01 April 2014

In Praise of Diversity in Birdland

With the excitement of a successful opening day fresh in our minds, a common feeling across Birdland is that anything is possible from this point forward. This contrasts with the dread that was felt for much of the cold winter in Baltimore. Pieces finally fell into place in the guises of Ubaldo Jimenez and Nelson Cruz and spring training brought more hope as the club escaped without any significant injury and 22-year-old Jonathan Schoop emerged as the second-best hitting second baseman in March. Opening day further solidified the surging emotional tidal wave as the club outbattled the Red Sox to claim first place in the American League East.

However, my writing as well as anything you find at Camden Depot, tries to slough off sentimentality and emotional pinning as we try to eliminate our natural bias. Our goal is to determine what data can and cannot say. Numbers really should not be feared and disregarded, but merely considered one of the useful tools at your disposal to assess a situation. With proper methodology and metadata, statistics can only inform.

Yesterday, we reported on the results of our projection model, and a few weeks prior, we reported on the past performance of these projection models. What we found is that a projection has a standard deviation of 9.3 wins. In other words, the Orioles have a ZiPS projection of 84 wins. It is expected that 68 percent of the team that teams with a projection of 84 wins wind up with a record between 75 and 93 wins. Above 93 wins, a number that has a likely wild card or dvision crown, carries a probability of 16 percent. A team with a projection of 75 wins would have a probability associated with them of getting more than 93 wins at 2 percent. Although the range reported looks meaningless at first, where the team is anchored on that win spectrum actually illustrates how useful it is to use these tools as a baseline.

Still, I imagine that previous paragraph will cause some gnashing of teeth and fingers slamming down a response on a keyboard. Modernism is rarely looked kindly upon in baseball or in the real world. Henry Chadwick was derided for coming up with the first box score. Others were criticized for professionalizing the game. Catchers were made fun of for trying to be safe. Earl Weaver was scoffed at for using statistics.

Junichiro Tanizaki’s “In Praise of Shadows,” an essay that contemplates traditional aesthetics in Japan against the encroachment of Western values, provides one of the more memorable ruminations compared the exquisite use of shadows and soft lines in traditional bathrooms as opposed to the brash, bright lights of Western restrooms that eliminate softness and texture and emphasize sterility. Tanizaki applied this confrontation of perspectives beyond bathrooms and to paper making, architecture, and use of space. This consideration of perspective also works with baseball.

With baseball, one can have a layered experience. You can exist on an emotional level, living by the moment out by out, game by game, and full of unyielding hope or crushing despair. You can exist on a mindful level, which is what Tanizaki praises, appreciating the nuance of the game on the field, but purposefully unaware of the intricate inner workings. You can also exist on a brightly lit level to elucidate the mechanisms that lay behind what we see on the field. None of these are the right way to experience baseball. There is no right way.

Personally, I lean on mindfulness and mechanistic perspectives. I try to be a data scientist. I try to figure out what is more telling for a pitcher, pitcher independent measures (i.e., home runs, strikeouts, walks) or those where the defense is in play. Watching on television or at the game, I strive for mindfulness. notice the grass, the actions of the players, the sounds, and all else that is part of the experience. I ignore the statistics and let the events unfold as they are presented. Emotion seeps in through the cracks with a rising pulse and a peculiar affection to a set of laundry. As such, I am aware of the projections. I do know the long road ahead and how this club more likely sits at home in October than in the postseason. I also know that there is a decent chance that I will be quite mindful of baseball in Baltimore this fall.

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