Saturday, May 26, 2012


Joe: Doesn't need the cap the way Mike does, but could use a
splashier coat & shirt to add flair to his grumble...
OK, we'll play along here. It's probably semi-coincidental (how's that for hedging?) that several of the old,  tragically diaspora-ized crew from Baseball Prospectus popped up (they always did have a strong tendency to uppercut...) to warn us off the surprisingly successful 2012 incarnation of the Baltimore Orioles.

Mike: "I've always been better
than a 'replacement-level' singer!!"
Our knee-jerk reaction (which began to coalesce way back in 1997, meaning that this is the fifteenth anniversary of our yeoman efforts to merely look askance at the misbegotten moonings of the MBA cadre) was simply to take the opposite tack from what Rany Jazayerli, in full bluster mode at (g)Rantand--and Joe Sheehan, cementing his position as the Mike Love of neo-sabermetrics over at SI--were putting forth.

"fWAR!"..."bWAR!!" "fWAR!!"..."bWAR!!!"
But that's too simple. As those of you who clothespin your nose and come over here when not exercising better judgment already know, we are attracted to complication. And so rather than merely concluding "more BP alumni asshattery," we decided to examine Sheehan's article at greater length, mostly to see how the grammar and rhetoric of neo-sabe orthodoxy was holding up as it slouches toward its post-adolescent years. (Rany's material remains so one-note that it still fits into the original Stalinist model that propelled the post-neo-sabe movement into its current mystical WAR zone, where the "dance of the dueling uber-stats" continues apace even as each competing pirate-boat furiously retools its wind machines to offset their slackening sails.)

Sheehan, however is cagier, lurching (with a curious, overly assured professorial tone) toward a position neither prone nor supine but more off-handedly propped up, like one of those posed porno shots--conjuring up another worrisome sub-genre of "neo" discourse, one that the traumatized taxonomist is forced to term (though not without justifiable trepidation) "meta-neo-sabermetrics."

Ol' Uncle Joe is more avuncular here than in most of his narratives, borrowing from "post-neos" (the FanGraphs folks who've glommed into the old BP/SI hegemony) as he carefully suggests (well, possibly only in comparison to Rany's contemptuous dismissal...) that the O's early success (how dare these guys get in the way of us continuing to sell the Rays' story!!) is founded on shaky, probably unsustainable factors.

Adam Jones: "Hey,, man, I
can keep hittin' 'em just this much farther
and that gets 'em just over the fence, see?!"
What does Joe borrow? FanGraphs' ballyhooed but largely uncorrelated stat, home runs per fly ball (HR/FB). Last time we checked, this stat had only one proven application--as a metric (there, we said it!) for pitcher performance. Here's where the "meta" comes in. Joe, looking to take (as opposed to break) new ground, implies a correlation for offensive success in his use of HR/FB to characterize the O's early run scoring in '12.

Joe's strategy in the piece is to use variations of a "regression to the mean" argument to suggest (note the use of the world "probably") that the O's aren't quite ready to step up and contend. "Unknown" relief pitchers overachieving, "unsustainable" HR/FB ratios--these are the rhetorical undergarments of a grammar still more ideological than scientific.

There's no mention of exactly how much better the O's are doing at run prevention (the exact number, -1.12, is a figure that might call too much attention to itself). There's a discussion of how the O's have a poor defense (though no corroborative reference is provided; indeed, the O's are committing more errors than most AL teams--but so, for that matter, are the Rays).

Dylan Bundy: maybe the next Roy Oswalt, but the O's might
need the current one to be able to make the post-season.
Joe is also quick to display his knowledge of Baltimore's farm system, as he plants the "kiss of death" on 19-year-old pitching prospect Dylan Bundy, whose first thirty innings in the SAL, to be sure,  have been electrifying--but the idea that any young pitcher will simply leap to the majors and dominate is far-fetched at best. [UPDATE: The O's have promoted Bundy this weekend--from low-A to high-A.] Hey, it sounds good, though, doesn't it? It's some canny misdirection disguised as long-term thinking--an echo of the "success cycle" kitchen-sink morass that played such a key role in the genesis of the Moneyball myth.

Dan Duquette, showing that he's been watching videotape
of Mike Love's gesticulatory prowess...
We couldn't find a previous Sheehan reference to Dan Duquette (the man who still gets too little credit for the Red Sox success in the first half of last decade), but the passive-aggressive phrasing suggests that Joe may have said something disparaging somewhere along the line when the former Sox executive took over in Baltimore last winter--thus what we in the biz like to call the "covering qualification," which is a statement that attempts to convince that the writer really had a more open mind back at the point in time when he/she made a sweepingly dismissive statement.

All in all, it's a skilled, slightly overwound example of "meta-neo" journalism, carefully positioned to allow for some prognosticative leeway should the O's continue to thrive. It alludes to deep numerical forces that sound empirical even if no point of connection has actually been made to how games are actually won and lost.

Tommy Hunter: the deeper into the game he goes,
the worse things get.
Sheehan might have looked at the O's pitchers' inning-by-inning performance, which indicates that the O's starters need a short leash in the sixth inning, the flashpoint of danger for most of the staff so far in '12--a collective 7.43 ERA. (The inning-by-inning stats also strongly suggest that Tommy Hunter should be moved to the bullpen.)

So what can we leave you with, after you've bravely waded through another of our more braken-than-thou desconstructions? How about some historical facts, based on the results of all the teams in baseball history who were 29-17 after their first 46 games played. Sound good? And possibly useful, at least for setting some odds as to how things might turn out from this point until the end of the 2012 season as regards the O's?

OK, fair enough. Not counting the '12 O's, there have been 74 teams since 1901 who've started the year exactly 29-17 after 46 games. Of those teams, 29 have finished first (league or division). Two teams made the post-season via the wild card (ironically, both were Red Sox teams--one of them being the fabled 2004 squad, which--yes--started 29-17).

So 45% of the teams that started 29-17 continued into the postseason.

69 out of the 74 teams finished at .500 or better. (Remember that Rany assured us that the O's would finish under .500. That's happened only five times--or just 7% of the time.)

We could find no usable correlation between teams' Pythagorean Winning Percentage (PWP) after 46 games and their eventual won-loss record. So the fact that the O's are playing better than their runs scored-runs allowed suggests is not a serious predictive factor, despite what the ideologues would like to have you believe.

The O's fate in '12 is clearly in the hands of their pitchers and how well they hold up. As the chart shows, the starters are the area of most concern at the moment. To not fade away in the stretch, the O's might want to take a flyer at Roy Oswalt, who could replace Hunter in the rotation and give them a chance to make the post-season. It's a three-to-four win swing that will probably make all the difference in what is a much more balanced AL East than at any time in recent memory...