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Empirical evidence, not projections, tell the real story

March 25, 2012

One of the most distinctive aspects of baseball is its marathon-style season: in the 162-game grind, what happens in April is often irrelevant by September. Still, predictions run rampant. Analysts craft pre-determined outcomes based on the information available prior to the season, which consists of little more than verbose guesswork. But the nature of the game allows little more. Anything from injury to clutch coaching join the intangible and inexplicable in a grab-bag of outcomes that can change at the drop of a lucky cap.

One recent and notable example of this is the case of the 2011 Red Sox. In March, they were the best team in baseball. By September 28th, they were an historical collapse come to fruition.  In injury and lethargy, the Red Sox were, ultimately, their own undoing, but spring prediction made them seem bulletproof.

This is not to say that pre-season predictions and rankings are useless wastes of internet space–and goodness knows, that is a precious commodity reserved for the intellectual set . If done right, they provide a primer for the uninitiated and debate fodder for the more serious fan. And, if nothing else, they serve as a low-risk way for analysts to exercise a smug sense of satisfaction for correctly calling an underdog’s surge before it was popular. (We’re an insecure lot. Sometimes we have to pat ourselves on the back, even if we’re the only ones.)

But preseason picks are, by their very nature, based on mathematical projections and guesswork. Factors like maturity and team chemistry weave between the statistical lines, but can’t support any kind of respectable commentary on the game without solid, empirical evidence. This observation of the game between the lines–instead of the one played out on paper–is the antithesis of the lifeblood of sports analysis. In short: some of the greatest baseball moments are those that simply happen.

Consider the 2011 World Series. In Game 6, a very talented Texas Rangers team with a solid offense and a surprisingly heroic relief corps was on the brink of a championship. With two outs in the ninth inning, all closer Neftali Feliz had to do to achieve baseball immortality was induce any sort of futility out of David Freese, St. Louis’s above-average but unremarkable first baseman.  Feliz could have induced a ground out–Freese’s ground out/air out ratio was 2.25 in 2011. He could have thrown a few fastballs by him–Freese struck out once every five at-bats. Instead, on a 1-2 count, Freese shot a ball into the right field gap, scoring two and tying the game.  When the dust settled, an unlikely hero with two career triples to his name stood on third, an instant hero. In a blink, the entire series had shifted, because an unheralded part-time infielder had bested one of the game’s elite closers on one hittable pitch. That moment in time couldn’t have been predicted by Bill James himself, but it made all the difference in the world.

In many ways, despite the comfortable predictability of baseball, the game is made up of a series of moments like that one. Even with its finite number of outcomes, each pitch can feel full of endless possibilities in the right atmosphere. On that fateful September 28th, when the Orioles brought the winning run to the plate, the Red Sox were anything but comfortable. Even with their  sizable payroll advantage and their all star closer on the mound, victory was no guarantee.  Running out of time and running straight into the brick wall of a season coming to a devastating end, the Red Sox felt that moment to their core. Down to the final regular season inning, that moment in time felt bigger and more important than any consoling PECOTA projection could have.  And when Robert Andino–a backup utility man with 64 career RBIs–brought home the winning run, everything that should have happened or was supposed to happen became irrelevant.  The Red Sox and the Orioles, teams 21 games and $80 million apart, would spend the 2011 postseason as spectators. The intended outcome had been whittled away by injuries, poor work ethic, a touch of bad luck, and that final moment when Nolan Reimold touched home plate.

Explanations and predictions fit well with our human desire to anticipate and understand everything we come across. Billions of dollars are poured into efforts to predict the weather so we are never caught off guard.  Wall Street traders make their living tracking the markets.  And, just as in industries with far more to lose, the neatness of baseball provides solace when it can be parsed and prognosticated. But there is value in appreciating what we understand to be true because we are experiencing it. At its best, baseball projection serves as a guideline for fans and analysts alike, offering fantasy league help and calming the hype. At its worst, it likens baseball to spending a beautiful sunset wondering why the sky is red.

Nearly 2500 games will be played in 2012. That’s 22,500 innings full of opportunity.  Some of the season’s biggest heroes may still be in minor league camp and some of the league’s biggest superstars may be all but forgotten by May. But if fans and analysts alike forget to enjoy the series of capsulated moments that make up baseball, a large part of the heart of what makes baseball so appealing turns into a confusing deviation from the plan.  Measuring the game in statistics and patterns has merit–it adds a tangibility to what can sometimes seem arbitrary. But without the Freese triples and Andino singles that make up the long season, winners are  determined by power rankings and probability. In a game like baseball, the outcome should never be decided outside the lines.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. John Finn permalink
    March 27, 2012 3:24 pm

    Your arguments are cogently made. The length of a season increases the possibilities for unexpected human failure (or success) in every part of the game. There’s the emergency replacement from the minors who plays better than the man he’s replacing. There’s the star’s family crisis that no one anticipated. There’s the rain shortened game that had to be counted.

    What a great game.

    Well Done!

  2. Peter permalink
    April 6, 2012 6:01 pm

    Hmm…you say “empirical evidence, not projections” tell the real story…but aren’t projections almost always little more than the result of a collection of observations and assumptions? Isn’t the inherent silliness of projections a perfect example of why baseball is best viewed beyond more than individual moments?

    Baseball has ALWAYS been about more than the moment. As has been pointed out millions of times, in a sport that labels success by getting a hit only 30% of the time, it would be terrible to watch solely on the moment, as it would become a sport of failure.

    The reason we all stay in our seats when Albert Pujols comes up is because we know he is more likely to “make something happen” than most any other hitter. And how do we know this? Because he bats over .300. Because he gets on base over 40% of the time. Because he routinely hits well more than 30 home runs. Wily Mo Pena LOOKED great in any game, and I remember some of his epic moon-shots, but I was never that excited about him coming to the plate, because I knew he was more likely to strike out or create some other out.

    Of course, not all moments in baseball are created equally, and that’s why Dave Roberts will never need to buy a drink in Boston again. Baseball is about the whole picture…the stats in my head and my player guide, the crack of the bat on the field, the roar of the crowd, the thrill of victory…take any of those away, and the game is diminished.

    P.S. I’m not sure how bringing up “predictions” even fits in with the rest of your more interesting and worthwhile discussions. I don’t think you even view predictions correctly. Nobody made out the 2011 Red Sox to be bulletproof…they were viewed as the most talented team in baseball in March, and by the end of September that near-fact hadn’t changed. Their failure was due to the fact that baseball is, thankfully, about more than talent (otherwise we could just play the game on paper, and that wouldn’t be any fun). The “experts” tell us who has the best odds of success, and then we get to enjoy seeing how those odds play out over the course of the season.

    • April 6, 2012 6:12 pm

      Hi Peter,

      Thanks for the thoughtful response. That’s absolutely the other side to projections and a worthwhile one. While I enjoyed exploring the other side of what makes baseball so special, I do put value on the entire picture. If analysis were based solely on one or the other, the enjoyment of the game would be greatly diminished. I enjoy playing fantasy baseball, but it doesn’t make for an entertaining evening of television. Conversely, your example on Willy Mo Pena tells the danger of weighing observation too heavily. I think a good combination is what makes the game so great, and offers something for everyone.

      Thanks for reading!

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