Nationals Baseball: Impenetrable rationality with apparent mystery

Friday, March 08, 2013

Impenetrable rationality with apparent mystery

Boz is at it again. Even when saying something that is completely and utterly right - the Nats may be very successful over the next 3-5 years and never win a World Series - he has to play up some mythical angle. In this article it's about the "apparent rationality with impenetrable mystery" that is baseball. Thing is - that's backward. The rationality is not "apparent", it is in fact very real. The mystery is not impenetrable, it is in fact very explainable.

Baseball is so rational that if you gave me two numbers, just two, Runs Scored and Runs Allowed, I'd have like a 50% chance of getting a teams record within 2 games. I'd have a better than an 80% chance of getting it within 5. This is the case knowing nothing else about the team at all. The same applies to individuals. You give me a player's stats in his career, and I'll have a damn good chance of nailing his stats in any situation where he's had a lot of at bats. Playoffs, RISP, whatever. It's the fact that baseball is made up of repeated events over the course of a very long season that makes it entirely rational.

Entirely rational does NOT mean that events can be predicted with 100% accuracy. But that's not "mystery", it's variability. Calling it "mystery" is akin to thinking demons must be in play if a dice roll lands on a 1 because 2 through 6 was far more likely. We know why we don't know.  It's because we CAN'T know. That's the way the world works. But to me that's not mystery. A mystery is something we can't understand, that can't be explained. The fact that random chance plays into a baseball season ultimately ending in success or failure, that random chance dictates who would end up performing the best in a short 4-7 game period, is both understandable and explainable.

This is Boz getting better though.  Taking the fact we can't predict the exact way things will play out and making it into mystery is far better than making it into a statement on heart or attitude or chemsitry.

Other notes

In the past three years which MLB teams have won the most games? The Yankees, Phillies, Rangers, Rays and Braves. .... None has won a World Series. Only one, Texas, has even reached the Series. That’s what being a tip-top team in a multi-year window insures you: nada.
Correct final point made BUT why does he stop at the five highest? Because if you toss in the 6th you get the Giants and 2 more WS appearances (and wins) in the past 3 years.  Why does he look at the last 3 years? Because if you go to say 5 years, you'd run into both the Yankees and Phillies winning (and the Phillies and Tampa Bay losing). I'd say the take away is really "That’s what being a tip-top team in a multi-year window insures you : multiple relatively small chances at ultimate success. The more chances you have the better."  

Is Boz right? The Braves should have only won 2 World Series over those 14 pennant years? Well the math is fuzzy. What chance do you give the Braves of winning a single game vs team X? It should be lower than their overall win percentage because they are playing better teams. Then again it should be adjusted too for the pitcher being used.  But making some fair assumptions, I think 2 sounds about right.  I could crunch it, but I'm guessing they'd have been expected to be in around 5 WS and win about 2.

Boz says this: 
The NBA Finals have had 44 Most Valuable Players. Forty winners (91 percent) are in the Hall of Fame or will be. Michael Jordan won six times. Of 47 Super Bowl MVPs, 32 are or will be in Canton. That’s 68 percent. 
True but it's kind of an unfair comparison. In the NBA and the NFL the offense is in control of the ball.  In both cases you are going to go through your best offensive player as much as you can. These are likely to be high quality, if not Hall of Fame type players. In baseball it's much harder to do this on offense because you don't control the ball and the structure of the game is working against you. Your best regular hitter is only going to get a couple more plate appearances than your worst regular over the course of a series, and that's if they actually pitch to him. On "defense" baseball is limited by fatigue. Your best pitcher is probably only going to be seen twice, one mediocre outing and his MVP chance is likely done.

Since ’81, just seven of the 34 World Series MVPs are or will be in the Hall of Fame. We could debate a few borderline players.
Fine point but it makes it seem like it's a total crapshoot who wins it when in reality it's more likely a good player will win the MVP than a bad one.  Wonder why Boz starts with 1981? It's not because of the strike (would make more sense to start with 1982 in that case). It's because from 1961 through 1980 future HoFers won 14 out of 20 MVPs (and one of the other 6 was Pete Rose).  Just saying. Kurt Suzuki might win the WS MVP, but a smart man puts his money on Ryan Zimmerman.


cass said...

Thank you for reading Boz's article so we don't have to. Those sound like some pretty dishonest arbitrary endpoints. I used to occasionally correct factual errors in his chats and he never posted the corrections.

He seems to be someone who cares far more about supporting his argument than finding out the truth. I'm continually baffled by the level of respect he gets. He had a couple decent articles about the Strasburg Shutdown last year, but I think he mostly lucked into those because he was trying to defend his favorite team and its owners.

Harper said...

cass - eh this wasn't too bad because what you'd casually take from the article (It'll be tough for the Nats to win the WS. If they get there anyone could win MVP) aren't wrong. He was just over-emphasizing the arbitrariness of it all. The better teams have a better chance of winning WS. The better players have a better chance of winning MVP.

Still I think it's better to follow Boz too far in the other direction than where most fans are now thinking being the best team affords you like a 50/50 shot of winning the WS and being the best player makes you a super favorite to win the MVP

Anonymous said...

Boz's March 5 column on Bryce Harper was a classic. It included a fair share of hype, optimistic projections and statistical cherry picking. This paragraph in particular made me laugh out loud:

"Most projections for Harper put him into the wrong category: all ballplayers. Compared to everybody, anyone’s chances of being superb look dim. But what if we compare Harper to a more accurate peer group: No. 1 overall draft picks taken out of high school that played power positions?"

JWLumley said...

Gotta love Boz...okay you don't actually have to, but there's something reassuring about Boz vomiting words onto the page. When he's right he takes a Captain Obvious point and tries to paint into Homer's Iliad. I mean baseball's pretty interesting, but it's not the Trojan War.

Donald said...

I think one of the things that sets baseball apart from the other big sports is the degree of analytics we have which allows someone like you to predict pretty accurately how a team or player will do over time. But like with weather forecasting, the models sometime fail.

Boz seems to struggle with this a lot in his columns. Sometimes, it's like he's trying to figure out that missing variable that needs measuring to make it all work -- like team chemistry or 'clutch' hitting. Today, even while it seems like he's saying the answer is completely arbitrary, I think he's still trying to find the missing variables, like which teams had mid-season pickups or which teams have mid-level guys who over perform in the clutch. He keeps poring over the data, using arbitrary end points to find that magic formula for what makes a winner.

He might need a stern talking to from Nate Silver.

Froggy said...


I always wondered what happened to him after he got run over by Bo Jackson.

@ Anon...Boz's Harper column was such nonsense I had to read it twice to confirm it was nonsense.

Section 222 said...

Great piece. Arbitrary endpoints are the hobgoblins of little baseball minds.

D28 said...

I read and enjoyed Boz' article for the attempt to lower everyone's expectations. After writing so much about how great this team is sure to be, I'm glad he took it down a notch. The last thing I want to hear is the whining of so many bandwagon fans after they have their hopes dashed. I think the article is good because there will be so much to love about our game and our team this summer.

However the cherry picking statistics is hilariously terrible! Thanks for another excellent article.

Mike said...

Can someone explain to me when Boz became unreadable? It seems to me like it just happened all of a sudden.

Will said...

Wow. So this is just a sh*t on Boz fest? He's one of the best baseball writers in the country, and has been for some time. Even in a column where he tries to dampen expectations, you're all over him. The contrarian angle is annoying. Write your soulless analysis, which is interesting, but it's no fun to read you beating on others for not doing the same.

Wally said...

I don't really get all the Boz-bashing. So, Boz uses arbitrary endpoints? almost all end points are arbitrary. sometimes there is learning that can be had there; oftentimes there isn't.

my point is that Boz is extremely readable. He is a mainstream guy that plays with stats enough to usually offer an interesting viewpoint to the more casual fan. That drums up interest in the game and the team, which is a good thing. No one should be expecting to see his stuff on Fangraphs, but at least he isn't writing 'best shape if his life' stuff.

Harper said...

Anon #1 - On one hand - yeah totally classically Boztimistic (optimistic with a stray paragraph stating he could be wrong). On the other hand - man Bryce should be really, really, good. I can really forgive being overly optimistic about him (part of the reason I didn't write about that column)

PP - That is the columnist role though, most people don't want sports in context. They want sports as the most important thing.

Donald - totally agree. Boz has always understood stats matter, that it's not just geeks in the basement, but he's stuck on how to marry the magical world of baseball that has enraptured him for years, and the statistical revolution which dismisses the mystery. He's still better than most columnists stuck fighting the usefulness of stats

Froggy - you wouldn't know it but Oklahoma has a great journalism program (actually I have no idea if I'm being sarcastic or not)

Sec 222- thanks

D28 - Personally I think he's talking himself down as much as everyone else. But it matters - no ones going to listen to me saying the Nats aren't likely to win, but they'll pay attention to Boz. Hopefully losing won't lead to overreaction - of course then I look at how the fanbase has turned on Storen...

Mike - ummmm May 18th 2007 @ 3:34 PM.

Will - I don't disagree. He IS one of the best writers and I did think after writing this it was a little unfair, because usually if I write about Boz I'm picking out something that's obviously just wrong (the classic example '05 Guzman praise) . But then I looked at those endpoints and that is just a pet peeve of mine. I can't let that go. Read it if you like, skip it if you don't. I don't know if I can tell you anything other than that.

Will said...

Harper I've been reading the blog going on 2 years now, I just had an issue with this particular post plus some of the comments section. I'll be reading because I think it's a good blog!

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Froggy said...

Dude, how about that Canada / Mexico game eh hosers?

Question I have is why wasn't the Mexico 3b immediately ejected for telling the pitcher to hit the batter? And if I'm the batter, after getting thrown at twice and then plunked on the third pitch, why isn't he just body slamming the dog snot out of the catcher since he is the one who called the pitch.

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blovy8 said...

Boswell wrote some great books in the 80s about baseball. Well, at least I thought so at the time. I don't really think the math has passed him by, this was a guy trying to come up with Total Average back then, which while very flawed, was at least trying to quantify more areas of performance than the back of the card stats. Perhaps that was Earl Weaver's influence, or maybe he just did have the reporter's urge to find the real story when he was younger.

It's just as you say though, part of a columnist's role is to have an opinion. I suspect he wouldn't have a problem with your arguments, since part of the idea is to create some point worth arguing about - if it's the same crap over and over who will read it and who would want to write it? The guy has to be giddy writing these "how good can he/they be?" articles about a DC team.

The Post's other sports columnists aren't in the same ballpark for style. I can't even read Jason Reid, it's an utter waste of time.