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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.