Watch the Game

I like numbers.  Especially baseball numbers, how they can be manipulated to come up with all sorts of insightful and surprising results.  But the more games I see, the more I realize that they aren't the end-all, be-all of fantasy baseball analysis.  In fact, unless you watch a good number of games and understand how the numbers are being produced, they can be a path to fantasy baseball failure.

I would never suggest to anyone to ignore the numbers or that the numbers aren't very meaningful.  For far too long, the numbers, or at least the ones that had the most meaning, have been ignored by fans and baseball people alike.  However, it seems that over the last several years, the pendulum is swinging way too far in the other direction where there is an over-emphasis on the numbers.  This is as big a mistake as ignoring them.  To define players solely by their numbers will not result in an accurate picture of their contributions.  And there are several reasons why:

The first is that the recording of the game is not accurate.  At the SABR convention in Milwaukee a few years ago where he first introduced his Win Shares, Bill James suggested that it may be time to develop a more event-specific criteria for scoring games, a sentiment I agree with completely and have stated as much on this website.  Official scorers aren't perfect and the rules are nebulous enough on many details that it's fairly routine to get questionable rulings on a plays.  Through no fault of their own, an official scorer can register a play as one thing, but the complete opposite opinion might be the more accurate interpretation of what just happened.  For example, an outfielder breaks in on a line drive, realizes his mistake, doubles back and has just enough speed to make an attempt on the ball.  However, he comes up short and the batter ends up on third.  Is that a three base error or a triple?  Under rule 10.13 in the Official Rulebook it states, "Mental mistakes and misjudgments are not to be scored as errors unless specifically covered by the rules."  So, the "correct" ruling is that it's a triple, but everyone who sees the play thinks, "that guy made an error."  These kind of plays happen quite frequently - a game without at least one is a rarity - so why in the world should we completely trust the statistical results of things we know that at least part of the time are inaccurate interpretations of what actually happened.

Secondly, even the numbers without questionable judgment can be misleading.  Take a batter who strikes out a lot.  What does that tell you about him as a hitter?  Well, not really a whole lot.  Almost 40% (39.2% to be exact) of all non-hit strikes are foul balls.*   So if a hitter makes good contact, but is simply a bad guesser or has a bad mental approach to his at bats, he could have a very high strikeout total; he fouls off strike one and two and looks for the wrong pitch on strike three.  Likewise, a hitter who simply swings and misses a lot will have a high strikeout total as well.  In both cases, a low walk total could also be the result.  The difference is that one guy (the former) is a candidate for dramatic improvement because with a good hitting coach or with more experience facing the pitchers in his league, he could develop a better strategy to take advantage of his skills.  The latter player can not; no matter how much work he does, he will continue to swing and miss.  But how could you know that just by looking at the numbers?  The fact is, you can't.

Does a pitcher with mediocre strikeout numbers have mediocre stuff?  Or does he have great stuff but catches too much of the plate so hitters can foul off his best offerings?  Or does he not hide his pitches well or does he frequently make poor pitch selections?  Without knowing this information, it's unlikely you would have looked to Esteban Loaiza or Sidney Ponson as potentially good break-out candidates this year.  Are a pitcher's high walk totals because he's wild or because he nibbles at the outside of the strikezone?  How can you know by only looking at the numbers?  The wild pitcher with the great stuff has a much better chance to show dramatic improvement over the nibbler.  He's also more likely to maintain a high value throughout the season and in subsequent seasons.  And the nibbler is much more likely to endure a completely awful season.

The only way to really understand what the statisitics really mean is to have a visual context in which to place them.  And the only way to get that context is to watch games.  Just as making decisions without looking at the numbers is dangerous, making decisions based solely on the numbers can be just as damaging to your fantasy baseball hopes.  Watch the games, read the numbers, win your league.

* - thanks to STATS Inc for providing that information.