The Eye Test; also Cal Ripken

A few notes:
1) Catching up on some old New Yorker reading. From last December, Douglas Starr has an interesting article about false confessions.It has become an article of faith that what is most telling in potential criminal suspects is what they don’t say: their non-verbal behavior. According to the standard set of techniques police have been using in interrogations for decades, reading non-verbal tells for hints of lying or anxiety are central to a detective’s ability to suss out a liar and, in turn, to solve a crime.Only it turns out, according to a range of different studies and real-world experiences, that interrogators are very often wrong about who is lying and who isn’t and that non-verbal cues are far less reliable an indicator of a individual’s veracity than the conventional wisdom supposes.

Finally, evidence suggests that police are more likely to rate themselves highly in terms of their ability to read people’s body language *and* more likely to be wrong when they do.

In sum, the eye test, if you will, has been central to police interrogations for decades and it is badly flawed.

 

In the never-ending (and yes, tiresome) debate between “traditional scouting” and “analytics” the point that is most often missed, in my humble opinion, is that we humans allow our eyes to deceive us all the time. Properly used, actual empirical data isn’t an arrogant assertion of intellectual superiority. It’s an acknowledgment of our inescapable limitations. Of course, we also misuse data all the time, because our flaws and biases don’t only inhere in what we see with our eyes.

In sports analysis, however, the “eye test” in all too many cases has just become lazy short hand for “I don’t need to learn anything new – I know what I see and my judgment is not really subject to challenge.”

2) Cal Ripken, Jr. was on set with the Mikes this morning and was thoughtful and enjoyable to listen to. Greenie asked Ripken at one point what was the secret to longevity – to being a really productive player after the age of 34 or 35.

The premise, of course, was that Ripken was such a player. I am not ripping on the guy – in his prime years, Cal was great and all respect to the Streak.

But he did, indeed, experience a precipitous dropoff well before the age of 35. In 1991, his second MVP season, Cal had an OPS+ of 162, where 100 is the league average. Combine that with gold glove play at shortstop and you’re talking about a really terrific season. 1991 was Cal’s age 30 season. In his remaining decade in the bigs (dude played a long time), Ripken managed to top an OPS+ of 100 just three times. He was slightly above average in 1994 and 1996 and had a spike in production at age 38, in 1999 (though he missed about half the season). His power numbers and walk totals all fell off significantly after 1991. Once he moved to third base full time at age 36, he really wasn’t helping the team much at all, at least in terms of on-field production.

Again, I am not knocking a worthy Hall of Famer. But he was not a really productive player after age 35, or even age 31.
3) At another point in the conversation with Cal today, Greenie said that Ripken, as a power-hitting shortstop, broke the mold of the singles-hitting prototype that had defined the position in the 1970s. In doing so, he paved the way for the great offensive shortstops of the 1990s and aughts – especially Jeter, Nomar and Arod. With Jeter’s passing from the scene, Greenie said, that type of shortstop no longer exists. Cal demurred really nicely on whether he was responsible in anyway for the likes of Derek Jeter.
Greenie, on the other hand, was forgetting someone – that shortstop out in Colorado, who’s having the best year of any major leaguer so far this season. Tulo leads the National League in homeruns, batting, slugging and OBP. He’s got a big home/road split this year, but with an OPS+ of 175 (which accounts for park effects), he’s easily rivaling Cal in his prime.
4) As I am typing this out, I am remembering one of the very dumbest arguments I’ve ever heard on sports radio. There used to be a sports talk guy named Peter Brown who, sometime near the end of Cal’s career, argued that, in evaluating Ripken’s career, one should not compare his production to other shortstops. Instead, the relevant frame of reference was – you’ll love this – other players who were 6′ 4″. In that context, Ripken really wasn’t so good. 

 

In case you were wondering – major league baseball does not limit the number of 6′ 4″ player who can suit up for a game.

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2 comments

  1. As an Orioles fan, I have to point out that at no point in Cal’s last decade was he ever blocking a player who might have been an improvement. Until very shortly before his retirement, he was clearly the Orioles’ best option at the position he was playing.

  2. DD,

    Right – there was no Manny Machado in the system. Cal’s situation then is a lot like Jeter’s now. Jeter is not blocking any hot prospect at short, but the team is not considering other possible upgrades – via trade, etc. – because it’s Jeter, just like the O’s weren’t going to evaluate Cal’s production as if he were someone other than Cal. In my dotage, I am not even really criticizing organizations for this anymore. These guys are legends, the fans come out to see them and so on.

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