December 23, 2019

Book Review: Power Ball: Anatomy Of A Modern Baseball Game, By Rob Neyer

I've enjoyed and been impressed by Rob Neyer's writing for over 20 years. I was extremely jealous of him back in 1999 when he spent the summer in Boston attending every Red Sox home game and writing Feeding The Monster. His three Big Book(s) Of Baseball (Lineups, followed by Blunders and Legends (tracers!)) are insightful and entertaining, even educational.

I recently finished reading his latest book, Power Ball: Anatomy of a Modern Baseball Game, which won SABR's 2018 CASEY Award for the Best Baseball Book of the Year.

Using the framework of a late-season game in 2017 between the Astros and the Athletics (September 8, to be precise), Neyer explores and explains how major league baseball has changed over the last few decades. Along the way, he addresses the supposed ills of the game, such as extreme shifts. Neyer notes that the leagues' batting average on balls in play has barely budged in the new age of shifting - and, in fact, the entire idea of standard player positioning is a shift.

As HarperCollins, Neyer's publisher, states:
Over the past twenty years, power and analytics have taken over the game ... Seemingly every pitcher now throws mid-90s heat ... Every batter in the lineup can crack homers and knows their launch angles. Teams are relying on unorthodox strategies, including ... purposely tanking a few seasons to get the best players in the draft. As he chronicles each inning and the unfolding drama [of the game] ... Neyer considers the players and managers, the front office machinations, the role of sabermetrics, and the current thinking about what it takes to build a great team, to answer the most pressing questions fans have about the sport today.
I assumed I'd post a traditional review of Power Ball, but I found I was putting a post-it note on every third page (on average), noting a certain passage or observation. For the record, there were post-its on 80 different pages - and realized I'd be fussing with a lengthy (and positive) review for far too long. So I'm going to post a few snippets that I hope will give you a good feel for Neyer's writing style and the tone of the book. (And I love the cover, with its great use of the now-traditional online or on-screen strike zone box. It even includes a ball that may well be a low strike.)

The Human Element
The demise of the human element in umpiring seems terrifying too. Specifically, the prospect of "robot umpires" – which is a stupid term, but what are you gonna do? – who will call the balls and strikes. To an outside observer, it might seem odd: the idea that we actually want our game officials to make the wrong call roughly 10 percent of the time, as even the best human umpires do, when calling balls and strikes. ...

But the game was not designed, any more than any other game is designed, for the human element to include errors by the officials. If the men who invented Baseball could have eliminated umpires from their new sport, they would have. If they could have eliminated umpires' errors from their sport, they would have.

Today the people who run Baseball can eliminate those errors. Of at least a huge percentage of them. If the technology isn't ready yet, it could be soon.

When the human element can be removed, it will be removed ...

Robot umpires are coming, friends. Just as sure as tomorrow's sun. For the simple reason that today's technology, available to anyone with a cell phone or wi-fi, often makes it obvious when the umpire misses one, and nobody pays good money to see umpires be wrong. ...

Once that particular human element is gone, though, we'll still be blessed with the human element of players' training habits; the human element of pitch selection; the human element of guessing pitches; the human element of managers' cognitive biases; the human element of executives' and owners' emotions; and, oh, a few million other human elements that won't just disappear because a bunch of smart kids are writing code. Promise. [pp. 105-106]
I love using the term "robots", so naturally I was amused by Rob describing the term as "stupid" on one page and then using it himself (sans quotation marks) on the next!

On Statcast Data and Broadcasters
With Lowrie's long, loud third out [which ends the fifth inning with the Astros leading 7-3], the A's "win expectancy" stands at just 7.2 percent, according to the FanGraphs website, which generates a running graph for every major-league game. Because people like numbers—people with internet connections and favorite sports teams especially like numbers—the Win Expectancy charts have become popular, at least among the cognoscenti. It's potentially a pretty good "storytelling stat," if you're desperate for something like that. In fact, top-notch analyst (and now Major League Baseball Advanced Media staffer) Tom Tango has called Win Expectancy the ultimate story statistic.*

[* Win Expectancy, along with its cousin, Win Probability Added, has probably helped kill the sacrifice bunt for non-pitchers, since the actual numbers suggest that bunting doesn't improve your chances of winning, but actually lowers them a smidgen.]

Well, except usually it's not really much fun to drop a percentage into the middle of a story. Win Expectancy works well visually, when the line on the graph reverses itself a few times, or makes a huge jump (or fall) right at the end.

But if you're not FanGraphs or FiveThirtyEight, how often do you drop a graph into the middle of a story?

What's more, Win Expectancy leaves out much. As FanGraphs' glossary notes, "WE is the long-run average, however, so you need to remember that a 40% chance of winning is based on average players. If Miguel Cabrera is at the plate against Aaron Crow, the true odds favor the Tigers more than WE graph indicates."

Aaron Crow hasn't pitched in the majors since 2014. If you don't remember him, feel free to substitute Seth Maness or Nate Jones or Al Alburquerque. You can also swap in Jose Altuve for Cabrera if you want.

In the context of this game—the Astros have the better lineup, and the better bullpen—one might reasonably knock a percentage point or two off the A's true chance of winning this game. Either way, based purely on what we know, the home team now has roughly a 1 in 20 chance of winning this game.

Is this a thing worth knowing, if you're just a fan watching the game? I think for most fans, it probably is not. You might rather not know. Especially if you're a fan of the team that's losing. We know that fans tend to change the channel or go home if their team's almost certainly going to lose. I can understand how Win Expectancy would serve as a fine story stat. But only after the fact, and only in games with a big change, or changes. It's a tremendous comeback stat. Again: after the fact.

So? We're perfectly free to ignore Win Expectancy when it's not interesting, right? We are. I have greatly enjoyed entire seasons of baseball without seeing or hearing or reading about a single WE graph. At least until October, when curiosity does sometimes push me toward the (alas, context-free) percentages. And broadcasters, hardly interested in losing viewers and listeners, have no (good) reason to mention Win Expectancy during a game. They're far more likely to say something like, "Gee, if we can just get a few guys on base and somebody hits one out, things could get real interesting." Which of course happens less often, even in today's game, than they want us to think.

Win Expectancy, then, is the perfect Postmodern Baseball statistic: it's there when you want it—when it's interesting or useful, however rarely that might be—but the rest of the time it's not there. [JoS: In Power Ball, it's there. Each half-inning in the book ends with both the score and the Win Probability of the team leading or, if the score is tied, the team about to bat.]

I wish we could say the same about the new Statcast numbers that have so quickly weaseled their way into the broadcasts. Especially the national broadcasts; so far, only a few local broadcasts have incorporated the Statcast data (although the Astros' TV crew seems to be among the enthusiasts).

As Keith Hernandez writes, "I wonder what [Yogi Berra] and some of the other old-timers would say if they heard some of the broadcasters in the game today. Too many of them emphasize all these crazy stats, like 'exit velocity,' trajectory angles,' or, and this is my favorite, 'percentage rate of someone making a catch.' His probable rate of making that play was seventy-six percent!' Give me a break. Who cares how many miles per hour the ball traveled once it left the bat, or how high the ball traveled in degrees, or how many seconds it took to leave the ballpark?"

Hernandez does possess some self-awareness, also writing, "Am I dating myself? Am I a dinosaur? I guess to a degree I am. . . ."

He does have a point, though. What too many broadcasters don't seem to understand is that the new, user-friendly Statcast-driven numbers are interesting only at the extremes (and of course there's also the little issue of suggesting to listeners, however implicitly, that catch probability is anything close to precise).

When Altuve homered back in the first inning, Geoff Blum intoned, "Altuve pummels it, to the tune of 106 off the barrel, estimated 415 feet." When Chapman homered in the second, Blum said, "One hundred and three miles an hour off the bat," with an onscreen graphic listing that number, along with "26 DEGREE LAUNCH ANGLE."

Okay: 415 feet. We know something about 415. We know something about 415 because for as long as they've been painting numbers on outfield walls, we've had some context for outfield distances. It was obvious to me, as a kid, that 400 feet was a long ways from the plate. Because if you hit the ball 400 feet, usually it would be a home run. Hell, you could hit the ball only 330 feet and get a home run. Even fewer feet in Boston! But you kinda knew. Because the numbers were right there on the wall.

Launch angle, though? Exit velocity? We have no context, and only a Very Chosen Few of us will ever have any meaningful context. For two reasons. One theoretically solvable, one probably not.

The first reason is that the broadcasters are making absolutely no effort to provide any context, and are unlikely to. Exit velocity 103: Is that a lot? No idea! We're simply given the information, and information should not be given unless it's somehow useful and it's not useful without context and we're practically never given any context. Too much trouble, probably.

But broadcasters can learn.

The second, bigger reason is the numbers themselves. Baseball statistics work when they describe something we care about and when we can, given a reasonable chance, tell the difference between something that's impressive or interesting, and something that is not. ...

It's not Statcast's fault, or MLBAM's fault, that we're seemingly on the verge of being inundated by meaningless, context-free information. Quite frankly, it's 100 percent the broadcasters' fault. The broadcasters who still seem obsessed with small sample sizes and RBIs and fielding percentages have now skipped an entire generation of good, hard-won, contextualized knowledge, and for some reason seized upon exit velocity as a key objective in Statistics Scavenger Hunt. ...

Essentially, the new Statcast data is wildly important for the evaluators and decision-makers in the front offices, and modestly useful for that subset of journalists and essayists who rely on, and have the head for, in-depth statistical analysis. But otherwise, the data are often just more meaningless dribs of information, good for filling airtime in the absence of genuinely insightful analysis, but not much else. And in some cases the numbers are crowding out evocative, lyrical prose and verbiage. Which were already in alarmingly short supply. [pp. 144-148]
Hmmmm ... "inundated by meaningless, context-free information. Quite frankly, it's 100 percent the broadcasters' fault. The broadcasters who still seem obsessed with small sample sizes and RBIs and fielding percentages have now skipped an entire generation of good, hard-won, contextualized knowledge, and for some reason seized upon exit velocity ..."

Boy oh boy, am I ever looking at you, Dave O'Brien (who seemingly has never met a "meaningless drib of information" that he didn't rush to breathlessly communicate (free from all context) on the air, filling airtime and avoiding insightful analysis). He's not alone, not by any stretch of the imagination. Now that Vin Scully has retired, every baseball announcer is guilty of spouting noise pollution, to some degree or other. But OB is the announcer I have to put up with.

Pace of Play and Disagreeing with Bill James
Melvin orders an intentional walk . . . but unlike in every other season before 2017, Melvin's pitcher doesn't actually have to throw any pitches.

The "automatic" intentional walk was introduced just this season, as part of Baseball's ongoing, if fitful, efforts to address "pace of play" issues. There's now (apparently) serious talk about enforcing rules limiting pitchers' time between pitches; in fact, the clocks are already in place in stadiums, but to this point they've essentially been ignored, due largely to objections from the players' union.

So this season, for the first time ever, the intentional walk can easily pass without notice. Because instead of the manager giving some signal to his catcher, followed by four pitches delivered (usually) way high and outside—and so practically impossible to hit—now a manager need merely make a signal to the umpire . . . and off trots the batter to first base, having witnessed not a single pitch.

The point of course is to quicken the pace of play.

The old intentional walks took around one minute apiece. Now, one minute of dead time: that's not nothing. Except these days there just aren't many of those particular dead minutes to kill. ...

In 2016, there were only 932 intentional walks all season. In 2017, there will be only 970. (With their seventeen intentional walks apiece, the A's and Astros will tie for second fewest in the majors, with Terry Francona's first-place [Cleveland] issuing fifteen. In the National League, Bud Black's Rockies will finish last with only twenty.)

So, let's see . . . 970 minutes spread over six months is 162 minutes per month, or ____ minutes per week, or 6 minutes per day. Not for every team, or every game. For all of Major League Baseball. Which seems like . . . not a lot?

In fact, it really is not a lot. It's hardly a smidgen. ...

The most obvious way to speed up the pace would be shorter commercial breaks. They used to be shorter, and still there was enough time for the teams to switch places on the field, for the pitcher to get his warm-up tosses. Now, you could (reasonably, I think) argue that cutting thirty seconds of advertisements between each half inning would (a) bring in lower revenue in the short term, but (b) bring in more revenue in the long term, with a slightly quicker game leading to slightly higher ratings, and (thus) ad rates.

So far, it doesn't seem that anyone's much appreciated those extra six minutes. It also doesn't seem that anyone's much missed the four-pitch intentional walks. Yes, the prospect of the new rule deeply offended some sensibilities. At least one journalist blamed the rule on those damned millennials. ...

Still, such a fundamental exception to the game's fundamental rules—you know, four balls for a walk, three strikes yer out, etc.—is defensible only if it's part of something larger. And in 2017, it's really not. The commercial breaks are the same, and there's a pitch clock but . . . just in the minor leagues, with the aim of helping umpires enforce the long-standing rule, minors and majors, that a pitcher must deliver a pitch within . . . well, you're probably not going to believe this, but within twelve seconds. It's right there in the book, Rule 5.07(c): When the bases are unoccupied, the pitcher shall deliver the ball to the batter within 12 seconds after he receives the ball. Each time the pitcher delays the game by violating this rule, the umpire shall call "Ball."

You wanna guess how many times a major-league umpire has enforced Rule 5.07(c) in 2017? Okay, so I don't know. But if the number isn't zero, it's very, very, very close to zero. It's difficult for umpires to hurry along the pitchers, and it's difficult for umpires to hurry along the hitters. As long-time umpire Dale Scott told me, "All we could do was write up the chronic violators, and then the league will send them a letter, and then maybe they'll fine them. But the union takes the teeth out of everything. The fines aren't large enough to deter anything, and MLB didn't want ejections." ...

Bill James thinks all these measures, or half measures, even if implemented, would make little difference. "The essence of the problem," Bill will write in a few weeks, "is that there are many, many, many things which can be done inside of a baseball game to waste time, and it is always in someone's interest to do these things. Pitchers can stand on the mound without pitching. Catchers can visit the mound. Pitchers can throw to first.
Managers can change pitchers. If you limit pitching changes they will start changing outfielders in the middle of the game, or holding up the inning to move the outfielders around. Batters can ask for time and step out between pitches. Base runners can ask for a sliding glove. Batters can change bats. Networks can sell more commercials between innings."

More Bill: "Baseball is trying to address a general problem with remedies targeting one issue or another. This is never going to work, because there will always be something else that can pop up that will waste even more time than whatever you were trying to stamp out before. I'm glad they are trying to fix the problem, but it is never going to work. It's like swatting mosquitoes. There will always be more mosquitoes." ...

I think Bill is wrong. Or wrong enough. Most especially, Bill is largely wrong when he says Baseball is trying to address a general problem with remedies targeting one issue or another. Baseball hasn't actually made any real commitment to such remedies. Go back and look at that list of ways to waste time. None of them have actually been addressed in meaningful ways. And you can't even include intentional walks, because the point of them was never to waste time; it just worked out that way. ...

Ultimately, it all comes back to the pitcher. He's the one with the ball in his hand. Unless he's got a really good excuse, he simply must deliver the next pitch within a reasonable number of seconds. If he doesn't do that, it's a ball. If he does but the batter's not ready, tough shit for the batter. Essentially, it comes down to reasonably clear rules and the umpires' willingness to enforce them.

Because when it comes to the pitch clock in the minor leagues, nearly everyone who's been quoted on the subject says essentially the same thing: Before you know it, you've forgotten it's even there. This was just one of the changes in Double- and Triple-A a few years ago, designed to speed things up, but it's the clock that seems to have made the biggest difference. In 2015, the first year of the clocks, Triple-A game times dropped by twelve minutes.

That said, it's far from clear if just a pitch clock would have the same impact in the majors. Because it turns out most of the dead time between pitches comes with runners on base, when the pitch clock's turned off, because of the time required to mind those runners. Considering that research shows most pitchers, in the absence of baserunners, already deliver the next pitch within twenty seconds, the time saved might be negligible, or less than we'd expect.

Or maybe it's not really so much about the time at all. Automatic intentional walks, as we've seen, make little difference in anything. Except maybe perception. With every supposed remedy, at least Baseball can say, "Hey, get off our back! Can't You see that we're doing something?"

There is literally not a human being on earth who could discern the few minutes per week "saved" by junking those four-pitch intentional walks, just as there's not a human who could notice, with their eyes, the difference between a .250 hitter and a .300 hitter. But tell someone a guy's a .300 hitter, and they'll figure they saw it all along.*

[* Over the course of a whole season, as Crash Davis relates so vividly in Bull Durham, the difference between .250 and .300 is roughly one hit per week.]

Same thing with pace of play. It's not all just psychology and persuasion. Some, though. If Baseball keeps saying they're concerned about it, and actually does throw in a few time-saving wrinkles, most fans might well believe the pace has picked up. More than it actually has. And so everyone wins, a little.

This is just the fifteenth time all season that Melvin's called for an intentional walk, a tactic that's become wildly unpopular since Bill James pointed out, way back in the 1980s, that teams typically give up more runs with the intentional walk than without. Which is a pretty strong argument against doing it. [pp. 191-197]
The Public Hates Slow, Dragging Games
Games taking too long? Too-long games were considered a scourge a century ago. Not to mention nearly every year since then. In 1915, when the average game didn't last even two hours, Federal League president James Gilmore complained, "Something must be done to speed up play, as the public does not like to see unnecessary wrangling on the field and a slow, dragging game." [p. 220]

1 comment:

Jim said...

Thanks for this--I immediately went to a certain website and I'll get it on Friday (no free advertising from me). Just a thought on his note about plate umps and the wrong calls, I will swear to my dying day that plate umps get 50% of the "borderline" calls wrong--any idiot can figure out the others.
Anyway, thanks for continuing to entertain we Sox die-hards and Happy Hols and all that to you, Laura and the Doggies. Hope Trump doesn't mistake Victoria Island for Greenland.