Learning from success

added 10/6/2008 by Scott Barzilla

One of the frequent visitors at the discussion board (Clack) brought a Jerry Manuel quote to my attention. He probably did knowing that a expletive-laden tirade was on its way. According to Manuel, the Mets problem was that they relied too much on statistical analysis. They need more players (he hinted at) like Dustin Pedroia who defies statistical analysis. Let's forget for the moment that Pedroia was drafted because the Red Sox use statistical analysis.

This is where I love to see people overreact to what goes on in the post-season. If you look at the eight teams, you will see several different philosophies at work. The Brewers and Phillies built their teams around young position players. The problem for the Brewers is that the Phillies' players have been at it a few more years. The Cubs were largely built on patience at the plate and strong starting pitching. The Dodgers are going the same route as the Brewers and Phillies, but they have a few grizzled veterans thrown in for fun.

Go the American League and you see some different stories. The Rays had only one 30-home run guy, but they have young pitching coming out of their ears. The White Sox, on the other hand, have a lineup full of sluggers. The Red Sox have a deep lineup and a good, but not great, pitching staff while the Angels have stronger pitching, but hitting that isn't quite as dangerous. So, what is the point of all this?

Well, the point is that there is not one right way to do things. It is time that fans and executives alike learn to differentiate a baseball philosophy from the ability to implement that philosophy. In general, there is little difference between one philosophy's ability to win over another. However, there is a definite difference in the ability of teams to implement that philosophy well. That takes smart decision-making, good scouting and, yes, smart analysis of the numbers.

This is where Manuel and the like frequently get it wrong. Statistical analysis is not there to replace sound philosophy. It is there to help teams implement it. So, Manuel shouldn't be questioning statistics as much as the philosophy that has built the Mets and whether those that make decisions have made the best ones over the years.

In order to watch and learn from the playoffs we need to learn a few rules. First, any analysis of stats must have a wealth of data to be useful. People in the stats game call this statistical significance. Three games is not enough to do that. So, while many of us can laugh at the Cubs' misery (and believe you me, I am), we cannot assert anything of significance out of their governing philosophy. Maybe they ran into a hot team. Maybe they cadillaced down the stretch and lost their edge. Maybe the ghost of the billy goat is still haunting them. Maybe Steve Bartman put a hex on them. Anything is possible.

The second rule is to avoid playing "follow the leader". Unless you are the Yankees or Red Sox, you have to be somewhat creative to make things work. You have to take some chances. Therefore, it is important to avoid the temptation to take the same chances as champs. Think of it as playing craps in Vegas. Success in Vegas does not eliminate the fact that betting in Vegas is generally a losing proposition. Similarly, talking yourself into taking a huge risk just because the champs pulled it off generally does not pay off either.

Instead, you develop your own strategy and stick to it. Yes, you take chances, but you take chances that work for your team and not because some other team did it. 2009's champion will look different than 2008's. Alas, there will be a surprise team because there always is. This is where Manuel's comments anger me and make me sad at the same time. Every team uses stats. The question is what stats you use. Occasionally, teams do latch on to kernals of truth that propel them to success, but you have to be careful not to misread the tea leaves. Having people to analyze stats will help find that.

In the end, we should think of our stat people as foot soldiers in the war for the pennant. You can have all the best soldiers in the world, but if you don't have a good general establishing the objective then you end up rudderless. The Mets just gave their general manager an extension even though his team has imploded two years in a row. That doesn't seem like a statistical problem to me.