Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Monday night my Giants won a baseball game; this matters because we haven’t won since and absent a statistically improbable stretch we’re marking the days until elimination.

There’s no mystery in why this Giants club will fall short of the playoffs; we have a historic imbalance between our pitching (giving up .8 runs per 9 innings less than league average) and hitting (scoring half a run less per game than league average); according to Baseball Prospectus our making the playoffs with that little offensive punch would be an almost singular happening: Unfortunately, none of the aforementioned teams disgraced the batter’s box as badly as Bochy’s bunch. Teams can clearly find their way into playoff baseball with poor offenses and tremendous rotations, but no team has done so with an awful offense even remotely comparable to the one fielded by the 2009 Giants since the Dodgers made the playoffs in the 1996 campaign.

But Monday, Juan Uribe homered twice and tripled – we scored a truckload of runs and moved to our high water mark for the season, 14 games over .500.

Gwen Knapp, writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, said the real key to the win was a third inning bunt by Freddy Sanchez.

No, she really did. I know, right?

Here’s the thing – over a quarter century ago, one of the first matters argued by Bill James and subsequently proven incontrovertibly true is that bunting is harmful. Let’s say you are trailing 4-2 in the 8th inning, but have runners on first and second and nobody out. Your chance of scoring those runs decreases dramatically if you trade that scenario in to have one out and runners on 2nd and 3rd. Meaning – a successful bunt makes you less likely to score. This is true across the board in virtually any circumstance. There’s almost never a good reason to give up an out. We know this. Baseball’s almost entirely transparent. We keep really good records.  If a situation in baseball has occured before, we know what the result was.  If it's occured enough times, there's a predictive value to those past results. 

Despite this, Knapp, who gets paid to write about the Giants, credited the win to a bunt.

The scenario wasn’t exactly as I described; I mean – two runs down in the 8th inning, no outs, two on – this could be a big inning, right – a crooked number that might save the season. Clearly, that’s not a spot where you want to sacrifice an out – I mean, who would possibly do that? 

The Giants did it. Two days later. The bunt was unsuccessful. The Giants didn’t score. The Giants lost.  The Giants lost.  Again.  The San Francisco Giants have had 30 years of the 2 greatest players in National League history and have never won a World Series.  But we sure do bunt sometimes. 

So what was today's game story? How did the Chronicle report this catastrophic blunder?

That the fault wasn’t the strategy – it was the failure to execute that strategy better. 

Why is this important? It’s important because faced with that situation, the Giants, and similarly wrong thinking organizations throughout all manner of human endeavor, will bunt again. And sometimes, the bunt will work – and if it’s followed by a barrage of home runs – someone will wrongly credit the bunt.

And it’s going to cost us more games. And more games. And more games.

Why does this bunting myth persist? How can reasonable people, people who watch even more baseball than do I, fail to understand that even successful bunts are bad ideas – that they are making it less likely to win the game?

I think for two reasons.

One – because it feels like something’s happening. The runners are moving forward – and that’s what you want – you’re getting closer to the plate – closer to scoring. The cost of that movement, the out, isn’t properly appreciated; it’s subsumed by the flashiness of the success.  If I run really fast off of a cliff and flap my arms there may be a moment where it feels to me like I'm flying - it may, if you take a snapshot at exactly the right time - may even look to an outsider writing a story, look like I'm flying. 

But that's just 'cause the ground is too far away for me to notice yet that I am in free fall. 

The other reason is because it privileges expertise – strategy – playing the game “the right way.” If I’m an absolute novice, a blank slate in baseball analysis, I would look at the two homers and the triple, the actual scoring blows, and say “that Uribe guy won the game” – but the knowledgeable, those who possess the secret, special sauce understanding of the game within the game, can chuckle from an insider’s position, “you just don’t get it; you can't understand how things really work.”

Those secret divine codes are how sportswriters – and managers – how broadcasters – and coaches – how the privileged elite keep their positions. As long as games are won and lost through hidden, special strategies like that bunt – through unquantifiable means like chemistry and leadership – it maintains the requirement that those who possess those special powers stay in their positions. How does the sportswriter keep a job in 2009, when every element of every game can be watched, recorded, and analyzed by anyone with the MLB package at least as well as those who sit in the press box – she has to possess a particular, specialized level of fancypants understanding. Sure, it looks like it was those two homers – but let me tell you it was really the bunt. And that manager standing in the corner wearing a uniform for no apparent reason – well he hasn’t crossed the plate a single time all year, but without him – who would call for those magical game changing bunts? Who will  marshal collective energies of the great unwashed if not for the great and glorious leader, growing greater and more glorious every day? How can we, with only Juan Uribe and his trifling two homers and a triple, possibly win baseball games?

(Yes, this is turning into metaphor)

So, what does this have to do with the picture of the congressman from South Carolina who called the President of the United States a "liar" during a joint session of Congress last night?

I don’t know what lesson you’re going to learn from the trillion dollar endless war in Iraq.

Me, I’m learning it wasn’t poor execution, it was that we shouldn’t have done it in the first place.  It wasn't that the generals failed to get down the bunt - it was that bunting is a poor percentage play.

I don’t know what lesson you’re learning from the economic collapse.

Me, I’m learning that it wasn’t poor business judgment by some lenders, that it was the strategy of laissez faire as preached/practiced by conservatives over the past quarter century.   An entire mountain of inside baseball economic theories thoroughly discredited.

I don’t know what lesson you’re learning from the current health care crisis.

Me, I’m learning that it isn’t about too many lawsuits, not about a couple of overpaid CEOs, not about the disinclination of Americans to wash their hands. It’s about a system that makes health a private good as opposed to a public one. Every other democracy makes the choice that health is like fire protection or police protection – even if you can’t afford it, as a member of that society you should still receive coverage. Why don't we privatize the fire department (as we once did), or call the police force "socalized law and order"?  Why have a public school system at all - if parents really want their kids to learn to read and write, they'd get good enough jobs to afford to send them to private school.  Where they could pray.  To Jesus. 

Everyone else says their citizens deserve cops.  And fire departments.  And health care.  It's a choice they make as a society.

We choose to bunt with 2 on and no one out.   Which sounds like socialized baseball now that you think about it.  Sacrificing for your fellow man. 

The Congressman pictured way at the top, Joe Wilson from South Carolina, called Obama a liar last night during his speech – most have reacted negatively to this.

Let me go the other way.

On the substance, obviously the guy’s a crackpot. He called Obama a liar for saying illegal aliens won’t be covered under the health plan. He is in error.  Democrats do not want to take doctors who would normally be saving Republican lives and instead force them to give abortions to illegal aliens. 

(If Obama's a white dude, does the congressman from South Carolina do that?  If Obama's a white dude, would a Georgia Senator say he needed to show some humility?  When we look back on this - what will the historical context be of white southern congressmen shouting "you lie" as the first African-American President speaks before Congress?  What will the context be when we talk about Simple Jack saying that  the first African-American President "hates white people"?  How challenging will it be to connect those dots? )

There are those who have reacted negatively to the conservatives in the town hall meetings who have shouted and screamed and called Obama a Nazi-socialist-grandma killa.

Let me go the other way.

On the substance, these people are subliterate. Universal health care doesn’t make you a Nazi; if it did, there’d be a lot of Scandanavians with Hitlerstache. And if a country with as much unfettered corporate power as ours is socialist, that means the world’s awash in red.

But the take that we should just be respectful and mind the great and powerful President as he dispenses wisdom is a bad lesson to learn. If the Democrats had shouted down Bush when he was talking about weapons of mass destruction, or passing tax cuts for the wealthy, or gutting civil liberties protection, or the whole host of other sins to noxious to speak about in a baseball post – wouldn’t that have been a better result?

I want a Congressman to tell truth to power.  Loud, obnoxious, totally disrespectful truth. 

If the only way to get that ability is to allow a Congressman to lie to power, I'll take that trade.

We don’t need more deference to authority. We need less. When the President orders a missile strike or the Giants manager orders a bunt, I want to be able to shout at him.  I shouted at my television endlessly when Bruce Bochy sent Kevin Frandsen up to bunt, down 2 runs with nobody out in the 8th inning of a game we absolutely had to have.  If I then had to sit in a room with him, I'd have screamed that he was a crummy manager and demanded to see proof that he was born in this country and not a secret Dodger raised from birth to inflitrate us, one who would probably hand Russ Ortiz the "winning ball" as he lifted him from a World Series we were 8 outs away from winning with a 5 run lead!! 

Oh, yeah. 

If you’re wrong, you’re wrong. Regardless of title, position, or protocol.  And someone should say it.

Enough with the bunting already. 

1 comment

Blog said...

First of all Jim, congratulations on an excellent, well thought out post. As a result, I'll wait until I can do a more thought out reply instead of my usual half-assed work.

But with regards to bunting, let me just offer another comprehensive study, that demonstrates that there are legitimate reasons for bunting that the data justifies, though certainly not with runners on first and second with no outs and down by two.

And with regards to the health care "reform" and its progress, this guy from Rolling Stone magazine has broken it down better than I ever could.

That pretty much explains why I intend to never move back to the good ole U S of A.

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