Baseball writing, data driven analysis and anxiety management

Pedroia's Itchy Nose

Member
SoSH Member
In my years of reading baseball writing in general and this forum in particular it has occured to me that fans put a huge amount of mental and emotional energy into managing the anxiety that comes with not knowing for sure what will happen in the future -- how players and teams will perform, who will get injured and the like. Of course, this problem is not unique to fans -- front offices also struggle with questions of uncertainty and put tremendous effort into developing techniques to help them predict future outcomes and thus manage their resources more efficiently. Different kinds of fans (and teams) attempt to accomplish this task in different ways. Front offices use a blend of observation and statistical analysis to guide decisionmaking, but the ratio and specific methods vary from organization to organization. Similarly, some fans hew to anecdotes, conventional wisdom and conceptual argumentation while others favor data driven analysis of varying depth and rigor. Emotionally, however, these thought processes are ultimately at least to some degree attempts to predict future outcomes and therefore settle the inevitable anxiety that comes with not knowing what will happen tomorrow, let alone in several years time.
 
The Ellsbury signing is an excellent example of this. It's currently in the first day since the deal was reported and hordes of internet fans and baseball writers alike have analyzed the trade and come to some judgment about its quality and impact. It's not difficult to find advocates for any number of conclusions about the deal. Plenty are willing to boldly predict that the signing was a coup that will dramatically improve the Yankees over the life of the contract. Others will take the opposite tack, arguing that Ellsbury is going to decline and quickly become an albatross. Some will advocate for a middle ground, suggesting that the signing makes the Yankees better over the short run but will likely cost them toward the end of the contract. Each of these positions can be supported by some forms of data, be they tabloid pablum or sophisticated statistical analysis.
 
Prospect analysis provides an equally fertile example. I can't even imagine how many words have been dedicated on this forum to attempts to determine how this or that prospect will perform. Will Xander flame out, achieve superstardom or somewhere in between? What about JBJ, Swihart, or Vazquez? Is Garin Cecchini going to start for the big club in 2015, and if so will he boom or bust?
 
In each of these cases we can cite all the scouting reports, crunch the numbers, and spout trite wisdom until the end of the day and still have very little real idea of what will happen. We may have a slightly better prediction, but our predictive power simply pales in comparison to the degree of uncertainty.
 
Consider again the Ellsbury signing. A lot of effort has gone into analyzing Ellsbury's likely performance over the life of the contract, but ultimately we have very little idea of what actually will come of the next seven or eight years. There is an entirely secondary layer of uncertainty that is quite relevant as well. Will the Ellsbury signing prevent the Yankees from retaining Cano or acquiring Tanaka? Further down the road the question of whether or not the Yankees will be relieved of their obligations to A-Rod becomes relevant as it changes the degree to which the Ellsbury signing will prevent the Yankees from landing talent in the future. Such questions are inherent in any discussion of the contract's value. Nevertheless, we have very little idea of how much the contract will limit the Yankees this year let alone in future years.
 
If we want to follow that road a bit further, we also are burdened with the uncertainty surrounding how these theoretical alternatives will perform in the future. If the Yankees sign Ellsbury but not Cano, then both players' future performance is fundamentally relevant to the evaluation of Ellsbury's contract. If they sign both players but then fail to sign, trade for, or otherwise acquire an unknown player in the future then that mystery player's performance is also relevant.
 
So all in all, we can make a bit of a guess at how Ellsbury will perform over the length of the contract but there is still a great deal of uncertainty there. We can make an even vaguer guess at how the Ellsbury signing will change the Yankees' ability to make other acquisitions in the near term, but have little to no information about the long term. As such, the opportunity cost of the signing is an even bigger question mark than the direct value of the signing itself. The same argument can be made for any prospect evaluation, trade suggestion, etc.
 
Teams, as active agents in the process, have a lot more information than we fans do. They are also at the mercy of necessity and have to make decisions based on whatever insight that they can get -- when playing a game of chance you take whatever edges you can find. So I understand, of course, why teams do this.
 
But why do we? Is developing an opinion that will account for a very small amount of the variance within a system and then shouting that opinion into the void all that therapeutic? The more I think about it, the more I can't help but feel that even the most reasoned and nuanced statistical argument is more intellectually dishonest than simply stating, "well shit, man, I don't really know." Is it really that important to have a solid opinion on a transaction within a day of its announcement?
 
Addendum: In retrospect I'm not sure if this is even the correct forum for this post. Mods, if you think this is in the wrong place please feel free to move it.
 

circus catch

lurker
Nov 6, 2009
238
Is it important to have a solid opinion on every transaction? No, but maybe the truth is that we would all have these strong opinions even if we weren't posting them, and if we didn't come here we'd be sharing them in other ways, often with people who have very little interest. Hell, I still do that now.  Just ask my wife. So at least this gives us an outlet and a community.
 
I don't think I'm here to win battles or score points. I spend a lot more time reading than posting. Often this site helps me formulate an opinion.
 
But in the end, shit man, I don't really know.
 

Reverend

for king and country
Lifetime Member
SoSH Member
Pedroia's Itchy Nose said:
But why do we? Is developing an opinion that will account for a very small amount of the variance within a system and then shouting that opinion into the void all that therapeutic? The more I think about it, the more I can't help but feel that even the most reasoned and nuanced statistical argument is more intellectually dishonest than simply stating, "well shit, man, I don't really know." Is it really that important to have a solid opinion on a transaction within a day of its announcement?
 
Plato, Republic, Book 7, 514a-517a, esp. 516c-516d.
 
O tempora, o mores!!
 

Pedroia's Itchy Nose

Member
SoSH Member
Reverend said:
 
Plato, Republic, Book 7, 514a-517a, esp. 516c-516d.
 
O tempora, o mores!!
 
Nice. Fair enough, although I would say that to me at least the question of plaudits directed towards those that most accurately predict is only reasonable within a very narrow window. If the ratio of signal to noise is low, then most of the variation in whose predictions are accurate is due to chance. If the ratio is very high, then it is relatively easy to make predictions and thus is not so noteworthy. To me, those who are truly interested in advancing the science of baseball analysis should be striving to develop their own methods of analysis. That is a pursuit that I can understand as it has the potential to add new value. Most baseball fans, however, are not really engaged in this way. At best you have people who do some critical analysis of the available metrics and make predictions based on what they feel are the best. A much more typical example is the person who develops an opinion and then seeks out the numbers that support the opinion... or perhaps even a person who simply repeats numbers with little to no critical thought behind it.
 
Circus catch -- I think I see what you are saying and agree that this is part of fandom. It's a way of making a very passive hobby seem a little less passive even though all of our argumentation really doesn't make much difference (with a few very rare exceptions, mostly among people doing the serious kind of analysis that I referred to above). For me it's very common to think of an idea that is of interest, start writing up a post, and then abandon it part way through or after I have finished once I realize that my opinion doesn't actually matter at all. I then wonder why I thought that convincing people on the internet that my opinion on a baseball issue was a good idea in the first place.
 

Sampo Gida

lurker
Aug 7, 2010
5,005
Its not just sports, but politics and economics and pretty much everything.  People have a mind, they think, and have opinions, some of them better than others.  Some like to express their opinions, and based on input to their opinion, may or may not modify their own opinion.  Also called the dialectic method of reasoning.
 
I guess you could say people should not bother to question the decisions  of their rulers, or the experts,  since they don't have access to all the information and are not smart enough.  But in a society where we  choose our leaders, including those of us who have trouble figuring out how to tie our shoes, it's  pretty much a way of life to make decisions on issues beyond our capabilities. It's not like experts and rulers are always right though.
 
Teams and sabermetricians use sophisticated mathematical models like Wall Street and Meteorologists in an effort to get their predictions right  However, not only are there the known unknowns but the unknown unknowns.   The ludic fallacy tells us there are inevitable imperfections in modeling the real world by particular models, and that unquestioning reliance on models blinds one to their limits, as Wall Street and many Meteorologists have found out the hard way.  So the best decisions also consider the intangibles.
 
I guess the short answer as to why we do this is, despite our severe limitations, is because we can.  Uncertainty is so large in predicting future events there really is no right answer at the time of the prediction, just the illusion of right and wrong.  The "wrong" decision can work out better than a "right" decision retrospectively.  As a fan, getting it wrong carries no dire consequences, unless you have a gambling problem, and in some cases such discussions are as entertaining as the games themselves. 
 

Pedroia's Itchy Nose

Member
SoSH Member
Sampo Gida said:
Its not just sports, but politics and economics and pretty much everything. 
 
I think you address this to a degree later on, but I think that politics and economics are fundamentally different from sports in this discussion given that many of us are active participants in politics and all of us are active participants in the economy. Convincing another of a point on politics or economics can have a measurable if minor impact.
 
Our sports fandom, except insofar as we gamble (as you mentioned) or play fantasy sports, is purely passive. To me that distinction is extraordinarily relevant. It's also worth noting that we create relatively clear divisions between talk about fantasy baseball and "real" baseball analysis.
 

ToeKneeArmAss

Paul Byrd's pitching coach
Lifetime Member
SoSH Member
Pedroia's Itchy Nose said:
In my years of reading baseball writing in general and this forum in particular it has occured to me that fans put a huge amount of mental and emotional energy into managing the anxiety that comes with not knowing for sure what will happen in the future -- how players and teams will perform, who will get injured and the like. Of course, this problem is not unique to fans -- front offices also struggle with questions of uncertainty and put tremendous effort into developing techniques to help them predict future outcomes and thus manage their resources more efficiently. Different kinds of fans (and teams) attempt to accomplish this task in different ways. Front offices use a blend of observation and statistical analysis to guide decisionmaking, but the ratio and specific methods vary from organization to organization. Similarly, some fans hew to anecdotes, conventional wisdom and conceptual argumentation while others favor data driven analysis of varying depth and rigor. Emotionally, however, these thought processes are ultimately at least to some degree attempts to predict future outcomes and therefore settle the inevitable anxiety that comes with not knowing what will happen tomorrow, let alone in several years time.
 
The Ellsbury signing is an excellent example of this. It's currently in the first day since the deal was reported and hordes of internet fans and baseball writers alike have analyzed the trade and come to some judgment about its quality and impact. It's not difficult to find advocates for any number of conclusions about the deal. Plenty are willing to boldly predict that the signing was a coup that will dramatically improve the Yankees over the life of the contract. Others will take the opposite tack, arguing that Ellsbury is going to decline and quickly become an albatross. Some will advocate for a middle ground, suggesting that the signing makes the Yankees better over the short run but will likely cost them toward the end of the contract. Each of these positions can be supported by some forms of data, be they tabloid pablum or sophisticated statistical analysis.
 
Prospect analysis provides an equally fertile example. I can't even imagine how many words have been dedicated on this forum to attempts to determine how this or that prospect will perform. Will Xander flame out, achieve superstardom or somewhere in between? What about JBJ, Swihart, or Vazquez? Is Garin Cecchini going to start for the big club in 2015, and if so will he boom or bust?
 
In each of these cases we can cite all the scouting reports, crunch the numbers, and spout trite wisdom until the end of the day and still have very little real idea of what will happen. We may have a slightly better prediction, but our predictive power simply pales in comparison to the degree of uncertainty.
 
Consider again the Ellsbury signing. A lot of effort has gone into analyzing Ellsbury's likely performance over the life of the contract, but ultimately we have very little idea of what actually will come of the next seven or eight years. There is an entirely secondary layer of uncertainty that is quite relevant as well. Will the Ellsbury signing prevent the Yankees from retaining Cano or acquiring Tanaka? Further down the road the question of whether or not the Yankees will be relieved of their obligations to A-Rod becomes relevant as it changes the degree to which the Ellsbury signing will prevent the Yankees from landing talent in the future. Such questions are inherent in any discussion of the contract's value. Nevertheless, we have very little idea of how much the contract will limit the Yankees this year let alone in future years.
 
If we want to follow that road a bit further, we also are burdened with the uncertainty surrounding how these theoretical alternatives will perform in the future. If the Yankees sign Ellsbury but not Cano, then both players' future performance is fundamentally relevant to the evaluation of Ellsbury's contract. If they sign both players but then fail to sign, trade for, or otherwise acquire an unknown player in the future then that mystery player's performance is also relevant.
 
So all in all, we can make a bit of a guess at how Ellsbury will perform over the length of the contract but there is still a great deal of uncertainty there. We can make an even vaguer guess at how the Ellsbury signing will change the Yankees' ability to make other acquisitions in the near term, but have little to no information about the long term. As such, the opportunity cost of the signing is an even bigger question mark than the direct value of the signing itself. The same argument can be made for any prospect evaluation, trade suggestion, etc.
 
Teams, as active agents in the process, have a lot more information than we fans do. They are also at the mercy of necessity and have to make decisions based on whatever insight that they can get -- when playing a game of chance you take whatever edges you can find. So I understand, of course, why teams do this.
 
But why do we? Is developing an opinion that will account for a very small amount of the variance within a system and then shouting that opinion into the void all that therapeutic? The more I think about it, the more I can't help but feel that even the most reasoned and nuanced statistical argument is more intellectually dishonest than simply stating, "well shit, man, I don't really know." Is it really that important to have a solid opinion on a transaction within a day of its announcement?
 
Addendum: In retrospect I'm not sure if this is even the correct forum for this post. Mods, if you think this is in the wrong place please feel free to move it.
 
Is it important to have an opinion on every transaction?  Is there really any shame in saying I really just don't know?  Is Plato relevant to the discussion?  Has there ever been a single post with as many question marks as the one quoted above?  Are any of the questions rhetorical?  Is this one?