I'm a firm believer in sabermetrics. I'm an advanced stats kinda guy. I'd have given Mike Trout the MVP last year solely because of his WAR, and I wouldn't have thought twice about it. I buy into zone ratings, crazy Joe Maddon shifts, and I'd take a .320 hitter with some legs and a good eye over 40 HRs any day (I just groaned, audibly, when my phone alerted me to the Mark Reynolds acquisition). I even read Nate Silver's NYTimes blog after the election. Yeah, I was the one.
Baseball has always distinguished itself from other sports with its long history of historians, the continuity of its record books, and the seam-heads and excel jockeys who'll tear through fangraphs to compare Josh Hamilton'sage 29 season spray chart to Lou Gehrig's. Even today, in the age of asterisks, with massive question marks looming over two-plus decades of the game, the lore of Cooperstown and the Baseball Hall of Fame far outshines those historical enshrinements of other, higher-revenue sports. Why? Not just because Canton is an armpit; because of the numbers. Because of no major rule change or evolution in the game since 1920. Because we've always loved the back of a baseball card for more than just the fabled chewing gum my grandpa used to tell me about, because there’s no team game with more individual a set of tasks that’s still reliant on being greater than the sum of its parts, and because, by god, some kid actually tracks the placement of every single slider Josh Hamilton rolls over to second, and we eat it up like it’s frickin cookie dough.
Ah, but there’s a "but." Of course there is, read the title. Sorry Michael Smith and Fat-Jonah Hill (I’m 2/2 on "Moneyball" jokes), but sometimes numbers do belie the whole truth. That’s why they play the games.
First, there are the obvious lies – the basic stats that we’ve all figured out don’t mean that much, because other basic stats tell a different story. It’s been said too many times before, but "Wins" are no way to judge a pitcher. You mostly hear this argument when discussing King Felix’s Cy Young, or even Hiroki Kuroda’s Cy Young type year: Their ERAs, strikeouts, WHIP and lack of run support render their W-L record meaningless, and it all sounds well and good, and we all pat ourselves on the back, proudly, because we’re just smart like that. And yet, remember that "breakthrough year" Phil Hughes had back in 2010? That one that every single Yankees.com article references when somehow trying to polish the turd that has been his walk year? Well, back in 2010, when hopefuls like me sat on the edge of their couches awaiting the kid’s next start, and fancifully daydreaming of a not-so-distant time when inexpensive, home grown upstarts like Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain would run the roost (and get the taste of AJ out of our mouths), when Phil was an All-Star and an 18 game winner...he pitched to a 4.19 ERA, 4.25 FIP, with 8.3 hits per nine. This so-called "turning point," when Phil really "turned the corner," and "turned into a reliable back-end rotation member" was, in fact, none of those things. His WHIP, hits, BBs, and Ks per nine were all pretty similar to 2009, 2012, and 2013. Only his HR/9 were down, still at a rather unimpressive 1.3, but so were his BABIP and HR/FB, so, in a sense, he was marginally better, and not-so-marginally luckier, and that was this difference between then and now. But even though we all know that 18 Wins do not a top-end starter make, we, all of us, Brian Cashman included, decided that for the next several years, the Yankees had a solid, known quantity in the back-end of their rotation. What the numbers should have told Brian Cashman is "sell high," but, alas, it did not, and, as Jesse Schindler pointed out earlier, we may just have to live with Phil Hughes for the rest of the year, and still get nothing in return.
Then there are the numbers that seem fancy, that try to dig down deeper, but can never really make up for that "it" thing we all know and love. My personal favorite example of this is Boone Logan. For anyone following along at home to my little musings, I got to add another tally to my Facebook page counter of "F*** YOU BOONE LOGAN"s today. Our basic statistics show that Boone Logan has a solid ERA, 2.97, a fantastic BB/K ratio, 2.2, and that as a lefty specialist, his platoon splits are pretty even, with righties batting .231, and lefties .254 – a rare bread, a lefty who can get out both lefties and righties. We have even more in-depth numbers: we know his FIP is a respectable 3.58, his 0.5 WAR is fine for a reliever with limited innings, and that with 2 outs he’s held hitters to an impressive .159 avg and .547 ops.
And yet, even with the numbers that indicate his failings – his 35% of inherited runners that score, his -0.23 WPA, the fact that 4, 5, and 6 hitters, the power lefties his job is to get out, are batting .354 against him with 3 HRs – there is no number that says explicitly that Boone Logan is the worst person to have on the mound when the Yankees really need an out. For all of the "high leverage indicators" and "Clutch" statistics – he doesn’t score too well in those, FYI – we will never be able to truly measure a player’s intangibles, his clutch, his ability to perform not just when the game is on the line, but the season as well. Just take a look at Boone’s performance today: The Yankees, on their first winning streak since what feels like the Reagan administration, hoping desperately to find that one push to get them back on the relevance meter, trying to eke out a win on a rare occasion that their beleaguered starter kept it competitive, and carry the momentum of a 4 game sweep into Boston, gives up a grand slam to Chris Nelson. The Yankees didn’t just need Boone Logan to get two outs and keep them in a tight game, they needed a win, a big come from behind win they very well might have gotten. Maybe I’m just biased, stuck on just the bad moments, but it seems to me like every time the Yankees really need to pull one out, it’s Boone Logan that messes it up. We don’t have a good stat for that one, yet.
But to end on a bit of a cheerier note, there are some numbers that lie...in a good way. Remember all those numbers that say Derek Jeter is the worst defensives shortstop? His total zone ratings that said he gave up countless runs, his range factor that was about as good as Mo Vaughan’s? Well, they certainly don’t account for the pit I get in my stomach every time the rangy Eduardo Nunez fields a ball. They don’t account for the amazing moments – the flip play, the bloody face, all not just in big spots, but big games. And all those runs a replacement player would have theoretically saved, well, they didn’t stop him from winning too many games.
I guess the point is, especially now, as lines are blurred, records are tainted, numbers aren’t so comparable from year to year, as we truly need to analyze all of a players merits, and not just the record books, we should understand that, sometimes, numbers do lie. Whether it’s separating the signal from the noise, as Nate would tell us; accounting for the unaccountable – and don’t even try to lump Jeter in with Tim Tebow...divine intervention is something else; or maybe it’s not the numbers lying, but the players who put them up; in an age of more metrics than you can count, there will always be a human element that makes the game – its coaches, its fans, its historians – something special. That’s why it’s still our pastime. That’s why we still go to Cooperstown. That’s why we calculate RE24 and FIP-, because sometimes, we just want to watch the numbers get proven wrong.