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dwintheiser

Who are you going to believe? Me or your own eyes?

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Let's get this one out of the way before the season starts.

Some knowledge about baseball is much easier to get from personal observation than from statistics. (Does he look good in the field? Is he a confident or tentative baserunner?) Other knowledge of baseball is much easier to get from statistics than from personal observation. (How often does he hit into double plays? How many defensive plays does he make in a season?)

In those situations where you can go either with what you see on the field or what you see in the numbers, how do you decide what weight to give to each bit of info? I'm going to modify a classic thought-experiment from Bill James to try to convince you that you should give your personal insights from watching games pretty much zero weight.

First, let's set the parameters of the experiment. Let's say you went to enough games at Target Field last year so that you saw exactly twenty games started by Delmon Young and exactly twenty started by Jim Thome. (Obviously, you could go to a game where both started, in which case you'd have gone to fewer than 40 total games, but I digress...)

Could you tell, just based on your own observations, whether Thome or Young was the better hitter?

First, the basics. Young had 41 hits at Target Field in 2011, while Thome had 23. Odds are, you'd have seen Young get more hits, maybe a lot more, than Thome did in the games you attended. There's a chance that you went to a lot of games where Young got the sombrero and Thome got hits, but the most likely outcome is that you saw Young running to first more often. On the other hand, Thome hit six homers in Target Field while Young hit just one, so you probably saw more Thome homers. You probably also noticed Thome walk more (21 to 7) and strike out more (39 to 28). If you noticed any difference in them hitting into double plays, it was entirely a matter of chance (4 GIDPs apiece). Do you think you could tell who was the better hitter based on that information?

Keep in mind that this doesn't take into account how well these players hit on the road, since you didn't see that in person. (By the numbers, Young hit worse on the road in 2011, while Thome hit better.) If you went to a lot of games in June, you almost certainly saw Young (.321/754 in June) hit much better than Thome (.200/533 in June), but if you went a lot in May, you probably saw the opposite (Young .197/448 in May, Thome .316/1146). How would you filter all that out?

And yes, I know that everything I've mentioned has numbers to back it up, but what would you look for that wasn't in the numbers? Can you tell the difference, in 20 games, between a fielder who's uncomfortable playing defense and one who has no business putting on a glove? Between an aggressive hitter and a hacker? Based on blog comments and Twitter posts, it seems like a lot of guys who go to 20-40 games a year think they have just as good a scouting eye as real MLB scouts, who watch 200-300 baseball games, live, every year, at all levels of play, not just in the big leagues. I have no doubt that when you have that much experience watching live players, you develop an ability to see some things that the casual or even the committed fan generally misses. After all, that's why a good color commentator can point things out to you that you wouldn't normally see during a game. That's one reason, and a decent one, why folks who know 'inside baseball' tend to dismiss those of us out here in the blogosphere.

When it comes to us blog guys talking about batting stances and pitching motions, I'm inclined to believe the inside baseball guys -- unless you're a specialist who is focusing on that particularly (like Batting Stance Guy), odds are you don't know nearly as much about batting stances as you think you do, and certainly not as much as a guy who makes his living looking at ballplayers and their batting stances.

On the other hand, you can watch 20, 40, or 300 games and still miss things. For instance, did you know that, based on baseballreference.com numbers, Delmon Young's glove was worth 11 defensive runs to the Twins last year? The glove that many in our blogosphere say belonged to the worst left fielder in recent history was worth an entire win to our beloved ballclub -- could have been the difference between 99 and 100 losses, even?

Naw, I hear you saying, that can't be true. I don't have to believe the numbers, when I have the evidence my own eyes provide. So, what did your eyes tell you about Thome's and Young's bats last year, slugger?
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  1. Parker Hageman's Avatar
    When it comes to us blog guys talking about batting stances and pitching motions, I'm inclined to believe the inside baseball guys -- unless you're a specialist who is focusing on that particularly (like Batting Stance Guy), odds are you don't know nearly as much about batting stances as you think you do, and certainly not as much as a guy who makes his living looking at ballplayers and their batting stances.
    Gee, I feel slighted.
  2. Jim H's Avatar
    Most baseball fans who are more than casual fans, appreciate stats. I certainly do. But that doesn't mean that stats can't be interpreted in different ways or even shaped to fit your point. Using a single stat to "prove" something is almost always misleading. I really like stats like WHIP and OPS but like all rate stats they hardly tell you the whole story.

    Some of the newer "stats" like UZR are dangerous in the hands of people who don't really understand stats to begin with. Sometime I will would like to write about UZR, since I am not really sure it measures anything tangible about fielding. Still stats like WAR are worse, because nobody knows what they contain, and yet they are a single number that people use to compare the value of different players. Imagine a single number that can tell you to the relative value of a center fielder with 600 ABs and long reliever with 60 innings.
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