Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Giants, Stats & Moneyball

With Moneyball moving across Bay Area screens (which, while aimed in its attention on the other side of the bridge, features a brief conversation between Beane and Sabean) we can’t help but look at our game, at least for a little while, with the somewhat sterile perspective of statisticians.

Of course, we’re always aware of statistics and their wrought iron grip on our players. Still, we never allow them to entirely take over our experience in following baseball. In the philosophy of baseball management popularized by Billy Beane’s A’s, however, the cloud of measured probability that traces the arc of players’ career are given more importance than any other factor (such ‘other factors’ listed in the film as potential indicators of ability are confidence, attitude and other intuitive, non quantitative attributes).

In the film, Beane scoffs at the idea of the intuition of scouts as an indicator of a player’s ability to perform, and relies solely on number-crunching to bring a team to the playoffs in order to show the establishment of major league baseball just how sentimental and backward it is. He repeats often in the film that ‘it’s hard not to be romantic about baseball,’ as he labors to keep his perspective resolutely anything but.

This struck a chord in me, as a Giants fan. Particularly in these past two seasons, romance has been hard to avoid. At this point, in speaking of romance, I can only think of Ryan Vogelsong. What is constantly called a ‘cinderella story’ by sports pundits, talkers, bloggers and street preachers this year is based around the remarkable performance of one man - against and despite the certainty of mediocrity implied by his career statistics.

So if stats don’t tell the full story of Vogelsong, what’s missing?

That it is possible, however unlikely, that a man like Vogelsong can work to alter the math that follows him through his career, is exactly what Beane ignores as statistical abnormality in his approach to baseball; and while the success of Beane’s approach is inarguable (in past seasons at least), both the film Moneyball and Beane’s record seems to imply that there is something fundamentally missing in this perspective.

Beane’s teams have had a great deal of success in the regular season, but have never progressed on to the world series. To me, this is a reminder of the fact that the math of baseball is less than the whole story of the sport. In fact, the regular season statistics we religiously keep track of create a false impression of certainty that never seems to hold up every time it should.

This may be because the post season is a different kind of beast than the regular - and one in which probability holds a little less bearing. Statistics hold weight in the season since the sample size of opportunities, games at bats etc. is large enough for season statistics like OBP, SLG etc. to stretch their legs and normalize.

After all, the larger the sample size, the more accurate statistics become as a predictor. The regular season is perfect for this with (162 game), whereas a postseason series is not. In this, Giants fans know better than anyone that statistical likelihood is not enough to accurately predict the winner.

The other half of baseball, the romance that Beane made efforts to avoid in Moneyball, is the Vogelsong factor.

It’s true that it is harder to alter your career numbers than your season numbers, and harder to alter your season numbers than you game numbers. Vogelsong was, afterall at one point, 9 - 1, but was unable to maintain this win differential all year long. The smaller the sample size, essentially, the greater a player’s ability to play outside their numbers. Vogelsong’s story demonstrates this as his numbers began to normalize towards the end of the season, but his story is still remarkable. The story is that of a pitcher who found a moment to dig in his feet, work against the math he’d built in failed years, and succeed where he absolutely was not supposed to.

Vogelsong’s history, his attitude, his circumstance came together perfectly somehow and illustrated to him that this was a moment he could take advantage of and affect some kind of change the continuity of his pitching. The point that may have been overlooked by Beane’s experimental philosophy is that a player can have a solid set of career numbers outside of romance, but a player will not be able to play where it counts and to “win the last game of the season,” as Beane says, without it.

As unavoidably naive and tacky as this sounds, there is a side to baseball that allows the players to stretch the bounds of their numbers when they need to - to play above their OPS. Now, because we’ll always be kids in some ways when we watch baseball, and because who are we kidding, (and also because who are we trying to impress) let’s just call it heart. Probability can push a team through the regular season, but will have a harder time getting the job done beyond it, because stats don’t have enough time to work their magic. The end of the regular season in September may as well be a statistical cliff: math will get you right over the edge, but only hope and glory will help you fly.

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