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September 10, 2007 at 12:50 PM

Two solitudes

Glad to see some calls for a ‘truce” in our last thread in this ongoing feud between the sabermetrics folks and the so-called traditionalists. There is room for both in baseball and any good GM uses aspects of both to build a team. And the funny thing is, nobody pinning their hopes too much on either camp is ever going to be completely right.
That said, I think the “debate” between the two sides has been the best part of being a baseball fan these past five years. Sabermetrics has been around far longer than that, but it wasn’t until the tail end of 2002 and with the publication of “Moneyball” the following year that the “debate” became more of an ideological “war”.
I think we’ve calmed down somewhat from the hysteria of the Moneyball area. Even the “traditionalist” side — which I’ve known to include plenty of 20-year-olds, if they can even be called “traditionalists” at that age — for the most part will grudgingly allow that numbers can tell a different story than what their eyes see. And the “numbers crowd” will also admit — at least, the intelligent ones — that there is a human element to this game that can trump even the most thought-out computer equation.
I’ve enjoyed the exchanges on this site all summer long between the two camps. And I even hesitate to polarize things with that kind of language. All of you are baseball fans. You just have different ways of reaching your conclusions. Sometimes, I dare say it, you all agree.
Funny story here. I mentioned seeing Jose Vidro last night at the airport. When I think of Vidro these days, I tend to see him as a “number” first, and a human player second. That thought struck me as very odd. I don’t consider myself as strictly a “by-the-numbers” guy, but I suppose that, with all of the debate surrounding Vidro this year, this is its lasting legacy with me.
I see Vidro and his batting average and slugging percentage fill my brain.
The first half of the year, his .280-.300 batting average and an image of “hollow” popped into my head because I knew his slugging percentage was in the .350 range — about 100 points below where I figured it had to be for him to be an effective DH at his career on-base levels.
In the second half, an image of his higher slugging percentage — .463 — has lingered in my brain. That and Vidro’s abnormally high .425 on-base percentage has given him an .888 on-base-plus-slugging percentage (OPS) for the latter half of the year. Even if you knock 50 points off the on-base average to get back to Vidro’s career norms, an OPS of .838 is more than enough for Vidro to be statistically sound on a team that is not relying on him for pure power.
Of course, he must maintain that over a full season. I actually think he will, now that he’s adjusted to being a full-time DH.
The funny thing, though? Every time I speak to Vidro, I come away impressed by how even-keeled he has remained throughout the year. How he refuses to panic, or throw a temper tantrum when things aren’t going away. I come away with the impression of him being a seasoned-pro. I am reminded about all the good things I heard about Vidro when he was in Montreal. And so, I wonder, why is this not the lasting image I have of him? Am I in the process of going over to the “numbers side” of being a baseball observer?
I don’t know the answer. All I know is that this human element to Vidro is something that numbers can’t qualify. Vidro strikes me as the type of guy who, soft-spoken as he is, will be listened to by a younger player when he has something to say. Can a team put a price on that? I don’t know. We hear talk of “team chemistry” from baseball men who have spent decades toiling on the field. But few are able to even describe in a sentence or less what chemistry means. Does that mean it doesn’t really exist? I don’t think so. Just because you can’t come up with an equation, or a snappy sentence, does not mean something is non-existent.
When I think of the more vocal “leaders” on this Mariners team, names like Adrian Beltre, J.J. Putz, Jose Guillen and Jarrod Washburn pop into my head. Some because they’ve been around enough to lead, others because they grab you by the throat and force you to listen. Then, I think of those who can lead by example, like Ichiro, Vidro, or Miguel Batista, in terms of their professionalism and preparation. Some won’t be leaders for all. One guy’s leader might be another’s pain-in-the-butt. Raul Ibanez strikes me as a leader-type. But can a guy lead when he struggles? I think Ibanez has been around long enough that he can.
But if I’m having so much trouble figuring out exactly who the true leaders are, on a team that I see and talk to every day, can I expect those who don’t have my access to have any greater insight on this? No, I can’t.
So, the debate over chemistry and intangibles remains an open-ended one. Something to keep in-mind as we evaluate a team’s potential moving forward.
On the merits of the OPS stat, though, I have to come out firmly on the numbers side. Batting average is truly limiting when it comes to evaluating a player’s true worth. As we saw with Vidro, over a very rough first half, you can put up what’s considered to be a “good” batting average of .286, while producing a very poor OPS of below .700.
The OPS stat takes several factors into account while batting average does not. It’s why, over time, I’d go with the OPS stat every time in cases of a disparity between the two as we saw with Vidro.
But then, in the spirit of keeping an open-mind, I will say that OPS does indeed have its limits over the short-term. Let’s consider the recent cases of Vidro and Ibanez and the folks who wanted to see either removed from the daily lineup.
Vidro’s OPS over the first week of September fell to .691. Anything below .700 is cause for serious concern with this stat, especially at a power position. Richie Sexson and his .694 OPS season so far have caused much consternation throughout the blogosphere. Use that as your benchmark for gauging seasons of sub-.700 OPS. None too pretty.
But that’s over a season. Can a week’s worth of sub-.700 OPS be cited as grounds for a player’s removal? I don’t know if it always can. A look at Vidro’s on-base numbers for the first seven games he played in September shows him at .345. That’s a full 50 points higher than Sexson’s seasonal OBP. In fact, the only two Seattle regulars, other than Vidro, with a higher OBP than .345 this season are Ichiro and Jose Guillen.
So, are you going to sit a guy who, when struggling, produces on-base numbers for the week that are outperforming most of the guys on his team? It’s the kind of question I never hear asked when the debate over Vidro’s numbers starts to rage. And remember, Vidro isn’t being counted on for his power as much as other guys in the lineup.
Same argument for Ibanez. Someone recently pointed out to me that his OPS had declined over a period of 10 days or so. It clearly had, but I’d noticed as well that his on-base numbers were still relatively high. That confirmed to me what my naked eye had been seeing. That Ibanez had been scorching the ball. And sooner or later, that should work in a hitter’s favor. All those singles he’d been getting would eventually translate into power. Ibanez absolutely ripped a ball to right field the other night in New York that should have been a double. But he hit it so hard that the carom off the wall went straight to right fielder Shelley Duncan, who made a spectacular play and throw to nab Ibanez at second base.
Ibanez only gets credited with a single on the play. The slugging portion of his OPS suffers. But is that deserved? All I know is, some of Ibanez’s harder hit balls began to fly out of the park in Detroit. His OPS for September is now a stellar .965. Crisis averted.
Should the team have “platooned” Sexson and Ben Broussard earlier this season, allowing Sexson to face only left handed pitching? As of July, yes. I wrote this summer that a “drop dead” date for Sexson to get his game together should have been set by the team. Mine would have been July 1 and Broussard would have been in there. That’s different that the team’s argument for playing Sexson once his numbers started spiking in August. I would not have been as patient in getting to that point.
But can you make the same argument for an Ibanez-Adam Jones platoon, allowing Jones to face lefthanded pitchers? I don’t think so and have written as much the past week. Ibanez has been performing above and beyond expected levels since the Jones promotion. I do believe that the “human element” in a baseball player makes them averse to being platooned and that there is something to be said for “sucking it up” and accepting their poor numbers versus lefties on the odd occasion in favor of maintaining their consistency and ability to hit right handers.
Playing day-to-day does impact some guys. Would I want to risk throwing Ibanez off on Sunday against a righthander by sitting him Saturday against a lefty? At this stage, no. And Ibanez’s continued production — heck, he even homered off a lefty reliever yesterday — makes me feel more confident about that view.
Does that mean I’m right? No, it doesn’t. There is ample evidence to suggest Ibanez has not hit lefties all that well and that a hitter more apt to do so could benefit the M’s in that role over an entire season. Do we know how that will impact Ibanez? No, we don’t. At this stage, the team is choosing not to find that out through trial and error. It doesn’t mean the team is right.
All of this verbiage is meant to show you that there are always different ways of looking at things and that nothing is absolute. To attack the folks bringing numbers to the table on this site as “stat-heads” is shortsighted and intolerant. If you’re going to argue something, you have to back it up. Nothing beats a little numerical evidence.
But numbers aren’t always enough. As I’ve just shown, they can be manipulated to say whatever you want them to say. Bottom line? None of us has all the answers, even those of us who are entirely sure that they do.
That’s what makes this game great. That is why you should all have fun challenging each other on this site. Respect what your debate opponent has to say above all. Because you never know. He or she may, in the end, be right.



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