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Redefinition of "Intangible"


[Webmaster's Note: This article originally appeared on the Red Sox Mailing List and appears here courtesy of the author. Although my approach to analysis baseball has a decided sabermetric leaning, I've always thought it important to keep in mind its limitations. This article points out the limitations of sabermetrics with a reasonable, well thought out argument. I enjoyed reading it, and thought you might too.]

By Alice Waugh

I know this is more in the old stats-vs-intangibles debate, but since I never contributed the first time this was hashed over, I'm going to chip in my dos centavos now. :-)

It's true that intangibles are unquantifiable and thus statistically invisible -- in the sense of individual players' statistics. However, I would define "intangibles" as those qualities that improve the performance of the team as a a whole, rather that of the individual under discussion (Jeff Frye or whomever). Baseball, after all, is a team sport. OPS and other stats are important and very legitimate measures of a player's value, but in the final analysis, the goal is to win games collectively, which means getting the best performance out of the group. If you have a player who can inspire his teammates to a higher level of performance than they might otherwise achieve -- even if that inspirational player is himself only mediocre statistically -- then you have something.

One example: Don Baylor in 1986. He was, at least according to all the press accounts I avidly read at the time, considered a great clubhouse influence in uniting the players (remember the "kangaroo court?"), and they credited him with some of their success. The team as, as we know, came mighty close to winning the whole schmeer, yet Baylor himself hit only .238 with 31 homers for an OPS of .785, which is hardly top-notch for a full-time DH, from what I understand. (For context, his lifetime BA was .260 and OPS was .782).

Another potential example: Pedro Martinez hopefully lighting a fire under Checo's butt this year. ProJo, 2/17: --Martinez, who has known Checo for six years, took him under his workout wing in the Dominican Republic for the last month. Having a countryman, as well as a mentor, could spur on Checo to achieve his potential. "I think he has great stuff," said Martinez, the National League's Cy Young winner last season. "If Checo's healthy, he can be nasty. I just hope the work we did together over there and the work he's done by himself will pay off. (Boston Globe had a similar mention).

There are certainly valid counterarguments to this position. One might say it's just as hard to statistically demonstrate that Intangible X was responsible for Team A's 12 more wins than for Player B's increase in OPS or whatever. To which I say: quite right. There are too many variables involved to be able to make clear cause-and-effect determinations. For example, if Checo does indeed have a breakthrough year, it might be because he learned better mechanics over the winter, improved his diet, changed his workout between starts, threw more innings in parks better suited to his style of pitching, or got his own head together (another intangible). Who can say it was primarily Pedro's influence? And maybe the Sox would have gone to the Series in 1986 even if Baylor simply showed up, said absolutely nothing, and performed on the field as he did. On the other hand, who's to say it wasn't Baylor's or Pedro's influence, just because we can't measure it?

There's also the fact that, unlike absolutes such as strikeouts and hits, intangible qualities of certain players are filtered through what the players choose to say and what/how the media choose to report, so we as fans get even less of a handle on the whole thing.

However, if several players are reported as saying that "Joe Blow has really inspired me to do better," AND the team as a whole was doing better than the players' previous stats would lead one to expect, I think I'd give Joe Blow some credit for intangibles, even if his own stats weren't anything to write home about.

I would argue that just because we can't see or measure something doesn't mean it doesn't exist. One should neither accept or dismiss a phenomenon strictly on the basis (or lack) of empirical evidence. An illustration: my mother explained the reason she lost interest in religion was when a minister said (in the 1950s) that we don't know why salmon swim upstream, so we must simply realize we cannot understand some things and should accept the phenomenon as evidence of God's existence. Well, she felt there had to be a more rational reason which further research would eventually uncover. Similarly, some people dismiss things like ESP and UFOs, but others who believe in them note that their existence hasn't been disproved. You could call them either open-minded or credulous, depending on your point of view.

I'm not advocating a particular position on UFOs or God; I'm just saying that one should make full use of the scientific/analytical tools we have, but also not slam the door on a notion just because our tools may not be sufficiently sophisticated to demonstrate or account for it.

I think Paul Penta [Red Sox Mailing List subscriber] described this balanced approach nicely: "If a stat monster is up, I look at his BA and how many hits he's had so far today and it gives me a feeling about what he may do. If a heart/desire type is up, I just get a gut feeling that he'll make something happen. If neither is up, I go to the refreshment stand :O)"

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