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January 12, 2010

Expanded Horizons

Stories Big and Small

by Tommy Bennett

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So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean
-John Godfrey Saxe

The Goal

The goal of all baseball observers is to understand the game and its players in the richest way possible. For the sabermetrically inclined, the goal often means including fielding, baserunning, and the full picture of offensive value. Some carry out this search numerically, using WARP or WAR. Others seek knowledge through infographics. But the essential thread is comprehensivist.

The impulse to understand all aspects of player worth is not limited to those who hang their hats on processor cycles. The ink-stained wretches and beat writers, too, seek to gain full understanding, even if their methods can, at times, differ. Many of those who go to the ballpark every day claim it is the only way to grok all aspects of the game.

As the great philosopher Bill Waterson has noted, seeing a situation from all perspectives at once can be as paralyzing as it is informative. The task for those who follow the game must be to expand horizons up to the point beyond which one would lose the individual perspective that makes enjoyment of the game personal. In the journey to this balanced point of view, there can be no tools more valuable than curiosity and doubt.

The Big Unit and Looking Backward

Imagine Randy Johnson as the elephant in the parable of the "The Blind Men and the Elephant," most familiar from John Godfrey Saxe's poem of the same name. In it, several blind men feel different parts of an elephant, gaining local knowledge but ignorant of the entire beast. For example, some who have encountered Johnson found him to be so unpleasant personally as to overshadow his on-field accomplishments. Our new editor-in-chief, John Perrotto, saw the intelligent and funny man behind the mullet. Henry Schulman of the San Francisco Chronicle eulogized Johnson's 22-year career by noting that his "sidearm delivery [] made left-handed hitters find religion." But none of these views captures the entire story.

The numbers are too overwhelming to overlook: 4,875 strikeouts, 89.7 WARP3, 91.8 rWAR (12th all-time among pitchers), 303 wins, and five Cy Young Awards (including four in a row). Among left-handed pitchers, only Lefty Grove, Sandy Koufax, and Steve Carlton even deserve mention in the barstool debate over the greatest of all time. And yet, a yellowed box score or a quick SQL query can't tell the full story either. Fungoes used its version of fielding-independent game score (FIGS) to rank Johnson's best outings, and his 20-strikeout, no-walk, no-homer outing from May 8, 2001 scored an impressive 98, ahead of even his perfect game. It is here that I must differ with the DIPS ranking. I was sitting in the cheap seats, acting like a hooligan, for Johnson's perfect game. The PBP data from Retrosheet does a reasonable job conveying the dominance, but even the Project Scoresheet stringer had to add a heterodox bold line to the ninth inning data: "the last pitch was a 98 mph fastball." At 40 years old, Johnson became the oldest member of the perfect game club. It was the most physically dominant performance I have ever seen.

Johnson's legend, like all great frontier legends, began in the backwoods of the Wild West. Whispers among scouts of the gangly pitcher in Northern California dubbed "Ichabod Crane"-whose pants didn't quite fit but who struck out hundreds in a single high school season-spread quickly. He took his electrifying fastball south on the I-5 to the University of Southern California, where he continued to show promise despite walking 188 batters in 243 1/3 IP over three seasons. By the time he reached the temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest after beginning his major-league career in Montreal, Johnson's promise was as large as his lanky frame.

The two iconic moments of Johnson's career, never to be omitted from the annals of baseball lore, help telegraph his transformation from wild man to pitcher. During the 1993 All-Star Game, Johnson struck out John Kruk on four pitches. The first, a fastball a good two feet above Kruk's head, led Kruk to indicate for the camera his elevated heart rate. The next three pitches were: (1) a fastball over the plate at the knees (strike looking), (2) a sweeping slider over the plate (a 540-degree flailing swinging strike), and (3) another sweeping slider (same swing, same result). That season, Johnson struck out 308 batters and allowed only 185 hits for the Mariners, but he walked 99 batters and hit another 16.

Eight years later, during spring training with the Diamondbacks, Johnson ended the life of an innocent dove with a fastball that was officially ruled "no pitch" (tell that to the bird). But the collision was surely the hapless bird's fault; Johnson's control had reached enviable levels. That season, Johnson struck out 372 and walked just 71 in 249 2/3 IP (though, true to form, he still hit 18 batters).

I have no way of knowing what a blind man feeling Randy Johnson's hair would report.

Looking back on a career, it can be difficult to separate the legend from the stats, the person from the player, the anecdotes from the data. The answer, I think, is to consider it all. From any view, Randy Johnson was one of the most memorable players in the history of baseball.

Ryne Reynoso and the Organization Minor Leaguer

Looking forward on a minor leaguer's career can be even more difficult. The fog of war and anecdotes can be even hazier for players in the low minors. Gone are the days where players and teams advertised their availability in The Sporting News. Nowadays, team-specific bloggers rank hundreds of prospects, and video of even fringy players is disseminated through YouTube. How is one to keep up with the fire hose of information?

One way is to ask Kevin Goldstein, whose knowledge is encyclopedic and whose Rolodex runs deep. Another way is to read reports in local newspapers, that dying breed. With this two-pronged approach, I promise nothing less than complete disconnect. As an example, take Ryne Reynoso, Player of the Year of the Idaho Mountain Express. The hometown pitcher, who spent most of last season with the Mississippi Braves, posted a middling 148-127-59-89 line at Double-A in 2009. The Mountain Express, however, points to his "ebullience" and "gregarious nature." From reading this small-town report, we can also learn that Reynoso and his bullpen comrades dug a 14-foot hole while on the road.

Prospect experts will tell you Reynoso's best path to the major leagues is probably in the bullpen, as his low-90s heat dances dangerously in the upper half, and his secondary offerings are no better than average. But how, then, would you learn that Reynoso shares an apartment in Atlanta with Tommy Hanson and Kris Medlen? Or that he hit .311 with a .511 slugging percentage as a sophomore at Boston College?

The Future

In a world where the 3D blockbuster Avatar has raked in over a $1 billion worldwide, it is no surprise that the cutting edge in sports television is a 3D channel from ESPN. While it remains unclear exactly what to expect from 3D television (as Justin Peters reports), it is unquestionable that more data is available now than ever before. Blinkers fall on all eyes, and groupthink is an all-too-common trap, but if we remain vigilant, we can use this information to our advantage.

Recently, the Crawfish Boxes wondered what effect the web has had on fan scouting. While there is a lot of professionalism in scouting that cannot be captured simply by video and statistics, it is true that a certain amount of being there has been substituted for the overwhelming information available on the internet. The same holds for sabermetrics. With learning resources available on general statistics and probability (I favor Khan Academy) and specific primers on subjects like SQL databases (Colin Wyers leads the way here), sabermetrics has definitively entered the "please try this at home" category.

Question(s) of the Day

What are the most under-reported aspects of baseball coverage? What are the biggest blind spots of baseball writers (SABR-inclined and otherwise)? What online resources best help to remedy those blind spots?

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