddenly became a good team once they got rid of that asshole A-Rod? And how the Yankees can’t win with him! HUH? YOU CAN’T, CAN YOU?

    Seriously though, there’s one thing you’ll never be able to model. You can say that the Giants with Bonds in his roid-prime were this good, and without him would have been only this good, or you can look at the performance of a team before and after they get rid of a “locker room cancer”. But what you can’t ever figure out is, how much better might they have been if Barry Bonds had not been a total cock to everybody the whole time?

    Comment by Dave | 2 October 2009

  4. Well, we kind of can. We can’t do it with 100% perfect accuracy, but we can examine the career arcs of everybody else on those Giants teams, compare them to similar players, and perform hellaciously complex analysis to determine an expected level of performance for those players (again, I am using "we" rather broadly, since I personally am far too stupid to do any such thing). And then we can compare those expected levels of performance to their actual levels of performance and look for anomalies. You’re right that we can’t ever be completely positive about it, but we can make really good models and get pretty reliable data from them.

    Look at Jeff Kent, a player who was with the Giants for a fairly long time alongside Bonds (and a player I picked through the highly scientific method of "who’s the first non-Bonds Giants player I can think of?"). You can see that after Kent comes to the Giants, he continues to improve into his early thirties (peaking with an exceptional season in 2000, when he was 32), and then begins to drop off. This is exactly what one would expect Jeff Kent’s career to look like. Now, yes, I can’t know for sure that Kent didn’t taper off after 2001 because his fragile ego was finally shattered by Bonds’ bullshit and he just gave up. But, well, that’s the exact point at which non-steroidally-enhanced ballplayers tend to start dropping off. So there’s little reason to believe that Kent’s decline was caused by anything but aging.

    Comment by Darien | 2 October 2009

  5. Actually, I understand Jeff Kent was an asshole too. Maybe BONDS suffered because of him!

    Comment by Dave | 2 October 2009

  6. The San Fransisco Giants: Assholes all the way down!

    Comment by Darien | 2 October 2009

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