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Nature vs. Nurture Part Deux: The Value Of Stats And Scouting In Baseball, Revisited

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A little more than a year ago, I wrote this post discussing the merits of statistical analysis and the merits of "other" analysis of baseball players; both have value, and the point of writing it was to ask for neither "side" to be as strident as they sometimes had become in saying "well, Player A is without question more valuable than Player B because this statistic is better and you cannot contradict me", or "I like so-and-so's scrappiness and so he's great and nothing else matters!"

Reaction to that post, if you check through the comments, was thoughtful and positive and I appreciated it. I raise this again now because recently, some baseball statistical analysts including Rany Jazayerli of Baseball Prospectus hosted "Sabermetrics Night at the Cell", a presentation of statistical methodology held in front of about 100 people in the conference center at the south side ballpark.

One thing Lindsey Willhite's article in the Daily Herald, linked above, points out is that the BP crew now understands that statistics don't necessarily tell the whole story:

Three years ago, BP hired Kevin Goldstein (and his Rolodex filled with scouts' numbers) away from Baseball America to provide the scouting perspective that they'd derided for so long.

"The more you learn, the more you realize what you don't know," Jazayerli said. "When we started, we thought statistical analysis was maybe not the only way, but was certainly the dominant way to be successful in running a baseball team.

"Just like 'Moneyball' isn't about walks, it's about the process, I think that's what Baseball Prospectus is about. We're trying to gain knowledge wherever it comes from. If that means admitting you're wrong sometimes, then so be it."

While I do very little statistical analysis on this site, anyone who thinks I don't understand advanced metrics is simply wrong. All I've ever said is that those shouldn't be the be-all and end-all of analysis of baseball players. There was a lot of heated discussion on this site last winter over the merits of the Cubs signing either Milton Bradley or Adam Dunn (as most of you know, I favored Dunn). It was said by some that 100 games worth of Bradley would be worth more than a full season of Dunn.

Going strictly by the numbers, that may very well be true. We have, however, seen some of the same troubles Milton Bradley had in several of his other major league stops come to pass here in Chicago as well -- a minor dustup with an umpire that dragged on forever before ending in a one-game suspension; injuries that kept him out of the lineup for two weeks without a DL stint, forcing the team to play a man short for that time and having him at less than full strength for much of the year; and one really, really bad day in the field and on the basepaths (granted, none of the misplays last Friday actually likely cost the Cubs anything). I don't think anyone can seriously argue that at this point in the 2009 season, the Cubs wouldn't have been better off with Dunn, who is among the league leaders in walks, runs, HR, RBI and OPS and who has not missed a game. Bradley's problem may be -- and note, I say "may" -- that he's trying too hard to live up to expectations and the large contract he signed. In this sense, his aggressiveness and passion for the game may be working against him.

And that's what I mean when I say, as I have often written here, "there are things about winning baseball games that you cannot measure on a stat sheet." There are things I have learned from various sources over the years about a number of Cubs players that I cannot and will not post on this site, things that would clearly affect their abilities to play the game at the highest level, and things that might have wound up getting them removed from the club when otherwise people would scratch their heads saying, "Why'd they dump him?" or "Why are they not dumping him?" There are factors that we DO know about -- example: the illness of Ryan Dempster's newborn -- that clearly have an influence on a player's performance, because they can take the focus off playing baseball.

All I have ever asked here is for people who are more statistically-oriented than I am to not say things like, "This player IS better than this player because of these numbers" -- you can only predict possible future performance from numbers, not make set-in-stone statements like that. Or "This player is bad at baseball." Not one major league player is "bad" at baseball; they wouldn't have gotten to the major leagues if they were "bad". Their performance can be poor and (cough Aaron Miles cough) we see that on a daily basis these days. At the same time, I pledge to you that I'll listen to you if you want to make a statistically-oriented argument in favor of, or against, a certain player, if you won't be dogmatic about it.

Mainly, I just wanted to provide a topic for discussion while we wait for tonight's game... these 48-hour gaps between games seem a lot longer than that, don't they? Fire away (but please, be nice to each other!).