Sunday, October 30, 2005

Champions: Sympathy for the Beancounters

Why the statheads (and I) got it wrong comes down to two mistakes:

1) I misread the Go-Go PR as grand strategy, and missed the real point, like almost everybody else;

2) There is a difference between players like (say) AJ Pierzynski and players like Ben Davis, not just in their own performances, but in what they expect from and coax out of others

The Strategy

Conventional stathead analyses of baseball start with the assumption that wins and losses are directly a result of runs scored and allowed, following several formulas, the best known of which is Bill James’ Pythagorean formula.

My pet theory is that the obsession with grand totals and consequent averages (whether they be Equivalent or On Base) loses the key concept of standard deviation.

I believe the White Sox quite intentionally built a team with a relatively lower game-to-game deviation of runs scored and an intentionally wider deviation of runs allowed. Kenny was very public about this. I don't know that anybody ever really set out to do this (although the Twins stumbled into it for a couple of years), but I am pretty sure Kenny Williams is very aware of what he did, and I think it may be a surefire way to beat “Pythagoreas” because it invalidates the precept that runs are randomly distributed along the normal curve. The risk is you won’t score enough runs to win any games, a risk the White Sox flirted with in September but only then.

To understand my hypothesis, you have to realize that most pitchers with a 4.50 ERA don't allow 3 runs every 6 innings. They usually allow 1 or 2, punctuated by a 4 here and a 7 there, but not nearly as often. We see this happen all the time with rookie soft tossers for the other team and wonder why Joe Blow from Cuba Mo can shut the White Sox down. It's because that is in fact a pretty normal pattern. My hypothesis is you actually WANT pitchers who blow up once a month (we’ll call him Freddy Mercury) but otherwise dominate instead of one who is consistent (we’ll call him Steady Eddie Average), because the first class of pitcher will actually win more often despite having identical total and average statistics. Guys who blow up once a month are easier to find than guys who consistently put up mediocre numbers because most baseball teams are actually LOOKING for the pitcher who is consistently average and get frustrated with the Mercury types.

This grand strategy won't work if you bring in five relief pitchers a game, because you increase the probability than one of the middle guys will end up blowing the game, but it does work if your starters usually go 7. It only works for STARTING pitchers, who control the outcome of any given game more often than not.

Here's the thing -- this strategy works by leveraging guys who are undervalued by the market, a la Moneyball. It won't ever show up in computerized simulations because they all use a Monte Carlo model for pitching performance -- random numbers -- which assumes that a player is some permutation of his stat-generating-robot counterpart in cyberspace. He's not; he's a human being operating more or less at the edge of an infinitely sheer precipice of failure.

Baseball as viewed by Baseball Prospectus and the East Coast, is a war of attrition, like World War I, fought by artillery duels between huge sluggers driving in baserunners who often walked. The White Sox played a game more akin to precision air strikes and infiltration ground tactics. (Their latest book, Mind Game, does include a paragraph pointing out that Pythagoreas may be an oversimplification.)

We statheads missed because we didn’t understand that Kenny was looking to exploit one of the quirks of the game – that runs don’t carry over, that losing by a lot is no different than losing by a little. We confused what he was advocating with true, 1960s small ball, and because sabermetric orthodoxy tells us that this is a poor decision, we bought it. He couched it in go-go smallball terms as a PR move. Most White Sox fans believe in the holy trinity of pitching, speed, and defense. They let us project that onto what they were doing.

The Players

Last November 10th, I wrote an email to the WHITESOX mailing list bewailing the White Sox offseason strategy. What they were doing, it seemed to me, was insane. As it turned out, what they were ended up doing was the opposite of what I feared, while they hit the nail on the head for every single one of my “imaginings”.

First, to be fair, Kenny didn’t do all of it intentionally. He was saved from himself by the Giants adding a third season to Omar Vizquel’s offer. He was saved from himself by the Red Sox and other teams bidding up mediocre pitchers and ignoring the brittle but still cagey El Duque. He benefited from the Angels’ giving up on Bobby Jenks. He benefited from the Giants’ second mistake, releasing A. J. Pierzynski without a really good reason.

In early November, the White Sox had Ben Davis catching, no right fielder except perhaps Alex Escobar, no second baseman, no fifth starter, questionable 3 and 4 starters, and a bullpen with several very iffy characters. So what happened?

They dumped Carlos Lee for bullpen depth and official stathead dart board Scott Podsednik. I really thought at the time this was about freeing up money (which it was) and ridding the team of a problem personality (it was). It also gave the White Sox dual centerfielders, at the expense of some big-bang offense, and improved what I can only call the presence-of-mind on the field. Carlos was widely believed to be a stathound, the biggest one on the team.

After the Giants’ aforementioned brain freeze, they signed Jermaine Dye to fill the right field hole and Dustin Hermanson as an insurance policy for two spots. Dye was a risk given his injury history but not a terrific one. Hermanson was a career mediocrity, but one with the big-inning quirk I mentioned before. Then came Pierzynski, El Duque, and most shockingly, Tadahito Iguchi. What happened was a methodical upgrade of every major hole in the roster to at least an adequate player and, in almost every case, a good one.

They had clearly improved the defense without crippling the offense.

But it wasn't just that. It was also the fact that, with no exceptions, they added red asses. Of the additions, Dye was the closest thing to laid back. The rest of them wanted, more than anything else, to win. The image of 2005 is A. J. Pierzynski, by hook or by crook, getting 100% out of every situation. And, while character can't cover up a lack of talent, it can definitely get the most out of talent.

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