Not to be too harsh on Jayson Stark since he is a far more respected writer than I will ever be, but his recent article regarding Ryan Braun’s great numbers against elite MLB pitching is a pretty good example of what bugs me as a reader of baseball articles and intimate lover of baseball statistics. Sorry Mr. Stark, but when I see my lady being abused like this, I have to stand up for her.
Stark sets up the article discussing the difference between good hitters and bad hitters, citing Aaron Miles as the example. He writes:
In 2009, according to Bill James Online, the Cubs’ Aaron Miles — a fellow who hit a robust .185 for the season — actually had a higher batting average against pitchers with an ERA over 5.25 than Ichiro Suzuki or Derek Jeter.
Miles did bat .324 last year against this inferior crop of pitchers. However, as Stark notes, against those whose ERAs were 3.50 or lower, Miles couldn’t hit a lick, posting a .085 AVG. Thus, Stark observes:
So you’ve now learned something about what separates the best hitters on earth from the .185 hitters on earth: The best hitters (feel free to sing along) hit good pitching. And your .185 hitters? Ehhhh, not so much.
And herein lies the root of the problem with the article. Logically speaking, I suppose it makes sense. You don’t expect bad hitters to hit good pitching. But you know what? Over a short span of time, they can. And they do.
I don’t know if Stark checked to see if this was something that Miles perpetually had trouble with. But the fact remains that in 2008, against pitchers with an ERA of 3.50 or better, Aaron Miles hit .347. Does this mean that Aaron Miles
used to be a star player ? We all know that he never was. Here’s a guy whose career batting line is a very mediocre .282/.322/.356. So what gives?
I’ve said it before and I’ll keep on saying it until William Stryker captures me and makes me mute ala Ryan Reynolds (anyone? anyone? no?) – although we’d like to believe that the outcome of a baseball game (or life in general, for that matter) is solely up to the players themselves, it’s just not true.
Takes Miles for instance again. How is it that he was a bad hitter in 2009 against top pitching when he excelled against top pitching the year before? It’s called luck, people. And especially for part-time players like Miles, luck plays a huge role in their year-end numbers because they don’t get many ABs.
You may have heard us geeks talk about “sample sizes” before and this is what we mean. In any given at-bat, the worst hitter in baseball can get a hit off the best pitcher. Maybe the pitcher made a rare mistake. Maybe it was a groundball that sneaked by the shortstop whereas a couple more inches to the right it would have been fielded with ease. Or maybe the batter closed his eyes and god had nothing better to do than answer his prayers. These things happen. In fact, they happen all the time. And over, say, 50 ABs, it could very well happen once, twice, or 20 times more. It’s unlikely. But the world is full of unlikely things. I mean, chances are, at least one of the Gosselin kids will lead a fairly happy life with no need for intensive therapy (I’m so topical!).
But have that same batter and pitcher face each other again 1000 times. I’ll bet the remaining $500.61 I have in my savings account that the numbers will be ugly for this hypothetical batter. Because the longer they play, the more reality sets in. You can’t tell anything about any player in 50ABs. And that’s basically the reliability of the information that Stark is using to make his argument. A player’s true skill level is not revealed statistically in such a short span of time. It takes much longer for that to happen.
No offense, Jayson, but to paraphrase the great Inigo Montoya, I do not think that stat means what you think it means.