On the ideas that people refuse to test

In the middle of Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller’s book “The only rule is it has to work,” which highlights the analytically-minded pair’s foray into baseball management with the independent-league Sonoma Stompers, there’s a four-paged glossy insert with pictures from the Stompers’ 2015 season.

The photos begin after page 177. While perfect for putting names to faces, the insert’s location also means that if you read too fast, you’ve missed my favorite part of the book.

In the pages before and after the pictures, Lindbergh and Miller link their situation in running the Stompers’ season to quotes made by Huston Street, the Angels closer who was asked about pitching in non-save situations.

“I’ll retire if [pitching in non-save situations] ever happens,” Street is quoted as saying. “It’s a ridiculous idea, it really is.”

The quote hits home for Lindbergh and Miller, who, until that point in the season, had been similarly using their closer Sean Conroy in only save situations. Although Lindbergh and Miller had wanted to bring Conroy in during any high leverage spot, the team’s manager, Feh Lentini, was to that point resistant. Lindbergh, author of this particular chapter, writes [emphasis mine]:

That last comment really rankles, because it cuts to the heart of why we’ve come to Sonoma: to put “on paper” ideas like this into practice. Thus far, it seems as if those who side with Street are right. Not because the idea of less restrictive roles doesn’t work — it did work, before league bullpens became hyper-specialized — but because everyone is so convinced it wouldn’t work that they aren’t even willing to try it. The idea is disqualified because it can’t pass a test that no one will allow it to take.

Street’s comments weigh on Lindbergh for days, leading to friction with Feh, eventually ending with the manager’s firing halfway through the Stompers season.

Altogether, Lindbergh and Miller’s entire book is worth reading. It’s the game all of us stats-nerds wish we had the chance to play – actually calling the shots, instead of just commenting about them. And the authors make the characters and events personal. You’re rooting for Conroy, you’re rooting for a random infield shift to work, you’re rooting for Christopher Long’s spreadsheet to spit out the best possible players, and you’re rooting for a Stompers title, all things you otherwise wouldn’t have known existed.

But it was Lindbergh’s summary of Street’s comments – and the personal and oft-tempestuous back and forth between baseball tradition and analytics strategy — which has stayed with me months after reading their book.

Indeed, statistical findings have changed the way in which teams across baseball, and to a lesser extent other sports, have assessed free-agents, implemented game-day strategy, and drafted future players. Stat-heads are also a relative bargain, as Rob and Ben suggested here, boasting strong ties to future improvement.

It’s not that one can guarantee that implementing analytical strategies will lead to success, for the same reason that Lindbergh and Miller couldn’t guarantee that every infield shift would work to the Stompers’ advantage. Moreover, not every statistical thought that is once assumed true will end up being correct. But it’s the actuality of implementing a test – the trying of something to see that whether or not it will work, and the ability to live either way with the consequences – that eats at us in sports analytics on a near daily basis. Don’t disqualify an idea because you’re not willing to try it.

And as a result, it’s when the most basic of tests can’t be taken that frustration boils over.

Statistics can beat the smartest of us in Chess and poker, know what friend you’ll connect with on Facebook, predict what you’ll buy on Amazon, and finish what you are searching for on Google.  If implemented properly, it will also allow sports teams to make better decisions across nearly all facets of the game.

It just needs the ability to take the test.

You can read more about Ben and Sam’s book here, or buy it on Amazon here


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