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Archive for November, 2010

Wall Street Journal feeds the “small ball” myth

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Noted smallball enthusiast Vladimir Guerrero stretches out before a regular-season game. He's 0-for-1 stealing in the World Series.

Noted smallball enthusiast Vladimir Guerrero stretches out before a regular-season game. He's 0-for-1 stealing in the World Series.

Another example of why putting our faith in the established, trusted brands of the mainstream media because they are the established, trusted brands of the mainstream media is not the brightest idea.

Here is a Wall Street Journal piece headlined “Hitting Baseballs, Just Not as Far: Giants and Rangers Win With Contact Hitting, Bunts and Baserunning; the ‘Lost Arts.’” The piece, by Matthew Futterman and Brian Costa, explains that the Giants and Rangers have gotten to the World Series via “the kind of aggressive baserunning and timely, intelligent situational hitting and bunting that younger fans, the ones who came of age during baseball’s era of jet propulsion, have rarely seen.”

“Jet propulsion” refers to the home-run-happy steroids era, “a time when the chief ingredient of a winning team was a pack of happy oafs whose job was to hit the baseball into the next Congressional district.”

To prove their point, the Journal writers — well, they wave their arms around a lot.

The numbers tell the story rather starkly. Last year, the teams in the World Series — the Philadelphia Phillies and New York Yankees, ranked first and third in the majors in home runs. The Rangers and Giants rank No. 10 and No. 11.

San Francisco was 17th in runs scored and 13th in slugging percentage this season. But they ranked fifth in strikeouts and third in sacrifice bunts in the National League and fourth in all of baseball in sacrifice hits. [Snip: A couple of quotes from Cody Ross and Brian Sabean, respectively, about how the Giants take good swings and "know how to compete." ]

Texas was only ninth in slugging percentage, but the team had the most sacrifice bunts in the American League, the second-most sacrifice flies and the fourth fewest strikeouts. The Rangers were also seventh in the majors in stolen bases.

So how well does a certain ranking in runs scored or slugging percentage or sacrifice flies or stolen bases correlate with winning? We don’t get much of a clue, except that the Yankees and Phillies were first and third, which is actually wrong. They were first and tied for second. The Phillies tied for second with the Rangers, who didn’t make the playoffs. In 2008 the Phillies were second in homers and went to the Series, where they played the Tampa Bay Rays, who were tied for ninth.

In 2007 the Boston Red Sox, 18th in home runs, beat the Colorado Rockies, 15th, despite both teams playing their home schedule in homer-friendly parks. In 2000, the height of the supercharged steroid era, when major leaguers hit more home runs than in any other year in history, the World Series pitted the Yankees, 10th in homers, and the New York Mets, 12th.

We’re really in a new era here, where you don’t have to lead the league in homers to make the World Series! Like you did in 2009!

But don’t listen to me. Here’s Cybermetrics, “the sabermetric blog of Cyril ‘Cy’ Morong, professor of economics at San Antonio College,” responding to the Journal piece by pointing out that all that sacrificing and stealing and not hitting home runs and so on is not resulting in any extra runs or wins for either the Giants or the Rangers.

Using these crazy things called history and math, Morong shows that teams that get on base and slug at the rates the Giants and Rangers do tend to score about as many runs as the Giants and Rangers did this year. And he points out that, given their pitching — a concept the Journal barely nods toward, though it’s basically the whole story for the Giants — teams that score as many runs as the Giants and Rangers did this year can be expected to win just about as many games as they did.

In other words: “There are no extra wins due to using ‘lost arts.’ In fact, they have done well by some combination of hitting for power and getting on base and generally preventing their opponents from doing so. This is a time honored way of winning.”

The Journal piece concludes with a quote from Giants president Larry Baer, who is a business man, not a baseball man: Baer “said there is more passion for this team than any in his 18 years with the organization. ‘It validates that this game is an art and not a science,’ he said.”

Except it doesn’t validate that. The team’s popularity might validate that marketing is an art, or that a city’s passion for a team involves some strange, hard-to-fathom alchemy. But there’s plenty of science involved in the baseball.

The Giants would do well to understand that science a little better. If they did, they wouldn’t owe Barry Zito — not good enough to make the postseason roster — $64.5 million over the next four years. They wouldn’t owe Aaron Rowand — worthy of eight plate appearances in 15 postseason games — $24 million over the next two years. The people who do understand the science and root for the Giants screamed their heads off over both of those signings.

The Journal could do a better job of it too. You know, like some blogger in his mother’s basement an economics department in San Antonio.

Photo: Benson!!/Flickr Creative Commons

Written by King Kaufman

November 1st, 2010 at 1:55 pm