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July 12, 2017

Baseball Therapy

Mr. Jones and Me

by Russell A. Carleton


Every once in a while, a quote about sabermetrics pops up that makes me pause for a moment, and last week we got one from none other than Orioles center fielder Adam Jones. Responding to a question about how to make baseball “cool” again, Jones went off on a rather interesting tangent:

"To me it just means getting rid of all these stats. Everything they’re throwing at us nowadays: You hit a home run, this was the exit velocity—who gives a crap? The ball was a home run. You can hit a ball 110 mph off the bat and you’re out. I can’t discredit the actual data, but, to most of us in this game, it’s complete eyewash. But somebody from Harvard or Yale or Tufts or one of those schools is going to get a job in baseball that is not even their field, but they love the game. But when you step between these lines, education means absolutely nothing. That’s the part you can’t measure. But they’re trying."

I’ll sidestep the implied “make baseball cooler by getting rid of the nerds!” angle. I happen to know a couple of people in front offices who went to those very schools. But I think there are a couple of critiques in that paragraph that are worth addressing.

First off, Jones is correct. Or at least he’s correct within his frame of reference. It makes no difference to him after the fact whether the ball left his bat at 90 mph or 110 mph. It matters whether it flew over the wall. What, after all, is he going to do with knowing the exit velocity? This is tautological, but the numbers that the public sees were produced to answer the questions that the public might have.

People like putting numbers on things that they previously didn’t have numbers for and they like making leaderboards from those numbers. While the numbers are nice, the message of the exit velocity leaderboard is one that people mostly knew already: hitting the ball hard is a good thing. It’s cool that we can now say exactly how hard the ball was hit, but where is the actionable intelligence?

That’s not to say a stat like exit velocity is useless to a player. The fact that we know (and can prove ... not that we doubted it) that all else equal, more exit velocity is better, gives us a benchmark from which to work. In fact, the exit velocity readings that teams are more likely to look at (and feed to their players) don’t happen during a game. They happen during batting practice. That Statcast system works as well at 5:00 pm as it does at 7:00 pm.

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