Wednesday, October 16, 2013

FTW

Following the lead of my friend and colleague Brad Willis on Twitter the other day, I admitted along with him that with the Major League Baseball playoffs having begun, I am only now giving the sport much attention.

Baseball was easily my favorite sport from early childhood through my mid-teens, and while I’ve continued to follow the game into adulthood it’s probably been more than two decades now since I can say I sincerely followed a season from beginning to end.

I used to be a Braves fan, and I remember that great worst-to-first turnaround back in 1991 as a wild ride from spring all of the way to Game 7 of the World Series. The 1992 season stands out, too, especially that three-run ninth inning to come back against Pittsburgh in the NLCS Game 7. I think when Sid Bream slid across home plate late that mid-October night, that might have been the last time I involuntarily rose up out of my seat while watching a baseball game on television, having been literally moved by what I was seeing.

Now, though, I’m much more passive with my playoff baseball watching, often doing other things -- like writing a blog post -- while a game is on. No longer feeling the pull of Braves fandom, I tend to root for entertaining games and can still be impressed by a particularly crafty pitcher, muscle-bound hitting feats, and those wild, split-second plays in the field to record improbable outs with zero margin error.

Since my close following of the game has been more or less reduced to a few weeks in the fall, I have to admit I’m not completely up on some of the more accepted “new” statistical measures like WHIP or WAR or OPS or BABIP and the like, neither to recognize their meaning or be able to understand readily what figures are good or bad.

That’s not to say I’m not interested in the games’ endless supply of numbers. Indeed, as a kid the box scores and stats were a big source of my fascination with baseball, something I’ve written about here before, including last summer when I wrote a couple of posts about Moneyball (here and here). But I’m only vaguely aware of baseball’s “new math” and its implications.

I am intrigued, though, by the debate over the value of wins when assessing a pitcher’s worth, an argument that seems to have gotten increasingly conspicuous over the last couple of years with some sabermetricians interested in “killing the win” as a much too arbitrary measure.

Wins are definitely assigned in ways that can sometimes confound common sense, such as when a pitcher throws eight shutout innings and departs with a 2-0 lead, a reliever comes in and gives up two runs to blow the save, then that reliever gets the victory when his team scores in the bottom of the ninth.

The win for pitchers is one of those stats that is probably unduly affected by chance elements. Above-average skilled pitchers (in particular starters) will tend to earn more wins than others, but the reliance on run support and lead-preserving bullpens obviously takes a lot out of the pitcher’s control. The obvious poker analogy would cite the player “getting it in good” then needing the cards to cooperate, with a similar emphasis on luck making it wrong on some level to be “results oriented” when it comes to pitchers and wins.

But I can’t imagine really and truly “killing the win” as some are suggesting should be done, even if we all know the team wins a game and not (just) the pitcher. So in this new age of baseball acronyms, I guess I remain stubbornly FTW.

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