June 9, 2009


Sean West has exactly the attitude I would have if I were a pitcher:
""I try to throw a no-hitter every start," West said. "If a hit comes up, I try to throw a one-hitter. If two hits come up, I try to throw a two-hitter, and so on."
Yeah, I'm a perfectionist. But I accept that reality is not always perfect.

* * *

One of my favorite bloggers/writers (is there a difference?) is Joe Posnanski. He is a long-time Kansas City Royals beat reporter for the Kansas City Star. I voraciously read his blog (when I have the time; his posts are usually quite long) and have been doing so for over a year now. He is a phenomenal writer; insightful, interesting, intelligent and thought-provoking. He crafts beautiful prose and tells wonderful stories on his blog. I have recommended his blog to a couple friends of mine who also enjoy baseball.

What's interesting though is that I own his book and read it, and I really don't like it. The subject is Buck O'Neil, a 95-year old baseball enthusiast and former Negro Leagues player who was inexplicably passed over for induction into the Hall of Fame induction right before his death. Perhaps because of the subject matter, it feels manufactured and overly sentimental; although I know it was crafted with love, it feels like a "human interest story" on the evening news. The writing is a lot more clipped and formal; one of the things I love about Joe's blog is that he goes off on random tangents. You can really tell he is a stream-of-consciousness writer (gee -- wonder why I might identify with that trait), and I suppose that gets lost when you add an editor and publishing house into the equation. In the book it felt like he was trying too hard to tell a story. I'd rather him just extemporaneously tell it, and I get that on his blog.

He's got another book coming out in September; I will buy it because I love Joe and the subject (The 1975-76 Cincinnati Reds, nicknamed "The Big Red Machine" for their overpowering style of play and, um, the color of their uniforms), but I'm not expecting great things.

Anyway, I bring up Joe because of a blog post he made recently. In it, he extols the value of the walk as a very underrated offensive weapon a team has at its disposal. This is nothing new; he constantly writes about how the Royals players don't walk at all and how that hurts them in the win column. (In fact, that is the subject of his blog post.)

I agree with Joe completely; lots of fans and analysts seemingly dislike the walk because it doesn't advance a runner (unless there's a force at the lead base), and, well, there's no action -- no thwack of the bat, no heart-stopping rush to beat the throw to first, etc. But I think the walk is nothing to be sneezed at.

In the blog post Joe puts together a table to analyze how often teams win when they don't walk. It's easy to find this data with sites like BBRef and Retrosheet around to catalog every pitch of every game played since 1958 (I'm not joking; this is literally what they do. I often think baseball should be divided into two eras: BR (before Retrosheet) and AR (after Retrosheet)) and offer it to you sliced any way you want it. So Joe puts together the table and finds out that as the number of walks a team gets goes up, its winning percentage (e.g. the % of times it won that particular game) goes up. If a team doesn't walk at all in a game, it wins the game 30% of the time. If a team walks six times in a game, it wins the game 64% of the time. And so on.

So clearly if you walk a lot you have a better chance of winning a game -- right? Unfortunately, the real answer is "I dunno." Joe falls victim to the ol' correlation vs. causation trap. He has shown that lots of walks and a high winning percentage appear together pretty consistently (he ran the study over 5 years' worth of games and noticed no wild swings in the numbers) -- which is good to know, and I think intuitively it makes sense that the more times you get on base (via a walk, hit, whatever) the better chance you have to win that game. This is, after all, one of the premises underlying Moneyball (sheesh I still can't believe there's going to be a movie about that). But although he never claims to have found causation, he sort of leaves the issue twisting in the wind. I infer he meant to imply causation because the entire theme of his post is how great walks are -- so to me he is starting the post with an agenda and then finding data to support it.

I say all this not to denigrate Joe. He's an amazing writer and a really smart guy. I just had to vent a bit. It's so hard to get past that CvC trap!! I would have thought he would have acknowledged it in the post.

Talking about correlation and causation makes me think of this beautiful xkcd comic:

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