Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Meanderings

* As sabermetrics has matured, many of us have come to recognize to a greater extent that information asymmetry hinders our analysis of transactions and other team decisions. Teams certainly operate with much greater information about their own players than their opponents do, and much, much greater information than we could have hope to possess as outsiders. This is a positive step for sabermetrics, one that I certainly needed to heed more in my earlier days pretending to be more of a know-it-all than I do now.

However, one can go too far, and use information asymmetry as an excuse for questionable decision-making. For the 2012 MLB season, I would make the Reds usage of Aroldis Chapman Exhibit A. Chapman was groomed throughout the winter and the spring as a starter, and seemed to be handling it well. There was really no reason to believe that he wouldn’t, since he had previously started both in Cuba and in Louisville in 2010. Then the Reds suffered injuries to Nick Masset, Bill Bray, and Ryan Madson, and Chapman was moved to the bullpen.

It’s possible, of course, that the Reds always had grave reservations about utilizing Chapman as a starter, and that the bullpen injuries tipped the scale in a direction it was already beginning to go. But given the timing, it seems very unlikely.

Now the Reds have made a second decision, to use Chapman as the closer, for which there is again no evidence that it was prompted by inside information. Instead, the cause is pretty straightforward--continuing poor performance in that role by Sean Marshall, capped by a game in which he had to be rescued by Jose Arredondo.


* With I’ll Have Another set to make a bid for the Triple Crown, there will be two opposing yet equally silly points of view on display among the lesser lights of sportswriting.

The first is that I’ll Have Another cannot be beaten. They will point out the perceived weak Belmont field that does not include Bodemeister, talk about the horse’s “will to win”, and say that they just can’t imagine how he gets beat. Of course, the fact that similar things were written about Smarty Jones and Big Brown will be completely ignored, as sportswriters of this class are incapable of learning. The obvious fact of the matter that if Northern Dancer, Majestic Prince, Spectacular Bid, Alysheba, and Sunday Silence can all fail to win the Belmont, then any horse could as well (not to mention losses in other races, like Native Dancer and Point Given in the Kentucky Derby) will also be ignored.

The second is that I’ll Have Another can’t win because he is running against 34 years of failure and the ten horses in that period that have won the Derby and the Preakness before losing the Belmont. This is also silly; one need only to look at the margin by which Victory Gallop denied Real Quiet to know that the Triple Crown is winnable, not to mention trying to explain who would have beaten Sunday Silence if not for another all-time great in Easy Goer, and many other similar arguments.

Then there is the matter of what it would mean if I’ll Have Another wins the Belmont. Where would that rank him historically? For those that know nothing about horse racing other than the Triple Crown (which is a large share of the general public), it would obviously put him in an elite group of twelve. For those of us that have a broader knowledge about the sport, it wouldn’t really mean a whole lot for his historical standing. It would certainly make him the most famous American horse of recent memory, but he would have to achieve more in his career to be noted as particularly remarkable.

That is not my attempt to downplay the Triple Crown--there's no professional sports outcome I’d rather see other than the Indians winning the World Series and the Browns winning the Super Bowl. But the Triple Crown is three races run over a month and a half in the middle portion of a horse’s three-year old campaign. It is but a small portion of what makes an all-time great race horse. Many all-time greats didn’t contest the Triple Crown, but went on to achieve great things later in their three-year old seasons (see Buckpasser for an example, or Tiznow in more recent history). Many more were non-factors at three, but achieved great things later in their careers (listing examples here would be silly as there are so many).

Of course, evaluating a horse from a historical perspective must include consideration of context. Today’s thoroughbreds race much shorter schedules and are less likely to return to run at age four and later if they are stars at three. Still, even from the perspective of three-year old stars of the last fifteen years, even a Triple Crown will not raise I’ll Have Another above the very best. Point Given may have lost the Kentucky Derby, but he came back in the summer to win the Travers at the same distance, and ran one of the best Belmonts of recent memory. That his “Triple Crown” runs Preakness-Belmont-Travers doesn’t make it much less of an achievement. Curlin may have lost the Derby and the Belmont, but he came back in the fall to win the Jockey Club Gold Cup and the Breeders’ Cup Classic against the best older horses in the country.

On the other hand, the same can be written about some of the other horses that have won the Triple Crown. It is easy to believe that the eleven Triple Crown winners represent the greatest American thoroughbreds, but it really isn’t the case. Certainly all eleven are well-regarded historically and are in the Hall of Fame, but in a couple of cases, that is mostly the result of winning the Triple Crown and not anything else they did.

- Sir Barton won the Triple Crown before anyone talked about such a thing (that would start with the second winner, Gallant Fox). For his career he won 13 of 31 starts. He was Horse of the Year in 1919, and was ranked by Blood-Horse as the #49 American thoroughbred of the Twentieth Century.

- Omaha was sired by the 1930 Triple Crown winner Gallant Fox, but he wasn’t even named Horse of the Year in 1935. He won 9 of 22 career starts and was ranked #61 by Blood-Horse.

It’s not a knock on I’ll Have Another to say that he’d be more Omaha than Count Fleet should he win the Belmont. And if the horse can stay in training and win the Breeder’s Cup Classic or another key race against older horses, I’d be inclined to change my opinion. But that’s a hard task for a three-year old, and the horses that can do it are the ones that distinguish themselves as the best, Triple Crown or no.

* Speaking of horse racing and circling back to baseball, with the season roughly 25% complete I have heard multiple announcers referring to the “quarter pole”. I find this extremely aggravating (which is admittedly a bit of an overreaction). Unless there is some non-horse racing definition of the term “quarter pole” of which I am unaware, using the term in this manner is completely wrong. The quarter pole does not have anything to do with one quarter of the race--it is the pole marking a quarter mile to the finish line. And as you can see from that description, it is oriented to the end rather than the beginning of the race. There is no use for miles in baseball, so I suppose the most appropriate use of the term would be after 120 or so games had been played--a quarter of the season remaining.

I realize that I am complaining extensively about a very silly thing, but when a term from one of my favorite sports gets twisted by people I am predisposed to complain about anyway, I can’t help myself. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a similar example of a baseball term used in other contexts that so completely misses the point (which isn’t to say one doesn’t exist). The closest I can come up with is “balanced scorecard”, which has been turned into some sort of silly business jargon, kind of how statisticians must bristle when they hear about “Six Sigma”.

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