Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Sample Size Disease

As much fun as it is to watch baseball again, now is actually a very difficult time to write about it. There are games going on, so one's usual ideas about how good or bad a player is can be defied by the player and his stat lines on a daily basis. At the same time, it's way too early to draw firm conclusions from the results on the field, so a player's 2004 stats are usually still much better indicators of his future value than anything he's already done in 2005. These situations can lead to some very bad writing.

Case in point: this atypically insane editorial from the otherwise excellent John Perrotto.

Perrotto points out that the Pirates used computer simulations to determine that Tike Redman should bat third. He then uses this as an excuse to take a cheap shot at "numbers" (which he does soften first, claiming that he sometimes finds advanced metrics helpful, but still):

I believe baseball instincts are just as important as numbers.

My instincts, supported by statistics, tell me Redman is not good enough to hit No. 3 on any major-league club. In fact, he isn't good enough to be in many teams' starting lineups.


What Perrotto's instincts tell him is obviously true, but it's also true that nearly everyone who has ever been accused of being a 'number cruncher' or a 'stat geek' has bashed the Pirates' decision to bat Redman third.

Then, he adds:

Hopefully, there was a money-back guarantee [for the simulations], especially since the Pirates failed to score more than three runs in any of their first five games and a total of 19 in their first seven.

Right, but Redman only batted third in two of those games! Apparently, though, Perrotto only said that to be nasty. He doesn't actually think that the Pirates' decision to bat Redman third is the only cause of their run-scoring problems, so he offers some of his own solutions. And here's where Perrotto's article really starts to get nuts.

I would suggest some drastic personnel changes, the biggest would be benching shortstop Jack Wilson or using him as a trade bait.

Well, that's drastic, alright. I fully agree that the Pirates should at least consider trading Wilson - they have a fair amount of talent at the middle infield positions, Wilson is coming off a career year, and he is signed to a reasonable contract. I'm less of a Wilson fan than many are, and I would be thrilled if the Pirates could get a blue-chip hitter or two for him. But benching him? That's crazy. He's still fairly young, he's coming off a very good year at the plate and his defense has improved to the point where he's quite an asset at shortstop. The Pirates are bad, yes, but that hasn't been Wilson's fault since 2003.

Perrotto then suggests a number of other moves, none of which are terrible in isolation. But, when taken together, they create the following defense:

C David Ross
1B Daryle Ward
2B Rob Mackowiak
SS Freddy Sanchez
3B Ty Wigginton
LF Craig Wilson
CF Jason Bay
RF Matt Lawton

This would be among the worst defenses fielded by a major league team in the last decade. The Pirates would be well below average at first, second, third, and right, and average to below average at shortstop, left, and center. They'd probably only be decent at catcher. And without Jack Wilson in the lineup, this team might even be worse offensively.

Perrotto is right that the Pirates' offense is inadequate. But sacrificing defense entirely doesn't even solve their problems on offense, and creates entirely new ones on defense. And benching one of the team's few good players out of impatience doesn't help the offense or the defense.

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