January 6, 2012
The Wisdom of Uncertainty
Believe it or not, most of our writers didn't enter the world sporting an @baseballprospectus.com address; with a few exceptions, they started out somewhere else. In an effort to up your reading pleasure while tipping our caps to some of the most illuminating work being done elsewhere on the internet, we'll be yielding the stage once a week to the best and brightest baseball writers, researchers and thinkers from outside of the BP umbrella. If you'd like to nominate a guest contributor (including yourself), please drop us a line.
Jason Wojciechowski is the founder and sole author of Beaneball, a blog about the A’s. He also contributes to The Platoon Advantage on more general baseball topics. His college thesis was in computational number theory but he is now a labor lawyer with a Twitter addiction (@jlwoj).
I am not what you'd call trained in epistemology, but I think it's sometimes worth delving into issues of what we know and what we don't. Thus, what follows is a complete listing of the things I know about baseball.
Once upon a time, this would have disqualified me from having opinions about baseball. These days, though, I proudly wear my lieutenant's stripes in The Agnostic Army. We carry shields with giant question marks. "MAYBE!" goes our rallying cry. "POSSIBLY!" we shout, charging at the forces of certainty. "WE'RE JUST NOT SURE!" we bay with conviction and pride.
Now, I don't want to alienate my sisters and brothers who exercise their rights to tweet and blog about how stupid writers and teams are, content in their superior knowledge. I wasn't always pure. I was one of you. The second blog post I ever wrote called some NBA writer at ESPN.com an idiot right in the headline.
These days I'm less certain of myself. I worship at the altar of the Almighty Qualifier. I still make fun of writers and analysts, but I spend more time razzing them for drawing unwarranted conclusions than for being wrong. The sabermetricians I admire most are the ones who don't pretend that they could walk right into the Kansas City Royals' offices and immediately turn them into a profit-making, pennant-winning machine.
I have, in other words, seen the Light of Doubt. Having not been born into this particular Church, unfortunately for you, I have the convert's missionary zeal. I am here to spread the gospel. I present, then, some areas in which we experience significant uncertainty that we do not always fully acknowledge.
Wouldn't it be foolish, then, to assume that we know everything a front office knows? That the public scouting reports on a Low-A 19-year-old are just as accurate as those of the team that's been watching him for months? That, to return to the previous section, the team hasn't looked extensively into the question of whether a particular pitcher's anxiety disorder will cause degradation of his performance in certain environments?
I'm not saying that teams know everything. I'm not saying that they always know something we don't. And I'm certainly not saying that they always correctly analyze the data they have. What I am saying is that we must build into our analyses of team decisions the possibility that the team has significant information that we do not have, or that the team is simply smarter than we are.
General managers have budgets that they tend not to disclose. Those budgets may be flexible depending on variables that we cannot even identify, much less quantify. GMs also have goals at various horizons. Ownership may demand a certain level of profit in the short or long term, or be willing to take a certain amount of short-term loss to ensure longer-term gains. There may be liquidity problems due to the local economy, business climate, tax situation, or ownership's other business or personal activities. Teams have significant baseball costs that are not reflected in major-league salary: coaches, scouting, analytics, training, medical, and so on.
Money, in short, drives every decision of every baseball franchise, frequently in unpredictable or dynamic ways, yet the only monetary data we have consistent access to are player contracts. To engage in any sort of analysis of team decisions without acknowledging what we don't know about the money side of the question, at least via implicit methods (like not immediately calling the general manager a dumbass), strikes me as unwise and hubristic.
This isn't about the shortcomings of batted-ball data or pitch-type linear weights or any number of other questionable data and analysis you can find on the internet. This is about the uncertainty built into identifying true talent. You know that a season of data for a player doesn't result in perfect knowledge about that player's ability to get hits or walks or homers or anything else, in part because this ability is a moving target. We shouldn't pretend that parks or positions are any different.
Then there are the essentially philosophical questions about how to value pitching, both starting and relief. You probably have your favorite method and good reasons for using it, but are you certain you're right? Should you be?
The above, which is really just a sketch of an outline of a manifesto about uncertainty in baseball analysis, leads to this:
I've surely neglected a few ideas that analysts ought to keep in mind (the deleted scenes from this piece include the team's long-term and short-term talent and competitive goals; the Big Picture view of the team's particular place within its division; the various stakeholders every team must concern itself with, including fans, media, other team owners, the league administration, the MLBPA, various governments, investors, advertisers, and more), but at some point I have to give you, dear readers, a little credit for being able to figure out all of the unlisted areas I didn't cover.
Let's instead move to an example, and I hope you'll forgive me for choosing one from my usual beat. The A's, who have so far this winter been squarely engaged in tearing down their existing team and raising the white flag on 2012, signed Coco Crisp to a two-year contract with $14 million in guarantees. The team has little outfield depth, certainly, but between Colin Cowgill, Josh Reddick, Michael Taylor, Brandon Allen, Jermaine Mitchell, Grant Green, Michael Choice, Brandon Moss, and probably even a few others, there are players who can cover the three spots with something approximating competence, many of whom aren't spring chickens and thus, in the eyes of many fans, must be accorded a chance to sink or swim now, before the return to full competitiveness (sooner rather than later, with fingers crossed and prayers uttered) occurs. Why, then, take at-bats away from any reasonably promising young player and give them to the occasionally Afro'd veteran outfielder? Stupid move, right?
Looking through the list of considerations above, I think we can see plenty of room for doubt in this analysis. How much did the A's need to spend to avoid an MLBPA grievance for under-spending? How much did they need to spend to maintain a basic level of credibility with fans and advertisers? What other players are available to take Oakland's money, and whose potential development would they impede? How much is some measure of roster continuity worth in ticket sales, advertising, and other revenues? Does the team need to spend some amount to avoid charges of bad faith tanking to obtain a new stadium? What is the likelihood that Crisp can be traded midway through the contract? Relatedly, what are the odds that Crisp sustains minor or major injury over the life of the contract? How important is sink-or-swim in prospect development, as opposed to having enough depth for a manager to pick and choose situations for a player to rest? How important is veteran leadership and teaching? Will friendly competition with Crisp for playing time spur on these particular prospects to further develop their skills? Will Grant Green and Michael Choice feel that their path is blocked? What psychological effect will this have on their development as players?
As you've noticed, I have a tendency to go on. What I hope I've accomplished, however, is to demonstrate that simple answers aren't available. While I don't subscribe to the extreme theory that every trade is a win-win that leaves room only for figuring out how each team benefits in equal measure, I think most trades, most free-agent signings, most demotions and promotions, most lineup decisions, and even most in-game strategic decisions involve so many variables that no outside analysis can come close to completeness. The answer, though, is not to give up—what's the fun in that? No, the answer is to understand our limitations and to do the best we can to illuminate the holes in our knowledge.
Coco Crisp's signing might be terrible. It might be amazing. The entire Oakland rebuilding program, resting ostensibly on Billy Beane's theory of competitive windows, might be perfectly executed on the basis of sound theory, or it might be a complete disaster and a front for acting poor to force Bud Selig's hand in Lew Wolff's fight with the Giants over San Jose.
The answers to these and nearly every other question probably lie somewhere in between. I posit that we're better off doing as much analysis as we can and pointing out what we don't know than making up answers or, worse, pretending the questions don't exist.