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June 26, 2012

Baseball ProGUESTus

Jeff Clement, Mike Morse, and the Value of Making Mistakes

by Graham MacAree

Believe it or not, most of our writers didn't enter the world sporting an @baseballprospectus.com address; with a few exceptions, they started out somewhere else. In an effort to up your reading pleasure while tipping our caps to some of the most illuminating work being done elsewhere on the internet, we'll be yielding the stage once a week to the best and brightest baseball writers, researchers and thinkers from outside of the BP umbrella. If you'd like to nominate a guest contributor (including yourself), please drop us a line.

​Graham MacAree is the Lead Soccer Editor at SB Nation. He co-founded Statcorner and invented tRA. He also owns multiple Jeff Clement jerseys.
 

In retrospect, it seems fairly silly. But when the ball left Jeff Clement's bat on September 28th, 2007, I knew I was watching the next good, homegrown Seattle Mariners hitter. Everything I knew told me he was going to succeed. A .275/.370/.497 line at Triple-A Tacoma in his age-23 season satisfied my statistical cravings. His swing looked good, his plate discipline superior. Sure, his defense was atrocious, but I thought catcher defense didn't really matter. Scratch that: I knew it didn't matter.

Like I said, it does seem rather silly now. After 397 major-league plate appearances, Jeff Clement is the proud owner of a .664 OPS. And he doesn't even catch anymore. Everything I thought to be true about Clement (apart from his rugged handsomeness) turns out to have been entirely wrong.

While I was drooling over a Clement-filled future in Seattle, Mike Morse was having a similar year. He hit a little worse in Tacoma and a little better in Seattle as a 25-year-old. He was, however, clearly terrible in the field, no matter where you stuck him—a few months later, he'd injure himself trying to make a play in the outfield—and he had nothing like Clement's reputation or track record as an elite hitting prospect. When Morse was dealt to the Washington Nationals for Ryan Langerhans, I'm reasonably sure I let out an audible “Whoop.”

That seems pretty silly in retrospect as well.

It's extremely tempting to chalk up my many errors in player valuation to bad luck. Anyone with a serious interest in the game is fully aware that it's almost impossible to accurately project how players will do in the future. Getting things wrong isn't just acceptable, it's expected. We don't have perfect models for player aging, and even if we did, our inability to measure player talent accurately at any given moment would add a huge element of unpredictability to our projections.

So, given the huge barriers that the universe has put in place to prevent us from ever getting remotely close to accurately analyzing baseball players, we expect to be wrong rather a lot. And that’s completely fine. Nobody’s expecting us to be right 100 percent of the time, or anywhere close. But at the same time, that does give us something of a crutch when things go wrong, because it’s very easy to assume that the random element rather than the process is responsible.
 
Paul DePodesta is very fond of the two-by-two process versus outcome matrix. For those unfamiliar with it, it’s a pithy way of describing scenarios regarding how things play out against how they were expected to:

As DePodesta wrote:

We all want to be in the upper left box - deserved success resulting from a good process. This is generally where the casino lives... The box in the upper right, however, is the tough reality we all face in industries that are dominated by uncertainty. A good process can lead to a bad outcome in the real world. In fact, it happens all the time. This is what happened to the casino when a player hit on 17 and won.

This is all true, of course. The problem, however, is that we don’t really know what good process is. We might think we know, but the only way to test that out is to play out our supposed good processes and see what the results look like. There’s an uncertainty in terms of our perception of process on top of the random variance we all know about. That puts us in an interesting situation vis-à-vis the top right and bottom left corners.

If you ignore the fact that we’re not entirely sure we know what we’re doing, this is what your process/results table ends up looking like:

I think everyone reading this has seen something like that matrix before. I’ve certainly indulged in some combination of being smug about being “right” and ignoring being “wrong” in my time. It is far too easy, at least when you’re looking at something like baseball, to assume that when your model gives wrong results, it’s actually the universe that’s in the wrong. If the Boston Red Sox are terrible, that’s just the result of luck over a small sample. But boy, we sure were right about the Rangers being amazing!

The way our brains process statistics appears to be significantly different from the classical versions of the mathematical discipline. Instead of relying on significance levels and sample sizes, they seem to approach the world in a way similar to what’s known as Bayesian inference, which was developed formally in the 1800s by Pierre-Simon Laplace.

I’m not going to go into a great deal of detail here—I’ll leave that to the real statisticians rather than the engineer-cum-sports-bloggers, especially because I have no intention of doing any real mathematics—but the general gist of it is as follows: new information incrementally updates your previous knowledge by some amount. Sounds simple enough, right?

We all approach baseball with some set of prior beliefs. This is why it’s more interesting, say, when Madison Bumgarner hits a home run than when Joey Votto does it. Seeing Votto hit 13 dingers in 300-odd at-bats doesn’t change my opinion of him at all; seeing Bumgarner homer in any number of them makes me realize that he’s actually physically capable of doing so, which is especially jarring because prior to that home run I simply assumed he was not.

That’s a trivial example, of course, but the point of this little diversion into quasi-statsland was to show that small events (there have, after all, been lots of home runs hit this year) can have significant changes on a world view. Previously, I had lived in a universe where Madison Bumgarner did not hit home runs; now I live in one where he does.

Looking back a little further, we can apply a similar approach to our models. Every single time something pans out as projected, we can be more confident that what we’ve done is correct. Every time it doesn’t, we should be a little less secure in our belief that we’re right.

Ultimately, it’s being wrong that’s inherently more valuable. Right now, we operate in a world where most analysis is limited and known to be limited. Areas in which we’re regularly wrong simply denote regions ripe for improvement. We cannot learn anything by being right, and there’s still clearly plenty left to learn.

So instead of worrying about being wrong, it would be nice if baseball analysts continued to own their mistakes, figuring out what happened, why it happened and how to make sure it stops happening. As the industry matures and takes itself more seriously, there seems to be less willingness to do so. That’s unfortunate.

Unless we’re systematically wrong about a lot of things, baseball analysis (and a lot of other far less important disciplines) will never progress. Many clever people getting things wrong, acknowledging those mistakes, and then learning from them—focused wrongness, if you like—is the path by which genuine improvement can be made.

After all, the next great pitching stat will be wrong. Defensive statistics? Wrong again. Aging curves? All wrong. I’m reasonably sure that everything sabermetrics knows about baseball is wrong to some degree. But that’s why it’s still interesting. Finding out where we’re wrong and fixing those issues is, or should be, the main thrust of baseball research.

And even when you don’t know why you were wrong (e.g. Jeff Clement flopping, Mike Morse hitting)—it’s always good to be a little less confident in our own abilities. A bit of humility never hurt, right?

Related Content:  Mike Morse,  Paul DePodesta,  Jeff Clement,  Right,  Wrong,  Process,  Results

19 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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fawcettb

Pretty smart stuff. Thanks, although I enjoy being wrong more than I should: My best one was "Carlos Delgado will never hit LH pitching, and won't do much of anything else." Every time I look at his career stats, I get a small rush from that humiliation.

Jun 26, 2012 05:21 AM
rating: 2
 
robustyoungsoul

Really enjoyed this. Important to continue to emphasize this type of thing as the sabermetric way of thinking moves from having to be defended at every step to the now accepted mainstream - it's a big win but it doesn't mean we are correct about everything yet.

Jun 26, 2012 10:02 AM
rating: 1
 
Graham MacAree

It's interesting how the shift towards the mainstream has led to people being more defensive about their interpretation of the numbers. Defensiveness is natural, I suppose, even amongst friends, but I think that the atmosphere around advanced statistics is becoming... I don't know, more adversarial? And that makes it much more difficult to own your mistakes.

Jun 26, 2012 10:14 AM
rating: 4
 
Wyomissing

Very cool when a BP writer comes at an article with a premise of humility. I remember thinking of those two players with opposite impressions (not to be smug!). Every time it seemed Mike Morse got a few MLB at bats, he would hit like crazy (.718, .884, 1.066). Each successive season he'd be provided fewer chances, even though to me, it seemed Morse's opportunities should be increasing.

The article gets into some important ideas regarding player evaluation, and I really appreciate the perspective.

Jun 26, 2012 10:44 AM
rating: 0
 
Sharky

Agreed. Guest writer.

:)

Jun 26, 2012 13:58 PM
rating: 0
 
Dodger300

Todd Hundley hit one home run, with slugging percentages of .299 and .217 in his first two (partial) seasons. He had slugged .375 in the ninors.

When my buddy picked him for his APBA team, I laughed and said "Hundley will never hit for power."

In 1996, Todd Hundley set the season record for most home runs by a catcher, 41.

Jun 26, 2012 11:58 AM
rating: 0
 
Graham MacAree

Most of Hundley's career came when I was two young (or too in England) for me to know much about it. Were there any scouting reports expecting that sort of breakout from him? What were the signs?

Jun 26, 2012 12:28 PM
rating: 0
 
Sharky

Genetics no? Wasn't he the son of?

Jun 26, 2012 13:58 PM
rating: 0
 
Asinwreck

This is like a bizarro-world Joe Sheehan column.

Jun 26, 2012 15:00 PM
rating: 4
 
Brian Cartwright

For Jeff Clement, there were unrealistic expectations partially fueled by not properly putting into context his performance in college and the PCL. He's still the same hitter he has always been.

Mike Morse has changed. His walk and strikeout projections have been constant, but he has made much more effective contact since joining the Nationals, making large increases in both is BABIP and HRCON.

What needs work in Sabermetrics is trying to identify, through whatever means (stats, scouting, etc) which players will beat the projections and which will fall short. Where there any signs that Morse would start hitting the ball harder? I haven't delved into his batted ball analysis, but for example, could it be that a new organization told him to pull the ball more? (Not that it worked for Adam Lind)

Jun 26, 2012 15:14 PM
rating: 0
 
marctacoma

I'm not sure it was purely a result of "not putting [his numbers] into context." With Clement, it was the confluence of assumed greatness (given his draft position) and what looked like great progress.

In 2006, he struggled in AAA, then went to the Hawaiian Winter League and really stunk it up. 2007 was a very solid season in AAA, and then he went nuts in 2008 (in half a year). After scuffling in MLB, he was injured again and settled in as a AAAA (or less) hitter. But it's tough to say he was always the same hitter - there was at the very least a convincing illusion of progress. That's what needs work in sabermetrics - what causes a breakout like Clement's in 2008 and what doesn't translate to the majors? Brandon Allen would really love to know.

Mike Morse really did change. I always wondered if his body changed, given that Seattle acquired him as a SS used him in the IF until very near the end of his M's tenure.

Jun 26, 2012 16:00 PM
rating: 2
 
Brian Cartwright

Here are my MLEs for Clement, adjusting for park and league


Year Org Level wOBA BA OB SA _BH _HR _BB _SO
2005 SEA Coll/A-/A .320 .244 .313 .420 .297 .058 .079 .253
2006 SEA AA/AAA .275 .229 .280 .340 .277 .029 .044 .218
2007 SEA AAA/MLB .335 .246 .329 .439 .279 .051 .091 .203
2008 SEA AAA/MLB .357 .263 .350 .471 .310 .058 .100 .219
2009 PIT AAA .320 .240 .310 .427 .286 .048 .081 .232
2010 PIT AAA/MLB .297 .237 .270 .427 .286 .062 .033 .275
2011 PIT AAA .278 .227 .288 .333 .313 .014 .073 .276
2012 PIT AAA .343 .265 .338 .451 .317 .042 .093 .215


Yes, Clement had a poor 2006 and a good 2008, but his best season to date has been a translated 263/350/471. You can look at 2005 (mostly college), 2007-09 and 2012 (injuries 10-11) and barely see any differences in the numbers.

A wOBA between 320-350 is good production for a catcher, but there's the bad defense and creaky knees. It's below average for 1B or DH.

Jun 26, 2012 16:58 PM
rating: 0
 
marctacoma

These MLEs show the progression I was talking about - .275 wOBA to .335 to .357. That's what we all expected. A .357 wOBA from a catcher would be great, and while it was starting to become clear in 2008 that he'd have to move to 1B, the trend line there was very, very encouraging.

I guess you mean that he's always been a .330-.350 wOBA hitter, but again, put yourself in Graham's shoes, circa 2008 - it really looked like the guy was going to mash in a few years. I still really want to know why Clement was never able to touch his MLEs from the PCL. Obviously, you adjust the raw numbers down quite heavily, but there are plenty of these cases every year - Anthony Rizzo's the big example last year - where guys undershoot their MLEs by a huge margin. I'd love to see some analysis of who underperforms and why. It's not just the young prospects who "force" their way up. A lot of it is random/luck, but there's more to it than that. Something about the game is different such that Carlos Peguero and Wily Mo Pena are very effective players in the minors and lost in MLB.

Jun 27, 2012 13:51 PM
rating: 0
 
Brian Cartwright

But the 275 wOBA was a big drop from his 320 the year before. 2006 saw drops in BABIP, HRCON and BB%. Was Clement overly agressiveness and getting weak contact? He also chased everything when promoted to the Pirates, despite a history o being a patient hitter. 2007 put him right back where he was on 2005, and that's AA/AAA compared to College/Low A. 2008 Saw a jump in BABIP, with marginal increases in HRCON and BB%. Solid numbers, but a low BA. 2009 was right back to where he was in 2005 & 2007. Do a rolling three year mean, as virtually all projections systems do, and there's hardly any year to year change in Clement's projections.

When a prospect finals upon being called up, sometimes he's pressing, sometimes it's just random variation. Adam Lind stunk in Toronto and raked in Las Vegas this year. Add them together and it's almost exactly his number from last year. A lot of it was likely just being hot and cold.

But I agree that there is more, and guys like Peguero and Pena (and many pitchers) illustrate the point I was making in my original comment, trying to identify some part of a player's skill set that can predict success of failure better than only looking at the minor league numbers.

Jun 27, 2012 16:13 PM
rating: 0
 
ThreeSix

didnt Morse get busted for PEDs a couple years ago?

Jun 26, 2012 17:03 PM
rating: 1
 
Brian Cartwright

according to 2012 article by Jeff Passan, Morse was suspended three times for a single cycle in 2004, taken to help heal muscle tear

Jun 26, 2012 17:31 PM
rating: 0
 
radarbinder

Love the article. My worst was dropping Troy Tulowitzky as an injury-prone player in order to obtain Jacoby Ellsbury in 2008. Ellsbury has now given me two "lost" seasons and Tulo is, well, Tulo! Or it may have been deciding to drop Mike Moustakas this year so I could get Dayan Viciedo. Uh, that was not a good idea.

Jun 26, 2012 16:23 PM
rating: 0
 
davinhbrown

fans in the 'burgh are starting to clamor for Clement to come up and replace their 1b/RF combo of players.

Jun 26, 2012 18:48 PM
rating: 0
 
Graham MacAree

They clearly have exquisite taste.

Jun 26, 2012 19:58 PM
rating: 0
 
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