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March 3, 1997

The Insiders

They know more than you, and that's not going to change

by Gregg Pearlman

When Gregg isn't agonizing over Brian Sabean's latest move, he's maintaining EEEEEE!, a Newsletter by and for Annoyed San Francisco Giants Fans. Take a look.

"He couldn't have gotten where he is today if he didn't know what he was doing."

Baseball has given rise to a bushel of silly statements, but this is one of the silliest. When people say it, who are they talking about? Management, media types, players--not fans. It's an unspoken rule: "They know more than you do, for they are Baseball Insiders." Translated, this means, "Stop complaining. Leave the decisions to the professionals." Unfortunately, there's no other option, but why must we assume that those decisions are wise simply because they were made by people who "know better"?

As a San Francisco Giants fan and a Bay Area resident, it's hard not to notice that my team routinely makes incredibly, embarrassingly bad moves--and we fans are told, often in so many words, not to question our betters. Baseball Insiders don't want to be held accountable for what they do or say. Their Insider status grants them implicit credibility.

But why should a few hundred Baseball Insiders--the kind of people who, for instance, employ Kim Batiste as a major league baseball player--be inherently more credible than several thousand knowledgeable fans, folks who spend tremendous amounts of time poring over statistics, trends, reports, and who knows what else? "Because they are Baseball Insiders. They couldn't have gotten where they are today..."

Here's an example you've seen many times: The leadoff hitter reaches base. The number-two man successfully sacrifices him to second. The third-place hitter singles, sending the runner to third. The cleanup man hits a sacrifice fly, scoring the run. The next guy gets out.

The team has essentially traded an out for a run. Dusty Baker does this all the time (though the run often doesn't materialize), apparently because he doesn't trust his leadoff hitter to steal, or in his second-place hitter not to ground into a double play. (So why put these guys up there in the order?) Thing is, sacrifice bunts have been shown to increase the probability of scoring one run--but only one run.

Unless it's late in a close game, the sac bunt is demonstrably a losing strategy, even when you're saddled with the offense of the 1997 San Francisco Giants. "Why do they always bunt with a fast man on base?" you'll moan. Then the sacrifice fly comes, and you'll get your answer: "That's why." Never mind that it's not usually a sound strategy; a Baseball Insider has pulled the strings, so it's a better decision than one you would make. The end.

Baseball Insiders lurk in the front office, as well. The Giants traded a young, left-handed starting pitcher, Allen Watson, to the Angels for first baseman J.T. Snow. The party line is, "Look! We got a Gold Glove first baseman with 20-home-run power, and all we gave up was a sub-.500 pitcher! Yaaaaay!" And these are facts. J.T. Snow has won two Gold Gloves. He has hit more than twenty homers in a season. And Watson did win fewer games than he lost. But the story does not end here.

To people who really know baseball, this trade--on the heels of Matt Williams going to Cleveland for nobody special--cemented Giants' General Manager Brian Sabean's status as the laughingstock of major league baseball. For one thing, it's become apparent that the easiest way to win a Gold Glove is to have done so before. But how do you get that first one? Sportswriters see you chase down a couple of foul popups, or dive in the hole once or twice, or maybe throw out a runner on the bases, and suddenly you're a Gold Glover. What they don't see are the actual numbers, which show that Snow has the range of the talking clown head at Jack In the Box. For example, his 1995 Defensive Average, .494, was the worst at his position since 1988.

And the problem with "20-home-run power" is simple: context. Snow is being portrayed as the kind of guy who can give you a .280 batting average, those 20 dingers, maybe 85 RBIs. If you're talking about a shortstop, that's not bad, but it's far below league average for a starting first baseman. By itself, "20-home-run power" means nothing, and yet Baseball Insiders bandy it about like the Ten Best Commandments Out Of A Hundred.

A typical reaction to the signing of Darryl Hamilton is, "Terrific! Finally a legitimate leadoff hitter, and great defensive center fielder to boot!" The San Franciso press routinely points to his .291 lifetime average and the speed Hamilton believes he possesses. ("I'm about speed," he says.) A local columnist mentioned Hamilton's 1996 on-base percentage of .348, and followed it up with this quote from Brian Sabean: "He would fill our need for a leadoff hitter." Apparently the columnist doesn't know what a .348 OBP means--he seems to think it's equivalent to a .348 batting average. (Ditto Sabean.) But even if it's near the league average, it's still horrific for a leadoff hitter. Remember, league averages are also contributed to by the low-end players-- including pitchers.

Hamilton also gets a lot of praise for his errorless 1996 season, but relevant defensive statistics--hint: none of these are fielding percentage--place him at slightly below league average.

So it's clear to anyone who pays attention to the numbers that Hamilton is nothing special, but to the local Baseball Insiders and media it's as if Willie Mays has recaptured his youth and now wears Number 5 for the San Francisco Giants.

You can question the methods by which numbers are multiplied and divided, but unless they're inaccurate in themselves, how can you dispute raw numbers such as bases on balls and assists? This doesn't mean that only numbers matter when evaluating a player, just that they must not be ignored. But Baseball Insiders, media, and many fans do ignore them because they've been presented by those outside the realm--people who, by definition, aren't credible. Also, who knows from Defensive Average, Linear Weights, and a whole host of other "modern" statistics? If it's not batting average, fielding average, won-lost percentage, and RBIs, we Baseball Insiders don't want any part of them. Therefore, they're not credible, and neither are you.

What do you need to attain credibility? A title, such as "newspaper columnist" or "general manager." You don't become credible merely by saying (even showing) that you're right and an Insider is wrong, no matter how diligent a student of baseball you are, or how badly informed the Insider is. How many sportswriters, for instance, are willing to sit down with, say, Baseball Prospectus and really learn to make sense of those fielding statistics? Such knowledge would only improve their craft, but it's too much trouble, and besides, to know better, an Insider needs nothing more than to be an Insider.
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