Baseball's lead-off stats interpreter — who now devises Red Sox strategies from his office in Kansas — has a few things to say about the Royals.

The Numbers Game 

Baseball's lead-off stats interpreter — who now devises Red Sox strategies from his office in Kansas — has a few things to say about the Royals.

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Tucker leads the Royals in home runs and makes the team's top five in nearly every offensive category. He excels in on-base percentage and slugging percentage, two of James' favorite measures. All that and fashion, too: In a Sports Illustrated players' poll, Tucker ranked among the game's best-dressed. Yet he remains a leading target for fan abuse.

"It's his whining," James explains. "Tucker has to glare at the umpire as if he had been viciously insulted at least once every game."

On the other hand, Harvey is a fan favorite for obvious reasons. He hustles, he's likeable, and he's hit some memorable late-inning home runs at heavily attended weekend games. But his walk-to-strikeout ratio is atrocious, which should raise red flags with any baseball analyst, and his power numbers aren't especially impressive. This is the type of player a regular James reader would expect him to shred.

"There is a common tension between the players I like to watch and the players I would recommend," he admits. "The players I would most recommend are often not fun to watch, and the players I like to watch are often not players I could recommend. Probably the two best examples of the latter were Ozzie Guillen and Alfredo Griffin -- perhaps the two most fun players to watch of the past twenty years."

James' emotionally based assessments of Tucker and Harvey establish one of the most underappreciated elements of his work: He's a fan first and foremost. Like a film-school-educated critic with a weakness for action flicks, James knows better. That he reacts instinctively anyway proves he deserves much better than his number-cruncher caricature. James allows subjective factors to enter his lists, and they're the better for it. "I think you should have to be a fan to write about sports," he says.

There's plenty of downtime at baseball games, especially doubleheaders.

So you start to wonder. For example, it seems that numbers might mean more in baseball because the margin of victory, even between the best and worst teams, can be so small. (A 3-2 Yankees victory over the Tigers, for example, would not be surprising.) Put another way, KU's football team probably couldn't stay within 30 points of Nebraska's, but an exceptionally well-prepared, if overmatched, baseball team might pull out a few extra one-run victories in a season. Right?

"The significance of what is gained bears a natural relationship to the scope of the battle," James replies. "What matters is how far the knowledge gained moves the team gaining the knowledge relative to the goal of ultimate victory. It might gain more games in baseball, but that is because it takes more games to win the ultimate victory. If football were played 162 games a year, then a system would develop in which each individual contest was relatively more in doubt. A victory over Nebraska would be an unlikely gain because it would be a huge gain. A victory over Nebraska should not be likened to a single game in baseball but to a half-dozen or more."

OK, what about when WHB 810 radio host Kevin Keitzman recently mentioned that Carlos Beltran might be overrated because of what Keitzman called a "statistics trap." Ken Harvey, he argued, is more valuable to the Royals than Beltran because of his late-inning heroics.

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