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On Baseball And Randomness

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In his latest wonderful polemic over at TedQuarters.net, friend of the enlightenment Ted Berg sounds off on baseball's flat-earth socity.

I know this for sure, though: If you don’t understand why a .220 hitter could be the hero of the World Series or a guy who hits three home runs a year can win the pennant-clincher with a home run, you do not deserve to be a high-ranking official with one of the 30 big-league clubs.

/.../

It’s random. It’s a random game and a random world and randomness pervades everything. Sometimes things don’t need explanations. They just happen, especially in extremely small sample sizes.

I really don’t even want to fight this battle anymore. I recognize that some people will never agree, and they’ll just think A-Rod magically became clutch this year after being unclutch for three postseasons and clutch in the two before those. I mean, hey, it’s the magic of Kate Hudson!

He's right, of course. His trenchant remarks about the inability (or intransigent refusal) of some people to accept certain truths about the universe -- and about baseball, by extension -- never ceases to amaze or befuddle me. I recently answered some questions for a Q&A with Jason Fry from Fear And Faith In Flushing, which may or may not appear in the forthcoming Maple Street Mets Preview annual, where I essentially echoed Berg's sentiments. I have no idea if the interview will ever see the light of day, so here's the relevant bit.

Jason Fry: Give me your take on the familiar debate re stats vs. grit/feel/phrenology/however you want to define it?

Eric Simon: We would all prefer to root for a team full of players who all appear to be trying their hardest, who seem to enjoy every moment of the game, who get along with each other, who give great interviews and spend their spare time with underprivileged children. The problem is that, to the best of our understanding, none of those things propels a player's value above and beyond what can be measured using the best analytical and scouting tools we have at our disposal.

There are really two main classes of intangibles: hustle and heart. A player who is constantly hustling but only gets on base 30% of the time isn't really more valuable than an apparently lazy player who reaches base with the same frequency. Rather, it is his work ethic that allows the scrappy player to reach base as often as he does, whereas a loafer with the same exact skill set might only reach base 28% or 29% of the time. There's no hidden value to hustle, I'm afraid, even if it is more pleasing to the eye.

Heart, or the fatuous idea that some players "want it more" or "will their teammates to victory", is just a feel-good placeholder that people like to use to explain the role that randomness plays in baseball, particularly during short playoff series. Random variation isn't a compelling narrative. When the light-hitting shortstop belts three homeruns in the LCS or the underdog beats the best team in the league in the World Series, it's satisfying to say that they did so because they were gritty or because they stepped it up in a big spot or because some player on the other team always chokes when it matters the most. The reality is that the worst team in baseball will still beat the best team 20-30% of the time, and if over a stretch of three or five or seven games they happen to win 50% or 75% or 100% of the time, that's easily explained (and proven) by cold, unfeeling randomness.

I think people still accept intangible explanations for baseball events because they've been fed to us for as long as people have written about sports, and we're at a point where these sentiments no longer have any content. Everyone will readily acknowledge that if a player goes 4-for-5 with two homeruns on Opening Day that he probably won't hit .800 with 324 homeruns for the season. We've all seen Albert Pujols go hitless for a week and we've seen Omir Santos hit .500 over the same span. We all know that Pujols isn't a .000 hitter and that Santos isn't a .500 hitter, so the concept of random variation in baseball is easily recognizable by almost anyone. So why do we pick and choose when to apply that filter?

Maybe there are other intangible qualities that do tangibly contribute to a player's value, but we don't know what those qualities are nor do we have any reasonable way of measuring them. Until someone can show me what one player's grission is worth compared to another's, I'm inclined to relegate them all to the dustbin of rhetorical devices.

There is plenty more to be said on this topic, but I'll leave it at this for a Friday.