The Great couch debate

added 5/2/2007 by Scott Barzilla

You can picture the typical scared Little Leaguer sitting at the plate with his bat on his shoulder. He doesn't take the bat off of his shoulder and hopes for the walk. Now, picture the same thing in your everyday third baseman. Is this cause for concern? Does having a player that would rather draw a walk than swing at a bad pitch make sense? These questions are vexing questions and depend greatly on which side of the fence you stand.

The two approaches are what we might call the traditional approach versus the empirical approach. Everyone knows where I stand on the issue, but I will try to be as even-handed as I possibly can. Both sides have their points and both sides have strong allies inside and outside the game. Even though I have been strongly in favor of the empirical approach I have tried to keep an open mind for the traditional.

Ironically, both sides have been accused of being arrogant. The traditionalists insist they don't need the numbers because they understand the game on a higher level. The empircalists consider those folks to be members of a flat earth society ready to harken baseball back to the Dark Ages. The truth is usually somewhere in between.

Of course, personality comes into play here as well. Often, I think it is odd that I am trained as a counselor and trained to deal in human emotions. Yet, here I am largely arguing for an empirical approach. I learned a great deal from coaching teenage girls this past year. I was ultimately in charge of deciding who would make the team, play, and where they would play. So, I am the general manager and coach of the team. More important than statistics are the relationships I've forged with the players. Each one is different and demand different things. It's the most challenging and rewarding thing I've done in my life.

One of the bulletin board posters talked about his tenure as a baseball coach. He let his assistant coaches do stats. I have no assistant coaches. Often, I would love to have someone do stats because it might help during a game. I remember on one occasion that someone told me a certain player had made sixteen errors in a match. This was news to me because I get so involved in every play that I don't count these things. It would have been nice to know.

This is where the empirical approach comes back into the fore. More and more baseball managers are using it. Eyewitness accounts are notoriously inaccurate. Police have problems with eyewitness testimony and we know from watching the game that our responses are often in part emotional. We are elated when the hometown guy gets a big hit. We are dejected, upset, or frustrated when he does not. These events are embedded in our memory and serve to distort our perspective.

Therefore, relying at least in part on numbers makes sense. Once we make that leap in logic, it only makes sense to continue to study numbers that correlate more strongly with what we are ultimately after. Simply put, this would be run production and run prevention. Usually, our eyewitness accounts jive with the empirical study. You don't need a stat geek like myself to tell you Arod is a very good hitter. The issue comes down when you have someone like Morgan Ensberg. The numbers and traditional eyewitness approaches don't agree.

I find myself being more and more in the middle on the issue. Any idiot can see that Ensberg isn't very aggressive at the plate. Everyone notices when he fails to drive a run in. Sometimes he takes a free pass instead and sometimes he looks a strike three. We could look at this behavior as being scared, being selfish, or the mark of a disciplined hitter. Having weaker hitters hitting behind him obviously plays a role in this.

The lesson I learned very quickly in the coaching process was that I could bang my head over what my players couldn't or wouldn't do. I could drill them over and over again on those things. I could yell and scream about the things they weren't doing. Sadly, none of these methods would be successful. At the end of the day it made a lot more sense to focus on what they could do and develop that. Somehow, I just don't see baseball and volleyball being that different in this regard.

One of the things that empirical data does indicate is that most baseball players do not change their approach to hitting much after entering the big leagues. Sure, they'll be more refined as they continue, but a free swinger will always be a free swinger and the picky "nerd" will always be the picky "nerd." You can bang your head about that, but all you will do is take more aspirin.

The final result of the debate is that you have some that believe Ensberg should sit or be traded while others believe he should continue on as is. Those on the trade Ensberg side should be aware of what they are dealing. There are places where patience at the plate come in handy. If they acknowledge the patience and its value and still want him traded I will not object. It would just be a shame to throw the baby out with the bath water.