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April 11, 2003

6-4-3

Fun with Eddie Tufte

by Gary Huckabay

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Norm!

I'm always amazed at how little attention we all pay to how information is presented to us; in business, baseball, everyday life, wherever. You get used to seeing information a particular way, and--allowing for some brain chemistry fun that none of us like to acknowledge very much--you use that information to make decisions. Deciding what information to include in a presentation, and how to display it to best accomplish your goals is something of an art form. If you're pitching a group of venture capitalists on why your company is worth $11 million rather than the $6 million they think it's worth, you have to create your presentation, and the resulting argument, in a particular fashion that best suits both your agenda and the raw information you're choosing to include.

The same principle holds true for arbitration cases in baseball, presenting a case in court, or using PowerPoint to convince your spouse that the $70,000 windfall is better spent on an enormous home theatre system than augmenting Junior's college fund.

There are lots of ways to present numeric information. In addition to just handing someone a big stack of numbers, you can create charts or graphs until the cows come home or the Tigers score five runs in a game--whichever comes first. In many circumstances, there will be some sort of an industry standard, and if you choose to diverge from that standard, you can bet that some of your very valuable time is going to be spent justifying your deviation from the norm. That's what's been going on in the baseball media and front offices for nearly a quarter century now--trying to change the norms of what information is used to evaluate players.

We get a kick out of round, arbitrary numbers. Adding a digit grabs our attention. Putting aside the uselessness of RBI as an offensive metric for individuals, we notice when someone drives in 100 runs, and we don't pay much attention when they drive in 98. We end up paying too much attention to things like that--accidents of history, really, because we happen to have 10 fingers. So, just to play around and illustrate a point, let's take some comfortable numbers--offensive stat lines for 2002--and present them in a slightly different way. I'm not advocating this as the be-all and end-all of presentation. I just want to point out that the norms of baseball's performance-accounting system tends to induce bad habits.

I've arbitrarily chosen to present the 2002 Anaheim Angels' offensive stats. Instead of the traditional fashion, here's a different type of breakdown. Total PAs (AB+BB in this case) are the first record, and all subsequent numbers are on a per PA basis.

Anaheim Angels 2002 Batting Statistics

Player      PA   Out     R     H    2B    3B    HR    BB    SO    SB    CS
--------------------------------------------------------------------------
Kennedy    493  .669  .132  .300  .065  .012  .014  .039  .162  .034  .008
Ochoa       75  .653  .107  .240  .093  .000  .027  .133  .067  .027  .027
Amezaga     13  .462  .231  .538  .154  .000  .000  .000  .077  .077  .000
Molina, B. 443  .729  .077  .237  .041  .000  .011  .034  .077  .000  .000
Gil        135  .696  .081  .274  .059  .007  .022  .037  .244  .015  .007
Fullmer    461  .668  .163  .269  .076  .013  .041  .069  .095  .022  .007
Figgins     12  .917  .500  .167  .083  .000  .000  .000  .417  .167  .083
Bellinger    1 1.000  .000  .000  .000  .000  .000  .000 1.000  .000  .000
Erstad     652  .692  .152  .271  .043  .006  .015  .041  .103  .035  .005
Eckstein   653  .678  .164  .273  .034  .009  .012  .069  .067  .032  .020
Anderson   668  .669  .139  .292  .084  .004  .043  .045  .120  .009  .006
DaVanon     32  .781  .094  .156  .094  .000  .031  .063  .188  .031  .000
Fabregas    94  .755  .085  .181  .011  .000  .000  .064  .064  .000  .000
Molina, J.  75  .707  .067  .253  .040  .000  .000  .067  .200  .000  .027
Nieves      99  .707  .172  .283  .020  .000  .000  .020  .141  .010  .010
Ramirez     34  .735  .176  .265  .000  .029  .029  .059  .412  .000  .059
Palmeiro   293  .635  .119  .270  .041  .003  .000  .102  .075  .024  .007
Fasano       1 1.000  .000  .000  .000  .000  .000  .000 1.000  .000  .000
Spiezio    558  .642  .143  .251  .061  .004  .022  .120  .093  .011  .013
Wooten     119  .672  .109  .277  .067  .000  .025  .050  .202  .017  .000
Salmon     554  .628  .152  .249  .067  .002  .040  .128  .184  .011  .005
Glaus      657  .654  .151  .216  .037  .002  .046  .134  .219  .015  .005

Same as it ever was. Is it hard to look at? At first, sure. But is it definitively worse than the way we see stats presented every day? Probably not. It's just a different way of presenting basically the same information. You could come up with hundreds or even thousands of ways of presenting baseball performance data. Pitch-by-pitch would be an option, if you wanted to go that route.

You'll note some of the values are highlighted in the above table. Just as our eyes are drawn to numbers like 100 RBI or 40 HR now, maybe our eyes would be drawn to an HR percentage of .040 if we'd grown up with the system above. Perhaps Garret Anderson's .084 doubles rate would have been an eye-popping number that would have led late-season Baseball Tonight broadcasts. The performances that we value, and hence celebrate, have been heavily influenced by the information that's been presented to us our entire lives. Breaking free of those biases has always been the first step in serious analysis.

I hope this doesn't come across as too foreign. Baseball's method of tracking player performance is nothing more than an accounting system. And like all accounting systems, there are two things you can count on:

  1. The system's not perfect, and never will be.
  2. Over time, people will manage and make decisions to optimize the measurements, rather than the reality the measurements are supposed to reflect.

Would the MVP race have been different with this kind of standard stat reporting?

Player      PA   OUT     R     H    1B    2B    HR    BB    SO    SB    CS
--------------------------------------------------------------------------
Tejada     700  .657  .154  .291  .200  .043  .049  .054  .120  .010  .003
Rodriguez  711  .620  .176  .263  .142  .038  .080  .122  .172  .013  .006

Fun with Negotiations

I know I'm late chiming in here, but I found the whole Pedro Martinez/Boston Red Sox dance fascinating. Nate's already posted his stuff about PECOTA and expected return, and I mentioned on the internal email list that the Red Sox had the lowest variance in attendance one could possibly find, leading me to believe that Pedro's marginal value in Boston is lower than anywhere else. Excessive demand is a good thing to have, and hey, printing up tickets with higher prices isn't really that hard to do, should the need arise.

A couple things that haven't popped up in the opinion stream about this situation yet:

  • High Probability of Hilarity. You just know that some mid-level player with an exceptionally high opinion of his own value is going to try pulling a Pedro on some club. When this occurs, the forecast calls for belly laughs. I look forward to some DBE (Derek Bell Equivalent) chirping on ESPNews about how the Devil Rays' window of opportunity to sign him at a hometown discount is closing. It's going to be great.

    Normally, I'd nominate Bret Boone as the guy most likely to try this, but he's safely locked down with the Mariners for the time being.

  • Leverage Variance. Few teams have fan bases as critical, geographically diverse, and invested as the Red Sox. Some of the others? Well, the Yankees, possibly the Dodgers, Giants, Cubs... primarily large market teams. That makes sense, of course, but perhaps this is one place where large-revenue clubs will be at a disadvantage in MLB. Players will have more negotiating leverage with them because they can get a good publicist and spin the negotiations into the media. Then again, I can see Red Sox fans pulling down a 35-foot Theo Epstein statue and dragging the disembodied bronze head through the streets. I can't see anyone doing that with a statue of Dan Evans. Either way, I hope this negotiation tactic doesn't spread, but since it worked with Pedro, it probably will.

Careful With Those Headlines

Under normal circumstances, this headline, seen at 2:25 p.m. PDT yesterday at ESPN.com, wouldn't have caught my eye:

Rocker Gets Shot with Rays

Actuarial tables for the Devil Rays are fairly similar to those for Def Leppard.

Gary Huckabay is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Gary's other articles. You can contact Gary by clicking here

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