Trouble Thinking

October 12, 2010

Baseball is serious business

Filed under: Sports, Statistical Anomalies — SrMeowMeow @ 2:34 am

There are two kinds of baseball fans, and I say this without condescension. There are fans who are happy to enjoy the narratives of baseball and enjoy the game as a game, and there are fans who see in baseball something more. This is true of almost everything; for example, I am a fan of movies in the former way. I’ve practically made a conscious decision to avoid movie analysis. I enjoy “behind the scenes” features but afterwards it’s harder for me to enjoy the movie I just saw exposed. My film student friend tells me that the more you learn, the more it enhances the experience; he thinks about lighting and composition while I am happy to suspend disbelief and enjoy the ride.

The parallel to baseball is almost exact. Where another fan sees a clutch hero with the ability to elevate their game when it matters most, I see a statistical oddity. Where he sees grit and guts overcoming impossible odds, I see attribution error. Where he blasts a general manager for a move in hindsight, I look for the probabilities at play when the decision was made. Where he sees a break-out season and a star being born, I see regression on the horizon.

The movie example teaches us two things: one, that there is no right way to enjoy something. In many ways, I enjoy movies how they were meant to be enjoyed and the same goes for my hypothetical “other fan”, with baseball. Two, that the two perspectives are mutually exclusive. Once you know how the magic trick is done, it’s not magic anymore. And once your knowledge reduces a movie to an assortment of techniques, or a baseball game to a cloud of probabilities, you can’t easily regain that innocence.

However, the study of baseball is too great an opportunity to pass up. It is a proving ground for intuition, statistical acumen, and logic, as well as affording frequent glimpses into the machinery of reality. Does that sound grandiose? Maybe, but it’s accurate.

Baseball is the perfect statistical sandbox. It occurs in discrete elements: pitch by pitch, play by play, game by game. The technology is improving rapidly to keep up with the demands of a growing analytical community. Pitch f/x is a free database that tracks the speed, release point, spin deflection, and many more arcane data points on every pitch thrown since it was implemented. Hit f/x is on the way. Baseball has always been a statistical game, but on the cutting edge, baseball cards have been replaced with SQL databases and Excel spreadsheets.

For me, the holy grail of baseball analysis is measuring true talent. True talent is the mythical exact “value” of a player: he “is a .305 hitter”, and then luck and defense and the quality of opposing pitching and wind blowing in and wind blowing out all conspire to give us a number, his batting average for the season, that is a function of his true talent but not the thing itself. We will never know a given player’s true talent; the story of baseball analysis is the story of approximations and the story of incomplete information. The key concept is context neutrality: take a player’s season batting average and factor out his bad luck and his good luck and the stadium he played in and the defenses he played against and the pitchers he faced and many, many more things, and the more you work, the closer you get to his true talent.

Baseball has everything a keen mind could want, and every question you ask raises deeper ones, until you’re wondering about the nature of value itself, all because you want to know if your favorite team would have done better to sign Player X than Player Y after all. You ask yourself about determinism: was making Trade Z a bad decision because it played out badly and couldn’t have played out any other way and therefore should have been predictable and therefore should have been predicted, or do you just look at the information available at the time?

Think about it. Read about it. There are hidden depths to be uncovered, and this is a living science. Seriously, I’m neither exaggerating the potential for unique, creative thought nor the difficulty of some of the questions you’ll find yourself confronting.

1 Comment »

  1. Well what do we have here? I think I remember this guy from back when I first asked him to write an article oh what was it now A BILLION MONTHS AGO.

    Comment by Durandal — October 12, 2010 @ 12:34 pm

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