Eye Of Newt, Powdered Bat Wings And Incantations

“Intangibles” … “Clutch” … “Chemistry” … words guaranteed to start a debate between the forces of SABR and the traditional baseball fan. It’s Joe Morgan vs. Bill James, Tim McCarver vs. Joe Sheehan; it’s the “statheads” vs. the scouts, etc. At Baseball Think Factory (my favorite hangout on the web), it’s always good for an ol’ fashioned knock down, drag out, cyber brawl where Billy Beane is considered somewhere between the love child of Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein and a lobotomized Irish Setter that’s been paper-trained by Ralph Wiggum.

When it comes to sabermetrics vs. traditional — I’m firmly on the fence; an excellent way to ensure that you get kicked at by both sides. Don’t get me wrong, I think sabermetrics to be quite valuable. This is a blurb I wrote on the topic in my blog last spring:

I’ll open with a caveat: I am not a stathead. The reason is simple–I reek at math. Suffice it to say, for the most part, sabermetrics goes waaaay over my head. I understand the basic principles behind it and agree with them. Folks sometimes disparage sabermetricians as stat geeks but let’s face it–we’re all statheads of one kind or another. People shake their heads at the methods used by Bill James, Baseball Prospectus etc. while forgetting that the biggest difference between they and themselves is the stats they use. They berate the use of VORP, RARP, RCAA, adj. OPS+ etc. and then turn around and start spouting off about Wins, RBI, ERA, and batting average. I just prefer the sabermetrician approach. I thought I’d give a quick overview on why sabermetrics is preferable to conventional evaluations.

To begin with, one of the appeals of traditional stats is that they’re easy to follow and understand. A player crosses home plate and we call it a run. A player, bat in hand gets a hit and the runner on second scores; or maybe a runner on third comes home on a deep fly ball to CF or a ground ball hit deep to short brings him in–we call it an RBI. It’s simple, tangible, and easy to keep track of.

However as Mark Twain once opined, there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics. To illustrate one way, let’s look at part of what might be part of the Blue Jays lineup in 2004:

R. Johnson LF
E. Hinske 3B
V. Wells CF

Let’s pose a hypothetical game scenario. Reed Johnson gets on base to start the game via an error, Eric Hinske gets a hit driving Johnson to third, and Vernon Wells brings him home on a ground ball out deep to short.

Next time through, Johnson draws a walk, Hinske again moves him to third on a base hit and Wells hits a deep fly ball to RF to bring him in.

Once again, Johnson gets hit by a pitch, Hinske gets his third single of the night and Johnson makes it to 3B. Wells comes up and hits a shallow fly ball into right-center that the second baseman back pedals to catch. Since he cannot plant his feet properly to get off a throw, the speedy Johnson again tags up and scores.

The game ends and it’s high scoring. Each player ends up with six at bats. Stewart and Wells each get a base hit and make outs for the rest of the game; Hinske has to settle for three hits in six AB.

At the end of the ballgame we look at the boxscore. Johnson gets one hit in four official AB (.250), Wells has a hit in three official AB (.333), Hinske has three hits in six AB (.500), yet at the end of game we look at the results and see:

R. Johnson: 1-for-4, 3 runs scored, 0 RBI
E. Hinske: 3-for-6, 0 runs scored, 0 RBI
V. Wells: 1-for-3, 0 runs scored, 3 RBI

Our leadoff hitter has scored three runs (as a leadoff hitter should) and we say Johnson had a great game. We look at our number three hitter (Wells) and see he had a three RBI night. Since he’s a middle-of-the-order hitter, we also conclude that he had a good night. We now turn to Hinske and see he has three hits but no runs or RBI so we assume:

(1) He hit a “soft” .500 in the game
(2) He can’t hit in the clutch
(3) He didn’t make his hits “count.”

However when you look at the sequence we discussed earlier, Hinske had the key AB that produced the runs, but he received no credit for it. Indeed if it happens enough times over the course of a season, Johnson might have a season with over 100 runs scored and Wells has a 100 RBI season, but Hinske, who despite good percentages (say: .290/.395/.500), wasn’t all that productive as “evidenced” by his low Run/RBI totals. So Hinske might have had the best season of the three but “traditional” stats obscured that he was the key cog atop the batting order.

Using a sabermetric measure, such as Runs Created, ((hits+walks)(total
bases)/(AB+BB)) we can discern who the most productive player actually was. That’s why we say that runs and RBI are situational stats. Johnson and Wells garnered those totals, not because of an ability to hit, but because of Hinske’s [ability to hit].

Another reason that traditional triple crown stats (AVG/HR/RBI) can be misleading can be demonstrated thusly. Let’s chart two players from the 1990 NL season:

Barry Bonds PIT .301 33 114
Joe Carter SD .232 24 115

Some might conclude that Carter’s superior RBI totals despite lagging well behind in batting average and HR meant that Carter “made his hits count.” Regardless, one could make the argument that they were equally productive since their RBI totals are almost the same.

However, let’s focus on those RBI. Not all RBI are created equal. Suppose Bonds and Carter had to go to the RBI store and purchase those RBI. Instead of using dollars to buy those RBI, the medium of purchase is “outs.”

Joe Carter needed to pay 513 “outs” to “buy” his RBI; Barry Bonds paid just 390. Now, if you send two people to the store to buy you the same item and one paid $513 for the item in question and the other bought it for just $390, who would you choose to make your next “purchase”? Conventional stats would make you think that Carter and Bonds had similar seasons however using the Runs Created metric we see that Carter created just 72 runs whereas Bonds weighed in at 120. Bonds superior season becomes obvious using a better measure of production.

Another example: Who would you rather have on your team? Carlos Baerga who in 442 AB hit; .314 19 80 with the 1994 Cleveland Indians.

Or Max Bishop, who in 441 AB hit .252 10 38 with the 1930 Philadelphia Athletics?

Superficially most would pick Baerga. But when you look a little deeper Bishop was far, far more productive. One stat I left off was walks. Bishop drew 128 freebies that year, Baerga just ten.

So, Baerga, who out hit Bishop by 62 points was actually left in the dust by Bishop in OBP by a whopping 93 points! (For the record Baerga’s OBP in 1994 was .333, Bishop’s in 1930 was .426)

Let’s look how this affected run production: Bishop produced more runs (runs+RBI-HR) than Baerga 145 to 142. Baerga barely eclipsed Bishop in OPS .858 to .834, but Bishop hammered Baerga in runs created 88 to 75.

So actually, despite Baerga’s numbers being more eye popping, Bishop was actually more productive offensively.

Hence the “lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

Ironically, the value of sabermetrics is that it helps us to quantify what we might not discern with the naked eye. Getting back to the Blue Jays example, our eyes tell us that Reed Johnson crossed home plate three times; it also told us that three times Vernon Wells made contact with the ball and as a result, three base runners crossed home plate. Sabermetrics tell us that the biggest contributor to those three runs was probably Eric Hinske. His contribution can be measured mathematically even though it might not be readily evident (via a run scored or RBI).

The Clutch Hitter

Still, are there things that happen on a baseball diamond that cannot yet be quantified?

Mathematically, and statistically, it’s been shown that the “clutch hitter” — defined as the player who can consistently hit better in high leverage situation than he does normally — is a myth. However, is the problem with attempting to quantify this characteristic is that we’re barking up the wrong tree?

Hitting a baseball is among the more difficult feats in sports. Even the best in baseball will be retired in six or seven out of ten at bats. A lot can go wrong for a hitter which produces an out. Can a hitter choke? Of course he can. In a pressure situation, he can tighten up physically which affects the mechanics of his swing and reducing his bat speed. He can become panicky and hack at pitches he wouldn’t normally swing at or become tentative and hesitant not swinging at hittable pitches. Some players consistently do this in high leverage situations resulting in outs that they might not make under less stressful circumstances. Considering the degree of difficulty involved in hitting a baseball, is the “clutch hitter” the hitter who can retain his normal degree of proficiency in high leverage situations? Granted, not all pressure situations are created equal: bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth, down a run in mid-May is a different animal than this same scenario in mid-October. Regardless, when we hear about a player described as “clutch” oftentimes the name that comes up is Derek Jeter. Let’s look at two sets of lines regarding Mr. “Clutch God” Jeter:

AVG/OBP/SLG
.315/.385/.463
.306/.380/.456

They’re pretty close (duh). The top lines is Jeter’s regular season performance, the lower is his post season efforts. In short, Jeter hits in October pretty much the same way he does in the regular season. Despite the pressure of the post season and the higher level of competition he‘s facing, Jeter can be counted on to perform at his usual rate. Here’s another example:

.262/.356/.490
.278/.358/.527

These are the regular season/post season percentages for “Mr. October” himself — Reggie Jackson. Again, the numbers are in pretty close proximity. Here’s another:

.272/.345/.472
.239/.326/.359

Interestingly, these are the numbers of a player who’s considered to be quite clutch — Tino Martinez. However the numbers clearly show that he’s been an inferior October hitter.

When we’re discussing major league hitters, we’re talking about the elite among the elite of their chosen profession. When you’re already near the top, there’s a lot more room to go downward than there is to go upward. When tackling the issue of the “clutch hitter,” perhaps a better definition of this beast is “the player who can be counted on to perform at his normal rate in high leverage situations.” When you consider how difficult the act of hitting is; the ability to maintain a normal level under stressful circumstances might be a better definition of clutch. Generally, stress has a negative impact on performance, and the ability to perform at a normal proficiency under duress to be uncommon. If a hitter can consistently maintain his level of excellence (read: major league quality) regardless of internal anxiety caused by external stresses, he could be labeled “clutch.”

Hopefully it’s a topic that somebody who is much smarter than me might wish to look at in more depth. My three examples do not constitute a study nor should my examples be taken as a conclusion. It’s a starting point and I’ll gratefully welcome any feedback the readers wish to send my way.

“Intangibles”

The term “intangibles” is by definition vague. We cannot necessarily quantify it, but perhaps we can identify it. I would define “intangibles” as the ability to elevate the play of the people around you. For an example of “intangibles” I’m going to hearken back to the happy days of 1992 and 1993 when the Toronto Blue Jays were back-to-back World Series champions.

I think a good chunk of the intangibles on this club resided in these two players: Pat Borders and Devon White, and their positive effect on the pitching staff’s performance. We still struggle to quantify defense. We could talk UZR, range factor, and any number of other stats to measure these players defense and it might not tell us as much as we’d like. Regardless, their play had a positive effect on the pitchers.

When we look at Pat Borders, the numbers tell us that he was a below average hitter — even for his position. Borders wasn’t notable for throwing out base runners, but his greatest talent lay in blocking pitches in the dirt. The Jays of those years had pitchers with filthy stuff that frequently ended up in the dirt: Jack Morris’, Dave Stewart’s and Tom Henke’s forkballs/split fingered fastballs; Duane Ward’s and Juan Guzman’s sliders being the most common. In a one-run game with a man on third, how confident are you as a pitcher to throw your nastiest breaking stuff if you worry deep down inside that it might get past the catcher?

Granted, we keep track of passed balls/wild pitches but each PB/WP is unique and doesn’t tell us much unless we’ve observed it. We don’t keep track of pitches that the catcher did corral. Borders’ ability to keep the ball in front of him gave the Jays’ best pitchers [either] the confidence to throw their dirtiest pitches or [a ball getting past the catcher] wasn’t a factor that entered into the pitchers’ minds (due to confidence in Borders) enabling them to concentrate on the hitter and making their pitches. We can’t track it, but I doubt that there’s a major league pitcher that denies its existence and importance.

Devon White, like Borders, had significant holes in his game. White was an average offensive player, had a mediocre throwing arm, didn’t walk much, and struck out far too often.

He was a ball hawk extraordinaire. He was overlooked in a historical sense for his defense (or it seemed to me anyway) because he rarely had the spectacular defensive play — the 1992 World Series catch off David Justice notwithstanding. His read off the bat was excellent, his first step was almost always in the right direction, and he never looked like he was rushing to the ball. A flyball between left center and right center was pretty much a guaranteed out. If a ball got past Devo, it was generally assumed that it wasn’t catchable — he was that good. I’m pretty sure the pitching staff of the 1992-93 Jays couldn’t tell you what White’s UZR, zone rating, fielding percentage or putouts were, but they knew this: if you could get the hitter to hit the ball in the air to the outfield, there was an excellent chance Devo would be there jogging easily to the ball, glove on shoulder, to gather it in.

Why do some pitchers nibble and why do some pitchers challenge hitters? Some of it is based on raw stuff, some of it might be based on confidence in their abilities, but a lot of it has to do with what he feels will happen to the ball should the hitter make contact. Just because a fielder has good defensive stats doesn’t necessarily mean that the pitcher has confidence in him. Do we think of Jeff Kent and David Eckstein as superlative defenders? UZR was pretty kind to them this year, but if you were to poll pitchers who they wanted in the keystone behind them, I’d be shocked if their names appeared high on the list.

The pitching staffs of the 1992 and 1993 Jays were made better by Borders and White because (a) they were relaxed enough to break off their nastiest stuff and (b) unworried about contact because of the players behind them. We can’t measure it, but it’s real, so maybe this is one way of accounting for an “intangible.”

Chemistry

Part of the problem of defining chemistry is that folks seem to equate chemistry with the entire team being best buddies. Naturally baseball history is full of counter examples: the 1917 White Sox couldn’t stand each other. Tinkers-Evers-Chance of the great Cubs teams (feels strange typing that) of the early 20th century were barely on speaking terms, and the 70’s had two outstanding teams that were known for being somewhat dysfunctional: Charlie Finley’s A’s of the early part of the decade and the Bronx Zoo Yankees from the latter part of the decade.

Obviously, a mutual admiration society is not a prerequisite for a winning ball club. It comes down to talent. I forget who wrote it, but I thought it was pretty astute — that the difference between the Yankee clubs of 1996-2000 and 2001-present is that while the current Yankees have some of MLB’s best players, the team that won four World Series in five years had the right players.

It’s not unlike putting together the ultimate muscle car. It’s good to have the best and most powerful parts, but if they are not put together properly, or not all pieces are compatible with the others, the engine’s performance is going to suffer. Ultimately, there is no substitute for talent. The Kansas City Royals will not become world beaters because there’s a happy clubhouse. However, where “chemistry” might come into play is where two teams have roughly the equivalent level of talent.

But what is “chemistry?”

I think a better word for chemistry might be professionalism. A team with good chemistry is a team of players striving for a common goal. A simple fact of life is that not all players are obsessed with winning. There are players who might be playing for a contract and that’s their overriding concern. He might be more concerned with doing things that will enhance his numbers over doing what it takes to help the team win. Perhaps he is asked to switch positions but is reluctant to do so because he’d be worth less as a DH than as a first baseman. Another thing that could come up that could affect his contract is a change in the batting order, or being asked to share his position in a platoon. A starter could be asked to go to the bullpen, or a closer might be asked to do setup work or be asked to pitch in a high leverage situation that might not result in a save. The team would be better off if the player adjusted, but it doesn’t get done lest the player become “unhappy” and unproductive.

Some players may be battling with the front office and are more concerned with their personal vendetta than getting the job done. Players are human; they sulk, pout, and sometimes do things against their own best interests, and it has a negative impact on the team’s performance. Sometimes a manager is disliked, and a cadre of players perform in a way that will nudge him out the door. A team with “chemistry” is most likely a club that is willing to subordinate personal goals and negative feelings for the goal of winning. The A’s of the early 1970’s may have disliked each other, but they disliked losing even more.

You might call chemistry/professionalism as the oil in the engine. A talented team that has good chemistry can be equated to a high powered engine that receives regular oil changes, whereas a talented team with poor chemistry is like the same engine with gritty oil. One engine purrs like a kitten and the other is loud, grinding, has a tendency to stall, and frequently overheats resulting in sub-optimal performance. A 1972 Ford Pinto with a fresh oil change will not beat a 1974 Corvette Stingray in need of an oil change, but it could make all the difference in the world in a race between two Stingrays.

In short, having the right parts is key, but if those parts aren’t probably lubricated (insert 2004 Red Sox gag) then the engine might not get the car across the finish line first.

We may never fully understand “clutch”, “intangibles”, and “chemistry,” but a team that acknowledges their importance will have an edge over a club with roughly equal talent that doesn’t.

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