StatSpeak World Famous Roundtable: April 21

This week, our roundtable features special guest Jessica Bader from MVN’s Take the 7 Train and Mets GeekRead on to see what Eric, Pizza, and Jessica have to say about Kosuke Fukudome, umpiring, and the role of luck in the game of baseball.
Question #1:  One thing that has been an important discovery of the sabermetric movement is the role that luck plays in baseball, both for individual players (BABIPs that are out of line with batted-ball data) and for teams (discrepancies between actual and Pythagorean winning percentage that can’t entirely be explained by bullpen performance). Yet this concept is one that many less sabermetrically-oriented followers of baseball are especially disdainful towards. Why do you think this is the case?
Jessica Bader: Three possible explanations:

  1. People want to believe that the “better” team always prevails. Many see sports as a diversion from the stresses of everyday life and don’t want to believe that baseball (or football, or basketball) is subject to the same vagaries of fortune as the rest of the daily grind.
  2. There is a misconception as to the coexistence of luck and skill. While a high level of skill can minimize the impact of luck (a pitcher who strikes a lot of batters out has fewer opportunities to be victimized by bad results on balls in play), it will not completely eliminate it (that pitcher is still going to give up some hits on grounders that find holes). However, some people believe that when you attribute a player or team’s success or failure to luck, you are saying that skill has nothing to do with it, and those people are likely to take offense upon being told that Hitter X has benefited from good luck or that Pitcher Y has been unlucky.
  3. Luck is a four-letter word ending in –uck, and people tend to have issues with those, don’t they?

Eric Seidman: I think a lot of the disdain towards luck-based indicators correlates well with the reason people would be opposed towards the ball/strike ump standing behind the pitcher or near the mound: the results take more of the human aspect out of the game.  I’ve asked a few people with cursory knowledge of pythagorean W-L, who are on the “scouts rule” part of the analysis war, and they seem to feel that luck is a human aspect of the game and attempting to measure human aspects with statistics misses the point.  Though I disagree I do feel there is some merit to this stance as a team with a better pythagorean record is not necessarily unlucky.  Look at the Braves this year: they lose one-run games and win blowouts.  Their pythagorean is going to be exagerrated due to these blowouts; the games are individual commodities, though, and so losing 2-1 and winning 8-0 should produce a 1-1 record.  Regardless of the runs scored/runs allowed, the team won a game and lost a game.  Winning by eight should have no effect on a loss by one and those opposed to these luck-based statistics likely understand this whether they realize it or not.
Another issue, dealing with BABIP is whether or not certain expectations follow suit for certain players.  In the aforementioned Upton example, a player with Upton’s speed is likely to leg out more grounders than, say, Pat Burrell; a high ground-ball rate and high BABIP for Burrell will regress whereas Upton could maintain a .360+ BABIP due to his speed.
Pizza Cutter: Luck means that the world around us is chaotic and that there is no control or plan or design or destiny.  When people say that baseball is part of the “American identity” or the “fabric of our lives”, they’re making the argument that baseball is part of people’s life narrative.  I’m guessing that many of you reading this would discuss at least some of the events of your life in relation to major baseball events that happened.  Who wants to believe that their life itself is chaotic, uncontrollable, and without purpose or destiny?  Whether life is (or not) is a philosophical question.  Whether baseball is (or not) is a matter of investigation.   It’s a much more comforting thought to believe that life is not random and that there is some plan behind it.  When a lot of “traditional” baseball fans hear Sabermetricians talk, they’re hearing someone critique not just their views on baseball.  Deep down, they’re hearing us say “Life is meaningless.”
Question #2: Something I’ve always thought would be an unrealistic and radical, yet more accurate approach to umpiring in baseball would be for the ball-strike umpire to be behind the pitcher.  Clearly somebody looking directly at home plate has a better view of what is a ball or strike, which is why we as fans know when an umpire makes an incorrect call: we see the plate and can very precisely gauge when balls are high/low, inside/outside.  This will never be instituted but is interesting to think about.  Why would/wouldn’t a ball-strike umpire behind the pitcher work, assuming a home plate umpire was there to call plays at the plate in a different location?
Jessica Bader:  A ball-strike umpire behind the pitcher is an intriguing idea, but I don’t think it would work. While someone looking directly at the plate has a clear view of the strike zone, it would likely be difficult to judge a pitch on the edge of the zone from more than 60 feet away, even for an umpire with excellent eyesight (must…avoid…obvious…wisecrack…). Television cameras can zoom in as close as is necessary; the human eye can’t.
Eric Seidman: The hard part about answering something like this is being able to get past what we are so familiar with.  We know how baseball umpiring works, in terms of the home plate umpire calling balls/strikes and so any suggested change comes off as radical.  With regards to how it would work, I think the answer is fairly simple – it would be much more accurate.  I have umpired little league games before and it gets very tough to gauge the specific location of certain pitches.  Having the ball/strike umpire near the pitcher’s mound would produce more accurate results because there could be no extra influence: How many times have we seen a missed call due to a pitcher missing his location even though it is still a strike?  I’ve seen it happen plenty and an umpire looking straight ahead would clearly see if a pitch crosses the plate.  I’m not too positive how it would not work, if the ultimate goal of umpiring is to be as accurate as possible, but some potential arguments against it would stem from a part of the majesty of chance being non-existent. 
Pizza Cutter: Umpires don’t call the high strike and haven’t for several years, although there’s some evidence to suggest that they call the strike zone a little wider than it’s written in the rule book.  It makes sense.  If you ever want a rather humbling experience, umpire something.  I used to umpire my little brother’s church league softball games (when he was in 4th grade and I was in 9th!).  Balls and strikes really are hard to call from behind the plate.  Part of it is a matter of what the human eye can do.  Even a 70 mph pitch is moving too fast for the human eye to track when one is close up to it.  (Mike Sadler covered this one in The Psychology of Baseball.)  The reason is that when something is close to your eyes, it moves through your entire field of vision so quickly that your eyes can’t physically move fast enough to keep up.  Your mind actually fills in the rest with its best guess.  From the view behind the pitcher’s mound, the ball isn’t moving through the umpire’s field of vision as quickly, so he’d probably make a better call.  Even then, he’d make mistakes.  So, if the idea is to eliminate mistakes, perhaps you should advocate having QuesTec call the strike zone in real time?
Question #3: Kosuke Fukudome — can he keep it up?
Jessica Bader: Well, he’s not going to maintain a .388 BABIP over a full season, but he looks like he’ll be a very valuable player. The plate discipline is there (4.6 pitches per plate appearance so far), and while he’s not going to put up the sort of power numbers he had in Japan, I would expect him to hit more fly balls than he’s hitting right now, resulting in lots of doubles. I think we can safely add the Cubs to the list of teams that do a better job than the Mets when it comes to scouting Japanese players.
Eric Seidman: This really depends how good we currently consider him to be.  He has definitely produced for the Cubs, ranking sixth in WPA with a 1.10, slightly ahead of Derrek Lee’s 1.08.  He also has the second-highest Clutch score, via Fangraphs, in the league; his 0.75 ranks first in the NL.  He currently has a BABIP of .388 and 51 percent of these balls in play have been grounders with just 16 percent coming in the form of line drives.  The only player with a higher percentage of grounders as well as a higher BABIP is BJ Upton, a notably faster player than Kosuke.  While Upton is likely to sustain a high BABIP due to his speed, common indicators would suggest Kosuke will regress a bit.  He only has one home run though that came on opening day.  In case you missed it, here is a link to the video of this timely home run.  The NL ROY award is currently his to lose and I would be very surprised if his season does not turn out to be productive but I would like to explore this a tad later in the season with more data to analyze.
Pizza Cutter: For some reason, “Japanese” has become a synonym for “good” in baseball.  Exotic doesn’t mean quality (doesn’t exclude it either).  It just means “traveled a long way.”  Fukudome does look like a pretty good hitter (and he walks a lot), but as of the time I write this, he hits nearly half of his balls in play on the ground.  And he has an almost .400 BABIP.  One of two things is happening.  Kosuke Fukudome has an almost supernatural ability to hit balls through the infield or he’s gotten a little lucky.  Now, for what it’s worth, his fellow countryman Ichiro Suzuki hits even more ground balls and last year had a BABIP of .390 (thanks to a lot of infield hits), so I suppose it’s possible.  But that’s also making the assumption that Fukudome is as good (perhaps more accurately, as fast) as Ichiro.  Cubs fans will seize on any scrap of good news (and I can’t blame them), but by year’s end, Fukudome won’t be doing this. 

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4 Responses to StatSpeak World Famous Roundtable: April 21

  1. Josh says:

    The major problem I see for the ump being behind the pitcher would be that you can’t definitively tell when the ball crosses the plate. It would be especially difficult for hard breaking pitches.
    Nice use of the Kosuke clip, Eric.

  2. Haha, thanks. Yeah that’s a good point with not being able to tell. You would have the advantage of better gauging up/down, outside/inside, but not when the pitch crosses. Behind the ump it is harder to gauge exactly where the ball is though they are more likely to see when it crosses.

  3. Guyser says:

    I also think having the ump behind the pitcher would create many more instances of the umpire getting in the way of line drives up the middle. Just imagine if Carlos Beltran’s ninth inning shot would have hit an umpire who was standing behind the pitcher.

  4. Whiteboy says:

    I’m going to have to take the flip side on the little league umpiring experience. To me, it was ALWAYS superior to be calling the pitches from behind the plate rather than behind the pitcher (done only on nights the appropriate gear wasn’t readily available). Perhaps it’s a depth perception issue, but tracking the entire path of the ball was always easier as the ball comes towards my field of vision rather than moving away from it. More importantly, position the umpire anywhere out from behind the plate introduces an series of variables in the sense of viewing angles – the ump wouldn’t be on the mound directly behind the pitcher to get a straight on view, so they’d be off to the side one direction or the other, and likely farther back behind the mound. Not only that, but good (emphasis on good) umpires get their faces/fields of view in a rather precise position behind the catcher, which would be eliminated in favor of a top-down view from out in the field (draw the line of vision from an umpires eyes to where the strike zone is – the view would always be top down at a distance – unless you have a really short umpire or the umpire got into a lower position on the field). So you may eliminate some current variables, but you’d introduce any number of new ones. Sure, it would be possible to train to see pitches in a certain way to call it – but I wouldn’t think that would be any better or easier than how one would be trained to look at pitches now.
    One thing I do agree with is that if the goal is to eliminate error as much as possible, just go with the camera system and leave it at that. Have fun with that debate though. ;-)

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