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Monday, November 16, 2009

Problems with Baseball Writers

Jerry Crasnick 11/18/09

"This year the Mets' Daniel Murphy, a converted outfielder, tied for first among big league first basemen with a "plus-minus" ranking of +14. The Yankees' Mark Teixeira, who appears to set the standard for the position, ranked 17th in the same system."

Right in the middle of a column on the comparable advantages of statistics and scouting when it comes to defensive evaluations, Crasnick betrays a seeming ignorance of both sides of the argument. The metric he's referring to is John Dewan's "Fielding Bible" rankings, from Baseball Info Solutions. Crasnick misunderstands something which Dewan never fails to acknowledge in his own writing (as do other sabermetricians like James, Neyer, etc.), that there are always going to be outliers in any quantitative system, but in the interest of objective analysis, you have to report them. Those who utilize the date have to be capable to recognizing the outliers and choose either to ignore them or give them credence.

In the case of Murphy, there is of course the problem which most commonly creates statistical outliers; that is, small sample size. Murphy played only 849 innings of first base in '09, approximately 500 innings less than a full-time first-baseman like Texeira. Even the most obstinate statistician, like Dewan, would be the first to admit that anything less than a full season's worth of stats is likely to be unreliable. Which is why most of Dewan's qualitative analysis relies on three seasons worth of data. I would expect those who are comparing Jason Bay and Matt Holliday as defenders, a comparison which Crasnick features in his article, are also relying on several seasons worth of statistics, thus alleviating to some extent things like park factors, the centerfielder's range, etc.

Crasnick's statement makes the assumption that a player moving to a new position must therefore be bad at that position, at least at first. That's a generality, but not a universality. Moreover, he ignores completely the fact that although Murphy has played mostly outfield with the Mets, he was drafted as a third baseman and played several infield positions in the minor leagues. In light of that fact, he's probably more comfortable on the infield than in the outfield, which he didn't play with any regularity until he got to the big leagues. I will be the first to admit I didn't watch a lot of Mets games this season, but based on his history and the fact that he's younger and quicker than a fair number of full-time first baseman, I'm not surprised that he was above average at least at some aspects of the position.

On several occasions I've dealt with the fact that despite the euphoric laudations of many observers, who somehow had managed to miss Texeira's excellent glovework for the Angels, Braves, and Rangers, Texeira had an off-year defensively in 2009. In particular, he range declined, as did the quality of his throwing. This can be explained in a few ways. Perhaps it was sample size; maybe fewer balls were hit his way, or hit his way in throwing situations, than would be normal over the course of a season. More likely it seems to me, based on my observations, he was playing closer to the line and was more reluctant to throw than he had been in the past. This could be a result of the Yankees defensive strategy or it could be because Texeira had a minor physical problem which effected him more on defense than on offense. Regardless, he continued to be quite good at footwork around the bag, reaching for errant throws, and consistently turned the balls he did field into outs.

The problem I have with the Texeira portion of Crasnick's quote is the phrase "appears to set the standard for the position." In the midst of a column which is supposedly about various forms of evidence, Crasnick makes a declaration of superiority completely unfounded by evidence: statistical, scouting, anecdotal, or otherwise. There is a great deal of multi-year evidence to support the fact that Texeira is a very good fielder, but not a lot which would support his being head and shoulders above the rest of the field.

While I am willing to believe that many (not all, but many) organizations are finding a balance between statistics and scouting, usually probably by getting the two measures to correlate, that does not lead me to give any more credence to the unsubstantiated opinions of sportswriters (nor does it give any more distinction to the Gold Gloves, voted on by managers and coaches). Though I happen to agree with his conclusion, that evidence gained exclusively be stats or exclusively by scouting is more error-prone than the combination of the two, Crasnick's article is fraught with presumptions, logical fallacies, and evasions which do a disservice to his argument.

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