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Weekend Report: Lies, Darn Lies, and Statistics
 
2002-07-18
As Mark Twain said, "there are lies, damn lies, and statistics".
 

Long time readers know that I'm not one to use quotes, this article promises to be filled with them. A point I hope emphasizes not my lack of original thinking, but instead the universality of my points. Let's start off with the following famous uttering, "Look, if anyone digs into this sabremetric stuff enough, they can prove just about anything ". To which one Samuel Clemens would have happily concurred "there are lies, darn lies, and statistics." (please note the slight editing for content). It's my opinion that he goofed up. It should be lies, darn lies, and the idiots who believe them. The two following quotes are from a coworker: "people are stupid", and "if people were smart I'd have to work for a living."

I intend to tie all of these quotes together into a single theme. My theme being statistics, how to use them in general, and more importantly how not to use, confuse, and abuse. Point number one, the most important point, statistics tell you exactly what they say they do, and no more. The statistics are just there, it's up to us to determine what they mean. So statistics cannot prove anything, although they can certainly eliminate many possibilities in science, but not so much in baseball (baseball not being a strictly controlled experiment makes things more complicated). An example is in order. The statistic is that pitcher "A" has allowed 9 runs. This is an immutable fact. What can change is our interpretation. Is pitcher "A" a good pitcher? Most people would say they need to know more to make that JUDGEMENT call. That's right, every time you say a pitcher is bad or good, it becomes a judgment call. If pitcher A had worked 18 innings you wouldn't be very impressed, but if it was 36 you'd want to sign him up.

The second most important point I can make is that statistics is not hard. This is where the people are stupid and working comments apply. By making the fast majority of people think that academic knowledge is hard they become dependent on those in the know. The simple truth is that if you engage your brain and want to learn this stuff most of it is pretty easy it doesn't involve calculus (well at this level anyway) or even trigonometry. My public service announcement is done, but the point is that anybody can denigrate something they choose not to know anything about, but they'll be forever stuck in the "fools" category.

Which brings me to point 3: there are just too many statistics in baseball. So what if a guy throws 93mph? The list of players who stink and throw 93 is a mile long; what good is that statistic? It doesn't tell me if the pitcher is going to stay healthy enough to make it out of A ball. How about the even longer list of players who can go from home to first in less than 4.5 seconds? That doesn't tell me if the guy can swing the bat. As you may have guessed, the point of this satire is to point out that by definition statistics in baseball include even the most conventional of scouting measures, and are not reserved for computer geeks.

So far I've made 3 points: statistics are facts, not judgments; statistics aren't hard if you want to learn them, and statistics exist even in the hallowed ground of conventional wisdom. It is true that you can use statistics to support almost any point you wish to make. Glendon Rusch has been a good pitcher this year. How would I support that statement? Easy, I'd say oh yeah he had a great start did you see his April numbers? It gets even better... have you seen what that pathetic overpaid bum Burnitz has done? With those two sentences I've provided strong "evidence" and also misdirected the audience to make my point. If you've decided to not be a fool however you ask the right questions and look at his other months and notice that he's actually stunk. Every raw statistic in baseball has flaws. Even the most basic of runs scored and runs allowed can be misleading if you're talking about the Dodgers or the Rockies. So the key to statistics is all in the details. Lawyering the numbers as it were. If you understand the strengths, limitations, and pitfalls of the metric you are using your just fine. For an interesting example of how "pros" can make goofs when they go into uncharted territory check out the BP website and a couple of articles from Rany. http://www.baseballprospectus.com/news/20020716doctoring.shtml

He discusses how Joe Sheehan missed some very important statistics when talking about how to win in Coors field.

Player of the Week

As of Wednesday Jose Hernandez was the easy leader with a great first series after the break. In addition he had hit in every game after the break prior to Thursday, and had still managed to squeeze in a few walks. Sanchez gets an honorable mention due to his 3 SB day with 2 BB and a hit. A final player note in his two starts after the break Ben has pitched 14 innings given up 3 runs struck out 15 and walked only 2 with a no decision and a loss. OK I lied, Baseball America was doing some digging and prior to this year Glendon Rusch was making a run at the worst career run support of all time, he's still second worst but the Brewers have been much more supportive.

 
 
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