Stephen Baker

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Baseball playoffs begin: Moneyball season over

September 30, 2011Hop Skip Go


                               Phillies' pitcher Roy Halladay: Statistics indicate that he could win... or lose

It's time to forget Moneyball and statistical analysis
. The 162-game baseball season, the six-month marathon in which statistics have the time to work their magic, is over. As play-offs begin, managers might as well return to their divining rods or the study of patterns on the bottom of their coffee cups. They're entering a season defined largely by unmeasurables such as confidence, feel, and most importantly, luck.

The Phillies-Cardinals match-up Saturday pits Roy Halladay, last year's Cy Young winner, against Kyle Lohse, a mid-rotation starter through his career. Lohse, through an 11-year career, has won about as many as he has lost. Halladay, in 14 years, has won two games for every game he's lost. This year he went 19-6. Still, he lost six games, and could lose another against Lohse. The game might turn on one pitch and the difference of a quarter inch on Albert Pujols' bat. That tiny adjustment turns a high fly ball into a tape-measure homer. Over a long season, Halladay establishes his superiority. In one game, or even a five-game series, throw the stats out the window.

And yet, because of the new Moneyball movie, we're sure to hear every day about the wonders of baseball's quants, led by the prime number-cruncher, Bill James. In fact, it already surfaced in the recent pennant races. In one article, summing up the chances of the fading Boston Red Sox, a Harvard data cruncher named Andrew Mooney surveyed the last ten days of the season and counseled the Sox not to worry:

You’re in a funk, you say. You’ve lost nine of your last eleven, while the Rays have won eight of 10. Actually, this could be just as much a source of comfort as a cause for alarm. Simple probabilities indicate that neither team is likely to continue at such a rate for the remainder of the season; that’s just the nature of streaks. Need evidence? You started the season 2-10.

You’ve got a 10-game homestand coming (winning percentage at Fenway: .592), while the Rays will be away for their next 11 (winning percentage on the road: .557).

My question: What do "simple probabilities" count for when one team is consumed by dread and its rival buoyed by rising confidence? How do you measure the impact of such things? And what are such measurements worth in a sample of only 10 games? Nothing, I'd say. 

By instituting two series of play-offs, Major League Baseball essentially created a second season. While the first is a marathon, in which statistics rule, the second is an eight-team sprint. The best team can win this second season. But for this to happen, it must also be hot and lucky.

Just one more point about the movie Moneyball. The analysis in the movie boiled baseball down to its essense: The team that scores more runs than its opponents over 162 games will likely wind up on top. But for some reason, the film glided over the biggest factor in this equation: starting pitching. It didn't mention even once that Billy Beane's Oakland A's had the best trio of starting pitchers in the Major Leagues. Barry Zito won the Cy Young Award that year. He was absent from the movie. Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson were magnificent. We got brief glimpses of their uniforms.

So the movie would lead us to believe that the A's won their division that year because they played a converted catcher at first base, swung a smart deal for a left-handed reliever, got rid of a distracting Giambi brother, and urged players to take walks. The A's could have done all of those things, and without their trio of great pitchers, they would have ended up with a losing record. That's why, as The Sconz says: Moneyball is a lie.


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