Jul 312002

Anyone who has ever listened to a sports interview has heard it. “John Elway [or your chucklehead of choice] is just gonna try to go out there and be the best quarterback that John Elway can be.” Nobody talks this way except professional athletes, not even college athletes. The locus classicus is Bo Jackson, who employed the Third Person Jock with such stolid consistency that Nike designed an entire advertising campaign around it.

Now it appears that the Third Person Jock has spread to the world of popular music. The Oops Girl was recently caught employing it to help her explain why she cut a concert short after five songs. (Scroll to the end of the story; link from Susanna at Cut on the Bias.) Turns out she was tired: “I think I am just going to take six months off and just have Britney time and just do what Britney wants to do.” Bo would have said, “Bo thinks Bo is just…”, but it’s a start.

My questions are: First, how old is the Third Person Jock? In the famous sports cliche scene from Bull Durham (1988) the Third Person Jock goes unmentioned. Yet I’m sure it dates from before then. Second, where does it come from? Do you get in the habit from reading about yourself in the paper all the time, or what? And third, are there other citations from pop stars, or anyone else outside professional athletics? Or is Britney, as she is in so many other ways, an innovator here as well?

Jul 162002

Read Part 1.

Five things I learned about fielding in baseball from reading Bill James’s new book Win Shares:

1. Defensive efficiency, the percentage of balls put into play that is turned into outs, defined, if we ignore the small peripherals, as total outs minus strikeouts divided by the total number of balls in play, accurately measures how well a team performs defensively. You might think that pitchers would influence this statistic. They don’t.

2. You can measure range for first basemen, but this requires not just assists, but unassisted putouts, which are usually made when he runs to the bag himself instead of flipping to the pitcher. You can approximate this second component by subtracting all of the other infielders’ assists from the first baseman’s total putouts.

3. Catcher fielding percentages are a lot more meaningful when you remove strikeouts, which absurdly bloat the catcher’s total chances and never should have been there in the first place.

4. Because fielding, unlike pitching or hitting, is a cooperative effort, it must be evaluated top down — first on the team level, and only then by assigning contributions to individuals. (James also argues that this is the best way to evaluate everything, but I’m sure he would agree that you can get a lot further with pitching and hitting by working from the bottom up.)

5. Fielding statistics, like many things, make a lot more sense in context. If Bill Mazeroski, who has the best all-time double play statistics of any second baseman, turned a lot of double plays, we need to figure out how many he had a chance to turn, and we can. If Richie Ashburn, who has the best all-time fielding statistics of any outfielder, caught a lot of fly balls, we need to figure out how many he had a chance to catch, and we can again. In fact Ashburn achieved them partly because he was in fact a superb defensive player, but mostly because the Phillies’ pitching staff in the 1950s gave up more fly balls than any other pitching staff ever, by far. For the same reason that team’s shortstop, Granny Hamner, has lousy fielding statistics, even though his defensive reputation was excellent. Mazeroski, on the other hand, had more or less the normal number of opportunities to turn double plays. He really was that good.

Maybe these things are obvious. But I didn’t think of them, and neither did you.

Jun 212002

Read Part One. Go on, it’s short.

Watching baseball actually impedes understanding. When I was fourteen my father took me to a Yankee game. The Yankees lost and Bobby Bonds struck out four times, twice on changeups in the dirt. After the game my father said, “I never realized Bonds was such a bum.” Now, of course, Bonds wasn’t a bum; Bonds was a borderline Hall of Fame player in the middle of one of the best seasons of his career. But that’s what happens when you string up a hammock at some local minimum or maximum and proceed to draw conclusions about the shape of the graph.

When blowhards like Joe Morgan and Tim McCarver exult over “the little things that don’t show up in the box scores” this should be regarded as a paid commercial announcement — as if you have to listen to them to know what’s going on. Just about everything shows up in the box scores, and if it doesn’t, then we just need better box scores. Box scores used to show next to nothing, not even walks. And then they showed hit-by-pitches, and intentional walks, and pitch counts, and ball-strike ratios, and stolen-base attempts, and caught-stealings. Soon they will show runners advanced, and groundball/flyball ratios, and out charts, and the margin of baseball events that don’t show up in the box scores (what Bill James used to call “the swamp”) will dwindle, inexorably, to zero, just as science gradually asserts its dominion over all kinds of problems that used to belong to philosophy.

In the meantime, at least turn the sound down.

Jun 182002

Many people actually watch baseball (though not as many as there used to be), which amazes me. Have you ever tried to watch a baseball game with someone who knows nothing about sports, like your girlfriend? Mine can appreciate, at least for five minutes, the balletic grace of basketball or soccer, the raw violence of football, even the ebb and flow of hockey, but when baseball comes on the channel is changed. Immediately.

But there is one beautiful thing about baseball, and it isn’t the Cartesian symmetry of the diamond. Baseball playing fields aren’t even symmetrical, actually, except in the ugliest parks. Perhaps the fact that it’s played in the summer?

It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone.

Giamatti doth protest too much, methinks.

No, the beautiful thing about baseball is that it’s transparent to statistical analysis. This is fortunate, because it means you don’t have to watch baseball to understand it. All you have to do is read the box scores.

Jun 162002

Several premises underlie Bill James’s new book, some of them radical, and it seems best to examine them individually.

1. It would be valuable to have a single number to represent the value of a player’s season. Well, sure. Wouldn’t it? People spend a lot of time rating things on a scale “from 1 to 10.” James proposes to do the same thing with baseball players, except it’s on a scale of 0 to about 50 or so (there are only about a dozen seasons in baseball history that rate higher than 50, including Barry Bonds’ 2001, which clocks in at 54). Each integer represents a third of a win, a “Win Share”. This would come in handy to resolve salary disputes, trade questions and bar arguments, for sure.

2. It is impossible to evaluate players by taking the average as a baseline. This too is true, and it has already been acknowledged by many other analysts who have introduced the concept of replacement value (the Baseball Prospectus boys with VORP, among others). James justly says that the value of a player is not in how far above the average he is but in the fact that he can play at this level at all. Poor Pete Palmer and his Linear Weights system take it on the chin for using average performance as a baseline, implying that a slightly-below average major league player has a value of less than zero.

3. The best way to analyze performance, particularly fielding, is to look at the team’s performance first, and then allocate it among the individual players. True again. For hitters it’s easy to separate individual hitting performance by ignoring situation-dependent statistics like RBI; for pitchers it’s a little more difficult; but fielders cannot be evaluated properly apart from the team.

4. The Win Shares of the players must add up to the wins of the team. Here we start to get into trouble. A team’s record can be predicted quite accurately by a Pythagorean formula, and in Win Shares James introduces a new formula, based on “marginal runs”, that is nearly as accurate. (In fact calculating Win Shares is just a matter of figuring a team’s marginal runs and allocating them among its members.) Some teams, however, significantly overperform or underperform, relative to the number of runs they score and allow. The 1984 New York Mets, who finished 90-72 despite being outscored by 24 runs, are a notorious example. It follows from James’s formulae that each marginal run a 1984 Met contributed was more valuable than each marginal run from an underperforming team, say, the 1984 Pittsburgh Pirates, who finished 75-87 despite outscoring their opponents by 48 runs. The adjustments here can range to 20% or more, dwarfing things like park factors. And it follows further that Hubie Brooks and Tony Pena both get 21 Win Shares, despite the fact that Pena outhit Brooks slightly and played a far more difficult defensive position far better. In other words, Brooks, according to James, was a better player in 1984 because his team was lucky. (All analysts agree–James himself may have been the first to say so–that when teams win a lot of close games, it’s mostly luck.) James defends such conclusions obliquely in an essay called The Snider/Mays Dilemma, as follows:

But in that case [of another overachieving team, the 1969 Mets], it seems OK, because, after all, we know what this team accomplished. We all understand that this isn’t the usual case. But in the Win Shares system, we follow the logic that whatever is accomplished by the team is credited to the players, wherever that leads us.

Now maybe we all know what the 1969 Mets accomplished, and won’t be thrown by Cleon Jones’s 30 Win Shares, but do we all know what the 1984 Pirates failed to accomplish, or will we take Tony Pena’s and Hubie Brooks’ 21 Win Shares apiece at face value? I am not certain that we should evaluate players relative to their teams’ expected instead of actual won-loss records, but I am certain that James can give a better defense of his method than he does here.

Smaller points: James says in The New Historical Baseball Abstract and elsewhere that closers are overrated and managers ought to ignore save situations and pitch their best relief pitchers when they are most valuable, i.e., in tied and one-run games. Couldn’t agree more. But in Win Shares he appears to ignore that argument, giving relievers arbitrary extra credit for saves to make his numbers work out. James also asserts that stopping the running game constitutes 50% of a catcher’s defense, although he admits that such an estimate is desperate work. This should be easy to add up, however, because we know, offensively, what stolen bases and caught stealings are worth. When I am feeling less lazy I will add up the alleged defensive contributions of some cannon-armed catcher like, say, Ivan Rodriguez, and see if they match up with what the offensive result of his SB/CS record would be worth.

(Update: Read Part 2.