Nerds Like Us: For Self-Examination

David Eckstein has long been the paradigm of the sort of player many sabermetrically-oriented bloggers love to hate: a little guy who receives attention from the evil ol’ mainstream media out of proportion with his actual on-field contributions (“he does things that don’t show up in the box score!”). One hypothesis I’ve seen informally propounded for why such players get so much attention is that some sportswriters see them as possessing some sort of inner determination (moral virtue?) that transcends their athletic limitations, which allows those writers to vicariously imagine that they, too, could overcome their own physical limitations to become a professional sports star. It’s not about the body, but the soul.

I’m not going to attack or defend this informal “psychoanalysis” of sportwriters. I’m simply intrigued by the notion that some sort of “self-identification” with the subject is the root of the fascination with players like Eckstein. For a while now I have wanted to turn this notion back on myself and others in a bit of self-examination. Let’s briefly look at three cases.

The most obvious one is the Kansas City Royals’ Brian Bannister. Google “Brian Bannister Interview” and look at the results: people love to hear Banny talk about saber-stuff. This is a Good Thing. Bannister makes a good spokesmen for “Our Cause” since no one can accuse Bannister of being some dork with his spreadsheet who has “never played in the big leagues.” I’d love to talk to Banny personally, apparently he’s legitimately smart (not just “celebrity/athlete smart,” which operates on approximately the same scale as “celebrity/athlete funny”) and a great guy. But let’s not fool ourselves: this is a lot of attention for a player who isn’t a particularly good big-league pitcher. His career 4.78 FIP is below average, and as Banny no doubt knows, his 4.85 xFIP shows it hasn’t been bad luck. His 5.01 career tERA is even worse. Yes, Bannister had a legitimately good 2009 when he got more ground balls, but if he’s had some bad luck with home runs during his replacement-level 2010, he also had good luck in 2007 (4.40 FIP vs. 5.04 xFIP). The whole package adds up to a guy who is useful, but gets a tons of interviews for a player who is at best a #4 starter at this point in his career.

The Pittsburgh Pirates’ Ross Ohlendorf doesn’t get nearly as much press as Bannister, but unlike Bannister has done some actual sabermetric research of his own for his senior thesis at Princeton on the average value of draft picks relative to free agents. I haven’t read it, but it sounds like it was well-researched and thought-out, and would be interesting to compare to Victor Wang’s findings. Still, Ohlendorf’s career numbers (4.82 FIP, 4.75 xFIP) are similar to Bannister’s, and he’s had the benefit of facing opposing pitchers in the NL.

Perhaps Ohlendorf isn’t quite as charming as Bannister, as he hasn’t received nearly the attention, and might be out of place in this post. But in their ratio of interviews-to-talent, neither Bannister nor Ohlendorf can match a (former) organizational colleague of Bannister’s: Chris ‘Disco’ Hayes. Maybe I’m being unfair, surely every undrafted right-handed reliever gets an mlb.com interview, multiple stories and interviews with Dean of Royals Blogger Rany Jazayerli (here, here, and here), and, of course, the obligatory heartwarming Joe Posnanski column. All this might lead one to conclude that the submarine-throwing, BABIP-talking, 27-year old Northwestern graduate with a fastball that peaks in the 70s (hence the nickname — another key to Hayes’ popularity) was dominating the minor leagues in a relief role before being released by the Royals a couple of weeks back. I don’t have a strong opinion on whether the Royals should have kept Hayes or not, but the reality is that despite good groundball and walk rates in the minors, his K/9 rate in 2009 was just over 4, and was barely over 3 this season. That’s not good enough to make people overlook his “fast” ball, no matter how much he cites BABIP, tells funny road stories, or Royals fans might imagine him to be potentially the reincarnation of Dan Quisenberry. If you think the groundballs would have made up for Disco’s lack of Ks, check out Stat Corner’s minor-league tRAs — barely above average in either 2009 or 2010, and at 27, his stuff isn’t likely to get better (can you imagine if his heater had touched 80?). If Bannister is the sabermetric Eckstein, Disco Hayes (whom I sincerely hope catches on somewhere) is (was?) the sabermetric Willie Bloomquist. Fans may want Hayes (or Bannister or Ohelndorf) in their organization because of what he “represents,” but isn’t that the mascot’s job description?

These pitchers have their uses. Back-of-the-rotation starters like Bannister and Ohlendorf have value, and perhaps Disco will end up being a useful back-of-the-bullpen pitcher somewhere in the major leagues. Bannister was a almost a three-win player last season. But the point isn’t whether these players are major leaguers, it’s about the reason they get so much attention. After all, it’s not as if David Eckstein has never been good: leaving aside his nice little 2010, his 2002 and 2005 seasons were more valuable than anything any of the three pitchers mentioned in this article are likely to achieve. There also are some better pitchers (e.g., Max Scherzer) who are known to dabble with advanced stats, Pitch f/x, and the like. But this post isn’t about the players, but about us, the bloggers. If we’re going to criticize sportswriters for all the attention lavished on particular players with whom those writers dream of sharing a heart, we should be careful about exaggerating the worth of certain other players simply because they seem to be nerds like us.



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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.


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hawkinscm87
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hawkinscm87
5 years 10 months ago

Good point. I still like Banny though. I’d be interested to see a list of players that have dabbled in sabermetrics.

Casper
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Casper
5 years 10 months ago

It has little to nothing to do with “self-identification” by the writers. Players that are supposed to fail but still somehow “make it” (not by your standards, but by the general population’s) make for a human interest story. It’s a publishing industry business decision, on the reporter’s level. Stories that have that Rudy-esque element always sell. I used to have to write crap like that all the time, and I did business reporting so you can imagine how titilating the stories were (Crosby Kemper III runs UMB Bank but gets his inspiration not from mergers but from the arts!) I wouldn’t make much more of it than that.

Joe P.
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Joe P.
5 years 10 months ago

I think this post would be necessary if “us nerds” were claiming that Ohlendorf, Bannister and Hayes were better than their results on the field for being interested in advanced statistics. That doesn’t seem to be the case, but perhaps I haven’t been reading the right articles to have noticed otherwise.

Matt Lentzner
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Matt Lentzner
5 years 10 months ago

There’s a big difference between liking someone and thinking they’re good. Heck, I like Eckstein as much as I like Banny. They’re both fun in their own way. I am under no illusions that either of them are more than useful players. I don’t think I’ve ever seen another Sabermetically inclined author say that Bannister is more valuable than his raw numbers would indicate – in spite of how much they like him personally.

The problem with 90% of the sportswriters out there is that they seem to think they are the high priests of baseball. They have tasked themselves to be the moral defenders of the sacred sport. They want “grit” and “sticktoittiveness” or whatever to be the most important part of the game. Those guys that exemplify these traits they laud and those that don’t they scorn. They are especially nasty to those who don’t show them the proper deference – either player or sabermetrician. And they hate it when we pull back the curtain and show how probabilities and not moral fortitude win games.

We’re not like them at all, even if we are overly fond of Bannister.

Stephen R.
Guest
5 years 10 months ago

Couldn’t have put this better myself, but I’ll add to it.

I think this article is confusing paying attention to and talking to guys like Bannister with actually thinking they’re good. I’ve never read Tom Tango talk up how awesome Brian Bannister’s is. I have read Tom Tango talk about how cool it is that Bannister tries out funky pitches in low-leverage situations and checks the pitch f(x) results when the game is over. This doesn’t mean anyone thinks Bannister is better than he is, it just means that Bannister thinks about the game the same way that a lot of us think about the game. And that’s cool.

Danmay
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Danmay
5 years 10 months ago

If I can reiterate the same point:

When Eckstein gets praise it’s for playing the game the right way.

When we give Bannister praise it’s for being a nerd the right way.

Noah
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Noah
5 years 10 months ago

Here’s the problem: understanding more complex statistical analyses has nothing to do with the ability to convert those into success on the field. Doug Glanville was about as smart a guy as a position player has been. He had raw physical talent. He started playing before Saber became popular, but you’d think that once the analyses came out he was a guy who would have been able to understand the benefits of OBP over all else. Yet he just couldn’t walk consisently, and that’s why he spent his career as a back up outfielder.

McExpos
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McExpos
5 years 10 months ago

Excellent article. I don’t think that the saber-community is guilty of raising these players above their current level, but as Noah said, it’s kind of about process versus results. Sabermetrics is primarily a process-based industry, and so we tend to give more credit to players who utilize the “correct” process (acknowledge statistics and their influence) and less credit to the “grip it ‘n rip it” crowd.

And maybe rightfully so, but it still creates a little bit of a bias in how we view the players. That being said, <3 Banny and y'all can shove off, eh?

JoeC
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JoeC
5 years 10 months ago

To add to the chorus a bit, there’s nothing wrong with a broadcaster say “Boy, I love how that David Eckstein looks out there, he’s fun to watch.”
It becomes a problem when it’s “Boy, I love how that David Eckstein looks out there, I’m sure glad we got him instead of Kelly Johnson.”

Matt Lentzner
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Matt Lentzner
5 years 10 months ago

Or, he’s the sparkplug that ignites this offense…

TMS
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TMS
5 years 10 months ago

Or ‘if we had 23 other guys like him we’d never lose’.

Chops
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Chops
5 years 10 months ago

I always laugh at the term baseball nerd, as if the sabermetric stats use higher level math than any other common statistics. Its not like FIP is anymore complicated than ERA.

In fact, Wins and Losses are probably the most complicated stats out there! If anyone, people who use them are the nerds.

Danmay
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Danmay
5 years 10 months ago

Sabermetricians aren’t baseball nerds because they use higher level math. They are baseball nerds because they are constantly questioning, and attempting to improve the math/thinking that is used to evaluate baseball.

CircleChange11
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CircleChange11
5 years 10 months ago

People, in general, root for the underdog (especially when he does well). It’s sensationized and becomes part of our culture in movies … Rocky, Rudy, Invincible, Blind Side.

But, Eckstein is sort of a social case due to his being a ‘spark plug’ and even MVP on World Series teams (LAA, StL). He had that label of “winner”, because he played on 2 really good teams (Yes, the 06 Cards were a really good team … Decimated by injuries during the regular season).

It doesn’t take much skill to write about a player’s grittyness, and would be very unpopular to say something bad about him.

I personally do not care whether players understand advanced metrics or not. I just want them to be able to play well. The manager and FO should understand them and use them to make key decisions.

Players understand a lot of things that advanced metrics quantify. They know you don’t keep “getting the breaks” on balls in play. They know the harder you hit the ball, the more likely you are to get a hit. Pitchers understand very well that you do better when you don’t walk guys, strike out a lot of batters, and don’t give up the long ball. They don’t need to talk sabermetrically to understand what leads to succes. Carlos Marmol likely doesn’t need to look at pitch fx data to know his slider is a monster.

It is nice that BB talks of sabermetrics, and brings attention to it. But we shouldn’t view him as being more intelligent than other pitchers who do not. He’s simply more educated of the field. But someone who says, don’t walk guys, don’t give up homers, and strike out as many as you can, and you’ll be fine … Understands the concept without the vocabulary and math.

What leads to success is rather simple. Doing it is the hard part.

Darien
Member
5 years 10 months ago

I doubt very many pitchers — and very many managers, for that matter — understand just how damaging walks actually are. If they did, I don’t think we’d see half as many IBBs as we do. But I’m picking at nits.

Basically I’m with you on this one — I don’t think it’s that sportswriters “identify” with crummy players so much as it’s good business to write about underdogs making it big. Everybody loves a good underdog story, and, well, reporters have papers to sell, yeah?

CircleChange11
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CircleChange11
5 years 10 months ago

If they did, I don’t think we’d see half as many IBBs as we do.

The base state and run expectancy data are averages of the entire league over multiple years. That does not mean that the same rates and expectancies apply equally to all situations, or to all players.

I agree with someone else that stated that these leaguewide averages should not be blindly applied to all situations, unless it onvolves league average players all the time.

Some things to remember about IBBs … the defensive team is already in a bad position and is often IBB’ing somebody to set up a potential miracle inning-ending DP, in situations where a batted ball scores the run (runner on 3rd, 1-out, etc), … or the base is open and they’d rather pitch to the next, inferior hitter. I would guess that this is probably the most frequent IBB situation. 2 outs, big hitter up, 1st base open.

Many times the IBB is issued to set up a leverage situation. Batter is walked, in comes the specialist to face a batter where the P has a platoon advantage. That’s a smart IBB in many cases.

The IBB situation that pisses me off is 2nd and 3rd one out, tie game, last inning, and the manager IBB’s the batter because [1] a batted ball likely scores the winning run, [2] pulling the defense in raises the batter’s BA by 100 points (or so), and [3] it’s puts you in a position where a ground ball could result in getting out of the inning still tied …. and then the pitcher walks in the winning run.

A lot of IBB situations are “bad situations for the defense” all the way around.

Darien
Member
5 years 10 months ago

I said “as many,” man. Not “any.”

Clearly I’m aware that there are situations that call for an IBB — for example, if it’s the bottom 9th, I have a one-run lead, there’s a man on, and 2004 Barry Bonds comes up to the plate with 2010 Garret Anderson on deck, I’m walking Bonds. That notwithstanding, the IBB, like the sacrifice bunt, is heavily overused in the current baseball environment. Both are situational moves that can be wise, but, if used improperly, can dig you in even deeper.

CircleChange11
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CircleChange11
5 years 10 months ago

Had Rickey Henderson understood advanced metrics, he would have been a hold-out every year.

During his good seasons he woulda talk of batting runs and WAR, etc.

During his down years he woulda talked of regression to his career norms as evidence as how he deserved a raise for the upcoming season.

*grin*

I do recall from the Scerzer article that when Max has pitched well, his brother would remind him that he is due to give up a HR. Sometimes being ignorant has it’s advantages.

Think anyone on the Twins and Marlins wants to tell Frank and Josh that their HR rate is unsustainable?

Mike
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Mike
5 years 10 months ago

I’m sorry guys but you need to settle down. Look I know that advanced stats should be respected and we should vomit on RBI and runs scored but you’re becoming even worse than those pundits.

You have become no better than Dan Shaugnessy in how you make fun of these type of writers. Be mature, be respective. Settle down and stop making fools of yourself.

“Chop says”: You prolly should never post on a single baseball website ever again. Your type of attitude is only destructive to the move toward advanced statistics in terms of measuring players.

Peter Gammons was the ultimate sports writer for baseball and has adapted towards the times. You idiots just have no common sense, listen to what FanGraphs says and make fun of the sports writers who became prominent during the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Go away, please. You’re not helping anyones cause and you’re no better to the baseball writers of old.

Danmay
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Danmay
5 years 10 months ago

The people that are as bad as you say don’t care what you have to say, because they either think they are right anyways, or, at the very least, don’t realize they fit the description. The people that aren’t as bad as you say don’t need to be grouped together. If you have a point you want to effectively get across, then you should probably settle down too. If you don’t, then stay off of this website.

Mike Savino
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Mike Savino
5 years 10 months ago

Dunno about that guy up there…not a whole lot of substance to that argument.

I think part of our fascination with players like Bannister and Disco Hayes is the movement in baseball itself towards more advanced statistics. In 20 years people will no longer be able to say “I played in the major leagues and we never used those made up stats, go away.” Bannister or Ohlendorf’s success is somewhat irrelevant–its validation that there are those actually playing the game who appreciate the research done on this site and many others.

Its not unhealthy to have a favorite player for any number of reasons. To favor a player because he actually thinks about baseball…well, that’s far from a terrible thing.

And I have to back up the earlier post about celebrating a player and believing that guy is actually good. I know Bannister is a back of the rotation starter. But still, I don’t dislike him for that. He’s still a much much much better player than I ever was.

Also, I believe there’s some sense of the pre-bandwagon with this fascination. In the future, modern statistical analysis will be so widely accepted that it won’t be fun to root for the Disco Hayeses of the world anymore. The walk will be abhorred by all pitching coaches at all levels of professional baseball and the game will evolve as it always has.

Why can’t we appreciate these men for being just a bit ahead of their time regarding the approach to pitching? I don’t think that’s unfair at all.

Erik
Guest
5 years 10 months ago

I would really love to see a list of all players who are ‘into’ sabermetrics…and if any of them have actually had high levels of success at the major league level.

TMS
Guest
TMS
5 years 10 months ago

I think Eckstein is a bad example of the kind of player that statheads consider overrated because he has always had a pretty good walk rate(and hit by pitch rate). In many years his offensive output has been outstanding for a SS. I don’t know about his D but his reputation is for good range. I think Juan Pierre is a better example. He has been an outmaking machine (at the plate).

Mike
Guest
Mike
5 years 10 months ago

Hey danmay you’re an idiot. You prolly have no common sense and must be a retard to actually think what you say is true. Do not rip on me because I have street smarts in terms of baseball and can be rational about things. Go hang out with TangoTiger and give each other rimjobs for hours upon hours

CircleChange11
Guest
CircleChange11
5 years 10 months ago

Based on what I see and use in regards to IBBs, they primarily exist in situations where the trailing team feels that if they give up any more runs they game will be reasonably out of reach. So, they are taking a chance on a move that has the potential to result in them getting out of the inning without the lead extending.

They’re usually already in a bad spot and giving up an extra doesn’t really add extra challenge as giving up a single run.

When we look at the data on IBBs, it is possible that we look at totals, instead of context. IBBs can lead to extra runs expected. But many of those situations are likely when the team is going to lose anyway. So, when it fails they end up losing by 4 or 5 instead of 2 or 3.

I could be wrong, but it does seem like teams generally employ the IBB when they are in a situation where they’re trying to keep the deficit to 2 or 3 runs, so they still have a chance at coming back.

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