June 15, 2010
In the ongoing “search for objective knowledge about baseball” that we’ve come to call sabermetrics, Vladimir Shpunt might be the ultimate lurking variable. If you haven’t yet, take the time now to read Bill Shaikin’s story about the elderly Russian “scientist and healer” whom the couple formerly known as the McCourts hired to improve their team’s performance through the power of positive thinking. Shpunt could reputedly “increase the chance of winning by 10-15%,” which would practically guarantee him several wins above replacement 71-year-old.
From 2004 through 2008, Shpunt directed a mysterious substance known as "V-Energy" in the direction of the Dodgers; he reportedly did the bulk of his energy-channeling from his humble home office in Boston, but I prefer to envision him listening to Vin Scully while sitting in Cerebro. I don’t know about you, but the thought of an enigmatic old man not named Kenobi commanding forces beyond my control makes me uneasy, even though it’s unclear whether Shpunt has ever used his powers for evil. For all I know, a rival site has hired a mad Russian to make me write 10-15% less eloquently than I might have otherwise (which would explain a lot).
The Dodgers won two division titles and a wild card during Shpunt’s tenure, but we can’t give him all the credit; after all, the Red Sox won two World Series in the same span, and the only AARP-eligible entities they had on their side were Bill James and Tom Tippett. So how can we evaluate his performance? Remember, Shpunt was signed by the Dodgers as a free agent; considering the exorbitant cost per win that teams have proven willing to pay for outside talent, Shpunt had to contribute only a small fraction of a win to justify his six-figure salary. Did he do it? Let’s compare the Dodgers’ actual win totals to their expected win totals (according to Pythagenpat) for each season of Shpunt’s tenure:
Okay, so the early returns aren’t looking so hot. But maybe Shpunt doesn’t work that way—it could be that V-Energy makes its presence felt not by helping the whole surpass the sum of its parts, but by making the sum of the parts greater than it would have been otherwise. How can we tell whether the Dodgers benefited from his ministrations on an individual level?
One quick-and-dirty method might be to investigate whether players outperformed their projections while playing for the Shpunt-strengthened Dodgers. However, if V-Energy works, any projection system would eventually indirectly account for its effects by incorporating a given player’s performance boost during his first season of exposure into its future forecasts. Therefore, let’s restrict our sample to Dodgers hitters (min. 100 PA) and pitchers (min. 100 BF) from 2004, Shpunt’s first year on the job, as well as those in their first seasons with the team during other years of his employment. Here are their PECOTA-projected and actual OPSes and ERAs, respectively:
Are these results statistically significant? Well, no. But that only makes me more convinced of their veracity: the more statistically significant an effect is, the less likely it is to be intangible, and we’re dealing with intangibles here, dammit—we shouldn’t expect to see them. Plus, this test wasn’t fair to Shpunt; nowhere does he claim that V-Energy was evenly distributed among the Dodgers. Maybe the Food Network was the only channel Shpunt tuned into when Andruw Jones came to town, but that 34% outperformance of his projection that Adrian Beltre put up during his walk year in 2004? All Shpunt, if you ask me.
I've only scratched the surface of this issue; Shpunt Studies is a new and exciting field in which much research remains to be done. A comprehensive WOWY (WOWV?) approach is the logical next step; perhaps a certain enterprising economist would be willing to adapt his old methods to a new subject.