Wednesday, July 8, 2009

I have no title for this post about hustling and pretentiousness

This may come as a surprise to you, but I'm pretty unabashedly a stats guy. Stat geek. Stathead. Sabermetrician (though the "-trician" makes it sound like I know something; I prefer "sabermetrically-inclined," which is clunky enough to permit me to sound like the dufus I am). Whatever. It might be a stretch to say I'm "proud" of it, but I certainly don't try to hide it. I enjoy it, a lot.

But there's one problem with stat geeks, and always has been. One annoying tendency that gives us a bad name, that sometimes makes it hard to take us seriously, that gets people angry with cause (as opposed to the kneejerk angry-because-I-don't-want-to-bother-to-understand-what-you're-saying reaction that we get so much more often). I've fallen victim to this tendency as often as just about anybody else, though I've been fighting it pretty hard of late.

That thing is this: someone establishes that some traditional concept or statistic is overrated or overvalued, and we go around beating people over the head with that fact, and eventually we treat the thing as though it has no value. That may be justified in some limited circumstances (I can't actually think of any, not even "saves," really), but usually all it does is distort our view of things and eventually come around to bite us in the rear.

The most obvious example of this, of course, is how about ten or fifteen years ago we started noticing that guys like Neifi Perez and Walt Weiss, while they might for all we knew be great defensive players, were killing their teams' offenses. We noted that the "pitching and defense beats offense" idea was, all else being equal, utter crap. We noted that offense was rather easily measured, quantified and even projected, and defense was not. These are true things and worth noting. But all of that led to the decision, at some point, that defense just wasn't important, at all. At some point I remember Rob Neyer writing that baseball was probably 55% offense, 40% pitching and 5% defense (or something very similar). I don't mean to rip on Rob, then and now my favorite baseball writer, and we were all thinking that...I just happen to remember that he said it in so many words. You'd almost think--and I think some people really did think--that you'd be better with seven slugging 1B-types in the field and lineup than with a squad built to cover the traditional positions.

Well...whoops. Now we can measure defense (pretty well), and we know that it's really important. That a guy can have enormous offensive value, but kill it all with his glove. That Franklin Gutierrez (aptly but unoriginally named "Death to Flying Things" by the guys over at USS Mariner) can be a below-average-hitting outfielder and still be one of the best outfielders in the league, all because of defense. Now we value defense even more than the rest of the world does. But the thing is, it was ridiculous to write off defense in the first place--just an absurdly overblown extension of the seed of a pretty sound idea.

There are lots of other examples, too. We knew that Jim Rice is a terrible choice for the Hall of Fame, and the argument after a while starts to sound like we think Rice was a terrible player; likewise, we knew Bert Blyleven belongs in the Hall, and after a while we're essentially arguing that Blyleven was Walter friggin' Johnson. We knew that stolen bases were being overvalued and that the out given away by a caught stealing or sac bunt was undervalued, so we eventually decide that stealing or bunting is never a good idea.

We're getting better at most of these things. A lot better. But the guys at the Inside the Book blog seem to have found another one that nobody's really talking about: the value of "hustle".

The problem here, I think, is this. We know that scores of players are wildly overrated because they "hustle" (are grinders or gritty or gutty or have heart or whatever), and others are wildly underrated because, in the eyes of most, they don't. Eckstein, Erstad, Podsednik good (dated examples, but you know what I mean); Dunn, Manny and Barry Bonds bad. We know that the good things the latter group does and the bad things the former group does far outweigh whatever value you might reasonably put on hustle and grit. So we've ultimately decided that hustle just doesn't matter.

Well, in the blog post linked above, MGL mentions a couple of plays in an inning where Adam Dunn was, like, militantly non-hustling, and it cost his team. The title of the post is "I'm not one to complain about players not hustling, but...," and I can understand why he puts it that way: most fans or reporters who complain about players not hustling are rooting around for ways to find fault with their team's best player. So and so may hit 50 homers a year, but he didn't run out that one routine grounder to second base, so he sucks.

But when a guy really isn't hustling, at all--I mean, not even trying--I don't think there's anything wrong with getting on him for that. Tom Tango (also of Inside The Book) put it best in a comment to MGL's post:
Ken Dryden, in The Game . . . was talking about how important practice is. That you keep practicing over and over and over at a high tempo so that your body is simply conditioned to do things that way all the time. . . .
To then decide in an actual game to put the brakes on is inexcusable as far as I'm concerned. At the very least, what the heck is wrong with considering these "routine" plays in an actual game identical to the "routine" plays in practice where you must run all out?
And . . . [i]t's not like in hockey where you are skating up and down and side-to-side in 45 second shifts and you are panting by the time you get back to the bench. It's a four second anerobic exercise. Adam Dunn gets paid 10MM to come to swing (or consider swinging) the bat 3000 times, to run 500 times, and to field (or back up a play) 500 times. That's $2500 for every "effort" he puts out on the field. If he thinks that one time he doesn't want to put [in] the effort, then he should give back the 2500$.

Maybe it sounds like I'm letting TangoTiger make my point for me here, and maybe I sort of am, to the extent that the point is "hustle matters." But the larger point here, I think, is that this is just one example of an endemic problem with sabermetric folk (one that was a lot worse 10 years ago, but still persists). Just like "Jim Rice does not belong in the Hall" ≠ "Jim Rice sucks," "hustle doesn't make David Eckstein a good player" ≠ "hustle doesn't matter."

I'm quite sure that we (and by that I totally mean "I") would jump all over Bill Conlin or Mike Celizic if we caught them engaging in that kind of phony logic. But we seem to think it's okay for us...and I think it all comes from pretentiousness. We start with some little thing we're very sure is right (something that is, in fact, right), and it leads to this thinking like we're perfectly right about everything on this topic, while the other side is perfectly wrong. I guess that's sort of a fact of life -- isn't politics more or less the same thing? -- but it's been getting better among the sabermetric community lately, and it'll be really nice if that trend continues.


  1. Completely agree, and it was the point I was trying to make yesterday in the comments section. You put it much better, however. I never said Marquis was a bad player, but because I and many others have criticized his existence on the All-Star roster, it makes it seem that we hate him. When Anderson and Neyer talked about Millwood being lucky, the commenters over at Grant's article flipped, believing the Neyer and Anderson were calling Millwood a terrible pitcher. They never did. They were simply saying that there were underlying indications that Millwood isn't really a much better pitcher than he has been in the past despite the great ERA. He's still a good pitcher (at least decent), but everyone thought Neyer and Anderson were saying he was an insult to pitching, which just isn't true.

    Which brings me to Neyer. I've really come to like him because he often makes comments like the one you made. He'll take a stat that a sabermetrician made, but he'll put it into context noting how the author or stat doesn't note something or other. Even though Neyer knows that sabermetrics are the future, he knows they aren't perfect just yet. The only thing I wish he'd do is hammer in that point a bit more like you just did.

  2. David Eckstein goes on the DL....Padres on 3 game losing streak. Coincidence?

  3. Excellent article, Bill.

    There is another aspect of the "hustle" (or "grit" or "grinders") players, or, more accurately, those with the reputation as hustlers or gritty or grinders, that bothers me quite a bit.

    Those guys are almost universally white guys.

    I don't know exactly why that is (although I'll try a guess later). I just know that it is.

    I don't know that there is much difference between David Eckstein and Joey Cora, for instance, but who gets the "hustler" designation ?

    This is almost entirely a media created designation, but it has created a class of players which is almost segregated.

    Quick! Without consciously trying to select non-white players, list 10 players in baseball over the last 50 years that you consider hustlers. How many are white ? It's a fascinating conundrum. I KNOW I'm not racist, yet the names which come to my mind are white guys, and all were pretty much given this gritty designation by the media.

    I wonder if it is because baseball takes much from its history when labelling players. Those grinders come from guys like John McGraw, Rabbit Maranville, Frankie Frisch, Eddie Stanky, etc, who essentially created the term. They, of course, played their careers (or in Stanky's case much of his career) when white was the only colour wearing a uniform. So, a term which cannot be defined by stats ends up being defined by those who carried the standard previously.

    Sluggers can be any colour, because we all know 40 home runs = "slugger".

    "Gritty hustlers" ? They are Nelly Fox, Pete Rose, Doug Flynn, David Eckstein, Eric Byrnes.

    Or maybe, as in many things, I am completely wrong about this.

  4. I meant to respond to this yesterday. Very good stuff as usual, Bill.

    I'd say the biggest culprit in this phenomenom of "we only said this but somehow it's evolved into this" (or, the "so overrated he's underrated" phenomenom) is the protracted defense. You know, you say something inocuous like "batting average may not be the best stat" and then someone challenges that. So you go back to them and you give a more detailed response about why you think that. And then someone (could be the same guy, could be someone else) takes acceptance with either your entire argument or, more likely, with some small detail in the argument. So you argue that. And that continues until the two of you have exhausted your points. But, at this point, you've spent so much time arguing and considering your "contrary opinion" that you no longer remember the minor points about your argument or the degree to which you qualified your initial statement. Instead, you just remember that you disagree with that other guy, and then it takes hold.

    I don't really have any solutions for this. The only thing I could suggest is that, when debating one of these statements, it's important to always, always put in your initial assumptions and qualifications. otherwise, everyone forgets that your argument was that nuanced to begin with, and it gets otu of hand. The problem, of course, is that, by the 5th email or something, you feel stupid for putting in all those qualifications because you've said it so many times before.

    I don't know what more to say. I just thought that it was important to point out. You're right, though, that it needs to continue to get better. I hope it does.

  5. Mark- yeah, Rob has been doing a lot of that middle-grounding lately (like the last 3-4 years). As a young upstart in '99-'00, he was more of the firebrand, join-us-or-get-out-of-the-way sort of guy that Tango (ironically enough given this post), Dave Cameron and the like are now. I like both versions of Rob. :)

    Avenger- the problem is clearly a lack of heart-depth for when Ecks goes down. Get the Haley Joel Osment character from "Pay It Forward" on that bench, stat!

    Barry- this is a very good point, and one that I've thought a lot about before (mostly thanks to, but I don't think I've written about it here yet. I may have to do something for next week. Thanks for bringing it up.
    One excuse I've heard (not at all putting this forth as my own opinion, just something I've heard) is that African-American players tend to be more athletic and make the game look more fluid and easy, so it just doesn't look like they're trying as hard. But could that really have been true of, say, Al Newman? And does it apply with equal force to Latin-American and Asian players? It's a pretty troubling tendency.

    Lar- dead on as usual. And then after having enough of those devolving conversations about the same basic topic, we start to carry that attitude around with us, so that we immediately bring out the condescenscion and overstatement as soon as somebody says Mark McGwire was just like Dave Kingman or something. Like a preemptive strike against what's probably coming.