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Playing Games: Back-Gammons, Chass, and
2003-04-01 23:55
by Mike Carminati

Playing Games: Back-Gammons, Chass, and Simple Simon

It's amazing to think that Bill James helped start a revolution in the way people look at sports statistics over 25 years ago with the first publication of his Abstract on his own dime in 1977. The Society of Baseball Research (SABR), an association of which I have been a member for about 10 years (though sometimes I'm not sure why), is turning 33 this year. Even people like Joe Morgan know what OPS means.

And still there is plethora of disinformation being proffered as sports journalism by the traditional news media. I have run into three such pieces of apocrypha since the beginning of the season and will now proudly debunk them here.

The first is probably the least substantive in terms of the article's quantity and quality. However, it comes from, if not the most widely respected, probably the most popular Sports Illustrated. It's entitled Hooray for Hackers, is by Jacob Luft, and has nothing to do with the horrible movie of the same title.

The author makes it clear from the start that he has no affinity for his subject matter, i.e., baseball and sabermetrics. He uses Randall Simon and Shea Hillenbrand as the poster boys for contact hitters and the prime examples of how sabermetricians get "it" wrong.

Simon and Hillenbrand had fine seasons last year and yet one was traded and the other was often the subject of trade rumors. Luft claim that those nasty sabermetricians-you know who you are!-are the ones responsible for the debasing of these fine players:

A major factor has to be the game's ongoing paradigm shift toward sabermetrics. It is no longer enough to drive in runs or put up high hit totals. To be truly valuable, the hitter must get on base at a respectable rate. Thus, Simon's measly 13 walks in 2002 undermine much of his value in the eyes of the sabermetrics crowd.

Under this system, pioneered by current Red Sox advisor Bill James years ago, being a .300 hitter doesn't carry much weight. Having an OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) in the .800-.900 range is what matters.

First, I have to commend the author for spelling OPS correctly.

Second, he fails to understand what sabermetrics is all about. It's not to promulgate a "paradigm shift" to OPS. The point of sabermetrics is to perform some sort of analysis on he statistical record available and not just to accept baseball lore as it relates to valuing statistics and certain types of players and strategies as prima facie correct.

There has been a great deal of investigation into what player actions lead to better scoring and, therefore, wins. The overwhelming evidence points to a high on-base percentage and slugging percentage. The OPS stat has been derived to represent that. But not all sabermetricians agree that it is the best evaluative means. Some believe that multiplying the two values is superior (and there is some evidence to support that assertion). Some have tried to incorporate stolen bases and base-running in general. Most agree that OPS is a superior means of evaluating talent than batting average though.

If one looks at the earliest statistical records available from the National Association of Base Ball Players, which was formed by the original Knickerbocker nine and was the sport's first organization, one will see a "batting averages" were based not on hits per at-bat but on runs and "hands lost" (i.e., outs) per games played (with an average expressed as an integer with an "over" or remainder). This is something that correlates more directly to on-base percentage than today's batting average. They knew more back then than this rube knows today with all the evidence staring him in the face.

[I]f there is one sharp criticism of sabermetrics, it lies in the way it marginalizes contact hitters -- i.e. players like Simon and Hillenbrand.

This is just plain wrong. Sabermetrics doesn't say anything about these players. It's like saying history looks down on Napoleon. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The opinion on Napoleon varies by historian but each is informed by a thorough and methodical research of the information available. The same is true of sabermetrics. It is used to inform an opinion on players, but provides no absolutes, nor does it purport to.

Also, the OPS's, if that's what sabermetrics boils down to, for the players mentioned were good. Simon's was 11% and Hillenbrand's was 9% better than the adjusted league average. That says that they were valuable players but perhaps had room for improvement if they were to be considered "stars". Besides if a player has a hole in his game such as an inability to draw walks, it just indicates that the player could fall very quickly from the "valuable" status to "liability".

As a whole, the Angels' potent offense could be attributed to neither patience (11th in the AL in walks; last in pitches seen per plate appearance at 3.57) nor power (tied for 10th). But they did lead the league in a statistic that sabermetrics says doesn't matter much -- batting average (.282). As far as OPS, they were a respectable fifth at .773. The leaders, of course, were the mighty Yankees at .809.

When they met in the division series, the scrappy Angels' lineup caught fire and relentlessly pounded Yankees' pitchers to the tune of a .376 batting average, forcing key New York errors by doing the simple task of putting the ball in play and running the bases fearlessly. (Baserunning, by the way, is another facet of the game often denigrated by devotees of sabermetrics.)

Again here are facts that are twisted. The Angels were fourth the AL in runs last year and fifth in OPS. Yes, there is some indication that they surpassed what is expressed in their OPS, but it wasn't by much and "scrappiness" had little to do with it. By the way, the "mighty" Yankees led the AL in runs.

As far as baserunning, it is not denigrated by sabremetricians, but the stolen base statistic is not viewed as favorably by them as it is by the media proper. By the way, the Angels were a distant third in stolen bases and were seventh in stolen base percentage.

Thirty-one AL players had a higher OPS than Ichiro Suzuki's .813 last season, including the .247-hitting Robin Ventura of the Yankees. Are there 31 American Leaguers you would rather have on your team than Ichiro, who doesn't walk much or hit for power but finished second in base hits and plays a sublime right field? Didn't think so.

Ichiro is a fine player, but his second half decline was one of the factors that submarined the Mariners last year. If you look at his 2002 OPS it was only two percentage points lower than his 2001 MVP season, when compared against the park-adjusted average. What hurt Suzuki was his dropoff in stolen bases, stolen base percentage, batting average, and doubles. Most of those stats are outside the ken of sabermetricians according to Luft. And yet, they speak more loudly about his sophomore slump. Good example. Oh, and actually Ichiro more than doubled his walks in the last two years (30 to 68). That kept his OBP and therefore OPS high, but hid his slide. Good research. Besides OPS is an offensive stat and would not address his "sublime" right fielding, nor does it try to.

Lastly, he points to the only valid example, Alfonso Soriano, to scuttle the nasty sabermetricians. Most will admit that Soriano is something of anomaly. He does not walk much and has a low on-base percentage but helped the Yankees lead the league in runs scored last year. Most sabermetricians admit that Soriano is an extreme player that bends the limitations of OPS as a tool.

That is the point Luft does not get: OPS is a tool. Stolen base percent is a tool. There are lots of tools. For the average player OPS may tell most of the story, but it's not a one-size-fits-all kind of tool. It should be used appropriately. If his silly lists (are we trying to emulate Eric Young and Fernando Vina?) say anything, they shout out that baseball statistics are tools that must be understood and applied appropriately. Unfortunately, the author can do neither of those things.

Murray Chass is on equally unsure footing in his lamentation of the death of the 50-homer Gold Standard. Chass's opening salvo tells you all you need to know about the article:

The statistics have a striking symmetry: before 1995, players hit 50 or more home runs in a season 18 times; in the last eight seasons, beginning with 1995, players have hit 50 or more home runs in a season 18 times.

Either the home runs or the players, they ain't what they used to be.

This is news? Home run totals have been coming down the last two years. Everyone knows that they reached historic heights, but why bemoan the obvious now?

What we need is a good Bob Boone quote to put it all in perspective:

"I've been re-evaluating home runs forever," said Bob Boone, a former catcher who is manager of the Cincinnati Reds. "Fifty now is what 40 used to be. Thirty now is what 20 used to be." But, he added, "I don't compare them."

Boone is probably one of the least sabermetrically inclined managers around. He just rebuilt his staff in the offseason around 15-game-winner Jimmy Haynes because he won 15 games, and Boone cares not a whit how ugilily they were won. Meanwhile, he jettisoned Chris Reitsma because he lost.

Anyway, "50 now is what 40 used to be" when? That's the rub. What's the standard given that number of homers hit has fluctuated greatly in the last hundred or so years. Players in the Seventies hit far fewer than they did in the Sixties and than they do today: The homer per at-bat percentage in 1976 was exactly half that of 2000. However, it was also about 50% lower than 1961's percentage.

Andy McPhail was a bit more circumspect:

"The game evolves," he said. "It's always changing, always evolving. This is one aspect of it...

"The culture of the game has changed. It used to be that strikeouts were humiliating and unacceptable. Today it's more acceptable. Close to 25 percent of the outs are strikeouts. You have players taking a 2-2 swing today they didn't take 20 years ago. Putting the ball in play is not in favor as it once was."

Thank you, sir. And what have you done with the real Andy McPhail?

Of course, Chass's research degenerates into old ballplayers curmudgeonly devaluing the accomplishments of these young whippersnappers today. Frank Robinson harkens back to the glory days of the Polo Grounds:

"The Polo Grounds was a cab ride to center field. There's no place for a pitcher today to get hitters out."

Look the Polo Grounds is long dead and never is coming back. It's not the players' fault that the owners are building bandboxes. Evidently, they prefer more home runs as long as they're hit by the home team. And if pitchers need a place to get batters out today, look no further than homeplate. The likelihood of a strikeout is tremendously higher today.

Here's what Cecil "Big Daddy" Fielder had to say about today's players with a dollap of steroids added in for good measure:

"I hit 50 home runs one year when no one was hitting 50 home runs. Now everybody, even the little guys, are hitting 50 home runs."

Ultrathin Luis Gonzalez has a good retort for that:

"During my 50 homers I remember, in San Francisco, half the crowd was yelling 'steroids,' at me and the other half was yelling 'stick man.' ''

Chass then uses it as an excuse for future Hall-of-Fame snubbings of today's players:

Home run inflation could also affect the way Hall of Fame voters view career totals. Voters have always accepted 500 as automatic fame certification, but by the time Palmeiro and McGriff appear on the ballot, they may look at that number differently.

Look, the Seventies players are languishing waiting to get into the Hall because homers dropped off. You can't use the same standard to now keep the best players from the homer-happy era to be overlooked. This is just typical it-was-better-in-my-day-ism.

Bob Boone then gives us a Physics lesson that almost makes sense:

Today's players use smaller and lighter bats, the better to generate bat speed, which in turn creates power. Boone recalled that Fred Lynn, in the late 70's, initiated that trend.

"E equals MC squared," Boone said. "Reduced mass, but you get more velocity."

So is Booney saying that the bats are traveling at the speed of light? As Robert K. Adair explains in The Physics of Baseball, baseballs are indeed hit farther when the bat striking the ball travels faster. It's a linear progression. However, the speed of a pitched ball also has a direct, linear effect on the distance that a batted ball will travel. So maybe all of those juicy strikeouts get pitchers thinking about blowing pitches past batters, but instead induce more home runs.

There is actually some decent commentary in the mix with Jamie Moyer adding the following:

"Twenty-five, 30 years ago," he said, "did guys drive the ball out of the ballpark the opposite way as much as they do today? Probably not. What does that tell you? To me, it says they're looking for a ball over the plate more."

Of course, and they are hanging all over the plate and are back in the box to get an edge. Umps don't enforce the batters box. And it's pandemonium.

But for the all of the decent commentary, Chass piles on the old shinola so deep you have to wade through to get to the tootsie roll center.

Next, we go from the sublimely ridiculous to a parody of parity, with the superannuated and rather prolix scribblings of Mssr. Pedro Gammons. Peter the Grate starts off with a little history lesson and then proceeds to build on that foundation of sand:

It was only two years ago when the season opened and Bud Selig said two-thirds of the teams in baseball knew they had no hope of playing in the postseason. We all know there was a labor negotiation and contraction in the back of Selig's mind, but here it is 2003 and close to two-thirds of the teams have a right to trot out on Opening Day believing that if the moon and stars are aligned and the creeks don't rise, they could squeeze through the cracks to play in October.

Wait a sec-we know that Selig's assertion, aside from being debilitating for the sport, was inaccurate. Here's a quick table of the number of teams per decade that either won its league or qualified for the playoffs per decade:

Decade	#teams
1870s	5
1880s	11
1890s	5
1900s	8
1910s	11
1920s	9
1930s	8
1940s	10
1950s	7
1960s	12
1970s	14
1980s	21
1990s	25
2000s	13

Of the 30 teams that played in the Nineties, 25 made the playoffs. Of the 5 that did not reach the postseason in the Nineties: One has since won a World Series (Anaheim), one is an expansion team that started in 1998 (Tampa Bay), two (KC and Detroit) won a World Series in the Eighties, and one (guess who) is the commissioner's current/former team. (Montreal never played in the postseason in the Nineties but "won" their division in the strike-shortened 1994 season.)

So far in the 2000s (the Aughts?), thirteen different teams have reached the playoffs, and that does not include Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, the Cubs, Cincinnati, and Florida, all of whom are mentioned as playoff contenders by Gammons (not to mention Montreal and Toronto both of whom could be contenders this year).

I know that "things" changed as the decade progressed and also that the number of playoff teams grew in the Nineties. But conditions are always evolving; dynasties rise and fall. Who can say it any given moment that the current imbalance will persist? If anything, the history of the sport points to ever-greater parity.

Look at the Fifties, in which only seven different teams qualified for the postseason, imagine being a Senators or a Browns fan back then. Those seven teams were the Yankees, Dodgers-LA and Brooklyn, Phils, White Sox, Indians, Braves of Milwaukee, and the Giants, then of New York. They consisted of two teams that had not played in the postseason since the 1910s and would not again qualify for at least another 20 years (Phils and White Sox), one team that had only 2 postseason appearances to that point in the century and had to switch towns to make it back to the postseason (the Braves), one team that would have to wait forty years before its next postseason appearance (the Indians), and the three New York teams. How competitive does that sound? By the way, the Browns and Senators had their fair share of success in the Sixties but they had to move-to Baltimore and Minneapolis, respectively-in order to do it.

And yet the Fifties were considered a Golden Age. The derided Nineties had a bit of stagnation towards the end of the decade as revenues grew and the sport reeled with how to ensure that the multimillionaires could compete with the billionaires.

So Bud's assertions were a farce. They were used as a negotiating chip with the players and used well. The owners now have their welfare system in place. Bad management groups are assured of windfall profits no matter how they run their clubs, just by turning on the revenue-sharing spigot and taking a big ol' Big-Gulp-sized swig while their on-field products are dying on the vine.

So Gammons uses this to illustrate how competitive the leagues are in 2003:

So that's 11 of the 16 NL teams that at least think on Opening Day that they have a chance, seven of the 14 American League teams.

That's better than Bud Selig's "two-thirds of the teams go to spring training knowing they don't have a chance." Problem is, which statistic does the average or casual sports fan believe: the Selig 20 or the realistic 18?

Or maybe Catch-22? Gammons obviously means the Selig 10, given that "two-thirds of the teams go to spring training knowing they don't have a chance." Otherwise, 20 would be better than 18. But of course, Peter the Grate refuses to allow any other eyes to peruse his masterpieces.

Actually, there should be more teams that think they have a chance. This is one year removed from Anaheim's improbable comeback from 41 games back to World Series champ, for goodness sake. But the point is invalid given that it is built on Selig's house of cards and that it compares a relatively competitive season with a rather dynastically dominated one. They are two snapshots in time and comparing them is inappropriate to begin with.

As to which perspective the fans share, the damage done by Selig and the owners is going to take some time to undo. Once, if ever, attendance returns to the pre-strike levels, then we can say that Joe Lunchbox understands that his local Capital City Capitals are actually a competitive team.

Aside from Gammons' schizophrenic interpretation of Czar Bud's propaganda, the article is typical Gammons-ation. My favorite is his juxtaposing one good point-his only one-next to a bad one a la Joe Morgan:

[B]etween the labor talk and concentration on what takes place off, not on the field, the business has taken a hit right down to dreadful World Series television ratings directly traced to 11 months of the people who run the sport telling the audience how horrible everything had become.

Right, good. But it invalidates your Selig 20, er, I mean 10, argument. But this is followed directly by:

Just as important, the economy has dramatically impacted almost every owner and the current specter of a $1 trillion debt scares a Drayton McLane into refusing to risk $4.6 million in Shane Reynolds incentives, or shy a Red Sox ownership into declining a Jose Jimenez contract without someone, somewhere swallowing Bobby Howry.

If there were a trillion-dollar baseball debt, would the Dodgers be selling for a 100% profit in just 5 years and would the suitors for the once-lowly Expos be salivating at the chance of hosting this possibly gutted franchise in the future? Could the prospect of being on the receiving end of some juicy luxury tax dollars be driving personnel decisions? Inquiring minds want to know.

Gammons' assessment of each division's contenders is highly idiosyncratic. He disses the Expos, who finished second to the Braves last year and lionizes the hole-laden Mets and Reds. In his redundant Division Races section (didn't he just go through each division?), he surmises that it "seems very difficult for the AL West to produce the wild card for the fourth straight year because the division is so stacked." Well, wasn't the division "stacked" last year? He ignores the NL Central altogether and gives the Braves far too much credit: "Bobby Cox always figures out a way to take all those little cardboard cutouts and turn them into a finished puzzle." Well, yes but when has he had so little to work with especially on his pitching staff. Cox is a great manager, but when the Braves had very little talent in his first tour with them, he did find the going rather rough.

Gammons then proceeds to list his Individual Awards, which appear to consist of three lists, one of his favorites position players, one of his favorite pitchers, and one of his favorite rookies/minor-leaguers repeated over and over again ad nauseum. It also proves an homage to Junior Griffey, who may bounce back to near his former status but would have to be the second coming of Babe Ruth to deserve all the laurels that Gammons lays at his feet.

I don't really want to nitpick his lists. They are his opinions and they're as valid as any, but there are a few issues of note. His POISED FOR MAJOR COMEBACKS includes almost all the starting players and pitchers, who were injured last year except Darren Dreifort. Why not pick one or two instead of just giving us a laundry list of formerly injured players and guys who had large dropoffs last year? Besides, where is Jermaine Dye coming back from? He played well in his 131 games before the injury. Why not list Luis Gonzalez then?

His POISED FOR MONSTER SEASONS section ignore Barry Bonds, Brian Giles, Alex Rodriguez, Lance Berkman, and Jim Thome. Those guys were pretty good last year. It does include Edgar Martinez, who though he hit well last year, has had a precipitous dropoff in the last two years and happens to be 40. Also, A.J. Burnett is a good pitcher, but given Florida's history he may be likely to be poised for a trip to the trainer's office.

Couldn't his CHANGES TO WATCH and SIGNIFICANT IMPROVEMENTS sections been combined? How about an alterations, a modification, and a switcheroo section as well? Just a thought.

He then devotes six, count 'em six, separate sections to lists of rookies and/or minor-leaguers, that range from a few to as many as 21. Couldn't he have just rolled them all into one section entitled guys my poker-playing buddies who are baseball executives and scouts told me were good during my spring training boondoggle? Petey, leave the minor-league evaluations to John Sickels and select a handful of young players that you think will make an impact and why.

His ONE GOOD ARGUMENT section compares three young prospects Neyer style that Gammons says are in "a dead heat." However, that is the farthest thing from the truth. Reyes has a tremendous amount more minor-league experience than Ramirez and is two levels higher at the same age. Also, Reyes is two years younger than Phillips and has almost as much experience. Though their numbers are similar, Reyes has to have the edge based on his earlier ascension. I'm not saying Reyes is the best prospect, but given the criteria in his table, it looks far from "a dead heat."

Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn't point out the many grammatical errors that always attend a Gammons publication.

[C]lose to two-thirds of the teams have a right to trot out on Opening Day believing that if the moon and stars are aligned and the creeks don't rise, they could squeeze through the cracks to play in October.

Mixed metaphors much?

There are a myriad reasons why...

Ok, I'll go for "There are a myriad of reasons" or "There are myriad reasons", but this is just wrong.

Just as important, the economy has dramatically impacted almost every owner and the current specter of a $1 trillion debt scares a Drayton McLane into refusing to risk $4.6 million in Shane Reynolds incentives, or shy a Red Sox ownership into declining a Jose Jimenez contract without someone, somewhere swallowing Bobby Howry.

Run-on sentence much?

But after a season in which the Anaheim Angels slayed the mighty Yankees and scurried to the world championship, while the Minnesota Twins made it to the ALCS and the Giants were five outs away from World Series rings on a strict budget, there is a different tint to the spring's rose-colored glasses.

That sentence was an entire paragraph unto itself.

The NL East is such an unpredictable forest that probably the only team that doesn't believe it has a chance to make the postseason is Montreal, because of its schedule and the Bartolo Colon fiasco, meaning what was given up to get him and what they ultimately got in return.

Was what?! Finish your sentence or idea or whatever you call it.

Look, I make mistakes too, but I'm a one-man show. Pete's got the mighty ESPN players behind him and yet he can't use myriad correctly.

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