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— Where BTF's Members Investigate the Grand Old Game
Monday, March 05, 2001
What Do You Know about Baseball?
You might not know what you think you know.
What do you know about baseball? Go ahead and make a list ranging from the simple to the complex if you want. Now go through the list and ask yourself how you know that each item is true. I’m sure for many you know they’re true because it’s published in the rulebook as such. Many of the things on your list you may have learned from watching others play or playing the game yourself. Some you probably learned from others: family, friends, broadcasters, sportswriters, players, managers, general managers, coaches. Still more you may know from statistics. Maybe you have knowledge in another area like physics or economics that can be applied to baseball. Finally, maybe some of the things on your list are true because it seems to be obvious that they would be true.
Now I’m going to ask you to do something else. For each item on your list, I want you to imagine that it isn’t true. In imagining this, ask yourself what it would mean if the item wasn’t true. What would logically follow from it not being true? What would the consequences and results be of it not being true? How does the falseness of the statement affect other things you believe to be true? Once you’ve done all that, go through your list and for each item decide which ones it is possible that it isn’t true.
Congratulations, you’re a baseball skeptic.
Over the next several months I’m going to do exactly what I outlined above. The list won’t be exclusively things about baseball I believe to be true, but will often times be things that others say or believe to be true. You see, all sorts of people believe all sorts of things about baseball, many of which conflict with each other. Some people, needless to say, believe things that may not actually be true. As a sport that takes place in many different cities across the country, we have little choice but to get a lot of the information we know about baseball from sources other than ourselves. It begs the question, what does the information mean, and what is "good" information and what is the proverbial "bum steer."
And that’s where critical thinking can help. Critical thinking often involves a series of informal tools and methods that can help to spot sound and unsound arguments. Sometimes finding unsound arguments is simply a matter of reading it carefully and evaluating the terms of the argument that can be clearly measured as true or false. Here’s a snippet from Los Angeles Times sportswriter, Bill Plaschke:
"Today, the Twins wake up with zero chance to make next year’s playoffs.? Like the Pittsburgh Pirates.? Like the Montreal Expos.? Like about all but five or six teams."
If the above is correct and there will be eight playoff teams next year, apparently, at least two or three of the teams making the playoffs this year will have no shot at making the playoffs this year.
Usually, unsound arguments are more subtle. Often they may appear to be reasonable arguments. Often the argument links one event to another, with one event deemed the cause of another. On the surface many of these arguments seem compelling. One event happens then soon after, another happens. Isn’t it reasonable to speculate on whether the first caused the second? Drew Olson from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel had this to say on the shape of the Mariners after the departure of Randy Johnson and then Ken Griffey, Jr. (speaking directly to Griffey and Johnson):
"Your former manager, Lou Piniella, and his players are too diplomatic to say publicly what every Seattle baseball fan figured out this summer. There is virtually no way the Mariners would have made it this far (AL League Championship Series) if you two were still around."
The problem with these sorts of arguments is that they make unsafe assumptions and often neglect all sorts of additional information that may run contrary to the argument. The term often used to describe the Olson argument above is called a Post Hoc Argument. The assumption that if one event happens after a first event, than the first event caused the next event is not a safe assumption.
Like the argument above, people often tend to favor one explanation over another, despite the fact that there doesn’t appear to be any stronger evidence for it. As Thomas Gilovich writes in his book, How We Know What Isn’t So, "We are inclined to adopt self-serving beliefs about ourselves, and comforting beliefs about the world." Above, Olson prefers to believe that the Mariners wouldn’t be better with Johnson and Griffey on the team, because the notion that ?team play? can and does override individual talent is generally a comforting one for our society. Olson has no idea where the Mariners would have finished in 2000 with the help of Griffey and Johnson, and neither do I.? However, one has to consider the very real possibility that adding two players the quality of Griffey and Johnson to an already talented roster could have improved the team even more.
Another example of how the filtering of information can lead us to reinforce beliefs we prefer to be true can be found below. In 1987 at the age of 23, Mark McGwire won the Rookie of the Year award by setting an all-time rookie record for homers with 49. In 1991, McGwire hit .201 with 22 homers and 75 RBIs. In search of an explanation for the drop-off, sportswriter William Nack wrote the following (from Baseball’s Even Greater Insults by Kevin Nelson):
"McGwire got his 49 in his rookie year, before the pitchers figured him out and with a lot of good batters on either side of him. Trade McGwire to the Yankees, where everyone is struggling, and we would see him in Columbus in a year."
It’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for why McGwire’s stats had tumbled, but it’s only one explanation and one that is unsupported. There’s information missing that may be contrary to Nack’s explanation. For example, hitting was down quite a bit across the American League in 1991 from 1987. It also ignores the 39 Homers McGwire hit the previous season which was second in the league or that he had hit 33 in 1989 which was good for third in the league. It doesn’t really examine whether who was hitting next to McGwire affected his hitting, it simply asserts it. In short, while Nack’s explanation may be correct, it also just as easily may not be.
As it turns out, McGwire clubbed 42 homers in only 139 games in 1992 and led the Al in slugging percentage that year. After a few injury plagued seasons, McGwire then preceded to go on a homerun tear unprecedented in the history of the sport. It culminated in a 70 home run performance in 1998 that is, of course, the highest total ever hit in a single season in Major League Baseball.
Now, before people start thinking that this column is simply going to be another round of "Kick the Mediot," I want to explain that none of the above are criticisms of Plaschke, Olson or Nack as writers or as people. Each certainly has significant strengths in their abilities to perform their jobs, otherwise they simply wouldn’t be in the position they are in. But they are humans and, as such, are subject to the same errors in logic and thinking that we all are. Why? Because the things that cause these errors, are also the things that are responsible for our biggest strengths. Assuming correlation from causation may be a logical fallacy, but it is also responsible for our survival as a species. With time to ponder the issue and the stakes being merely more or less knowledge, indeed it is important to understand that correlation does not imply causation. On the other hand, if the sound you just heard is usually followed by a fanged carnivorous beast attacking your cave, there is nothing wrong with the assumption. In fact there’d be something wrong if you didn’t make that assumption.
In short, as Gilovich writes, "our questionable beliefs derive primarily from the misapplication or overutilization of generally valid and effective strategies for knowing… They are the products not of irrationality, but of flawed rationality." It’s not the concept of who is right and who is wrong, nor the fight over mainstream and underground ideas, nor the argument over stats versus observation which is important, it is simply the understanding that what we perceive to be true from our experiences, isn’t necessarily true and that examining our beliefs in search of where they may be flawed can lead to great insight.
And in case you think the "none of the above are criticisms of Plaschke…" was just a way for me to be diplomatic and cover my ass, chew on this quote:
"Jon Nunnally is twice the player Jermaine Dye is."
The writer of the above made several mistakes. He used a numerical value that has no inherent meaning. What exactly does it mean for a player to be "twice the player" of another? He ignored the possibility that Nunnally may have been declining more than you’d normally expect from a player, and Dye may have been improving more than you’d expect from a player, even if those weren’t the most likely outcomes. As such he appeared more certain of his statement, than he reasonably can be. Finally, he used bad soldiers in service of a good cause. The Royals treatment of Nunnally may indeed have been a mistake, and that their other decisions involving young players may have been questionable as well, but just because an argument serves a valid point, doesn’t make it a sound argument.
What’s the author’s name, you ask? Voros McCracken.
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