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One of the criticisms of the various formulae used to evaluate baseball players is that they don’t take into account everything that happens on a ballfield. Runs Created, Equivalent Average, VORP, et al rely on a player’s stat line to measure his performance, and there are elements of the game that escape the statistics. (It should be noted that with the increased availability of play-by-play information, more rigorous methods which use this data are being developed.)

The issue is a minor one. As Bill James put it nearly 20 years ago, an elephant walking through the snow leaves tracks. If baserunning, or clutch performance, or leadership, or any of the things often cited as critical omissions were that important, things like Runs Created or EqA wouldn’t correlate with actual runs as well as they do. In the big picture, what we can measure dwarfs the what we cannot, and allows us to use our analytical tools with confidence.

I bring this up somewhat tangentially because I’ve been seeing a lot of ridiculous baserunning the last couple of weeks.

Those are just some examples of egregious baserunning errors that cost teams
dearly, and they serve to bring me back to my original point: despite the
focus on its absence from the formulae, across the game, baserunning
doesn’t add or subtract enough runs to worry about
. Extra bases taken–a
cornerstone of the stats-don’t-measure-everything argument–and extra outs made
cancel out on the scoreboard, leaving baserunning as a net neutral, which is
why sabermetric performance measures work.

A more interesting question is why ballplayers do things like this. This isnÂ’t
a stathead issue: does a major-league baseball player really need a
run-expectation table to tell him that trying to take an extra base down four
runs with one out to go is a foolish risk, or that getting the tying run
thrown out at third base when down to your last out is bad baseball?

I’ve long believed that within the game–and this stretches down to the amateur
level–the notion of “hustle” does more harm than good. The vast
majority of crowd-pleasing hustle is either for show (e.g., Pete
Rose
running to first base on a walk) or actively counterproductive, such as diving into first base when there’s no tag being avoided. This kind of play is lauded by the media at the professional level, by many fans, and by coaches down to the tee-ball level, but it’s just air; there’s no substance to it, and it doesn’t help a team win.

The thing about baseball that makes it different from other sports is that the absence of movement is often more valuable than movement. Not getting thrown out trying to advance is an invisible play that gets no reaction, whereas taking a base or getting thrown out trying is effort everyone can see. The learned behavior for baseball players is that the praise they get for hustling outweighs the criticism they receive for making bad decisions. Consider this from the Associated Press wire story on Jenkins’ blunder:

“Kenny Lofton made sure Milwaukee didn’t mount another comeback.

“Lofton made a perfect throw from center field for the final out of the game.”

The emphasis is on the positive action–the throw–and not the decision to take an unnecessary risk with vanishingly small benefit. That’s the way baseball players get evaluated, from their days as a Little Leaguer to having wire copy produced about their workday. Me, I would have gone with something like, “Geoff Jenkins proved himself to be a perfect Milwaukee Brewer, ruining a tenth-inning rally by giving the Pirates a free shot at a game-ending out, one they happily took.”

That’s not how baseball players are covered, though. The Patterson boner was reduced by the AP to one line with no context, and the Stynes play didn’t even make the game recap. In both cases, hustle won out over decision-making to the detriment of the team. Despite everything your high-school coach said, though, baseball doesn’t work that way: it’s a mental game as well as a physical one, and you don’t win just by hustling more than the other guy.

The flip side of this is that players who don’t go out of their way to show hustle are roundly criticized for it, even when the lack of hustle has no impact on the game. A season’s worth of jogging out routine ground balls can’t hurt a team as much as one play like Jenkins’ does, yet the former is a high crime for many people while the latter goes without comment. The desire to see wasted effort is an odd characteristic of fandom, as is the willingness to forgive costly decisions as long as they’re accompanied by a dirty uniform and some sweat.

A ballplayer’s attempt to make a physical, hustling play can hurt a team on the field, and it can also have more lasting consequences. Jermaine Dye is going to miss the next six weeks with a shoulder injury sustained in a “home plate” collision with Bengie Molina. I use the quotes because the contact occurred well away from the plate, where Molina had gone to collect the throw. Had Dye merely slid into the plate, not only would he have been safe–he wasn’t on the original play–but he would have avoided the injury.

The culture of the game isn’t going to change because some guy writes a column, but wouldn’t it be nice if substance moved just a notch or two closer to style in the eyes of everyone involved? Bad decisions on a baseball field have real costs, ones that can’t be hand-waved away because they were incurred by someone exerting themselves. Ballplayers can be among the very best at their craft while recognizing that movement for movement’s sake–or to pander to others–is a waste of time.

Let’s focus on what matters, and leave the rest to the Little Leaguers.

SoCal readers, remember to R.S.V.P. for Sunday night’s
Pizza Feed in Orange County. I’ll be there along
with Jonah Keri and, making his West Coast debut, Nate
Silver. The Braves and Cubs will provide background
noise, and we’ll give you all a look at the voting
for BP’s midseason awards, to be announced next week.

Sign up today! First 25 guests get to make fun of the
sunburn I’ll have after taking in Angels/Twins that
afternoon!

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