Wanted: Players who like to run into things?

Easy way to get over a “what do I write about this week” slump for a Sabermetric blogger:  tune into a broadcast of a game and play mythbusters.  This week’s baseball myth: teams should be looking for good, hard-nosed players.  Well, they’re half right.  Good players are always welcome.
What the heck does “hard nosed” (see also: take-no-prisoners, fiery, plucky, gritty, happy, bashful, and Doc) mean?  Certainly the nose is made of soft cartilige and if it ossifies, it is probably a significant medical concern.  Somehow I don’t think that’s what they meant.  I decided to use a little bit of my qualitative analysis skills (I never get to use them here!) to start me off.  I Googled (when did that become a verb?) “hard nosed baseball” and looked to find what came up.  (In professional terms, I did a “content analysis.”)  There were a few major themes that were associated with hard-nose-ed-ness.  (Is that a word?)  Most of them involved a willingness to run into people or objects for the benefit of the team.  This quality is likely helpful in football where running into people is part of how you accomplish your goal (especially on defense), but in baseball?
OK, some of these hard-nosed thingies are obviously helpful.  Getting hit by a pitch puts the batter on first, even though it’s an ouchie.  (In rec-league softball when we were kids, we used to say “Get a hit or get hit.”)  Some of them, like diving for no apparent reason… oh sorry, Derek, didn’t see you over there… don’t do anything except make the player look cooler while the ball is going past him.  (I, too, appreciate a dirty uniform, but I more appreciate a ball in a glove.)  Some of them, like playing every day or playing while hurt, depend on how good you are to begin with.
There was the ever-so-hard-nosed play of sliding hard into second base to take out the shortstop/second baseman who was attempting to turn the double play, crashing into the catcher in order to try to score, and running into a wall/diving to catch a fly ball, even at the risk of injury to oneself.  Apparently, it’s not enough to do a lot of running or throwing or hitting the ball for the team.  To truly prove oneself, there must be some element of actually hitting something with your body.  In the event of a bench-clearing brawl, one must also be prepared to run out there and look menacing.  So, do these hard-nosed players really exist?  And does hard-nosed play really benefit the team?
Well, there’s no data on how often a player barrels into the catcher or how menacing he looks during a brawl.  As far as taking out the catcher goes, there’s a game benefit for the team.  Certainly, if he can turn an out at the plate into a run, that’s going to be a net gain for his team, but we don’t have any way of looking into that one and whether there’s any consistent skill at knocking over the catcher… at least on Retrosheet.  However, we can take a look to see if there really are players who are particularly good at breaking up double plays.
I isolated all situations in which the following happened: With less than two out and a runner on first, a ground ball was hit, fielded by an infielder, and the runner who had been on first was eliminated in some way.  I looked to see whether or not the double play was completed.  I then calculated each runner’s percentage of double plays broken up (admittedly, I have no idea whether he actually did anything to break the play up or not…)  I did this for 2004-2007 and selected only those runners who had been in that position 10 or more times.  I then looked to see if there was any year to year consistency using intra-class correlation.  The result: .04  That doesn’t even qualify as legally drunk, much less any sort of consistency.  If there are players that have this magical ability to break up double plays, they sure aren’t using it year to year. 
(Side note: I re-ran the same analyses, only this time looking at whether or not there were certain batters who had the ability to avoid the double play in the same situation.  The intraclass correlation came in at .47.  There is some repeatable performance in avoiding double plays for batters.  I believe that particular ability is called “speed.”  Moral of the story: if you want to stay out of double plays, don’t look for a hard-nosed player at first.  Look for a fast batter.)
Then there’s the matter of running into walls/diving after balls/leaping into the stands to catch fly balls.  Certainly it happens, and while you get a Web Gem award on Baseball Tonight, you still only get one out for your troubles.  Now, if you make the catch and don’t injure yourself, you get heralded as a wonderful human being.  If you miss the ball and get hurt, you spend two weeks on the DL watching footage of when you missed the ball… and your team doesn’t get the benefit of your services for that time.
Consider for a moment: the average fly ball or line drive that goes for an extra base hit has a WPA of .094 for the offense (2000-2006 numbers).  An out on a fly ball has an average WPA of  .025 for the defense.  So the total WPA swing of making that catch is .119 wins.  (Before we go on, yes, I know, I’m playing really fast and loose with the WPA framework here and there’s leverage to consider, blah blah blah.)  Suppose that you as a hard-nosed gentleman are chasing a fly ball and the wall is fast approaching.  You know that you will end up on the 15-day DL after this jaunt into the wall but you run and jump anyway.  Was that a good idea?  Let’s say you miss 13 games in the process and you’ll have to be replaced by a… well, a replacement level player.  So, over those 13 games (let’s say 4.1 PA per game), there will be roughly 53 PA that you’ll miss.  Let’s assume that you are A-Rod and last year were 10.9 wins over a replacement player in 708 PA, or roughly .0154 wins above replacement per PA.  In the 53 PA you miss, you’d cost your team .816 wins.  Suddenly, that’s not such a good move.
But what if you’re not A-Rod?  When would it make sense to actually jump?  Suppose that you usually get 600 PA per year.  How many wins above replacement should you be below before the jump makes sense?  A little bit of math shows that the number is 1.34 WARP.  Or roughly, Julio Lugo last year.  If you’re a replacement player anyway (0 WARP), jump!  You’ll be replaced by another replacement player, so we won’t lose anything.  Moral of the story: it makes sense to be a hard nosed player if you aren’t all that good of a player to begin with.
But there was one theme that was curiously missing from my content analysis that seems pretty hard-nosed, and seems to have some basis in reality.  We talk about the runner as hard-nosed for breaking up a double play, but what about the poor pivot guy who has to turn the double play?  He usually has a guy barreling down on him when he takes that throw at second base.  I looked at those same potential double play balls as I did a little while ago, and figured out who was the pivot guy (the 2B or the SS who took the throw at second and had to throw to first) and looked to see if there was consistency from year to year in being able to turn the DP.  Intra-class correlation (minimum 25 chances) was .44 (not amazing, but I can live with that).  Sure, that’s not all hard-nose-ed-ness.  There’s some throwing arm in there, but still, there’s probably some ability-to-hang-in-there-itiveness in there as well.  And is it any less hard-nosed to be able to stand in there when a grown man with a running start is aiming to knock you over while you do a job that pretty much makes you defenseless to said attack?  Maybe we’ve found our hard-nosed guys after all.
So, are there hard-nosed players out there.  Yeah, I guess.  Do they make much of a positive difference in their team’s chances?  A wee bit.

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One Response to Wanted: Players who like to run into things?

  1. So in the case of Chase Utley, who plays this “old-man” baseball, we say he hustles and plays the right way because he has also got insane loads of talent. Someone like Aaron Rowand, with much less talent, is a hard-nosed player because that’s his calling card.
    I love the part about missing games. I always used to argue with friends that I’d rather have Bobby Abreu not dive for a certain ball if it meant he wouldn’t miss time. Sure, Rowand made webgem catches but, his first year in Philly, he missed significant time due to his aggressiveness. As great as that one out might look, it cost him 25+ games.

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