Monday, July 30, 2012

Sabermetrics, scouting, and Joe Morgan

Baseball people have done pretty well for themselves without sabermetrics, all things considered.

Many decades before Bill James, they figured out that power hitters should bat third or fourth.  They knew, long before any decent fielding stats were available, that it's better to let Aurelio Rodriguez play shortstop than, say, Al Kaline.  I bet they even knew that ERA was a better indicator of a pitcher's performance than W-L record.

How did they know?  Just the buildup of conventional wisdom and observation.  Even without scientific studies, some truths have a way of making itself known, over time. 

Even 2,000 years ago, it was known that certain plant extracts, such as willow bark, help relieve pain and fever.  That was despite the absence of peer-reviewed scientific journals, randomized double-blind experiments, and formal analysis.  It was just common knowledge.  How did that knowledge emerge?  I don't know, exactly.  Maybe someone, somehow, randomly discovered it worked for them, and passed their experience on to others, who found it worked for them too.  By word of mouth it would become part of the conventional wisdom.

It wasn't until the mid-1800s that the chemical responsible was synthesized in the laboratory, and it took until 1971 for someone to figure out the biochemistry.  But the ingredient -- acetylsalicylic acid, or aspirin -- worked, and everyone knew it, as early as 400 BC.


There are lots of other areas of knowledge where this happens, that people generally know something, even though nobody can prove it.  Agriculture, say.  In order to get a good crop, you have to do a lot of things right.  A thousand years ago, before Gutenberg, how did anyone know what to do?  Communal knowledge, communal wisdom.  Farmers knew, for the most part, which crops needed more water and which needed less, which needed certain types of land and which needed other types, and so on.  I don't know anything about farming, but I bet that, for the most part, they were right.

And there's some of that in the field of normal human experience, what would now be considered psychology.  Take any of the morals of Aesop's fables, or any old proverb.  "Misery loves company?"  Yes, it does.  Not always, but as a general rule.  I don't know of any peer-reviewed journal article that runs a regression and confirms it, but it's true nonetheless. 

And there are things in our everyday lives, too -- most of the mundane things.  I know that I have to take the garbage to the curb early in the evening, because if I wait until too late, my experience is that I'm tired and cranky and it becomes a huge chore, much worse than it should be.  Again, I haven't commissioned a study on my behavior to prove it, but I'm pretty sure it's true.


So, coming back to baseball ... it's got to be true that old-school baseball people know things that we sabermetricians don't.  Lots of things -- things that sabermetrics can never find out, and also things that sabermetrics could find out, but hasn't yet. 

There is no doubt in my mind that sabermetricians can learn a lot from scouts.

But there's still some friction between traditional baseball people and sabermetricians.  Recently, Russell Carleton ("Pizza Cutter") described his experiences working for a major league team.  As I interpret it, the old-school baseball guys say something along the lines of, "generations of conventional wisdom, and our own experience and observations, show us that X is true."  And Russell, the sabermetrician, would say something like, "well, we don't believe you, because you're not doing science."

But Russell tells us that now he realizes he underestimated the contributions of the baseball traditionalists:

"... I talked about how numerical models could take vast pools of data into account (entire decades of games!) and how my models could give unbiased estimates of how important various factors really were.  ...  That's a major point in the sabermetric method’s favor, and to this day, I believe it to be its primary strength.

"But had I been a more charitable man, I could have pointed out that the eye test has its benefits too. There are a lot of baseball lifers who have been around the game so long they instinctively— sometimes subconsciously—know to look for things that I don’t even know exist. Not all of their theories and beliefs are going to be right, but I acted as though, by dint of their non-outsider, non-Ph.D-having status, anyone who wasn’t quoting the latest sabermetric research was automatically wrong."

Quoting Russell, Tango echoed the idea that you have to look at both sources:

"My favorite description of the role that performance analysis plays in the front office was the one used by Theo Epstein at the start of his career: performance analysis is one lens, and scouting observation is the other lens, and the GM needs both lenses to see."

And to both Russell and Tango, I say -- yes, I agree.  But ... the fact is, that when science contradicts conventional wisdom, you have to go with science.  That's not a judgment that sabermetricians are smarter than scouts, nor is it a declaration that numbers are always better than intuition.  It's simply a restatement of the idea that evidence matters.  Evidence has to trump preconceptions, no matter how strong, and how established those preconceptions are.

Suppose you have the question: is there beer in the fridge?  And you get a bunch of scouts together, with a combined 300 years of experience.  And one of them says, "yeah, of course there's beer in the fridge.  The fridge is in the basement, beside the TV, and there are six single guys there watching the football game.  My experience says that there's always beer in the fridge in those cases.  You have all five tools -- guys, single guys, TV, sports, and man caves." 

The other scouts nod in agreement.  And one of them says, "you'll notice that there's another fridge upstairs, that's full of food.  Obviously, this one is for something else, and, in my experience, it's usually beer."  And another says, "look at all those empties sitting beside the fridge.  That, too, shows that there must be a case or two in the fridge."

And the scouts are showing a pretty good mastery of how basement fridges and beer work.  But ... now, the sabermetrician comes along, and says, "well, let's just look inside the fridge."  And he opens it, and ... it's empty.

That wins, doesn't it?  No matter how expert the scouts are at recognizing beer evidence and fridge types and demographics, no argument can contradict that, when you look inside the fridge, there's nothing there.

It's not a question of, what the scouts think, versus what the sabermetricians think.  It's a question of conventional wisdom, versus data and evidence.  The scouts may not like that, but ... there it is.

When you want to ask the scouts is when you don't have enough evidence to decide.  We don't have to ask scouts any more about whether clutch hitting exists, or whether some batters have a "hot hand," because we have studies that answer the question beyond most reasonable doubts.  That doesn't mean baseball people can't give another perspective on the issue, or they might suggest angles we never thought of.  But it *does* mean that, on those particular issues, the opinions of the scouts no longer have a lot of weight.  We've already opened the fridge.


Which is, then, why I disagree, a little bit, with Russell on this.  Addressing Joe Morgan, Russell says,

"I owe you an apology. ... My goal in writing this letter isn't to say that you were right all along about sabermetrics. In fact, Mr. Morgan, I still disagree with you on plenty of issues, most notably in that I believe sabermetrics can offer a lot to the game of baseball. I’ve come to the conclusion that sabermetrics is a young, toolsy prospect. There’s a lot of potential there to be a game-changer, but maybe, just maybe, there’s something to be gained by sitting down and listening to a wise man who’s been around for a while.

"Mr. Morgan, I was arrogant and believed that I had the power to answer all questions. I indulged in the idea that someone who didn't speak about baseball in the same language that I did was somehow beneath me."

I disagree, as I said, just a little bit.  Of course, baseball lifers have a lot of accumulated knowledge, and we probably need to listen to them more than we do.  But ... the Joe Morgan types need to accept that, no matter how hard-won their expertise, it still can't stand up to actual evidence. 

That's the issue. 

Unfortunately, Joe Morgan doesn't see it that way.  He doesn't agree that sabermetrics is science.  He doesn't try to understand the methods sabermetrics uses, or look at the evidence, or follow the logic.  To Joe Morgan, there are two ways to know things: watching baseball, and doing math.  He thinks they're equal at best.  They're not.  "Doing math" actually means looking at the evidence, looking at all the baseball games than anyone has ever watched.  "Doing math" is opening the fridge.


In a way, I feel bad for the baseball "lifer" types, the Joe Morgans.  For decades, for generations, scouts and old-school analysts were respected professionals, observing the game and distilling their experiences into opinion.  They were considered experts because they were there, on the inside.  They were considered experts because they were the only ones who understood the nuts and bolts.  Who better to advise on the big picture, than the people who know the little picture?

And that didn't work too badly: the best players still got the jobs, and the early draft picks still played better than the late draft picks, and batting orders were close enough to perfect that it didn't matter.  And even though some scouts thought player X could turn it on in the clutch, they could get away saying it because, in truth, hardly anyone actually acted on it.  It was just their well-considered opinion.

The problem is, now we're not satisfied with opinion.  The goal has changed.  We now want science.  We want to look at evidence, and really find out what's right.  For the first time, we have people telling those scouts they're wrong -- and they can back it up.

Baseball lifers, I bet, never wanted to be scientists.  They wanted to be opinion leaders.  They wanted to be respected no matter what they said -- or at least, no matter what they said that was within the bounds of conventional wisdom among their peers. 

Now they can't. 

Joe Morgan can't utter a sentence without someone running up the stairs from his parents' basement to show he's wrong.  I can see why Joe might not like that.

But the fact is ... if you want to claim to be an expert, you have to be willing to look at evidence, revise your views, and admit when you're wrong.  Lifers never had to do that before ... and now they do.  I feel bad for them: their job has changed into one they hadn't bargained for. 

I agree with Tango that you need two lenses -- the sabermetrician's, and the scout's.  But at the same time: the scout's job is to do the best he can to be as accurate as he can.  To me, it's maybe OK for a lifer to not delve to deeply into sabermetrics, so long he's able to appreciate and process the evidence that emerges.  But to *deny* the relevance of sabermetric research ... to claim you know better by observation without even understanding how the evidence is relevant ... that's not acceptable. 

And that's where I disagree with Russell, that Joe Morgan is owed an apology.  Yes, he knows a lot of things about baseball that we sabermetricians never will.  And perhaps we could pick his brain.  But, so long as he denies the relevance of sabermetrics, and refuses to look at what the analysts are saying ... well, are we really going to make any progress?  Aren't we more likely to benefit more by finding someone else's brain to pick, someone who's not afraid to look at the evidence and change his mind?

Labels: , ,


At Wednesday, August 01, 2012 4:14:00 PM, Blogger The Baseball Idiot said...

Great, common sense post on the issue. Best I've seen.

One question, however.

Aren't what scouts describe (observational) vs what sabremetrics describe (the numbers)really measuring two different areas. In other words, scouts are trying to tell us HOW someone will perform before the majors (mostly), while sabermetrics tell how someone HAS performed and predicts future major league performance?

At Monday, August 06, 2012 2:31:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice, Phil. Hard to see how anyone would disagree.

I think much of the problem arose when the Joe Morgans of the world felt the SABRs were telling them that 'math' was right, and scouting was wrong; that you had to Throw Out anything the SABRs didn't quantify. We gave them an either/or. So they reacted by saying well, if only one of them can be right, it must be our eyes, not computers.

Tom H


Post a Comment

<< Home