Wednesday, December 1, 2010


It's old news, but I still think it's karma that Rany Jazayerli has spent the last thirteen years rooting for the team with the worst record in baseball.

The man who brought you Pitcher Abuse Points is a Kansas City Royals fan, and that's proven to be as excruciating an experience for him as it was for many of us to watch the arbitrarily-conceived "abuse points" concept help usher in an approach to pitcher usage that is widely reviled.

Despite a "false start" in 2003 when they managed a winning record, the Royals have been corpse-like for the rest of the period since Pitcher Abuse Points was first concocted. It's doubtless a coincidence, but even with the Pittsburgh Pirates trying mightily to overtake them (actually, given my image above, "undertake" would a more appropriate phrase), Kansas City is still a land of baseball rigor mortis (a .416 WPCT from 1998--the year PAP was invented--through 2010).

I know that Rany still believes in sparing the pitches--and there's nothing wrong with that sentiment, it's just the pseudo-science that accompanied it that's still hard to swallow--but a little recantation might go a long way in hastening the end of his particular "curse." That falls under the heading of "concluding unscientific postscript," but it's meant in sympathy. Really.

Rany/Mitchum: "My God, just look at all that
young talent!!!"
His recent guest column for John Sickels, however, brings Rany into the noir mainstream--doing a Robert Mitchum impersonation. Why Mitchum? The great actor gave us some of noir's prize chumps, and reading Rany's breathless prose (something I must admit to avoiding as much as possible), one can see the infernal beauty of the noir "set-up" coiling into operation with a hand as slow and sure as Eric Clapton's.

Since Rany is a medical doctor, the best noir analogue for him and Mitch is Where Danger Lives, where Bob is a white-suited type who falls for a serious siren (Faith Domergue) who, in spite of her living doll looks, is a walking nut case. Smitten beyond the call of duty, however, Mitch gets in over his head and soon gets cracked on the noggin and remains woozy for the rest of the movie. He and Faith go on the lam (which is never a bad idea if one is a Royals' fan) and head for Mexico, but it's a fool's errand.

And one suspects that Rany's latest rhapsodizing about the Royals--despite the rumblings of talent that a team who's been drafting at or near the top for the past two decades is destined to have on hand--is likely to lead on a wild goose chase. The rough idea in the article (after one inhales enough oxygen to catch up with all that breathless prose...) is that the Royals have so much talent that there just isn't a snowball's chance in the Cuisinart that they'll fail again.

It's a nice, thorough list, but it relies too much on young pitchers. As always, Rany needs his old pal Rob Neyer to remind him about the primary location of heart-breaking events in baseball. So many young pitchers, so much dead meat.

What strikes me, of course, is that Rany's rhapsody here about the Royals' down-on-the-farm booty seems awfully reminiscent of the old BPro gumbo about the 1998-2001 Florida Marlins. It's not as if the BPro boys (and girls) haven't figured out that their old ideology of "play the kids" is not a just-add-water panacea to the "success cycle," but old habits die hard. (The Marlins, of course, traded and signed free agents in 2002 and 2003 and--after BPro had loudly given up on them--proceeded to win a World Series.)

"I'm beautiful but broken, like a small-market
franchise!! Nine out of ten of us are doomed!!"
At the end of 2009, Rany threw in the towel with the Royals. The jilted, sucker-punched lover finally had been pushed to the breaking point: led on, lied to, given a taste of forbidden fruit that had gone rancid before the first bite could be swallowed. And so on. But here we are, on the cusp of 2011, and the doctor is back to making house calls and cooing noises. What he's going to get, however, is a nightmare vision of the banshee in babe's clothing, whose expression (and actions) indicate that one is not in a "success cycle" at all, but a spin cycle.

Some people never learn.

AND that brings us to Sean Smith. Known as "AROM" over at the Baseball Think Factory, Sean is no wisecracking sidekick who's made it in large part due to other's coattails. He's a solid, sober, careful analyst who's appropriated a classic baseball analysis tool--Wins Above Replacement--and given it something new.

Which is why it's sad for me to see him "cross over" to the insider world.

If there's any place where a collectivist approach is warranted (and in the ongoing historical moment, using that word is tantamount to being put on the political equivalent of a "no fly list"), it is in the little world of baseball statistics. We don't need Sean Smiths going down the corporate rabbit hole--we need them united into a collective entity that pursues knowledge in a public way.

You are going to ask me now if it isn't simply sour grapes that motivates this thought (as well as the words above). Naturally, you'll be skeptical of any denial along those lines. But in the case of what Sean Smith is doing--and he is being singled out only to address a broader point--I can tell you that I've been approached by baseball teams in the past to work for them. And I have turned down the opportunity.

Why? Because I believe that an approach that fosters the idea that any one team should attempt to generate "secret knowledge" for the sake of competitive advantage is 100% wrong-headed. Sure, you can argue that no team will keep such an advantage for long--but that's not where my biggest objection is. Some categories of research are too sensitive to the competitive model that they become sullied and distorted when such an approach predominates.

The most encouraging aspect of the Internet with respect to baseball analysis is  that in the post-neo-sabermetric age, a proliferation of individuals like Sean Smith (and other collective aggregations, such as the group around The Hardball Times) have shifted the emphasis from careerism to collegial knowledge-seeking. Such a framework even includes the more blustery types--I won't mention them here, but you (and they) know who they are.

Some may call me a dreamer...and
I might just be the only one.
This was a fragile model that has been coming together over the past five-six years, with the emphasis on fragile--because the mom-and-pop talent base is susceptible to corporate raiding.

How to fix this? Petitiion the next commissioner (it's a waste of time to bring the following idea up to a former used-car salesman) to establish a centralized Bureau of Bilateral Baseball Analysis (yeah, I know what that acronym is...) to house a consortium of analytical talent that works collectively on "advanced metrics" and other matters. Not only do they perform such studies on behalf of all of major league baseball, but they publish books about it--even have web sites about it. They are funded to the point well beyond a "rich grandfather" and they are carefully--but not slavishly--peer-reviewed by independent auditors.

Is that naive? As Sarah Palin would say, you betcha. But that's how I see it. That's the only solution to having the best and brightest winding up working against one another. Some innovation can be competitive and not lead to such a toxic environment. But not this one. Not based on what we've dealt with in during the initial "neo-sabermetric" wave. We need a better approach, one that holds the corporate wolves at bay.

I wish Sean the best of luck. But I'd rather see him leading a team of analysts that helped baseball as a whole than as someone working for a single baseball team.