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March 15, 2009
Recently, a panel on MLB Network's MLB Tonight show had a discussion about the use of statistics in the evaluation of baseball players. The discussion was preceded by a clip that introduced Nate Silver's PECOTA to the audience, explained what it is, and showed how it attempts to project player performance.
Take that in. It would have been unfathomable just a few years ago that a national television show would be devoting a segment to explaining an externally derived system for projecting player performance, and then discussing it. This is a significant step forward for analysis, and whatever we can say about the details of the discussion that occurred, you have to acknowledge that MLB Network has gone out of their way to present something new to baseball fans. The clip even got PECOTA's acronym correct, which is something I generally can't do even at gunpoint.
The discussion that followed was disappointing. Sean Casey and Barry Larkin paid lip service to the value of performance analysis, and then insisted on evaluating players by anything but their performance. Harold Reynolds was all over the place, dismissing the use of stats entirely because of things that happened in his own career, calling stats "ridiculous," then calling out some of the projections presented without presenting reasons why he disagreed with them. Larkin used the term, "a quality .215 [batting average]," which if nothing else gives me a great name for a fantasy team.
Host Matt Vasgersian-a BP reader who frequently would name-check BP on Padres' telecasts-drove the discussion off course by asking the panel to choose between "the guy with the calculator" and "the guy with the straw hat." That is, of course, a false choice. No team ever has to choose, as Dayn Perry so eloquently explained years ago. All three players chose the scout, after which Vasgersian made the key point that a scout sees a guy three times, while his stats see everything the guy has done. The players nonetheless cited the scout's opinion as being more valuable than what the analysis could provide.
My problem isn't with these opinions, which are to be expected. My problem is with the lack of another viewpoint. Setting Vasgersian up as the opposition is inadequate to the task, not because he's not talented, but because it's not really his role and he's not invested in the argument. Asking three former players about the value of performance analysis isn't going to produce an interesting discussion, because players' opinions on this stuff, with rare exception, fall into a narrow range. A real discussion on this issue would involve other voices, and even if those voices were to be shouted down or marginalized for lack of a baseball-reference page, well, they needed to be heard.
It's entirely possible that statheads undervalue the non-performance aspects of being a baseball player. Even though I've come around on the issue a little bit, to be fair, I'm probably at the outside edge of opinion on this. I think that success, or the lack of it, drives chemistry or the lack of it, and I think what a player does on the field means more than what he is off of it by a factor comfortably above 50-to-1. I've always been the guy talking up Barry Bonds or Manny Ramirez because the runs they create mean more than the annoyances that may follow in their wake, or arguing that you don't roster Luis Sojo or, um, Sean Casey because they're more popular than other choices. There are interesting discussions to be had about these decisions and ones like them, and the relative importance of being a player and being a guy, and I've had them. I've won and lost them, and I imagine I'll continue to do so. I'm searching for the right answer.
The other side of this, however, is that players absolutely value non-performance characteristics much more highly than is sensible. This is understandable, because to them the guys around them are not just baseball players, but co-workers, travel partners, drinking buddies, and confidantes. They are around these people 12 hours a day for two-thirds of the year. They're using a completely different set of criteria to evaluate their worth. It's not an additional set; it's a different one. To the extent that these people evaluate each other on their work product, it's on an extremely micro level that doesn't translate well, if at all, to an overall assessment of performance.
There's a distinction here between "baseball players" and "people." The people who occupy the roster, the uniforms, and the clubhouse have a common goal, but a completely different set of challenges and processes than the people who do not. The traits that people have are very important to this group, whereas those traits are largely invisible to analysts outside of that realm. Analysts are evaluating baseball players, their demonstrated skills, their performance, and how those things contribute to wins. The micro-processes, the personality traits, the preparations that are most visible to, and perhaps most valued by, the people in the clubhouse are lost in the numbers .263/.312/.399.
That this tension exists is inevitable and natural, and it's another reason why I will always say that the last person you want evaluating baseball players and teams is another baseball player. Their viewpoint is too micro for the task at hand, they get caught up in the things that they value and lose sight of the bigger picture. What the discussion needed was that other voice, that vested interest in the value of performance analysis to explain the silliness of "a quality .215" and make the beer-and-tacos argument to the players, pointing out that the work product of a player is far more important than how he actually gets there. Right now, MLB Network doesn't have that voice. They have hired enough ex-players to take a run at the NL Central-or maybe to declare Secaucus a nation and play in the 2013 WBC-but they have no diversity of voices.
This is an unexpected hole in their game. Entities such as Sports Illustrated and SI.com, ESPN the Magazine and ESPN.com, and The New York Times have seen the value of informed-outsider analysis and folded this material into their coverage of the game. Performance analysis is part of baseball now, not something to be ignored or mocked, but a critical part of understanding the game. It's mainstream. So for MLB Network to launch with more good left-handed relievers than the AL West has, but with no one who can make the case for Kevin Youkilis' PECOTA projection, is a surprise.
Players bring a lot to a studio show; Baseball Tonight used Reynolds to great effect, getting him out from behind the desk and having him demonstrate and explain the physical aspects of making plays around the bag at second. He knows the game as he played it, he's extremely engaging and entertaining, and you can build a show around him. I want his voice, and Larkin's, and Casey's, and Al Leiter's, but I want them telling me things that they know that I don't. You wouldn't ask Joe Sheehan about the footwork around second base, or Clay Davenport about the effects of different finger pressures on breaking balls. So don't ask Harold Reynolds what he thinks about a PECOTA projection. You need other perspectives.
If the trends in baseball coverage that we've seen in print and on the Web find their way to television, we're in for a treat. A panel having a discussion of the relative values of performance analysis and skills analysis that featured people steeped in both sides of the debate would be a sight to see. It would be great television that advanced the argument, or at least educated the viewers. MLB Network has a tremendous opportunity here, and having done some great things to start-such as the "30 Teams in 30 Days" series and their coverage of the World Baseball Classic-it's not hard to see them taking a leadership role in bringing other voices to their coverage.