Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Carol Slezak Now 99.9% Statistic Free

It never ceases to amaze me how little effort people in the sports reporting industry put into their content. When it is Joe Morgan and Jon Miller not knowing how to pronounce a player's name, I get pissed for about ten seconds and then realize they are national guys who cover almost every team at some point. Of course, some details are going to slip, but I'd like to think they could at least have a phonetic spelling available to them.

But when it is a Chicago columnist writing for one of the city's major newspapers, I'd like to think there would be a bit more understanding of the team, the players, and the fundamentals of the the sport itself.

Carol Slezak, of the Chicago Sun-Times, wrote about Lou Piniella's ruminations about moving Soriano down in the batting order, and wonders why Lou just doesn't do it.

I spent some time yesterday on the same subject. Ms. Slezak and I have come to two differing opinions on the subject. The difference is that Slezak has no basis for her opinions other than faulty assumptions.

She uses statistics twice in her whole column. In the first instance she states:

"The Cubs like to point out that they were 69-37 last season when Soriano led off. But here's a more telling statistic: They're 0-6 in the last two postseasons. Here's another more telling stat: Soriano had an .071 on-base percentage in the three '08 playoff losses."

OK, I'll agree that an .071 OBP from your leadoff hitter in the playoffs did nothing to help the Cubs, but what about Aramis Ramirez batting .182 last year, and .087 in the two playoff series combined? Derrek Lee had zero RBIs in the two post-seasons combined (1 for 9 with 2 double plays with runners on base, with the one hit being described as a weak grounder past third).

Soriano was hardly the only guy struggling in the playoffs, and I find fault with the logic that moving him into the three-hole (or wherever she wants to move him) would have magically changed anything about his production.

Her only other stat is a made-up one:

"There's no need to overthink this one. If you polled Cubs fans, 99.9 percent would say Soriano never should bat leadoff again, and they'd be right."

Really? 99.9%? If you even take a brief look through Cubs blog land, you'll see that simply isn't true. A few people over at waxpaperbeercup disagree with moving Soriano. Bleed Cubbie Blue has a thread of posts that seem fairly evenly divided on the issue. Clearly, I disagree, and I know I've had conversations with other members of Aisle 424 who have argued in the past that Soriano may not be ideal, but he is the best alternative the Cubs have. While I know I have been known to have some differing opinions and have been known to hang out with and emulate people who are on the fringe of mainstream ideas, I don't think you would even get close to 99.9% in a poll of Cub fans. Stay tuned for why that fictitious 99.9% would be wrong.

For the bulk of the column, Ms. Slezak just makes arguments with no statistical evidence at all:

"Any combination of Ryan Theriot, Aaron Miles and Mike Fontenot should produce results at least as good as Soriano has in the last two years in the leadoff spot, freeing Soriano to drive in more runs."

Well, I took about two minutes to go to baseball-reference.com to see if her assertion was based in fact. Theriot has a career batting average/OBP/OPS of .290/.362./.731. Miles is at .289/.329/.693, and Fontenot is at .290/.369/.826. By comparison, Alfonso Soriano has career stats of .293/.342/.892 in the leadoff position. The only one who stacks up against Soriano is Fontenot, and he has only 212 games worth of stats, so we don't know how Fontenot's numbers will change if he becomes a full-time player this year.

But, you may have noticed, I only compared the stats of Soriano batting leadoff versus the career stats of Slezak's three-headed lead-off monster. What happens if I compare apples to apples? Theriot has 52 games as a lead-off hitter and delivered .313/.357/.767 in that spot. Miles has 206 games at leadoff, producing .272/.305/.658. Fontenot has only 9 games at leadoff, but he has not shined in that position, hitting only .143/.143/.357.

So perhaps she should have said, "A magical combination of the very best we can hope for from Theriot, Miles, and Fontenot could produce results almost as good as Soriano."

Meanwhile, Ms. Slezak faults Piniella for coddling Soriano by not making the move already:

"Is Soriano really so mentally fragile that he'll be unable to deal with batting somewhere other than leadoff? Piniella seems to think so."

You know why Piniella seems to think so? Because he knows statistics, and he knows that those statistics show that Soriano has a pretty decent number of games batting elsewhere in the order, and his resulting stats take a significant hit. Soriano drops from a fairly decent .293/.342/.892 clip to a very ordinary level of .263/.304/.770.

Why in the world would anyone think that somehow 2009 would be any different than what he has shown in his entire career? Ms. Slezak assumes that Soriano's production will be at the level she is accustomed in the lead-off spot, when there is nothing in the data to suggest that might be likely, or even plausible. It is based on nothing but hopes and dreams, like the following quote:

"I envision Soriano in the middle of the order, driving in bunches of runs. All those solo home runs he hit from the leadoff spot were nice, but they count for only one on the scoreboard."

That certainly sounds like a nice vision, and one that would be lovely if it were based at all in reality, but another simple check of the stats reveals a world where the sun doesn't shine out of our collective butts. I feel compelled to point out that in addition to making more outs when he drops down, Soriano's homerun rate drops from one every 16.5 at-bats in the leadoff position to one every 21.8 at-bats elsewhere in the order.

So, Slezak's plan calls for someone other than Soriano to put up leadoff numbers that will equal Soriano's in the best case scenario, and put Soriano in a run-producing slot where he will most likely put up pedestrian numbers. That sounds like a winning formula to me!

What gets me isn't so much whether I am right or she is wrong (though I am and she is), its that she gets paid to write her column (almost assuredly more than I get paid to do my real job) and she throws together an opinion piece that is unsupported by any data.

I'm sure there is an argument to be made on the other side of this, but without showing me some numbers, its all just meaningless conjecture and wishful thinking.

Come on, Carol! I'm sure the Sun-Times has an internet connection somewhere. Go to mlb.com, baseball-reference.com, or ESPN.com and you can get at almost any player data you want pretty easily. If you don't want to do it yourself, get an intern to put some stats together for you.

Hell, shoot me an e-mail or a twitter message and I might be able to dig up a stat or two for you to back up your opinions. At the end of the day, that's really all I ask.


Jeff said...

The question is, what stats should you look at when assessing whether a player is more valuable in the lead-off spot vs further down in the line-up. One could argue that OBP is of much higher importance than OPS, because you want your lead-off hitter getting on and setting up a big inning. If you follow this reasoning, then some of the stats you quoted above would actually support penciling one of those guys in ahead of Soriano.

However, as everyone but Tim McCarver knows, starting an inning with a home run gives you the best statistical chance of scoring the most runs in an inning than any other way of reaching base. So maybe leadoff homers aren't so bad.

I think the true question is, which combination leads to more runs. It could be that, statistically, placing a high OBP guy ahead of a high OPS guy leads to more runs than the other way around... But I'll let the stats aficionados (not Slezak) explore that one.....

tmcginnis said...

Yes - there is an argument to be made in support of Slezak's position, but unfortunately she doesn't bother to support anything she says.

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