Sabermetrics and its Discontents

In our last séance together, we confided to you our passion for Ender Inciarte. That passion was sparked by our attempt to identify hitters who, over the course of the 2014 season, figured out something new about hitting, and were recognized as such by opposing pitchers. In doing that, we also came across hitters who appear to have been tamed during the season, in that they were both seeing better pitches and chasing more bad ones, with declining results. We provided lists of the top- and bottom-20 hitters, according to this metric. One of the top guys was Ender Inciarte. Now we’ll interrogate (as they used to say in Deconstructionland) those lists, see how they answer, and try to separate signal from noise.

But first: It occurs to us that you can apply a Freudian model to baseball. On the field, you have the usual messy clash and misdirection of human intentions, ruthlessly subject to randomness and entropy, and eventually sublimated, as always, into a coherent, often trite (“even the best hitters fail 70 [or whatever] percent of the time,” “he’s not the most talented guy on the field, but he makes up for it with his hustle,” and so on) narrative or explanation. Under the surface, you have what’s really going on, the unconscious of baseball: I get on base or you get me out, and that’s all that matters. Viewed from this angle, stats are like dreams: the traces that the unconscious leaves after it does its work. And sabermetricians (hey, that’s not us; we’re just sabermetrician groupies) are like psychiatrists, interpreting these stats to get to the elemental truth about the individual under analysis.

Some of these dreams are as easy to interpret as Pee Wee Herman’s (“I’m rolling this doughnut when a snake in a vest….”). Let’s take a look at our top and bottom 20s. Towards the top, you have Jedd Gyorko. Anybody reading this blog knows the story: high draft choice, superb minor league record, fine rookie season at 24 in 2013, dismal first half in 2014, on the disabled list for six weeks at midseason with plantar fasciitis, tremendous for the last two months. You love him, we love him, our stats love him, and he will go for full value (which will be, roughly, his projected stats with the first half of last season tossed out, perhaps slightly discounted for the possible recurrence of the injury) in your draft. If you insist on paying less, you won’t get him. If you pay more, you might get him, and you might be right, but ex ante (as the economists say) you won’t be getting a bargain, and ex post (ditto) you’d better be right about a lot of other guys, or you’ll finish mid-pack at best.

Similarly, towards the bottom you find Ichiro Suzuki. All respect, but he’s now in his forties, and his skills are eroding, as they have been for some years. That’s better than their vanishing overnight, but obviously you draft him at your peril, and your boldness doesn’t have a significant upside to recommend it.

Some stat-dreams, though, are harder to figure. And sometimes, as the man said, a snake is just a snake and a cigar is just a cigar, and the best way to find out what’s going on with a guy is simply to ask him. (This is a metaphor, dig? We’re not talking about penetrating the dense effluvium of equivocation, circumlocution, and cliché that necessarily surrounds the players’ actual utterances. If we have anything interesting to say about that well-gone-over subject, you’ll be the first to know.) This is where anecdotal and archival evidence comes in—as knowable biographical information pointing to a conclusion about the analysand.

Take Grady Sizemore. His story, too, is well-known: four seasons of All-Star level play, then five seasons compromised by or entirely lost to injuries; comeback from nowhere in 2014, tremendous spring training with the Red Sox, dismal first half, the ignominy of release, catches on with the hapless Phillies and plays pretty well. Now he’s back with the Phillies, will apparently start in right field, and is younger than you think (32). The evidence isn’t unambiguous—his September was awful—but it suggests to us a guy who’s regained his skills. And to judge by his average NFBC draft position (578th, which in a 15-team league is the 39th round), no one’s interested.

Likewise, consider the combination of Jon Jay and Peter Bourjos, both in our top 20. They will be competing for the center field job in St. Louis, though both may be hearing the inexorable march of Stephen Piscotty’s Stanford-accredited feet in their direction. Maybe someone will be traded. Most people seem to think they will platoon, or that Jay will win the job outright. Certainly could be. But Jay’s second-half “improvement” looks as if it’s largely the product of an astonishing August (.382/.474/.481). Otherwise, his season was consistent month to month, and consistent with his career: good BA-above average OBP-no power. Moreover, he has a chronically sore left wrist, and apparently isn’t certain he’ll be ready for spring training. Plus which, he has a regrettable habit of obtruding his body between the catcher behind him and the projectile traveling ca. 90 MPH in front of him, so it’s hard to count on continued good health.

Meanwhile, Bourjos had “hip impingement surgery,” whatever that is—one assumes that his hip isn’t impinging on someone else, and that someone else’s hip isn’t impinging on him—during the off-season, but he is supposed to be ready by the start of spring training. Bourjos says that he’s had this problem for a long time, and that in the second half of the 2014 season he could “barely walk.” Yet it was a good second half. And, not to be unkind, he could barely walk before that: 83 BB in 1430 career plate appearances. But he’s had some pretty useful seasons in the past (,271/.327/.438 and 22 SBs with the Angels in 2011), and, like Sizemore, is getting no attention (average draft position 581st, just behind Sizemore, though considerably ahead of Hank Bauer, who died in 2007). And he plays center field better than almost anyone else in the world, which endears him to everyone but his Fantasy owners and could keep him in the lineup when nothing else would. In the 39th round, or for $1, why not?

The Birchwood Brothers are two guys with the improbable surname of Smirlock. Michael, the younger brother, brings his skills as a former Professor of Economics to bear on baseball statistics. Dan, the older brother, brings his skills as a former college English professor and recently-retired lawyer to bear on his brother's delphic mutterings. They seek to delight and instruct. They tweet when the spirit moves them @birchwoodbroth2.

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Rufus T. Fireflymember
9 years ago

Some very nice writing here and sneaky good ideas. Thanks, guys!