Here's a Thought: How Do We Look at the Game of Baseball?

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Here's a Thought: How Do We Look at the Game of Baseball?
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It's unbelievable to me how quickly time flies.

I started writing here at Bleacher Report just before the 2008 MLB season started, in late March, and here we are, two days short of 2010.

A lot has happened in nearly two years. I wasn't even here for most of it--I was almost immediately hired by OaklandClubhouse.com (after 18 articles here) and took my work there, but decided to come back here when I was bored in July of 2009 after a 13-month layoff.

I've managed to write 132 articles, if you count this one, and I'm proud to say that (barring some change in the writer rankings) I'll close 2009 and open 2010 as Bleacher Report's #1 ranked MLB writer.

This article is particularly noteworthy for me, as it's my 150th article here on Bleacher Report, and probably the last I'll write in 2009.

I've seen a lot of people, here and elsewhere, use these "landmark" articles to explore more personal aspects of sports than simple analysis. My 100th article didn't do that; in fact, if I remember correctly, it was one of the least significant ones I wrote (I'm not going to go back and try to figure out which article was my 100th).

I thought that, since I didn't seize the opportunity to do a more personal piece there, I'll do it here.

Apologies for the rather long-winded introduction.

Anyway, in the time I've written here, I've been praised by many people and derided by many others. And hey, who isn't? I'm sure everyone who's written a substantial number of articles has received both positive and negative feedback.

It's the nature of sports: we don't always agree on player evaluation. If we did, analysis would be much more boring than it is.

This comes into play in baseball more than it does in any other sport, because of the various levels of statistics that exist. Personally, I'm into the advanced stuff on fangraphs.com (the greatest site ever) and I even have done some of my own statistical work. Others of you are content to look at pitching wins and losses, ERA, batting average, homers, and RBI.

And the funny thing is that no matter how far you get into the numbers, there's always more to learn. For example, no sane sabermetrician would've predicted a .354 OBP for Michael Bourn in 2009. There's always more to learn, and the player fluctuations everywhere make baseball a compelling game to me.

Of course, baseball, largely because of Michael Lewis' book Moneyball , has something of a divided perspective. It's the old "scouts vs. stats" debate.

Is Juan Pierre a good player? Scouts say yes, stats say no.

Is Jack Cust a good player? Scouts say no, stats say yes.

At least, that's the general characterization of the two groups.

As far as my own viewpoint, it's no secret that I love statistics, but that doesn't make me some robot who doesn't see value in other things. 

For example, if I'm watching my A's, and an Oakland player hits the ball just out of reach of the shortstop for an RBI single up the middle, I think "Awesome! We just scored!" not "Well duh, Shortstop X's UZR/150 is -7.2." If the A's beat their Pythagorean record, I don't care if the team isn't "actually" as good as their record; I'm just happy they won.

Besides, I don't even really think many fans are part of the "scouts vs. stats" debate. I think that with fans, it's more of a "one set of stats vs. another set of stats" debate.

Without formal scout training, I think most fans, including myself, would be hard-pressed to tell the ability of one offensive player from another if there were no statistics at all. Most fans have probably heard the old adage "The difference between a .300 hitter and a .275 hitter is a hit per week."

It would take a whole lot of games for such a difference to become obvious if we didn't have that nice "Batting Average" display every time a hitter comes up.

Sure, things like speed and strikeouts are easy to identify if you watch 100 games a year, but beyond that, it's not easy to tell, and I think a lot of us take that for granted.

Everyone (unless you're born into a sabermetric family and hear the Bill James Gospel from age four, I suppose) grows up hearing about the same stuff. We hear about batting average, homers, and RBIs (maybe OBP now) for hitters, and wins, losses, saves, ERA, and strikeouts for pitchers.

Other stuff gets mentioned occasionally, like walks, WHIP, and performance with runners in scoring position, but when UZR, tRA, and wOBA find their way into the ESPN lexicon, let me know.

So we all grow up with that. Some of us ultimately find our way into the statistical world that you don't hear about on broadcast television.

I personally came to it through Moneyball , which I read in 2004, mainly because I'm an A's fan, and a chance encounter with Baseball Prospectus 2006 in a bookstore in July 2006, browsing the sports section. When I started writing here, someone linked me to Fangraphs in a comment, and that site gives me a good amount of my article material.

So some of us see these statistics and decide that they're more valuable to look at than the ones on TV. We feel that they're better indicators of a player's value. Others never see these statistics, don't care about them, and don't want to move out of what they've been told are the "key statistics" all their lives.

This thinking gap was most clearly illustrated to me when I wrote an article this summer declaring that Giants righty Matt Cain's low-2s ERA was just the product of good defense, and that he was really about a 4-ERA pitcher. I had plenty of numbers to back it up, and didn't anticipate anyone taking issue to that conclusion.

That article got something like 130 comments. I'd say 80% were negative.

A few people saw what I was saying and completely agreed. Others thought my ideas were interesting, but thought other factors meant Cain's improvement was legit.

But overwhelmingly, the response I got was "You're an idiot. Watch the damn games. He pitches great from the stretch, so his strand rate is high. He's inducing weak contact, so his BABIP is low. Duh! You're an A's fan, so you hate the Giants. Stop cherrypicking stats that say our pitchers are bad. This is just a waste of time."

And hey, maybe they're right and I'm wrong about Matt Cain. Maybe he'll put up a 2.5 ERA this year. I've been wrong before.

Where they are wrong, though, is in the personal nature of those comments. And I'm not even talking about offensiveness. I enjoy a baseball game as much as anyone does, and I'm really interested in watching them to find out exactly what players do to produce their stats.

That said, I don't care if Matt Cain twirls like a ballerina from the stretch; unless I see him consistently defying the strand-rate odds for several years, I'm not going to buy that he's an exception to the rule that they generally regress to 70%. 

That's just the way I look at things. It may or may not be right. It often is, but certainly not always.

I don't care to pretend that I'm above everybody just because I look at Fangraphs. Like I said, no matter how much you watch the games or look at the numbers, you're simply not going to see every breakout and collapse coming. Try reading a Baseball Prospectus annual a year after it's published and see how much statistical "experts" and one of the best projection systems get wrong.

It's staggering.

So, as we head into 2010, for those of you who are with me in our state of statistical nerdiness, you guys can expect the same thorough, thoughtful analysis I've been providing.

And for those of you who aren't, hey, I don't care to change the way you think. Don't treat my articles as if they're coming from somebody who is trying to force you to think one way.

You don't have to agree. If you want to think Matt Cain will be a Cy Young-caliber pitcher next year, go right ahead. If that's how you like your baseball, my spreadsheets and I aren't about to try to steal your enjoyment, nor do we want to.

All I ask is that you understand that there are indicators that say whatever I'm saying; that there is a logical thought process that can lead to the conclusion I draw. You can have another contradictory one based on whatever logic you want. All I ask is that you consider where I'm coming from before saying something like "Oh, he's an A's fan, so he has an anti-Giants agenda."

I have a pro-baseball agenda when it comes to analysis. That's about it. Oh, maybe a pro-intelligence, anti-stupidity agenda too. (I know, controversial, right?)

Anyway, thanks to everyone who's read my articles, offered their insights, and helped me get to the top of the rankings in 2009. Have a great New Year and I'll be back with much more in 2010!

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