Bob Brookover and the Imaginary Devout

Making the rounds on Twitter this morning was an article by Bob Brookover titled “Inside the Phillies: Who needs sabermetrics?” It was the annual advanced statistics hit piece from Philly.com, which occasionally likes to claw at the vital new frontier of advanced analytics from the threshold of its own industry’s grave. As Mr. Baer likes to point out, I should not bother to engage with it, nor with the tired debate that surrounds it, since, quite simply, the nerds have already won. Even putting aside the renewed hype surrounding Moneyball, advanced statistics has penetrated almost every front office in baseball (but not the Phillies, if this piece is to be taken at face value), and its influence continues to blossom.

This offseason, the Cubs rushed to acquire one of the more prominent frontmen for analytical front offices, Theo Epstein, and paired him with Jed Hoyer, a man with a background in baseball but who had also worked with Epstein on the Red Sox in the mid 2000s. The Astros, after interviewing Keith Law, who blends equal part scouting and statistical analysis into his evaluations, ended up poaching Jeff Luhnow from the Cardinals. The 45-year-old, taking over for the ignominious Ed Wade, has an educational background that blends business and engineering, including an MBA from Northwestern University. Luhnow then hired former Baseball Prospectus pitch f/x guru Mike Fast, as clear a sign as any of the tack that organization will be taking.

This is not to mention the Rays, who have had a young, analysis-oriented front office running the show for several years (as detailed by Jonah Keri in the book The Extra 2%), or the Mets, who, financial catastrophe notwithstanding, did hire a trio of postmodern executives in Sandy Alderson, J.P. Ricciardi, and Paul DePodesta. Gigantic, multi-million dollar baseball franchises want nothing more than to persist and remain as profitable as possible, and this impetus inevitably leads them to hire executives that are innovative, open-minded, and knowledgeable — people that will embrace all the information available to them, and use it in the most effective way possible. Naturally, these people are drawn to the wealth of data provided by advanced statistics.

The “war,” insomuch as it ever existed, is over. Brookover and company are sportswriting’s own Hiroo Onodas, hurling impotent volleys into the darkness, failing to realize their “enemy” long ago left the engagement. This is, in part, why articles like Brookover’s are so charmingly futile and anachronistic. It’s difficult not to read it with the same minor amusement as when one watches a child kick a table he’d just stubbed his toe on, only to injure himself further.

But there is also the glaringly obvious reality that Brookover invested zero energy into supporting research for his piece. Unlike Brookover, I don’t get paid to write about things, and I likely never will. But if I were to set out to write an article about, say, free range chicken farming, I might be so bold as to go and interview a farmer, or seek out the most well-regarded literature on the subject, or, hell, at least run a few google searches. Brookover clearly did nothing of the sort. His “sabermetrics” bogeyman is constructed of decade-old marginal metrics and other statistics and concepts that are only seen in parodies of traditionalist invective. He brings up VORP several times. This, appropriately, makes me nostalgic for the days of Fire Joe Morgan, but it has not been a widely-cited metric in many years. PERA is also mentioned, which makes me think that maybe, at one point, he deigned to open a copy of Baseball Between the Numbers, but he failed to talk about ERA estimators that are actually frequently used, their purposes, and (since it would fit his narrative) their own individual shortcomings. He discusses the “equation” (seriously) of OPS, which undertakes the enormously complicated task of adding two numbers together, as if it were some mystical numerology. Brookover allows Charlie Manuel to say this —

“When you’re sitting there and a guy brings up sabermetrics, they don’t know nothing about that guy, and that may be the biggest thing,” Manuel said. “Sometimes a guy will look at you and say, ‘Why did you play that guy, he’s 1 for 16 against that guy with seven punch-outs?’ But when I’ve watched that guy, he might be 1 for 16, but nine of those at-bats the guy hit about three or four balls hard.

— either not realizing or not caring to point out that any sabermetrics guru worth his salt would laugh at using a 16 at bat sample to evaluate how a batter matches up against a pitcher. Manuel, to his credit, says he appreciates the amount of data contained in OPS and OBP. Actually, he came out of it looking the best, far better than Brookover at least. Amaro seemed to believe that the gap between his minor league OPS/OBP and major league performance was something notable, as if any advanced analysis would try to use raw minor league data to project a player’s major league performance. If the key to war is knowing your enemy, it’s no surprise that Brookover has been overrun. What gratification is there in setting up an easy effigy to burn if you can’t even make it resemble your target?

Maybe his greatest failure, though, is missing the folly of war in the first place (although, as in every piece of this kind before it, Brookover doesn’t miss an opportunity to make a tired reference to a certain Edwin Starr ditty). In the third paragraph Brookover writes that “[t]he most devout sabermetricians will try to tell you that there is no better way in the world to evaluate players than through their convoluted equations.” This, to be blunt, is utter garbage. I’m sure in some recessed, dark corner of the internet, you can find some miserable wretch who comes close to fulfilling Brookover’s sad stereotype. But it is overwhelmingly the case that sabermetrics advocates acknowledge the need to combine advanced statistics with accurate, reliable scouting in order to get anywhere at all. Keith Law harps on this regularly. The aforementioned Jeff Luhnow said the following when he was hired:

There’s a misperception about what the winning formula is. You can’t be the elite scouting and player development organization without the best scouts and coaches in the industry. Those are baseball people who have been in this their entire life and use their good judgment and experience to make decisions.

The complementary part is adding a whole new area, which is really utilizing whatever technology and whatever capabilities are available, whether it’s understanding medical assessments, understanding performance histories, different ways to evaluate character. There’s a lot of science that can be added to the equation.

But it’s really all about gathering up as much valuable information as you can, organizing in a way that makes sense and making the best possible decisions.

The true “devout sabermetricians” know that scouting and advanced statistics desperately need each other to be usable, and that one must intimately understand the purpose and limitations of the metric he or she is citing. This is why things like sample size are so often brought up, and why the internal battle over UZR among the statistically-minded rages on. Clear-minded, responsible consideration of statistics is the first priority for the “devout,” and, funnily enough, it’s something that completely escapes writers like Brookover. All of the sudden, when their narrative needs boosting, they’ll discard all of their inhibitions about the abuse of statistics and throw around RBI, fielding percentage, or 15-at-bat pitcher versus hitter matchups as it suits them.

That’s the most absurd facet of pieces like these, which appear in media across the country. There is a pathetic pretense that they’re cautious of numbers, that the “devout” rush to recklessly apply a number to any and everything. But it’s entirely too transparent that it’s not numbers they’re concerned about, it’s your numbers. They aren’t my numbers. They’re some other numbers. Those other numbers indicate that, all too often, the final analysis is far more nuanced and complicated than they (unfairly) think their readers are willing to put up with. The numbers they have — RBI, small sample quirks, antiquated counting stats — make for some snazzy headlines and rabble-rousing discussion pieces that, superficial as they are, help spoon a little syrup into the desiccated gullet of print media. The rest of us, interested only in finding out as much about the game we love as possible, embrace the heaps of useful data offered by both traditional scouting and advanced analysis. We don’t always know what we’re doing, or which (if any) conclusion can be drawn, and that’s why an informal peer-review is always taking place, on the internet and elsewhere. It’s not a church stuffed to the rafters with devout, it’s a vibrant, self-auditing community of people who regard baseball with the same pure veneration that some traditionalists would like to claim a monopoly on.

My dad was unquestionably the first and primary inspiration for my interest in baseball. He delayed wedding my mother because it was the fall of 1980 and the Phillies were World Series-bound; he took me to countless Phillies games as a child; he coached and sometimes umpired during my unfruitful but enjoyable little league career. He’s been watching the Phillies since the 1950s, and he certainly doesn’t share the same enthusiasm for advanced statistics as I do, and I wouldn’t expect him to, nor care whether he does or not. Because, like normal human beings, we can have discussions that transcend one particular approach to appreciating baseball. Still, because he is a smart, open-minded man, he doesn’t limit himself to the traditionalist comfort zone. He mentions the things he reads about Bill James, or interesting observations that arise out of a more advanced analysis of some historical player or season. Occasionally I’ll bring up a statistic like ERA+ or WAR, with a brief explanation, and he’ll (to a stunning degree of accuracy) list historical players who he guesses would rank the highest. Just as there is a vital interchange between traditional approaches and newly-conceived analysis in the operation of baseball franchises, and in the work of blogs like this one, casual baseball discourse is also best served when these ideas are freely exchanged.

I don’t know Bob Brookover beyond his writing. I’m sure he’s a good guy who loves baseball just like the rest of us, and that he and I (or you) could have some interesting, mutually enjoyable discussions about baseball and the Phillies. When it comes to pieces like this one, beyond the woeful execution, I question the motive and the necessity. In a month, baseball will begin again, and we’ll all be too happy and engaged to fixate on articles like this. But in the relative quiet of spring training, I’d sooner work to prevent the car wreck than spend all of this effort rubbernecking.

On Actually Getting Excited for Pitchers and Catchers

Winter is always tough for me. I feed on sports discourse the way a tree feeds on sunlight–I need lots of it, all the time, or else I shrivel up and die. This might why I have the ESPN app on my phone sending me score updates for 17 teams across five sports, plus a racing driver. During baseball season, the Phillies (and, in passing, the South Carolina Gamecocks) are enough to keep me going because baseball is the sport I know and care most about. I certainly give the Stanley Cup playoffs their due attention, and if  there’s an Olympics or a World Cup to fill the dull hours, so much the better. Once the World Series is over, there’s Hot Stove discussion, plus the best part of college football season and the part of the Premiership season before Arsenal drops out of the title race, to keep the sports juices going.

But after the New Year, things get grim. Particularly in a year when the soccer team you follow is suffering its worst season in more than a decade, and the mention of the club’s best player and the historic season he’s having elicits not joy but soul-crushing depression at the knowledge that he’ll leave for Manchester City or Barcelona in the summer. Just like all the best Arsenal players do. Sure, the Sixers are on a nice run, and I love hockey, but without baseball, it’s not enough. This is the time of year where I try to psych myself into caring about the effect of the near-ubiquitous duckbill nose in the coming Formula 1 season. Early February is a rough time for me.

Which brings me to my point: all winter long, people I follow on Twitter (mostly women, for whatever reason, though that might just be a product of who I follow and is not meant to convey any sort of commentary on gender politics in modern sports fanhood) have been counting down to the start of spring training. “93 days until pitchers and catchers!” they said, back when that distance was so great as to be depressing. Now we’re within two weeks of that blessed day: “pitchers and catchers.” And I cannot bring myself to get excited about it. At all.

It seems like we fetishize training camp in baseball more than in other sports. I love soccer and hockey, but I have no idea when Arsenal starts their summer workout regimen, or even when they start playing exhibition games. The same for the Flyers–I went to a preseason game this past fall, but I have no memory of what month that game took place, even though Tom Sestito’s brutal, if massively illegal, hit on Ranger center Andre “Bel Biv” Deveaux was one of the highlights of my sporting 2011. No sport except for football, which magnifies and fetishizes everything, places such stock in its preseason. I think the name “pitchers and catchers” is part of the problem. It sounds cool and somehow in-the-know to say “pitchers and catchers,” I think, so we do it.

There’s also something to spring training marking the beginning of, you know, spring. Baseball is, perhaps more tied to the seasons than any other popular American game. Football has been played professionally in the United States in spring, summer, and fall. Basketball, a largely indoor undertaking, is almost devoid of seasonal or meteorological context, and ice hockey, for all the nostalgia about skating on frozen lakes with your buddies, in 2004 crowned its champion in June, in Florida, and holds its world championships in the summer. As for soccer, most of the world’s leagues play roughly a basketball schedule, August to May, while in the United States, Russia, and Scandinavia, the game runs through the summer.

So much for seasonal context.

But in baseball, weather and history dictate that we have “spring training,” the “boys of summer,” and the “fall classic.” The start of baseball, more than the equinox or warm weather, marks the start of spring, a sentiment captured by the poet Donald Hall. It’s beautiful stuff, and I appreciate that. I get that the trip down to Clearwater makes a nice spring vacation, and an opportunity to see the stars in a closer and more relaxed environment than you might find during a regular season game. At least I’d hope so, because if it weren’t a great baseball trip there’d be no rational reason to get that close to Tampa. I just don’t get the hysteria over practice. Not a game. Practice.

“Pitchers and catchers” makes for a nice temporal landmark, but from a baseball perspective, doesn’t mean anything. The entire team doesn’t even work out together for a full week after pitchers and catchers report, and doesn’t play an exhibition game until a week after that. Everyone’s been counting down to wind sprints, long toss, and weightlifting. They’ve been doing this all winter, folks. The only difference is that they’ll have called each other before coming to work and decided to all dress alike. Even if they wanted to play a game, they’d be seven guys short.

Then spring training games start, and after a couple days of watching Matt Rizzotti mash meaningless taters, we start to get down to business. Then we get to see who might be on form for the coming season, who’s developed a new pitch or altered his swing, and which unknown is set to make the leap and contribute in a big way. To say nothing of the return of Jim Thome and the first look at Jonathan Papelbon. That time, around the second week of March, is when I start getting excited about baseball–when something worth talking about happens.

Of course, if you do get all worked up for pitchers and catchers, more power to you. I certainly don’t think getting excited for preseason workouts is stupid or anything, and I’ll certainly be paying attention when it happens. It’s just hard to work up the enthusiasm, even for a deranged sports addict like me.

Exxon

Wilson Valdez was, to quote Bruce Springsteen, “that giant Exxon sign that brings this fair city light.”

I’ve written before at Phillies Nation about the complex and emotional relationship I’ve enjoyed with another Phillies shortstop, Jimmy Rollins, and in a way, my Phillies fandom regarding Exxon, as I’ve come to call him, has been even more emotional and and complex. I’d like to talk to you briefly, now that Exxon is no longer with us, about that relationship, and about the tenure of one of the more intriguingly polarizing athletes to come through Philadelphia in recent years.

I was in the stands for the home opener in 2010, when Jimmy Rollins unexpectedly injured himself on the dugout steps before the game. He was replaced in that game by Juan Castro, but the Phillies needed a new utility infielder if Castro was to take over full-time for Rollins at shortstop. On April 14, 2010, the Phillies called up Wilson Valdez from AAA Lehigh Valley. Now, when this happened, I had never heard of Valdez before. I texted a couple friends to tell them the news, and made the first of what must have been dozens of Exxon Valdez oil spill puns (“I hear he’s a slick fielder”) and thought that Valdez would, like thousands of other career minor leaguers, be up for a couple weeks while J-Roll got better.

But he didn’t. He stuck. And over the course of the summer of 2010, I came to hate Wilson Valdez in a way I’d never anticipated. It wasn’t so much that he wasn’t very good at baseball–after all, he was, like all pro ballplayers, the best player he was capable of becoming–it was the way, for some reason, fans took to him. People started voicing the opinion that Valdez was a preferable alternative to Jimmy Rollins going forward, that as a rookie he had more to offer than Rollins. Never mind that Valdez was actually six months older than Rollins and, at 32, hadn’t been anything resembling a prospect in nearly a decade. Hearing about how “clutch” he was, for the double he hit in the 11th inning to put the Phillies ahead against the Giants on April 28. For the single he hit to put the Phillies ahead against the Diamondbacks on July 29. They raved about his throwing arm (which we’ll get to later), and called him a great defensive player, even though no one had gathered any significant data on his range or ability to convert chances once he got to them. Soon enough, in my mind at least, Wilson Valdez was the poster child for confirmation bias and the shortsightedness of a fan base too stubborn or lazy (or whatever) to realize that Exxon not only had an OBP well below .300, but was grounding into double plays at a historic rate.

I called him Exxon not out of the same sense of fun, glee, and adoration with which I call Roy Halladay “Doc” or Antonio Bastardo “Tony No-Dad,” but with malice in my heart and the glint of hatred in my eye. I dreaded his trips to the plate. I once went to a bar and wound up screaming a string of obscenities and statistics at a friend of a friend who suggested that he’d rather have Exxon at the plate with the game on the line than Jayson Werth, who was at that time in the midst of both the best season of his career and a bizarre and fluky slump with runners in scoring position. Then there was that nonsense about Wilson Valdez being the team’s MVP. Give me a break. All the while I tried to keep calm and spread the gospel: Wilson Valdez Isn’t As Good As You Think He Is, culminating in this post, on Sept. 29, in which I wrote the following:

“And how about this–he’s come to the plate with a runner on first and less than two out only 82 times this season. In those plate appearances, he has 20 GIDP, and only 18 hits. I’ll repeat that for the cheap seats: with a runner on first and less than 2 outs, Wilson Valdez is more likely to ground into a double play than he is to get a hit. “Dreadful” hardly does that statistic justice.”

Complex and emotional indeed. The comments for that post, unfortunately, were deleted when Phillies Nation underwent its site redesign last year, but there were more than 100 of them before the furor died down. To Exxon’s credit, he came to the plate once more that season with the opportunity to ground into a double play, and he got a hit.

After 2010, however, order was restored. Jimmy Rollins was healthy and reasonably productive, and Wilson Valdez was returned to a role more suited to player of his talents: utility infielder. Of course, Chase Utley missed the first eight weeks of the season or so, but there was always a sense that he’d come back soon enough, and if he didn’t, the Phillies would be screwed no matter who replaced him.

Two days after Utley returned, on May 25, 2011, the complexity of my relationship with Exxon grew tremendously.

By this point, Wilson Valdez had gone from unknown quantity, to minor nuisance, to my personal Moby Dick, then back to nuisance and minor curiosity as his role with the team was reduced. I still feared the medium-speed ground ball to second that seemed to come every time he came up with a man on, but after a while, with Utley on the mend, Exxon was set to return to obscurity. Or so it seemed.

Paul Boye and I went to the 19-inning game together, and, well, in short, it was the best experience I’ve ever had at a live sporting event. That was, of course, due in large part to seeing an infielder pitch–and more than that, the infielder upon which I’d heaped so much attention and anger. I remember sitting in the stands, jumping up and down, clapping, screaming, and chittering like a schoolgirl at the sight of the man whose mere existence sent me into a homicidal rage. I had turned the corner. I had caught Valdez Fever.

After that night, after those of us who stayed up until 1 a.m. to watch the game had seen a below-average utility infielder retire not only the National League’s hottest hitter but the National League’s reigning MVP, shaking off Sardinha and recording 380-foot outs. It was remarkable theater, and one of the highlights of a season that would ultimately end in disappointment.

I loved Wilson Valdez.

It seems silly to speak of legacy for a player who played a marginal role for a little under two seasons, and wasn’t much more than passable in that marginal role, but for some reason Valdez took on a larger-than-life quality. It still baffles me why. He’s not the first light-hitting backup shortstop to get a key hit or two, or the first one to have a weird goatee. Maybe he was lovable for the same reason Bill James said Pedro Martinez was great–a multitude of small advantages that compound each other. I really couldn’t tell you. I never could stand him as a player.

But the fact of the matter is that we can’t judge Exxon as a player alone. It’s almost as if we have Wilson Valdez, Infielder, who’s a replacement-level player, but then we have Wilson Valdez, Literary Hero, who’s capable of bringing joy to the masses through legendary feats of sporting averageness.

In the end, I’m amazed that Ruben Amaro was able to ship off a 33-year-old utilityman who can’t really hit to a club on the verge of contention for a 26-year-old lefty who looks like he could be worth a damn. In July 2010, I would have open-mouth kissed anyone who told me that the Phillies would one day trade Exxon for someone like Jeremy Horst. This trade is an excellent baseball move. But seeing Wilson Valdez sent packing, now that I’ve embraced the joy and absurdity that comes with watching him play, fills me with sadness. I’m not even sure I’ll miss him because I’ll miss hating him. I think I may have genuinely caught some of that Exxon fever, and now that he’s gone, I’m not sure watching the Phillies will ever be the same.