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Daily coverage of the Mariners during the season and all year long.

May 16, 2012 at 7:46 AM

Playing with numbers

Plenty of discussion taking place about Seattle’s ongoing offensive woes and what can be done about them. Just for a change of pace, I thought I’d play a little game with all of you involving sets of numbers pertaining to weighted on-base average (wOBA).
Player A: .425, .409, .381, .386, .317
Player B: .322, .319, .309, .257
In each case, the final number is an example of “one of these things is not like the others” and seemingly came out of nowhere as a dropoff after steady performance with the three prior figures.
Player A in this case is Edgar Martinez and the numbers represent the final four seasons of his career from 2001 on the left through 2004.
Player B is Ichiro and the numbers represent his totals with runners in scoring position the last four seasons of his career from 2009 on the left through to this current season.
Both players had outstanding careers worthy of Hall of Fame consideration. Each established excellence over a sustained period of roughly a decade. In both cases, there was no indication the prior year of the dropoff that was to come.
Martinez, as we all know, spent the entire season watching his numbers dropoff solidify in 2004, then called it a career. He was done.
Ichiro has only had 39 plate appearances with RSIP this year, so we don’t know whether these low numbers will solidify or not. What we do know, though, from looking at Martinez’s numbers, is that even a career track record of success is no guarantee a player — even one worthy of Hall of Fame consideration — will be able to recapture his past success. Not once he reaches an age where skills of all players have been shown to decine rapidly across-the-board. Even for players whose ability to defy the pull of age has been celebrated to that point. We all get old.
And when you’re running a baseball team, one that costs $80 million and up to put on the field, you can’t just say “ho-hum” take a nap and see how it all pans out at the end of the year. When you’re running a Major League Baseball team, you worry about whether the decline is real, how many wins it might cost your team and whether that cushy six-or-seven-figure job of yours will be on-the-line if you make the wrong call.
We’ll get into Ichiro’s RISP numbers versus his regular ones in another post. Don’t want to clutter this one up. But yeah, that’s another thing anyone running a team will have to weight and decide whether there is a bearing.
Let’s play one more game with numbers.


Team A: 19-18…5.5 GBL
Team B: 18-19…2.0 GBL
Team A is last season’s Detroit Tigers after 37 games. Team B is this season’s Detroit Tigers after the same 37 games.
Despite being one win better last year, this season’s Tabbies are actually better-positioned to win the division. And as we know, last year’s team got things together and easily cruised to the AL Central title before losing the ALCS in six games.
So, what can we conclude? Yeah, 37 games is a very small sample size. Tells us nothing about how a team expected to be good will ultimately finish.
Want something more extreme? Try this.
Team A: 6-14…10.5 GBL
Team B: 6-14…9.0 GBL
Team A is the Angels of 2002. Team B is this year’s version, both after 20 games.
This year’s team would appear to be slightly better positioned, but has the exact same record, right? Well, since we all know the Angels of 10 years ago went on to win 99 games and the World Series, the sample size of 20 games is quite meaningless. Nobody with any stats insight would try to make a playoff prediction off a sample that small, correct? Why tinker? Just leave the team alone and see what happens.
Well, the Angels of today just fired their hitting coach and hired a new one after 37 games. Yeah, that’s 17 games more than the sample size directly above. But then again, we already “proved” with the Tigers example higher up that 37 games is a too “small sample size” to determine anything meaningful.
Well, then? What the heck are the Angels doing? Don’t they understand how baseball works?
If you permit me, I’ll suggest the Angels are merely doing what MLB teams do when they have plenty at stake and are noticing problems. They are trying to make fixes. Now, I’ve never been a fan of firing the hitting coach as a solution, but the Angels are trying to reverse the course that now sees them underperforming by more than most experts expected.
They could sit back, smugly say “sample size! sample size!” while winking knowingly and pointing at the 2002 Angels or 2011 Tigers and how they turned out. Or, they can also look at the 2008 Mariners and see what happened there. Those Mariners also expected to contend and invested a lot trying to do so. They were picked as no worse than an 80-win team by most projection systems and yet, somehow, they lost 101 games.
And again, I’ll humbly submit, that is why MLB teams don’t have the luxury of going “sample size! sample size!” when things start to go wrong. Because sometimes things reverse course and correct to where we thought they’d be all along. And sometimes they don’t.
Whether it be teams that expected to contend.
Or players with a huge track record of success that suddenly don’t have it anymore.
No baseball teams that invest tens of millions and have real live careers on-the-line can afford to sit back, dismiss downward trends and wait for a full year of “sample size” to make a call. And that, once again, is the difference between doing baseball analysis in a vacuum where — if you’re wrong — all you have to do is admit it in a paragraph at the end of a season, versus analysis where your livelihood and those of others is at stake.
That’s why MLB teams like the Angels will often make moves based off of small sample sizes. It’s why teams like the Mariners — banking a big degree of their offensive success on Ichiro in the No. 3 spot — may not want to wait all year to see whether his downward trend with RISP is a permanent one.
None of us knows what will happen next. Nobody.
Some teams will wait all year. Some will wait a few weeks. Some, like the current Mariners, may wait two months, or three months.
But nobody does it with the assumption they know the answer. Teams that underperform lose sleep every night wondering exactly when the right time is to pull the plug on something.
Doesn’t make them wrong. And the people making the “small sample size” arguments aren’t wrong either — with Ichiro, or the underperforming ballclubs I just mentioned.
All of those cases involve small sample sizes.
And sometimes, in real life, teams have to make a call based entirely off that. Some of it may even involve a gut hunch or two.
Because in the end, if they follow the small sample logic and wind up being wrong, they’ll usually pay for it with more than just a little egg on their face. And if we learn nothing else this year other than that major difference between analysis in a vacuum and applying it in real life MLB, this one lesson will be enough to bridge a major gap of misunderstanding some people have about how teams approach things.

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