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May 31, 2011

Clubhouse Confidential

Coneheads, Meet Statheads

by Marc Carig

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SEATTLE—In Kansas City, David Cone constantly found himself locked in close games, trying to carry a team that rarely scored enough to support him. In Chicago, Jack McDowell enjoyed the spoils of a potent lineup, almost always working with a safety net stitched with run support.

The year was 1993, when Cone and McDowell pitched to roughly the same earned run average and logged about the same amount of innings, only for their paths to diverge when it came to other statistics. Cone's offense gave him just 2.9 runs per start while McDowell's teammates averaged 5.1, a difference reflected in their records. For his troubles, Cone ended up with a pedestrian 11-14 record while McDowell went 22-10 on the way to the Cy Young Award.

Years later, Cone couldn't help but keep trying to make sense of that difference in fortunes, a quest that has led him toward sabermetrics. It's not uncommon for Cone to show up on the day of his broadcasts with a copy of Baseball Prospectus in his bag.

“Crying the blues over run support drew me into the data a little more,” Cone said last week. “Just my yearning to quantify exactly what I did in my career, trying to compare year-to-year.”

As a result, Cone has taken a progressive stance when it comes to using advanced statistics and citing them during his part-time appearances as a game analyst with the YES Network. Cone recently took some time to explain why he believes advanced statistics are valuable:

Marc Carig: What drew you into your interest with the numbers?

David Cone: I hate the feeling of not knowing something or feeling helpless. I saw particularly how the baseball writers started to use this data, especially with regard to voting, Cy Young Awards, MVPs. Some of the defensive metrics too really drew me in because I really questioned them at first. I'm fascinated with how do you measure range, range factor, all the different ways to measure defensive skills, or defensive range. That kind of drew me in a little bit.

MC: What did you think of how last season's AL Cy Young vote shook out?

DC: Part of me wants to applaud the writers for being so progressive, for recognizing that some pitchers are victims of their run support or even their defensive support for that matter. Yes, I applaud it. But I still think there's some gray area there. Pitchers do pitch a little differently with the benefit of run support, or sort of pitch to the game so to speak. Catfish Hunter was a prime example of that. He would give up solo home runs but he was a winner. He sort of knew when to bear down, knew when he had a little bit of a cushion, didn't really worry about how many home runs he gave up. But sometimes, if you get too absorbed the numbers as a pitcher, it can be detrimental. You lose a little bit of the human element, the feel for the game, the feel for pitching with the lead.

MC: When using the numbers to look back at your career, what stood out?

DC: I was proud of the consistency level that I had year in and year out right up to the end. I kind of fell on my face my second-to-last year, in 2000. I went 4-14, that was just an awful year. But until that point, I was just proud of the fact that day in and day out I was pretty consistent across the board.

MC: How did you measure that consistency?

DC: I was really interested in WAR, wins above replacement. I think that allows generations to be compared to each other. There's so many variables that can be taken into account. Sometimes it gets a little complicated but I think the basis for WAR is solid, get an overall view from generation to generation of who did what, who produced the most.

MC: What's your take on the accuracy of defensive ratings?

DC: I think they're a little more raw at this point. It's nice to have some sort of data to get down on paper and to look at, and try to draw some conclusions from. I really think the new HITf/x can help with the defensive metrics because it directly correlates with range factor as far as how hard the ball came off the bat and whether that guy got to the ball or not. You just can't say there's a group of balls in this range he should have got to, or the average shortstop gets to. There's some truth in that but there's holes still there. But if you can quantify it further with the HITf/x data, velocity off the bat would really be a plus for defensive metrics. I don't think we're quite there yet, but I can see in the future that being a very legitimate factor in determining range for defense.

MC:  Is there such a thing as too many numbers overwhelming the game?

DC:  There's always going to be the human element. I know I've heard some people on the sabermetric side kind of pooh-pooh the human element side of it, gets into replacement player value stuff, the average Triple-A guy could have done this as well, or what is replacement level value. But I still think there is a lot there to use of predictive nature, and there is a lot there to use to define what's going on now. It's just that nothing's foolproof. It's a tool to be used to add to what you see, with what your baseball experience is. You also factor in the human element.

MC: Will advanced statistics ever go mainstream?

DC: I think more and more it's going mainstream, I really do. There are still going to be holdouts, but to me, it's get on board or get left behind... There's just something about the numbers of baseball that draws the best and brightest minds, some of the great mathematicians are drawn to baseball because of the numbers, and that's a good thing. We're getting some really, really brilliant people talking about the numbers of the game, and the history of the game. That's got to be a good thing.

Marc Carig is in his third season as the New York Yankees' beat writer for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J. He previously covered the Baltimore Orioles for the Washington Post. A native of the San Francisco Bay Area, Carig once believed Dennis Eckersley to be the greatest closer of all time, though seeing Mariano Rivera every day has forced him to reconsider.

 

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

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