Wronger than wrong

There are degrees of wrongness. If you believe the earth is flat, you are wrong. If you believe the earth is a sphere, you are also wrong, though less so.* As our knowledge of the world advances, the statement of the Earth’s shape becomes more refined. Equating the wrongness of the theory that the Earth is flat with the wrongness of the theory that the Earth is a perfect sphere is known as being “wronger than wrong.”

*The earth, as I’m sure you know, is actually an oblate spheroid.

This was described in great detail in Isaac Asimov’s The Relativity of Wrong. Being “wronger than wrong” means that you are clinging to outmoded beliefs and defending yourself by claiming that better ideas than yours are also incorrect. You refuse to address your own deficiencies.

You see this a lot in politics.

You also see this in baseball. A lot of older baseball fans/announcers/coaches refuse to acknowledge the major advances of baseball scouting and statistics, specifically over the last decade. Old schoolers flail their arms and claim that batting average, RBI’s, and pitcher wins are the best ways to value performance. New schoolers flail their spreadsheets and claim that stats like OPS+ and WAR are more valuable.

It is no secret that I lean towards new school stats – not because I think the old schoolers are wrong in every instance, but because newer stats work. They are, simply, better ways to measure individual performance.

But I think old schoolers are wrong, wronger than wrong, when they try to argue that sabermetrics don’t work, that they don’t capture the essence of baseball. In April, notorious White Sox announcer Hawk Harrelson claimed that the most important stat is not even a stat, it’s the will to win. And sure, you want players on your team that want to win. But it’s his way of arguing the point that stumbles into Asimov’s territory. Here is Baseball Prospectus describing it:

The other kind of extra special wrong Hawk stumbles into (in the same paragraph, no less!) is what Wolfgang Pauli called “not even wrong.” It’s when you make claims that can’t be refuted, and in doing so make claims that aren’t worth refuting. Hawk talks about “the will to win” (and believe me, he keeps repeating this) being the most important thing in baseball, and apparently it’s judged by how many wins you have. If you’ve won a lot, you had the will; if you didn’t, well, you didn’t.

People like Hawk will always roll out this line of thinking because it can’t be disproven, so they never reach a moment where they’re refuted and forced to actually quit. So what they never notice is that it’s also totally meaningless; you can only ever figure out who had the will to win after the fact, at which point it’s too late to do anything about it.

Sabermetrics, meanwhile, works the way science does: by making predictions (scientists call these hypotheses) that you can test. In testing them, you can find evidence for or against your prediction. And over time, as you come up with more hypotheses and do more testing, you inch closer to a better understanding of what it is you’re studying. One side effect of this is that you end up making predictions that have been tested, which turns out to be useful to people who have to make decisions about the future. So by trying to do baseball science, sabermetricians found themselves doing things that general managers could adopt and use to their own purposes. Hawk has noticed this, but it hasn’t exactly made him happy. In fact, it has made him kind of angry, which prompted a wonderful rant.

I wrote my senior thesis on a topic that captures the very essence of the old school vs. new school battle – the outmoded belief of lineup protection in baseball*. This is the idea that a hitter performs better with superior “protection,” or a better hitter behind him. I wanted to see if I could statistically prove that this belief was actually wrong. I wanted to see how people would argue the point for and against this mentality, to see if this idea of being “wronger than wrong” could be applied in this situation. It was a great case study of psychology and baseball, two of my favorite things.

*I pretty much hacked the system of writing a business senior thesis – 99% of people wrote theirs on equity markets or investment banking or financial policy. Somehow, I got permission to write mine on baseball. This basically allowed me to parlay research I would have done for fun into six college credits.

Here is an excerpt from my thesis:

Among the inner-baseball-circle of coaches, players, managers, and announcers, lineup protection is a well-established reality. You want to protect your best hitter by positioning an elite hitter behind him. On the mound, you do not want to put the opposing team’s best hitter on base when the next hitter can provide legitimate power. You have to attack the hitter with more fastballs and more strikes in order to avoid a walk. With easier pitches to hit, you would expect to see a higher level of performance.

The theory makes sense. For managers, protection remains an important factor when constructing a lineup. “I think protection is absolutely important,” says Mike Gambino, Boston College’s baseball coach since 2010. “For me, the most important factor is the pitch selection and plate discipline of the guy you’re talking about. If your four-hole hitter is a guy that’s disciplined and doesn’t chase out of the zone, and the five-hole hitter is a guy you’re not afraid of, then his production might not go way up, but his on base percentage will. Protection definitely changes how you manage a team and how you attack guys.”

Gambino believes that protection is an important mental factor and something that is not necessarily quantifiable. “When a pitcher knows he can get a quick, easy out, as opposed to an at bat that he has to grind through, I think that definitely helps how you perform. The mindset going into an at bat with runners in scoring position, knowing there’s a guy behind him that provides protection, is really different.”

Among members of the sabermetric community, protection is a well-established myth. There is no real evidence to prove the influence of protection; the numbers suggest that players will perform the same in almost all circumstances, regardless of the hitter behind them. Baseball Prospectus’ Will Carroll calls protection a “placebo effect,” an entirely mental phenomenon that bears no real significance in lineup construction. Yes, an elite cleanup hitter will help the production of the overall team, but it will not affect the performance of the three-hole hitter.

I won’t get into the nitty-gritty of the statistical models I used, but yeah, lineup protection isn’t real. On the whole, players will perform remarkably similar in all situations, regardless of protection, leverage, or what they ate for breakfast. The real things that affect individual performance (within the same season) are the ballpark, the opposing pitcher, injuries, and luck. The only real difference involves intentional walks – hitters do walk slightly less with better protection (and vice versa). But the effect is minimal.

And yet, it doesn’t matter. Old school thinkers will insist that protection matters. When I interviewed Coach Gambino, he was adamant that lineup protection is as real as anything in baseball. Most managers and announcers would agree.

It’s the way they argue their points that makes this phenomenon very interesting. Baseball managers don’t want to know the percentages. They don’t care. Here’s another quote from that Baseball Prospectus article:

It can be difficult for managers to incorporate new information and new learning and process it in real-time in a ballgame. And yes, some of the responsibility falls on the sabermetricians and the front-office types to make the information manageable and accessible and convenient to use. But some of it falls on the manager to adapt and incorporate every advantage he can get his hands on. Some managers won’t be able to bring themselves to do what it takes to bridge that gap, and yes, they will be left behind. Because there will be other managers who take it upon themselves to learn these things and take advantage of them.

Lineup protection matters, but not for the reason managers think it does. Protection strengthens the lineup and leads to more runs and runs batted in. The point of a major league baseball lineup is not to feature one player. A good team has strength throughout the lineup and sees contributions from many different players. A stronger lineup stacks the odds in that team’s favor, and has an undeniable mental effect on the opposing team. Protection makes the whole team better, but it does not make the preceding hitter any better or worse.

Protection is just one small example – in reality, whether a manager believes in lineup protection has a very small outcome on the game (but it is wrong). The things that do matter are things like sacrifice bunts (which managers use way too often), intentional walks (which managers also use too often), and lineup construction in general (like, you know, hitting Brent Lillibridge second).

So how do we solve the problem of Asimov? How do we get people in baseball to let go of their outdated beliefs and accept the advances of statistical analysis? It won’t be easy. It won’t come quickly. And, of course, more research is required on a number of fronts. But I think the first step is for people in baseball to be less stubborn, to be more open minded, and to be willing to admit their own deficiencies. The ‘eye-ball’ test in baseball can only go so far – you need to have some numbers to back up your thinking.

Until then, you’re just wronger than wrong.


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