Brilliant Reader Jon sent in this story by my friend Pat Reusse called “You can take your UZR and …”
The story is actually quite a fun read. I mean, yes, there are a couple of shots at statistics and the people who love them. So what? My friend Dave Krieger in Denver wrote about me being abducted to Planet Bill James (the cable channels up there are INCREDIBLE). I sometimes wonder why anybody in this crazy business of sports would take him or herself too seriously.
Anyway the core of Pat Reusse’s article is an interview with Jim Fregosi, and it’s clear that Fregosi has a pretty good sense of the stats. And he makes some excellent points about the right and wrong way to use them, like this quote:
“If I’m looking for a leadoff hitter, I don’t care about a combination of numbers — don’t care about his slugging percentage. I want to know how often he gets on base and if he can run.”
If the manager for my big league baseball team ever said something that sensible, I would jump up and down and buy a new team cap to wear around town. I’m not kidding. I’m so used to managers saying that they want leadoff hitters who can “handle the bat” or guys who “will fight up there” or some other vague trait that doesn’t mean anything. A few weeks ago, Royals manager Ned Yost was explaining to Bob Dutton why he plans to hit Mike Aviles in the leadoff spot.
“He’s a guy who has a chance to hit .300. He’s a guy who can steal bases. He’s a guy who will give you a decent at-bat, and he finds a way to get on.”
Mike Aviles’ career on-base percentage is .327. That’s below league average. He has walked 42 times in more than 1,000 big league plate appearances. He didn’t walk much more than that in the minors. He has been hit with pitches three times. I think Mike Aviles is a very useful player, and he might even be the Royals best option as a leadoff hitter. But he most definitely DOES NOT find ways to get on. And when you say stuff like that you make it pretty clear what your priorities are — and on-base percentage is not the priority.
So, I like Fregosi’s summation of a leadoff hitter: “I want to know how often he gets on base and if he can run.” That order. I like it. And he also said: “There are too many things that can’t be seen through statistics.” I agree entirely with that too. He talked about how OPS is not especially relevant when he’s looking for a utility infielder. Agree with that too. Almost everything Fregosi said in the article, I agree with.
Fregosi then said that he despises UZR — Ultimate Zone Rating, one of the advanced defensive metrics out there. “I can watch any player for three days and tell you if he has range,” Fregosi said. “And I’ll tell you more accurately than a chart in a computer.”
Jim Fregosi absolutely may be right here too. There are real issues with Ultimate Zone Rating. But I will say one thing … we only ever hear from people like Fregosi on this topic. That is to say we are constantly hearing from baseball people who know how to measure defense better than some statistic like UZR. We are constantly hearing from people who, through well-honed powers of observation and years of visual training, can determine a player’s range and skill and defensive production better than UZR. They don’t need any statistic to tell you who can or cannot play defense. As the headline says, you can take your UZR and …
And you know who we never hear from on this topic? That’s right: UZR herself.
Q: Thank you so much for joining us. I understand this is your first interview.
UZR: Well, I’ve been jumping from mother’s basement to mother’s basement, and I really have not had any free time.
Q: I’m glad you …
UZR: Oh the underwear I’ve seen.
Q: Right. So let’s get right down to it. You are a defensive statistic and one of the more prominent ones out there. First, can you explain yourself.
UZR: What I try to do is determine how many runs a fielder saves his team over the average player. I look at the players arm, his range, his errors and the number of double plays he helps turn.
Q: So you are trying to ruin the game?
UZR: Is this going to be one of those interviews?
Q: No. I just wanted to see how you would react. By the way, you look good, have you been dieting?
UZR: Well, I’m park adjusted.
Q: I thought so. So, you’ve heard what people say about how imprecise you are … what do you say those people.
UZR: I’d agree with that wholeheartedly. I’m a defensive statistic. There are all sorts of quirks and blips involved with measuring defense. I always tell people never to use just a year of me. You have to use at least three years to get real value out of my numbers.
Q: Three years?
UZR: Oh yes. AT LEAST three years. Defense is a complicated matter you know. If I may, I heard what Jim Fregosi said about me, and let me say that I’m a big fan of his. We met once, years ago, but he wouldn’t remember … anyway, I don’t doubt that he could watch a player for three days and determine if the player has range. I bet he could watch a player for two days or one day and say if he has range. I could never do that.
But that’s not what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to tell you how much a defensive player is helping his team. And I’m doing it with numbers. The managers look at Derek Jeter and tell you he’s a great defensive player, right? They give him the Gold Glove every year. Well, he might be a great defensive player by the eyes. He might be the smartest player in the world. He might have a sense that no other player on earth has. But I rank him 42 runs below average since 2002 because that’s how the numbers add up. I don’t judge based on how good or bad he looks. I mean, he looks good, he’s Derek Jeter, come on. I don’t care if he dives or doesn’t dive. I don’t care about any of that stuff. Does he make the play? Does he get to the ball? Does he turn two? These are the data points in my statistic.
Q: So you’re saying …
UZR: I’m saying that the human mind is better for writing poetry. The closest thing I’ve ever come to poetry is this: “Hat … Pat … Sat.” I’m still thinking a name for it. The human mind is better for literature, for music, for art, for comedy. The human mind is better in billions of different ways that I could never conceive. The human mind is especially better at narrative.
But by being better at narrative, the human mind can and will shift things to make them fit. The human mind will find trends in randomness, and stories in fog, and that’s one of the beautiful parts. I can count better than you can. I don’t mean that in a bragging way. I just can. I can count better, and I can ignore unnecessary data better, and I cannot be influenced by beauty or awkwardness. If you have one day to determine if a guy can play defense, or a week, or a month, you are better off to use your eyes because I need more than three days. If we have five years of data, I’m pretty sure I’ll beat your analysis every time.
Q: Do you understand why people take shots at you?
UZR: Sure I do. I sometimes spit out numbers that don’t match up to what the eyes suggest. It’s not personal with me. But it is personal with baseball fans, and it should be. They are watching the game with love. And they don’t want to be told that their eyes are misleading them, that they might not see the game as well as they think, that their hero doesn’t get to nearly as many balls as they believe.
I tell people that I’m a tool. See, a person would never say call herself a tool. Heh heh. That’s statistical humor. It breaks them up at the conventions. Point is, I’m not perfect. I’m not close to perfect. I’ve gotten better since I was young, and I will keep getting better. Baseball defense has been widely miscalculated for many, many decades. People have judged players on whether or not they fielded ground balls that hit their gloves, or made throws that sailed over their targets. People have judged players on how far they ran to catch a ball or how spectacular their dive. That’s all wonderful to watch, but that’s not what defense is about. Defense is about preventing runs. Defense is about turning batted balls into outs. Over seasons, I believe I can tell you which players are good and not so good at doing that. And I believe I can do it better than you can do it with good eyes and a great memory.
Q: OK, before you go, tell us … which of the advanced statistic is the best.
UZR: Oh, I could never choose, they’re all my friends. But I can tell you that VORP is hilarious — I told you stats are not very funny, but VORP is the exception. He told this one the other day … let’s see if I can remember it: How many RBIs does it take to change a light-bulb? Who cares — RBIs are context-based stats that overstate the importance of certain middle-of-the-lineup hitters! Oh, he had us rolling in the aisles with that one. Also WAR does a great Dave Krieger impression.