Familiar Sportswriting Faces

Appearing later in this post, Youk and the new baseball cap.

We’ve ridiculed Dan Shaughnessy for his inability to apply logical qualifications for Hall of Fame entry and we’ve torn into Jerry Thornton because his attempts at humor are weak and clichéd. And now we have the opportunity to stew the two together.

Jerry Thornton issued some sort of an apology as he answered angry emails and then jammed his foot in his mouth, while Dan Shaughnessy released a fluff piece on how he thought that the Red Sox wouldn’t be able to resign Josh Beckett (one of those articles where you come away having learned nothing). The common theme here is their focus on the BoSox…and how both these guys are incredibly wrong in almost everything they spew forth.

First up: DanShaughn and his flimsy Josh Beckett has one year left.
The R-Sox are really strong through their starting rotation and past if need be. So yeah, if Beckett leaves it isn’t a huge loss, since Lackey or Lester could be seen as superior. Heck, Shaughnessy even mentions that other SI writers think Beckett will get an extension in the next two weeks (from the slightly more credible Jon Heyman).
Sticking point #1: Theo Epstein was off in his gorilla costume when the trade was struck (that worked out quite well for both teams) where Beckett and Mike Lowell (and Guillermo Mota) came over, while Hanley Ramirez and Anibel Sanchez (and Jesus Delgado and an invisible rabbit…Harvey…Garcia) moved to Florida. This helped get Boston their second World Series in three years. You can argue that having Hanley and some other moves would have achieved the same result, but we’ll never know (also, Beckett was instrumental in that regular and post-season run). Dan’s point is that ol’ Theo may have no attachment to Beckett, but he did have a soft spot for Hanley…so speculation.
Sticking point #2: Beckett has had one good season for the Red Sox. This coincided with their being the best team in baseball (in the USA). From 2006-2009 Beckett has posted WARs of 2.1, 6.5, 5.0, and 5.3. So, one kind of bad season in that light (of course, if Shaughnessy poo-poos concrete methods of HOF judgement then he probably doesn’t touch WAR with a ten-foot pokey thing). Based on applying dollar values to WAR, Beckett has exceeded his actual salary for four years running. Based on projections for 2010, Beckett will do that again this season. Yes, projections are speculation, but they are grounded in a statistical system rather than out-of-the-ass-pulling-of-numbers.
Sticking point #3: John Lackey in, Jason Bay out. Boston has had a tendency to be very cautious with age 30-plus players and Bay is a signal to that, while Lackey is an anomaly with his 5 year contract for a 31 yr old. Apparently Becket has spent considerable time on the DL…despite starting 33, 30, 27, and 32 games over the past four years. Danno has some strange memories of how things have progressed.
Sticking point #4: Money! Matsuzaka is apparently a waste of money (although from a marketing standpoint he is a positive boon) and Lackey, who is no Beckett (didn’t Dan just say that Beckett sucked?), is also expensive. Sabathia and Burnett got big contracts also and Beckett will want comparable pay. According to Cot’s Baseball Contracts the Red Sox will have a payroll of ~$165mill in 2010, which is an all time high for them (previously $143 in ’07, $133 in ’08, and $122 in ’09). Ortiz, Lowell, Varitek, and Victor Martinez are free agents after this season, and with Beckett’s contract also coming off, that is a total of $48.3 off the books. Papelbon will enter his final year of arbitration and I can imagine the BoSox trading him (or he’ll get $10mill and then be gone). Ortiz does have a club option, but there is no buyout, while Adrian Beltre and Bill Hall have $1mill and 500K buyouts respectively. You can expect Hall to be bought out, while Beltre has a player option for $5mill that becomes $10 with 640 PAs. I’m not sold on the BoSox taking Ortiz’s option, which was why I included him on the savings, but they could run the decline and re-sign route. So Lowell is gone for sure and Varitek is another good bet to leave. Meanwhile Beckett and Martinez will (should) be aggressively pursued for extensions. Of course with Mauer’s new deal (drastically different from FDR’s) Martinez will be all about compensation. Between the two of them $28-36mill per year is decent range to expect (the low end being Beckett giving a discount). Taking that into consideration, Boston can return to 2011 with a slightly higher payroll than 2010 and then J.D. Drew leaves! Seeing this, one can understand why Bay was allowed to leave and why you can expect Boston to remain above $150mill for the foreseeable future (if they remain in contention and don’t go all Florida Marlins on us).

Next up: JerThorn is fueled by hate mail.
Thornton summarizes his premise for his article as the following:

“Advanced baseball stats are becoming more and more prevalent. It seems like every offseason move the Sox made was based on them. Guys who believe in sabermetrics take themselves really seriously. Let’s make fun of them.”

Ok, so that failed miserably. Two things helped that out. The article wasn’t all that funny, relying on cheap gags and stereotypes, and we statheads do kind of take ourselves a little too seriously (numbers are all we have!). For the most part Thornton is quite amiable and easy-going in receiving his bashing…but there are still some kinks in there.
For one thing he is genuinely concerned that the Red Sox rely too much on advanced metrics. Then, in response to a Moneyball reference on Youkilis he issues forth the following:

Whatever Billy Beane saw in Youk is secondary to the fact that the reason he’s a great player is his production. His power numbers, his batting average, his RBIs and his OBP. All those things that advanced stats have sought to diminish. If anything, Youkilis is exactly the kind of guy that old school scouting systems would have loved.

OMGWTFBBQ! You have missed the point entirely. The only thing that advanced stats diminish is BA, because it is a very misleading stat. Meanwhile power, RBIs, and OBP (how did that get in there) are all taken into heavy consideration with such metrics. No one is diminishing the value of scouting by using statistics. Scouting is key for the array of talent pools within the high school and college baseball system. The main purpose of advanced statistics in the context of Moneyball was to exploit market inefficiencies, which was why Beane coveted Youkilis and let him fall in the draft under the assumption that most clubs didn’t have the same insight as he did (and then got one-upped by Boston). After Youkilis broke into the team, the advanced stats gave Boston their jump off point for contract negotiations.
In 2008 Youkilis hit .312 and Cristian Guzman topped him with .316…so clearly Guzman wasn’t as good as his BA would make you think. In 2008 Carlos Beltran hit 27 HR and .284 while Ryan Braun hit 37 HR at .285. Beltran was the better player. Guzman and Braun are pretty bad fielders while Beltran and Youkilis are among the best at their respective positions (Youkilis excels at 3rd and 1st). Defensive metrics account for an new frontier in the baseball world, since going by Errors and Fielding Percentage happens to be a shoddy method of evaluation (lies, I tell you). Franklin Gutierrez is enjoying the benefits, as are the Mariners pitchers (did you seriously think that Jarrod Washburn was that good?). In their time together on Boston, David Ortiz would regularly outperform Manny Ramirez in terms of WAR even though they would both put up great offensive numbers. Why? Papi was a DH and had no impact on the defensive front while Manny liked to play in the grass as fly balls dropped all around him. Manny was traded and Papi stayed.
Anyway, it seems incredibly idiotic to go by one frame of valuation of players rather than apply a couple or more. Scouting is important, it gives you ins on a player’s swing, glove, arm, hairstyle, etc. Statistical analysis isn’t more important, but a way to avoid mistakes, evaluate for contract negotiations/offers and trades, and exploit those pesky market inefficiencies. Heck, throw a psychiatrist in there and avoid all the Lastings Milledges and Elijah Dukes…or use one to soften their edges. The Pittsburgh Pirates recently employed a mental conditioning expert ( an article by Yahoo! Sports’ Steve Henson, we hit a trifecta) for the US military to fiddle with their burgeoning youngster system. Thinking outside the proverbial box is what gets you an advantage (usually; some NFL teams like to employ aspiring criminals and that doesn’t always work). Trying something new in an effort to perfect your team and system while keeping costs at an acceptable point will put you ahead (operations research anyone?).
Next comes more brain pain:

There are lies, there are damned lies and there are statistics. Then there are the statistics that prove that J.D. Drew is a more productive hitter than Jason Bay.

Not sure where you find those stats. Bay is the superior batter even if Drew is slightly more patient at the plate (although they’re both great OBPers), but while Bay is awful running around the Green Monster, Drew is actually really good…and that is why WAR values Drew over Bay.

…it’s a gross exaggeration to say claim sabermetrics won the Sox two championships. It may have helped. But the major contributions to those two titles came from decidedly old school, non-sabermetric players. Sluggers like Manny Ramirez. High batting average guys like Bill Meuller. Run producers like Kevin Millar. Many of whom played mediocre defense, by the way.

When you have Curt Schilling and Pedro Martinez heading your rotation, defense is one of your lesser worries. Sabermetrics likes OBP and seven of the main 2004 starting fielders OBPed .365 or higher. The Red Sox were able to use Millar and Mueller for cheap…because they were exploiting market inefficiencies. Meanwhile they used a combo of Pokey Reese, Nomar, and Orlando Cabrera at shortstop to provide great defense. They moved Nomar to get Cabrera who could provide defense and offense (Reese kinda sucked a bunch at the plate). Derek Lowe was another pitcher in the rotation and he felt the mediocre (bad) defense as his ERA was 5.42, while his FIP tells another story at 4.26 and a BABIP at .338…that defense was really bad around him. Yet Lowe still won 14 games because the Red Sox ran with run production.

Didn’t the Stat Geeks convince Theo that a closer was a waste of money, which led to the Closer-by-Committee fiasco? And it was only when they sunk huge money into the retro Keith Foulke and developed a throwback power closer in Jonathan Papelbon that they were able to win it all.

The 2003 Red Sox bullpen was devoid of a great reliever and closers generally want an assload of cash for limited use. The closer is your best relief pitcher…and when teams have a few really good RPs they will do even better, because the more innings you can eat up the better. The closer by committee thing only works if you have capable RPs and in 2003 Byung-Hyun Kim was in the process of falling apart even if he was the best RP the BoSox had. If you look at the 2003 ALCS you’ll find that starters accounted for all 4 losses against the Yanks (although Sauerbeck relieved Lowe in Game 2 to give up a double), so lack of a closer doesn’t really hold sway at the point where the Red Sox season ended. There is a new move in the sabermetrics field in that your best RP (so, closer) pitches at the most important part of the game, which is the part where you preserve your lead no matter what inning. If you are in the seventh and the bases are loaded with one out and you are leading by 2 then you bring in the closer and keep your team in the game instead of blowing the lead and the chance to toss him in in the 9th. Take Philly, where Brad Lidge was an utter crapbomb in ’09, but on the other hand you have Ryan Madson, who was the Phillies’ best RP. Madson was brought in during those important moments and kept the team from blowing their lead so that Lidge could come in later and come close to blowing it (or blow it).

Furthermore, one of the tenets of sabermetrics is that “clutch” doesn’t exist. And yet the Sox have held a special ceremony just to honor David Ortiz as the best clutch hitter in Sox history. And there’s not a formula in existence that can convince me they’re wrong about that.

Some players are better at coping with high intensity moments than others, but if you have guys who treat every plate appearance in the same manner then there is no such thing as clutch. Normal, everyday fans like clutchness and the memories they create and David Ortiz had a knack for hitting homers at necessary moments. Aaron Boone once hit an important homer…and he also was a very bad player for the Yankees in 2003 where he went .250BA .302OBP .418SLG 6HR in 54 regular season games and was even worse in the post season at .170BA .196OBP .302SLG 2HR in 17 games. But one of those HR was really really important, so, you know, clutch.
Thornton finishes by ripping on Ron Borges and Dan Shaughnessy…so he at least has something right. Good Show.

I promise to write something non-sportswriter-attack related, but sometimes there is an influx of misinformation.

This Apparently Still Passes For Journalism

Jerry Thornton is a “columnist” for WEEI, a New England sports radio network. So he writes an online column, which reads more like an inane op-ed piece from a delusional wacko, for a radio station. Good gig.

This is his most recent offering that WEEI pays him (with money) to write: The Geeks Will Inherit The Earth

There already has been a response at TedQuarters by Ted Berg, a senior editorial producer for SNY.tv where he also writes a column…so a step up from a column for a radio station…right? Have you even seen my beautiful head of hair, Jerry Thornton of WEEI.com? Also, check out that ridiculous picture Berg’s article links to at the end.

Anyway, as all sports bloggers aspire to recreate the success of FireJoeMorgan (since there is no other way to be successful as a sports blog) I will run through through the litany of baseless assertions that Thornton makes.

He begins rather tamely, building excitement as he rounds out the intro with the claim that the Red Sox will be winning the World Series. But that comes with a horror story:

I’m afraid that if … when … the Sox win it all this year, it will mean total victory has been achieved by that odd, creepy little subculture that lives among us: the Stat Geeks.

Later he will mention Theo Epstein being the poster boy for the stat geeks. Epstein is a “stat geek” and he apparently had nothing to do with 2004 and 2007. I am a stat geek. I’m not odd and creepy…well, not creepy anyway.

They’re like the Communist Party plotting to take over Hollywood in the 1950s before Ronald Reagan got wise to them and kicked their pinko butts all the way back to Moscow and Harvard Square. Only, instead of trying to write screenplays full of anti-capitalists rants, the Stat Geeks have succeeded in making otherwise normal, decent, God-fearin’ Americans start talking about VORP (Value Over Replacement Player) ratings and UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) numbers like they really believe in this nonsense.

When did Sarah Palin get a column on WEEI?
But seriously, this is only the beginning of Thornton’s ability to create a piece where he provides no story, no plot, no facts, no evidence…nothing really, by just stringing together segments of a hate speech against “stat geeks” whose only crime is that they have found one more (in depth) way to love the game of baseball.

And call me overly paranoid, but part of me is afraid Theo Epstein is their prize project. The one they’ve brainwashed into bringing their message of Sabremetric supremacy to the world. The Staturian Candidate.

How is being incredibly successful at your job, finding a way to succeed when one team has an unfair payroll advantage, wearing a Gorilla costume, rejuvenating the faith that a fanbase has in their team…how is all that “brainwashing”? It’s a ridiculous theory, because Thornton has no other explanation for the fact that he should actually hate Epstein, a man who operates under stats geekitude and employs like minded individuals (yeah, we’ll get to Bill James in a bit).

Look at the Red Sox roster as it’s currently constituted: While there’s still a core of blue chip, proven, battle-tested baseball lifers who’d be winners in any era … the Pedroias, Becketts, Lesters, Papelbons and Youkili … it seems like this offseason, the rest of the roster was supplanted with Stat Geek favorites.

Ok, the Red Sox have an unfair advantage now…they apparently have at least two Pedroias, Becketts..etc. Youkilis was called The Greek God of Walks. He was coveted by Billy Beane. HE IS A STAT GEEK FAVORITE. Players that were drafted by Epstein and his brain trust are in this group. Thornton is essentially blind…or he just halfheartedly wrote this in 10 minutes without much thought.

Agents who were trained in a basement at the Baseball Prospectus HQ to infiltrate the Sox and destroy them from within.

Ah, I see, people who can actively and concretely help in creating a great baseball team are actually “agents” who want to destroy it…because that’s good for business. Most teams employ stat-minded people in some shape or form. Some teams don’t do it enough (METS!) so try following them and see how you like not winning two WS and failing to consistently reach the post-season.

And suddenly, a legit All-Star like Jason Bay is body-snatched away and replaced with Mike Cameron with his 70 RBI but his to-die-for Rtzhm (total fielding runs above average at home) numbers. I don’t know Cameron and maybe he’ll be a great addition to the club.

Jason Bay is a bad defensive OF. He can be a demon at bat, but he was too costly for the risk factor the Sox thought they would be dealing with. Mike Cameron, who costs less than half of Jason Bay, can produce at least half of Bay’s production, while being a huge upgrade defensively. In fact, by him taking over CF and moving Jacoby Ellsbury to LF the Sox are defensively upgraded in two positions.

But I also won’t be surprised to find out he talks in a robot voice and repeats “I am Mike. I play center field. Would you care to discuss my lgRF9 (league range factor for 9 innings) numbers?” over and over again all year.

I didn’t realize that Thornton was so up on robotics (that haven’t been developed yet).

If he says pitching and defense are the keys to victory, who am I to argue? Even if the defense is judged on obscure, impossible-to-understand and largely subjective stats that some pale virgin made up in his mom’s basement, I’ll trust Epstein.

Michael Lichtman is the creator of the previously mentioned UZR, but the Red Sox have already stated that they use their own defensive metrics to judge players. I’m guessing Bill James has a lot of say in there. I am fairly sure that neither of these guys live in their mom’s basement and from this interview with The Hardball Times we learn that he is married and has three offspring…so there goes the virgin thing. James is a little pale, but he is a white guy who lives in New England, what do you expect?

Thornton then needlessly reiterates his paranoia about nerds and talks about them taking over baseball. People are always going to look for ways to streamline their operation so that they can achieve more for less. Every single play has at least one number attached to it. The game takes place within a confined space that can be turned into a grid. It’s a simple step to employ numbers-minded professionals to find a capable player for cheaper than some expensive guy everyone thinks you should have.
Operations Research is a field of mathematics that involves finding the most effective way(s) to reach the solution you want with maximum profit or minimum loss. Businesses, governments, the military use this field because it makes sense to do so. If you can save money and increase your capabilities at the same time why the hell wouldn’t you. Baseball is a business and teams have to find new ways to get ahead of other teams. For a while the Yankees were just throwing money at players and they were winning, but they weren’t as successful as they should have been. Now they have changed their ways and while still being the largest payroll by a large percentage they aren’t overpaying players. The Tampa Bay Rays have created a system that builds their team from within and the Red Sox have managed to build a team stronger than that of the Yankees a couple times and remain competitive all the time. I don’t know how Thornton would like to create a team, but it apparently involves throwing wads of money at players who can hit or who have those “intangibles” and needless to say he would make a horrible GM.

At this point you might be saying “Gee, Jer. How do you know so much about Stat Geeks anyway?” Glad you asked because the answer will surprise you. Because I, for a very brief time in my life, was one. Yes, it’s true. Looks like mine and brains, too? As implausible as it sounds, I Was A Teenage Stats Geek. I read the backs of guys’ baseball cards. I studied the day’s box scores. I committed to memory the tops of the all time career statistical rankings in dozens of categories.

When I was a kid the backs of my baseball cards had the simplest of stats AB, H, 2B, 3B, HR, SB, AVG; W, L, IP, SV, K, BB, ERA. I didn’t realize that enshrines you into the world of stats geekery. Here is the truth, the box score will give someone a rudimentary explanation of how the game went for someone who wasn’t able to watch it. The new stats that have been created give you a better valuation of a player, because someone who hits .280 for a season with 20 HR isn’t nearly as valuable because he OBPs .305 and it shows with his 50 runs. People decried OBP when it first made the steps into baseball journalism and guess what, it was proven to be useful and it now has it’s place next to AVG on the backs of all those baseball cards. It’s a process that is involved with every change that takes place. People want to keep their traditional values and shy away from the change would remove them from their comfort zone. It happens with everything in the world and you know what…there are studies pointing to the ability to try something new and go the non-traditional route is a sign of intelligence and possibly higher evolution.

But then, I made an amazing discovery. Something that the Stat Geek population doesn’t know and never will. Women.

What the hell is a women?

Suddenly Butch Hobson’s RBI total didn’t mean quite as much. Jim Rice’s total bases faded from my mind. And for me that mean putting away the Baseball Encyclopedia, getting outside and living an actual life. It also led to other discoveries like jobs, cars, activities, beer and sunlight.

I have no life, I have never had a job, I don’t know a thing about cars, activities?, never had a beer, and sunlight is the devil.
None of those things is true.
Also…he discovered activities? Researching stats is an activity. Walking to the door is an activity. Pooping is an activity. ANYTHING IS AN ACTIVITY.

But not everyone has evolved the same way.

Remember that link from NatGeo? Thornton is non-evolved.

There is a growing subculture of stats-crunching troglodytes among us, and I for one am frightened that these mouth-breathing, greased[sic] stained Gollums might actually be influencing something vital to our national interest.

Troglodytes and Gollums? Influencing…I hate to break it to you, Thornton, but the game has already been influenced.

I mean, consider Bill James, who is like a god to these Sabremetric trolls. He’s made an industry out of making up silly, useless formulae to prove things like Alex Gonzalez should be bussing tables in the Fort Myers Waffle House, and yet Theo has given him a position of power and influence in his inner circle. It’s the equivalent of my old Missle Command skills getting me a job with NORAD or my Bill Belichick building a gameplan around my Coleco electric football offense.

Your hyperbole is useless on me. The equivalent of someone using mathematics to not only make money, but also get a job with your Red Sox, is using video game skills for a profession? What we have here is a false analogy.

So as a public service to all like-minded fans, concerned Red Sox citizens worried about the direction the Nation is headed, I’d like to put my ex-Stat Geek skills to us and offer my own formula for judging all statisticians. Let’s call it the NSGR/MMUSRI (Nerdy Stat Geek Ridiculous/Meaningless Made Up Statistic Rating Index).

Take a guess as to the direction this is going to go.

You take any new, obscure baseball evaluation stat and you start with the weight of the guy who invented it, times how many days he’s been wearing the same “Han Solo Shot First” T-shirt, divided by how many times he’s had sex in his life, multiplied by how often his mom cooks his meals add how many days a month he sees the sun times the percentage by which he throws like a girl.

Sigh. I hate to relate this to sexism or racism, but it has similar elements. False stereotypes, unthinking and discriminatory hate-speech. There are way too many instances of supposed journalists, columnists, talking heads, etc. making the same picture of a single, nerdy, male living in his parents’ basement with an irrational fear of sunlight. Stop it already, it lost it’s laugh factor after the first guy did it (possibly before).
Oh right, sexism: “throws like a girl.” Good one.

Then you throw them all out and go with what your eyes tell you. And stop wasting our time with this Sabremetrics foolishness.

My eyes tell me to stop reading your lame attempts at journalism. Columnism? Writing? Typing.
I understand writers wanting to come off as being funny and maybe that was the primary force driving Thornton here, but the end result is just so poor and it’s been done so many times before, there is nothing new here. So good job earning that paycheck.

Anyway, if all few of you who read this would refrain from listening to WEEI or at least send them an email condemning them for their insistence to employ Jerry Thornton, that would be greatly appreciated across the blogohedron.