few years ago… in the early days of the Backpack… I set out to
write an insightful column. (I generally set off with good intentions.
Whether or not I finish by offering insight or confusion is another
debate entirely.) As I recall, the particular article of note
for today’s effort focused on relief pitching. I needed a hook…
or more precisely, a different way of looking at things that might
hit the mark for a reader. I needed a statistic to prove my opinion.
dilemma was simple… the reliever I was looking at was horrendous.
(That might be too strong. Not horrible or hideous, and he was
the closer on a decent team. (Well, a winning-record team.) But
horrendous in the way that every appearance seemed to involve
runners on base even though he was on the mound to face the first
hitter of the ninth.) I didn’t trust him… and never would have
signed him… and the roller coaster rides he created were amazing.
In fact, it was my position in the debate that, even though he
came in to start the ninth inning clean, the first batter should
be placed on first base to just save us all five-minutes or so.
We all knew he was going to safely reach base… the only question
was how… and I felt comfortable sacrificing the answer in order
to move ahead and add those moments back to my life.
I started my research by counting.
many innings did he pitch… how often did a hitter reach base safely,
with a walk or a hit… and I started to see some random thoughts
blending together. I called the statistic RPI. Stood for runners-per-inning.
that time I have on several occasions learned that I’m an idiot.
And, I have also learned about the very powerful (and strikingly
similar) WHIP stat. It happens.
major point remains though… I find that often the best efforts
develop from the most basic of observations. (Stress the word
develop. Because if I want to write articles and opinions and
so on, then I need to try and bring something to the table other
than simple, generic, (and often flawed) arguments.) The best
arguments though… for me… come from moments that surprise me,
startle me, or in some way seem like something that not everyone
is picking up on. That can mean a very easy and obvious thought
that gets twisted into a different way of observing it… but it
still has to grow from something.
I’ve been working on my 40-game
review of the 2011 baseball season. And, as
I was doing it, I ended up mentioning something that is part of
a greater concept that has been on my mind to write about for
some time. In a way, it’s my simple way of finding initial inspiration.
that article, I mentioned the sniff test.
sniff test is different for everyone, and can vary depending on
the situation it is being applied to, but I imagine the basics
hold true. And that’s just it… the basics. See I approach lots
of material from quite a naïve viewpoint. And beyond developing
an argument, I couldn’t exactly explain why… maybe I just see
things differently… maybe I look for things that interest me,
and disregard a ton of material on first sight… maybe a part of
it is that I find I can give a more balanced understanding to
different sides of an issue… maybe a part of it is the media focusing
on the quick and easy details and not the depth of a story… maybe
a part of it is just being lazy. What I do find though is that
if the basic details get my attention, I move on and look at more…
if they don’t, I keep my distance… and thinking a bit away from
the major (and easy) central themes that most sources identify
often adds perspective to the situation.
want steroids? I’ll give you steroids. But
lump all the problems on steroids and label
it an era. Doesn’t work nice and neat and clean that way. There
have to be considerations given to the new ballpark designs, expansion
bringing in more players, equipment development, and a whole batch
of other elements. And you need to account for the full history
of baseball, with designated hitters and free agency and the height
of the mound and the Negro Leagues and all sorts of other moments
in time and significant adjustments to what happened on the field.
It’s not just steroids… it’s not the only potential dark cloud
on the history of the sport.
are answers simple. Often though, the best questions come from
it comes to professional baseball, I am absolutely aware that
wins and losses for pitchers, or batting averages and RBIs for
hitters, and all sorts of other statistics are in many ways meaningless.
Well… meaningless is a bit strong. But a losing record doesn’t
always tell you that a pitcher is bad… a decent batting average
doesn’t always tell you a hitter is contributing. And yet…
of a gun… check out pitchers winning Cy Young awards… or just
look at the careers of those pitchers you think are good… and
in the majority of cases you’ll find them with winning records
that approach or clear 20-wins… low ERAs… high strikeouts… maybe
even playing for winning teams… and so on and on with those meaningless
darn it all… look at the Most Valuable Player award winners and
hitters you’d want wearing your team’s uniform. Batting average…
RBIs… home runs… winning team… check, check, check, check… and
you get the idea.
short… you can tell me that those top and long-lived statistics
are misleading… I agree that they can be misleading… and yet time
and time again, the names at the top of the lists for these categories
are the leading players.
doesn’t mean that others can’t be good without topping the league
in certain areas for a season (or a career). For me though… want
to find out the best pitchers… let’s start with wins and strikeout
totals and ERAs.
the word “start” in that sentence. You don’t “only” use records
or something that measures ratios of errors against walks allowed
for pitches thrown. (That last one was meant to be confusing.
Unless is motivates someone to develop something that’s genius.
Then it was intentional. But really… don’t go measuring errors
to pitches thrown. Ok?) You can “start” with those. My clarification
being… don’t take it to mean I don’t appreciate deeper and more
involved statistics. I do. But they aren’t the sniff test.
involving time and research and questioning the normal way of
doing things or viewing things or defining things by its very
nature isn’t simple, basic or easy. Even if it does provide greater
accuracy… even if it does find answers and reasons… even if it
is worth the effort.
sniff test is simple, basic and easy.
Gonzalez. As I began to write this… he was hitting .327… 9 home
runs… 37 RBIs. Not too shabby. (He’s improved those stats since.)
all know he’s a good player… so when the basic stats are good…
is there much need to dig deeper? In general, no. Unless you have
a need to find out whether or not he hits better late in games…
when his team is trailing by a run… with runners on base… you’ve
heard he was a good player and those basic stats tell you he’s
playing good baseball.
I asked you in March to tell me the top players in certain positions,
there are names you would likely know right away. Say pitching…
would Josh Johnson, Dan Haren, Roy Halladay and Jered Weaver possibly
have been on your list? Ok… depends on how long you went… still,
good. Would you then be stunned to find, again, same date I was
writing this that I had Gonzalez’s stats, those are four of the
best ERAs to date in 2011?
sniff test won’t tell you that the Florida Marlins are having
a much more interesting season than the St. Louis Cardinals or
the Cincinnati Reds. That type of approach will tell you they’re
having a good season so far. And… yeah… that’s about it.
thing is… why? Other than history and some good players, which
suggest a decent effort, falling off in September, and another
year of promise for the future… why? Why are the Marlins hanging
with the supposedly superior Phillies and Braves (and Reds and
Cardinals and Giants and Rockies)?
sniff test says something is up. And that’s when my interest comes
into play and I look for more.
the games ended on Sunday (May 15, 2011), the Marlins had won
8 series, lost 3, and split 2. They had won a series against Philadelphia,
Atlanta and Cincinnati and had split one with St. Louis. (They
had lost one to Philly as well.) They had winning records at home
and on the road. They were playing .600 ball. About the only thing
to be concerned by was a 10-10 record inside the NL East. (Certainly
not bad… but Philly is leading the division and they were 16-10
against NL East opponents as of that same date.)
of that material is what I would consider part of a sniff test.
Neither is noticing that St. Louis and Cincinnati seems to be
scoring a ton of runs for National League clubs. (Seriously, they
are playing at a clip about 1 run per game better than anyone
else.) This information is more than sniffing. And…
it does tell me is that Florida may be hanging around all season
long, because they are consistently winning games. They haven’t
been streaky. And it’s happening against good teams… no matter
where they play. The runs scored and other data serve up a picture
that says they seem to be playing to their strengths. Is it a
given? No. But it’s more than having won ten straight to start
the year and then holding on over the next thirty.
I am trying to say is that even the most routine and superficial
of statistics have their place. They work. And the more detailed,
more deeply researched, and even more confusing statistics have
their place as well. They work too.
I believe is so upsetting to many is how quickly people jump to
one side or the other. You have one group that essentially claims
their eyes can tell them the full story, and that they don’t need
a fancy comparison to a replacement player to confirm that such-and-such
is awesome. They see it. They know. And on the other, we get details
that show how truly brilliant some players are, and factors that
could be applied to judging talent and gauging how to invest payrolls,
draft picks, and rosters.
me there has to be a combination of the two.
can go easily into this and say Gonzalez is a special player.
We can go deeply into this and say Gonzalez is great fit for Fenway,
at a point of his career that makes a long-term contract less
of a gamble, and worthy of special considerations. We can compare
San Diego to Boston as far as rosters and ballpark design and
any other factor you could conceive of exploring. (And there are
those that will explore.)
I’m sitting down, watching a game with my wife, my Dad, my friends
or even on my own, I don’t want to think about those factors much.
At least not in a way that overshadows everything.
get me wrong… I’m not saying those efforts spoil the enjoyment
of the game. Instead I’m trying to say there is an elegance and
nostalgia in the simplicity of things. As we learned in the movies…
throw the ball, catch the ball, hit the ball… it’s not complicated.
Savor the sweet moments… kick pillows during the bad… and occasionally
scream at the television when the manager makes a stupid decision
or the umpire blows a call.
want those reporting on the game… the voices giving evidence and
opinion, and in many ways, documenting the history made today
for those looking back tomorrow… to respect the extra details.
I want them to use them. In some ways, you could say that I don’t
trust their eyes. I trust mine. What I want from them is the complicated
stuff I don’t always have the time for.
things… they are just that simple.