All that stat stuff


The line above is from Jim Leyland, lovable curmudgeon who skippers the Detroit Tigers. He’s complaining about those who question whether Max Scherzer is really as good as his 19-2 won-loss record suggests. I realize I am already entering “beating-a-dead-horse” territory here. I don’t think anyone is denying that Scherzer is having an excellent season, by any measure. It’s certainly no crime that Scherzer isn’t as good as Pedro in his prime.

Here’s what Tim Marchman had to say about how played this whole stats debate is, responding to MLB Network’s Brian Kenny about why the win should no longer be a statistic:

“…The purpose of the tools and ideas that Kenny is so exercised over, after all, isn’t to draw narrow, invidious distinctions among baseball fans, or to provide opportunities for narcissistic demonstrations that one has been touched by the Enlightenment and that one’s enemies, like former players and troll columnists, haven’t. They’re just meant to help people enjoy baseball more, and to raise the quality of play. And if a few people can’t understand that, if some don’t want to, and if some just don’t ####### care, that’s OK, because for the vast majority of fans and pretty much everyone in the game, the important parts of the debate are settled. All that’s left is some dwindling, nearly invisible patch of territory over which to gin up the kind of fake conflicts that make political television just about the worst thing in the world.”

To some degree, I agree with Marchman. It’s not as if we’re debating the proverbial cure for cancer here. But two things: 1) I don’t agree that the debate is settled for the vast majority of fans or baseball people, 2) it’s not an entirely academic exercise insofar as the some of the statistics that Kenny dislikes have implications for personnel decisions as well as game management. For example, in 2004, Carl Pavano went 18-8 and pitched to a 3.00 ERA for the Florida Marlins. He has an excellent season, but even then, many folks thought this was probably something of an outlier for him. Among other things, his strikeout rate was pretty low, an alarm bell for predicting future success. That off-season, desperate for pitching, the Yankees gave him a 4 year $40 million contract, which turned out to be among the bigger free agent busts in Yankee history. And there is little doubt in my mind that a pitcher with all of Pavano’s peripheral stats, but with a 14-12 won-loss record, would not have gotten the contract Pavano did. So even if you think it’s silly to argue over awards, that’s not the only consequence of disagreements over these issues. Concerning the save, which Kenny also hates – I am not sure there is a statistic in sports that has a greater influence on how a game is managed than the save. Mariano Rivera is always going to come into a game to protect a three run ninth inning lead, unless he’s injured or otherwise unavailable. He’s unlikely, on the other hand, to come into a tie game on the road in the ninth inning.

By any conceivable account, the tie game is more up for grabs than the three run ninth inning lead. In a rational world, therefore, it’s the former situation that would warrant bringing in your best relief pitcher as a matter of course. I would submit that if the save rule did not include the three-run/no one on proviso, closers would not be pitching in those circumstances or, in any event, not nearly as routinely.

We’re still not debating what to do about Syria here, but the stats arguments are a bit more than academic.


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