Thursday, October 12, 2006

Letter to Citybeat

In Cincinnati, there's an alternative weekly newsmagazine called Citybeat. It discusses news in a progressive manner, deals a lot with local art, music, and theater as well as film. But there is a sports column, written by Bill Peterson, that focuses on the Reds, Bengals, and UC Bearcats. I an otherwise progressive publication, Peterson is an "old-guard" baseball writer. While he doesn't usually bother me, sometimes he gets me so agitated that I had to write in. He wrote this article in the Oct. 11-17 issue, an article which knocked statistics in a vague way and said that the "little things" were the key to winning, especially in the playoffs. Well, that got my dander up (which is never a good thing), and I wrote a firm, but generally diplomatic letter in response.
Just to note: I've previously written a letter in response to Citybeat, back in the summer of 2004. Peterson wrote than that the Reds were one good starting pitcher away from contending for the Wild Card. I know that hometown columnists tend to be optimistic, but this was, in my words, "optimism bordering on self-hypnosis." I wrote that not only did the Reds have a horrifically understaffed pitching staff (this was before the emergence of Arroyo and Harang), but they weren't even hitting as well as their divisional rivals, the Cardinals. To my surprise, the letter was published. I doubt I'll have as much luck this time; this letter is longer and tougher on Peterson.

To the Editor --
This letter is in response to Bill Peterson's article in the Oct. 11-17 issue of Citybeat entitled "Oakland's reliance on 'little things' tested in baseball playoffs. I feel that Peterson has missed the point with his analysis and has vastly misrepresented the opposing viewpoints.
Peterson claims that the key to winning baseball (especially in the postseason) is in the "little things." His claim that Minnesota lost in the ALDS due to the "little things" is a bit odd. I disagree; Minnesota lost because they were outscored 16-7. That may sound a bit simplistic, but then that's the idea; wins come from scoring and preventing runs. There's a reason they call all that other stuff the "little things."
He claims that Jerry Narron has been proven right in his assertion that the Reds should focus on the "little things." Now, I don't dislike Narron. But it doesn't take more than a casual fan to see that while the Reds do need to improve their fundamentals, they missed a chance to reach October this year not because of a couple of missed bunts, but rather due to a 4.51 team ERA. The "little things" get you a base here and there, and can be very important; but more important is a pitcher or hitter than can give and take away bases by the hundreds. No amount of "little things" can replace Austin Kearns and Felipe Lopez, sent on their way in a trade so bad for the franchise that it seemed like an April Fool's joke.
Peterson also badly misrepresents the ideas and beliefs of the statisticians, or as his tone always seems to imply, "the ignorant geeks." Peterson actually tries to condense his conception of all accepted statistical knowledge into one paragraph in his article, wherein he makes several mistakes.
Peterson describes the statistical "doctrine" as such, apparently intending to dispute it: "A batting order of hitters who reach high on-base percentages by hitting, walking, or both accumulates the most bases." You know, like Barry Bonds. Or Babe Ruth. Or Ted Williams. Or Mickey Mantle, etc. etc. By the way, the idea that stat-heads are "crazy for OBP" is simply false. We love home runs as much as the next guy.
"A club that eschews sacrifice bunts and stolen base attempts proportionally minimizes outs."
Peterson has, like seemingly every other baseball columnist, taken a few pages from the book "Moneyball" as the proscribed doctrine of how every stat-head thinks. This is false. Contrary to popular belief, NO ONE, not Bill James or the writers of Baseball Prospectus, thinks that stealing bases and sacrificing are a bad idea. Not one of them. It's not that teams overestimate the stolen base so much as they underestimate getting caught stealing. You have to steal bases at about a 70% rate of success to contribute positively to your team. Even if you steal 100 bases but get caught 50 times, you're hurting the team more than helping it. The myth that stat-heads hate stolen bases is generally false.
The same is true of sacrificing. Most stat-heads agree that sacrificing is a good idea -- but only on certain occasions. Derek Jeter should NEVER sacrifice, because as such a good hitter, he stands a better chance of helping his team by swinging away. Sacrifices are more useful in the late innings, as time runs out on the offense. Sacrificing in the early innings is almost always a dreadful idea, even if you have the league's worst offense and are playing in Petco Park.
Too often people like Peterson will take the result of a small sample of games (i.e. the postseason) and draw very broad conclusions based on these games. This is absurd. NOTHING is settled in one postseason. Everyone in the game, from the biggest stat-head to hard-line old-timers like John Schuerholz and Leo Mazzone, admits that luck has more to do with winning in the postseason than talent. A 5- or 7-game series in October proves nothing more than it does in July. The best team wins, sometimes. But not always. If the Yankees can lose three out of five to the Devil Rays (and the Padres can lose three out of five to the Cardinals), it's proof that you can't make any major decisions based on 5 or 7 games. Peterson's general thesis seems to be that this entire great philosophical issue will be decided in this year's postseason. That's absurd. And if Peterson thinks that the "little things," combined with pitching and defense, always win in October, he is absolutely wrong. Why is he wrong? Two words: Atlanta Braves.
Peterson does say, and I agree, that statistics don't tell us everything, and that we shouldn't have blind faith in the stats. I agree, and so do most so-called "stat-heads." What most stat-heads spend their time doing is trying to find the answers that no one has been able to find.
And if anything, it's us stat-heads who are trying to convince people not to put blind faith in a statistic. Because every journalist who claims that they "don't look at statistics" is the very same journalist who automatically votes for the league RBI leader for MVP and the league Wins leader for the Cy Young. They value the statistic more than the underlying reality of what is really being measured -- something that we stat-heads are often accused of but that the mainstream media is just as guilty of.
Peterson mentions the problem of a ground ball to first that could either be an out or a double, depending merely on where the first baseman plays. He's right; this is an issue, and I guarantee you that there are dozens of hard-working baseball fans watching hours of game footage every day trying to come up with a system to justify that. Just because we use statistics doesn't mean that we're not baseball fans.
Peterson is simply looking for justification of what he thinks is the "right" kind of baseball. Unfortunately, he does not want to use any sort of logic, statistical or otherwise, to prove his case. Because logic is not on his side.
The future of baseball is to use statistics and scouting to complement each other and cover for each others' weaknesses. Those who attempt to shun statistics altogether are doomed to the mediocrity of making ill-informed decisions. And there's not better way than that to describe the recent incarnation of the Cincinnati Reds.

Aaron Whitehead
Alexandria, KY
(859) -------

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