Friday, February 22, 2008

Re-Examining the A-Rod myth

DMZ at USSMariner recently posted an essay on the fans' attitudes toward Alex Rodriguez, then and now. Though I appreciate his generally thoughtful examination, I disagree on several points.

First, I think the reason Seattle fans felt betrayed (and certainly the the reason I did) was that he was so unbelievably good. We're not crying over the Randy Winns that left. The vitriol spouted at A-rod indicates the fans' passionate about baseball and the Mariners, not their ignorance.

In addition, my memory is that A-rod seemed to make a BIG deal that his decision wouldn't be based on the financials, that he wasn't just looking for the highest bidder. And after the deal, A-rod still tried to defend the decision without acknowledging that the money had played a big part. That disingenuousness after the deal was not only kind of pathetic, but also called into question the sincerity of his earlier claims. DMZ is right to say we felt played for fools, but he isn't nearly as charitable to us for feeling that way as he is to A-rod for taking the deal.

DMZ calls his years with Seattle "an act of generosity," but that really hinges on 1) an inequitable contract system for which Alex had no part in creating and 2) a decision to sign an extension. He claims his agent was advising him not to sign the extension, but that, it appears, is a conjecture, not based on any verifiable source. If he wants to refrain from condemning A-rod based on conjecture, he has to refrain from exonerating him in the same manner.

DMZ claims he is not "refuting" the myth, as he did with Randy Johnson, but "examining" it, but I think that is misleading. He is clearly refuting the myth, arguing that A-rod did not deserve the anger bestowed on him. His worst conclusion about Alex Rodriguez is "we don't really know."

Personally, I'm over the whole saga now, it having been several years. My reaction at the time, which was echoed by many fans, was probably too heated, more vicious that A-rod really deserved. But DMZ's examination is too charitable toward A-rod.

I come to this conclusion: Alex Rodriguez is a fantastic player and a lousy celebrity, good on the field and terrible with the press. He would have done better (and would still do better, even now) to stop trying to ingratiate himself to the press and the public, and let his play on the field do the talking.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Engaging a wider audience with statistical arguments

Rather than bandy about all kinds of excuses for how long it has been since I posted here, let me get to my topic: the accessibility of a stats-based understanding of baseball. Mostly in response to Graham's post over at Lookout Landing, I want to suggest ways that the statistically minded baseball fans might better engage the general public (We'll call them 'GP' from here on out).

A large part of the problem with these conversation is a lot of snarkiness on both sides. Much like talk-show personalities of either political persuasion, I hear a lot of arguments that ooze contempt, as the proponent of one point of view constructs a straw man to ridicule his or her opponent. We can start to change that tone by admitting when we were wrong and what are the limits of our analyses. For example, the guys over at USSM have admitted (though I can't seem to find a specific reference) they've been wrong about Raul Ibanez, that his late-career production has been a pleasant surprise. More directly in response to Graham: yes, we should explain why VORP makes sense, but also freely admit that it doesn't account for defense at all, making it only a useful tool for comparing offensive production.

Another suggestion: rather than simply roll our eyes at the mention of 'intangibles,' we need to argue how any intangibles that have real value are going to show up in the stats. "Hustle" is going to show up in defensive evaluations, baserunning statistics, infield hits, etc. "Veteran Leadership" is going to show up in consistently successful pinch- and clutch-hitting situations, a lack of hitting slumps, or an improved performance by teammates. If it doesn't show up in the stats, then it doesn't help the team win, and we shouldn't care about it.

Finally, effective arguments from statistics acknowledge the GP's perception, even if that perception turns out to be an illusion. For example, a pitcher may appear to have a run of effective seasons with a low ERA, but those gaudy numbers are more a result of the defense behind him, and a likely unrepeatable streak of stranding runners. (Hello, Jarrod Washburn.) Simply saying, "ERA is meaningless, so Jarrod Washburn is a mediocre pitcher" lessens our credibility.

My hope is that the more clearly we can articulate the value of statistics in evaluating talent, the more clear it will become to Seattle sportwriters (and ultimately, the M's front office), that the team needs to take quantitative tools for talent evaluation much more seriously. That is, the smarter everyone else is, the dumber the front office will look.