The fans’ scouting reportby Tom M. Tango
September 11, 2008
I introduce the Fans' Scouting Report project on my site the same way every year:
Baseball's fans are very perceptive. Take a large group of them, and they can pick out the final standings with the best of them. They can forecast the performance of players as well as those guys with rather sophisticated forecasting engines. Bill James, in one of his later Abstracts, had the fans vote in for the ranking of the best to worst players by position. And they did a darn good job.
There is an enormous amount of untapped knowledge here. There are 70 million fans at MLB parks every year, and a whole lot more watching the games on television. When I was a teenager, I had no problem picking out Tim Wallach as a great fielding 3B, a few years before MLB coaches did so. And, judging by the quantity of non-stop standing ovations Wallach received, I wasn't the only one in Montreal whose eyes did not deceive him. Rondell White, Marquis Grissom, Larry Walker, Andre Dawson, Hubie Brooks, Ellis Valentine. We don't need stats to tell us which of these does not belong.
What I would like to do now is tap that pool of talent. I want you to tell me what your eyes see. I want you to tell me how good or bad a fielder is. Go down, and start selecting the team(s) that you watch all the time. For any player that you've seen play in at least 10 games in 2008, I want you to judge his performance in seven specific fielding categories.
I asked several people in MLB front offices for their reactions to the results from the Fans' opinions. None was comfortable having his/her views broadcast, other than to say that the results were somewhat consistent with their internal evaluations. That is, while they are not necessarily great, they are certainly not crap either. And certainly, they are better than what you hear from the mainstream.
While I would like to be persistent for my own indulgence in getting a hold of their scouting reports and publishing them side-by-side with the Fans' results, I realize that my wishes simply can't materialize. At least, not until the player retires. What I would like to do is to compare the results of the Fans, the Wisdom of the Crowd, to the perceptions of the closest thing we can come to a professional scout.
For this installment, I leaned on Dave Cameron of USS Mariner to provide his scouting report, which I would then compare side-by-side to the Fans. Why Dave? He has a loyal following of readers, and that is for a good reason: quality attracts quality. He does great work on his blog and follows the minor leagues intently. He's opinionated and doesn't follow the company line. Dave was a fairly natural choice for me.
Here are the simple averages of Dave and the other 100+ Mariner ballots I received, for each player, sorted by the Fans' results from best to worst:
Fans Dave diff Player 4.57 3.86 0.71 Suzuki, Ichiro 4.44 4.14 0.30 Beltre, Adrian 3.50 3.00 0.50 Reed, Jeremy 3.18 2.86 0.32 Bloomquist, Willie 2.93 2.86 0.07 Burke, Jamie 2.92 3.71 -0.79 Cairo, Miguel 2.90 2.86 0.04 Balentien, Wladimir 2.80 2.29 0.51 Lopez, Jose 2.79 2.57 0.22 Johjima, Kenji 2.78 2.57 0.21 Betancourt, Yuniesky 2.63 3.14 -0.51 LaHair, Bryan 2.33 2.14 0.19 Wilkerson, Brad 2.31 1.86 0.45 Ibanez, Raul 2.24 1.86 0.38 Clement, Jeff 1.92 2.00 -0.08 Sexson, Richie 2.95 2.78 0.17 AVERAGE
Overall, we see that the Fans are a bit more optimistic than Dave. This is a basic trend we see on all ballots, across all teams. On a 1-5 scale, where 3 is average, the average ballot for the league comes in at 3.25. This is not really a big deal, if we can accept that each team has around the same amount of favoritism (remember, it is mostly the teams' fans that cast ballots); all I do is (basically) reduce the rankings eight percent from each ballot, and I'm lined up. Dave here offers the sober view of 2.78, and the Fans being 0.17 higher than that is consistent with the favoritism we expected.
Generally speaking, to convert the 1-5 rating into a run value score, you follow this quick formula:
Runs = (Rating minus 3.25) * 15
Beltre for example is +18 runs by the Fans and +17 by Dave (for Dave, we subtract 3.0, not 3.25, since we don't suspect bias in his results, as noted earlier). So, recasting the above chart into a Runs chart, we get:
Fans Dave diff Player 19.9 12.9 +7.0 Suzuki, Ichiro 17.8 17.1 +0.7 Beltre, Adrian +3.7 +0.0 +3.7 Reed, Jeremy -1.1 -2.1 +1.0 Bloomquist, Willie -4.9 -2.1 -2.8 Burke, Jamie -4.9 10.7 -15.6 Cairo, Miguel -5.2 -2.1 -3.1 Balentien, Wladimir -6.8 -10.7 +3.9 Lopez, Jose -6.9 -6.4 -0.5 Johjima, Kenji -7.1 -6.4 -0.7 Betancourt, Yuniesky -9.3 +2.1 -11.4 LaHair, Bryan -13.9 -12.9 -1.0 Wilkerson, Brad -14.2 -17.1 +2.9 Ibanez, Raul -15.1 -17.1 +2.0 Clement, Jeff -19.9 -15.0 -4.9 Sexson, Richie
I should also note that for this article only, I'm treating each of the seven categories the same. Obviously, some traits are more important than others, especially when you consider the position.
Difference of opinion
So, where are the big differences? Miguel Cairo is easily the biggest difference maker, with a 16-run difference in evaluation. In six of the seven categories, Dave is either a bit more, or a lot more, optimistic. And in the seventh one, he is a shade less optimistic. Specifically, with Release/Footwork, Dave gave Cairo a "5", meaning "great", while the Fans came in at 3.0, meaning "average". It is a substantial difference of opinion. Even so, if this was the only difference, it would only make up a 4-run difference.
In Instincts, Dave had him as a 4, and the Fans at 3.0; First Step, Dave 4 again, and the Fans 2.8; Speed: 3 to 2.7; Hands: 4 to 3.3; Arm Strength: 3 to 2.6. Only with Arm Accuracy is there a disagreement, with Dave at 3 and the Mariner fans at 3.1. Once you factor in the extra fan bias, Dave is more optimistic as well. So, Dave definitely sees something, across the board, that the Fans either don't see or don't appreciate, to that extent. Bryan Lahair poses a similar across-the-board issue, for an overall difference of 11 runs. It should be noted that Cairo and Lahair are bench players, with 38 and 19 "games" each, as of Aug 20, 2008. ("Games" is innings divided by nine.) So, Fans may simply not be that confident in their evaluations of such players.
After those players, the only major source of disagreement is Ichiro. For each of the five previous years that I have run the Fans' Scouting Report, since its inception in 2003, Ichiro has led all players. Each and every season. And in 2008, while Ichiro is one of the three leading vote-getters, he is no longer the shoe-in that he was in the past years. Fans are notorious for being a few years behind the curve, because of the halo effect. Ken Griffey Jr. was above average by the fans until 2007, at which point he finally was considered below average. And this year, he dropped even more. Robbie Alomar had a similar issue a few years ago. Time and again, really good fielders in their 20s are simply being evaluated now in their 30s by Fans as still being of high quality. Ichiro is no exception.
Dave however, sees a chink in the armor. In six of the seven traits (excluding arm accuracy), the Fans gave Ichiro a flat 4.6 or 4.7 across the board. It is an appreciation (blind love?) like no other player enjoys. In those six categories, Dave has given Ichiro a 4 in five of them, and a 5 in one of them (Speed), for an average of those six traits of 4.2. If that was the extent of it, it would not be a big deal.
But, it is the seventh category where the difference lies, Arm Accuracy. Fans give him a 4.2, while Dave gives him a 2. That is an enormous difference of opinion. Of the 88 fans who cast a ballot on Ichiro's arm, only three rank him as a 1 or 2. In addition 14 have given him a 3 (average). So, only 17 of the 88 fans (almost 20 percent) can be seen to generally agree with Dave. Indeed, 35 of the 88 fans, or 40 percent, gave him the highest possible mark of a 5.
If I were to repeat this exercise for every team, I am sure I'd find similar situations: There's a couple of players with wide disagreement, one or two with some disagreement, and the rest all within a five-run or less agreement. This is fairly powerful. For example, is Xavier Nady really a fantastic hitter as his 2008 data shows? Or merely a pretty good hitter that his last few years has shown? We can say that his 2008 performance "disagrees" with his career performance. That is, the reliability of his 500 PA in 2008 is not a strong enough indicator to represent his true hitting talent. The same applies with the Fans' Scouting Report. We will always have a few exceptions, be it with the observational data from the eyes, or the performance data from the bat. Our expectations should be tempered by the reality of the limits in our capabilities.
There is no conclusion. This project is a never-ending project that attempts to collect, aggregate and present observational data in some meaningful form, every single year.
For example, ten years from now, when someone asks who was Derek Jeter similar to, you can tell him Michael Young. The current generation knows little of Gary Pettis' fielding accomplishments. Those of us from the last generation know the wonder of his fielding talents. While he has his Gold Gloves as a testament to his fielding talents, what about everyone else? And, the generation before me talks about Mickey Stanley and Paul Blair, but the recollection of their exploits will continue to diminish over time.
This is why this project is important. It can stand the test of time, and be another view into a player's accomplishments. It can act as an historical record of the contemporaneous view of the Fans. I urge all to spread the word on their blogs. I would say that four out of five bloggers I contact directly agree to spread the word, so I consider myself lucky that I have found a strong base of support. Please participate on my site by filling out a ballot.
Tom has co-authored a baseball strategies book called The Book - Playing The Percentages In Baseball, which is available at Inside The Book. Readers are encouraged to post comments on the author's blog, or to send him an email.