Crash Landing: Tommy Joseph, The Information Gap, and Open Minds
I don’t know what to make of Tommy Joseph. I don’t know whether it’s more realistic to be optimistic or pessimistic. Without any real track record over the past four years, he’s as close to a baseball mystery as we get in the modern game. All I know to feel is excitement. Any dreams of a legitimate major league future for him were dismissed as fantasy months if not years ago and now here he is, the Philadelphia Phillies starting first baseman. That’s a terrific, incredible story, but it doesn’t stop me from wondering whether we’re witnessing the end of a comeback story or the beginning.
There are a few reasons why sabermetric analysis appeals to me, but perhaps the biggest one is the most basic — it’s a remarkable tool in the search for baseball truths. We’ve all been wrong more than we’ve been right about players in this beautifully unpredictable sport. Sabermetric principles, however, give us a means to help fight that unpredictability. A year ago it helped me look at two of the Phillies few bright offensive spots – Odubel Herrera and Cesar Hernandez – and identify which one provided more cause for optimism going forward. It also gave me the tools a year and a half ago to look at Domonic Brown and find reasons for hope that now look foolish in retrospect. As I said, we’re still going to be wrong about this silly sport frequently. Truth in baseball is a mirage which doesn’t actually exist, but smart, thoughtful analysis is the best way I’ve found to try to understand the game as well as our flawed minds can.
Entering play on Wednesday, Tommy Joseph had accumulated 642 plate appearances in affiliated ball for the Phillies organization since being acquired in July 2012. That’s nearly four years and he’s taken just 642 plate appearances. In the majors last season, 49 different players racked up 642 or more plate appearances. Four years in the system and we have barely one season’s worth of data on Tommy Joseph. With that extreme lack of statistical information to go on, this is one of those times were sabermetric analysis fails us.
As a result, I find myself instinctively doing something I hate doing: overreacting to extremely small sample sizes. When Tommy Joseph went on a recent 12-for-28 stretch with four homers, I allowed myself to wonder whether that was the real Tommy Joseph. When he followed that up with his current 1-for-20 stretch I thought, “Oh, that’s probably the real Tommy Joseph.” It’s silly and meaningless, but absent real information, it’s a natural trap to fall into. Every Joseph at bat has a bizarre sense of added importance simply because each one represents an unusually large percentage of the data points we have to go on.
If I were forced to choose between optimism and skepticism on Joseph, I have little doubt that skepticism would win out — and not only because he’s currently in a rough stretch. It’s hard to imagine that a guy who missed so much developmental time can really emerge as a genuine major league option at a position where his most critical job is to be one of the best hitters in the league. When he was a prospect, his power bat was more than good enough for a catcher, but if he couldn’t stick behind the it seemed unlikely that he could hit enough to stick at first base. Right now, he’s performing like a guy who can, but what evidence do we have that this can possibly last?
The great thing right now is that the Phillies are in an extraordinary position to find out exactly what to make of Joseph. Let him play, gather more data points, and form as complete evaluation on him as you can. As more information becomes available, we’ll begin to get a better idea of the type of player Tommy Joseph really is through analysis like the piece Ben Harris wrote earlier this week. On my end, I’ll do my best to keep an open mind and adjust as necessary while more data continues to roll in.