May 14, 2009

Some Baseball Questions

With popular color analyst Jerry Remy on indefinite leave after a bout with lung cancer, NESN has turned to a revolving door of analysts to patch the hole left behind by the RemDawg. The experiment has seen everyone from Dennis Eckersley to Kevin Kennedy to Dave Roberts try their hand at analysis.

Even the best baseball commentators say some absolutely ridiculous things. I chalk that up to a number of reasons, chief among them the fact that most analysts are former players. If you think about it, most field managers are ex-players, but very few general managers or front office professionals are. That is partially because the front office has to deal with so much more than just the game of baseball. But, it is also partially because ex-players tend to rely on instincts and feelings and can rarely view the game as a business or from a critical distance. Remy occasionally said some ridiculous things, but he was always able to view the game the way any good analyst should: from multiple perspectives. He recognized the value of statistics and of subjective, intangible evaluation.

Without Remy in the booth, I've been listening a little more closely to his temporary replacements. Just the last couple of games, they have said several things that have baffled/puzzled/intrigued/infuriated me. Mostly, though, they have made me wonder. If I were a smarter/better person, I would whip out the ole sabermetrics and try to find some answers to the questions they've raised. Since I'm not, I'll just ask the questions. These are some thing that I would love to have someone (other than me) complete a statistical analysis of:

1.) Does ritual trump athleticism or vice-versa? Commentators frequently assert that a player seems "out of sorts" or "uncomfortable" because his routine is off. Japanese players struggle because the American baseball is a slightly different size than the Japanese ball. Position players commit more errors when they play in a position they're not used to. On one level, that logic absolutely makes sense. Baseball players are creatures of habit (which makes me wonder: how much of "home field advantage" is mere comfort?). On another level, though, that logic makes no sense to me at all. These players are paid millions of dollars to be athletes. They should be able to throw a cantaloupe if required, right?

2.) Every time the Sox have the bases loaded, the graphics folks at NESN kindly provide us with the hitter's career numbers with the bases loaded. Almost invariably, the average hovers around .360 and the RBI total is about the same as the AB. Then, also almost invariably, the analyst will assert that the hitter is "clutch" with the bases loaded. My question: how much of the .360 is the hitter's "clutch-ness" and how much of it comes from the fact that pitcher's are usually not on top of their game when the bases are loaded. In other words, are bases loaded averages inflated by hitters capitalizing on a taxed pitcher?

3.) Kevin Kennedy, my favorite of NESN's stopgap announcers, constantly referred to 2-2 as the perfect "running count." Why is that? Do certain counts actually lead to more successful stolen bases? It stands to reason that first pitch steals are successful more often than steals later in the count (if only because the percentage of straight steals is higher on the first pitch). Beyond that, I have no idea. Joe Posnanski has a great piece on hitters' vs. pitchers' counts. I would love to see a similar piece on what happens on the rest of the field for various counts.

4.) The only claim that has truly infuriated me was the idea (perpetrated by both Eck and Kennedy) that a baserunner can "do more damage" by staying at first base early in a count than by stealing second base on the first pitch. The theory behind this is seems sounds: the pitcher will throw more fastballs to the hitter with the threat of the steal looming. Honestly, though, isn't it always more damaging to have a runner on second base? Would you want a speedy runner to pull up with a single instead of taking a clear double? If the guy is going to steal anyway, why not do it early in the count and increase the likelihood of him scoring on a single?

5.) I'm always fascinated by the tension between rationality and emotion. When K. and I watch TV, she always complains that characters do things that just don't make sense. I always remind her that they are often in the midst of emotional turmoil and therefore not entirely rational. Of course, these things are not entirely mutually exclusive, but they tend not to mix well. Thus, I always wonder when commentators talk about a player being "distracted" or "consumed" by emotion. Most analysts say that they will "take" the "fiery, passionate" guy over the lackadaisical player (read: J.D. Drew). Then, they turn around and claim that players (pitchers mostly) are too emotional and therefore more likely to get distracted and not execute properly. Is emotion a strength? Does it have any tangible effect on a player's performanace?

These are all questions to which I have no answer. I am only a baseball fan, and one with no advanced knowledge of stats, at that. I am curious, though. Mostly, though, I want Remy back.

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