Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Qualia of Baseball

Consider the following two ideas:

On the left, we have red—a wavelength of light, measured in nanometers, which the typical human retina perceives as red. On the right, we have, well, red. So these are both ideas of red, ideas of the same thing. One might argue that the idea on the left is the “real,” objective idea of red. But could a blind person study the idea on the left and be able to really know what red is? Wouldn’t their idea of red still be missing something very real?

This issue is the type philosophers like to talk about, and when they do, they use the term “qualia” (or “quale” in the singular) to refer to the type of thing the blind person is missing. Qualia are the actual substances of our subjective conscious experiences. They are the indescribable way things look, taste, and feel.

Baseball fans like to talk about the same type of issue. Except baseball fans use statistics, and terms like “intangibles.”

And I find it very curious that there seems to be an entire subset of baseball fans who don’t even think “intangibles” exist, let alone matter, when it comes to playing and winning baseball games.

Don’t get me wrong—as I always stress, I think baseball statistics can be very useful and insightful. The same can be said about measuring the wavelengths of the light we perceive as red. But statistics are only one piece of the picture, and in my opinion, a relatively small piece.

Baseball fans sometimes seem to lose sight of the fact baseball is a game played by people, not numbers. Players all have different personalities: they gain confidence—and lose confidence—from different sources and in different situations, both on and off the field. They get sick and injured. They can get distracted by marital problems, other hobbies, or maybe even the weather. And these things can affect how a player acts, and how a player acts affects how he plays.

Good managers stay aware of these things. They build relationships with their players and try to figure out what makes them tick. They keep up with how their players are feeling, both physically and mentally. They use this information along with more technical aspects to try and predict how they can get their players to perform at their best. These things are real, and they do actually matter. The world is a complex place.

“Intangibles” are only labeled as such because most fans don’t have access to the information needed to understand them. Fans don’t think they exist because they can only be in-artfully explained. It’s like trying to explain to a blind person what the quale of red is. Just because it can’t exactly be done doesn’t mean the quale of red doesn’t exist or matter.

All of this is an attempt to explain why I disagree with arguments such as “teams do not benefit from naming one pitcher as closer and then limiting use of that player to closing situations.” Steve Adams wrote an interesting critique involving this point over at Twinkie Town earlier today titled "Managerial Madness". I respectfully disagree. Maybe the team would be better if Matt Capps could be called in to pitch in every situation that, in hindsight, might have given the Twins a better chance to win. Maybe the Twins would be better served by a “closer-by-committee” type approach.

But maybe they wouldn’t.

I found some interesting stuff in this article published in the Tampa Bay Times last year after the Rays acquired Rafael Soriano to be their closer. The Rays didn’t have a closer for the majority of 2009. The article noted:

The Rays tried it, and tried it, and tried it, without a true closer last season — at least not after Troy Percival wore out in May — and it showed. Relying on manager Joe Maddon's matchup style and riding Howell until he wore down, they had a major-league-high nine pitchers record saves, their 22 blown saves were third most in the AL and their 65.1 save percentage ranked eighth.

Also telling: Their relievers worked an AL-low 457 1/3 innings but made a league-high 510 appearances.

The plan was taxing physically and mentally as the relievers had to prepare for numerous situations on a nightly, and sometimes several times a night, basis. "I think that kind of took its toll on us last year," Wheeler said. "If you can gear up for one area, it's not as draining."

The benefit should be obvious, starter James Shields said.

"I think one of the problems we had last year was that those guys in the bullpen didn't really have a role, they didn't really understand when they were coming in," he said. "Having Soriano, knowing we're going to have a closer, these guys are going to feel a little more comfortable."

That comfort factor is important, Wheeler said, suggesting a return to the format that worked so well for much of the 2008 championship season — matchups early and Percival at the end.

"It will help us out knowing if we have a lead in the ninth inning we're not going to have to have a couple guys up," Wheeler said. "We're going to have one guy going out there — win or lose, he's our guy."

Of course, does this mean having a closer is always the best way to go? No—but it doesn’t mean not having one is always going to make the team better either. Naming one player as closer can have real benefits, they just aren’t the kind you can fully explain using statistics. The best approach depends on the particular personalities on the team, and I know Gardy knows a lot more about that than me. Gardy is a good manager. He's not perfect, but no baseball manager can be.

I’m not the manager. I’m not a scientist. But I’m not blind, and I am, thankfully, a baseball fan. I like focusing on that aspect. To each their own, I don't mean to bash stat-heads, but I wanted to put this out there for people to consider.

No comments:

Post a Comment