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April 27, 2012 at 8:54 AM

Knowing modern “stats-speak” in baseball versus understanding the major league game

Here’s a first on this blog. I will be doing one of those Cover-It-Live chats today at noon Pacific time from Toronto. No video, just plain old print where I can answer some of your questions and have it all preserved for eternity. Hope you join me.
Quite the entertaining morning yesterday watching the online reaction to some of what Mariners manager Eric Wedge had to say about his veteran players. Many of you here were upset by it, as were some on my Twitter feed and in various other blog comments sections. Some of the more vehement comments centered around his daring to use statistics like “home runs” and “RBI” in discussing player merit, rather than more advanced metrics.
I saw the usual “Fire Eric Wedge!” hysterics, but that’s to be expected. Fans tend to overreact to daily happenings with every baseball team in any given year and that’s nothing new. Believe me, there is no danger of Eric Wedge being fired for managing a ballclub the same way any manager who knows what he’s doing would attempt it. Even the Mariners, as crazy as some of their decisions have been the past decade or so, are smart enough to figure out that a seventh manager since 2007 would seriously derail any hopes of them getting a quality eighth guy to run the team.
Anyhow, we’re not here to talk about firing anybody 20 games into a 162-game season.
But some of the reactions yesterday to what Wedge said got me thinking about the fundamental disconnect that still exists between how we look at some of the more advanced baseball statistics out there versus how Major League Baseball teams actually operate.
While it’s true that virtually all teams now employ some type of advanced statistical consultants, the idea that players and coaches are sitting around the clubhouse conversing about xFIP, WAR, wOBA and any stats that don’t revolve around “Batting average” and “RBI” and “ERA” simply is not the case.
I know we all want to think that is what’s happening. And some in the mainstream media — even national-level favorites — help encourage this type of thinking with stories on the one pitcher out of hundreds who knows the difference between FIP and ERA+. Nothing wrong with those stories, since they are fun and we’ve all done them. But they do not reflect the current reality in baseball.
And the reality is, most players still don’t have a clue about advanced stats. They don’t have time to sit around worrying about their ground ball tendancies versus left-handed pitchers in high leverage situations. Their thinking is still more fundamental. They know when they are putting good wood on the ball. They know when they are chasing bad pitches that are unhittable. And they know from video how a certain pitcher they will face that day might try to work them. Many good players keep detailed logs in books about those pitches they have seen and could see again. It’s pretty detailed stuff, not uneducated scribblings.
But start talking situational OPS with just about any player and you will get a scrunched up face staring back at you.
And so, the man placed in charge of these players in the field-level trenches — the manager — is not going to have advanced stats as part of his daily lexicon of words when he speaks. I have known many managers over the years, some of them “old school” and some who know an awful lot about advanced stats.
But none of them sit around talking about those stats. When they speak about baseball, it’s still in the “RBI” and “ERA” mode. And so, when I see Wedge getting lambasted over the internet yesterday for his choice of words in describing that he needs Miguel Olivo to get his bat going because the team doesn’t have a “home run” and “RBI” guy it can count on, I do feel it’s important to address this disconnect.
The truth is, what Wedge was saying is that the team doesn’t have many .450 slugging types who can earn that slugging percentage with something other than doubles. Try saying that out loud and getting your message across to a mass audience.
Baseball men just don’t speak that way.
The stereotypical “Harvard-educated front office assistants” spawned by the Moneyball era might speak like that. And that’s fine, because it’s why they were hired. It’s also why many teams never let those guys anywhere near the field or the players. The guys in charge of players — who have to lead them into on-field combat — have to be the ones most trusted by the rank-and-file. The ones who grew up in a baseball environment like they did — I’m talking professional baseball, not high school or college — and know the score.
And unfortunately, despite what you may read places, in 2012, the score is still largely told in terms of home runs, RBI, ERA and what baseball has been scoring for 100 years.

Now, that does not mean there is no place in baseball for modern stats. But again, here is the fundamental disconnect. Stats have their place, yes — one place in the corner of the swimming pool of daily baseball life.
Daily baseball life does not have the stats world as its center of the universe. For many baseball fans it does. But for those in charge of living and playing the game that is modern Major League Baseball, stats are only one part of it.
This is not a revelation. It’s been said many, many times before and most people just nod their head and go “of course, we know that!”. But then, the minute the conversation turns elsewhere, those fans promptly forget what was just said and continue to watch and analyze baseball as if stats are indeed the be-all, end-all.
They are not.
Stats are a tool that those in more advanced front offices can use to narrow down the list of players that might be chosen from a wide-ranging assortment. But the best front offices will then be open-minded enough to go back to their field-level baseball people and engage in discussions about why the stats might be misleading. Jack Zduriencik is seen by many in the blogosphere as a “stats guy” and nothing could be further from the truth. Zduriencik values “makeup” in a player as much as any other traits I’ve seen. Not always the civic-minded, he’ll make a great church-goer kind of makeup, but on-field baseball makeup.
Zduriencik knows that stats are only one area of importance. And that there are a world of other human factors that go into building a baseball team. If there weren’t, then any blogger, fan or mainstream journalist who can crunch a few numbers together would be managing baseball teams.
But that’s not the case. At best, those people get hired as front office assistants and sometimes move up to the GM ranks. But they are almost never put out there at field level, simply because they are out of their depth. And that’s why, even the most stats-educated of GMs, like a Theo Epstein, employ a wide-ranging group of assistants with other areas of expertise.
Wedge addressed some of those human factors that go into daily MLB life in making his comments yesterday.
“We’re all human beings,” he said. “That’s just the human factor. That’s what I think a lot of people fail to understand — that these guys aren’t robots. These guys are human beings with hearts and brains and something else too. So, you’ve got to balance all that.”
Some will take offense to that. Whatever. It’s true. And one reason managers don’t sit around filling the heads of 25-year-old athletes with an encyclopedia of baseball stats is that they realize their human athletic brains can’t handle it. Baseball is a game of instinct and reaction, where you react to events happening in front of you at 100 mph.
There is no time to be delving through stat pages in your brain when this stuff is happening. Jim Riggleman once told me that he would get a thick, book-sized stats package before every game and that he’d throw out about 95 percent of it. He was kidding about actually throwing it in the garbage, but what he meant was, in terms of preparation, there wasn’t time to go over every itty-bitty stat. No time for coaches to do that and even if there was, his players would have it go in one ear and out the other because human beings typically can’t process that much info in such a short time.
So, at best, you pick a few areas to hone in on, get players to work on those things over and over again in pre-game fielding or hitting workouts and hope for the best. If there is any area of MLB where players study off-field stuff with great intensity, it is probably the video room. Not the stats room.
Most teams now employ skilled video people — the Mariners do as well — who can shoot and edit the types of high-definition video packages needed by players. Why video? Because it simulates real baseball life better than stats do. A player will get more out of seeing what type of pitch might be coming their way than they will reading about it in a stats booklet.
Again, this isn’t meant to minimize the fun that fans have with stats, or the cottage industry built up around the more advanced stats. I’m not poking fun at anyone’s livelihood. But the thinking that these stats are dominating daily baseball life is just not accurate.
These stats are part — one part — of daily baseball decision-making.
So, anyone expecting a manager to start speaking about OPS and wOBA in a conversation about baseball is missing the point. These managers know baseball. All of them know baseball better than you do, or I do.
Doesn’t mean we can’t question their decision-making. Doesn’t mean we can’t ask why they do the things they do.
Yes, they are sometimes wrong. But that’s because they are human — not robots.
And those human managers all know about baseball. More importantly, they know about managing in baseball and the human subtleties that come with the job. The human politics that must be played. The pressures that younger players fall under versus the more experienced ones. How those pressures might impact daily play on an individual and overall lineup basis.
That is more important in discussing a manager and his employment future than whether or not he uses words like “RBI” and “home run” in discussing a hitter. Wedge knows what types of hitters he needs and where. But he simply doesn’t have enough of them. So, if Olivo is his best shot at a .450-slugger who doesn’t rely merely on doubles, then that’s what he knows. And Olivo has been that guy before. Just not last season. And Wedge, trust me, knows he needs to get more out of Olivo’s bat. He needs a daily catcher as well and Olivo is his best bet, but that’s a discussion for another day.
I’ll leave you with this one thought, which occured when I read this comment over the internet yesterday:
“Today is Eric Wedge’s 1316th game as a manager of an MLB team. If you take him at his word, he apparently still believes that it is a worthwhile effort to (1) place a fair amount of importance on Olivo’s veteran status, and (2) reference RBI numbers as a measure of how effective a player is.
He’s had 1316 chances for the light bulb to come on and realize why that’s wrong. If I did my job wrong for 1316 days, I would be wondering why I was still employed. I don’t think it’s a stretch to wonder if Wedge is really cut out for this sort of thing.”

My thought after reading that comment is, is this really the level of arrogance our increased knowledge of stats has brought us to? For me, out of simple humility, the thought process should be: “Wedge has had 1,316 chances for the light bulb to come on and realize he’s wrong. Maybe, the fact that Wedge hasn’t realized he’s wrong is an indication that my thought process might not be as bang-on correct as I think it is. Maybe it’s me who has to re-evaluate. Maybe there is more to the job than I realize and that’s why Wedge has been employed at it for 1,316 games.”
But that’s just me. Something to think about.



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