On Opening Day (or Opening Day: Part 2, or whatever you want to call Monday), the Reds put up the above image when Joey Votto came to bat. Pay special attention to the “advanced stats” section on the right side of the scoreboard. Seemingly at random, the Reds grabbed a handful of sabermetric stats and threw ’em at fans. I’m told the description (explaining only OPS+ in the image) rotated on carousel to explain each stat. Which is nice, and a pretty good use of a modern scoreboard. The Reds should be commended for trying.
Yahoo Sports’ Jeff Passan heralded this as a lesson: “the nerds always win.” It wasn’t meant as a pejorative–it was a celebration of the triumph of so-called baseball nerds over baseball jocks.
But Passan’s wrong, unfortunately. The nerds haven’t won. The nerds have had their message co-opted because being seen as a nerd is now an asset rather than a liability, and people with more marketing sense than mathematical sense are busy setting back sabermetrics. MLB’s aggressive marketing of unvetted advanced metrics isn’t a win at all, and it risks worsening our understanding of baseball.
As Chase alluded to in his weekend article, we’re now in an era where it’s not at all difficult to imagine MLB promoting its latest “Papa John’s™ Four Topping Catch™ Measured by MasterCard™ Presents Statcast™ Powered by Amazon Web Services™.” Sabermetrics have won the popularity contest over so-called “traditional” stats, and MLB is all too willing to cash in on it.
Here’s the problem, though: Major League Baseball as an organization is ill-equipped to handle a proper roll-out of advanced metrics because by and large it doesn’t know what the hell these metrics mean. MLB broadcasters are even less well-equipped to handle advanced stats, as the gamut of prep work beforehand varies wildly. For every Alex Rodriguez who apparently took his broadcast job incredibly seriously, there’s a Matt Vasgersian who couldn’t be bothered to learn how to pronounce seemingly any of the players on Team Japan during the WBC.
That’s not to say that nobody in baseball knows what they’re doing with advanced stats. I have very little doubt that most, if not all teams have people on-hand who know which metrics are worth looking at, which aren’t, and which are smoke screen of bullshit and marketing. Problem is, that knowledge gives teams a competitive advantage, so they’re not likely to share the data–and certainly not the relevant formula to leverage the data–with the rest of us on the outside. Whatever crazy shit might’ve lived behind the Eckstein123-gated Ground Control, one can be quite certain we’re not seeing its components on Baseball Reference or FanGraphs, or the scandal never would’ve happened in the first place.
And that’s a problem! Not because I begrudge teams their trade secrets (though I suppose I wish they paid the folks coming up with those secrets a competitive salary), but because that level of secrecy is bad for research. We’re being given these “SABR” (reminder: the R stands for research) stats in most cases without a key component of good research: namely, peer review. So much of this stuff gets out into the field for Dan McLaughlin to breathlessly report that Matt Holliday’s exit velocity was 108 MPH without the ability to contextualize it. These stats are not properly vetted.
When research and theory aren’t held to proper scrutiny, it severely increases the risk of junk science. Any good research should ideally have both its data and computation publically accessible: it allows for replication of results and for criticisms and improvements to the model.
Take, for example, the core “lesson” (nevermind the fact that it was known well earlier) of Moneyball: On-Base Percentage is undervalued. That’s easy enough to derive! We know how to calculate on-base percentage, and its inputs (PA, BB, H, HBP, etc.) are easy enough to find. We can look at that and say, “Hey, that makes sense! If only we’d known this decades earlier, poor Roy Cullenbine might’ve had a longer MLB career with the Oakland Athletics!”
But that’s not the case with a lot of the current hotness in advanced stats. To MLB’s credit, it explains what differentiates a five-star from a four-star catch, but we also don’t have access to the components of these calculations. Catch probability relies on the components that Statcast measures to be both accurate and reliable, and we–as fans and would-be analysts–don’t really have the ability to verify that. We have to trust that the right stats are being emphasized rather than verifying it ourselves.
And it’s not like there’s a particularly good track record with a lot of this stuff. Remember when pitch framing was all the rage? And then how it turned out a lot of the pitch framing leaders oscillated wildly season-to-season because there was just a ton of randomness in the measure, and that Hank Conger wasn’t secretly a super-valuable player? Or how “Ultimate Zone Rating” and “Defensive Runs Saved,” both ostensibly measuring the same thing–defense–frequently came into stark conflict with one another?
Or how MLB itself got so caught up in defensive metrics that it published a piece casting Andrelton Simmons as a legitimate MVP candidate?
Simmons is a ludicrously talented defensive shortstop, but when you see this image your reaction should be, “There is something really fucking wrong with how defensive metrics are calculated” rather than, “Andrelton Simmons belongs in the same breath as Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker.” (Ross Barnes is an even more absurd inclusion on this list, whoever designed this graphic apparently deciding that it’s absolutely worth comparing a guy who played in the 19th century in a league where there were more than four balls to a walk to anyone, but I digress.)
Point being, we’re all so caught up in not wanting to look “stupid” like the losers in this baseball nerds-vs.-jocks debate that we’re failing to notice we’re too ill-equipped to judge if we’re being sold a bill of goods. I’m reminded of about a decade ago, when the Twins’ general manager said something to the effect of, “I’d rather have Livan Hernandez and his ghastly ERA but fifteen wins, than have a guy with a sterling ERA and a poor record.” We all made fun of him for it, myself included. After all, perhaps no stat is as transparently stupid as the pitcher win.
But there’s a kernel of wisdom buried in that nugget of stupidity: results matter, and you are what your numbers–not your peripherals–say you are. The 2011 and especially the 2006 Cards teams were grossly flawed, but they were also champions. I’ll take that over the absolutely superior 2004 or 2013 club any day. Or, on a player level: 2016 Adam Wainwright was REALLY BAD no matter what his FIP said he “deserved.” That he was apparently only slightly inferior to Carlos Martinez by Fangraphs WAR last season suggests a gross imbalance between actual value and “deserved value.” To look at that ranking and have it pass the smell test is a gross failure of critical thinking.
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Which brings us to the master of uncritical thinking. Mike Matheny’s various failings as a tactical manager are well documented, but they’re really just part of a larger problem: a lack of critical thinking skills. Just as Matheny makes random double switches because he’s playing at being a manager without knowing the proper application for various tactics, he flails about with efforts to look like an effective “leader of men.”
It’s probably why he seems to love the motivational speaker/management coach brand of snake oil: he lacks the ability to properly evaluate any of the hucksters that come peddling their latest strain of managerial success tips. And it’s probably what gave him the mindset that yielded this gem last week:
“But I don’t know how to (have fun). I don’t know how ‘fun’ and ‘compete’ work together. It makes no sense to me.”
This is the kind of thing someone says when they have no fucking idea how to manage (not just manage baseball players, but “manage” in really any professional context) but know they want to be seen as a Serious Adult.
For once, this isn’t meant as an indictment of Matheny–or at least not uniquely of Matheny. There’s a ton of this problem in baseball. Take Joe Maddon, who’s certainly a far better manager than Matheny (damning with faint praise, I admit), but who also correctly recognized a lack of critical thinking among the baseball media and leveraged it into a smoke-and-mirrors zen master routine.
It’s not even a problem unique to baseball. At numerous stages in my career, I’ve been asked to read Be Our Guest, a book about Disney’s magnificent customer service. Why, if only all employees could be like Disney employees, everything would be better!
Problem is, that’s bullshit too. Not the part about Disney customer service. Having just been there last week, I can confidently report that Disney customer service remains fucking awesome, somehow managing to turn long lines, oppressive heat, and screaming children into a magnificent experience–no mean feat. But they do so because there is an enormous investment of time and resources on the part of park management that guests will have a magical time.
No amount of getting the random kid working the Screamin’ Eagle to study Be Our Guest is going to turn Six Flags St. Louis into a Disney park. He’s not making enough to care, the park’s not investing in adequate maintenance and cleaning, and so on. You don’t change culture with a book, motivational speaker, or a foray to Escape Room, but these things all make for a set of easy answers and managerial kabuki that also make it look like you’re a Serious Thinker and Thought Leader.
Highly-paid and allegedly intelligent people fuck this up in much higher-leverage spots than baseball games! Relying on an algorithm without sanity-checking it with your eyes is how you don’t campaign in Wisconsin. Conversely, ignoring data and vigorously holding to the conventional wisdom is how Nate Silver (in a field of many) screwed up so spectacularly in the primaries last year. So let’s not pretend this is a baseball-only problem–it’s just one that’s especially prominent in the season’s first week.
Matheny might be the worst of the critical thinkers, given that The Matheny Manifesto includes this alarm klaxon screaming “I have the inability to self-reflect and take criticism!”:
But it’s not like he’s alone. Managers, broadcasters, and analysts–even the good ones–all have a ton on their plate. Further, these folks are steeped in a culture that’s still generally pretty backwards when it comes to promoting former players into positions of leadership and visibility just because they once had some pretty good numbers on a baseball card.
And that’s why the nerds haven’t won, contrary to Passan’s assertion. Sabermetrics are wonderful insofar as baseball research is good and frequently improve our understanding of the game. But because the newest wave of metrics aren’t vetted, and because the talking heads parroting these metrics cannot possibly know what the hell they are even if they wanted to know, we’re in deep shit. It’s the hucksters who’ve won, and we can only hope what they’re peddling turns out to be useful.
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