FIRE JOE MORGAN: I know I'm Going to Make Fun of Someone

FIRE JOE MORGAN

Where Bad Sports Journalism Came To Die

FJM has gone dark for the foreseeable future. Sorry folks. We may post once in a while, but it's pretty much over. You can still e-mail dak, Ken Tremendous, Junior, Matthew Murbles, or Coach.

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

 

I know I'm Going to Make Fun of Someone

I just don't know who yet. Let's find out, as we look at this article from Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writer Dejan Kovacevic.

It was a week ago today, fewer than 24 hours after the Pirates had put down a sizzling St. Louis rally in the ninth inning, that catcher Ronny Paulino reflected upon it and offered this surprising tidbit.

"You know what the key was to that whole inning?" he said. "When David Eckstein got hit by that pitch."

Say what?

Hitting Eckstein -- not intentionally -- loaded the bases and, ultimately, forced closer Salomon Torres to pitch to Albert Pujols with a one-run lead.

"Doesn't matter," Paulino said. "Eckstein's the guy you don't want to face there."

There's a lot of stupid stuff in this article. I am happy to say -- since I get bored of disparaging journalists only -- that most of it is said by actual baseball players. That's new and fun!

David Eckstein's career EqA is .260, which is exactly league average. Albert Pujols's career EqA is .341, which is easy, don't-even-think-twice Hall of Fame shoo-in. Anyone who ever wants to pitch to Albert Pujols over David Eckstein in any situation, including pick-up whiffle ball games at family barbecues when Pujols has dengue fever and Eckstein gets to use one of those over-sized red bats while Pujols has to hit with a live cobra, is a goddamn moron of the highest order. So I'm sure Paulino is the only one who thought this.

Others agreed without hesitation, players and coaches alike.

"Can't let Eckstein beat you there," shortstop Jack Wilson said.

Huh.

Albert Pujols Career OPS: 1.042

David Eckstein Career OPS: .708

I feel stupid even comparing these two people. They almost don't play the same sport.

OK, so, just to be clear here: The Pirates are happy to duck a 5-foot-7 career .282 hitter to take on the sport's most imposing hitter?

And why, exactly, is this?

"Because," Wilson said. "Eckstein's clutch."

I don't like that stupid "close and late" stat, but...

Eckstein "Close-and-Late" 2004-2006: .722 OPS

Pujols "Close-and-Late" 2004-2006: 1.088 OPS. He has 24 HR in 231 AB.

On page 191 of the famed book, "Moneyball," Billy Beane, the innovative Oakland general manager and prime subject matter, barks at a television as he hears a broadcaster describe his Athletics as failing in the clutch.

"It's [expletive] luck," Beane says.

Those words resonate with some as gospel, mostly because they are so easy to support.

Easy to support? My whole effing life all I do is yell at people that there's no such thing as "clutch." Everyone tells me I am wrong. My friends and I had to start a blog so we could stop shouting into the wind and start typing into the wind (easier on the vocal cords). Easy? Easy?!?!

The numbers will show, the game's statistical-minded followers will say, that a hitter with a .280 career average will hit ... well, right around .280 in whatever anyone might define as a clutch situation.

Some use batting average with runners in scoring position. Some use a fairly new statistic called close-and-late, which measures average in the seventh inning or later with the score no more than a run apart. Some just count up RBIs.

Whatever the bar, it is true that the disparity of numbers is little different between clutch and non-clutch.

At least this Dejan Kovacevic fellow seems to have read Moneyball. Unlike some ESPN Moneyball-disparagers I could name, named Joe Morgan.

"It's obvious that some players perform better in clutch situations," said Dan Fox, author for the statistics-based journal Baseball Prospectus. "The question is whether that difference, as measured in a week, a month or a season, actually reflects an underlying ability to come through more often."

A BP reference in a mainstream newspaper. I bet this is how Galileo felt (posthumously, obviously) when the Church finally admitted that the earth revolved around the sun.

"What they've found is that while there may be a small clutch ability -- for example, hitters who can adjust their approach in different situations seem to have a small advantage -- that ability is dwarfed by the normal differences in overall performance. In other words, in the bigger scheme of things, it's the best players who do best in the clutch."

Take the cases of David Ortiz and Derek Jeter, the widely recognized kings of clutch.

Over the past three years, Ortiz has batted .296 in all situations, .331 with runners in scoring position. Jeter has batted .315 in all situations, .310 with runners in scoring position.

Some difference, but not much.

Still, every time Ortiz launches one of those extra-inning bombs for the Boston Red Sox, it leads "SportsCenter" and resonates far more in the psyche than anytime he might fail. And when Jeter wins Game 4 of the 2001 World Series with a home run, he gets dubbed Mr. November, never mind that he batted .148 for the series.

Did I write this article somehow? Is this like a Fight Club-style thing where I split my personality and got a job writing for a Pittsburgh newspaper under the pseudonym Dejan Kovacevic? If not, I'm really enjoying reading this. What's next?

Oh, and Eckstein's clutch reputation? His average with runners in scoring position is .280, one point lower than his regular average.

I would have added that in Games 1-3 of the WS last year he was 2-13. Then he went 4-5 and 2-4 and won the MVP award and no one has shut up since.

The strongest anti-clutch argument on the Pirates' roster can be made by Freddy Sanchez.

He won the National League batting title with a .344 average last summer, and his .386 mark with runners in scoring position was the team's highest. Only Pujols' .397 mark was higher in the league.

Seems plenty clutch.

Not the case at all, he maintains.

"To me, it's pretty simple," Sanchez said. "If you're hot going into that clutch situation, you have a good chance. You're already feeling good. Obviously, there are times when a hitter can tense up, and there are some better mentally prepared than others. All I can say is that, for me, when I go up to the plate, it's not about the men on base. It's about how I'm feeling."

He rolled his eyes, remembering those four consecutive strikeouts in a game last week in Milwaukee.

"Trust me: If I'm feeling lousy at the plate like that, I'm not just going to walk up there with bases loaded and get a hit because I'm some great clutch hitter."

Freddy Sanchez: FJM's new favorite non-Red Sox. (I can't resist pointing out here that he used to be. Hometown pride.)

Still, come on ... no such thing as clutch?

What, then, of Reggie Jackson launching those three home runs in a World Series game?

He hit 563 HR in the regular season. He was excellent at hitting HR. It was probably his greatest skill. One day, in a big game, he hit 3.

What of Michael Jordan nailing that last-second jumper to sink Utah?

He was the best basketball player ever in history.

What of John Elway driving a stake through the heart of Cleveland?

This one kills me. In the eyes of basically everyone, Elway was a Choke Artist, a Big-Game-Failure, until Terrell Davis came along and the Broncos won two Super Bowls, and suddenly all of Elway's terrible SB performances were forgotten and he became Clutch. So incredibly stupid. The guy was always good. He ran into some awesome coaches and defenses in Super Bowls. Then one day, with a more complete team, he won. Like Peyton Manning. And Kobe. And Shaq. And McNabb getting over the NFC Championship hump. And like 1000 other examples.

What of Mario Lemieux burying that rebound behind Ed Belfour to raise the dome at the Igloo?

He is probably the second-best hockey player ever in history. He scored a lot of goals.

Those focusing on the numbers would lean toward the notion that those were elite athletes simply being themselves.

Yessir.

But those inside the games -- players, coaches and managers -- are almost universal in their belief in clutch.

Of those who feel otherwise, Pirates pitching coach Jim Colborn said, "Dead wrong. There is an element in certain people that allows them to focus at their peak and get into a zone when the situation is more important."

Well. I'm not "inside the game," which invalidates my opinion in the eyes of some. But isn't this quality merely one aspect of what determines a "good" player? And thus, isn't it sort of making our argument for us? In other words, the players one thinks of as "clutch" are just always good. Or, in Eckstein's case, "clutch" is simply a false notion, since very basic statistics show that he is no better in "clutch" situations than in regular situations. The end.

He cited, from his playing days, Joe Rudi, a career .264 hitter who had a reputation of elevating his level every postseason for the Athletics, at least as measured by the intangibles of timely hits and key defensive plays.

"Believe me: For all the great players in that lineup, Joe Rudi was not the one you wanted to face. He just had a knack."

You're not going to believe this. I was not familiar with Joe Rudi's postseason stats, so I looked them up on my Computational Machine. Kovacevic goes out of his way to mention that Rudi was a career .264 hitter. Want to guess what his career postseason average was?

Did you guess: .264? You're right.

In his career, Rudi went .264/.311/.427.
Postseason: .264/.329/.386

He was essentially exactly the fucking same in the postseason. 3 HR in 140 postseason AB. 179 in about 5500 regular season AB. So, his HR rate was actually higher in the regular season. (Small sample size alert in the PS, obviously. But what do you want me to do?)

Perhaps anecdotally Rudi did all kinds of amazing Lemke-esque shit in some postseason games. A lot of middle-of-the-road guys do a lot of better-than-that things in postseason games. Endy Chavez made like the greatest catch I've ever seen in the NLCS last year. Does that mean he is a "clutch" fielder? No. It means he is a pro baseball player, which means he is one of the best 600 or so baseball players in the whole wide world, which in turn means that he has the ability to do extraordinary things in specific situations. Other players, who are better than Endy Chavez, will do those amazing things more consistently. Is this really hard to grasp for anyone? Really?

Some players, the argument can be made, do become better in trying situations. But those cases -- and this is one area where statisticians and those inside the game tend to agree -- are much rarer than those where performance decreases.

In other words, the absence of clutch might be more prevalent than a rise to a clutch level. The athlete rises to the level of competition and, in doing so, maintains similar numbers. And the rest ... well, for every Joe Rudi, there are many more like Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez.

Uh oh.

Bonds has a .300 career average and a home run every 12.9 at-bats. But in the playoffs, as the still-bitter baseball fans of Pittsburgh can attest, his drop-off is dramatic: His average in seven playoff appearances is .245, and the home runs come once every 16.7 at-bats.

Bonds had six pretty crappy postseasons. Then he had four awesome ones after he started using steroids. They are all small sample sizes. Also, would you have pitched to Bonds in 1990 if he had Steve Buechele hitting behind him?

Rodriguez is having a superhuman April, but that will do nothing to quell doubts about his clutch value. He has batted .306 in the regular season for his career, .280 in the playoffs.

Basically the same.

The home runs come once every 14.3 at-bats in the regular season, once every 22 at-bats in the playoffs.

Dumb way to look at this. Here's a better way. And please, after I go through the trouble to type this out, let's end this.

1997 ALDS: 5-16, 1 HR, .313/.313/.563 (Very Good)

2000 ALDS: 4-13, .308/.308/.308 (Eh)

2000 ALCS: 9-22, 2 HR, .409/.480/.773 (Monster)

2004 ALDS: 8-19, 1 HR, .421/.476/.737 (Monster)

2004 ALCS: 8-31, 2 HR, .258/.378/.516 (Very Good)

2005 ALDS: 2-15, .133/.381/.200 (Bad, though he got on base)

2006 ALDS: 1-14, .071/.071/.071 (Terrible)

In seven series, he has two absolute beasts, two very good series, three kind of crummy ones. How can you say this guy falls apart in the postseason? In 2000-04 he went 25-72 with 5 HR and 7 2B. Now hear this, people:

Derek Jeter's Career Splits: .317/.388/.463

Derek Jeter's Career Postseason splits: .314/.384/.479

Mr. Clutch is actually Mr. Exactly the Same No Matter What Month You Are Talking About. He is Mr. Equally Excellent Hitting SS Every Month from April to November. He is Mr. Outrageously Similar Statistics Every 30 Days.

And for the record, in that huge 2004 ALCS against Boston, which earned ARod the reputation as a non-clutch player, Jeter went 6-30, .200/.333/.233.

The Pirates' Jason Bay never has known playoffs, but he batted .346 with runners in scoring position in 2005, then saw that drop nearly 100 points to .242 last season and to .133 in the early going this year. Surely, some clutch factor was involved.

How is that the conclusion?! The conclusion should be: in small numbers of data points, there is bound to be enormous fluctuation. This is like saying: yesterday it was sunny, today it poured. Surely, some Fertility God disapproved of our elk sacrifice.

"It's not so much a matter of raising your level in a clutch situation. It's a matter of keeping your level the same," Bay said. "Baseball is predicated on the idea that the people who are the most successful are the ones who do things the same way most consistently. It's not an emotion game like football or hockey, where you can go bust some skulls."

Jason Bay: possibly replacing Freddy Sanchez as FJM's new favorite non-Red Sox.

Bob Walk, among the living Pirates to have participated in a playoff game, is very much a believer.

"There are some guys who are better hitters in tough situations, and the stats will show that, too," he said.

I think we have sort of disproved that...with actual stats. I like it when guys just say "the stats will show it!" without actually looking at stats.

"They take a different approach to the plate. They're maybe not thinking so much about themselves and trying to pull the ball or hit it out of the park."

No. They take the exact same approach, and are already good, so they perform well.

"The guys who are successful don't have that fear of failure. Some guys have that, believe me."

I believe this. I also believe that they are good baseball players.

There is no bigger proponent of clutch in the Pirates' clubhouse than the man in charge.

When his team wins, Jim Tracy invariably points to "big" hits that were delivered. When the team loses, he points to the lack of same.

If you win a baseball game, ipso facto, you have gotten some "big" hits. If you lose a baseball game, ipso facto, you have failed to get some "big" hits. This is tautology, Mr. Tracy. Tautology, I say! (I mean, even if you are up 15-5 in the seventh inning and you fall apart and lose 16-15, you could look back and say, "If we had only cashed in on that bases-loaded-nobody-out in the fourth..." You get the idea.)

Even after the Pirates were blanked on three measly hits in their home opener April 9, Tracy lamented, "We had chances."

Yes. At least 27 of them. Like in every game.

Tracy's view is reflected in how he forms his lineup, bucking the modern thinking that the highest on-base percentage players should be stacked at the top. Instead, he favors the more traditional approach of getting the runner on, moving him along and getting a "big" hit.

How's that working out for you, Jimmy?

"Isn't that what makes teams good?" Tracy said when asked about his value of clutch. "It's what separates you from the pack, your ability to take the big at-bat. You don't expect somebody to hit 1.000 with runners in scoring position, but you have to get your share of hits in those situations. Look at the upper echelon of clubs, and that's what you look for. And if we can get to that point, we've got a chance to become a pretty decent team."

Amazing. Just amazing. I don't know where to begin.

What makes teams good, offensively, is not making outs. And of course you have to "get your share of hits" in any situation. But what in the world would prevent you from putting your high OBP guys at the top of the line-up? Baseball Prospectus has proved that line-up order doesn't really matter that much, but the higher in the order you are, the more AB you get. And the higher your OBP, the fewer outs you make, so -- given those extra AB -- you will increase your chance of winning baseball games. This is not black magic, people. This is straightforward logic. Delivered in a exaggeratedly strident tones over a blog.

It could not hurt. The National League's highest average with runners in scoring position last season was the .286 of the Los Angeles Dodgers, and they were one of the four playoff teams. The other three also ranked above the league average.

But then, so did ... the Pirates? Their .266 mark ranked seventh, even though they finished with the fewest runs and were nowhere near the playoffs.

So what does that teach us? It teaches us that it's not that crucial a stat, relatively speaking, because if the team isn't getting anyone on base, you can hit .300 with RISP and you won't score as many runs as other teams with lower BA and SLG with RISP. See?

The statistic that correlates most closely with scoring runs is on-base percentage ---- how many times a batter reaches base safely, whether by hit, walk or hit batsman -- and this is backed by every spreadsheet back to the late 19th century.

Where were you a paragraph earlier, man? I just typed all that shit for nothing?

Last year, the Pirates' on-base percentage was .327, third lowest in the league. This year, it is .303, second lowest.

Huh. So, Tracy is a bonehead?

But then ... so is their .190 average with runners in scoring position, which might bolster Tracy's case.

If their team OBP is .327, they can hit .500 with RISP and they still won't win anything. Tracy's "case" is that they need a high BA with RISP, and that OBP doesn't matter so much. That's like saying that the important part of the alley-oop is the slam dunk, and it doesn't matter so much whether anyone bothered to lob you the ball.

So, in the end, I guess I made fun of Jim Tracy. Dejan Kovacevic gets a check-plus, because I think if you read between the lines he is on the side of Facts and Truth. Freddy Sanchez and Jason Bay get gold stars. Ronny Paulino and everyone else who would rather pitch to Albert Pujols than to David Eckstein get a punch in the face and an exhortation to seek counseling.

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posted by Ken Tremendous  # 11:20 AM
Comments:
Thanks to, among others, readers Matt and Peter for the tip.
 
I love that Jason Bay actually began a sentence "Baseball is predicated on the idea that..."

Jason? Are you okay?

Is he going to get beat up in the clubhouse for that kind of prissy-talk?
 
I know -- I loved that too. That's mostly why I said that he might have replaced Sanchez as our favorite player.
 
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