Explaining The Myths Of Baseball's Great Debate

Follow the analytics? Or use your instinct? The choice is: Yes

Baseball history is sometimes defined by eras. No, not Earned Run Averages, I’m talking about the periods of time that represent the way the game was played.

You have the Dead Ball Era, which gave way to The Golden Era, and led seamlessly in to the Modern Era. But now it seems we have now entered a new time frame in baseball’s history and this one is still looking for a name. I think we can narrow the moniker down to two possibilities:

The Information Era or The Misinformation Era.

Advanced analytics and statistical analysis have crept in to baseball and taken root. The revolution known by many as Sabermetrics has influenced front offices for years, changing the way many teams evaluate talent. That much is undeniable and for the most part it works.

Now there’s a push to start using statistical analysis in every day baseball life. Fans want managers to follow the numbers and projections when making in-game decisions. Many are already doing that, like the Cubs’ Joe Maddon and the Padres’ Bud Black.

Speaking of Buddy, he’s the reason this piece is being written. During a recent loss to the Diamondbacks Black left pitcher Andrew Cashner in to hit for himself with the bases loaded and two outs in the 6th inning of a game the Padres trailed (and would eventually lose) 2-1. This decision caused a titanic backlash on social media, a debate I briefly took part in.

One side says it was a galactically stupid call by Black because the analytics dictate you pinch-hit there. The other side says there are other factors to consider and maybe the call was not all that bad.

I wondered … what do the people who make the analytics think?

“If this was October and the game was of significant importance we would say, analytically, that’s probably the wrong call,” says David Cameron, managing editor and a senior writer at www.FanGraphs.com, one of the most commonly referenced analytics sites for baseball fans. “Historically the numbers show that the difference in expected runs going from even a good starting pitcher to a mediocre reliever is smaller than going from a pitcher hitting to any kind of position player, especially if you have a Matt Kemp or a Derek Norris on the bench. The upgrade in that one at-bat is worth more runs than handing the ball to a 6th or 7th-inning reliever for an inning.”

Black did indeed have both Kemp and Norris available to pinch-hit. This is the point most often cited by fans of the analytics. However, Cameron is smart enough to take the next step in the thought process, which is to realize people who are not in the clubhouse are not fully in the know.

“From our perspective, the best thing people can do is understand what we know and what we don’t know, especially when it comes to manager critiques,” said Cameron. “We don’t do it very often on the site; very rarely, in fact. Maybe in the post-season if there’s something really egregious.”

In the specific case of Black not pinch-hitting for Cashner several other factors must be accounted for, like the fact the Padres were playing with a short bullpen that day.

“We know that we don’t know anything about player health, especially about what pitcher was available on a certain day. There are all kinds of playing time decisions that have numerous factors that we can’t possibly know. This is one of those instances where it’s May, the bullpen is exhausted and he’s playing the long game and he says, you know what, trying to win this one game or pushing my percentage points three or four or five percent to win this one game isn’t worth potentially blowing out one of my reliever’s elbows. I’m short-handed today and trying to give these guys rest. At that point I would say let him do whatever he wants. It’s May. The game does not matter nearly as much as keeping his guys healthy for the next 130 games. If this was September or October and it’s the Wild Card game and it’s elimination, he should have pinch-hit. But it’s May he can do what he wants.”

Cameron and his crew at FanGraphs are not the only ones who feel this way.

“I have seen a number on instances where I felt like the manager pulled out all the stops to win that game to the detriment of the team,” says Vince Gennaro, President of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), and author of Diamond Dollars: The Economics of Winning Baseball. “Buddy’s gotta manage this thing for a 162 game marathon. If he thinks going to someone else in the bullpen is going to be a big problem for him in terms of containing runs, I can see the point of not wanting to manage the game like it’s Game 7 of the World Series. You want to win but you’ve got to take in to consideration the bigger picture.”

Ah, yes. The bigger picture. That’s the thing that seems to have been lost in this (Mis)Information Era. Fans of the numbers tend to discount the feel or gut instinct a manager has. Old-school baseball folks are hesitant to validate numbers because they either don’t understand them or can’t believe a computer printout understands the pro game more than 20 years of playing it.

Like most things in life, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

“Even if they read FanGraphs or Baseball Prospectus, fans often have a fraction of the information that a manager or general manager has when he’s making a decision,” says Gennaro. “It’s important that teams are looking at all sorts of data points when they’re making decisions, but they’re also looking at a great deal more than what is in the public domain and those factors have to figure in to the decision.”

Aside from injury factors is something often overlooked in the game: baseball players are people, too. They’re not chess pieces you can certainly move around on a board at will and expect to perform the same way every time. A manager has to be as much of a therapist as he is a tactician.

“You’ve got to consider those personal factors when you’re making decisions that go beyond what the data might tell you. The data is filled with assumptions,” says Gennaro. “I’ve seen a lot of managers in the National League do similar things to what Buddy did. It’s so hard from where we sit to second-guess that.”

But second-guessing is part of the fan’s right. Heck it’s part of the fan’s job. But if it’s going to be done it must be done intelligently and with a touch of humility. Fans are armed with more information than they’ve ever had access to before. They simply need to be careful with how they use it.

“Obviously some people are going to care about context and some people aren’t,” says Cameron. “Our goal is to educate and provide tools to people to understand and enjoy the game a little bit better.”

“We all do it as fans,” says Gennaro. “We sit there and say, I can’t believe he did that. But from being around the game I’ve learned that there are so many other factors that figure in to it. I think those are important things.”

Eventually, one day down the road, analytics and experience will live harmoniously in baseball. Perhaps the first manager to use them synergistically will end up in the Hall of Fame.

Questions like, “to pinch-hit or not to pinch-hit” will forever be a part of the game. Fans today are lucky enough to have a wonderful new way of looking at those dilemmas and are more educated than ever on the subject. However, trying to assume one way of analyzing it superior to another way when all the pertinent factors are unavailable to you is irresponsible.

I mean, you wouldn’t want anyone making a decision that turned out to be wrong because he or she only looked at one part of the situation, would you?

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