Baseball’s Optimism Problem

By REED NELSON

PAUL BEATY — Associated Press

According to some interpretations of certain advanced metrics, Carlos Correa has been baseball’s best shortstop in 2015. Sure, those metrics involve extrapolating performance. And yes, in order to statistically justify that interpretation, projections must be disregarded to a certain extent, which isn’t always the best way to assert a claim. But, regardless, it’s a claim that’s being made at the moment, which is pretty cool because Carlos Correa is pretty cool himself.

Consider this: He’s only 20. He wears number one1. He gets compared to Young Alex Rodriguez, which, for those who’ve justifiably blacked ARod out of their memories, is basically the greatest non-Ken Griffey, Jr. comparison any fan could hope for. He’s hit 14 home runs in his first 54 games as a Big Leaguer. When you freeze those home runs, they look like this:

Screen shot 2015-08-10 at 2.36.42 PMThat is incredible. Everything about it should make a baseball geek lose their mind. When I saw it, I proceeded to send it to no less then 10 people before attempting to explain to my girlfriend why it was so amazing using only references from the Real Housewives suite of programming2. BECAUSE IT WAS THAT IMPORTANT THAT SHE UNDERSTOOD.

Back to the bold assertions: Some very smart people have anointed Correa the best shortstop in baseball, which is a very natural thing to see following a start as hot as his in a media climate as ravenous as this one. It’s also very natural to see the corrections following the assertions, made by the normal culprits. The Sample Size Superintendents. The Regression Rangers. The FIP Fuzz. They will kindly inform anyone searching for Carlos Correa tidbits that, ‘Yes, his hot start is cool, but remember, recency bias is what supports his claim to the Made-Up Throne. Also, Xander Boegarts’ rookie regression and stuff. So chill out with your Arthurian Knighting processes, because pitchers make adjustments and teams get tape and data and they also rent modified wood-chippers that are capable of turning happiness into mulch.’

Those points are probably all solid. Better than solid. They’re probably steeped in far more grounded things than whatever opinions I’m harboring. And that’s what being a fan is about, mostly — having opinions and your opinions being right. It’s also undoubtedly about enjoying something bigger than yourself, enjoying a sense of community, having something to talk about that doesn’t involve discussing your own existence and all that, but we, as fans, love being right. That’s why some local radio box-of-rocks picks their team to win it all in every single market, every single year. In a land of opinions, it was always better to be wrong and optimistic than right and pessimistic. But it doesn’t really seam that way anymore.

I guess the question I’m really asking is this: Why do we have opinions about sports? What is the motivation behind them? I don’t mean to get existential or anything, but don’t we normally watch sports because we want to believe, in some fashion, that odds can be overcome, hard work will be rewarded and the underdog can sometimes succeed? Or at the very least, don’t we want to watch our guys do well? Don’t we want to see superhuman feats? Or the unexpected? Or the Impossible (Adidas®)? Because that’s what it seems like the majority of fans want to see. I could be wrong, but I don’t think most fans aren’t in it for the failing. They’re in it for the success stories, no matter how few and far between.

And that’s why some of the Sabermetric-heavy writing has bummed me out of late. It seems like many of the smartest minds writing about baseball do very little celebrating and an intense amount of correcting. Correcting the public’s perception on a pitcher with a solid W-L record. Correcting the expectations associated with a young kid hitting .345 through the end of April (one hitting like .245 now, by the way, which is a win for saber, I guess). Correcting the defensive legacy of a player that spearheaded five World Series title runs3 in a 15-year period to the point where people actually mention it when discussing him, meaning that an analytics-based argument is now being used to derogatorily discuss the winningest player of his generation which, ironically, means that the people who have set out to understand the game on a deeper level religiously tout an argument that obfuscates the literal goal of the game.

Or what about Nathan Eovoldi? Coming into 2015, Eovoldi was a dude with a career win-loss record of 15-35 (.300). He threw hard, but people also hit him hard. And by all accounts, those people still do. But instead of losing seven out of every 10 decisions this season, Eovoldi is the owner of a 12-2 record (.857) and is the winningest starter on a Yankees staff that, until recently, owned the second best record in the American League. Sure, his peripherals are terrible. He’s had an ERA north of 4.50 pretty much all year. And yes, his WHIP (1.488) is terrifying for anyone who understands the acronym, but he’s also won over 50 percent of the games he’s started and has, again, managed to win more baseball games than anyone else on staff. Did a million things have to coincide to make this happen? Probably 1,000,001, but that shouldn’t be the point. Yet it so often is, like in this blurb from ESPN that essentially could’ve followed any one of the seven mentioned starts: “He won his seventh straight decision and hasn’t lost since June 16, a span of 10 starts. However, he hasn’t been as dominant as his record indicates. For the season, the 25-year-old has a 4.26 ERA, 1.49 WHIP and 92:38 K:BB ratio in 129 innings.”

I agree that it’s probably important to note that the wheels will come off at some point — probably sooner than later, given that the Blue Jays roster has turned into what I imagine pitchers think of when they picture the Inner Ring of Dante’s Seventh Circle of Hell and the Yankees still have 10 more games to play inside that circle — but why is it the most important thing to note? Shouldn’t someone be asking Evoldi what’s different? He’s a guy that had won 15 games in his entire four year career, and through the first week of August, he had won 12. Is he getting Herculean run support? Undoubtedly. But he’s also been a pitcher who, for the last two months, has been a chalk 5-6 innings, three strikeouts and three runs allowed. It’s not sexy, but the Yankees probably appreciate it. Instead, however, I keep reading about the wheels inevitably falling off the runaway Eovoldi Train. I certainly think they could, he’s no Felix, but dwelling on that would be like fixating on whatever dark and grizzly shit presumably happens after the final freeze frame in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Is Eovoldi’s win-loss record an aberration? Yes. Does it need to be exposed? It’s not like the Yankees don’t have the info and he isn’t part of a widespread government conspiracy, so I’m not sure.

But that’s what’s weird about modern coverage. Eovaldi is winning 85 percent of his decisions this year, but is rarely lauded for it. Instead of celebrating the game that I thought we all loved, the writing I most often see seeks to identify myths — not always commonly held ones either — and then sets out to light those myths on fire, which is a great journalistic practice in many arenas. But there’s no need to go Finley Peter Dunne when it comes to the on-field performance of our favorite Real Life Respite.

That practice doesn’t celebrate baseball, but it rather seeks to normalize it, dull it down to the rounded tip of the Wall Street butter knife.

Smart people used to debate sports like other smart men debated politics. They speculated on the achievements and motivations and legacies of people they couldn’t possibly understand because those people possessed a skill the fans couldn’t possibly understand. This lack of understanding didn’t detract from the ethos, it didn’t make anyone feel less involved. It also wasn’t taboo amongst the most Stan-ish circles to enjoy a hot start or an uptick in performance.

You could get excited about Shane Spencer or Jose Cruz, Jr. without worrying about their exceedingly high BABIP or whether their current ISO was a solid predictor of future success or how much you were making them sound like mutual funds. It was a simpler time, in some sense, but it was also wonderfully complex.

In some walks of life, debate is unnecessary. Climate change? It’s happening, according to 98 percent of scientists, which is a majority in every facet of life, period. Don’t debate it. It matters. If it matters and there is no fundamental debate to be had, don’t debate it. But sports — and baseball especially — don’t matter in the same way. The Pythagorean Expectation is dope. It’s wonderfully accurate. But we don’t watch sports to observe milquetoast predictions come to fruition. Also, it used to be fun to pick apart preseason predictions when they didn’t all look exactly the same.

We build myths about normal people because we like to believe sports are bigger than us, past our understanding. And for the most part, they are. Sure, a high BABIP is highly irregular, but sometimes a dude is just seeing the ball well and a team should — and will — ride it out until he’s not. It’s sports. It’s not the stock market. Getting out a day late instead of a day early doesn’t hurt nearly as bad, and being the brilliant dude who shorted performance really isn’t that big of a deal either, because, again, what is actually the value of predicting a regression to the mean?

It’s not like that’s what we’re ultimately hoping for. We don’t watch any athletic competition and think, “God, they’re playing great right now, which is a lot of fun, but I hope the level regresses back to normal. That would really make this game more digestible and entertaining.”

It makes no sense. I understand trying to drum up stats to beef up the resume of your favorite under-appreciated player. When I was a kid, I would’ve loved to crunch the numbers into a fine Jeter is Better Than Nomar and ARod powder. It would’ve given me something to tout at lunch. It would’ve made my fanhood relatively explicable in the vast expanse of Fanhood. It would tell me my eyes weren’t totally lying to me and that my emotional strings weren’t being pulled by an imposter4.

But, again, what is the value of taking some hot-starting prospect’s dirty analytic laundry and airing it out on Front Street? Hitting is hard, and if you want to see more of it, why get it into the business of myth-busting? We know that physical tasks are plenty psychological, so what does a result-based projection system truly tell us about the future anyways? Can it predict something “clicking” randomly? No? Then why is it so highly regarded? Because it can sort of predict the rough location of the end of the sweet-swinging sand bar?

There’s unlimited data regarding the task of altering the course of a peach-sized projectile traveling over 90-miles-an-hour toward one’s person, but there’s not a single piece of data regarding exactly how it happens. There are hot-zones, cold-zones, contact rates, models that allow exhaustive shifting, but there isn’t anything that actually explains the act of hitting; the act of dropping the barrel of a bat through the hitting zone with enough force and locational precision and timing to actually strike the ball and drop it between fielders.

Anyone who has played baseball for just a few years can tell you hitting is one of the most mind-numbingly frustrating and mystifying things on this planet. (For those who haven’t, picture yourself opening one of those flat plastic packaging found around a piece of new electronic equipment, but picture doing it without thumbs, teeth or a surface for leverage. Or scissors. You can’t use those either.) When someone hits a groove, it’s truly something special. It’s a goddamn shooting star. People predicting “regressions to the norm” should be regarded with the same venom as someone pessimistically touting odds at a Craps table during a heater. Enjoy it! Why analyze something that literally doesn’t make sense to the person who theoretically figured it out? Don’t ask Stephen King what his thought process behind Cujo was5, he doesn’t know. For just about every MLB player that’s ever caught a heater at the plate — with a few notable exceptions — I have to imagine the mental state they were in most closely resembled Will Ferrell’s during the debate scene in Old School.

And even if you could explain hitting — actually explain the physical act — would that add value to the magic trick? I’m not sure, and I’m not trying to tell anyone that it wouldn’t, but I have to believe that even with an explanation, it wouldn’t be that simple.

Take Tony Gwynn. Gwynn, who perhaps understood the art of hitting better than anyone this side of WWII, retired from baseball with an absurd .338 lifetime batting average in 2001. He became the head coach at San Diego State University in 2003, and he coached there until he passed away in 2014. Gwynn is undoubtedly a master of his craft, but even he, in the 11 years at a warm-weather school, couldn’t produce any offensive players6 more notable than Quintin Berry and Tony Gwynn Jr., which is crazy. One of the greatest hitters of all time’s greatest success story is his son, and he needed 22 years to teach him to be below average at a professional level. Even experimental thought leaders have a simpler job teaching their craft to mentees.

That’s why it feels weird dissecting the practice. Hitting is basically a miracle. It’s so fucking hard to do. It takes the biggest, most muscle bound dudes you can find and reduces them to twisted, dejected piles of swollen limbs and lumber in thirty-five different ways from nine different arm slots. And that’s why, when someone gets on a roll, we should be celebrating the ride, not inspecting it for loose bolts.

This is a sport that has the Cubs. They haven’t won a World Series since BEFORE sliced bread was a thing. The last time they won a World Series, women couldn’t vote in elections. In fact, Cubs’ fans at the time were probably complaining about the 12-year championship drought when the Nineteenth Amendment was finally passed in 1920, but that’s not the point. The point is that baseball has the Cubs, and the Cubs represent nothing if they don’t represent relentless optimism. Seriously. Besides Charlie Brown, who would let the same target get pulled from under them for 107 years in a row? A ruthlessly, frantically, blindly hopeful person, that’s who.

Baseball is wonderful in its accessibility. The pace and design of the game make it so. But one thing that makes it feel restrictive is the statistical fear-mongering. It feels unnatural. These are fans that still sing together. We’re grown men wearing the names of other grown men on our person. We gladly wear “Property of…” shirts, and we pay for those shirts, giving zero fucks about irony, because baseball is fun. And talking about baseball is fun. And wondering about baseball is fun. But demystifying baseball? That’s just weird.

Footnotes

  • Joining Ozzie Smith, Pee Wee Reese, Lou Whitaker, Bobby Doerr and Tony Fernandez as Very Fun Middle Infielders That Wore Number One. Fun fact: Gary Sheffield started out as a #1 in Milwaukee. The lesson? Players who wear #1 are undeniably awesome.Jump
  • For the record, I took (arguably) semi-valuable minutes out of my life to explain that Carlos Correa’s swing was so pure and effortless and poetic and flawless that it was essentially the baseball equivalent of a dinner scene in Beverly Hills Housewives verging on violence complete with wine thrown in faces, wild accusations levied and only shouting. In other words, a perfect episode if you’re into that kind of thing. For a baseball geek, Correa’s swing is that episode, only it happens dozens of times a day. And people wonder why sports can suck you in?Jump
  • Yes, I’m a giant Derek Jeter fan/Stan/whateverstrongerwordthereisthanStan. I don’t care. The dude manned the toughest infield position for almost two decades, led the team to five World Series, seven Pennants and 15 playoff appearances. What shortstop would you have rather had over the past 20 years? No one. If you say someone else, you’re lying. It’s the dumbest correction anyone can make. Who gives a shit if he won some Gold Gloves over guys that data says were more deserving? The guys watching the game everyday gave him the award, so they must have either seen something or recognized that it was one of the only opportunities to award a player a trophy they had, considering he was never going to get any MVP consideration. Leave it alone, guys. I see your Bad Defender stories, the one’s saying he cost the Yankees x-amount of wins, and I raise you five rings. No one else in baseball has those, so apparently the wins weren’t that important or something? I don’t even know. You guys are like fucking Truthers. Let it go. Jeter was both good AND successful. Now he’s done and you don’t have to be tortured by a guy who actually got his team over the hump. Again, let it go. He’s one of the GOATs. You’ll calm down one day. (Like I will about Tom Brady. One day.) Rant over. Jump
  • They weren’t, by the way. Jeter was many things — an ambassador, a captain, a post-coital swag bag giver, a Ford spokesman, a HOFer — but an impostor wasn’t one of them. Jump
  • Context? Sure. Stephen King has claimed he was so fucking blotto on booze and blow that he can’t remember writing Cujo, which is insane, because Cujo won lots of awards and is, besides the whole rabid dog thing, a good book. But it would also be insane to attempt to analyze how Cujo came to be by asking King about the process. Dude wrote it in a blacked-out haze, he has as much to offer as the chair he sat in. Jump
  • He coached Steven Strasburg, Justin Masterson, Aaron Harang and Addison Reed, for what it’s worth. He also coached Justin Halpern, who wrote Shit My Dad Says, so that’s pretty cool too. Halpern, however, was also a pitcher. Jump


Categories: Baseball

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