Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Poor and Predictable SABR coverage on MLB-N

At least three quick disclaimers at the top:

1) I first saw this at another blog, linked at the bottom
2) I'm big friends with several people at BP, and friends with Matt Vasgersian
3) Other than Matt being an ex-Padre announcer, this isn't about SD sports

Putting three ex-players on a studio set isn't going to make anyone smarter.  MLB Network takes a stab at understanding Baseball Prospectus' statistical projection system, known as PECOTA, on their MLB Tonight show, and they swing and miss miserably.  

What's the matter with this handling of the topic?  Let me count the ways...

First, the "chalkboard" walk-through of PECOTA goes out of its way to sound obscure and confusing.  Phenotypic attributes?  This could be partially BP's fault, for an overly wonkish explanation of PECOTA, but there is no understanding of how these 4 metrics are used to predict future performance.  There is no presentation of how successful PECOTA has been in 6 years at actually predicting what happened.  Just a "balanced" intro (some find it gospel, others overkill) and then a quick zip through some confusing stuff, wham bam!  PECOTA explained.  Now, let's present and discuss!

So they put 4 projections for the year on a graphic.  Kevin Youkilis is going to hit .275-20-82, CC Sabathia (or is it C.C. again this year?) is going to win 15 games exactly, etc.  No mention of how PECOTA actually shows a range of performance.  A high-middle-low projection.  A breakout and collapse rate.  Useless little "details" or "facts", which we will quickly learn are not welcome in the upcoming discussion.

Now, Matt comes out of this and immediately frames the discussion.  "This is always controversial stuff..."  He then gives a disclaimer shout-out to Baseball Prospectus, and then turns to the player 'pen for "expert analysis".  

Sean Casey: an ex-player who was signed by a scout
Barry Larkin: an ex-player who was signed by a scout
Harold Reynolds: an ex-player who was signed by a scout

Shockingly, this trio agrees that stats "can't tell a player's heart", that "stats are ridiculous" because there's a "game inside the game", and that "stats have a place", and that place is the arbitration hearing, not the clubhouse.  

Do any of these three players have any idea whatsoever what PECOTA is?  Of course not.  

Question for the MLB Network: where is the BP representative?  Where's NATE SILVER??  You know, the guy who created PECOTA?  Same guy who accurately predicted the election last year on FiveThirtyEight.com?  AND made multiple national TV appearances last year?  Don't you think there should be at least one person on the set who knows what they're talking about if they're going to devote 6+ minutes to a topic?  

Matt is stuck in a ridiculous position.  He's the only one on the panel who can even defend statistical analysis or PECOTA, and he's the moderator.  A moderator who then commits a massive error by putting up a straw man for the panel to knock down: (at 4:01 in video)

"If you had one thing to trust though, and you had to make ONE CHOICE, do you believe the guy with the calculator or the guy with the straw hat and the stopwatch that's at the ballpark, YOU CAN ONLY PICK ONE."  (caps my emphasis)

Matt!  YOU DON'T HAVE TO PICK ONE!  That's the whole point!  Sabermetrics and scouting both belong in EVERY major league front office!  Nobody has to pick one.  That's like asking the president, "if you can only pick one, the facts and intelligence on your desk or your gut instinct, what do you choose?"  The answer is: STUPID!  I use everything!  

But asking three guys who were each started on their path to MLB, millions of dollars and an eventual seat on a players' panel at MLB Network by a SCOUT SIGNING THEM, whether they'd pick a "guy with a calculator" or a scout, you are asking a really silly question.  And again, this is a direct by-product of having not a single person in the discussion who is actually knowledgable about the topic.  

I know Matt knows the benefits of sabermetric analysis and he offers a couple of valid counterpoints in the discussion but basically he's offering the classic false-neutral position which devalues the debate some more.

Fox News has had better in-depth analysis than this, although actually the similarities are strikingly familiar.  


  1. C'mon Craig? Phenotypic attributes! The PECOTA acronym falls apart with out the "P" word to get it going (you know the Bill 'PECOTA' acronym was picked first and then they broke out the thesaurus!)

    Did you ever talk to your friend regarding Strasburg's mechanics? I know you kind of debunked the guy's argument at Driveline but I still see the same arguments going around about his delivery being Peavy/Smoltz/Prior-ish and him being a dangerous pick.

    It has to be a concern that the Ks drive his pitch count WAY up there...

  2. Will hasn't written specifically on Strasburg. SDSU's pitching coach defended Strasburg's mechanics on Saturday's pregame show. I have heard that Scott Boras put Strasburg through every one of those prehab tests (where you put on the video game suit with all those ping pong balls attached and get your mechanics broken down via computer model) and that they were satisfied with the results.

    ANY pitcher who relies on a slider all the time, I'm going to schedule a surgery at some point in their career. But a safe pick? The only thing that's a minus on Strasburg is signability. If you have the dough, he's the most obvious #1 in a while.

  3. Agree with you on the use of the slider. Tommy Johns usually add a few mph to the fastball anyway so 105mph should make SS even more marketable.

    If he fell to #3 and the Padres didn't take him I'd be awfully disappointed.

  4. Great post Craig! We need more people pointing out the shoddy journalism, in sports as well as in the political arena, that seems to be the result of execs in charge thinking none of us have taken a critical thinking class.

    If only more people would take some critical thinking classes...