Got a great little lesson about stats, life and Tiger Woods last week. Well, it might not actually be a lesson about life or Tiger Woods, but it is definitely a good lesson about stats.
I recently posted a long and rambling thing about a few of the hitting stats that I find interesting. I don’t like all of them, certainly do not like them all equally, but what I like about advanced baseball statistics are that they can get you thinking about HOW you might try to measure something. How would you go about trying to measure a batter’s hitting ability? A pitcher’s ability to prevent runs? A defender’s ability to play his position? These are complicated questions with many, many layers of questions within them. It’s fascinating for me to see some of the more thoughtful statistical minds attack all these questions.
Well, I mentioned in there a very interesting statistic called wOBA, invented by my e-migo Tom Tango. This stat gives a well-thought out value to everything an offensive player does. I won’t go into any more details here except to point out two seeming quirks of wOBA, two quirks I touched upon in the original story.
Quirk 1: A reached on error is worth more than a single.
According to the wOBA chart I included, a single is worth .90 while reaching on error is worth .92. This seems interesting.
Quirk 2: A hit batter is worth more than a batter walking.
A non-intentional walk is worth .72. A hit-batter is worth .75. Again … interesting.
Before I explain to you why these things are so, I should say that I came up with my own theories about why these things might be so. And before I tell you my absurd theories, I should say that baseball fans all decide how much they want to believe in things that they cannot see. That is to say that everyone will choose to believe how important leadership is for a baseball team, how significant and varying is the ability to perform in the clutch, how big a part mental qualities like self-doubt and unbreakable confidence and experience and guts and heart and all that play in the failures and successes of players.
I think there is a sliding scale — some people think these intangibles mean EVERYTHING in baseball, some think these intangibles mean almost NOTHING in baseball, and most people fall somewhere in between. We can call this the McCarver Scale. McCarver — and most other color commentators, to be fair — tend to think intangibles are pretty close to 100% of the game.* And so I’d say I score 12% on the McCarver scale. Maybe 8%. I think those qualities like veteran leadership and competitive nature do play their part in the game.
*Or, anyway, that’s how they talk on TV.
But I think — and this is just my theory — that things like that are almost always overstated because a part of us WANTS these things to matter more than they do. We WANT (many of us) to believe that players who drive in a lot of runs have some special talent for hitting with runners on base. We WANT (many of us) to believe that pitchers who win a lot of games have special talent for winning games no matter what everyone else on the field does.
And, hey, I have these same prejudices. That’s how Tiger Woods gets in. Every realistic instinct in my being tells me Tiger Woods is done as the best golfer in the world. Done. I really don’t think he will ever get back up to the top. I’ve been over my reasons a dozen times at least — he’s 35 years old (and probably even older in golf years since he has been playing, since he was 3), he’s had major knee surgery, he can’t find a swing that fits his current body, he has been trampled by the culture he created, and there are many very talented young golfers who grew up with Tiger Woods as their standard of excellence and are not intimidated or unfamiliar with his greatness. I am now at the point where I would be thoroughly surprised if Tiger Woods reached the top again. To tell the truth, I would be less surprised if Tiger Woods fell off the world golf map entirely.
I THINK that … but every time Tiger Woods plays, I again hold my breath. This past week, he’s playing at Doral and I held my breath. And here’s why: Part of me so respects Tiger Woods’ competitive nature that I cannot help think if he WANTS it bad enough, if he GETS ANGRY enough, if he FOCUSES HARD ENOUGH, then he can will himself back into the greatest golfer on earth. I may believe logically that such thoughts are silly or naive or flat misguided, but I still have those thoughts. I can’t help it.
Then Tiger Woods is tied for 31st at Doral and I remember reality again.
Then Tiger Woods shoots six-under on Sunday and I again hold my breath for the next time. That’s pure emotion. And it colors the view.
Similarly, when I saw those quirky baseball numbers above — about reached on error and hit-by-pitch — I could not help but immediately pin the reasons for the difference to something mental and vague and ambiguous. For instance, when I saw that a reached-on-error had a slightly higher value, my thought was that this might be because reaching on error has a negative impact on the the defensive team’s psyche. The pitcher’s ticked off that the defense let him down, the defenders let down slightly because they know they should be out of the inning, the batters have a little more confidence because they have been given a second life. I figured this was the reason a few more runs are scored.
And when I saw that hit batters are worth more than batters who walk, I had almost the exact same thought. I figured the MENTAL reaction — anguish on one side, a little added fury on the other — leads to scoring a few more runs.
In both cases, my theory was completely wrong and the real answers both (1) make more sense and (2) do not rely on creative accounting.
For the reached-on-error issue, Tom Tango explains that reaching on error is worth slightly more than a single only because these will include occasional errors where the hitter ends up on second or third base. Grounder to third is thrown away, that means a runner goes to second, and that’s the extra value. That’s it. That’s the whole difference. There is absolutely no other detectable difference.
As for the hit-by-pitch, the reason it is worth more is because it happens at more random times than walks. A pitcher can have some control over a walk. He might be more likely to walk someone with first base open, for example. But a hit-by-pitch is a much more random act. Only a small, small, small percentage of HBP are purposeful. As such, they tend to lead to slightly more runs.
Of course, the numbers we are talking about are so small that nobody could possibly just notice them. That’s the thing about baseball numbers. Someone who hits .296 gets hits on 29.6% of his at-bats. Someone who hit .302 gets a hit 30.2% of his at-bats. If someone gets 184 hits in 622 at-bats, he hits .296. If someone gets 188 hits in 622 at-bats, he hits .302. The difference is four hits over a WHOLE SEASON. That’s fewer than one hit a month. You simply could not notice that unless you were charting it.
By charting it, you get those batting averages which tell you, decisively, which guy got more hits. But the more you chart, the more you take a little bit more myth out of baseball. Charting baseball basically proves that the tiny things that have become part of the mythology of baseball, well, they might exist, maybe, but only as tiny things. Thomas Edison said that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. It’s a good quote, but he was pretty wildly overestimating. It’s probably closer to .0001% inspiration.