Saturday, July 09, 2011

Why It's Frustrating to be a 21rst Century Baseball Fan

When I was in grade school, I lived a little more than a mile from my school...and I somehow had a 45-minute bus ride home. Since handheld electronic devices had not yet achieved prominence, my classmates and I would devise all manners of entertainment to pass the time. I introduced a way to simulate a baseball game with dice (or, more accurately, a "die."). Each player had a stack of nine baseball cards, and when one of the players was "up," the die was rolled. A "one" resulted in a single, two was a double, three a triple, four a homer, five was an out, and six was a strikeout. Yes, the league batting average of .667 and slugging average of 1.667 was a bit ridiculous, but we had fun with the slugfests. Over time, we came to regard certain players as having certain tendencies. Mike Marshall of the Dodgers (the hitter, not the pitcher) proved to have a good power stroke. Hack Wilson (I had a worthless "retro card", not a vintage 1920s collectible) came to be known as "Strikeout Man."

I'm really not sure how much my friends believed that certain cards were more likely to obtain certain results. I know that outwardly I appeared to believe this myself, but inwardly I knew that all of our results were random. Even as I would tout the likelihood of a Mike Marshall home run when he came up to bat, I harbored an unspoken skepticism, aware that the luck could end at any time. I wouldn't learn until years later that repetition is proof of randomness, rather than something that flies in the face of it. Ask someone to flip a coin 200 times and record the results. You can always tell who is faking it because they will have no runs of six, seven, or eight heads or tails in a row, which should happen as a result of random variation.

Actually, most streaks in sports could be explained by the same reasoning. The concept of a "hot hand" (or a "cold hand") has been exposed as a myth, multiple times. The recent book Scorecasting, which seeks to demolish a number of myths prevalent in sports today, uses Ray Allen's shooting in the 2010 NBA Finals as an example. In one game, he made seven three pointers in a row. In the next, he missed 13 in a row. In the first game announcers and teammates called him "red hot," while the next game he apparently was "ice cold." For the two games together, he was 8 for 19, or 42%...and his career average for three pointers is 40%. So although there are some notable differences between real life and my dice game (the biggest of course being that there is a variation in skill levels between the participants in real life), one core principle is true: an athlete should not be expected to perform a certain way based upon a small sample size of recent performances.

Fortunately, in the high-stakes multi-million dollar world of pro sports, those who are entrusted to make decisions on personnel and strategy are smart enough to trust overwhelming statistical evidence and to disregard fallacious antiquated belief systems based on "gut feeling". Or not. Milwaukee Brewers manager Ron Roenicke has on multiple occasions indicated that he believes in the "hot hand." Although the Brewers have both a right-handed and a left-handed centerfielder, earlier this year Roenicke indicated that he wouldn't go with a straight platoon (though platoons have been shown to be statistically preferable in many cases). Rather he said he would be playing whichever centerfielder was "going well." (Fortunately, this hasn't necessarily proven true, as he has actually favored a straight platoon the last couple of weeks). And a couple days ago, Roenicke made a comment that gives fans an insight into his game strategy: "When we go into a series - we have a chart that says who's hot. And if we see a guy's got some kind of streak going, we try and stay away from that guy. We don't really try to go after him and pitch to him." I wish he hadn't revealed that. It's difficult feeling like you know more about good strategy than the guy paid to strategize for your favorite team.

Another recent example of an infuriating decision occurred about a week ago, when Roenicke used right-hander Kameron Loe to protect a lead in the 8th inning. Four straight left-handers came to bat, all of them reached base, and the Brewers surrendered their lead and eventually lost the game. Three other relief pitchers in the Brewers bullpen have better statistics against lefties than Loe. So why did Roenicke use Loe? At some point this year, he had decided that Loe was his "8th inning guy." The "8th inning guy" is a relatively recent invention, following the invention of the "9th inning guy" a.k.a. "closer." Since the late 1980s, baseball teams designate their supposedly best relief pitcher as the closer. One would think that since that time, 9th inning rallies have declined across the board in baseball. SI's Joe Posnanski ran the numbers last winter:

Teams held 95.5% of their ninth-inning leads in 2010. Teams held 95.5% of their ninth-inning leads in 1952....Basically, teams as a whole ALWAYS win between a touch less than 94% and a touch more than 95% of the time. This has been stunningly, almost mockingly, consistent. The game has grown, the leagues have expanded, the roles have changed, the pressure has turned up, but the numbers don’t change.

So all that the invention of the closer has done has given us a new stat (saves) that artificially inflates the value of a specific player on every team and leads to an increase in payroll (which inhibits teams' ability to upgrade at other, more important positions). But Roenicke (and he is not alone in this) felt the need to augment his "9th inning guy" with an "8th inning guy," even at the expense of giving his team the best chance to win. Fortunately, it appears that the loss last week made Roenicke re-think things. From

"Not that we won't use Loe in that role again, because we will," Roenicke said. "But we're going to look at matchups a little better. ... We're not going to put him out there when there's so many left-handers that he's got to go through."

The purpose of this post isn't to lament the current state of my favorite baseball team. (Other blogs can do that just fine). My point is to draw attention to the unusual circumstances facing an informed baseball fan in this era. Much of the conventional wisdom of baseball, in both evaluating personnel and in implementing strategy, has been called into question in the last ten or so years by a movement called Sabermetrics. And much of that recently discovered knowledge can be gleaned by interested fans who visit the right websites. But given that most of the people in baseball who are in a position to make decisions first got their start in baseball before the rise of Sabermetrics, there is a gap between what a fan might know to be a good course of action and what a manager or general manager might do.

At any given point in history, in any given field of human endeavor, it is fairly common to find laypeople who think they know more than the professionals. And they have almost always been wrong. In almost all cases, the dedicated specialists are to be trusted more than backseat drivers. And, not for no good reasons, they've become accustomed to ignoring the advice proffered from the backseat. But in some isolated instances, and I think contemporary baseball qualifies, the drivers would do well to heed the passengers. But until that happens, the passengers find themselves in a rather frustrated state. It's bad enough to see your team lose, but when they lose because of factors which you can foresee leading to a defeat, it can be downright exasperating. It almost makes you want to take up baseball card dice games as an alternative.


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