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Hic sunt dragones: Stats in the dark

Or, What Math Hasn't Touched

"Cease, cows, life is short."
"Cease, cows, life is short."
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Sabermetrics, born sometime around the 70's and named in the 80's, popularized by Moneyball, continues to totally transform this sport we all love, or spend lots of time thinking about. Love can be a strong word. However, we often love what harms us. Maybe love is a perfect word for a Mariners fan. I digress.

SABR brought in an entire new wave of thinking not just for front offices, but, and perhaps even more-so, a new means of digesting the game from the view of the casual fan. At its core, SABR seeks to find the truth within the game, to understand realities in a sport overflowing with dogma. New statistics emerged that needed consideration, and then were refined, and refined again.

As fans, often there is still a lot we are missing, despite believing we have all the numbers. So much of the modern statistics going on in front offices are done on proprietary information. The Kansas City Royals won the World Series, and played in it the previous season. They did so, like every other team attempts, by exploiting market inefficiencies. No longer are those inefficiencies as easily identifiable as OBP and Walk%.

Something is going on. We are starting to perhaps understand what we cannot understand. For all the amazing things sabermetrics and mathematical analysis of baseball has done for front offices and fans alike, there is a reason there are coaches on the field. As fans, we are woefully under-informed when it relates to SABR and the data points that teams have access to. Sometimes, we miss the nuts and bolts of the game.

The Bunt

The bunt is one of the most disparaged and cast-aside elements of the game, and has been since run probability went mainstream. Fairly so, as often the outcome of a bunt rarely does much, mathematically speaking, to advance the odds of scoring a run. A runner on first base with no outs is more valuable than one on second with one out. This of course generally depends on the desired outcome of the manager. In the above scenario, the sacrifice bunt makes it more likely to score a single run, but less likely to score multiple runs. Bunts are often called for and executed in times beyond game tying or game winning scenarios in the final frame. But why? The odds of the batter getting out haven't been materially altered, they are still rather favorable for the defense. However, and especially in this modern era of extreme defensive shifts, the bunt is a valuable tool, especially when it goes unused.

We have yet to publicly model how even the threat of a bunt changes the entire dynamic of infield positioning. The corners play tighter to the line and the plate, and the middle infielders are forced to pinch in some and give up the middle of the infield dirt. If there is a threat of a bunt, the batter has gained considerably more space to exploit.

What's more is a call for "random" bunting. This would mean a player dropping a bunt down in what would typically be considered a "non-bunting" scenario. Imagine how much this would alter defensive strategy on every single batter. We see it with Kyle Seager to beat his shift, but imagine it even more common place. If you watch positioning, essentially despite the pure-speed guys, the third baseman will position himself typically 5-10 feet in front of the outfield grass. It's deep, but it allows optimal range and reaction time on screamers down the line. Now, say he faces a team that randomly drops a bunt. He's forced to come in and reduce his reaction time. This affects the whole infield similarly, and ll of a sudden the holes in the infield are larger and the chance of grabbing an extra, unattended blade of grass with a swing have been altered for the hitter.

Pitch Sequencing

There is no denying that pitch sequencing matters. It's a foundational element of the game, and good sequencing can be the difference between a five-inning exit and an eight-inning gem. Calling a game falls on three different heads, typically the pitcher, catcher, and—particularly before the game—the coaching staff. This group has scouted the offense, weighed the pitcher's arsenal, and decided on a general plan of attack. However, the plan evolves and changes as the bullets start flying. Pitch sequencing is an organically evolving monster that adapts, essentially at random, from game to game, pitch to pitch.

Sure, there's predictability. If you have him with two strikes, shit even a full count, you throw Mike Zunino something that dives off the outside corner of the plate until he proves he won't swing, but the majority of hitters don't have a hole the size of the Mariana Trench in their zone. Even so, there will always be some random times they overcome their deficiency and flick a single just over the infield the opposite way. There is always something for the pitcher to exploit, but it is not done with perfect efficacy.

Pitch sequencing is intentional, meaningful, and stressed on players from a very young age. There is even anti-sequencing, a counter-strategy to the typical strategy. What if you just blow three straight fastballs instead of something off-speed here? It is the head game, and it's shockingly difficult to model. It is nonetheless the fabric of the game, perhaps more vital than anything we could ever touch with numbers.

Essentially, sequencing is the crux of the game. Every single pitch represents an attempt by the pitcher to either set up the next pitch, induce weak contact, or throw a strike. Game theory—sequencing—determines what he throws. Yet, in this modern time, we have no means of quantifying those who sequence well, and those who do not. This is a core element of pitching, and yet we have such a limited grasp of it. It may even be a core element of the catcher position. We know what a good hitter does, we can track that, yet we have no means of quantifying sequencing.

Even if we could identify who sequences better than others, what is the optimal pitch sequence? Is it fastball-fastball-slider-curve? Who does this most often? Where is it located? What hitters are most susceptible to it? We don't even know what question to ask first. We don't know if we're even asking the right questions.

Personnel Decisions

It is often decreed that the manager of a professional baseball team has no real influence beyond making the lineup and talking to the media. However, there is no doubt that personnel decisions affect the club in ways that we can't anticipate, and can't speak intelligently about.

Mariners fans will be familiar with the case of Justin Ruggiano and Rickie Weeks last season. The Mariners needed a roster spot, and had to cut one of their outfielders. Surprisingly, they chose Ruggiano. By all accounts, it was due to the fact that Rickie was a better clubhouse guy. He was beloved and respected by the other 24 guys in the clubhouse, and the small number of plate appearances he or Ruggiano would have received were deemed less valuable than intangible factors. I won't even touch group chemistry in this post (this book does a rather interesting job in its later chapters of discussing group dynamics, however) but there is no denying that it effects a clubhouse and shapes roster decisions.

Along with decisions like the one above, managers often make make day-to-day calls that can't really be given to us as fans. Why isn't Smith playing today? Don't ya know he mashes righties? Maybe Smith tweaked his back. Maybe Smith is hungover. Perhaps Smith is having marital issues and his mind isn't in it today. We, as fans, don't know what happens behind the scenes. These are humans, just like us, playing a well-modeled but imperfect game. Never forget the human element.


The science behind sports is ever more sophisticated. It pushes athletes towards levels of performance that once seemed impossible. It forces us to change our games to keep them safe. The science isn't solely athlete-centric, however. Teams are not doing battle just on the field—they also do so with analytics. The search for the next statistical breakthrough is unquenchable. Yet, we should temper the greed with which we consume new data points. We should pause to consider how it affects the game before hailing its influence. There are things data hasn't touched, or maybe cannot. On the day where the full team is finally reported and in camp for spring, let's not forget just how imperfect and human this all is.