I don’t know how we got to this point, but the long-awaited grudge match between White Sox color commentator Hawk Harrelson and MLB Network broadcaster Brian Kenny (with occasional contributions from Harold Reynolds) took place last night. Everyone was polite, nobody got sent to the hospital, and Hawk launched a thousand indignant tweets. You can see the whole thing through the miracle of YouTube, if you have ten minutes to spare for Hawk to say five minutes’ worth of sentences twice:
So what we have is a discussion between someone who's practically a caricature of the old guard of baseball and someone in Kenny who is trying to immerse himself as much as possible in new analysis. And, of course, it started with Hawk asking, “Did any you guys see the movie Moneyball?”
Hawk had seen Moneyball, and boy, did it get his goat. He felt like the movie missed the point: “When you got Mulder and Zito and Hudson, you can write any book you want to. Because this is a game of defense, and pitching is the first line of defense.”
This is as good a time to mention this, not that I haven’t said it before and not that I won’t have to say it again. But let’s quickly examine the official rules of baseball. Don’t worry, we’ll stick to the very first page:
1.01 Baseball is a game between two teams of nine players each, under direction of a manager, played on an enclosed field in accordance with these rules, under jurisdiction of one or more umpires.
1.02 The objective of each team is to win by scoring more runs than the opponent.
1.03 The winner of the game shall be that team which shall have scored, in accordance with these rules, the greater number of runs at the conclusion of a regulation game.
That’s baseball in a nutshell—you win by scoring more runs than your opponent, or put another way, more runs than you give up. You can do this two ways:
1. By being good at scoring runs, or
2. By being good at not allowing runs.
Except that good teams tend to be good at both. And the key point is that each run scored is a run allowed for the other team—there’s a symmetry in baseball between scoring and allowing runs. Hawk can focus all he wants to on one side of the ledger, but that just means he misses out on the other half, not that he’s found some key insight. He also seems to miss out on the point of Moneyball, which can be explained by this delightful exchange:
Kenny: “Did you read the book?”
Harrelson: “No, I didn’t.”
Ignorance of the other side’s point is the best way to prove yourself right. (To yourself, at least.)
And now we get to the crux of Hawk’s argument, doing the best job I can of capturing his unique manner of speaking:
I also said there’s a place in baseball for numbers. But, I also said that it’s the most overrated issue to come into baseball in the last 10, 15 years. And I stand by that, because it’s not ready yet. Down the road 40 or 50 years… when you can put some of those categories, you know you got your oh-bee-pee-ess, and all that, and the vee-oh-arr-pees. When they put in tee-dubya-tee-dubya and then interface those numbers with tee-dubya-tee-dubya, then you might have something cooking. And that’s the will to win.
Let’s get the minor objections out of the way first—there is no such thing as OBPS (and yes, I listened to that section of the clip a good dozen times to transcribe it for y’all, that is what he said), and while we at Baseball Prospectus are always thrilled to have a mention of VORP, it should be noted that it hasn’t been our primary replacement-level metric for, oh, about six or seven years now.
But that’s incidental to the thrust of his argument—that these things just aren’t ready yet, dadgum it. It turns out, though, that real baseball teams are using this stuff to win baseball games. And not just the Moneyball A’s and the Too Much Moneyball Yankees and Red Sox. It’s the San Francisco Giants, who just won a World Series and who have been the pilot team for a lot of new technologies like FIELDf/x. It’s the St. Louis Cardinals, who have quietly built one of the most impressive analytics operations in all of baseball. Numerous division rivals, even the tradition-oriented Minnesota Twins, are getting in on the act. Hawk may be surprised to find that even the White Sox themselves are not above using a number now and then, and have a general manager who can talk meaningfully about the concepts of sample size and regression to the mean.
And why are all these teams using sabermetrics, even though there are still gaps in our understanding? Because there are still gaps in our understanding! That’s not a belief contrary to doing good sabermetrics, it’s one that is central to it—Bill James got his start precisely because he was willing to accept that there were baseball questions that had yet to be answered. So there are things we can’t measure, and there are things we measure incorrectly. Yet people still use sabermetrics, and it still has value. How is that?
Think of how our knowledge of our own solar system has grown and changed over history. We started off with convoluted geocentric models that, while they did have predictive power, managed to get such things as “the Earth orbits around the Sun” completely backwards. Then Nicolaus Copernicus gave us the first complete heliocentric model, which managed to get the Sun in the right position and improved upon the geocentric models for predictive power, but made such basic errors as assuming orbits were circular. Johannes Kepler came along and gave us elliptical orbits and his laws of planetary motion, further improving the model. Later works introduced the idea that the sun itself is not stationary but also moving throughout a larger galaxy. And Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity has further increased our understanding of how our solar system works.
What do all of these models of planetary motion have in common? Well, one common feature is that all of them were wrong (give Einstein’s theories time, and eventually they will probably be supplanted as well). But each in succession has improved our understanding of how the universe works and our place in it, as well as our ability to make predictions that astronomers (and interested observers) find useful.
Meanwhile, you have some people who still think the whole shebang is a giant disk sitting on the back of an enormous tortoise and that this whole globe idea is nothing more than a conspiracy of cartographers, and that’s where you’ll find Hawk Harrelson.
Hawk is at least two kinds of extra special wrong. One is what Isaac Asimov described as “wronger than wrong,” where you’re clinging to outmoded beliefs and defending yourself by claiming that better ideas than yours are also incorrect and refusing to address your own deficiencies. Sabermetrics’ failure to be perfect is not a blanket justification to ignore all of it.
The other kind of extra special wrong Hawk stumbles into (in the same paragraph, no less!) is what Wolfgang Pauli called “not even wrong.” It’s when you make claims that can’t be refuted, and in doing so make claims that aren’t worth refuting. Hawk talks about “the will to win” (and believe me, he keeps repeating this) being the most important thing in baseball, and apparently it’s judged by how many wins you have. If you’ve won a lot, you had the will; if you didn’t, well, you didn’t.
People like Hawk will always roll out this line of thinking because it can’t be disproven, so they never reach a moment where they’re refuted and forced to actually quit. So what they never notice is that it’s also totally meaningless; you can only ever figure out who had the will to win after the fact, at which point it’s too late to do anything about it.
Sabermetrics, meanwhile, works the way science does: by making predictions (scientists call these hypotheses) that you can test. In testing them, you can find evidence for or against your prediction. And over time, as you come up with more hypotheses and do more testing, you inch closer to a better understanding of what it is you’re studying. One side effect of this is that you end up making predictions that have been tested, which turns out to be useful to people who have to make decisions about the future. So by trying to do baseball science, sabermetricians found themselves doing things that general managers could adopt and use to their own purposes. Hawk has noticed this, but it hasn’t exactly made him happy. In fact, it has made him kind of angry, which prompted a wonderful rant.
“It’s gotten people fired,” Hawk said. “It’s gotten managers fired because they had to manage a game they didn’t know. Sabermetrics disdains defense, disdains speed, bunting—bunting!—hit-and-run… A friend of mine who was a scout, God rest his soul, told me there was a manager who had to call up in the late innings of a ballgame to a GM’s booth and ask him if he could bunt, because it was a close ballgame.”
The three of them debated this for a bit until Kenny asked point blank, “Wouldn’t you want to know what the percentages were?” And Reynolds and Harrelson both in unison shouted “no!” At this point Reynolds took over for Hawk, asking the question, “But are the percentages going to tell you what’s going to happen at that exact moment?”
No, of course they’re not. Nor is the manager’s gut. What they are going to tell you is the likelihood of certain things happening, with a certain amount of accuracy (and the more and better inputs you have, the more accuracy you can get).
Let’s take the intentional walk as an example. If you intentionally walk a guy with two outs, typically the next batter you face gets out and the intentional walk “works.” On the other hand, if you decide not to issue the intentional walk and face the current batter with two outs, typically he gets out and challenging the hitter “works.” This is because even the very best batters (aside from a four-year stretch by Barry Bonds) make outs more than half the time.
So if you look at one “to IBB or not to IBB” decision in isolation, either way it works most of the time. But one decision is more right than the other—maybe not by a lot, probably never by as much as you might guess from the more impassioned reactions of some armchair managers. And you won’t notice the difference just looking at this one instance. But if you step back and look at a whole lot of them all at once, then you can see how the small difference accumulates over time.
That’s why the percentages matter—they cannot tell you exactly what will happen right now, but they will help you make the right decision often enough that over time you’ll accumulate more wins than you would have otherwise.
That is the game managers know, and it works towards the goals that managers have—winning ballgames. It can be difficult for managers to incorporate new information and new learning and process it in real-time in a ballgame. And yes, some of the responsibility falls on the sabermetricians and the front-office types to make the information manageable and accessible and convenient to use. But some of it falls on the manager to adapt and incorporate every advantage he can get his hands on. Some managers won’t be able to bring themselves to do what it takes to bridge that gap, and yes, they will be left behind. Because there will be other managers who take it upon themselves to learn these things and take advantage of them.
I guess you could say it’s because they have the will to win.
Thank you for reading
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I think it's honestly a bit condescending to assume that Hawk must mean something else because he couldn't mean what it is he actually said. I disagree very strongly with much of what he said, but I respect him enough to believe he's speaking in good faith and treat him as a peer, not someone whose beliefs are below my consideration.
As for the notion that this was written for page views -- well clearly if I didn't want anyone to see it I would've put it on a private LiveJournal somewhere, and yes, Baseball Prospectus makes money off people reading articles (although we are a subscriber-funded site, so our incentives are a bit more complicated than just chasing down ad dollars). But I assure you, everything I wrote here I said because I believe in it and I felt the need to say it, nothing more or less.
If one is going to attack Harrelson for using "OBPS" (on base plus slugging) instead of "OPS" to try and diminish the guy's point or mock him, then great job. Talk about not adding to the discussion.
But in a community where there are multiple formulas for WAR, where defensive metrics can't agree, it doesn't seem too far out of line to acknowledge that, to some extent, Harrelson is correct that maybe the numbers really aren't ready yet. Even then, while he is "old school" and may not understand the numbers, he doesn't say to ignore them but rather that there is a place for them.
Maybe he speaks in hyperbole (he is, after all, an entertainer more than anything). But does anyone think attacking the hyperbole is going foster the discussion or help improve them numbers? And, more importantly, is there any need to keep having this discussion in the first place since I am not aware of any team that doesn't use some form of advanced metrics nowadays anyway.
I do, yeah. When done in a reasonable way, it helps to marginalize moronism, and this was an entirely reasonable takedown.
"Moronism"? - he clearly states that he believes there's a place in baseball for numbers. That is a "moronism"?
"And I stand by that, because itâ€™s not ready yet."
Do we have a uniform formula for WAR? Are defensive metrics consistent? If no, then are these numbers truly "ready" to be accepted en masse? If not, then how is it "moronism" to make that statement?
The issue here seems to be more with how he said it ("most overrated", "40-50 years", "TWTW" (i.e. made up stats), etc.) than his basic point. But there are others out there who agree with that basic point. But if you believe attacking the hyperbole as "moronism" while failing to address the basic point is going to make those others out there more willing to listen to you, then you have a different opinion on human nature than I do.
You have constructed the exact same straw man that Mr. Harrelson did: these are not perfect, there is not 100% agreement, therefore the "masses" (which includes every member of every front office in MLB) should not use them. Since when does something have to be perfect to be provide value? Since when must we wait for perfection before something is used? That is a standard that literally nothing on this earth can ever meet. So why should it be applied to baseball?
The basic point is, his argument does not make sense from a logical point of view, because it is based on a straw man, an easily refutable one at that, and therefore it fails.
I think Mr. Harrelson a moron because of this is an ad hominem, and should be avoided, but I can't say it is unreasonable because I have done so myself many times.
There is a big difference between informed opinion supported by fact, which I think I find in your statements on the matter*, and straw men, which is almost all I find in Mr. Harrelson's statements.
*For the record, I have a lot of problem using WAR (WARP less so, because I think Colin's work on FRAA has acknowledged the inherent problems better) because of the inaccuracy of the defensive stats; at the least I think it should be reported with error bars that give some idea of how much give and take there is in the defensive portion of it. Nonetheless, I do not advocate not using it.
Second, please show me where I stated that I agreed with Harrelson. If you cannot, please stop mischaracterizing my position as well. Iâ€™ve been a member here longer than most, so safe to say I believe in the usage of advanced metrics. Just so you know, there is a difference between understanding a personâ€™s opinion and agreeing with it.
To that point, if you get past the BS (which is hard to do with him, I admit) what Harrelson is stating is that he believes the importance of numbers is overblown because they arenâ€™t â€œreadyâ€ (i.e. thereâ€™s no commonly accepted agreement what to use). You yourself state that you prefer some numbers to others. Why? Because you donâ€™t think defensive stats are accurate. In effect, to that aspect, you agree with him.
Where you (and the majority here) disagree with him is how important these numbers should be. However, if you paid attention to the Trout vs. Cabrera MVP debate, you can see where the debate lies (and is why I mentioned WAR and defensive stats). Some felt Trout should win purely because he had a higher WAR and/or due to his defense. Others felt the nature of what he accomplished and playing for a playoff team should matter (perhaps what Harrelson meant from TWTW or the will to win). Heck, ESPN even did a series of articles on WAR afterwards.
But that the debate still exists doesnâ€™t mean we arenâ€™t well into the meaty portion of the Bell curve as it comes to acceptance of these numbers. Again, every team is using them â€“ some more than others. I know my favorite team uses them but also know I wish theyâ€™d use them more.
Regardless, the fact that Harrelson is on the tail end of the curve doesnâ€™t mean mocking him or creating straw men arguments as to what he said (or mocking him for using OBPS instead of OPS) is going to push more people into acceptance.
Now, maybe Harrelson is the tail end of the dog and will never get there. So be it. But there are people who think like him who may be more inclined to accept numbers if you continue to educate them (and improve the numbers). But mocking them or calling them morons is, IMO, going to do nothing to accomplish that goal, which has been my point three times now. Personally, I think having this type of article on BP accomplishes nothing towards this goal as most here already accept the importance of numbers and instead come off as the author du jour simply seeking laudatory approval for â€œkicking the moronâ€ or â€œletâ€™s all laugh at the moronâ€ or whatever. I would have thought we were more advanced than that, but I guess not.
I honestly give credit to Brian Kenny for not losing his mind even more than he does now. I don't think I could talk pitcher wins with HR and have any hair left.
Wait, wasn't that a level in "Golden Axe"?
"A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: 'What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.' The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, 'What is the tortoise standing on?' 'You're very clever, young man, very clever,' said the old lady. 'But it's turtles all the way down!'"
It fits in with all the other stuff about the solar system I had in there already. The other reference I may have been thinking of is Stephen King's Dark Tower series, which uses the metaphor of a turtle supporting a flat earth as well, like as such:
"See the TURTLE of enormous girth!
On his shell he holds the earth.
His thought is slow but always kind;
He holds us all within his mind.
On his back all vows are made;
He sees the truth but mayn't aid.
He loves the land and loves the sea,
And even loves a child like me."
But both of them (and the examples mentioned above) draw from Hindu tradition, I believe.
"The (author) doth protest too much, methinks."
So, if your team has been losing, it's because they lack conviction. Including the cheerleaders. That's what's wrong with 29 of the MLB teams, every season.
Hawk and Harold honestly believe they have all the information they need about baseball to understand and enjoy it: they've seen/played in thousands of games in their lives and can maybe be forgiven if they feel like spending their lives doing this makes them infinitely more knowledgeable about the game than pocket-protector-baseball-prospectus-set. They feel like they know the game so completely that it's easy for them to automatically reject new information that might contradict their opinions and "expertise." They cannot admit that a new type of information/analysis has value because that would threaten their expertise (i.e., their livelihood).
It finally occurred to me, as I listened to that, that the entire fight is really about who gets (and keeps) jobs in baseball.
It's being fought in the media, and for some reason, we grab out popcorn and cheer for one side or the other, but it isn't our fight.
It's about whether people should be hired to participate in the constructions and management of teams based on the fact that they played the game well (or not so well, but for a long time), or for qualities unrelated to their ability to play the game.
People who played the game well have a few years in which it is a viable career path, and then... they have to find something else to do. They'd like to leverage their experience, but are finding that it isn't as easy to do so as it once was. And their friends and colleagues with access to microphones, and who long for the time when such the experience of having played the game was all that mattered, start getting bitter about the changes.
Which all of you probably knew already, but then I'm a bit slow.
Nice to see you finally admit that Bryce Harper breaks PECOTA.
All kidding aside, I was troubled by this whole article and its lack of nuance. Feels like something that would have been written 10 years ago, back when there actually was a "stats vs. scouts" debate being waged. On top of that, the scientific history lessons -- not to mention the drawn-out citation to the official rulebook in order to illustrate that the team who scores more runs than it allows is the one that wins -- add nothing to this now-mostly-resolved debate (Hawk strawmen aside), and are either incredibly condescending (to the extent you are failing to acknowledge the intellectual capacity of your audience) or an exercise in shouting into an echo chamber (to the extent you are not).
â€œPerfectâ€ stats would seem to be predicting what will happen on the next pitch, but that will never happen. The impression I get from Hawk is that itâ€™s all or nothing and anything short of knowing whatâ€™ll happen next means they should have no place in the game. But if you know whatâ€™ll happen next, why play the game?