Wednesday, April 01, 2009

The Limitations of Jocknalysis
When commercials began airing in December for the New Year's Day launch of MLB Network, the 24-hour-a-day all-baseball cable channel, Annie worried that our marriage as well as my livelihood might be at risk. While this hasn't turned out to be the case--basically I now just watch the channel for the few minutes per day I might previously have spent with "SportsCenter"--I am obviously happy to know with total certainty that anytime, day or night, I can turn on the TV and enjoy baseball-related programming. Turns out that MLB Network's content is a lot like pizza: even when it's relatively bad, it's still pretty good.

At this early point, however, MLBN is held back by the same problem that besets almost all sports TV programming: too much deference to the wisdom of ex-palyers. Joe Sheehan at Baseball Prospectus highlighted this issue a few weeks back, pointing to a short discussion on the channel's flagship show "MLB Tonight" about the longstanding "stats versus scouts" debate:

Sean Casey and Barry Larkin paid lip service to the value of performance analysis, and then insisted on evaluating players by anything but their performance. Harold Reynolds was all over the place, dismissing the use of stats entirely because of things that happened in his own career, calling stats "ridiculous," then calling out some of the projections presented without presenting reasons why he disagreed with them. Larkin used the term, "a quality .215 [batting average]," which if nothing else gives me a great name for a fantasy team.

Host Matt Vasgersian—a BP reader who frequently would name-check BP on Padres' telecasts—drove the discussion off course by asking the panel to choose between "the guy with the calculator" and "the guy with the straw hat." That is, of course, a false choice. No team ever has to choose, as Dayn Perry so eloquently explained years ago. All three players chose the scout, after which Vasgersian made the key point that a scout sees a guy three times, while his stats see everything the guy has done. The players nonetheless cited the scout's opinion as being more valuable than what the analysis could provide.

My problem isn't with these opinions, which are to be expected. My problem is with the lack of another viewpoint. Setting Vasgersian up as the opposition is inadequate to the task, not because he's not talented, but because it's not really his role and he's not invested in the argument. Asking three former players about the value of performance analysis isn't going to produce an interesting discussion, because players' opinions on this stuff, with rare exception, fall into a narrow range. A real discussion on this issue would involve other voices, and even if those voices were to be shouted down or marginalized for lack of a baseball-reference page, well, they needed to be heard.

I was thinking about this earlier today when watching the rebroadcast of MLB Tonight as the panel, this time comprised of host Vasgersian and analysts Sean Casey, Billy Ripken and Al Leiter--all ex-players--discussed the Braves' signing of signature player Larry Jones Jr. to a three-year contract extension for $42 million. They all loved the deal without a word of criticism.

Now, Jones (whom, like any good Phillies fan and/or New Yorker, I loathe) had a great year in 2008, hitting .364 with 22 home runs. He's the face of that (accursed) franchise, a likely future Hall of Famer who has been one of the game's best hitters for the better part of 15 years. But he's turning 37 in three weeks, and misses at least a month every season: in the last five years, his at-bat totals have been 472, 358, 411, 513, and 439. Given everything we know about how baseball players age, and the Braves' competitive positioning in a division with two deeper-pocketed teams (the Mets and Phillies) and two other young, cheap and improving clubs (the Marlins and Nationals), was it really wise to buy Jones's age-38, 39 and 40 seasons and an option for his age-41 at $14 million per year?

Well, maybe. But there are two sides to the story. This post on Talking Chop, a Braves blog affiliated with The Good Phight under the SportsBlog Nation umbrella, effectively lays them both out--and gives the pro-deal spin from an honest fan perspective which I at least find more compelling than the likes of Ripken, Casey and Leiter applauding a former colleague getting paid.

What I really would like to see, though, is someone on the MLB Tonight panel, presumably a non-player (maybe an executive between jobs, maybe a writer/analyst type), who could make that case to their faces: yes, it's a PR coup for the organization in that it pleases the fans and sends a positive message in the clubhouse that loyalty and performance will be valued, but there's also a real risk that the 2011 and 2012 Braves will be hamstrung by directing an ever-larger share of that $14 million into the trainer's office. If nothing else, it would make for better television.


Feral said...

$14 mil. is a good deal for the club, even if his performance declines, as long as it declines slowly; and only the 'rotund' slugger types seem to drop off completely from one season to the next, Larry is probably fit enough to slow down slowing down. Hey, Sheffield makes $14 mil., and he just got released, so no big whoop, right? We'll be paying A-Rod $30 mil. when he's in his twilight years, and he's not even the face of the team now, let alone 10 years from now. Well, he might be the face of the team to rival fans, I guess.

I've said it before, I'll say it again. I miss Brosius.

David said...

That's the thing, though--at that age, even the great ones tend to lose it pretty quick. Sheffield is a pretty good example--he was/is in good shape, and had the quickest bat I've ever seen. In 2005 (Yankees) he was 36, hit .291 with 34 homers and 123 RBI, which obviously is really good. The next year, he was mostly hurt. In '07, at age 38, he hit .265 with 25 homers, not worth whatever he made but still solid. Last year he hit .225 with 19 homers. This year he was cut.

As for A-Rod, I read something in New York mag last night on the Yankees that included a note that in 2017, he'll be pulling down $20 million while Nate Silver, the BP projections genius, thinks he'll hit four home runs.

Brosius: good people.