Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Statistics Don't Lie; Idiots Use Them to Lie

Baseball loves statistics. We know that. We've seen the explosion of new stats, like VORP, and MORK, and GORP. Even old standbys like AVG and ERA can be illuminating. Statistics are not inherently good, of course. In the hands of a hack, they can be twisted to deliver fake good news, often by using too small of a sample to be a true stat. Let's take a quick look at an example of each, delivered by sportswriters for the Star Tribune.

First, some context. yes, the Twins are riding a four game winning streak, including a 3 game sweep of their nearest rivals in AL Central, the Chicago White Sox. Leaving tonight's game, the Twins moved from being 2 games back of Chicago, to one game up; they also gained ground on Detroit, who lost 2 of 3 to Texas during the same span. But even the most casual fan can see some trouble in the line-up. The bottom of the line-up is hitting like a bottom of a line-up from the dead-ball era. Nick Punto has ridden a hot bat the past 10 days or so to get his average up to just over .210. Breakout second baseman of 2008, Alexi Casilla is hitting .171 and has jumped up and down between the Twin Cities and AAA Rochester.

More worrying for people who follow this team closely is the starting rotation. Yes, of late, the rotation has performed well--in their last four straight wins, the Twins have gotten good outings from Anthony Swarzak, Scott Baker, Glen Perkins, and most surprisingly, mediocre reliever Brian Duensing started on short notice and a shorter leash, yet put together five very good innings in his first MLB start against Chicago tonight. But counting on young guns like Swarzak and Duensing while the Twins deal with the inconsistency and/or injuries of Perkins, Francisco Liriano and Kevin Slowey (done for the year) is a risky strategy, at best. This starting rotation could really use a solid, veteran arm. Same goes for the bullpen, which has been a juggler's nightmare all year, after the pre-season injuries to Boof Bonser and Pat "The Sub-Mariner!" Neshek.

Which is all a very long way of saying that fans (and Twins players) are hoping against hope for some help via trades--particularly in the bullpen, rotation, and bottom of the batting order/middle of the infield.

One of those targets that was in the Collective Mindset of the Fan was Pittsburgh Pirate Freddy Sanchez, who can hit a ball at a .300 clip and play decent 2nd base. The Pirates apparently wanted either the Twins best 3rd base prospect, Danny Valencia, who the Twins will need next year at the hot corner, or outfield prospect Aaron Hicks. So Freddy Sanchez was moved elsewhere, and fat lazy-ass Patrick Reusse delighted in the counterplay (he calls fans who disagree with his assessment "frothers")--the day Sanchez was traded for a Top 50 prospect, homegrown and targeted Twins second baseman Alexi Casilla went 2 for 3:

"That put Casilla at .667 with two RBI, a stolen base and two double plays turned since Freddy Sanchez landed elsewhere and [Twins Manager Ron] Gardenhire offered Alexi a new start."

That's true, of course. And "funny". Reusse could have even mentioned that for the series against Chicago, Casilla went a combined 2-6 with 3 walks. A very respectable .333--though, it would point out that his only hits were in that last game. Still, the 3 walks suggest a developing eye at the plate. Maybe someone would take a look at the previous series, to see if this was a burgeoning trend? Well, that's where the lie of taking a one game snapshot as a statistic comes out. Look, I hope Casilla is about to turn things around. I hope he hits .280 the rest of the way, and becomes a bothersome pest on the bases. But in the four games with The Los Angeles Angels in the Outfield of Disneyland, he went 1-13, with four K's, and 2 BB's. So, in two series, and 7 games, he went hitless in 5 of them. Over that same span, he went 3-19, or about .157. And Reusse makes it sound like Casilla is a guy proving himself! Bullshit, Fatty Patty!

Now, quite quickly, we'll mention a real sportswriter for the Star Tribune, La Velle Neal III, who reports that the Twins are pursuing second baseman Marco Scutaro, but are held up by the Jays waiting to see if they get takers for Halladay. But he proves that stats, through a decent filter, can be illuminating. Twins fans have no doubt noticed or simply felt that Carlos Gomez was playing more, and hitting better of late. Neal gives us the straight dope:

Gomez is going to make mistakes, but he's one of the best center fielders around.

"The defense," Gardenhire said. "He's all over the field. And when he's not out there, you see a difference. You want to try to use everybody and we're going to have to. But the way he's running the ball down and his energy, we just have to have it right now.''

Gomez entered Wednesday's game batting .313 this month with a .500 slugging percentage.

Friends, that's a stat we can believe in, because unlike Reusse's, it takes in a full range of games, and shows a growing confidence at the plate. Two different writers, two different takes. One lazy, dismissive and arrogant; the other delivering straight dope. If the Star Tribune had more writers like La Velle Neal, and fewer like Patrick Reusse, I'd be willing to support that last gasp of print journalism.

1 comment:

The Black Freighter said...

To be honest, I am way more nervous about the pitching versus the middle infield. Certainly we could have used a guy like Sanchez, but there is no way that he was worth Valencia or Hicks. I would have offered Revere, which I think would have been plenty fair.

My worry is in the pitching. Despite the obvious, they neglected to do anything about the bullpen this offseason. It's a definite sore spot and they will not win a playoff series with the group they have. In the playoffs, it is all about matchups and how can you trust a Keppel or Dickey or Duensing in a key situation? They need a reliever or two desperately. A starting pitcher would be nice, too, but I don't see much out there. Perhaps John Garland or Doug Davis with the DBacks, but I'm not sure they will be better than Liriano, Swarzak or Duensing.

I fear all we will do is trade for Orlando Cabrera. Yuck and not an upgrade.