Sunday, August 09, 2009

Tower of Babel Lego House

Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports has never been a favorite writer. For one thing, he is much too young to be such a self-righteous writer. That is usually reserved for older writers like Buster Olney. But the Fan wandered over to his column yesterday and read an entertaining piece called, 25 things you didn't know about baseball. First of all, what is it with titles not being capitalized? But getting past that, the article was about Passan discovering FanGraphs, the amazing statistical enterprise that is one of the best things about being a baseball fan in our era. As the title suggests, Passan lists 25 statistical facts that surprised him from his experience at FanGraphs. The Fan was grooving with him until the very end when the one weakness of relying solely on stats revealed itself. Passan was at least smart enough to hit upon it too.

The stat was about the six hitters in baseball that do not have a vulnerability on any pitch. Mauer, Miguel Cabrera, Torii Hunter, Adam Jones were listed. Fair enough. But then the last one listed was Skip Schumaker. Skip Schumaker? Now be honest, if it was bases loaded, two outs, in the bottom of the ninth with the Cardinals trailing by a run with Trevor Hoffman on the mound, would Skip Schumaker be the one guy you hoped would come up to bat to get the big hit for the Cardinals? Maybe. But maybe not.

Passan is awfully young to just be starting to be turned on by statistics. No offense, but young folks should be all over that new aspect of the game. Us old fogies are understandable if we are a bit late in getting on the ball. The Fan is one of the latter and is having fun getting a new education on what these new metrics tell us. But...and this is a big old fogies are still not convinced that these metrics tell the full story. Maybe a story will be illustrative here.

The Fan's neighborhood is rather nice and on a hill overlooking rolling farmlands. All of the lots of an acre and a half and it's a nice spot. There was only one lot left in the development and it was a corner lot right next to the Fan's. It sat as an empty lot for a few years and the Fan hoped it would stay that way. But the developer finally sold it to a young whippersnapper the Fan knew. This young guy, a computer programmer, was one of those guys who was too young to know that you never really know more than ten percent of what you should know.

After he bought the lot, the Fan saw him walking around his property and went over to say hello. The Fan mentioned that the lot would be difficult to get a foundation in the ground. The Fan's favorite subject in college was geology. You had to take one science for the English degree and chemistry is too much math and biology was too...uhh...gross. So geology it was. And it was fun! Well, the Fan could just observe the landscape of this lot and it was a funny shaped mound and the Fan knew it was a classic moraine. A moraine is where a glacier just dumps a bunch of rock and leaves it there. The young programmer insisted that he had done some tests and had all the data and it would be fine.

Well, the basement contractor showed up and started digging with his equipment. But sure enough, after only a couple of inches, they hit solid rock and couldn't dig any further. And so, the entire foundation was built above ground, all ten feet of it. Then the two story, prefab house showed up in two pieces and they put that together in one day on top of this foundation. The Fan came home from work to suddenly discover that next door to his once lovely neighborhood now had this towering monstrosity next door which incidentally blocked out a once beautiful view of each night's sunset. The Fan and his wife now affectionately call the thing the Tower of Babel Lego House.

The young programmer had all the data, but the Fan had observation. The Fan isn't discounting the data or the stats and metrics we now have. They are very useful and powerful and the Fan enjoys them. But they don't tell the entire story. There are intangibles that can't be measured, at least not yet. And observation is still a powerful thing. The Fan wrote a piece recently about the MVP type year Chone Figgins is having with the Angels. Figgins is having the type of year that the metric folks love. But Figgins has been "observed" for a long time and in the right playoff situation, a power pitcher is going to have a fairly easy time getting him out. He isn't as scary as he sometimes looks.

Don't know if this posts makes any sense. But there is room in baseball for metrics and for observation and if anyone discounts one or the other, then they aren't seeing the whole story.

1 comment:

Josh Borenstein said...

I agree wholeheartedly. It's like that quote about stats being like a bikini.