The Stats Geeks vs. the Feelings Freaks

By | August 15, 2006

I am not picking on Buster Olney, really I’m not. I read his blog every day, and I enjoy his insider information. I have nothing against the guy at all. He’s not arrogant or stupid like certain Joe Morgans I could name. He’s not a homer for any particular team (even though he gets accused of being a homer for just about every team). He is generally fair and articulate.

(Although, while we’re on the articulate topic, he has a very annoying habit of omitting the opening “I” at the beginnings of sentences. A couple examples from Monday’s blog entry:

  • “Felt bad for Luke Hudson as he went through the pitcher’s ultimate nightmare.”
  • “Watched a lot of this game and Maddux had so much movement on these pitches that the Giants’ hitters looked like kids trying to hit bugs with a flyswatter.”

Not the worst thing in the world, but annoying.)

So anyway, like I said, I am not picking on Buster, but he bugged me again today in his chat. It started with this question and answer exchange:

Mike (Rye, NY): So, if I remember correctly, Derek Jeter is the most overrated player in baseball, right?

Buster Olney: Mike: yeah, I heard that one myself. As I tell all my of friends who make this statistical argument to me: Just watch the games. He makes plays, he gets hits, he relishes a big spot.

First of all, let’s get this out of the way immediately: I have never heard anyone make a statistical argument that Derek Jeter is the most overrated player in baseball. The one area where most intelligent people agree Jeter is overrated — defense — is admittedly the hardest part of baseball to come up with statistics for. But we’ll get back to that in a minute. (There was a recent poll of 470 Major League players, in which Jeter was named “Most Overrated,” which may be what Mike and Buster were talking about. Of course, the less-publicized thing about that poll is that Jeter “won” that title with only nine percent of the votes — only 42 of the 470 players named Jeter as the most overrated. And, as Ken Rosenthal points out, the vast majority of those 42 players are certainly making less money than Jeter, so jealousy may play a part.)

A couple minutes after the previous exchange, there was this:

Nathan Jones (NY, NY): Buster, I watch the games. And I watch all those groundballs go right by Jeter for singles. Other shortstops catch those balls, maybe you should be watching them play.

Buster Olney: Nathan: OK, so you’re telling me Jeter stinks. OK. I don’t get it, never have, never will. You’ll probably tell me that David Ortiz isn’t clutch, either, right? Because the numbers say so?

It seems like Buster derailed at this point. Nathan’s point — correct or not — was that when he watches Jeter play, it looks like there are grounders that he doesn’t get to that he should. Buster’s response? “You kids with your stats! Get off my lawn! Pull your pants up! Get a haircut, hippie!”

Here’s the crux of the “Jeter is overrated” argument: Jeter has won two consecutive Gold Glove awards, and there is strong sentiment that he should not have won them. John Dewan recently wrote a book, The Fielding Bible, which attempts to come up with some statistical analysis for defense. In that book, he says this:

I think it is easier to see an infielder and feel that he looks good and wins a Gold Glove because he looks good, as opposed to actually making the plays. What we are doing in this system is measuring how often they make the plays. So a guy like Derek Jeter who won the last two Gold Gloves, I feel he shouldn’t have won them.

He has a lot of different skills as a shortstop that make him a good shortstop. But he is not the best.

I strongly believe that Jeter was not the best defensive shortstop in the American League the past two seasons. (For that matter, I don’t think he was the best defensive shortstop in his own infield, but right now may not be the best time for me to try to talk up A-Rod’s defense.) But it seems to have gotten to a point where Jeter is both overrated and underrated. Maybe it’s part of playing for the Yankees or something, but it seems like almost everyone either thinks he can do no wrong or he can do no right, neither of which (of course) is true.

But in Buster Olney’s mind, this has become a statistical issue. I am used to guys like Joe Morgan spewing the anti-stats vitriol, but I had never seen this side of Buster before, and I don’t like it.

Here’s the thing about stats: they tell some amazing stories, and when used responsibly, the stories are remarkably accurate. Are they the end-all, be-all of baseball analysis? Of course not. Stats can be just as tainted by personal bias and emotion as anything else. But the thing is, bad stats can be disproven easily, whereas bad “gut feelings” stick around forever.

Anyone who tells you that statistics are the only way to analyze baseball is wrong. Anyone who tells you statistical analysis has no place in intelligent discussion about baseball is wrong. Neither person is more wrong than the other, and neither person will ever have a complete view of the game of baseball. That’s right, I said it: I know things about baseball that Joe Morgan will never know, no matter how good a ballplayer he was, because he refuses to acknowledge the role of statistical analysis in the game.

That brings us back to Derek Jeter. Is he overrated? Well, he is definitely overrated by the people who vote for the Gold Glove, but they also gave a Gold Glove to Bobby “I’m Slightly Better Than Manny Ramirez in the Outfield” Abreu last year, and they once gave a Gold Glove to Rafael Palmeiro for a season in which he played 28 games in the field. If they insist on not being taken seriously, I am not going to get too upset about them overrating Jeter.

Is Jeter underrated? Sure. Some people come to the conclusion that because he is the worst defensive shortstop in baseball, he is a terrible player. That’s what we call using a false fact to come to a false conclusion. Jeter is not the worst shortstop in baseball, and he is not a terrible player. He plays hard all the time, which in an of itself is an asset to a team. He is a great hitter — not a good hitter, a greathitter — who may end up with 4,000 hits before he is done playing. He isn’t a great overall defensive player, but he is great at certain aspect of defense like chasing down popups. He gets on base and scores runs and drives in runs. He provides leadership on a team full of highly paid superstars.

There is statistical evidence of Jeter’s greatness. Thanks to John Dewan, there is also statistical evidence of his defensive flaws. Maybe an errant statistic killed Buster Olney’s dog when he was a kid, but whatever the cause, he needs to get over his statistical anger.

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