April 25, 2015

Pointless: A Pitcher's Career Stats Against A Team

It's a part of every baseball broadcast you have ever heard - and will ever hear.

Before the game begins, or perhaps in the first inning, the announcer will recite each of the starting pitcher's career statistics against the team he is facing. He will tell you these numbers as though they mean something, as though they could shed light on what might occur during the game.

Those numbers can influence how we think during the game. If our pitcher has an 8.50 ERA against Team X, some small part of us might not feel strongly about his chances for success. Likewise, if our pitcher has a 1.15 ERA, we might think we have a very good chance at keeping the other team off the scoreboard.

However, those statistics are utterly worthless and completely meaningless. They are a waste of breath to say and a waste of energy to listen to. The announcer might as well give the starting pitcher's career numbers on the particular day of the week.

I have been wondering for years why announcers always give these career numbers. And I wonder whether they think about the words they send out over the air, and what those words might mean? It doesn't seem like they give much thought to what they are telling us, because if they did, they would immediately stop this practice.

If an announcer (or a fan) believes that a pitcher's career stats against a particular team is of some statistical or predictive value, then he or she is ascribing some measure of talent (or lack thereof) to the actual uniforms themselves. Players come and go, after all. It is the shirts and pants that are the only constant season after season.

Boston's Rick Porcello pitched against the Baltimore Orioles last night, Friday, April 24, 2015.

As Porcello faced his second batter of the first inning, NESN's Don Orsillo said, "Porcello, in his career, 3-6 with a 5.13 Earned Run Average against Baltimore." These statistics covered 10 games from 2009 to 2015, with no more than two starts against Baltimore in any season. During those seven seasons, Porcello pitched for two teams - Detroit and Boston - and so he faced the Orioles in three different ballparks: Comerica Park, Camden Yards, and Fenway Park.

What Orsillo never thought to ask himself was: Is there any predictive value for Friday's outing in mentioning what Porcello did for the Tigers years ago, including one day back in August 2009?

(Orsillo clearly gives little thought to most of what he says. Over the years, he has conditioned himself to describe certain things the exact same way night after night. And because he has these set ways of describing things, he will often use these descriptions even when the action on the field is contradictory to his words. (It's a disease I call Sterlingitis.) Describing an RBI single the exact same way every time is truly anti-baseball, since every play in every game is different to some degree. If Orsillo truly considered the words he said, as well as the rhythm and flow of the game, he wouldn't bludgeon us with inanities like the opposing reliever's walk/strikeout totals from his year in AA ball four years ago, or the exact days he was on the disabled list in 2013, especially while the Red Sox are mounting a late-inning rally.)

A sampling of his starts and some batters faced by Porcello:

August 6, 2009: Luke Scott, Aubrey Huff, Ty Wigginton
October 1, 2010: Jake Fox, Julio Lugo, Robert Andino
April 4, 2011: Vladimir Guerrero, Derrek Lee, J.J. Hardy
June 19, 2013: Taylor Teagarden, Nate McLouth
April 5, 2014: Nelson Cruz, Steve Lombardozzi

Obviously, none of those 13 batters were in Buck Showalter's lineup last night. In fact, even the lineup Porcello faced five days ago, on April 19, was not the same nine guys he faced last night - and so even those two consecutive starts cannot really be compared as equals.

I'd love to ask Orsillo directly: Do you really believe that how Porcello fared against Julio Lugo more than five years ago in any way offers even a modicum of insight into how he might do against the lineup he was facing on April 24, 2015?

I've given up wishing for a broadcast team that understands and shares the progressive attitudes of the Red Sox front office. NESN may now show a batter's on-base percentage when he comes to the plate, but Orsillo still acts like it doesn't exist. It's like he thinks if he cites it, he'll be fined $500  - or be banned from eating dessert in the media cafeteria.

But, honestly, any amount of common sense will never stop baseball announcers from citing these meaningless stats. They have to fill the silence with something. They grew up hearing older announcers do it - and so they do it. It has become part of what an announcer does. It likely isn't any more complicated than that. It certainly doesn't have to make sense.

Listen to the way announcers continue to cite a pitcher's win-loss record. And if a guy's record is 3-7, but his ERA is 2.90, they will invariably point out that his record is "really not indicative of how well he has pitched". And they will say that again and again and again and again and again over the months and seasons, and they will never consider, even one time, that perhaps a won-loss record is actually dependent upon many factors completely out of the pitcher's control and, therefore, is an extremely poor measure of his performance. And perhaps I could explain that to my listeners and then stop using won-loss records as though they are in any way meaningful.

Maybe that will happen. And maybe, as Charlie Brown often said in Peanuts, I'll flap my arms and fly to the moon.


Maxwell Horse said...

"And I wonder whether they think about the words they send out over the air, and what those words might mean? It doesn't seem like they give much thought to what they are telling us..."

I feel like 75% of the world's major problems would cease to exist if people in general approached life this way--actually questioning why long-held practices and beliefs are in place, and if there is any positive or logical reason for them to continue--rather than living as cognitive zombies, mindlessly parroting dogma. "Everyone knows" and "this is just the way things are" are two of the most insidiously evil phrases in the English language.

allan said...

Another thing that infuriates me: NESN relying on fielding percentage to rate how good or bad a team's fielding has been. Game after game after game Don and Jerry see hits scored as errors and errors scored as hits (and maybe they even understand that poor range will help a team's fielding percentage; fewer balls fielded = fewer chances to make an error) and still they cling to fielding percentage like a drowning man holds onto a life preserver.

allan said...

Things like this shouldn't "infuriate" me - that's a pretty strong word - but they do. The ignorance paraded around on NESN every night - and Don's and Jerry's seeming outright refusal to learn anything new - really pisses me off.

johngoldfine said...

"Things like this shouldn't "infuriate" me...."

Oh, why not? These guys are being paid well and are just phoning it in. And phoning it in damages the game because people listening aren't being enlightened or appreciating what's going on. Their keeping the world stupid when they have a chance to make people smarter is worthy of your fury.

Maxwell Horse said...

Something that constantly annoys me about NESN that isn't specifically related to the baseball coverage: Just how amateurish all their programming is.

I mean, they use the crappiest cameras. It all looks like something junior high kids conceived and shot purely to upload on Youtube, as opposed to it being the work of a major regional television network. Even the ads they show are typically the bottom of the barrel in terms of professionalism (unless they're for a national chain like Subway). I half expect Wayne and Garth to show up at some point.

SJJ said...

Don't forget that Remy and Orsillo refer to fielding percentage as "defense".