Nationals Arm Race

"… the reason you win or lose is darn near always the same – pitching.” — Earl Weaver

Here’s a hypothetical story … what do you think?


Here’s a hypothetical situation.

You’re a professional worker.  You could be an Accountant, an Engineer, a school teacher or (like myself) an IT consultant.  Feel free to substitute whatever profession you work in for the sake of this hypothetical situation.

Lets say, for the sake of argument, that you went to college or some advanced prepatory school for your profession.  And you trained for several years before “going pro” and getting a job.

Then lets say that you have worked in your job for 10-15 years now (maybe longer).  In that time, you’ve obviously become quite an expert in what you do.  In fact, you’re so good at what you do that you’ve been specifically picked by the absolute leading, best employers in your field.  If you’re an accountant, perhaps you’ve been named to the president’s budget team.  If you’re a school teacher, you just won state teacher of the year.  If you’re an IT worker, you were named to the White House’s Chief Technology Office.  You’re inarguably one of the elite members of your profession, one of the few hundred or so absolute best, most highly skilled persons at what you do.

Now imagine this; a 23 year old ivy league graduate in a field completely unrelated to yours (lets say he’s an Economics major, since this will make sense later on) starts working in your office.   He has NEVER worked in your field; he went to school and developed a mathematical model of behaviors that was designed to simulate the work that you do.  Despite having zero days of experience doing what you do (teaching, accounting, IT development), he’s now sitting in your office telling you that all the methods that you’ve used to evaluate and perform your job are outdated and inadequate.   This is the same job which (as discussed above) you’re undoubtedly the most qualified for in the entire country and you are recognized industry wide by all your peers as being one of the best in the business.  Furthermore, this ivy league graduate is regularly posting to his internet blog and has no qualms about calling you an outright Idiot for continuing to do work in the way you’ve done it for the past X number of years.

Would you say the above hypothetical situation correctly describes how career Baseball men (be them Writers or GMs or Scouts or even the players themselves) consider Sabrematricians?  Is that a fair hypothetical description?

I say this because the last week has seen an ungodly amount of negative articles in the baseball blogosphere from people who think its ok to denigrate and outright call writers names who vote for certain Hall of Famers that these sabrematricians don’t believe meet their own standards of entry, or who chose to vote or not vote for another guy based on a vague “character clause” in their organization’s charter (which, remember, for the most part which these same blogosphere guys are NOT members of).

How would you feel if you were the career baseball man at this point?   Lets say you’re a baseball writer who covered the game day in-day out for 40 years.  How exactly would YOU react to the name calling that goes on in the baseball blogosphere?

Its embarassing.  Its infuriating.  And while I don’t entirly mean to imply that the hypothetical ivy league graduate’s model is inaccurate … it also does not and cannot replicate a lifetime of experience in the field.   In reality neither side is 100% right or 100% wrong … clearly some statistical analysis and some progress is a good thing and has been happening in sports for a while.  But why is it ok for someone who has never covered the game to so harshly criticize a career baseball writer for stating his professional opinions?

I just don’t get the negativity and hate sometimes on the internet.  Is it the anonymous nature of the medium?  I’ve always been realtively open with who I am and what I believe and I’ve never anonymously posted something just to get a rise out of people.  I’ve always used my real name, given out my real email address, and welcomed feedback.  But am I in the minority?

And this is just talking about baseball!  Heaven help those people who want to talk about politics or current issues or things that *really* get people’s blood boiling.  My facebook feed is full of people so completely opposed to someone else’s opinions on certain issues that they can no longer have civil conversations about it.  Have we always been this polarized as a society?  Is this a function of the rise of the internet age, where social interactions are being replaced by chat rooms and wall postings?  Where the removal of face to face conversations means the rise of bluntly stated opinions given without any consideration for the consequences of those words in a mixed crowd?

I dunno.  Just something to think about.

Written by Todd Boss

January 11th, 2013 at 4:55 pm

13 Responses to 'Here’s a hypothetical story … what do you think?'

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  1. You know, if this were SABR guys saying that *scouts* don’t have any idea what they’re talking about, you’d have a great point. But writers? No. There are lots of smart writers out there, but there’s a bunch of writers, with HOF votes, who think Billy Beane wrote Moneyball, and who think “leading the league in RBI means you’re a great hitter!” even though the facts have been laid out pretty clearly.

    I mean, the point of a sports *writer* is to write stuff about the game to entertain. Boswell, for instance, is all about making you swoon the way he does. Another facet of the game is to start arguments that are ludicrous, just so you can have readers. (to wit, is RG3 black enough?) Does someone who writes like that deserves to be ridiculed for their “analysis” of baseball? Definitely. I don’t care if Abner Doubleday himself says it – he deserves scorn.

    kevin r

    11 Jan 13 at 5:54 pm

  2. Todd, Nice write-up on the HOF and I think you covered every part of it with your responses.

    Since there really are no rules for who should be in the HOF outside of number of years which I think is 10 and something abut the betterment of baseball. Almost anyone can get in and sometimes they do. As for your hypothetical situation of me being the preeminent person in my field I would have enough confidence in myself that whatever some kid said won’t bother me one bit.

    Mathematics is a language and Sabrematrics is nothing more then the explanation just like a story of each baseball player or team. It is not a mathematical axiom.

    If the game was so easy that you could mathematically figure out all the outcomes someone would have already programed it into a computer like chess, which is still really impressive.

    Then you have the human factor and the managing of those humans. There is a reason Davey is better at managing young teams, its because they are young and many of them still think they are suppose to listen especially if they only came out of HS. Also they can also lose their jobs.

    Because the game is a team sport and every individual has to both field and bat (except for the DH) fans for years have always made comparisons. This I think is one of the attractions of baseball.

    You know how you can tell a baseball fan from a football fan? A football fan hates the other team and its players, a baseball fan looks at the other players on the team he hates and plugs them into his line-up. Sure there are some people you don’t like but they had to do something to merit that in football you only have to play for the other team.

    Sorry if I went off on a tangent.

    Back to the HOF. As you said yesterday baseball has had many different eras and most writers try and decide who should be in the HOF by comparing them to other players in the HOF and they then pull out the stat sheets or your punk kid pulls out sabrematrics. How can you compare Lou Gehrig to Larry Walker, when it seems almost impossible to even compare them to players the played against because you can’t be sure if someone use PED’s or not and their are no rules for any of it.

    I would like it if all writers ballets were made public if not right away in a few years after the vote. Sunlight is the best disinfectant.

    Then I would let the discussion begin on what we find out with that info.

    After that maybe and I’m not sure about this yet because they might F it up worse, guidelines, not rules might be given for what the Hall was looking for?


    11 Jan 13 at 7:06 pm

  3. Civility and reasonable discourse – I think that you are right that there is cause to be gravely concerned about our country’s ability to have productive discussions, across any subject matter,at least for a while as we collectively get the hang of our new methods of communicating. We talked about this a few posts ago, but what gets rewarded now are views, comments and followers. So it is a popularity contest. So a ‘new’ guy will go over overboard attacking an old time writer, who’ll do the same back, and it seems to me that neither is very upset because they are getting attention and increasing their name recognition. The other thing that I think is going on is that there is so much information available now, that processing it is overwhelming to all us, so whether we realize it or not, and (i) we aren’t actually reading news, we are reading summaries of other people’s impressions of someone else’s tweet, and by the time we form our own opinion, it is already slanted quite a bit, and (ii) we are tending to primarily pay attention to news and opinions that already reinforce our biases. Not all the time, of course, but probably much more than any of us realize. But this leads to people shouting their opinions more loudly at each other, not beginning without a conclusion and seeing where the individual build up of facts gets us. So were increasingly polarized.

    And yes, I think electronic communication makes it much easier, if not outright encourages, a blunter and ruder form of speaking to each other. It takes much longer and you actually have to think a bit about how to express your point in a polite and respectful way. It is a lot quicker to just say ‘your wrong and stupid’.


    11 Jan 13 at 8:39 pm

  4. When I wrote this, I was kind of thinking of writers like Murray Chass, who has taken a significant amount of grief for his reactionary stance on Jack Morris (he’s the writer who basically has said that he was continue to vote for Morris, and solely for Morris, until Morris is either elected or falls off the ballot).

    On the one hand; I think its really hard to tell a guy that he’s 100% wrong about players who he covered extensively (kind of the moral of my hypothetical story). On the other hand, I think its also as a professional you have to adapt, you have to understand new methods in your field. The rise of statistical analysis in the sport isn’t just a fad; it has become a significant method of analysis. Its like the old guy in the press room who doesn’t “get” email and still insists on using a typewriter to do his stories. So I agree that a writer who completely is ignorant of the new rise of stats is no longer being professional enough.

    Completely agree on sportswriters who purposely take stances guaranteed to get reactions. I think this is more of an issue in sports radio though. Steve Czabin seems especially prone to taking outlandish stances on sports topics so as to get outraged callers and fill segments.

    Todd Boss

    12 Jan 13 at 6:29 pm

  5. I listen to Slate’s podcasts; they have one on sports called “Hang up and Listen” which is great, and they have a political version called “Gabfest.” The people on the political podcast *seem* to be liberal tinged (I say that since i’ve yet to really hear any of them defend the republican right’s stances through out the fiscal cliff, gun control or the election), but by and large they don’t use the podcast to preach. In the last one they have been touching on the issues with Congress right now, and its along the same lines of what you’re saying. Because of gerry mandering and extreme congressional redistricting, most of the really partisan republicans are in such safe districts that they can afford to be completely uncooperative when it comes to negotiating deals. The latest fiscal cliff deal just made me laugh; instead of negotiating on tax rises (which obviously some tea partiers oppose) they just kept saying no to every single deal … not realizing apparently that IF the country went over the cliff, they’d not only be getting a tax raise on nearly everyone … but then they’d have to come back to Obama and asking for tax cuts. But they held their ground, and I’m guessing they’ll hold their ground again in 2 months time with the debt ceiling.

    In another podcast i listened to recently (to your point of only paying attention to news we already believe in): George Will stated an interesting fact; he said that surveys show that 75% of people who label themselves as “heavily republican” watch Fox News … and ONLY watch Fox News. They’re not getting any angle or opinion that doesn’t already coincide with their own life view.

    I try to go out of my way to get news from both “sides” of an issue, to see if what i’m reading in one source is slanted or biased and isn’t telling the whole story. But even that becomes difficult at times.

    Hey, at least we can have interesting, intellectual discussions with each other here, talking about the Nats :-)

    Todd Boss

    12 Jan 13 at 9:24 pm

  6. We can, indeed! Although …. what happens when you become so popular that you start earning $100k through advertising based on how much traffic you get? You start thinking ‘wow, it would be great to do this all the time. maybe i can make a living at it.’ That is kind of a cool thing, and in many respects the American dream. But then your comment boards get invaded by trolls who yell, scream and curse at each other, and all the things we have been talking about. Your long time followers stop coming but your volumes are high, albeit with a group looking for the next outrageous thing. You don’t like it, but the only way to put a stop to it is something that dramatically reduces your traffic, like registrations or complete transparency on names. which in turn, jeopardizes your new livelihood. What do you do? I think a lot of that is going on right now.


    13 Jan 13 at 2:56 pm

  7. But anyway, while I still have you willing to talk to a minion like me! The concept of ‘banned drugs’ v. Illegal drugs from a few posts ago is really interesting to me. How people react and differentiate them, I mean.

    As you said in the comments, the vast majority of these banned drugs are legal drugs with legitimate medical purposes to much of society, and administered by licensed doctors. But to some, they get treated like someone creating chrystal meth in their basement. But all it takes is MLB saying ‘uh, you know, we thought about it some more, and that one is probably ok’, and then boom, we are totally ok with it. Should it really be that black and white?; isn’t that exactly what happened with that blood spinning procedure that ARod took last year in Germany? That seemed a lot more far out there many of the banned drugs, but people were like ‘no, its ok now’. Yet people seem to treat the banned stuff like an entirely different animal – something out of Dr Frankenstein’s lab that doesn’t exist for any purpose other than to make Mark McGwire hit homers.

    And many of the PED drugs – well, it just seems arbitrary to me what is ok and what isn’t. Amphetamines- no. Five hour energy drinks – I don’t actually know, but I assume ok. Lots and lots of coffee – ok. So where is that line? HGH – from what I can tell, no one thinks it increases strength or quickness, but helps people recover more quickly. That actually seems like a good thing for everyone, doesn’t it, assuming it is safe for the player? ADD drugs – does anyone think it does anything to add strength, speed, eyesight enhancement or quickness?

    This may come off as I am encouraging PEDs. I am not. I certainly think that there should be limits, and player health and safety should be the primary guiding force. But I am saying that the rationale between what is ok, and what is not, is fairly murky to me, so it surprises me that when something falls on the wrong side of the line, many people are ready to send out the villagers with torches and pitchforks, but if it makes the ok side of the line, well then by all means, let’s back up the FedEx truck.


    13 Jan 13 at 3:30 pm

  8. What you say makes perfect sense, and I guess if you really tried to do this for a living, that’d eventually be the way you’d have to go (purposely being outlandish to drive hits to drive ad revenue rates).

    They say that your answer to the question, “what would you do if you hit the lottery?” is your true career goal. If I hit the lottery tomorrow and didn’t have to work to provide for the family, I’d absolutely be some sort of writer. Write books, maybe do free lance baseball writing. I’d love to do more biomechanical research and become a better judge of pitcher mechanics. I’d like to see more amateur baseball and see up and coming prospects more often. Of course, I’d also have to stay involved in my “other” sport, Racquetball ( is my other Labor of Love, which predates this blog and which still takes up time).

    Todd Boss

    14 Jan 13 at 11:06 am

  9. I completely agree with the HGH take. This is a naturally occuring drug in the body which only allows you to recover better and faster. How exactly is that different from Cortisone (which is administered like jelly beans to children in the clubhouses of professional sports)?

    How about Lasik/laser eye surgery? Isn’t this a medical procedure designed entirely to enhance your natural body’s deficiency? Isn’t this a performance-enhancing procedure? Or Tommy John surgery? Why is it ok to have surgery that improves the body but not to take certain suppliments?

    I love it when you read columnists who still maintain there’s no scientific proof of steroids helping baseball players. As if the scores and scores of stories we’ve already heard, combined with the clear evidence of the power surges seen in late 30s players in the steroid era meant nothing and was entirely ancedotal. The best evidence I heard was a guy recently interviewed with SI who was a middling reliever prospect in low-A. Started juicing, added something like 10mph to his fastball and rocketed up the farm system into the majors, where soon he had a multi-million dollar contract. If I could take a drug, today, that allowed me to improve my performance to the point where I could literally multiply my earnings potential by 100’s of times over … i’m doing it, and I wouldn’t think twice about my “reputation” or whether i’d get caught. Who cares? I’d go from earning a few hundred dollars a week in the bus leagues to millions of dollars in the majors. Who wouldn’t do that?

    As you said, it is relatively arbitrary what drugs are legal and not in the sporting world. But then again, isn’t it the same in society? Isn’t it rather arbitrary that marijuana is illegal but tobacco is legal? Despite hemp’s long history of industrial use, marijuana was (as I understand it) lobbied into being classified as a drug by the tobacco lobby and now holds its illegal standing. Meanwhile tobacco companies put dozens of unsavory products into their cigarettes so as to guarantee addiction and continued sales .. and the effects have resulted in millions of american deaths over the last 75 years.

    I have come to view PED usage as just one of those things where you can’t put it back in the bottle when it comes to sports. This knee surgery thing that Kobe/Arod are doing in Germany; why isn’t it legal in the US? IF it were, would it be treated like a Tommy John surgery? We talk lots about drugs … but can MLB pitchers blood dope and replenish their own blood before starts to feel fresh? Is that against he laws? Obviously it is in cycling; we all know how a transfusion can re-energize cyclists after a long ride. Would it work in baseball? I don’t even know if blood doping is banned; perhaps the masking agents are on the banned list. I have a copy of the original drug list somewhere or another, maybe I’ll look into it.

    How about this question: why is even the suspicion of PED usage near career death for baseball players and their reputations …. but yet Steroid usage in the NFL is almost universally ignored when it comes to analyzing a player? There’s hall-of-fame calibre football players who have served suspensions … but nobody even bothers to mention the fact in the same sentence. Is this just a football vs baseball thing based on the violent nature of the sports? Is this a function of the writers who cover the sports? Is this a racial thing, since the majority of football players are black but the majority of baseball players are white?

    Why is Ryan Braun still considered a cheat despite his test being found to have been faulty? Isn’t it “Innocent until proven guilty” in this country? I wrote this at the time … check out my post here and the links that I found. From what I read … the positive test that Braun suffered was re-created by his attorneys to show that his urine naturally metasticized itself into showing vast amounts of testosterone when stored improperly, and that was the reason the test was thrown out. But no; you still hear just pure invective when people talk about Braun; how he “got away with it” and how he’ll likely never win another major award b/c of it. And there will still be the holier than thou crowd that may or may not prevent him from a justified place in Cooperstown because of it.

    Lots of issues here. We’re way off track of the initial topic.

    Todd Boss

    14 Jan 13 at 11:28 am

  10. Sorry to hijack the topic. I agree with virtually everything you say here, especially the football v. baseball comp. Clearly steroids has an effect in baseball: how that works exactly and to what degree, I may not completely have figured out, but it seems to me that it is even clearer in football, yet they serve their 4 game suspension and then no one talks about it ever again.

    My guess is that baseball is so angry because of the HRs. These guys messed with our sacred idols; if no one had hit 60 HRs, do you think that there would be this kind of outrage, keeping everything else the same?


    14 Jan 13 at 2:31 pm

  11. A great point on the HRs. I make this point often: when i say the numbers 60 and 61, 714 and 755, literally any half way decent sports fan knows what those numbers mean. However even hard core football fans would be challenged to tell me the record for TD passes in a season or a career. I just had to go look it up on pro-football-reference, the answers are Tom Brady with 50 in a season, and Brett Favre with 508 for his career. I knew Brady had the TD record but didn’t know what the number was.

    So when these cherished, hallowed, century-long meaningful home run numbers were broken and literally smashed by guys who were “cheating” to do so … yeah I think that’s an outrage that just won’t go away.

    Todd Boss

    14 Jan 13 at 4:34 pm

  12. Actually, there have been *many* scholarly books & articles written on this topic – or something close to this topic. The basic picture: Suppose you want to predict something – the outcome of a football game, whether someone has a brain disorder, whether a prisoner will recidivate if paroled, whether someone will repay a loan, whether someone who just had a heart attack will have another one, academic performance in law or grad school, the quality of a Bordeaux wine.

    In one corner, you have an acknowledged expert with *many* years of experience making these judgments. In the other, you have a computer model based on a large set of past data (built by an expert of course!). Both expert and model have access to the same information. (This restriction is, obviously, important.)

    Neither expert nor model will predict the future with 100% accuracy. But which will make more accurate predictions? Answer: The statistical model.

    The psychologist Paul Meehl wrote in 1986 “There is no controversy in social science which shows such a large body of qualitatively diverse studies coming out so uniformly in the same direction as this one.” And more than 25 years later, that’s still true.

    Now consider a wrinkle: Suppose you give the expert the formula & you tell the expert the formula is more accurate than experts. Surprisingly, the formula still beats the experts. The expert will “defect” from the model when the model seems clearly wrong. But when the expert defects, the model is right more often. (It *doesn’t* follow from this that one should never defect from the model. But one should defect way less often than intuitively seems reasonable.)

    Even if you buy this literature – and don’t worry, lots of people don’t – it certainly offers no justification for incivility. But it is a point to consider.

    There is a large literature on this. It is most closely associated with the psychologists Paul Meehl & Robyn Dawes. If you’re interested, this link offers a nice entree to the topic.


    17 Jan 13 at 10:40 am

  13. Very interesting. I’ll definitely look at the links you provided.

    I guess this conclusion generally doesn’t surprise me when it comes to predicting future behavior based on past behaviors. By the time anyone becomes an expert in something, the basis of his expertise clearly has changed.

    I guess where I still have trouble with the statistically analysis in baseball is when it comes to people making broad statements about human behaviors in sport based on their inability to prove something exists statistically. Take for example a topic like “lineup protection.” The theory is that Batter A hitting ahead of a good Batter B will get better pitches to hit and thus is “protected” in the lineup. There are many studies that have tried to show through analysis of plate apperances over the years that the presence of a good hitter behind another hitter is meaningless. But what these studies cannot factor or measure are the very subtle changes that a batter makes in terms of his swing and the pitches he may or may not swing at depending on situations and the hitter behind him.

    If you look at Ryan Zimmerman’s offense production in the year directly before and after Adam Dunn started hitting behind him, you’ll see very clear evidence of lineup protection. Now, that’s not proof in and among itself of course.. but we’re talking pretty small sample sizes of studies where you can look at cases where clearly a batter did and did not have a better hitter hitting behind him on a year to year basis.

    I was a math major in college. I learned that if something was not *entirely* 100% true, then it was false. No ifs, ands or buts. You can’t have something be 98% true or be “mostly true.” So I have a big problem with people making statements like “there’s no such thing as clutch” or “lineup protection is a myth” or “pitchers don’t pitch to score” or “players don’t play harder in contract years” because in all these cases I have played with players or directly seen players do *exactly* these things in easily measurable ways. So I have trouble accepting these broad platitutes as a result. Now, if you wanted to say that “I did a study that seems to show lineup protection doesn’t exist” and then tell me the statistical significance of your study (was it one standard deviation away from the mean? A half standard deviation? Only supported 55% of the time so you rounded to 100% for your conclusion?) then i’m happy with that, because it gives me a basis of understanding just how significant your statistical proof is. You’re stating something with a 3 standard deviation confidence level? Well then, that’s pretty unassailable.

    To say nothing of the complete, 100% disconnect between statistics/accomplishments that players value versus the opinions of analysts on those same stats. Again, i’m drawing from my own experiences; when I see a guy who drives in runs, I think to myself “man he did a great job driving in those runs.” Meanwhile stat-nerds will say “RBIs are meaningless.” And I just have a hard time accepting that, having played the game myself for so many years and seen just how difficult it is to, you know, score runs sometimes.

    Todd Boss

    17 Jan 13 at 12:04 pm

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