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August 5, 2010

Changing Speeds

Forty-two Things I Think, Part 2

by Ken Funck

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Last week, in response to a conversation I had with a casual acquaintance I’ve chosen to call Chet (but who would probably be more aptly called Polly Perkins), I laid out the first half of my list of 42 things I believe—almost all related to baseball, some related to metrics, some not. You can find the second half below. To reiterate, these are just my off-the-cuff beliefs, and some of them aren’t necessarily backed up by anything more than my own personal feelings. Feel free to praise or flame, and I encourage you to add your own beliefs in the comments.

22. I believe that the most common misunderstanding about baseball fans and analysts who employ more advanced metrics is that they think numbers can explain anything of value, and anything that can’t be explained with numbers has no value. Nothing could be further from the truth. Admittedly baseball analysts aren’t a homogeneous culture, so there may be some loud outliers, but the vast majority of those I read here at Baseball Prospectus and elsewhere are perfectly willing to acknowledge that clubhouse chemistry, the value of knowing your role, clutch performance, etc., have an impact on the game. The fact that they haven’t been, and perhaps can’t be, quantified doesn’t mean they don’t exist and can play an important role. Good analysts use metrics as a starting point and filter them through other factors to reach an opinion—and they’re aware that the result is, in fact, an opinion, often very well-informed and sometimes almost certainly correct, but an opinion nonetheless. Colin Wyers captured this perfectly yesterday: “Once we’re honest with ourselves over our confidence level in how well we can measure things, we realize that while the numbers can start a conversation, on their own they can rarely finish one.” Amen, brother.

23. I believe team chemistry can have a definite effect on how much a team wins. However, having great team chemistry is much less important than having great team talent. A talented team with a clubhouse seething with dislike and resentment is much more likely to win than a less-talented talented team whose clubhouse resembles Floyd’s Barber Shop (or Truvy’s Beauty Spot, if you so prefer).

24. I believe it’s silly to get upset when someone bunts for a hit to break up a no-hitter. Players should always be trying to win. Winning involves scoring, scoring involves getting on base, and since baseball does not have a clock, any out that’s avoided can lead to winning a game. Getting a bunt single requires legitimate skill by the hitter—at least as much skill as a bloop single, which would also end a no-hitter much less contentiously. I’ve never been a fan of “unwritten rules” in any sport, and this one never made much sense to me.

25. I believe a player who comes in contact with a base prior to being tagged should be called safe, regardless of whether the throw beat him there. Time and again I see players slide under or around a tag on a non-force play, yet the umpire calls him out anyway. If baseball wants calls to be made based on whether the ball reaches the base first, that’s fine—change the rules to make every play a force. If, however, the rules require a tag be applied, then the umpire needs to make sure this actually occurs. Similarly, if it’s a valid concern about injuries that allows the “neighborhood play” to be accepted, change the rules and draw a circle around second base in which middle infielders can legally force out runners.

26. I believe pitchers need to pitch inside, and I believe they need to protect their teammates if they’re being thrown at by opposing pitchers. What I’ve never understood, however, is the idea of deliberately plunking a player because he hit a home run in his previous two at-bats, or has otherwise successfully done his job at the expense of a given pitcher or his team. Anecdotally, this seems to be less common than it once was, but it reeks of bad sportsmanship and, in any case, is likely counterproductive.

27. I believe aliens currently inhabit Jose Bautista’s body, but I don’t think he minds.

28. I believe the biggest misunderstanding made by fans when it comes to the relationship between pitching and defense is that DIPS theory proponents pre-suppose that no pitcher has any control over balls in play. Pitchers certainly exert some control over batted-ball types, and batted-ball types tend to favor certain results (e.g., ground balls are less often turned into outs but are rarely home runs, while the opposite is true of fly balls). Some pitchers, and pitcher types, do seem to have a repeatable skill at having batted balls turned into outs. However, the selection process to become a major-league pitcher ensures that the variation in this skill is much less than you might think – the hitability gap between Mariano Rivera and Nick Blackburn is tiny compared to that between Blackburn and, say, the best starter at your local community college.

29. I believe Carlos Marmol’s ridiculous slider and improved fastball will see him set an all-time record for single-season bat-avoidance. After Tuesday’s games, only 38.57 percent of batters he’s faced have managed to avoid being walked, struck out, or plunked, while the current record is 46.43 percent by Armando Benitez in 1999. Marmol has struck out 44.76 percent of the batters he’s faced, which would be the second-highest seasonal rate of all time behind Eric Gagne’s 45.07 percent in 2003. Marmol is the new Eddie Feigner, even more entertaining than he is effective, and with the Cubs’ 2010 season fading from relevance, perhaps they could drum up some interest by having him pitch with only a first baseman and shortstop behind him.

30. Whether due to economic uncertainty or painful lessons being learned, I believe front offices have become much smarter about handing out long-term deals. As many analysts have repeatedly stated, virtually any one-year deal that goes bad can be survived, but a long-term deal that goes bad can be crippling. Teams currently seem better at avoiding long-term commitments to players unless they’re younger, healthier, and more clearly talented than many of those who minted their fortunes around the turn of the millennium.

31. I believe that the average player peaks around age 27, or more broadly in their late twenties, but more talented players tend to peak a little later, or perhaps more descriptively, their peaks last longer. I also believe the shape of pitchers’ careers tends to be “flatter” than that of hitters, i.e., they don’t improve as dramatically or drop off as dramatically before and after their peak.

32. I believe that “hitter vs. pitcher” data, due to its extremely small sample size, isn’t as useful as some broadcasters and even some managers seem to think. However, I suspect (with admittedly no tangible evidence) that the extreme outliers in this data probably might be reasonably predictive of a given pitcher/hitter who truly does “own” a given hitter/pitcher, and it makes sense for a manager to use this information when selecting a player to use in a given situation, all other factors being somewhat equal.

33. I believe there’s no particularly good way to quantify the effect that using steroids may have had on any given player’s career. Absent this knowledge, if I had a Hall of Fame vote I would almost certainly vote for an actual or alleged steroid user whose numbers were clearly worthy of induction. I understand many of the arguments against that: Steroid use is wrong and dangerous, users are bad people, rewarding cheaters is bad and sends the wrong message, it’s unfair to non-users of the same era, etc. Yet the Hall has certainly admitted people who were less than saints both on and off the field, and there were many others besides the players themselves who were complicit in turning the steroid era into The Steroid Era. I’m glad the new testing program seems to be helping, but I groan whenever the topic comes up since it is so often used as a reason for politicians or media types to grandstand. Tell me I’m an apologist or that I’m rationalizing—you wouldn’t be the first—but if I were an injured or aging player looking to get back my edge, or a young player looking to make my mark, and I saw how use by other players was often being studiously ignored, I can’t say for sure that I wouldn’t have tried it myself. Given that, I’d feel like a hypocrite criticizing others who made the same choice.

34. I believe that every study has shown that the run-producing effects of setting a batting order are pretty small beer, but it still galls me when people, especially managers, refuse to understand that on-base percentage is almost always a more important quality for the top of the order than speed and bat control. Few things grind my gears as much as seeing someone like Willy Taveras lead off a game—it’s like walking into a movie theater armed with popcorn, Raisinetts, and a smile, then sitting on a tack.

35. I believe that clutch hitting as a repeatable skill is very difficult to prove. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t guys I prefer to see come to the plate in key situations, and they’re not always the same guys I like to see come to the plate in other situations.

36. I believe that some of the best acting performances I’ve seen in the last decade can all be found in the film Doubt, which makes my list of Criminally Underseen Films.

37. I believe that statistics aren’t misleading, but those that use them, or choose to belittle them, without understanding them certainly can be. In response to a blog post on this subject, commenter RedsManRick had it right when he said this: “Statistics aren’t capable of taking action. They aren’t things which can mislead—they are tools which can be used … to mislead.” Statistics can be used to tell a story, but it’s up to us to ensure we understand what they can and cannot tell us.

38. I know it’s a bit of a chestnut, but I do believe that making consistent solid contact with a wooden bat on baseballs thrown by major-league pitchers who are trying to deceive you is the most difficult achievement in sports. The fact that many of us can do something similar when facing mere mortals sometimes makes us think we could stand in against Roy Halladay and get in a few good cuts. Actually, no, we couldn’t.

39. In their commendable quest to try and avoid pitcher injuries, I believe that teams are limiting veteran pitchers to many fewer innings than they can safely work. As I said last week, we’re really just feeling our way around how to keep pitchers healthy, but I agree with what Joe Sheehan said here: The emphasis should be on “young pitchers, and the extreme edge of high pitch counts.” Veteran starters, especially effective ones, command very high salaries, and every inning they throw is one that lesser pitchers don’t have to. I suspect teams can safely increase their pitch counts and have them start more frequently without adding much injury risk, and thus better leverage their most expensive assets.

40. Similarly, I believe veteran middle relievers should pitch more innings than the current paradigm allows. Mike Marshall was perhaps an extreme physical outlier, so I’m not suggesting 200-inning workloads from relievers—120 innings, however, doesn’t seem unreasonable for a healthy, productive veteran reliever working multiple innings per appearance. Again, each inning that can be removed from the back of the bullpen and given to a better pitcher will help in the win column. A smart front office can probably identify a lot of inefficiency in current pitcher usage patterns, and the first to boldly experiment with a paradigm shift could reap big rewards.

41. I believe the combination of money and wisdom in New York and Boston will keep both the Yankees and Red Sox from posting another losing season for the next, oh, let’s say 20 years, unless there is a radical change in the way revenue is shared.

 42. I believe I personally owe a debt of gratitude to Rob Neyer for using his column at ESPN.com to initially fuel my interest in baseball analysis, which in turn has deepened my love of and appreciation for the game. I believe there are many thousands more who can say the same thing, and there are many other pioneers and proselytizers (e.g., Bill James, BP’s Founding Five, Joe Posnanski, to name just a few) of whom the same can be said. Their work has given us these forums to debate and discuss, to learn and to enjoy, and our lives are richer for it. 

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

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