Monday, May 25, 2009

Fanthink Follies

NOTE: This post was written about three weeks ago, spurred by a blog post that was written a month ago. Since then Grady Sizemore has gone into a major slump, but I think you'll agree that's really not the point.

Recently, a blogger on the Plain Dealer website named Jon Sladek wrote a post based on the thesis that Cleveland fans have a tendency to overrate their players (he called this the "Bernie factor" after former Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar), and that Grady Sizemore was benefiting from this phenomenon.

I call balderdash on that--despite a slow start in 2009, Grady Sizemore is a terrific player who in my opinion may well have been the best position player in the AL last season and has been a top 10 AL player in each of the last three seasons. The column does very little to support its claim that Sizemore is overrated by Cleveland fans, as it never defines how he should be rated. Pointing out that Sizemore has many female admirers (um, Jon, I don't know how exactly to say this without being accused of chauvinism, but I think that might have something to do with non-baseball factors...I have this feeling that there are a number of men who don't have much of an opinion of Maria Sharapova's tennis abilities but are fans nonetheless) doesn't indicate he's overrated. Pointing out that he's not the best player in the history of the franchise doesn't either--who has said that he is? Must only the very greatest players be praised?

Of course, a lot of his Sizemore angst is the result of silly thinking...he strikes out too much, he's not clutch, treating batting average as an important metric, and the like. And his shots at CC Sabathia indicate that he is extremely difficult to please; it seems as if any Indian short of Tris Speaker would fall short of his standards. That's really not the point here, though...I'll leave that stuff to the successors of Fire Joe Morgan, whoever they may be, or better yet let it stand without comment.

So this got me to thinking a little bit about the various ways that fans over/under rate their players, and how one could draw up some loose categories of this phenomenon. In doing so, I am trying to avoid discussing statistical reasons, which are certainly among the most prominent. But I don't want these to be along the lines of "players with strong secondary contributions tend to be underrated, while players with strong batting averages tend to be overrated" or "players who stand out in one specific aspect of the game tend to be overrated while those with a wide range of skills tend to be underrated" or...well, you get the idea.

The groups I am going to offer below are in no way mutually exclusive nor comprehensive. I have attempted to name them after Cleveland or Cincinnati players since those are the two fan bases to which I have the most exposure, but I don't in anyway mean to imply that these feelings are exclusive to fans of those teams.

Also, I am going to use the term "overrate" and "underrate" here, even though I share a general aversion to these terms with many of you. Since there is no single standard by which to rate players (from metric of choice to career/peak value to any number of other criteria), and no single source which rates players, the terms don't have a lot of meaning. They are in the popular sports vernacular, though, and this is an attempt to loosely describe patterns of thought on display among sports fans at large. I am also going to speak about "Cleveland fans" and other fan bases as if they are monolithic and of course I am not claiming that at all. When I use that language, it simply reflects what my perception of the majority viewpoint amongst that group is. My perception of such is certainly fallible.

* Overrating a player because of his geographic origin, or his alma mater, his ethnicity, etc. (the Bernie Kosar factor)

This is the true "Bernie factor"--Cleveland fans don't have any general tendency to overrate players, at least not with respect to other fan bases, certainly not when Sabathia and Sizemore are being belittled. Cleveland fans loved Bernie Kosar primarily because he was from the Northeast Ohio area (there was another major factor, discussed further below)..

There is nothing wrong with this, of course, although the flip side has some not-so-pleasant possible manifestations. "Local boy makes good" is a good story, and it only follows that fans will identify more with an athlete who is "one of them". I tend to think of myself as fairly objective and immune to the various phenomena I will list (and yes, this may well be undue self-congratulation)--with the exception of the Bernie factor. I'm all in for this one--on the basis of alma mater. Braylon Edwards could catch twenty touchdown passes next season and I will still hate his guts, while Brian Robiskie could be a complete flop as a pro and he will always be my favorite Brown.

* Scapegoating a good player for the failures of his team (the Carlos Beltran factor)

I almost slapped the "Adam Dunn" label here, but it could go so many other places--it could be used to describe underrating a player because of his skill set not matching traditional thinking, underrating a player because he is seen as "un-clutch", underrating a player because he is perceived as not getting the most out of his talent, or underrating a player because of relentless pounding from the codger who does the play-by-play. The anti-Dunn sentiment amongst Reds fans is the most widely-held and irrational case of this factor that I have personally encountered.

You can see the Adam Dunn factor on display in New York, as David Wright, Jose Reyes, and Carlos Beltran have all taken their turns as Met whipping boy, despite the fact that they are one of the very best position player trios in MLB. Why fans would choose to blame the best player rather than the lesser players is something that I really have never understood at all.

I have seen Reds fans crow about the Nationals' poor record, despite the fact that Dunn had a great April, still blaming him for the failure of the lousy team around him. And celebrating the fact their offense has not shown much of a decline despite Dunn's absence, as if dropping dead weight like Corey Patterson had no effect. It's hopeless.

* Overvaluing a player because of the success of his team (the Derek Jeter factor)

This could also be called the "basketball mentality"--it places too much of the credit on one player, to an extent that might be appropriate on the hardwood but is absurd in baseball. It is true that most great basketball dynasties are really built around one or two great players, and that these guys take their team from good to great single-handedly--the Jordans, the Magics, the Shaqs, the Mikans, etc. I'm not a basketball analyst, so if I'm overstating the case feel free to let me know, but I don't think anyone will disagree with the premise that a single basketball player can make a much greater contribution to team success than a single baseball player.

Nonetheless, some people want to attribute the success of a winning baseball team disproportionately to one man. Certainly Derek Jeter has been a valuable player for a long-time, and will be ushered right into the Hall of Fame, and I don't want to argue that.

But one man did not do it alone, and the fact that the Yankees strung together four titles in five years does not mean that they had to have a superstar of equal value to those on similarly dominant teams of the past.

Of course, what's worse than crediting a Jeter is when the credit gets given to a Scott Brosius or even in extreme cases a Luis Sojo. But I think most people see through that; it is much more tempting when there is a legitimately great player to whom the championships can be credited.

Incidentally, I would have liked to pick a Cleveland or Cincinnati athlete here, but it's been almost two decades since either city won a championship. Bernie Kosar certainly benefited a bit from this though--the quarterback for the best Browns teams of the Super Bowl era is going to receive a significant amount of accolades from the fans.

* Overrating a bench warmer or minor leaguer because he must be better than the bum who is in there now (the Charlie Frye factor, or more generally, the backup QB factor)

The old saw is that the backup quarterback is always the most popular player on a football team, and there's a lot of truth in it. The Charlie Frye case was a little convoluted because he also was a local guy, and Trent Dilfer really did stink and had no chance of being a long-term answer. Unfortunately, Frye was worse.

Indians fans did their own version of this with Ben Francisco last year. Now Francisco is in the crosshairs himself on this score.

* Choosing a player as scrappy/hustler/clutch/plays-the-game-the-right-way and the like and overrating him (the Ryan Freel factor)

This is a universal phenomenon, but I've certainly never personally encountered it more starkly than with Reds fans. They just love the scrappy guy, the Ryan Freel or the Chris Sabo, and when one moves on they look desperately for someone to fill the void (Adam Rosales is the leader in the clubhouse).

My theory for the intensity of this point of view in Cincinnati is two-fold: one is the aforementioned codger on the radio. The other is a residual Pete Rose complex, forever imprinted in many because of a convergence of factors: the Bernie factor, the Derek Jeter factor, and his (perceived, by some sycophants) martyrdom. Rose's banishment never really allowed them to process these feelings in a healthy way, and so it has become a perpetual obsession (and that is as close to psychoanalysis that I will ever get on this blog, I promise).

* Underrating a player because he doesn't live up to expectations (the Adam Dunn factor)

Often a player, particularly a prospect, will get a fair amount of advance hype. Then said player will not live up to the expectations that were heaped on him. Even if this player winds up developing into a valuable asset, some fans still evaluate him against their hopes rather than reality.

This also applies to players who fans feel aren't getting as much out of their talent as possible...players like, oh, Adam Dunn. If a particular player truly is underachieving due to lack of effort or motivation or another correctable "personal flaw", that's legitimate ground for criticism. However, this type of sentiment is very often adopted without any particularly credible evidence that the target is deficient in those areas. And all too often, fans will brand purported underachievers with various shortcomings, all while ignoring the things they do well on the field. In other words, the fans focus solely on a player's weaknesses, ignoring his strengths.

A subset of this factor that applies to veterans rather than youngsters is setting expectations on the basis of salary, and underrating a player's contribution because he is seen to be overpaid. Of course, salary is a very important thing to consider when evaluating GM-level decision making. However, one should be careful not to let it bleed over into an evaluation of on-field value. Paying a player who's "really" worth $5 million a salary of $10 million does indeed make him overpaid and a bad investment. But he's no less of a ballplayer than someone worth $5 million getting paid the league minimum.

Obviously I have only scratched the surface here, but these are the most common non-statistical reasons that I can identify for fans' skewed evaluations of their players. Unfortunately, none explain why Grady Sizemore is overrated...because he's not.

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