Thursday, August 28, 2008

Setting the baseball blogosphere on fire

A friend of mine posted to my facebook that I had "set the [Toronto Blue] Jays blogosphere on fire" with a question I wrote to The Toronto Star's resident baseball expert, Richard Griffin. I thought he was just gently mocking me for having been a neurotic enough baseball fan that I wrote the letter in the first place, but it seems like people have actually latched on to my question and Griffin's response - most of the comments (which are at the bottom of that link to the blog) that readers have posted are in support of my position, the blog Drunk Blue Jays Fans wrote a satirical game report based on Griffin's reasoning, and the question and answer has been picked up on the sports journalism blog FIRE JOE MORGAN. (Catchphrase: "Where Bad Sports Journalism Comes to Die")

Now the response was a bad one, though not because he gave a poor answer to my question. Rather, it was that the answer he supplied was to a question I didn't ask - I was questioning the reasoning behind the expression "a career year" for a given player, (in this case A.J. Burnett) and Griffin's response didn't address how or why the term it used, instead pouncing on my use of fantasy baseball language and chiding me obsessing over statistics.

The irony, of course, was that Griffin attempted to undercut my argument that Burnett's "career year" has actually been his worst year by producing more (and, I should add, more problematic) statistics - he arbitrarily divided Burnett's season in 7 "bad" starts and 22 "good" starts, arguing that the 22 good starts make him worthy of "career year" status. And the numbers do look good - Burnett has an ERA over 10 in the bad starts, while it's just under 3 in the good ones.

But, unsurprisingly, jettisoning the poorest 1/4 of a pitcher's outings makes any and every pitcher look far better. I posted a few examples of how this logic can be used for every pitcher to Griffin's blog, ending with the most damning example: Barry Zito. Zito, for those who don't follow baseball particularly closely, is in the 2nd year of a 7 year contract in which he is being paid about $20 million per annum to produce statistics which rank him among the worst starting pitchers in professional baseball. And while he's improved since a horrific 0-8 start, it looks like he's improved dramatically when I apply Griffin's formula: he's 8-15 with a 5.31 ERA on the season, but 8-8 with a 3.49 ERA once we remove his worst 7 starts from throughout the season. Incidentally, he's 0-7, 12.56 in those games. (Now we could do something that's not arbitrary at all and remove those first 9 games in which he went 0-8 and suggest that he's made improvements since then. But that's not what Griffin did so I won't do it either.)

I probably enjoy baseball math too much. But it's like any other discourse - if you're going to jump in and play, you should at least know the language well enough to spot the bad rhetoric.

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