Kicking Chass and Fixing Chats

On Monday, my JAWS article about the Veterans Committee was published at Baseball Prospectus publication. Tuesday saw the voting results — another shutout — announced, and when I blogged it at BP Unfiltered, I added a veiled dig at the New York Times‘ Murray Chass, who had… well, I’ll give him the rope:

I receive a daily e-mail message from Baseball Prospectus, an electronic publication filled with articles and information about statistics, mostly statistics that only stats mongers can love.

To me, VORP epitomized the new-age nonsense. For the longest time, I had no idea what VORP meant and didn’t care enough to go to any great lengths to find out. I asked some colleagues whose work I respect, and they didn’t know what it meant either.

Finally, not long ago, I came across VORP spelled out. It stands for value over replacement player. How thrilling. How absurd. Value over replacement player. Don’t ask what it means. I don’t know.

I suppose that if stats mongers want to sit at their computers and play with these things all day long, that’s their prerogative. But their attempt to introduce these new-age statistics into the game threatens to undermine most fans’ enjoyment of baseball and the human factor therein.

People play baseball. Numbers don’t.

Shortly after the blog entry was published, I began receiving a steady stream of emails, almost unanimously positive. The supportive comments — thank you, readers — kept pouring in during my chat a couple of hours later, where I said some things that a few people took as upping the rhetorical ante. If I regret anything now that the story has cooled, it’s that nobody got the vintage Ice-T reference, and that said opening line was taken as BP’s party line. It was not; it was an off-the-cuff response that was far more heated and less measured than Executive Vice President Nate Silver’s open letter, which stands as BP’s official response.

In my view and the view of many others around the blogosphere, Chass looked completely foolish. Even in hindsight, I’m puzzled why his screed was published; it’s an embarrassment to the New York Times and the profession. Did anyone who read that article decide they would suddenly take Chass more seriously than they had before, now that he had drawn the line in the sand and declared, I will not learn what this means under any circumstances, even when the answer is one click away?

Did any of Chass’ colleagues at the Times — whether old-guardsmen like Dave Anderson and George Vescey or younger writers such as Alan Schwarz and David Leonhardt (who have mentioned many BP statistics and writers in their “Keeping Score” column” but who obviously weren’t asked in Chass’ informal poll) — thank him for standing up to those punks with their new-age stats?

Did the wheezing Grey Lady gain more traction in any quarter thanks to one of its writers proudly standing up for knownothingism?

Boil down Chass’ words, and they amount to, “I don’t understand this. It somehow finds my computer every day and it scares me and reminds me I’m obsolete. They’re replacing me with a calculator!” To me, that looks like a writer who’s gone waaaay past his pitch count.

It’s a sad day when someone who’s received the top honor that baseball can grant his profession decides he knows too much about the sport to have to learn another statistic. Scratch that. It’s a sad day when any writer decides he knows so much about his field that he’ll trumpet his exemption from learning more.

It’s even sadder that said writer, who was honored in part for being on the vanguard of reporting the business of baseball and its labor issues, has decided that he no longer can keep up with the changing times. Worse, he decided to make an unsupportable and offensive generality that something he doesn’t understand — a statistic, for heaven’s sake — somehow ruins the game for most fans.

The beauty of baseball is that its fans can find such a multitude of ways to appreciate the game. If Chass hasn’t grasped that single fact in 40-something years of covering baseball, he hasn’t learned a thing.

• • •

Aside from l’affair Chass, my chat also featured technical problems that sent a few of my responses floating into the ether rather than showing up on the page. I earmarked a couple of JAWS-related ones to take a later swing at:

bloodwedding (BK): Jay, I am not totally up on HOF opinion and JAWS, but I assume a) that Biggio is a lock and b) that he is now a below average player in 2007. Using Biggio (not sure he is the best example), but say a player’s last few seasons are decidedly below average for their position, yet they push up the guy’s WARP3 or what-have-you…my question is, should Peak be given more weight than Longevity, and how much more? A guy like Albert Belle could peter out for a few more years and enhance his raw totals, but it wouldn’t help a team in real life. Thoughts?

Biggio, who is now just 70 hits shy of 3,000 and 19 homers shy of 300, is in good shape regarding the Hall of Fame based on his accomplishments on the field. JAWS thinks so, too; he scores at 123.7 career WARP3, 69.5 peak, and 96.6 overall. The Hall of Fame second basemen set the highest bar — 122.8/71.5/97.1 — and Biggio isn’t quite over it yet, but 1.2 WARP will do the trick.

Which brings up the fact that Biggio is in fact now a below-average player. According to BP’s numbers, he was seven runs below average with the bat and 14 runs below average in the field last year, good for just 2.5 WARP in a season where he got over 600 plate appearances. In fact, in a year where the Astros missed winning the NL Central by 1 1/2 games, it’s arguable that Phil Garner’s decision to ride such a spent horse so far when they had a younger, more able alternative in Chris Burke cost the team the division. I wrote a chapter for the forthcoming It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over: the Baseball Prospectus Pennant Race Book on similar instances throughout baseball history. It’s an all-too-common mistake, alas.

But that shouldn’t change how we view Bigs’ career. One thing I stated in both the BBWAA and VC JAWS articles is that what we can call the Terrence Long portion of a player’s career — the point where we could substitute said crappy player to soak up a mostly useless 2-3 WARP a year to finish out a foreshortened career — isn’t where a Hall case should be decided. That’s why I overrode the “no’s” on Belle and Dick Allen, both of whom had very high peaks and missed by just a couple JAWS points on career; with better luck they’d have made it over the line even with minimal production.

On the other hand, the studies I’ve done with my WARP data indicate to me that in terms of using JAWS as a predictive tool for the HOF, I’m probably overvaluing peak; one actually gets a better correlation simply using career WARP. Note that JAWS isn’t specifically designed to be a predictive tool; my goal with it is to strike a balance between the idealism that a Hall vote should be based on merit and the pragmatism to understand that merit is a concept that means different things to different voters, but that greatness is generally considered along the lines of career and peak.

Accounting for peak gives the system more nuance than simple career totals, as the peak element stands as a proxy for the awards, the All-Stars, Gold Gloves and league-leading totals which a career WARP measure doesn’t see. But the latter still provides the bulk of a player’s Hall of Fame argument whether rwe’re talking about JAWS or the BBWAA vote; if it didn’t, most of the players on this year’s VC ballot would have long since been in, as their careers petered out at 33 or 35 instead of lasting until 40.

Carlos Delgado (Flushing, New York): JAWS me, please!

Oddly enough, this question came up over dinner last week with my baseball-loving pals of some renown. Delgado scores at 81.8/58.7/70.3, where the average Hall of Famer first-sacker winds up at 106.1/62.8/84.5. That puts Delgado, who’s entering his Age 35 season, 28.4 WARP away from the line, needing about four and a half seasons that are the equivalent of his 6.2-WARP 2006.

He can get closer by improving upon his peak component; his seven best years are worth 10.4, 9.2, 8.9, 8.7. 7.5, 7.2, and 6.8 WARP. An 8.0 WARP season, a level he hasn’t seen since 2003, would up his career total to 89.8 and raise his peak to 59.9, good for an overall score of 74.9, leaving him 19.2 WARP shy. And so on. The bottom line is that Delgado will have to maintain a considerable pace into his late 30s to improve his Hall of Fame credentials. While I’d like to see it happen — he’s a great hitter, and his outspokenness is a nice reminder that not all athletes are pompous right-wing gasbags like Curt Schilling — I’m not going to put money down on that likelihood.

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