June 26, 2009

"We Haven't Figured Out Anything Yet"

Dave Cameron, Fangraphs, talking about David Ortiz:
The list of guys who have been written off as over the hill and then shoved that right back in everyone's face is long and distinguished. You would think that eventually, we'd learn our lesson. There may be a point at which a major league player just loses enough of his ability to stop being productive, but we suck at figuring out when that point is. We're so bad at it that we should just stop trying.

We haven't figured out what numbers show that a player is truly washed up. We haven't figured out what it looks like when that happens. We haven't figured out how to combine scouting and statistical analysis to give us a warning before a player heads off the cliff. All we've figured out is how to guess wrong a lot.
That reminded me of a Bill James quote from a March 2005 interview he did with SoSH:
I believe in a universe that is too complex for any of us to really understand. Each of us has an organized way of thinking about the world -- a paradigm, if you will -- and we need those, of course; you can't get through the day unless you have some organized way of thinking about the world. But the problem is that the real world is vastly more complicated than the image of it that we carry around in our heads.
The SoSH interview is no longer online, but there is a bit more of it here.

There there are these James quotes from a legnthy Freakonomics Q&A:
If a player used steroids, this could cause his home run total to explode at an advanced age — but so could weight training, Lasix surgery, better bats, playing in a different park, a great hitting coach, or a good divorce. It is almost always impossible to infer specific causes from general effects. ...

I would say generally that baseball statistics are always trying to mislead you, and that it is a constant battle not to be misled by them. ...

[W]e do horrible analysis sometimes. There will never be a shortage of B.S. What we do, essentially, is to pick up things that people say and ask "Is that true?" This can be done with regard to almost anything — any sport, including politics. The people who analyze politics on television say absolutely ridiculous things with a frequency that would make the laziest baseball announcer look like Socrates by comparison. ...

People who think that they know when a manager should bunt and when a manager should pitch out and when a manager should make a pitching change are amateurs. People who have actually studied these issues know that the answer disappears in a cloud of untested variables. ...

We haven't figured out anything yet. A hundred years from now, we won't have begun to have the game figured out. ...

10 comments:

Amy said...

Great quotes from James. And what he says applies to so much more than just baseball.

L-girl said...

Excellent! Thank you for posting. And: what Amy said.

In the purely baseball sense, I wish more people understood what Bill James and his followers, like you, are actually trying to do.

Not long ago someone showed up on JoS to announce "This is baseball. Facts have nothing to do with it." and "Stats can't predict the future." That kind of ignorance of even the intent behind the analysis is so common.

andy said...

yeds

Woti-woti said...

Yeah, good stuff, I can never get enough of Bill James, the 'anti-gasbag'. To me, the elephant in the room is always 'luck'. The more baseball I watch, the more I find myself muttering about luck, or lack thereof. Then there are slumps and hot streaks ...

Curtis said...

Here's Dashiell Hammett's version of Bill James's point, from The Dain Curse:

"Nobody thinks clearly, no matter what they pretend. Thinking's a dizzy business, a matter of catching as many of those foggy glimpses as you can and fitting them together the best you can. That's why people hang on so tight to their beliefs and opinions; because, compared to the haphazard way in which they're arrived at, even the goofiest opinion seems wonderfully clear, sane and self-evident. And if you let it get away from you, then you've got to dive back into that foggy muddle to wrangle yourself out another to take its place."

Ish said...

We all know this is a game of inches. Hell, this is a game of millimetres. If the ball and the bat have only a few millimetres more contact or less contact - if the ball is spinning just the tinest bit more or less...If it breaks a centimetre more or less... That can make all the difference.

The physics alone behind everything that goes into hitting the ball, where it goes and what happens when it gets there is astonishing. There are trends we can use to try to predict what will happen or try to analyze what's happening now but in the end it can all come down to a couple millimetres here or there.

redsock said...

I liked what Cameron said, but this was also an excuse to post some James quotes!

Also, here is David Foster Wallace saying similar things about tennis, from an old essay on Michael Joyce ("The String Theory"):

I submit that tennis is the most beautiful sport there is and also the most demanding. It requires body control, hand-eye coordination, quickness, flat-out speed, endurance, and that weird mix of caution and abandon we call courage. It also requires smarts. Just one single shot in one exchange in one point of a high-level match is a nightmare of mechanical variables. Given a net that's three feet high (at the center) and two players in (unrealistically) fixed positions, the efficacy of one single shot is determined by its angle, depth, pace, and spin. And each of these determinants is itself determined by still other variables — i.e., a shot's depth is determined by the height at which the ball passes over the net combined with some integrated function of pace and spin, with the ball's height over the net itself determined by the player's body position, grip on the racket, height of backswing and angle of racket face, as well as the 3-D coordinates through which the racket face moves during that interval in which the ball is actually on the strings. The tree of variables and determinants branches out and out, on and on, and then on much further when the opponent's own position and predilections and the ballistic features of the ball he's sent you to hit are factored in. No silicon-based RAM yet existent could compute the expansion of variables for even a single exchange; smoke would come out of the mainframe. The sort of thinking involved is the sort that can be done only by a living and highly conscious entity, and then it can really be done only unconsciously, i.e., by fusing talent with repetition to such an extent that the variables are combined and controlled without conscious thought. In other words, serious tennis is a kind of art."

***

Zenslinger said...

Great quote, Curtis. It's funny how Hammett would have these philosophical asides in his novels, total non sequiturs in terms of the story, but very insightful into human nature. There is one in The Maltese Falcon as well that is pretty cool.

(DFW quote is nice as well.)

L-girl said...

I like the Dashiell Hammett and the DFW.

Nothing in the world could ever make me enjoy watching tennis, but I love the way Wallace writes about it.

If you read these quotes a certain way, they undermine what James and his disciples want to do. "It's a mystery" needs somehow to be balanced with "How much can we know?" and "Do we really know what we think we know?".

LJCohen said...

I have always maintained that Baseball is the sport where Physics meets Poetry.

:)

I dare anyone to be able to account for all the statistical variance in that match up.