Now batting in the Pinch Hitters series is Yair Rosenberg, presenting a skeptical but not dismissive view of advanced statistics in baseball.
Yair is a junior at Harvard College, where he’s an Arts and Culture editor at The Crimson. Yair wrote that he’s been enjoying Yankees life in the middle of Red Sox country, “from the recent World Series to watching the Giants beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl during my freshman year.”
To hear many a sabermetrics buff tell it, Derek “Intangibles” Jeter brings nothing but a sound shortstop skill set to the table. A.J. Burnett is actually a rather consistent pitcher. And Mariano Rivera has a phenomenal cutter, but not some magical “closer’s makeup” that helps him succeed when the stakes are highest. Clutch hitting? Likely a myth. Some pitchers displaying the ability to “win games?” Random chance. Given a sufficient sample size, we are told players’ hot streaks and cold streaks emerge as mere coincidence.
This argument against overestimating an individual player’s ability to influence a game has much to recommend it, and I won’t rehash the evidence here. My intent is instead to point out an unfortunate consequence of our Moneyball-influenced era: The tendency of statistical measures to unintentionally obscure the human side of baseball.
The more statistically-minded baseball community has often adopted the following implicit assumption: Players are essentially machines, largely unaffected by clubhouse atmosphere, personal psychological factors or the day-to-day effects of real life. Columnists who refer to “team cohesion” or a player’s “mindset” (think Alex Rodriguez) as factors in performance are treated with indifference, if not derision, and are considered a product of a bygone era where intuition trumped hard data. By contrast, a modern talent evaluator like Billy Beane looks at advanced metrics and finds the right players to draft without ever observing them in person. A player’s performance can thus be predicted, fantasy baseball style, without reference to anything but the numbers.
But this emphasis on statistics demonstrates a remarkable failure of imagination. What other occupation in the world do we evaluate in a similar fashion? Aren’t there days when one phones it in at the office, when one’s focus is diverted due to a family concern, or when recent failure throws off one’s confidence and productivity? Don’t some people thrive under pressure, while others collapse? Why should baseball players be any different? Could it be that some players only give a half-hearted effort on some days, while others bring their all with consistency? That some are better at coping with failure or unexpected bad breaks than others?
Certainly we frequently observe that an error or freak play (e.g. Johnny Damon’s double stolen base) can cause a previously flawless pitcher to unravel. Mentally, this makes sense. We also find that most elite closers seem far more human come playoff time, even against teams they’ve handled easily in the regular season (Joe Nathan and Billy Wagner, anyone?). Of course, these players could just be the victims of a small sample size — but they could also be buckling under the pressure of the postseason. After all, how likely is it that so many closers who have converted 95% of their career save opportunities somehow all choose the playoffs to have some of their worst — and statistically unlikely — outings? Something seems to be up.
And is it such a stretch to consider the possibility that some pitchers might do a better job — on average — of holding a lead than others? That they might focus on their craft better when pushed into a corner, where less successful starters might often freeze up or overthink their pitches? Consider the college student who falls asleep and wakes up with four hours to complete a mostly unfinished term paper. Does that student suddenly lock in to the task at hand, or become unable to concentrate with the deadline looming?
While we may not yet have adequate metrics to discern the impact of such mental and personal factors on baseball performance — to distinguish statistical noise from psychological poise — that does not mean the factors themselves do not have an impact. Indeed, intuitively, if we view baseball as a real-world job like any other, we should come to the very opposite conclusion.
Ultimately, the numbers don’t lie, but sometimes people exaggerate their significance. While statistical measures are good at tabulating a player’s value and production, they don’t tell us nearly as much about how he got there. Until we come up with better formulas which can isolate and take into account the human aspect of the sport, we still need old fashioned, pre-Moneyball baseball men and scouts to discern player makeup, and yes, intangibles.