Look what people have to say about Larry Mahnken's commentary!
"Larry, can you be any more of a Yankee apologist?.... Just look past your Yankee myopia and try some objectivity." - Bernal Diaz
"Mr. Mahnken is enlightened." - cordially, as always,
"Wow, Larry. You've produced 25% of the comments on this thread and
said nothing meaningful. That's impressive, even for you." - Anonymous
"After reading all your postings and daily weblog...I believe you have truly become the Phil Pepe of this generation. Now this is not necessarily a good thing." - Repoz
"you blog sucks, it reeds as it was written by the queer son of mike lupica and roids clemens. i could write a better column by letting a monkey fuk a typewriter. i dont need no 181 million dollar team to write a blog fukkk the spankeees" - yan
"i think his followers have a different sexual preference than most men" - bob
"Boring and predictable." - No Guru No Method
"Are you the biggest idiot ever?" - Randal
"I'm not qualified to write for online media, let alone mainstream
media." - Larry Mahnken
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August 23, 2003
by Larry Mahnken
I am a stathead.
I'm fairly positive that a lot of my readers are not statheads, particuarly because I've been referenced and linked to on websites that one would not expect to be frequented by statheads. Those readers will, in many cases, look at the above statement as if it were some confession of sin. To those readers who are statheads, or those who understand what being a stathead entails, it is a declaration of the fact that I seek objective information about baseball, rather than taking things on faith. As I've become a stathead in the past year and a half, one of the most amazing things that I've learned is that most people who are fans of baseball, a large percentage of people who write or report on baseball, and a substantial number of people who run baseball teams don't know nearly as much about baseball as they think they do, and in many, many cases, don't know very much at all.
I have a friend, Rob, who is an ardent defender against criticism towards Derek Jeter. Today he said to me that he doesn't object to me saying that Derek Jeter isn't a good defensive player, just that I say he's a lousy defensive player. Why? Because Rob played shortstop in high school and at junior college, and he knows what it's like to play shortstop, and he can tell by watching Derek Jeter that he's not a bad defensive player.
Bullshit. First of all, Derek Jeter is not a bad defensive shortstop, he's a bad defensive shortstop for a major leaguer. I'm sure he would be awesome playing for a junior college team. Just because you played shortstop at some level doesn't mean that you can evaluate, on sight, a major league player. They're all better than you ever were. Second, just because you played the game doesn't mean you know what makes a good player, or wins ball games. Joe Morgan was perhaps the greatest second baseman that ever lived. I rest my case. And third, at the major league level, seeing is not believing. There are great players who look awful in the field, and awful players who look wonderful. To tell the difference between them, you have to observe what they do vigilantly for weeks and weeks, by which time your memory will likely become subjective and mislead you.
Unless, of course, you keep a detailed record of what you see. Which is what statistics are.
And the statistics tell us that Derek Jeter is a lousy defensive shortstop for a major league baseball player. Sure, there are tremendous deficiencies in defensive statistics, but if you understand what they're saying, and the degree of accuracy with with they say them, you can see that there is no way to pervert the statistics to tell you that Derek Jeter is anything better than an average shortstop--and that's only if you assume that the statistics overvalue everything that Jeter does poorly and undervalue everything that Jeter does well. That's quite an assumption.
But I've also learned that people have a hard time letting go of their beliefs, even in the face of irrefutable evidence. This is true of all people, including statheads. For people that don't understand baseball statistics, their initial reaction is to attack the entire concept of baseball statistics.
You can make statistics say anything you want. There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics!
You can't make statistics say anything you want, they will always say what they say. You can, however, tell people that the statistics say something that they don't, and perhaps convince people to believe you more readily than they would if you didn't show numbers. This is the worst kind of lie, the lie backed up by apparent proof. Stats don't lie, people lie by taking statistics out of context, and removing all meaning from them.
"Ruben Sierra has a .545 batting average against Buddy Groom."
If you tell somebody that, you're going to get their attention. It tells them, if Buddy Groom is in the game, bring Ruben Sierra in! He's batting .545! Apparently, someone told Joe Torre that last night, and when the Orioles brought Buddy Groom in to pitch to Nick Johnson with the bases loaded, two outs and the Orioles leading 4-3, out went Johnson and in came Sierra! After all, he was batting .545 against Buddy Groom. .545!
Add to that the fact that Johnson was a left-handed batter--and had batted .200 against Groom, and you've got a perfect pinch hitting situation!
And so goes the lie.
The truth: Ruben Sierra was 6 for 11 against Buddy Groom with five singles, one triple, and no walks. Nick Johnson was 1 for 5 against Groom with 1 double and no walks. If there was ever a sabermetric principle to come into play here it is the one called "Voros' Law":
That Sierra was hitting .545 against Groom was irrelevant. That Johnson had hit .200 was even more so. Far more relevant was their past record against left handed batters.
Sierra's career OPS against lefties is .815, Johnson's is .738. Of course, if you just take Sierra's last four seasons, Sierra's OPS against lefties drops to .761. Still, it's quite a bit higher than Nick Johnson's, so going with Sierra was the right move there, right? Dear God, no.
Another thing sabermetrics has taught me is that the MOST important thing for a batter to do is to NOT MAKE AN OUT. Everything after that is a different degree of good, but any type of out is always a bad thing. With the bases loaded and two outs, it becomes even more important that a batter NOT make an out, because while an out loses the game, getting on base in any fashion ties it. While a hit would probably win the game, merely getting on base is of such a high importance that OBP almost completely outweighs SLG, to the point where it's not worth mentioning anymore. Nick Johnson's OBP against lefties is .373, Sierra's is .339 for his career, .328 since 2000. Even further, Nick Johnson's OBP vs. lefties this season is .396 (in 48 PAs), which still falls under Voros' Law, but the fact that Johnson's overall OBP has risen from .347 last year to .431 this year would indicate that the .373 against lefties is probably a little low.
With the bases loaded and two outs in the ninth inning, down by one run, there are two players on the roster that the Yankees should want to see at the plate: Jason Giambi, and Nick Johnson. They had Nick Johnson at the plate. The situation was absolutely perfect. And Joe Torre took him out, and one pitch later, the game was over and the Yankees had lost. But that wasn't the worst of it.
No, it wasn't. The worst of it was that Joe Torre didn't think he had done anything wrong. Ruben Sierra was the man they wanted up there, a righty hitter against Groom who had batted .545 against him! It didn't occur to him that he had just pinch hit a mediocre hitter who was poorly suited for the situation for the second best hitter on the team--and a hitter perfectly suited for the situation.
Joe Torre has won four World Series as the manager of the Yankees, and two Manager of the Year Awards. He won 125 games in 1998, a record 14 straight World Series games, and eleven straight postseason series. His team has the best record in the American League. And yet, sometimes, it appears that he has no idea what he's doing.
- He bats Alfonso Soriano, with the worst OBP on the team and the third highest Isolated Power, leadoff.
- He pinch-runs for Jason Giambi, the best hitter in the American League, in tied games.
- He brings his ace relief pitcher into the game anytime there is a save situation, without fail.
- He loses faith in young relief pitchers quickly, and gains faith slowly, as was the case with Jason Anderson and Randy Choate.
- He wastes roster space on players with no value, like Todd Zeile, Clay Bellinger and Luis Sojo.
Joe Torre is not a numbers guy, he's said that. He usually ignores the numbers, unless they really stand out, and then he might make a decision based upon them. .545 is a number that might stand out to Joe Torre, and might have motivated him to bring Ruben Sierra to bat for Nick Johnson, regardless of the fact that the .545 was in only 11 ABs and was mostly singles--a telltale sign that it was pure luck. Well, the only thing worse than a manager who makes decisions that the numbers say is clearly wrong is a manager who uses the numbers wrong. If you don't understand statistics, you're better off just ignoring them altogether.
Of course, maybe Torre did ignore the statistics. Maybe he really thought that Ruben Sierra was a better option in that situation than Nick Johnson. And if he did, he's an idiot.
To be fair, the Yankees were likely to lose that game even with Nick Johnson up, because he was still more likely to make an out than not. Only Barry Bonds would have swung the odds in the Yankees favor. But putting Sierra in the game over Johnson decreased the Yankees' chances of tying the game by at least 4.5%, and maybe as much as 8%--a signficant swing. It was a stupid, stupid move that was made unforgivable by Torre's failure to see its stupidity.
Managers don't win games, players win games. A great manager can make his team play a little better, and can utilize his players in the most efficient manner to maximize their chances of winning. But if a manager tries too hard to make moves, he can cost his team many games, so the smartest managers know that it's best to stay out of the way, and let the players play. Right now, the Yankees have a 6 game lead, they can afford to take some chances, they can afford to lose some games. But in the postseason, and in future seasons, they won't have that luxury, and they'll need a manager who understands that those trophies weren't because of him, but because of the 25 guys he's getting paid to direct. They'll need a manager who understands that Alfonso Soriano is the worst leadoff hitter in baseball, and that Nick Johnson is one of the best hitters in baseball. Someone who understands that a slight increase in a baserunner's ability to advance an extra base on a hit is not worth removing the best hitter in the league from your lineup.
I'm not talking about someone who has read Moneyball and Bill James, or uses statistics to decide everything they do. I'm talking about someone who realizes that if a managerial decision does not clearly increase your chances of winning, then it's not a decision that should be made. Casey Stengel was that type of manager, Earl Weaver was that type of manager. Joe Torre is not that type of manager. I'm not saying that he should be fired, and I'm not saying that the Yankees should let him go in the offseason. But I am saying that if they do, I'm not going to shed any tears over it.