Lies, damned lies, and Statcast

Baseball is my sport.

I enjoy watching or listening to it every chance I get. I also write about it a lot. Like here and here and here. Oh, yeah, and here and here. You get the point.

This year was particularly gratifying for me because I’m a diehard, lifelong Red Sox fan. Having grown up with Sox teams that couldn’t get out of their own way much of the time, I’ve reveled in the past 15 years of teams that often can’t lose. Especially this year. I’ve never seen a team like the 2018 Red Sox and I may never again.

The fact that I saw most of these guys when they were just kids playing pro ball for the first time with the Lowell Spinners in short season single-A ball (including all the killer B’s: Betts, Bradley, Benintendi, and Bogaerts) makes it that much sweeter.

Having said all that, this wouldn’t be a proper blog post if it weren’t full of griping. 🙂

My latest beef is with this goofy marketing tool disguised as meaningful data known as Statcast. It used to be we had to somehow manage baseball discussions with trivial stats: wins and losses, RBIs, average, ERA, triples, and the like. Thanks to Amazon Web Services, we can discuss crucial data such as exit velocity, launch angle, hard hit, and barrel, the last of which is a stat that takes an entire page of text to describe and is still as confusing as a knuckleball.

You’ll note one common thread connecting all these new statistics: None of them has anything to do with winning baseball games. Last time I checked, a home run is worth one run, regardless of its distance, launch angle, or exit velocity.

There are plenty of other more recently developed crazy stats like WAR and WHIP and OPS. I can live with these because, as convoluted as some of these numbers can be, at least they have something to do with scoring runs and winning and losing, which is what the game is all about, after all. Exit velocity is a stat for losers who need something tangible to back up their obscene contract demands. Sadly, this crap works.

Another one: Catch probability is just so much hooey. If a ball is caught, the probability is 100%, if not, it drops down to about, oh, zilch. I expect the probability of catching a ball depends mostly on the fielder. If it’s Jackie Bradley Jr. the catch probability is pretty darn high no matter where the ball goes. If Aaron Judge is plodding after it, not so much.

One final example: I read an article talking about how desirable a commodity Manny Machado will be as a free agent during this offseason’s hot stove league. Most of the argument was based on Manny’s Statcast “hard hit” data. Not surprisingly, there was no mention that this guy is likely to be poison to any baseball team. When a player doesn’t run out ground balls and stands to admire his “home run” that was actually a double but which he turned into a single through his arrogance, it doesn’t matter a rat’s turd how hard he hits the ball! That kind of player is an albatross on any team he plays for. Anyone who pays this prima donna big bucks deserves to be dragged down into the loser-gutter with him.

Which brings me to what might be the most tantalizing aspect of baseball. In spite of all the stats and data and computer models, it’s largely a game of hunches and gut feelings. That’s what makes it great. That’s how a journeyman like Steve Pearce ends up being World Series MVP. It’s how the ’67 Impossible Dream Red Sox won the pennant and almost the Series. It explains how a bunch of idiots won it all in 2004 and a band of bearded overachievers did the same in ’13.

I love this game. Let’s not ruin it in the name of Amazon corporate profits.


Note: For those in Eastern MA, I’ll be doing two “author appearances” at local venues. The first is at Chelmsford Public Library. The event is Saturday 11/3 from 1-3 PM, although I will only be there until about 2 PM. All the details can be found here.

The other is at a great little shop in Chelmsford center called Artisans Exchange. I’ll be hanging out there on Friday night, 11/16 from 7-8.

I hope some of you can come out to say hello and do some early local (author) holiday shopping.