Sunday, April 6, 2008

Baseball and Impressionism

While I'm sitting here, trying to figure out how many different ways I can explain why an alliance between England and Spain in the 1490s was important, something else has entered my mind.

See, on Friday, I went grocery shopping, as I do every so often because food is a very good thing to have. In DeWitt, NY, which is about a fifteen minute drive from where I live in Syracuse, there's a very large Wegman's, which, aside from having a gigantic organic/anti-allergenic section and amazing seafood for the middle of upstate NY, also has an almost bookstore-quality magazine selection, and an impressive selection of books for a relatively cheap price. So, when I saw Baseball Prospectus for 20% off the cover price of $21.95, I jumped.

I've been reading it--not quite cover-to-cover, but close. I started with the Yankees, and then went on to AL East teams, and now I'm going through the rest of the American League alphabetically before I tackle the National League.

It's an amazing guide, and it almost actually makes me interested in the math (my dad would have a heart attack if he knew), but I almost feel like I need to study it like a textbook and write up quizzes to make sure I remember who's who and what all the translated PECOTA stats are.

The thing I notice about this, breaking down each team into player-by-player, is that you end up focusing so much on the details that you almost lose sight of the larger picture. In fact, if it wasn't for the well-written introductory essays on each team, you would get lost. This isn't a fault on Baseball Prospectus's part; their job is predicting player performance, and by extension team performance, and they're damned good at it.

The problem is when we--the fans and non-GMs or baseball analysts--get so wrapped up in, say, Wang's WHIP or Johnny Damon's VORP, we can forget to look at everything else going on around it. For instance, we forget that Wang's won more games over the past two seasons than any other major-league pitcher, and he's got his best years ahead of him.

Perhaps a better comparison: imagine yourself at the Louvre, looking at a Monet masterpiece. You're intrigued by the composition--and you should be, because that's what impressionism does to you--but eventually you spend so much time looking at one or two brush strokes, that you forget to take in the painting as a whole. Then there are the factors that have an effect on the picture that you don't know just from looking at it, such as how Monet nearly went blind. For comparison, consider something like the off-season knee injury to Aaron Boone--because of something totally unrelated to baseball, a pick-up basketball game, the Yankees ended up with a guy projected to break the all-time Home Run record if he stays healthy in Alex Rodriguez.

Stats won't give you that.

You'd never think that putting a baseball team together would be like a work of art, but in multiple ways, it really is. First, you need the right painter with the right skills, which would be like saying you need the right GM. If we go back to the Renaissance, in art history, you also need a wealthy patron to fund you--this would be the owner not afraid of spending money.

Next, you need the right set of brushes--the right manager and the right coaches for the job. Do you go with a thick brush, one that will let the paints speak for themselves, or a small brush, to work out all the details? Usually you need multiple brushes to get it right.

Only then do you worry about the paints, or the players, but even then, there's a lot there.

First, there's the question of whether you mix your own paints (develop your own prospects) or use whatever your patron has in stock or go out and buy from a dealer (think Boras) that might ask for a lot and give you a horrible quality color.

Then there's the color scheme: are you going to emphasize bold colors--the home run hitters and the power pitchers--or use a more muted palate, with your control pitchers and manufactured runs?

Next you need to figure out which colors to apply first--which players do you build your team around? Is it just one or multiple? Do they mix well, or do they clash horribly?

Last, but certainly not least, you need to consider exposure: Is this painting hung under controlled conditions in a gallery like the Ufizzi or the Louvre? Does this team play in a place that lives for baseball, like New York, Boston, Chicago or St. Louis, or is it hidden away in some dusty attic? I've got a comparison here, but as I want to be fairly diplomatic, I won't rag on any one city in particular. Does this artwork age well? Or is it a one-year wonder like the '03 Marlins?

In an ideal world, all of the steps work as they're supposed to, and you end up with the Mona Lisa or Birth of Venus, like the 1998 Yankees, but most of the time there will be something amiss.

The question is, do you dwell on it? Do you dwell on the brush stroke that doesn't quite fit in with the rest? Do you dwell on the choice of using a bold red over a deeper, richer burgundy (think, do you spend time debating over whether you'd rather have someone hit 40 home runs, like A-Rod, or have a .300+ batting average for your career, like Jeter?)

Or can you step back and appreciate the painting--or the team--for what it is as a whole? Can you recognize that there are factors that have gone into the making of the portrait that you'd never know from the finished product? Like the Aaron Boone pick-up game or perhaps the historical reasons baseball is so popular in Japan, hence the number of Japanese major leaguers?

Sabermetrics, statistics, whatever you call them, are important. They're a crucial piece of the whole any way you look at them, for position players or pitchers, rookies or veterans, even managers or coaches.

They're not the entire picture, though. If you focus just on that--if you read a guide like Baseball Prospectus, which will give you the best fantasy team on the planet--but forget to look at anything else, you will get lost.

The gallery of baseball has some great works of art. If you only focus on the technical side of things, you run the risk of forgetting why it's beautiful in the first place.


  1. Rebecca - your writing is so good that you can turn a trip to Wegman's and buying Baseball Propectus into a "masterpiece". I have never thought of the comparison you used but it was really good.

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  3. Fran: You made me giggle! Thank you =)

    I wasn't sure if the comparison would work or not and I'm not sure the stat geeks will be too happy, but I like it.

  4. Rebecca what is your thesis about?? I am currently writing mine also.

  5. Jim: I'm writing mine on Henry VII and the stabilization of the English monarchy.

    What are you doing yours on?

  6. The trick about stats is to look at enough of them to understand the big picture, just like stepping away from a painting. Monet is a great example for just this reason.

    Looking at Wang's WHIP is like focussing on a few brush strokes of "Water Lilies". To take in the full picture you need to check out a huge assortment of things: groundball, fly ball, and line drive percentages; K:BB ratio; contact rates; defensive efficiency of the defense behind him; Pitch f/x measures the speed and break of pitches (though that is still in its infancy.

    All of this isn't meant to replace watching the game, scouting, traditional observation- the goal is to confirm or refute what our eyes are telling us. And stats only tell us about the past, projecting players is still largely a scouting endeavor in recognizing body types, mechanics, and work ethic.

  7. I am writing mine about the cultural and institutional differences between Italy and Germany that lead to contrasting post-communist systems of government post-WWII.

  8. Your topic seems interesting by the way. Good luck with it!

  9. Great post. I feel the same way about SABRmetrics. Important stuff but not the whole picture. There are a lot of things out there that the numbers just can't quite capture.

    I enjoy the blog - keep it up!

    SU Class of '94
    and Recent Yankees Blogger

  10. Rebecca - you need to get this published -- you need to send this to the BP people; you need to do something with it. This was an awesome discussion of the climate in baseball analysis right now: scouting versus sabermetrics.

    PLEASE do something with this essay. It is an incredible piece of writing.

    (I keep forgetting my pw)

  11. Doreen: Thanks for that. Not sure the people at BP will agree with me, but you never know. =)