One of the oft-used criticisms of those who prefer a more analytical approach to their baseball enjoyment is that we lose track of the beauty of the game by immersing ourselves in numbers (in our mother’s basement). Glossing over the caricatures, I want to instead spend my time discussing how the more analytical approach can, and should, result in a greater appreciation of the game.
The 2010 Texas Rangers reached a heretofore unseen level of success in the history of the Texas Rangers. In my time following them, I have encountered fans of every sort; from the retiree who has attended home games almost every year since they came to Texas to the proud new parents taking their kid to their first game; from the baseball fan a few states away who picked this team years ago to the diligent bedside visitor spending quality time with her ailing father-in-law. Baseball brings us together in strange ways; the 2010 Rangers especially so. The success after so much waiting is what many of us will appreciate when we look back. Our history can’t help but remind us that these moments should be savored.
As the shortened off-season gains momentum, we will all undoubtedly get pulled into the Chase for Cliff Lee, free agency and trade rumors, and that interminable period in late January when it seems that spring training will never arrive. As we get excited for next season, I want to remind us all of an important, oft-forgotten, point of baseball analysis:
It is very easy to look at the current Rangers team, retain Cliff Lee, add in free agent or trade target du jour and assume that since the Rangers won 90 games and the division last year, that they are likely to win 90-plus games this year. While fun and easy to do, this is actually a quite poor approach. Veteran baseball fans will tell you that it’s because every year is a new year and regale you with stories of the Hope of Opening Day.
In contrast, the more statistically inclined baseball fan will tell you that it’s because every year is a new year. Hmm, perhaps we’re not quite so contrary after all? Our reasoning for this strongly involves the concept of regression toward the mean. Since the use of statistics means selecting out certain numbers to make your point, it’s important to realize how likely it is that the statistics you’ve chosen will project going forward. In most cases, the answer is less than you expect.
Let’s take an example. Let’s say P. Francis, an unknown Rangers AAA player comes up to the major leagues in September and gets a hit in his only at-bat. Should we expect this (probably handsome) player to continue to bat 1.000 for the rest of his career? Of course not. Intuitively, we all understand regression to the mean in its most extreme forms. The unsaid point here is that there is (likely) a gap between P. Francis’ true talent level and his current batting average.
This happens with most every major league player as one projects forward based on their current statistics. The truth is that the most elite performances from one season are not repeated the following season. This is because though their true talent level may be very good, there is a certain amount of luck involved to achieve MVP or Cy Young production; that luck is unlikely to continue the next year.
The 2010 Texas Rangers had some truly elite performers. Josh Hamilton’s 8.0 WAR was worth almost an entire win over the second-place AL MVP candidate Adrian Beltre (7.1 WAR), and he did that in 23 fewer games. Whether you want to regress this to his career mean or the league mean, the point is that it is unwise to expect such an amazing season in 2011. Cliff Lee had a 7.1 WAR season, significantly better than Justin Verlander’s 6.3 WAR. This is not to say that Josh Hamilton or Cliff Lee will be an average player next year. However, they are likely to be closer to it than our fan instincts would first have us believe.
How much to regress these numbers and what to regress them to is a topic for another time. The point that I wanted to make here is that as we all get swept up in the fervor of the Hot Stove, don’t forget to take time to appreciate how truly great some of the 2010 individual performances were and how they all came together to form such a memorable team. For veteran fans and statheads agree on this: April brings a new team, a new season.
It’s just that this time, it has an entirely different meaning for Rangers fans.
[Editor's note: If you're unsure as to exactly who Prashanth Francis is, click here for the explanatory website announcement. Prashanth is currently pursuing his MD/PhD at Texas A&M, doing biochemistry research in Houston, TX, but today stops down to make his BBTiA debut, and I'm excited to welcome him to the active writing roster. -Joey]