Saturday, June 24, 2006

Nerds to Baseball: Branch Rickey Was a Dope!

In a lengthy and thoroughly depressing article, today's Wall Street Journal reports that the scientists, economists, and other researchers with too much time on their hands are making a big business out of statistically quantifying the element of luck in baseball. After this triumph, these threats to American sanity will then move on to create formulas that'll give every person on earth their real TLQ (True Love Quotient) and VORF (Value of Religious Faith) numbers.

The Journal article revealed so many fallacies in the luck analysis racket one hardly knows where to begin (for one thing, the methods used are poor sciernce). But let's start with the most glaring problem. The object of all research is allegedly to increase the sum of human knowledge. The luck debunkers have labored long and hard to come up with "new facts" that are re-statements of truths anyone with the slightest interest in baseball learns as a small child. Jamming arithmetic into an observation on the order of "the sun tends to rise in the east" isn't research-it's guys goofing off from their day jobs because baseball is more fun than monetary policy or string theory.

Luck is an undefinable concept. What the figure filberts in lab coats mean by the term is "significant statistical deviance from the norm." Of course, they then get to determine what "norm" means, which renders their work what the scientific community calls "a circle jerk." Let's take a look at some of the earth-shattering insights these methods have produced.

Did you know that hitters sometimes strike the ball very very hard, yet a fielder catches it anyway? And sometimes this happens to the same hitter for weeks and months at a time? Well knock me over with the Sporting News!

In 2004, Chipper Jones, who'd been a most competent batter for a very long time, went into a slump, dropping off in almost all offensive categories. An economics professor at Sewanee calculated what SHOULD have happened to every ball Chipper hit that season and concluded Jones had nothing to worry about. He'd merely hit into bad luck and would likely rebound the next year.

Did it ever occur to the good professor that maybe, just maybe, Braves manager Bobby Cox, who sat in the dugout watching every single at bat Jones took in his star-crossed 2004 campaign, had come to the same conclusion without benefit of advanced math? Or that perhaps this conclusion was so obvious and such a common occurance in baseball that nobody inside the game bothered to mention it? Obviously not. I hope this chump has tenure. He needs it.

The most prominent organization cited by the Journal is a company called PayTrade, an on-line tout sheet for fantasy baseball players. PayTrade diligently attempted to de-luck the 2006 season to date, comparing those figures to what transpired in three-dimensional reality. The results were startling. The amount of hooey America's hucksters think the rest of us will swallow never fails to surprise.

PayTrade's analysis failed on its own terms. Its most noteworthy luck-based variances had nothing to do with luck-they were the result of tangible actions by real live ballplayers. The researchers ignored the most basic truth of all baseballs stats-more than one person contributes to every number. The other guys have much to do with how YOU do.

Like any sportswriter, I'll start with the local angle. According to PayTrade, the Red Sox are in first place thanks to luck. In a pure horsehide universe, they'd be in third place in the AL East behind the Yankees and Blue Jays. The "luck" cited was Trot Nixon and Wily Mo Pena (who's been on the DL for some time) being far more productive than could be expected.

That analysis reads like a parody of the sterotype of the absent-minded professor walking straight into an open manhole while pondering the mysteries of the cosmos. The reason the Sox are in first has nothing to do with luck, unless one means Boston was lucky to get its hands on Jon Papelbon.

In 2005, closer Keith Foulke had a wretched year. So far in 2006, Papelbon has been the most effective pitcher in baseball. Effective, hell, perfect! He's only blown one save in 24 chances thanks to an ERA of 0.25. Surprise! The Red Sox are doing much better in close games than they were before Papelbon got the closer's job. That's not luck, that's a player excelling. Yet the first premise of the luck research crowd is that one-run games (the ones closers are most likely to appear in) are the bedrock expression of luck's role in baseball. The Yanks don't really need Rivera. The ninth inning's a coin flip anyway.

But wait, Paytrade's examples get sillier yet! One individual cited as being extra lucky so far this year was the redoubtable Ichiro Suzuki. The Mariners' superstar shouldn't be hitting .355, as he is. A study of where he put every ball in play reduces his average to a luck-free .286.

Seventy points of batting average is one heaping slice of good fortune. Perhaps Ichiro should retire from baseball, move to Vegas, and play roulette the rest of his life. Ah, but as often happens in science, the real news was hidden in a footnote. Paytrade concedes that Ichiro's average might reflect his ability to beat out ground balls normative hitters can't.

Ichiro's fast? No kidding. Aside from that hilarious discovery of the obvious, we note Paytrade's research boils down to "this guy's lucky, unless he's good." At that point, this reader concluded, "this research is useless, unless it's useless AND stupid."

In another Paytrade exclusive, Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi, and David Ortiz hit into more ground outs than could be expected, but possibly the shifts teams employ against them have some effect on that statistical anomaly. If only I were making that up.

You'll also be happy to learn the world champion White Sox were the luckiest team around last season, thanks to their plethora of one-run wins. That Chicago was built on the formula that's ruled baseball since Ruth went to the outfield: Pitching+Power=Winning was merely coincidental.

Real baseball teams don't just compile statistics and compare them to norms-they alter their behavior in accordance to what the stats say, which in turn alters the stats. That's why fielders have gloves. That's why Rickey said luck was the residue of design. That's why if the Queen had balls, she'd be King.

The author is a great admirer of Bill James. I was reading his work when it was published in samizdat paperbacks available only at the odd sporting goods store. Unlike some of the real scientists mentioned in the journal, James' baseball study has always followed a strictly scientific method. Oh, and he also watches every game he can.

But I sometimes think James must wake up in Lawrence, Kans. each morning feeling like Dr. Frankenstein. Statistical analysis of baseball is no longer a tool for understanding and enjoyment. It's become a religion, and the one thing religion can't contain is the acceptance of uncertainty that's the foundation of the scientific method.

Is there luck in baseball? I sure don't have the nerve to think I know more about the game than Branch Rickey. But I've always used a different quote to sum up my belief, or rather disbelief, in the role of luck in sports.

In his first and best novel "Semi-Tough", the great Dan Jenkins created a scene between the protagonist and narrator, the Giants' running back Billy Clyde Puckett, and the star of the Giant's Super Bowl opponents, Jets linebacker Dreamer Tatum. The Giants have rallied to win a bizarre 31-28 victory, and Tatum has come to the Giants locker room to offer congratulations.

Touched by the gesture, Puckett politely tells Tatum, "a lot of things could have gone the other way."

Tatum responds, "Learned something a long time ago about football, baby. What could have happened, did happen. That's what I know."

Me. too.


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