Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Zen Dayley: False idols? Boz, kettle ...

Chances are, if you're of a certain age and sports leaning, you cut your teeth on Thomas Boswell's writing, and not necessarily just about baseball ... How Life Imitates The World Series ... Why Time Begins On Opening Day ... the 99 Reasons Why Baseball is Better Than Football column ... the columns after each of the Roberto Duran-Sugar Ray Leonard fights, which are anthologized everywhere ... the Playboy profile of Greg Maddux that was an introduction to one of Ralph Waldo Emerson's gems: "One man who has a mind and knows it can beat 10 who haven't and don't."

In other words, any other media-type of a certain vintage gets his Abe Simpson on over all these fandangled new baseball stats, you let it slide. It is beyond the pale when Boz is veheming against Albert Pujols (on-base plus slugging: 1.114) over the Philadelphia Phillies' Ryan Howard (OPS: .882) for National League MVP and that the L.A. Angels' Francisco Rodriguez, who wasn't even the most efficient closer in his league, should have won over in the AL.
"Earth to my baseball writing buddies: We all love the new numbers, but lets (sic) not worship false idols. When I published my Total Average numbers (in the early '80s), I'd always emphasize that while stats were wonderful, common sense was better. When stats WILDLY contradict common sense, always doubts the stats. In the case of the goofy gap between Pujols' VORP of 96.8 and Howard's 35.3, my reaction is 'Time to revisit VORP. If it can be this wrong, it's not as good as I tought it was.'

"It's said that, to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. To a modern baseball writer, unfortunately, reality often looks like an excuse to apply statistics and then torque our opinions to fit them."

"... you have to underline the obvious; for example, a first baseman with 146 RBI is 'more valuable,' especially when he plays on a first-place team, than a first baseman (Pujols) with 116 RBI on a fourth-place team.

"Don't analyze beyond that. True, Howard can't field (19 errors). And Pujols outhit him by .357 to .251. Howard strikes out a ton while Pujols walks constantly. But none of it outweighs Howard's RBI total, built on his .320 average with runners in scoring position. For what it's worth, Howard wasn't even in the top half dozen in baseball in runners-on-base when he came to the plate. His 146 RBI wasn't a fluke. He's Mr. Multi-Run Homer."
There are not enough hours in the day to figure out where everything should be arranged on the Scale of Hilarity.

  1. Pujols hit .339 with runners in scoring position -- 19 points higher than Ryan Howard. Who's torquing the statistics, exactly?
  2. Pujols drove in 79 of the 201 runners who were on second or third base when he batted -- 39.3%. Howard drove in 98 of 259 -- 37.8%. Howard had more RBI opportunities.
  3. Two paragraphs after saying it doesn't matter that Howard "can't field" Boswell cites fielding in his argument for American League MVP: "(Justin) Morneau is just a first baseman." Uh, what other position does a National League team, with no DH, have for a 270-lb. man who throws left-handed?
  4. As far as the Total Average stat Boswell created two decades ago goes, Bill James found out that when you figured out for entire teams, those who "actually scored 600 runs ranked ahead of those who scored 700." (The Mind of Bill James, pg. 52)
  5. It is best to leave the closers-as-MVPs argument alone. It's a dead issue.
A truth is , as James himself put it in the days before almost everyone had a high-speed Internet connection and every bozo had a blog, "I would give a week's pay to have Boswell working at a K.C. newspaper. He's good."

Anyone who is the best at what he or she does learns to swing with the times, taking what's worked and blending in the new. To be quite honest, a lot of the stuff you see when you go down the rabbit hole (fist bump: Pete Toms) at Baseball Think Factory is way over my head. It seems like VORP and WPA/LI and the stats which have been established to evaluate fielders are best used to give context, to help figure out what to emphasis among the meat-and-potatoes numbers (home runs, ERA, on-base percentage and such) that most fans understand.

Give it time -- as my friend Neil Acharya points out, 20 years ago you never heard on-base percentage mentioned on a baseball telecast, now it's flashed on screen when a player comes to bat.

It takes time. One would have hoped that was true of such a giant of baseball writing. I can never watch Ken Burns' Baseball the same way again. Then again, this validates those among you who didn't watch it the first time.

(That bit of mid-19th century wiseassery from Emerson comes in handy when you work in the media, by the way. Poz, as commenter notes, handled this topic too, with considerably more élan.)


Anonymous said...

You're no Posnanski, Neate.

- Chantal

sager said...

Never claimed to be.