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Nov 06

Uncle Joe vs the stats freaks

FT + Proven By Science + TMFD23 comments • 1,485 views

Joe MorganWho is Joe Morgan and why are these people so eager to have him fired? These days Joe is an avuncular chap who dresses like he owns a small chain of successful used car dealerships. Back in the late 70s, when I first started watching baseball, Joe was coming to the end of a glorious career playing second base. He then moved from the field to the commentary booth, where he resides comfortably to this day (and can be encountered by UK audiences deep in the night on Five). And from where the Fire Joe Morgan folk would like him evicted post-haste.

Is Joe that bad? I have no problem with him. I’ve heard an awful lot of sports punditry on an awful lot of sports in my time (bullfighting on the radio: now there’s a real test of broadcasting skill), and Joe is a considerably long way from the worst I have come across. In a world where Andy Townsend and Alan Shearer are generously paid to offer their opinions, Joe’s employment is no scandal.

Fire Joe Morgan make a good case, though, applying the scalpel of close analysis not only to Joe’s broadcasting work, but his writing for ESPN.com. The writing, I’ll admit, often falls apart under detailed inspection. The FJM writers also do a fine job of criticising and satirising the whole range of baseball pundits. They’re funny, they’re knowledgeable and some of them write well. And yet, they can also be rather creepy, because the FJMers appear to be dogmatists. Their underlying gripe against Morgan is that he refuses to agree that statistics offer the only sensible way of analysing baseball or running a baseball team.

Now, baseball has always been a stats-obsessed game: players have always been judged on their numbers, manager’s strategy has depended on them, American kids have probably grown up better at maths (or math, indeed) because they are brought up working out batting averages. But over recent years, there has been a massive escalation of the importance of numbers in the game, not to mention an extraordinary proliferation of statistics. Once upon a time, batters were judged mostly on batting average, runs batted in and home runs; pitchers on wins and losses (actually more arcane than you might think) and the relatively easy-to-explain earned run average. These have been joined in short order by OPS and ERA+ and WHIP and the frankly bonkers VORP (value over replacement player), which the stats geeks just love, and many more These are part of never-ending quest for the ultimate stat, the one that will explain a player’s worth beyond dispute.

It all started with a guy called Bill James, who from the 1970s attacked baseball conventional wisdom with detailed statistical analysis, a system eventually known as sabermetrics*. But it came of age in the late 1990s when Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland As, started using sabermetrics to run his club, as described in the bestselling book Moneyball]. Although Beane himself had been a (not very good) professional ballplayer, his disciples, who soon fanned out across the game, were a wave of Harvard and Yale grads who loved the numbers. And out in fandom, this was a magical time. For all those kids who loved the game, but had never been that big or strong or quick, who knew from the age of seven that they were never going to be pro athletes, the tide had turned. In the new dispensation, managers, the old lags who had played the game and looked after training and chewed tobacco making decisions during the game, were now deemed near irrelevant. The new kings of baseball were the GMs, suited and office-bound but running actual major league teams as if this was fantasy baseball. Twentysomething Ivy League brats like Theo Epstein of the Boston Red Sox and Paul DePodesta of the LA Dodgers had supposedly foregone making fortunes with hedge funds to shuffle squads of millionaire ballplayers, forever looking for the undervalued gem on an opponent’s playing staff. While in earlier times baseball stat madness had been focussed during games (should you bring in a lefthanded pitcher just to face a lefthanded batter because the percentages call for it?), now it seemed that all the work was done in the assembling of the squad. Few people grow up with a realistic dream of hitting a home run to win the World Series, many could imagine being a GM.

From this side of the Atlantic, it can all seem a little strange. Although the papers run OPTA data and coaches like Steve McClaren and Arsene Wenger are apparently forever checking diagrams on their laptops, football punditry in Britain is still ruled by calls for passion, Churchill and ‘Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’. Stranger still, perhaps, is the comparison between baseball and cricket. Cricket, after all, is a game that is pure numbers. On Test Match Special, they have a numbers bloke in the commentary booth, although he’s only allowed to speak when spoken to. Players are constantly ranked in terms of their figures. And cricket does something that I don’t think baseball stat freaks could possibly dream of: it officially decides who wins and loses rain-shortened one-day games on the basis of mathematical predictions of which team would have won.

Yet there is no peer pressure on the casual fan to understand the Duckworth-Lewis method. If basic bowling and batting averages are easy to grasp, then the long-established LG ICC Player Rankings, which assess player performance in relation to where the game was played, against who, under what conditions etc, are widely accepted without anyone suggesting that Geoffrey Boycott should be sacked if he can’t explain exactly how the algorithm that determines them works. But that is exactly what the Fire Joe Morgan people demand: for middle-aged ex-sportsmen to chat about maths with the assurance of seasoned economists, or else to step aside and leave discussion of the game to people who can do nonlinear regression in their sleep. Do they really think that would make for good TV or radio? (Mind you, in the digital age, this could and maybe should be an alternative: choose between analysis from some old-time pro or two representatives of Stanford’s TMSCSCS project.

I have no massive fear of stats. I was a big fan of Gavyn Davies’s Guardian numbers column. When it comes to issues of public health, housing and crime, evidence normally trumps hunches, although it is always worth remembering that it is easy, without twisting the figures, to show that the US is both the most and least generous country when it comes to providing foreign aid.

But a sport that could be worked out in advance – as if it were no more than Top Trumps – would be no fun at all. Here are some of things that the most dedicated baseball stats heads don’t believe exist: momentum, team spirit, the impact of stirring speeches, players who rise to the occasion in crucial situations. This approach is disturbingly deterministic. An episode of hokey math-thriller Numb3rs, oddly enough, suggested a connection between an unhealthy love of baseball stats and fascism, which is clearly taking things too far. But if I thought their hearts or heads could be swayed at all, I’d recommend that the FJM team watch Adam Curtis’s Pandora Box, about how assorted attempts to apply science to politics came a cropper.

Even Billy Beane, the original stats-friendly baseball general manager, admits there’s a limit to the power of stats. His (relatively) low-budget Oakland As have been very successful during the regular season. Beane, however, described the knockout play-off rounds that determine baseball’s champions as “a crapshoot”, and the Beane As have yet to make it to a World Series. Theo Epstein’s Red Sox did win it all, in 2004, but along the way they had discarded some of Bill James’s more radical theories, and no baseball team in recent memory has put more faith in the idea of team spirit. The numbers can tell you some of the story, but never the whole story. And Joe Morgan? He seems fairly secure in his well-paid job, so I guess he doesn’t need me to worry about him after all.

*(Bill James’ method foreshadowed the fashionable Freakonomics, although inevitably the two movements clash over who really understands the stats).

Comments

  1. 1
    Tim on 1 Nov 2006 #

    Football’s even worse than the Keeganish motivational mysticism: it treasures the concept of “the football man”. TFM understand the world, interpersonal relations and (particularly) the game of soccer in a way which we mere mortals can’t understand. The concept serves to justify all kinds of otherwise inexplicable behaviour, but also to suggest that football is ultimately unknowable to outsiders. TFM exists beyond statistics, in fact beyond rationality.

    I’ve heard it said that baseball is fundamentally a machine for generating stats, and that it’s in stats that the pleasure in baseball derives. But the only game I ever saw was a huge pile of fun, with the exception of the moment when I was put right out of temper by the appearance near my seat of that hideous freak, Mr. Mets.

  2. 2
    jeff w on 1 Nov 2006 #

    Joe Morgan is far less annoying than Rick Sutcliffe was during this WS.

    The Cardinals’ WS triumph could be cited in evidence by the stats dogmatists: Tony La Russa constantly changed things around according to the percentages, while the Tigers’ Jim Leyland largely kept faith with individuals who in the end came up short. But I agree with you that the stats can only get you so far.

    (I know this wasn’t your main point, but I don’t think the cricket parallels hold up simply because batsmen and bowlers just can’t perform consistently to the degree that baseball players can. For one thing, cricketers can’t really “warm up” in the way that e.g. pitchers do. And these days, cricketers rarely play day in, day out. There is also that regular transition from county level to test match level and back, which – within a season anyway – most US baseball players don’t experience. In short, I don’t think cricket averages are as useful a barometer as baseball stats tend to be.)

  3. 3
    Mark M on 1 Nov 2006 #

    Yes, but Jeff, the extremes of post-Jamesian stat freakery have rejected the in-game tinkering of La Russa (who has himself become an involuntary icon for the old pros brigade), along with the idea that the order in which players bats matter. It’s all about whether a GM has assembled the right team.

  4. 4
    tracerhand on 1 Nov 2006 #

    There’s a clubby aspect to stats freaks which hews closely to who’s in fantasy leagues and who’s not. This clubbiness can manifest itself in outright hatred of players that know-nothing sentimentalists seem to like but who don’t produce stats that help a fantasy team win, i.e. the Wally Backmans and David Ecksteins of the world. Which is fair enough among fantasy-league friends, but added onto the fact that fantasy leaguers will boo their own hometown team if one of its players happens to appear on a fantasy rival’s roster, and you’ve got a portrait of a fan who has lost almost every ounce of purchase on the game itself.

  5. 5
    jeff w on 1 Nov 2006 #

    Ah, right. Well count me with the old schoolers then.

  6. 6
    CarsmileSteve on 2 Nov 2006 #

    TMS, of course, is really an excuse for a bunch of chaps to have a jolly nice chat and some cake, occasionally interrupted by some cricket…

  7. 7
    Mark M on 2 Nov 2006 #

    I love TMS and mourn its infiltration by people from Five bloody Live.

  8. 8

    (i judge that: u&k for extension of FT brand = CAKE!)

  9. 9
    Tim on 29 Dec 2006 #

    Here are some of things that the most dedicated baseball stats heads don’t believe exist: momentum, team spirit, the impact of stirring speeches, players who rise to the occasion in crucial situations.

    That’s not strictly true – what they believe isn’t so much that they don’t exist, but that they can’t be usefully measured, and have no particular predictive value so that their use in roster contruction is minimal at best.

    the extremes of post-Jamesian stat freakery have rejected … the idea that the order in which players bats matter.

    Not strictly true – it’s simply that studies have shown that the difference the batting order makes is so small as to be effectively pointless alongside the inevitable random variations from expected performance over the course of a season.

    This whole stat-fan vs old school thinking seems bizarre to me. I started watching baseball in October 1999 when my work sent me to New York during the playoffs, and I got engrossed in the Mets’ playoff games, particualrly the fantastic NLCS against Atlanta. On returning to England I wanted to find out more, so naturally turned to the internet to read about baseball. It seemed odd that sabermetric people were having to be so defensive about what they said, as not having grown up with old school thinking, it seemed like nothing more than common sense that a batter shouldn’t be judged by his RBI totals, or a pitcher judged by his W-L record as these figures were as much a result of his teammates’ performance as his own.

  10. 10
    Mark M on 3 Jan 2007 #

    “they can’t be usefully measured, and have no particular predictive value so that their use in roster contruction is minimal at best”

    See, this is where I can’t go along with the post-Jamesians: assembling a (real rather than fantasy) team is not like (say) licensing medicine, where you certainly should be incredibly wary of things you can’t measure. Running a sports team, like putting together a pop group, is all about juggling personalities. Going against that leads to the situation like the one at the Los Angeles Dodgers during the reign of Paul Depodesta, where he brought Jeff Kent, a player who – rightly or wrongly – has been accused of not getting on with African-Americans, into a team that contained Milton Bradley, who can be one very angry black man, with the inevitable result that the two of them had a massive bust-up. Now, the statistics might not have predicted that, but the tiniest bit of attention to human behaviour would have…

  11. 11
    Mark M on 3 Jan 2007 #

    “it seemed like nothing more than common sense that a batter shouldn’t be judged by his RBI totals, or a pitcher judged by his W-L record as these figures were as much a result of his teammates’ performance as his own.”

    I’m with you on that – I’m all for better stats, I just don’t think that Joe or I need to be able to work them out ourselves, or accept them unconditionally.

  12. 12
    Tim on 17 Jan 2007 #

    Hmm. To be fair, we should point out that Paul Podesta’s record at the Dodgers went Year One, win division, Year Two, be very unlucky with injuries, Year Three, get run out of town by idiot hacks.

    It’s certainly true to say that it’s not all in the statistics, but what many of the people saying that don’t seem to accept is that some of it has to be. And this is why we see the likes of Neifi Perez getting multi-year contracts every winter – for all their hustle and being great clubhouse guys they’re killing the team with their actual performance.

  13. 13
    Mark M on 27 May 2010 #

    I’m reading SImon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski’s Why England Lose, which avowedly attempts to bring a Bill Jamesian approach to the analysis of football [soccer]. It’s pretty interesting so far, although like a lot of people who tell you how rigorous their approach is, Kuper and Szymanski indulge in some sloppy thinking – their bit of the class origins of the England team is classic apples and oranges. Also, their constant referencing of Moneyball is a bit wearing, especially for anyone who knows how rubbish the Oakland As have been in the year since the book came out. The Lyon story, which they couch as football’s Moneyball, is actually vastly more impressive than anything achieved by Billy Beane. More when I’ve finished reading it…

  14. 14
    Mark M on 1 Jun 2010 #

    So I’ve finished the book. A couple of further thoughts:

    1) Carsmile Steve was pointing out that one of the inherent problems with this book is that baseball generates endless formal measurements during the game, and football doesn’t. Which might explain why there’s little in Why England Lose about individual players.

    2) The question raised by the title is in fact impossible to answer in serious statistical terms because there are so few top level international tournaments, and during the knock-out phases we’re in Billy Beane’s crapshoot*. In an attempt to get round this, the authors do a table based on all international matches, before admitting so many of those games are terrible Asian qualifiers that the table isn’t worth bothering with after all…

    3) The bit where they try to work which country is best at sport is the kind of thing that discredits economists everywhere.

    4) There’s an interesting bit about the malnutrition and scrawniness of South African players, but that’s extrapolated to explain why African teams as a whole will continue to struggle – without any mention of the trademark brick-shithouse West African midfielders of the Yaya Toure/Pape Bouba Diop variety.

    4) The main conclusion is that international tournaments will largely be dominated by big, rich countries who know how to play football – plus big and not-so-rich Brazil – which the authors take to mean that in the long run US, China and Turkey will eclipse European teams bar maybe Germany. I think this is dubious. What they don’t mention is that seeing as Brazil is getting much richer and remaining big, Brazil will have an even more dominant place in world football.

    5) The best parts of the book are not stats-centred: they are the Lyon story and Gus Hiddink’s adventures in international management.

    *Except as Jonathan Wilson points out, the World Cup seems stubbornly unrandom – since 1962 it’s only been won by the hosts or past winners.

  15. 15
    Mark M on 21 Jun 2011 #

    The trailer for the long-delayed Moneyball movie, starring Brad Pitt as Billy Beane, is out. The movie opens in the US just before the baseball play-offs, which would seem like cunning timing… if Beane’s Oakland A’s weren’t currently in last in their division. To be fair, they’re not so far behind they’ve got no chance of saving their season, but I do wonder whether over the end of the film they’ll run the words ‘Since the events covered in this film, the Oakland A’s have been mediocrity personified’.

  16. 16
    Mark M on 30 Oct 2011 #

    Demi Lovato v Zooey Deschanel – fite! OK, not an actual handbags at dawn duel, but a Movieline debate about whether the Disney princess or the indie pin-up (currently starring a ropey-looking sitcom soon to be on E4) sang the US national anthem better at the recent World Series*. Zooey for me, predictably – she has a couple of flat moments and a couple of whispers but nails the crucial “O! say does that star-spangled banner yet wave” bit.

  17. 18
    Mark M on 28 Mar 2014 #

    So I’m reading The Signal And The Noise, by Nate Silver, the baseball statshead who became ‘the man who gets election predictions right’. The chapter on baseball is, interestingly, fairly conciliatory (especially compared with the one on political punditry). Silver points out, for instance, although one of the central narrative lines in Moneyball was the numbers beating the scouts, the Oakland As scouting department is now bigger than ever. When it comes to minor league players, he says, trust the scouts. Throughout the book, he says you need human judgement as well as stats, and he doesn’t dismiss intangibles – some, but not all, of which may be tangible in time*. In contrast to the LA Dodgers clashing personality disaster mentioned above, he thinks that players off-field behaviour should be taken into account, no matter what their current numbers says. He also says that Bill James, the ‘father’ of the whole stats movement, told him that his own radical position had been moderated greatly when he became an actual dad, and he was now much more willing to allow for the human factor.
    He only mentions Joe Morgan – who is no longer doing games commentary or that column – in the context of Morgan’s awesome playing career and the fact that his shortness may have been an advantage.

    *At the time that Moneyball covers, the statsheads hadn’t figured out a decent way of valuing defence (fielding skills) – so certain players were written about fairly harshly. In the meantime, the combination of market forces (those players were then undervalued), better numbers and – crucially – the massive changes to baseball brought about by the steroids clampdown, mean that brilliant fielding is all the rage.

  18. 19
    Cumbrian on 28 Mar 2014 #

    As an aside, from the original article, Ken Tremendous from Fire Joe Morgan is Mike Schur, who wrote for the US office and created Parks and Rec and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. He still occasionally writes about baseball and hasn’t changed his baseball MO much – I always thought that the principles that FJM were arguing for were less about slaving over stats and more about fighting ignorance (in that they recognised the limitations of some of the stats that were available at the time but were saying that they can provide help, rather than just resting on received wisdom) and that’s still his position, which seems reasonable to me.

  19. 20
    Mark M on 28 Mar 2014 #

    Re19: That’s awesome, didn’t know that. As I said, I used to really enjoy the writing on Fire Joe Morgan (I can see why now), but I remember feeling that some of the time they slipped into intolerance, mixing up two things – that veteran pundits like Morgan and many others were liable to lazy, knee-jerk thinking (true) and that those same people should be able to feel comfortable with quite complicated concepts tossed around with ease by super-bright kids (Schur, I’m zero percent unsurprised to learn, went to Harvard).

  20. 21
    Ed on 28 Mar 2014 #

    @20 Stats quibble: aren’t you zero per cent *surprised* that Schur went to Harvard? ;)

  21. 22
    Mark M on 28 Mar 2014 #

    Re21: Er, yes (Oh, the shame I bring to the craft of sub-editing).

  22. 23
    Mark M on 13 Oct 2020 #

    RIP Joe Morgan: maybe a man not at ease with numbers, but a magical ballplayer (and, as a broadcaster, he did have a lovely speaking voice so it was enjoyable to listen to him even if you didn’t agree with what he was saying).

    It’s been a bleak couple of months for baseball greats…

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