World Famous StatSpeak Roundtable: July 14

At the All-Star break, the roundtable is pleased to welcome a special guest to our StatSpeak weekly discussion of all things baseball.  This week, we welcome Bill James, author of multiple books concerning Sabermetrics and founder of Bill James online, which showcases his work.  Bill has also spent some time working as a consultant to the Boston Red Sox.  Bill joins Eric and Pizza in a discussion of instant replay, team chemistry and of course, the All-Star game.
Question #1: Is it possible to argue that a player’s actions in the clubhouse have no impact on the performance of his teammates, or is it axiomatically true in all situations in which people interact that they make one another more or less efficient?
Bill James: I pose the question because I think it is axiomatically true that co-workers make their co-workers more effective or less effective, and therefore I think it is silly to argue that what a player does “off the field” doesn’t have an impact on the performance of the team. To believe that is to believe that sports are different from every other human activiity. There are no doubt jobs in which one’s co-workers are unable to make one more or less productive. . .being a forest ranger, for example, or. Well, actually, I can’t come up with a second example, even as a joke. But if you have an opposite opinion, I’d like to hear why.
Eric Seidman: This is really interesting because it delves into the psychology of players, something Pizza Cutter is admittedly much more in tune with than I, but what I will say is that baseball players are generally very confident, and very confident people are less susceptible to “outside interference” than others; whereas someone less sure of himself will take more to heart, a confident person is more likely to brush something similar off.  However, put a group of these very confident people together in a room and suddenly we may see some egos start to crack.  For instance, if someone random in the stands offers up hitting advice to (first player to come to mind) Nick Swisher, he will avoid responding and pretend he didn’t hear it, whereas if Jermaine Dye, his teammate, offers the same exact advice, he will not only listen, but perhaps even take advice to heart and alter his hitting approach or whatever that advice pertained to.
With this “idea” in mind–that a peer can have an effect on another player–I think we have to believe that on some level players are not immune to problems in the clubhouse; however, one of the things that separates major leaguers from minor leaguers would be the ability to deal with adversity and do their job in the process.  I don’t think players can completely block out these distractions but I also don’t think the distractions have a huge, huge impact on the overall performance simply due to the selection bias of baseball players and the confidence that accompanies them.  Overall, it will have an affect on players but I don’t truly believe it is the difference between someone posting an .880 OPS or .940 OPS based on how he gets along with teammates.  I recall a Derek Zumsteg article at USS Mariner early this season discussing how, regardless of how great the team chemistry was, or how little clubhouse problems existed a few years ago, the Mariners for lack of a better word stunk.  Athletes are known to push each other, as well, whether it be on the field or in the gym, and considering these people are mostly human I don’t see how they could, with complete 100% accuracy, turn a switch off to the point that off-the-field antics have no effect on them.
Pizza Cutter: The professional literature on the subject shows that workplace “climate” affects employee productivity.  No doubt on this one.  That’s why companies spend so much time and money on human resources departments and conflict mediation and employee reward programs and why they allow for company money to be used for the office Christmas party.  Employees that work well together and like each other are more productive.  Now, that effect isn’t as strong for jobs in which there’s limited interaction with one’s co-workers, and baseball can be a solitary game, especially in the batter’s box.  I don’t know how big the effect is in baseball (and really, that’s what we’re asking here), but that’s an empirical question.   My guess is that it wouldn’t be a big effect, but I doubt that it’s zero.  It’s also the type of question that if MLB would grant me the access (and someone would grant me the funding) I could do that study.  The measures of workplace connectivity are out there.  Baseball performance is easy to measure.  The problem is that to get enough data, I’d need to measure multiple clubhouses at multiple times over a few years.  (I could use hierarchical linear modeling!)  But, it’s just an engineering problem.

Question #2: With instant replay on pace for an August 1st trial run, is there any merit to the inevitable dissenting opinions as to the purity of the game and such? Or is this hands down a great idea in the sense that it will hopefully put an end to all of the disputed home run calls?
Bill James: Well, thank you for presenting me with two really horrible options there. The “purity” of the game vs. an end to all disputed home run calls.
I don’t know. I don’t think people pay money to see umpires make mistakes, and I don’t think it is fair to umpires to leave them in a position where everybody gets a better look at the play than they do. Do you guys use spell check, or do you turn it off and insist that the public get to see that you can’t spell “territory”, or “occurred”, or “amature”, or whatever it is that you can’t spell? I need all the help I can get. Do you celebrate the fact that the good people of Florida can’t figure out how to count their votes within a few hundred thousand, or do you wish they would figure this out and stop busselfutting the elections? I’m guessing that most people prefer to have as much help as they can to get things right.
Eric Seidman: I don’t care how pure the game may be to someone, a home run is a home run and anything that can help umpires discern between fair and foul balls or home runs/non-home runs is a good thing.  I’m sure others will bring up issues such as icing the pitchers or whether or not the camera angles can properly show whether or not a ball is a home run or not (similar to the way it works with football in that the replay needs to show clear evidence), but these seem more like desperate pleas from dissenters than legitimate cases against this idea.  Errors such as calling a foul home run ball fair or vice versa should not occur if the technology, or other methods exist to avoid them.  In little league or high school, maybe it isn’t worth it, but a billion dollar business like baseball should not suffer from such egregious errors.  I’m also not one to adore double-standards, and we would have them aplenty amongst dissenters; the same people angry that their pitcher is iced while the umps check the replay will yell for replays when their hitters experience a questionable home run call.
Pizza Cutter: Something that I will never understand about baseball fans is that somehow, ignorance is valuable to them and is “charming.”  I think that a lot of the arguments against instant replay are the same arguments against Sabermetrics.  In every other facet of life, we strive for understanding and knowledge, but somehow, if the umpire gets a bad angle and makes a bad call, one that we could easily double-check, then that’s apparently a bad thing.  The only argument that I can see against instant replay is the time argument.  One of the critiques of baseball is that it goes on far too long, and if instant replay is allowed, then like football, we could have five minute delays to review plays to tack on to the end of a game.  That’s an argument worth having, but the argument that the element of human error adds something to the game is laughable.  People like to make that argument until a blown call costs their team the game.
Question #3: What guy who was on the bubble for an All-Star berth are you most happy to see make it to Yankee Stadium?
Bill James: If you’re rooting for underdogs, who could be doggier than Ryan Ludwick. Nobody would have predicted that he would be on a major league roster this year, or, for that matter, any other year, or that he would be in the starting lineup regularly. Or ever. The All-Star Game? Yeah, right.
Eric Seidman: I would have loved to been able to answer this question with Pat Burrell, as I am having trouble finding a statistically better NL outfielder at this juncture (be it VORP or WPA/LI), but Burrell didn’t get voted in by fans or players, wasn’t selected by the manager, and then lost the final vote… and because an outfielder won the final vote an infielder was selected to replace Soriano.  Then again, the game should be treated along the lines of a fun exhibition and I am not going to get super upset about someone making gagillions more than my whole family.  If I have to pick, I’ll say Corey Hart, simply because I think it’s cool an underrated player will get some recognition on a more national stage.
Pizza Cutter: Dioner Navarro isn’t a household name, but he’s going to the All-Star game and that makes me happy.  He’s not going because the Rays needed someone (Scott Kazmir and now Evan Longoria will join him).  Terry Francona could have gone with the usual suspects like Pudge Rodriguez or Jorge Posada.  Instead, Francona went with a guy who is actually second in the VORP standings for AL catchers.  It means that someone out there is actually paying attention to new talent and to new ways to evaluate that talent.  Navarro will probably see some action behind the plate on Tuesday night, but I’ll smile when I hear his name called.


One Response to World Famous StatSpeak Roundtable: July 14

  1. DanC says:

    Replay in the NFL is archaic. I hope baseball replay isn’t that slow and indecisive. Why can’t we have replays in baseball (and football, for that matter) like they had at Wimbledon, where a call was challenged and resolved within about 10 seconds using…get this…excellent video technology?

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