Daily Box Score 9/30: Not What But How

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Once upon a time in the west on the internet, there was trio of sheriffs whose only job was to law up the ravine, and afterward to stand valiantly for low-angle shots while tumbleweeds rolled past. Sure, they still live down by the old church, and occasionally they stop by the burlesque house.

But today, the world of baseball commentary on the internet is a wild and untamed frontier. The only remedy in a lawless world is self-help, but even self-help has its limitations.

Listen up, cowpokes, I need a posse.

Table of Contents

The Moment
The Danger
The Response
Discussion Question of the Day

 

The Moment

Every one in a while, as you're browsing the internet (which I do from time to time), you come across something that doesn't strike you as correct. I think it was put best by the popular webcomic XKCD.

Woman: Are you coming to bed?

Man [at computer]: I can't. This is important.

Woman: What?

Man: Someone is wrong on the internet.

There's something peculiar about the internet. After all, in real life, people are wrong all the time! And it's relatively rare that someone rushes to jump down other people's throats in the real world.

No, there is a strange correlation between people who are wrong and people who are stubborn. That's not to suggest that there are belligerent or stubborn people who are often right, or that there aren't people who are wrong with grace. Rather, it always seems that a disproportionate number of the stubborn are wrong and vice versa. (Don't believe me? Check out the comments on this post.)

Let me give you two examples. The first concerns the Dodgers' rising star, Matt Kemp. It is titled "Matt Kemp is the Biggest Dodger Dolt." It was written by Paul Oberjuerge, who was formerly the sports editor (and later a columnist) at the San Bernardino Sun. Which is to say, he is an actual journalist. Here's a taste:

Is there a dumber guy in baseball than Matt Kemp? Not talking real-world IQ (but maybe we could), but "dumb plays involving a guy who no longer is a kid." Baseball IQ, that is.

And on that scale, is anyone dumber than Matt Kemp?

Search your mind, for a moment, and consider how many times you have seen Matt Kemp thrown out on the bases. Yeah. A lot. Not as often as you’ve seen Juan Pierre ground out weakly to second (that’s a number in the hundreds), but a lot. Somebody somewhere must have that stat, Matt Kemp outs-made on basepaths …. and I will bet you $5 that (subtracting caught-stealing) no one in baseball has been tagged out on the bases more often than Matt Kemp.

Matt Kemp tries to take extra bases all the time. And often doesn’t make it. He gets doubled off a base. He strays too far off the bag and gets picked off. He’s just a disaster out there. And this has to do with a really low baseball IQ.

See what I mean? Sometimes it almost seems like people who are wrong write these things just to make you angry. (Hint: they are probably writing these things just to make you angry.)

Still not convinced? OK, let's have another example.

This one got a good bit of circulation. It came from Cork Gaines, blogger at Raysindex.com and mlbtraderumors.com. Which is to say, he is an actual blogger. It is entitled "Debunking The Myth: Wins Is A Useless Statistic For Starting Pitchers." (No, really.) Here's a taste:

Now we see an even stronger correlation (r-squared=0.54) [between win percentage and ERA+] indicating that wins is actually a very good indicator of how good a pitcher is. Quite simply, better pitchers win more games.

The problem with Wins as an evaluator of starting pitchers is not that it is bad statistic. It is simply a matter of sample size. In a single game, a win or no win is not a good indicator. Why? Small sample size (n=1). However, ERA, for example, is a per inning stat. So in a single game, a pitcher’s ERA will have 5-9 data points (n>>1). Over the course of a full season, stats like ERA+, FIP and tRA have a sample size of 150-220 for each pitcher.

Now, I am going to go ahead and assume that both Oberjuerge and Gaines put forward these statements in good faith--that is, they really believe the things they claim. (Certainly, both were successful in attracting attention by being controversial, but people can hold controversial beliefs.)

But without a great law-man keeping the peace, who will adjudicate between those who make claims and those who challenge their truth? Are we to be banished to a world of relativism, where absurd claims get equal time with plausible ones, and no one evaluates anything on the merits?

Of course not, this is the internet, not cable news.

The Danger

Sometimes, what is most demonstrative is an example of what NOT to do. So let's run through the dangers of responding to a post like this.

First, you might become apoplectic, boorish, and rude (the cousins to nasty, brutish, and short). This is not only immature, it's also counterproductive. If your job is to convince people who are choosing between a reasonable position and a ridiculous one, you've got plenty of ammunition on your side that you don't need to get cocky.

But you might also make a related mistake. Sometimes you come across an argument that is good but articulated poorly. Alternately, an author of a post might be onto the right criticism, but not have developed it fully.

In these cases, it's essential sympathetically to construct the argument as charitably as possible. The reason to do this is not, however, charity. The reason is because it allows you to say, implicitly, "even if you had made your claim in the best way possible, you would still be wrong." Only you don't actually say that (see above).

Everyone with me? The two rules can be expressed like this: (1) be kind, (2) reconstruct your opponent's argument.

The Response

I hope you've been thinking about those two articles I excerpted above for a while now. Some of you may be chomping at the bit to rip into them. This is natural.

Let's take a look at some model answers.

First, TrueBlueLA gets a go at Matt Kemp. Recall--from above--this choice selection from Oberjuerge:

I will bet you $5 that (subtracting caught-stealing) no one in baseball has been tagged out on the bases more often than Matt Kemp.

Got it?  Eric Stephen, you have the floor.

Kemp, including today, has made seven outs on the bases this season.  Plus, he has been picked off six times as well.  That is 13 total outs on the bases.  There are 10 players in baseball who have made more outs than that, plus six more that have made as many outs [list omitted].

Mr. Oberjuerge, you owe me $5.

I grant points for the following excellent practices: evidence supporting your contentions, answering the question in its entirety, and mock-formality. Bravo. 

But that one was relatively straightforward. What about Dr. Gaines' contention that wins are a good statistic? After all, he had a graph, used fancy statistical concepts like correlation coefficients, and even disclaimed his results by saying that he didn't think wins were the only statistic that matter. A slipperier opponent is harder to catch!

We all knew Colin Wyers couldn't stay away from Hardball Times for long, and this was just the chestnut to bring him out of semi-retirement. Colin, please take the microphone. 

But there isn't an absence of other stats! Here, let me help you out:

Fangraphs

Baseball Reference

There. Now you never have to worry about having no other pitching stats except for wins ever again. Problem solved.

Again, to review:

  • Never use wins to determine a pitcher's value, relative to other pitchers.
  • Ever.
  • I mean EVER.

It appears this is something Colin feels very strongly about--and with good reason. His response is strong, but I wonder if it is the most convincing possible response. Put another way, is it designed to sway undecideds? Preaching to the choir has its place, but it seems to me that in the battle against wins, what you want to do is convert the unconverted.

How about you, J.C. Bradbury. Whaddya got?

When choosing performance metrics, it is important to use three criteria:

1) How well does it correlate with output? — Wins doesn’t do so bad here: Wins are correlated with run prevention. Still, other metrics of pitcher performance are far superior, and the life-boat circumstances when someone might need Wins to value a pitcher don’t happen. Why bring this up? No one has suggested that Wins and ability are uncorrelated.

2) How well does it measure ability? — It measures ability, but it is heavily polluted by outside factors (offense and fielding). This is the criterion used to justify using DIPs over ERA. [...]

3) How well does it match our intuition as to what matters? — This criterion isn’t all that relevant in this case, and is reflected in the analysis in criterion 2. I use this rule in situations where correlations yield counterintuitive values. For example, strikeouts and home-run hitting are positively correlated; however, suggesting that a hitter should strike out more to increase his power would be wrong.

What Professor Bradbury has done here with Dr. Gaines is to appeal to principles. He lays out the principles and provides their justification. Next, Bradbury applies the principles:

Gaines is right that Wins includes some useful information regarding pitchers, but the pollution impacts of outside factors are so large that in cases where we see Wins deviate from ERA or DIPs performance expectations that it is Wins that contains the misleading information. There is no reason to use Wins to evaluate pitcher ability. It is neither a very good nor great indicator of a pitcher’s value.

And in the application we see that dispassionate and thorough analysis is the most convincing, and ultimately most devastating, line of attack against a foe. 

Unlike in the wild west, where the quickest draw won the duel, on the internet, it is the coolest head who prevails. In the absence of lampoons that elicit mad laughter, we have thorough and reasonable critiques that make everyone better off.

Maybe the wild west isn't so wild anymore. Maybe the frontier is closed. Maybe the internet is (gasp) civilized.

Discussion Question of the Day

Am I right about how to respond to people with whom you disagree? Is the internet really becoming more civilized? Is that even a worthwhile goal?

Have at it, just remember to be civilized.

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