Was Hawk Harrelson Actually Right About Something?

David Banks

After an indirect feud between Hawk Harrelson and Brian Kenny flared up, Harrelson joined Kenny on his show to discuss the value of sabermetrics. Among the many things Harrelson said, one thing stood out as more correct than I originally believed.

Two weeks ago, Hawk Harrelson ranted on air about how overrated sabermetrics has become in the game. Brian Kenny refuted that idea on his MLB Network show MLB Now. Ben covered the concept of new school vs. old school at that time, but things heated up more when Harrelson came on MLB Now to discuss his ideas with Kenny this past week.

There were plenty of silly and essentially incorrect things throughout the interview, starting with his initial claim of sabermetrics being overrated. He says managers and GMs have been fired due to the stats, even saying a certain manager had to call the GM to see if he could bunt late in a game. First, a GM with a need for such power is probably not a good GM, and second, plenty of managers and GMs have been fired for not being analytical. He also said that it will be another 40-50 years before stats will be truly ready to enter the game. We all know defensive metrics are not currently perfect, but what we have now is a lot better than fielding percentage, though Hawk's first rule of baseball is "catch the ball." It doesn't matter how great the stats become, since single events will never be perfectly predicted.

He also said that sabermetrics "disdains defense, bunting, and hit-and-runs." During the Moneyball era, he is correct about defense, but I would claim that people now almost put too much stock in defense (too much trust in UZR, DRS, and their accuracy). Too much bunting is a universal topic of discussion in the sabermetric world, and hit-and-runs are likely leaving the game due to the increased K rate. Hawk said more numbers leads to less instinct, but if your instincts are worse, why would you want to use them?

The thing that blew up the most after the interview was TWTW, The Will To Win. Hawk says this is most important, while Kenny argued that no matter how much he wanted to win in the ring, he wouldn't beat Bernard Hopkins. Paul Konerko was the main guy suggested in this argument, a great leader and such desire to succeed. Konerko has a wRC+ of 121 in 8800 PA for his career. Adam Dunn, generally considered one of the most laid-back players in the game, has a 124 wRC+ in 7300 PA. Konerko has a FanGraphs clutch score of -6.83, while Dunn's clutch score is -3.04. There is proof right in front of Hawk's eyes showing how little sustainability there is in clutch performance.

Hawk also used Kenny's co-host Harold Reynolds as an example of TWTW, odd considering Harold played in zero postseason games. Hawk laid out three qualities Reynolds had, the first being standing in on double plays, no matter who was running at him. First, that's measured in defensive metrics, as more DPs means more runs saved. Second, Reynolds wouldn't be too valuable missing two months with a broken leg, so some caution is excusable on those plays.

He used the example of diving at a ball to keep a runner from getting the extra base. I assume he talks about not getting an out, of which we have very little data to support a claim. I can only speculate to say that can't happen more than five times a year, which has very little value. Lastly, he says Harold could steal a base, even when everyone knew he was going. That's just wrong, as his 64.4% SB success rate shows.

Throughout the whole interview, Hawk was talking about how preventing runs is more important than scoring runs. It would seem like it should be a 50/50 split, but Hawk was actually on to something here. Using the 1996-2012 seasons, I graphed out the correlations of RS vs. Wins and RA vs. Wins, and runs allowed actually had the higher R-Squared (39% vs. 30%).

It's not a huge difference, but I'd say it's more than just noise. Giving it further thought, I can see how this would be true. A team has no upper limit in which it can score, but the difference between 10 and 15 runs scored barely changes their chances of winning. However, a team cannot score negative runs, so each run allowed at the bottom of the spectrum is very important. Now, Hawk starting deflecting offensive questions by saying it's ALL about preventing runs, which is clearly not the case, but we can say he was actually right about something after all.

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