Thursday, March 26, 2009

Has Baseball Become Too Programmed?

A thought has been rolling around this old head ever since the Fan's rant yesterday concerning David Price and others being sent down to the minors instead of staring with the big club. And while the thought has been rolling around, there has been fear of typing it down. The fear is that the words will sound like an indictment of the age of Sabermetrics because the thought is not that at all. But it might sound like it is. Oh heck. Might as well just say it: Has baseball management become too programmed? Is a master plan all laid out ahead of time and no performance or surprise can deviate from the program put in place? Let's see if the thought can be expanded with some lucidity.

There is a suspicion in this old head that guys like David Price had no prayer of ever making the opening day squad for the Rays. In other words, in this day of a more educated executive branch in baseball, does the master plan become the end all and there is no deviation allowed from the plan no matter how blazing a player might perform? This is the part that will sound like the indictment. But hear this all out before you become offended, okay?

You have to understand that the Fan spent fifteen years of his life building a software company. Software, in many ways is the revelation of our time. It's like our automobile or electricity. And programmers spend countless hours trying to write code for all the variables that can be quantified. But no matter how much code is written or how brilliantly it performs, some end user is going to do something so off the wall, but so breathtakingly practical that it just blows away the programmer and leaves them mumbling incoherently for days afterwards.

Take for example our first senior programmer. This guy was brilliant and basically wrote a program that zoomed the company up there in the stars. But being that smart some times leads to a bit of persnicketyness. For example, this brilliant guy was highly concerned during one bad winter of illnesses that we all had to use the same "timeclock" computer that kept track of every one's time. His concern was that everyone used that same mouse and was passing germs around. His great idea was that there should be a bottle of disinfectant right next to that mouse and everyone should use it. The CEO and founder of the company, another well read chap, thought this was a brilliant idea and it came to pass.

The next executive meeting, we were all sitting around and the Fan asked the typical, lower on the IQ scale kind of question. "Well, yeah, it makes sense what you are trying to do, but doesn't everyone also touch the can of disinfectant? Aren't you just making the contact one step earlier?" After a gigantic fit of laughter, everyone agreed that in this one case, practical observation seemed a little more fitting than programmable logic.

Okay. All that said. What's the Fan's point here? Baseball has made leaps of great thinking over the past few years spurred on by the Sabermetric revolution. The amount of data is staggering and smart teams all around baseball have put a lot of its decision making into the hands of data analysts. And for some teams that has worked out really well. Other than last year, Oakland has consistently put out a good product on a strict budget as have the Twins. The Red Sox overcame the Yankees with smarts and data analysis.

And yes, it's possible that things like the Joba Rules (which is really an idea started by the Twins years ago) might mean that Chamberlain will be an effective pitcher a lot longer than Mark Fidrych was when there was no data. But if the programming is so finite that 90 pitches is all he is allowed no matter what, then you have a situation where the team is winning by a run with two on and two outs in the fourth inning but Joba has reached his pitch count. But who would you rather have in there to get the last out, Joba Chamberlain or Dan Giese? Nothing against Giese, but Chamberlain would seem the better call even if it might mean 97 pitches instead of 90.

The suspicion again here is that data analysis is so ingrained now that David Price had no shot at ever making the Bay Rays opening day roster. The program said, "Bring him in during Spring Training, let him get his work and then he opens at AAA so that he can build his confidence and save his innings for later in the year."

But at some point, it's like Spider Solitaire. Wouldn't you rather know at the beginning of the game that three kings were going to be dealt on the last hand on top of all the other cards and you had no chance of winning? Price never had a chance. But this is where the problem lies for the Fan. There is no room for deviation. The end user, to continue the software analogy, Price, introduced different variables. The post season performance, the overpowering spring.

One place where variables are particularly snarky are in the bullpen. The bullpen must drive the analysts crazy. Take Juan Rincon, for example. The guy pitches in 150 innings for the Twins in 2005 and 2006 and puts up great numbers like a 2.91 ERA and a 2.45 ERA with 149 strikeouts. The PECOTA projections come out and predict an ERa of 3.20 or something with a slightly lower strikeout ratio. Still effective and valuable, right? Well, he came out in 2007 and threw a 5.19 ERA Easter egg. Yup, that's a variable.

How about that other Rincon, Ricardo? If you looked up in the dictionary (does anyone still do that?) for the definition of LOOGY, Ricardo Rincon's picture would be in there. And to be sure, the analysts had to love his lefty/lefty splits. But the guy must have driven them crazy. He would go out there one year and have an ERA of 2.83 and then follow that up with one of 4.79.

But despite this deviation, Ricardo Rincon would still get run out there 59 times because, doggonit, the splits said he murdered lefties. Those deviations cost his team four games.

The Fan can't seem to make this point coherently and is circling around like a buzzard who thought he saw some meat down there somewhere. The problem is that the Fan isn't an analyst and is not as good a mathematician as he should be. So these arguments can't be made effectively. So we are stuck with a itch that can't be scratched, that some parts of the game are becoming a bit too set in stone without looking at fresh results that don't jive with the plan. As much as there is no perfect program, there is no perfect baseball plan.

The Fan can say this much. If the Bay Rays' fifth starter loses three out of his first five decisions and the Rays lose the division by two games, won't the plan look a little suspect? Of course, the following argument would be: "Well yes, but wouldn't it be better to have Price for many years to come instead of just this year?" Maybe. Maybe not.

1 comment:

Josh Borenstein said...

I definitely understand where you're coming from. I know that starting Price out in AAA has to do with arbitration and being able to sign him in the future, but when you're in the toughest division in all of baseball and it's a three horse race you can't afford to use anything less than your best players. Like you said, if they end up missing the playoffs by a few games they'll probably look back on this and say it was a horrible decision.