Jason Werth, The Shift, And How Baseball Imitates Life, Not In A Good Way

Today’s example from baseball of why the world will never get less stupid:  Jayson Werth, the former firebrand outfielder for the Phillies and Nationals who retired from  professional baseball in June (about a year too late, based on his miserable 2017 performance), blathered on in a podcast interview espousing ignorance over knowledge.

“They’ve got all these super nerds, as I call them, in the front office that know nothing about baseball but they like to project numbers and project players… I think it’s killing the game. It’s to the point where just put computers out there. Just put laptops and what have you, just put them out there and let them play. We don’t even need to go out there anymore. It’s a joke….When they come down, these kids from MIT or Stanford or Harvard, wherever they’re from, they’ve never played baseball in their life…When they come down to talk about stuff like [shifts] … should I just bunt it over there? They’re like, ‘No, don’t do that. We don’t want you to do that. We want you to hit a homer.’ It’s just not baseball to me. We’re creating something that’s not fun to watch. It’s boring. You’re turning players into robots. They’ve taken the human element out of the game.”

Back in the late 1970’s, a man named Bill James, blessed with an amazing ability to look at problems without the pollution of conventional wisdom began writing a little publication in his spare time down in his basement that examined how baseball was played, what practices statistics supported, and which they did not. He revealed, to take just one example, that managers were habitually batting as lead-off players who were speedy runners but who didn’t get on base very often because they never walked. This almost universal practice cost teams runs and victories. He showed that a player with a .300 average who seldom took a base on balls was a less effective offensive weapon than a player with a much  lower batting average but a higher on-base-percentage, the result of being more selective at the plate.  Somehow this obvious observation had never occurred to anyone whose actual profession was managing baseball teams.

Every year, and in articles in between for journals and statistical publications, James proved over and over again that baseball was being played astoundingly ignorantly. A “great” base stealer who only was successful 70% of the time was costing his team runs, because the statistics show that  the the risk of an out is usually a far greater cost than the extra base is a benefit. The sacrifice bunt is almost always a bad percentage play, increasing the odds of scoring one run slightly, but greatly reducing the chances of scoring more than one. A player’s statistics were vastly influenced by the quirks and dimensions of his home park, creating illusions of abilities and flaws that were mirages.Virtually all baseball players reach their peak value at the ages of 27-29, and decline rapidly thereafter: James wrote that paying big salaries for 30-years-old-plus stars was a losing gamble, comparing it to buying a watermelon at a premium price after the previous owner has eaten the fruit’s heart out and pronounced it delicious.

I began reading James books in the 80’s, and found him to be a truly original and courageous thinker. (The concept and term “signature significance,” an Ethics Alarms staple, comes from James.)  From the beginning, however, his research was ridiculed by front office executives, managers and player, many of whom were challenging his research on the basis of a limited intellect, a high school degree and statistical knowledge that consisted of reading box scores. They appealed to authority—their own—to refuse to acknowledge indisputable, mathematical, logical realities. Eventually one or two young turks did pay attention, like Oakland’s Billy Beane. He hired  his own numbers-cruncher and used the principles of the fledgling discipline James helped launch, sabermetrics, the statistical analysis of baseball, to win championships with a minimal budget. It also got him a book written about his success, “Moneyball,” and a movie based on the book where Beane was played by Brad Pitt.

Sweet! Continue reading

Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 4/2/2018: The Unreliable Authorities Edition

Good morning!

1.  Another baseball ethics dispute! This is an exciting time of changes in the traditional wisdom of how to play Major League Baseball, all sparked by that new ethics bugaboo, Big Data. Now that so many aspects of the game can be measured and analyzed, tradition and assumptions rarely challenged are now under fire. One massive shift is, ironically, in the matter of shifts, radical defensive alignments in which players are not fielding their normal positions, but rather are places where computer spray charts for each batter suggest that the likelihood of fielding a ball is highest.  This can mean anything from one lonely fielder on the left side of the infield, or four outfielders.

Shifts are not new, but they used to be used on a handful of super-sluggers with dead-pull propensities, notably Ted Williams, who famously refused to bunt for easy hits to the unoccupied side of the field, and instead usually tried to hit through or over the shift. It has been estimated that the Williams Shift, combined with the player’s infamous stubbornness, cost him many points off of his lifetime batting average, especially since Williams defeating the shift by bunting might have discouraged its use.

But he was Ted Williams, the second greatest hitter of all time.  The question of whether lesser batters should bunt against shifts, for now many teams shift against everyone, has an easy answer: Of course they should.

In yesterday’s Twins-Orioles game, Twins starter Jose Berrios had  a one-hit shutout in the ninth inning. leading with one out and no runners on base. O’s rookie catcher Chance Sisco came to the plate—he has my favorite baseball name this season–and the Twins put on a shift like the one Ted Williams despised:

So, knowing he wasn’t Ted Williams and also knowing that in baseball even seven run leads aren’t a sure thing, Chance dropped down a bunt to the left side for a single. Berrios then walked two batter Davis and Manny Machado to load the bases, but finished his shutout by getting the next two outs without further disruptions.

After the game, the Twins players questioned the ethics of Sisco’s hit. Berrios said, “I just know it’s not good for baseball [to bunt] in that situation. That’s it.” Twins outfielder Eddie Rosario said, “Nobody liked that. No, no, no. That’s not a good play.” Second baseman Brian Dozier added, “Obviously, we’re not a fan of it. He’s a young kid. I could’ve said something at second base but they have tremendous veteran leadership over there. I’m sure they’ll address that. It’s all about learning. You learn up here.”

When do you “learn” not to try to win the game and get on base? For Sisco, a rookie, sending the message that shifting against him is a bad risk also is a wise career move. There is a long-standing, and stupid, unwritten rule in baseball that it is “bush league” to try to break up a no-hitter with a bunt, but extending that dubious logic to a mere shutout breaks the Stupid Meter.

2. Coffee is good for you, but be worried when you drink it. Continuing its rapid devolution into Bizarro World, just as increasing scientific evidence suggest that coffee is good for you, California is demanding that it carry a tobacco-like warning label. Last week a judge ruled that Starbucks and  other coffee companies in California must carry a cancer warning label because of a chemical produced while beans roast has been shown to cause cancer in high doses. California’s Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act  requires companies with more than 10 employees to warn their customers about the presence of carcinogenic and toxic chemicals in their products, even in tiny amounts. Acrylamide, a chemical compound that is produced naturally during the roasting of coffee beans, is on the state’s list of chemicals known to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity. The judge ruled that the coffee company had the burden of proof  to show that acrylamide posed no significant health risk to coffee drinkers, even though there is no evidence that coffee does pose a risk. Continue reading

Comment Of The Day: The 87th And 88th Rationalizations: The Reverse 15 And The Psychic Historian

Jeff H. (aka King Kool), Glenn Logan and Tim Levier are, I believe, the longest-serving contributors here, all of them getting extra credit for following me from the days of the Ethics Scoreboard (still dead in cyberspace, but it will rise again!). Jeff has the extra distinction of being the blog’s resident cartoonist, and his contribution to “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day,” a teddy bear, can occasionally be glimpsed in the Ethics Alarms header.

This is not his first Comment of the Day. This time, he reflects on the folly of ever trying to guess where history is going, not to mention assuming that it will validate contemporary conduct.

Here is Jeff H’s Comment of the Day on the post, The 87th And 88th Rationalizations: The Reverse 15 And The Psychic Historian.

Is there anyone so young or devoid of baseball lore that they don’t get the Ted Williams reference? Jeff probably should have given a heads up…

I’ve had a complicated history of feelings about the anthem protests. I start from a place where I dislike most celebrity protests. But when Trump shot his mouth off about it, whether he was factually right about that they could lose their jobs over it… I suddenly became a lot less comfortable with my opposition. I probably would’ve done it myself just to say, “hey, I have this right to toss my job away for something stupid and inane, but I’m not going to have anyone say that I didn’t do it because YOU said not to.” Just like Obama talking about the Zimmerman-Martin incident, right or wrong, the President talking about something like this never seems to make it better. This is adding to the knot, not cutting it.

I’ve got more to say about this, but I really only bring this up to give this statement context: I’ve seen people say that Kaepernick’s contributions will be seen as a landmark in civil rights. And I think they are absolute loony fortune tellers. I’m not saying their prediction is right or wrong. I just think they’re fools for trying to make it. Continue reading

Major League Baseball Cares About Integrity And I Wish This Proved It…But It Doesn’t

I know this will be a shock, Henry, but there's forest here, not just trees...

I know this will be a shock, Henry, but there’s forest here, not just trees…

On Baseball Prospectus, one of the scholarly baseball sites, Henry Druschel has a provocative, inspiring and ultimately silly post pointing out that if baseball teams were only concerned with winning, they would forfeit games for strategic purposes, yet they literally never do. He writes…

“Teams are almost certainly harming their long-term win rates in a meaningful way by playing until every out of every game has been recorded. For example, the Red Sox encountered a grueling quirk of the schedule on Wednesday night, when they were scheduled to play the Orioles at 7:05 p.m. before traveling to Detroit and playing the Tigers at 1:10 p.m. the next day. When it began to pour in Baltimore at roughly 9:00 p.m., the Red Sox were leading 8-1 after six innings, but imagine if the situation was reversed, and Boston was instead trailing 8-1 with three innings to go. Their odds of coming back to win such a game would be something like 0.5 percent. In such a scenario, they could either wait in the clubhouse until the game was either resumed or officially cancelled, or they could forfeit as soon as the rain began, and head for the airport and Detroit right away. In the non-hypothetical game, the rain delay lasted about 80 minutes before the game was officially called; it seems obvious that an extra hour and a half of rest before the next game would add more to a trailing Boston’s total expected wins than remaining in Baltimore and hoping for a miracle would. That might seem like a corner case, and truthfully, it is; I bring it up to note that no one would even consider a forfeit in such a scenario, despite the strategic logic of the move. This isn’t limited to corner cases, however; every time a position player enters a baseball game as a pitcher in a blowout, teams are harming their long-term expected win totals by not forfeiting instead….”

The writer concludes:

Given that forfeitures would be win-maximizing in certain cases, and given that teams choose never to strategically forfeit regardless, there are two possible conclusions. One: Teams are behaving irrationally. Given the immense value even a single win can have to a franchise, I feel confident stating that this is not the case. That leaves the second conclusion: There is something the team values more than winning as much as possible. There is a societal norm that places something—a competitive ideal, maybe, or just completion—over winning, a norm that would be violated by a strategic forfeit, and a norm that teams invariably follow.

As someone who values other things over winning, this excites me…

Don’t get too excited, Henry.

Yes, I believe that baseball teams take considered actions sometimes that do not maximize their chances of winning. I was roundly pilloried in baseball circles for an article I wrote in 2008 (for another scholarly baseball site)  which argued that Barry Bonds, the shameless steroid cheat and home run champion who was suddenly a free agent and who could, based on his recent exploits, still hit though well past 40, would not be signed by any team—not even the Yankees!—because doing so would signal to that team’s fans, city, players and organization that the team endorsed flagrant dishonesty as well as a willingness to disregard fairness, integrity and sportsmanship for a few extra wins. I was on a MLB radio show where the host laughed at me. “Of course he’ll be signed! You’re crazy!” were his words. “Just wait,” I said. “If he isn’t signed, it will mean that baseball colluded against him!” he said. “Just wait,” I said.

Bonds, who said he was dying to play, that he was healthy, that he’d play for the Major League minimum, that he’d sue MLB if someone didn’t sign him, never swung a bat in anger again. There was no collusion, either. It was pure cognitive dissonance, you see. Remember the scale? Continue reading

Ethics Hero: World War II Vet Burke Waldron

It is a day late, but I finally have my Memorial Day post.

Thank-you, Burke Waldron, for your service, for making me feel young, and for having the integrity not to embarrass yourself, your contemporaries, and everyone else by making pathetic attempt at throwing a baseball.

I’m not sure which elements of Ethics Hero 92-year-old WW II veteran Burke Waldron displayed yesterday, as he threw out the ceremonial first pitch at the Seattle Mariners game on Memorial Day. Call him a holistic hero. He’s a hero, like all of the fallen soldiers—including my dad—of past wars, because he risked the horrors of combat to defend our nation and the values it stands for…well, at least until Donald Trump is President.

He’s a hero because he represented his generation yesterday with style, verve and energy, running to the pitcher’s mound—in his uniform!as thousands cheered. Most of all, to me, he’s a hero because he took his assignment seriously, and didn’t emulate the pathetic rockers, politicians and even retired athletes who defile their first pitch honors by throwing the ball like a 7-year-old T-ball player, because they couldn’t be bothered to practice. Petty Officer, 2nd Class Waldron threw a strike to his catcher…

…just like another war hero, Ted Williams, did in his last appearance on a baseball field, at the 1999 All-Star Game in Boston. Continue reading

Gift Horse Ethics: The Babe, The Splendid Splinter, and The Ethics Of Self-Promoting Virtue

sick child and-babe-jpgBaseball slugger Babe Ruth was famous for visiting hospitals and orphanages to give kids a thrill. Babe always had reporters in too to record his noblesse oblige , of course. He was an orphan himself, and nobody should doubt the Bambino’s genuine dedication and generosity when it came to kids. He just wasn’t going to let his good deeds go unnoticed.

Other baseball greats, notably Ted Williams, made most of his visits without fanfare or publicity, and he didn’t tip off the press. “The Splendid Splinter” wasn’t visiting kids in cancer wards because he wanted his fans to know what a good guy he was. He did it because he wanted to make sick children feel better.

Was the Babe less ethical than Williams? Did his self=promotion take the ethical sheen off of his good deeds? This is the issue raised by the activities  of the  “Magician Prankster” who calls himself “Magic of Rahat” on YouTube and Twitter. He recently posted a video called “Homeless Lottery Winner” showing him playing  a prank on a homeless man, who ends up with $1,000. He is understandably grateful:

Slade Sohmer however, on HyperVocal, is hearing ethics alarms: Continue reading

World Series Ethics: He Tipped His Cap

What would Ted Williams have done? We know the answer to THAT question...

What would Ted Williams have done? We know the answer to THAT question…

The Boston Red Sox won the World Series last night, making me happy. Something else happened too.

Some background is in order. The great Ted Williams used to give Boston baseball fans the biggest hat tip in baseball as they cheered him after a home run. This was when he was first known as “the Kid’ and indeed was one, as his Hall of Fame trajectory was obvious from the moment he stepped on a major league field in 1939 at the tender age of 19. Gradually but rapidly, a vicious local press and some ugly incidents in response to a few jackasses in the stands caused the Kid to sour on the admission-paying mortals who booed him when he struck out, and he decided to ignore their cheers, refusing to extend the traditional courtesy of a hat tip to the fans as he rounded the bases after a home run—which, since he was Ted Williams, happened frequently. Williams  spent his whole career in the city of Boston playing before those fans who offended him in his twenties, but right up to and after his final home run, which he hit, famously, in his last at bat, the Red Sox fans got no hat tip from Ted. He rounded the bases the final time as they cheered themselves hoarse, and never looked up or acknowledged their praise. Screw ’em.

That was Red Sox pitcher John Lackey’s attitude toward the current generation of Fenway fans, for similar reasons. He had been signed to a rich, long-term contract in 2010 to be a Red Sox mound ace, but arrived in Boston with his arm deteriorating and his abilities diminished. 2010 was a disappointing season for Lackey and 2011 was worse, as he pitched in pain for a team that was short of hurlers. The 2011 Red Sox became infamous for their late-season collapse and underachieving starting pitchers, and no one on that team was jeered on the field or savaged in the call-in sports shows like John Lackey. He missed the entire next Red Sox season recovering from arm surgery after the 2011 collapse, and thus missed the 2012 debacle that was even worse. In 2013, however, Lackey returned with a renewed right arm, a fit body and a fierce determination to finally live up to the big contract. He did, too. He pitched well all season, and became a key factor in the Boston charge to the World Series, as they rose from last place in their division in 2012 to first.

In 2013, Lackey received nothing but cheers from the surprised and grateful Boston fans. Nevertheless, he adamantly maintained the Kid’s attitude—“Screw ’em”—all season long. As he walked into to the Red Sox dugout after being relieved in another fine pitching performance and the Boston fans saluted him, Lackey refused to reciprocate with the traditional hat tip, all season long and through the play-offs. The fans were fickle hypocrites, and their loyalty conditional. They booed him when he was valiantly pitching hurt and embarrassed in 2011, and he wasn’t going to forget it. They were going to get snubbed like they deserved, and that was the way it was going to be.

Last night the Boston Red Sox won their third World Series in the last ten years. It was the first time the home team fans had been able to witness the deciding game since 1918 (as the Fox announcers informed the presumably senile audience over and over and over again), and John Lackey was the pitching star for the home town team. The night was a love fest for Boston baseball fans, as they cheered every move of their frequently star-crossed and quirky team, and no Red Sox player was cheered more loudly than John Lackey, as he walked off the field for the final time in 2013 in the 7th inning, with his team safely ahead by five runs. They stood and applauded and chanted his name, as he moved deliberately to the Boston dugout, head down, grim, just like Ted on that gray day in 1960 when he hit homer number 521.

Then he tipped his cap.

It was a small thing, the smallest really, only a gesture and for most players, most of the time, an automatic one…except that it symbolized the ethical virtues of grace, forgiveness, gratitude, humility and fairness. This memorable, wonderful night for the Boston Red Sox and the grand old city it represents—my home town– was no time to let bitterness and resentment prevail. Unlike Ted Williams (who wouldn’t make his peace with Boston fans until years later, when he returned as an opposition manager), John Lackey found the strength and decency to let it go.

It was, as I said, a small thing. But it took character, and it was the right thing to do.

______________________________
Graphic: USA Today

Ethics Hero: Derek Jeter

Roger Clemens is now on trial facing perjury charges. Barry Bonds has been convicted of obstruction of justice. Pacman Jones has just been arrested again; Tiger Woods hasn’t won a golf tournament since he was exposed as a serial adulterer. Through the travails and embarrassments of all of these and many more tarnished athletes who were once looked upon as cultural heroes, Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter has remained a constant— a team player, a clutch player, and an undeniably great player who has maintained his integrity and high values of competition and sportsmanship, never betraying the trust of his fans, his city, his team, or his game.

Yesterday Jeter reached 3000 hits, the watermark of the greatest of the greats, becoming the only lifetime New York Yankee to do so. He achieved the magic number with the flair only special players can muster, rising to a grand occasion like Ted Williams, hitting a home run in his final at bat, or Cal Ripken, marking  his passing of Lou Gehrig’s “iron man” record for consecutive games with a homer. Yesterday, Jeter passed 3000 in a rush, going 5 for 5 with the hit # 3000 being, yes, a round-tripper. Continue reading

Nomar, Beantown, and the Legacy Obligation

Organizations have histories, and that means they have debts to pay. Time moves on, and personnel changes, but the organization that neglects the human beings who played major roles in defining their image, goals, achievements and success has breached its integrity, and violated its Legacy Obligation.

For nearly eight seasons, shortstop Nomar Garciaparra was the face, heart, and soul of the Boston Red Sox. A spidery gymnast in the field who completed the Holy Trinity of Hall of Fame-bound shortstops—Jeter, A-Rod and “Nomah” —who lit up the American League in the mid-Nineties, Garciaparra was a home-grown fan idol. He did everything wonderfully and with panache; Ted Williams, the city’s reigning baseball god, pronounced him his official successor.

Then, suddenly, it all unraveled. Continue reading