Sunday, January 11, 2004
When the Houston Astros signed free-agent starting pitcher Andy Pettitte recently, a lot of the fan talk about it revolved around his reputation as a big-game pitcher. Yankee fans bemoaned his shabby treatment and most who talked about it expressed the feeling that the Yanks would suffer from the loss of his monster playoff and World Series performances. Astro fans expressed the feeling that his playoff clutchness would rub off on the younger pitchers, adding even more mojo than his individual performances. But...
THE REPUTATION IS NOT THE GUY -- LEN BARKER
In measuring performance, lazy management will frequently let a story with truth behind it or just good personal marketing overshadow the reality. Sometimes, the reputation was earned hundreds of events ago, with no comparable success since. Outside of baseball, this is very destructive. Unlike a lot of the bad metrics and bad interpretation of metrics and poor application of metrics discussions on this weblog over the last few months, this is the polar opposite: not allowing actual facts get in the way of good folklore. This Post-Modern Alfred E. Neuman approach I call "What, Me Measure?".
Here's a perfect baseball example; because the player's career is over, it, and his reputation is frozen, like a fly in amber. Many people old enough to remember the perfect game Len Barker, the Cleveland Indian workhorse, threw in 1981 against the Blue Jays, have a hard time remembering his career lingered on for another six years during which he was 40-51 with an ERA (a thin measure by itself, but somewhat indicative) 8% worse than the leagues-average performance for pitchers.
His reputation: workhorse (a guy who can be counted on to pitch a lot of innings of adequate or better performance) and a perfect game. In the rest of his career, he had one workhorse year, 1982, and he never again threw a no-hitter or one-hitter or two-hitter; he did have a handful of three-hitters and some perfectly fine performances, but basically he was a C-minus starting pitcher without a lot of durability. Len Barker and his reputation bore little resemblance to each other for the rest of his career. Broadcasters, fans, even some front office guys never let that stand in the way of their impressions.
A CURRENT EXAMPLE WITH DEEPER RESEARCH
Andy Pettitte's career reputation is more fluid because he's still playing. Right now, his reputation as the playoff clutch performer hold the field, but he probably has several years left, so there's time for more folklore and fact. His reputation will be changed as a not-Yankee, especially since he's moved to a different league. In moving to Houston, he'll be playing in Enron Field, a place that boosts offense some, though it slightly favored left-handed pitchers (like Pettitte) last year. Also, the Houston club is a pretty good team, while the Yankees have consistently been better than that (about 12 wins a year better over the last three years). A lot of things can happen.
But Thomas Ayers of the Ballpark Analysis site has compiled complete data on Pettitte's playoff and World Series pitching performances to help us judge whether the Louisianan's reputation is deserved, exaggerated or off-the-wall. The piece, Practically Awesome or Awesomely Practical, goes through a whole set of statistical comparisons between Pettitte's regular season and his post-season ones. The general indication is that his actual performance taken as a composite whole (remember my earlier warning about the average not being the guy) is very similar between the two.
Ayers' did very thorough tabulation and made interesting comments, but he didn't summarize with a package of stated conclusions. I think I can safely suggest heis belief at the end of his analysis is that Pettitte is no better in playoffs and World Series games than he is during the regular season, and perhaps his performances are slightly less good in the most crucial games. While his thinking approach is interesting, I don't exactly agree with some of his methods. He altered Bill James' Game Score, which is a TOGN (The One Great Number) that is useful if not cosmic. And he used his own judgement to decide which of the post-season games Pettitte pitched in were Most and Least Crucial. I don't take issue with his choices, only that any game is "more" or "less" crucial in a seven- or five game series.
Ayers ran multiple tables to contrast Pettitte's performance. So I can use Ayers' tables to posit simpler, broader conclusions. Here's his biggest table, listing every Pettitte career playoff or World Series start (I trimmed a few columns to simplify it, then resorted it based on whether Pettitte got a Win, had no decision, or a Loss).
In my next entry, I'll walk through some of my conclusions and my thinking in getting there.
But no matter what conclusions Ayers comes to, or I come to, it will be a more informed set of conclusions that anyone can get by simply rejecting the data and waving around the guy's reputation. As a manager, it's important you not allow yourself to be fooled by legends, sagas, or other folkloric performance data that corrode organizational vitality as surely as the intentional lies of the annual litany of Soviet "record-breaking yields" and the just plain lazy parroting of things one hasn't bothered to examine or analyze.
Let's hope for the Astros' sake, they signed Pettitte for what they actually knew about him beyond his regional connection and his reputation, and that it wasn't just Astro-logy.
The reputation is not the guy.
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