Baseball Judgments

Baseball Judgments |

You can't tell a player's worth by watching a game


By Roger Weber


As baseball fans, we often base our opinion about a player from our attendance at games he played in. When we see a player put on a spectacular performance, we tend to raise our opinion of him. Even statisticians do it, seeing a player they like for whatever reason and using statistics in a way to benefit that player. (Statistics can be shown to "prove" almost anything.)


That is where the beauty of baseball has influence. We like players and teams not only because they are good at producing runs and winning, but because they are fun to watch. Usually these correlate. But if we see a player who puts on unusual or remarkable feats we tend to assume he is a better player.


There is one problem with mixing these two ideas, though. On any given day, any player can look like Superman. Mike Cameron, a decent hitting, excellent fielding center fielder, hit four home runs in a game. Any fan who watched that performance and didn't read about Cameron's stats might assume Cameron was the best player in baseball. After all, the four home runs in a game feat has only been accomplished 12 times.


Bill James has written over and over – watching every game of the season a fan couldn't guess a player's batting average within 20 points. The mind is a curious thing. Certain memories linger, some fade away. The mind cannot judge a player's run producing ability by what it sees. Sure, when we see Albert Pujols at the plate we think we see a player whose actions are significantly different from other players. That is mental, though. What if Pujols goes 0-for-4? Had you not heard about his talent on the radio would you still think he was such a great player after watching a dismal performance? On any given day anything can happen. That's one of the rare true clichés about baseball. On any given day any team can beat any other team 11-0. The same does not happen in any other major sport.


This is why statistics are so valuable. They don't give us the beauty of a compact swing or a hit in the gap, but they can, when used correctly, give a bias-free detail of a player or team. Unfortunately they are often not used correctly. Baseball is a game with many events that happen seemingly randomly. Too often though a trend simply caused by chance is noted and suddenly fans come to believe that Roger Clemens is doing something that causes his teammates to not score a run in nine of his starts in 2005. Never mind that the Astros were a well below average offensive team the entire season.


The same ideas apply to stats with runners in scoring position – usually the sample size of at bats is very small, which means there can be great variability. The same is true when teams win or lose several games in a row. It is often attributed to some inner unseen variable, and often it is, but often the streak is just due to chance.


Single games tell little about a player. This is why scouting is often criticized. It holds a very real value in seeing if a swing is alright or if an arm motion makes a player injury prone, or in telling a player's speed. But basing a judgment on a statistical performance in one game is silly. There is a clear value to scouting, but it is not to tell if a player is a good home run hitter. That can be shown better in a season's worth of numbers. But while memories and small sample sizes may skew a scout's report, so may a small sample size of statistics, or use of the wrong ones.


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