Equilibrium

A few days ago, I did something that was probably kind of rude. I had just spent the afternoon in St. Augustine, Florida with my girlfriend, her sister, and their mother. We were driving back to Gainesville when I sheepishly warned everyone that I was putting my headphones on to listen to a podcast. No one seemed to care except for my girlfriend, who asked what the podcast was about. I told her it was Bill Simmons and Keith Law discussing baseball, a particularly interesting combination because of their wildly divergent perspectives on the sport. Simmons has been reluctant to embrace newer baseball statistics, even projecting some snark their way, while Law (who is snarky in his own right) is a sabermetrically-inclined scout and analyst. Anyway, my girlfriend wished me the best, and I tuned in.

Fast forward to today, when I was killing some time while my girlfriend tried on some clothes in shop here in Gainesville. I was poking around on Twitter when I saw this message. It was a pretty clear suggestion: Bill Simmons – the longtime baseball traditionalist, user of pitcher wins, RBIs, advocate of grit, guts, and heart – had finally come around on sabermetrics as a valid, useful, and pretty darn accessible method of evaluating baseball. Naturally, I immediately read Simmons’ column to make sure this had actually happened. And while it does indeed appear that Simmons has seen the light, reading his column did require some patience and understanding on my end. For example, the ease with which one can grasp a statistic is extremely important to Simmons. But he criticizes OPS+ for being inaccessible while touting VORP even though, and I quote: “only the robo-nerds know exactly how to calculate it.” Simmons also admits to having disliked sabermetrics because they were some combination of intimidating, threatening, and hard to comprehend, which tested my patience. I decided, however, that I admire his honestly because those are the reasons that I think most sportswriters and analysts are reluctant to embrace sabermetrics. It takes fortitude to say “these things were too daunting for me to explore, and that’s why I’ve been sticking to my guns” – even if it was an irritating admission to read. No matter what, it’s good to have Simmons aboard. He has a huge audience, and I’m hopeful that his embracing of sabermetrics will encourage others to at least consider the possibility of a world outside traditional baseball statistics.

In my ecstasy, I hollered to my changing room-enclosed girlfriend “Bill Simmons is cool with new baseball stats now!” To this she replied “maybe Keith Law rubbed off on him!” This is why I love her.

Of course, the universe does seems to tend towards equilibrium, which means that I was due for a dismaying bit of news in the coming days. Sure enough, I came upon this tragic (there is no better word for it) bit of news from the New York Mets’ camp. Off-season pickup and Kansas City Royals castoff (red flag!) Mike Jacobs will be batting cleanup on Opening Day, which presumably means that he’ll be occupying that spot for at least a few weeks. As a Yankees fan, this is wonderful news. As a fan of intelligence, this is heartbreaking.

Let’s ignore, for a moment, the studies showing that optimizing lineup construction in baseball isn’t all that important. By that I mean that the difference in production between a lineup constructed “optimally” and a lineup constructed randomly isn’t all that great. Instead, let’s focus on the widely-held idea in baseball that the fourth spot in the batting order should be one of the best hitters on the team. Every team in baseball puts the player that it considers to be its best or second-best hitter in the fourth spot. The Yankees hit Alex Rodriguez fourth. The Phillies hit Ryan Howard fourth. The Brewers hit Prince Fielder fourth. Excellent hitters – or at least the best hitter a team has to offer – hit fourth.

Given this widespread belief, one that every team in baseball practices, it stands to reason that the Mets believe Mike Jacobs is one of the best hitters on their team. This is the same Mike Jacobs who hit .228/.297/.401 in 2009 (.254/.313/.476 career, with a declining OBP in each of his five seasons), and who did so with average luck (BABIP) and a line drive rate that is perfectly aligned with his career norms. In other words, Jacobs received little luck either way in 2009 and was still awful. There are no underlying indicators of future success here. Jacobs is a terrible hitter, an out machine, and will be entrusted with perhaps the most vaunted of the nine lineup spots on a team that fancies itself a legitimate contender.

There is no excuse or justification for the Mets’ choice in this day and age. Fundamental statistics like OBP and SLG are no longer cutting edge nor at all difficult to understand. They are everywhere and simple, intuitive and essential. It has been suggested a few times that there are two teams in Major League Baseball that are paying no attention to the sweeping changes in performance analysis that the industry has undergone in the past decade: the San Francisco Giants and the New York Mets. Decisions like this one reinforce that notion, and indicate that the Mets have no idea what they’re doing.

Maybe Omar Minaya should hire Bill Simmons.

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