Put Your Head Back in that Spreadsheet

All along, your eyes have been deceiving you, and you probably didn’t even know it. This is not the kind of deception that makes some people believe Miguel Cairo is a useful player, and it’s not the kind that makes us look at a young Daniel Cabrera and see him as an all-star. What I’m talking about is baseball as its very core–well below the surface of the stats and figures you can find on Fangraphs.

While we can’t answer questions such as whether or not a hitter has a hitch in his swing, or whether a pitcher is tipping his pitches, we can get close to answering similar questions about fielding. The Fans Scouting Report (FSR), run by Tom Tango, is a good way to see if a player has a good first step, a quick release on his throws, or several other fielding-related attributes. At the very least, the FSR numbers provide a good sanity check for the more advanced fielding metrics out there, such as UZR and plus/minus, or even the non play-by-play systems such as TotalZone and OPA! (which, I have to say, is the best name I’ve heard for any stat…ever).

FSR uses a wisdom of crowds approach where fans rate each player in a variety of categories, and the scores are weighted based on the importance of each category to its position (so speed is weighted more heavily for a shortstop than it is for a catcher). Before filling out a ballot, each voter reads this message:

Try to judge “average” not as an average player at that position, but an average player at any position. If you think that Willie Bloomquist has an average arm, then mark him as average, regardless if you’ve seen him play 2B, SS, 3B, LF, or CF.


Ok, ok, we get it, position doesn’t matter. But the problem is, some people don’t get it. In general, the numbers spit out by Tango’s system do seem to work well. What happens if we look at a player who spent all of his time at one position one year, and then all of his time at a different position the following season? A player who fits this description is Mark Teahen, with a tip of the cap to this Joe Posnanski article, which gave me this idea. In 2006, Teahen played 109 games at third base. With the arrival of Alex Gordon in 2007, he played all but 9 of his games in the outfield. So let’s take a look at what the fans thought of Teahen in those two seasons, when they were not supposed to consider the position he played:

FSR chart Teahen jpeg.jpg

(Click to enlarge)

Those are some pretty wild swings in “ability,” and I have some serious doubts that Teahen’s throwing accuracy suddenly went from Chuck Knoblauch one season to Greg Maddux the next. I’m no psychologist, but I think some people’s opinions of these very granular data are being swayed by the demands of the position being played. It’s the same person on that diamond, all he’s doing is standing in a different spot, but it’s as if the fans are seeing two radically different players from one year to the next.

I don’t mean to speak negatively of the FSR, it is a fabulous project. This is by no means an exhaustive study, but it does goes to show that opinions are heavily swayed by context. Individuals, and groups of people in this case, can not be depended on to provide an unbiased opinion on something as simple as judging the quickness of a first step. Whether you want to admit it or not, your eyes are deceiving you.


8 Responses to Put Your Head Back in that Spreadsheet

  1. Peter Jensen says:

    There is probably an element of truth in the psychological bias that you are suggesting. But you should realize that you throw the ball completely differently as a third basemen than as an outfielder. An outfielder should make all his throws directly overhand and has more time to prepare his approach to the ball to insure that he is in the proper position to make the throw with the entire force of his body behind it. A third baseman does not have this luxury. He usually throws less than directly overhand and often has to throw flatfooted. Both conditions make for less accuracy and less strong throws.

  2. Dan Novick says:

    Peter, you’re exactly right. Teahen was just being used as an example of how perceptions change depending on context. I should have, and forgot to, mention the 2nd base vs. 3rd base issue that Dave Cameron had been writing about at Fangraphs a while back.

  3. Josh says:

    You wouldn’t happen to have Ryan Braun’s numbers lying around, would you?

  4. Brian Cartwright says:

    Why, yes I do.
    I posted this at Tango “The Book” blog on Friday
    I did a WOWY fielding analysis of RetroSheet data. Later I will rerun on GameDay data, when I have it available, which will add vector and sharp/soft classifications.
    Bruan was bad at fielding fly balls, allowing 77 when 50 were expected, average at linedrives, allowing 165, 166 expected (lower variance between fielders on LDs).
    However, he was better than average at keeping the batters who got hits from getting extra bases.
    Fly balls: 77 total, -4.5 DO, +0.5 TR
    Ground Balls: 85 total, -8 DO, +1 TR
    Line drives: 165 total, -11.6 DO, +2 TR
    All: 327 total, -24.1 DO, +3.5 DO

  5. Josh says:

    I was more wondering if the disparity between Teahan’s rankings happen with other players. Probably should have made that clear, and it’s also something I could look up myself.
    And found it.
    Ryan Braun
    07 @ 3B: 50/52/60/25/9/57/0
    08 @ OF: 32/50/70/44/39/71/46
    Seems that Teahan isn’t the only one who got magically better overnight.

  6. Walt says:

    The Braun number is meaningless for a variety of reasons. The sample size is small, the CF he plays next to is exceptional and he is positioned by the coaching staff for every hitter. The problem is people look at spreadsheets rather than at actual games.

  7. Brian Cartwright says:

    Braun only has one year in the outfield, it would be good to have more. But, he did retrieve 327 base hits, and allowed 24 fewer doubles than expected. Was the expected calculated higher than it should have been because of Cameron’s presence in center? I’m not counting how many balls I think Braun should have caught, I’m looking at the balls that were already hits and Braun threw them back in. He was judged to have a teribble arm at 3b, but so far his results of his have looked good in left (throwing, as opposed to catching).

  8. Dan Novick says:

    The Fans Scouting Report is voted on by fans who watch the games. People like you and me. Regarding the coaching staff… how exactly do they position Braun differently than the average left fielder? I’m curious to know.
    I watch 150+ Yankee games every year and have no idea whether Melky Cabrera is shaded to one side of the field more than the average CF.

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