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In the players’ defense

Why we shouldn’t discard “the eye test” in our search for truth in baseball.

MLB: Arizona Diamondbacks at Baltimore Orioles Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Something has stuck with me from Slate’s piece from this fall that looked back on Fire Joe Morgan and the early days of the online sabermetric community. It’s a reflection Rob Neyer offered.

When thinking back on mistakes he’s made, Neyer recalls a long-ago postseason game in which “Tim McCarver was raving about pitch framing and how important it is.” McCarver, who caught in the major leagues for 21 seasons before becoming an announcer, talked at great length about how a catcher could receive the ball in such a way—catching the ball in front of his body, making sure not to jerk his glove—as to influence an umpire’s ball and strike calls. Neyer says he “wrote a typically arrogant column mocking the notion that major-league umpires could be fooled by a catcher,” citing his own experience as an unfoolable Little League ump.

After studies here at Beyond the Box Score and at Baseball Prospectus and elsewhere eventually quantified and confirmed receiving as a skill, Neyer came around. Since then, to his credit, he has talked and written about the people within the game who spoke of the idea long before we were able to accurately capture it with the data that would eventually change his mind.

That episode speaks to a type of thinking that we, as observers who view the game through a certain type of data-based lens, have exhibited on multiple occasions. We tend to discard that which we haven’t quantified as unimportant or nonexistent, and staunchly stand behind the numbers that we have been able to devise — perhaps even when they do not fully deserve such trust.

This brief history lesson has been brought to you by the letter D, the number nine and the hope that it might lend some perspective to Jesse Spector’s recent piece in The Hardball Times, in which several prominent defensive stars questioned or out-and-out badmouthed the defensive metrics typically used to declare them prominent defensive stars.

MLB: ALDS-Texas Rangers at Toronto Blue Jays Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

“I don’t love them back,” Blue Jays center fielder Kevin Pillar said of the metrics that, of course, love his defense. “I don’t get them. I don’t get any of the defensive stats that they’re throwing out there except for good play. The eye test. I believe in the eye test. I think a good outfielder or a good defender, you can see with your eyes. You don’t need numbers to tell you how good they are.”

“Man, these players don’t know what they are talking about!” the saber chorus shouts. I had to restrain my own gut from responding with something of that general persuasion, especially when defensive poster boy Adam Eaton said this:

“I don’t buy any of that crap,” Eaton says. “I think it’s all worthless. I think baseball, you play with your eyes. You’ve played with your eyes for the last 135 years, and now all of a sudden, they want to create some jobs, so we’ve got all these numbers.”

That’s what we in the biz would probably call too hot of a take.

It’s the type of statement that leads us to put pillows over our heads and scream, “LA LA LA LA LA” when a player is about to hold forth on statistics. But it is also the type of statement that obscures more important things, like the details of what players feel is going unmeasured, and the ways that players are looking at and judging their peers’ abilities. It is, perhaps, the type of reaction McCarver might have had during his playing days if someone told him that pitch framing wasn’t a beneficial skill, because the numbers said so.

He might have justified his position by saying that he trusted “the eye test.” We often use the phrase as shorthand for a shallow observation, but we are probably wrong to do so. As the less inflammatory quotes of Spector’s piece will attest, the eye tests being conducted constantly by MLB players probably have a lot to offer us, if we are willing to listen.

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Minnesota Twins Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

In a lot of ways, our discourse with the players we obsess over is lacking. Maybe the most important way is that we rarely attempt to bridge the gap between the way we talk about the game on the Interwebs and the way they talk about the game. Asking what they think about WAR, for instance, has probably been sufficiently tested, and has proven itself a poor icebreaker for those seeking substantive conversations.

Within Spector’s piece, there are signs that he did successfully push into the realm of useful conversation with at least a couple players. Red Sox stud Mookie Betts, whose defensive numbers shot into the stratosphere with his move from center to right field last season, brought up a specific play where the metrics might miss something that players believe to be valuable.

“Ball in the gap with a man on first, should you throw to third to try to get a guy, or try to keep a double play in order?” says Boston’s Mookie Betts. “I don’t know if that kind of thing goes into statistics, but pitchers, people in the game, know that’s the game. You keep the double play in order, and the pitcher’s one pitch away from getting out of an inning.”

That is, to be sure, a small thing that you wouldn’t expect to change a player’s overall value much at all, but it opens up a whole range of decision-making plays that are extremely difficult to factor in to any sort of quantitative analysis at the moment, as the “right” play might even change from pitcher to pitcher.

More broadly, Betts’ outfield partner Jackie Bradley Jr. and Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier — widely considered the most talented defensive outfielder in the game — brought up the Orioles’ Adam Jones as a player the metrics are underrating. Spector points out that Jones’ legs may be deserting him, but the most noticeable dropoff from 2015 to 2016 was his arm. In 2015, he posted the best arm metrics of any qualified center fielder, tying for the top spot by DRS and leading in UZR. Then, in 2016, he was suddenly near the bottom of the same group.

There isn’t a great explanation to be found for that, and if you start adding up all the things that lack sturdy explanations — all the progressions that require some pretzel-like logical processes to arrive at the supposedly correct conclusion — then you aren’t likely to discard anyone’s informed opinion on the matter as heresy.

And there are actual matters to be dealt with in here. Denard Span says positioning has improved greatly in recent years. Dexter Fowler played a deeper center and improved, but Eaton told Spector he is working on playing further in to see if he can get to more line drives. Eaton’s arm ratings shot up when he moved to right field (land of the good arms, right?).

Amid all the doubts, there are things to work with here. And plenty of people are working with them – as evidenced by Pillar’s endorsement of Statcast, for one. But it feels like a necessary reminder that each of the numbers we love, rightfully so, originated with someone watching the game and wondering whether that could be captured. Who better to initiate such math problems than the professionals who play the game?

It remains possible that our defensive metrics are, in fact, not missing much — that Kiermaier and Bradley and several iterations of Gold Glove voting blocs are misguided in their view of Jones and of DRS and of UZR.

But I, for one, wouldn’t bet on that specific proposition. Regardless, we would be foolish to disregard the lesson Neyer learned years ago: An eye test claiming to see something we don’t see — something deep within the game — shouldn’t be seen as the beginning of a joke, but of an investigation, and occasionally, of a statistical revolution.

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Zach Crizer is a featured writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @zcrizer.