Where Bad Sports Journalism Came To Die

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Thursday, August 24, 2006



There was an article a few days ago in a journal called the Boston Metro. It's not available online, except on page 20 of this digitally unwieldy pdf file. A few different readers pointed us to this one, so a specail FJM thanks to Patrick D., Bart L., and Fake G.

The author, Bob Halloran, not only writes for the Metro, but covers sports on-air for WCVB. My Dad once told me that the "V" is the roman numeral for "5," as in Channel Five Boston. Thanks Dad. Anyway, Halloran also used to work for ESPN. Go get 'em, Bob.

Say good-bye to “Moneyball.” We didn’t need on-base percentage (OBP) or on base plus slugging (OPS) to tell us that Ted Williams and Babe Ruth were great hitters.

You guys remember “Moneyball,” right? The book by Michael Lewis, where he chronicles the fight to prove that Babe Ruth and Ted Williams were great hitters by using only two statistics: OBP and OPS?

If you haven’t read it yet, you should really check it out. You’ll just fall in love with the main character, William Beane. For decades, not one human being could prove that either Ruth or Williams were great at baseball. Call it the baseball equivalent of Fermat’s Last Theorem. You’ll never guess how Beane finally proves his case – or maybe you already have! That’s right, he invents two new statistics called OBP and OPS. It’s like Andrew Wiles or that Beautiful Mind guy all over again.

Well, anyway, this Halloran dude doesn't seem to think very much of Beane’s efforts. Apparently – and I don’t know where people come up with this sort of thing – he thinks we could’ve known that Ruth and Williams were great without OBP or OPS.

I don’t know who to believe anymore!

Baseball remains a game of scoring runs and preventing runs. The best hitters are the ones who either score the runs or drive them in. It’s that simple.

It’s way more complicated than that. But let’s try to keep it relatively simple anyway. In general, yeah, the best players are usually around the top of the league in runs and / or RsBI. Sometimes they’re not. But sometimes great hitters don’t get the chance to score a lot of runs, or drive a lot of them in, for a number of reasons. Here are some of those reasons:

1) They hit in front of players who are bad
2) They hit behind players who are bad
3) They have a manager who insists on hitting them in, say, the 7 spot in the order because the manager thinks the player is “too young” or “not a great contact hitter” or some other bullshit
4) The majority of their at bats come in a “pitcher friendly” ballpark

Of course, the converse is also true. Players often have their run or RBI totals “inflated” because, say, they bat at the top of a tremendous line-up, or they bat behind Barry Bonds, or whatever. (There’s a great example, for those who own the 2001 Bill James H.B.A., of a hypothetical season in which Gino Cimoli drives in 151 runs batting behind Babe Ruth. It’s a bit of a cheat in this case because they’re walking Ruth every time, but you get the point. Fellow baseball nerds willing to spend inordinate percentages of disposable income on giant books can turn to page 785.)

Yes, individual performance influences Runs and Runs Batted In to a great degree. Unfortunately, they’re also influenced by the team you play for and the line-up you hit in. And that’s why they’re bad to use when evaluating individuals. Am I wrong in thinking that this is pretty basic stuff? Bob Halloran is paid by multiple news outlets to cover baseball. Do any of them care that he doesn’t get this?

[silence….a night watchmen at WCVB takes a slow sip of coffee…somewhere in the Boston Metro offices an old man empties a garbage basket into a larger garbage basket…Bob Halloran sleeps peacefully in his beautiful New England colonial home in Medfield or Concord or Westerham (pronounced “Wesham”) or North Southborough]

Batting average, home runs and RBI are the only categories needed to tell us who the best hitters are in the game. All the other stats created by disciples of “Moneyball” and fantasy league geeks are redundant, superfluous and redundant.

I feel like I’ve seen that joke on a t-shirt before.

I’m going to give Halloran the benefit of the doubt here, and try to deduce that the point he’s making is that the 3 “Holy Trinity” stats of the Old Guard – BA, HR, RBI – at least tell you different aspects of a player’s abilities.

To say that newer statistics don’t do the same only makes sense when the only "new" stats you understand are OBP and OPS. Certainly EqA gives us a different story than say, P/PA. (I know, not exactly a “new” stat, but one that’s become a little more valued in recent years.) Or K/BB vs. WHIP – 2 “geeky” or “fantasy” stats which are simple enough that even Halloran should be able to understand them.

If you want three stats to determine how good a position player is, well, fuck, I’ll take a player's WARP3, Games Played, and his Middle Name over Batting Average, HR and RsBI.

While it’s true that heading into yesterday’s action, 18 of the top 30 in batting average are not among the top 30 in-base percentage. The hitters that replace those 18 include Travis Hafner, Jim Thome, Jason Giambi, Ryan Howard and David Ortiz. With sluggers like them, it’s not their on-base percentage that jumps out at you. It’s their run production. Those five guys are in top eight in homers and the top 13 in RBI. To tell me they’re also in the top nine in OPS and top 11 in slugging is just overkill.

Bob. You see, everyone except you understands that OPS is made up of on-base percentage and slugging percentage. We get that. No one’s forcing you to look at OBP, SLG, and OPS. That’s not overkill, that’s wasting your time. Nobody does that. Stop doing that.

Also, am I wrong here or is he disproving his whole case in second sentence by giving us this list of amazing hitters who excel at getting on base but not at BA?

The “Moneyball” theory was really created to find productive players at a cheaper price. The long-ball hitters make big bucks. So, small market teams need to find productive players who lack the flash, less obvious players like Kevin Youkilis, Scott Hatteberg or Nick Johnson. But “Moneyball” has the potential to backfire, because it can be misleading. Heading into yesterday, Youkilis ranks 23rd in on-base percentage. But the reason he’s a bargain at $350,000 this year is because he’s 16th in runs scored.

There are 2 reasons which explain 99% of why Kevin Youkilis is 16th in runs scored, in my opinion.
1) He gets on base at the 23rd best clip in the league.
2) He’s spent most of the year hitting at the top of the line-up featuring two historically ridiculous batters in the 3 and 4 spot.

Hatteberg is 13th in OBP, but he’s only scored 51 runs and driven in 38. Sometimes, a walk is not as good as a hit.

Right. He also has 150 fewer plate appearances than Kevin Youkilis. True: a walk is very often not as good as a hit. This has very little to do with why Scott Hatteberg has only 51 runs.

It’s true that you have to be on base in order to score – unless you’re blasting home runs – but among the leaders in runs scored – Chase Utley, Jose Reyes, Grady Sizemore, Jimmy Rollins and Alfonso Soriano – only Utley (at 28th) ranks in the top 40 in OBP. What they lack in OBP, they more than make up for in SPEED.

Here are the ranks of those same players in total number of Plate Appearances in all of baseball:

Chase Utley (11)
Jose Reyes (17)
Grady Sizemore (4)
Jimmy Rollins (5)
Alfonso Soriano (7)

I’d call that a lurking variable.

As far as "SPEED" goes -- by the way, really? All caps on that one? -- sure, some of these guys are fast. But then again, Carlos Lee has more steals than Chase Utley. Sizemore has 18 – these aren’t exactly Roadrunners. They’re good hitters (one in particular is amazing this year) who hit at the top of the line-up.

Do you like Michael Young as a hitter?

I like him. I don’t love him. He’s not having what I’d consider an outstanding year. Do you?

He led the league in average and hits last year. He’s 85th in OBP right now.

Yeah, that’s what I was trying to tell you. He’s having a pretty mediocre year. Did you know that his EqA this year is only .276? Pretty pedestrian. I’m sorry – what was your point?

If you’re trying to figure out if a guy is a good hitter or not, just look to see how often he’s crossing home plate and how often he’s driving someone else across. That’s what’s money.

“And by ‘money,’ I mean largely dependent on the performance of every other hitter on your team who is not the hitter in question.”

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posted by dak  # 4:57 AM
My favorite part: the idea that Moneyball is about, apparently, Scott Hatteberg, and how he is (still, rght now, many years later) a good hitter.

That's what Moneyball is about.

Scott Hatteberg.
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