Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Lessons From Playoff Predictions  

Too many managers don't know how to handle the metrics their organizations provide them. Given that absence of understanding, they are probably not in a position to ask for help creating better ones, and it's a long reach to the best situation: A manager designing metrics for the specific group and situation.

It requires numeracy, yes, but a lot of very numerate people don't have enough craft knowledge to be able to carve out measures that differentiate the relevant from the less-critical. Just being numerate is not enough -- understanding context is a mandatory foundation for success.

There are some great examples of context, both present and missing, to learn through baseball. With the playoffs coming up, I thought it'd be particularly cogent to use some examples of analysis people use to attempt to predict who will win playoff series.


My very least favorite form of baseball playoff analysis is the position-by-position compare and contrast. Because the match-ups aren't yet jelled, I have no example to point you at, but if you read daily papers or weekly sports pubs, you're almost certain to see at least one set of this form that never fails to subtract from human understanding. The model works off the assumption that even though the game does not involve individual duels between each team's player at each position (the way basketball almost does), that if you match up each team's player at a position and compare and contrast them, then decide which team is better off at that position, sort of add up the "in favor of" count for each side, it will reveal some basic trend.

It's a basic 7th grader world view: Sheldon had to choose who to invite to the Supermall on Saturday; Britney is popular with his peer group, she already has some breast development, and she knows the name of the Brewers' utility infielder and his batting average; Kaysie on the other hand doesn't have pimples, is reputed to make out, gets good grades, and her family has a well-stocked refrigerator. Britney 3, Kaysie 4. Choice decided. (By the way, there are lots of adults who make decisions made on counting, sometimes by weighting and adding-up, more of a 10th grade world view. Most of these adults are male, but not all. Weight and add-up systems like this can be useful for examination and discussion and sometimes for winnowing a big pile of choices to a manageable number, but they're rarely useful for making a final decision).

Not to pick on the Milwaukee Journal specifically, I present one of theirs from three years ago (because it was the best example I could find in ten minutes of searching). Here's snippets from their analysis, just enough so that if you're not familiar with the model, you'll get the drift:

World Series: Position-by-position matchups

Last Updated: Oct. 26, 2001


New York's Tino Martinez vs. Arizona's Mark Grace: Martinez hasn't hit much in the post-season but is still counted on to be a primary run-producer for the Yankees. After years of playing with the foundering Cubs, Grace is finally getting his World Series spotlight. He doesn't have the same pop as Martinez but is a solid .300 hitter. Grace had to leave the decisive Game 5 of the NLCS with a strained hamstring, which could still be a problem. Edge: Even.


New York's Alfonso Soriano vs. Arizona's Craig Counsell: Soriano is a special rookie who broke the backs of the Seattle Mariners with his ninth-inning home run in Game 4 of the ALCS. He also makes mental mistakes at times. Counsell is one of those players whose destiny is to shine in the post-season. He appears to have ordinary skills but produces extraordinary results in October. Edge: Even.


New York's Derek Jeter vs. Arizona's Tony Womack: Jeter had a miserable ALCS, batting .118 with no extra-base hits. That should make the Diamondbacks very nervous, because Jeter is a fabulous player who usually does something to win a game or two each series. Womack has speed but does not get on base enough to fully utilize it. He has not been much of a factor in the post-season. Edge: Yankees.


New York's Chuck Knoblauch vs. Arizona's Luis Gonzalez: Knoblauch plays left field at times as if he is a converted infielder, which he is. He still does some nice things, however, such as batting .333 out of the leadoff spot in the ALCS. Gonzalez had an uncharacteristically poor showing vs. Atlanta (.211) and must carry a bigger load against the Yankees. Edge: Diamondbacks.


New York's Bernie Williams vs. Arizona's Steve Finley: Williams hit home runs in the last three games of the ALCS and now has 16 post-season blasts, fourth on the all-time list. Finley doesn't have the same flair for dramatic blows but is still a productive player and fielder. Williams just seems to make his hits count the most. Edge: Yankees.


New York's David Justice vs. Arizona's Erubiel Durazo: Justice is an experienced DH who knows how to handle the role. Obviously, no Arizona players have that background, but Durazo and David Delluci have been so productive off the bench that this lineup addition could actually help the D-Backs in New York. Edge: Even.


In effect, the Diamondbacks will try to beat the Yankees with two pitchers: Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson. Schilling might even go with three days of rest and be available for Games 1, 4 and 7. No pitchers have thrown as many pitches this season as that duo, so you have to wonder how much gas is left in the tank. The Yankees don't have to resort to such tactics because they go four-deep with Mike Mussina, Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens and Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez. All four have come through in the post-season in the past. Four arms usually beat two, even two outstanding arms. Edge: Yankees.


New York's Joe Torre vs. Arizona's Bob Brenly: Brenly did a nice job this year in getting the most from a veteran bunch, and has a smart bench coach in Bob Melvin. But Torre has four World Series rings in the last five years, almost certainly clinching a spot in the Hall of Fame. He usually pushes the right buttons, mainly because he has the most weapons. Edge: Yankees.


The Diamondbacks are to be commended for getting to the World Series in their fourth season, the fastest assent ever. And they are an experienced group that knows what it takes to win. But this World Series stuff is old hat for the Yankees, who always seem to do the right things in October. And, with the city recovering from the horror of Sept. 11, New York has more incentive than ever to become only the third team with four consecutive crowns. Edge: Yankees.


It's going to be interesting to see exactly how far Schilling and Johnson can take the Diamondbacks. Arizona better go on top while they are in the game because the bullpen is a disaster waiting for a place to happen. New York already has beaten the two teams with the best records in the majors this year. The Yankees' record in the last three World Series is 12-1. This one won't make it back to Phoenix.

Yankees in five.

When you read the individual head-to-heads, you'll see the writer is capable of good insight. For example, at DH, he doesn't assume the well-known Series-tested Dave Justice is automatically better than the young pair Erubiel "The Hermosillo Hammer" and David Dellucci because his name is more recognizable. He's open to the youngsters' strengths, too. On each comparison, he makes reasonably-informed & reasonable assumptions. A problem is, they are all presented as roughly equal, and presumed to be additive, as if an Intangible equalled a 3rd baseman equalled a Bullpen.

There are ten thousand other reasons this doesn't work as a prescient predictive model, one of the most important being it compartmentalizes things that should be viewed as complex, interactive systems. Some things do lend themselves a little to this kind of breakdown (schoolground basketball for one, where the head-to-head matchups are likely pretty consistent during a game, and where one of the matched players can usually play better in that match-up than the other and if one team has 3 or 4 edges and the other 2 or 1, the outcome will be the indicated one fairly often).

The subset of politicians who are primarily poll-driven instead of ideologically-based are prone to this counting-as-measuring kind of analysis. This position stands to win X voters in region Y, while the opposite might win N voters in region Z.

Again, it's not necessarily destructive, just a model that doesn't work in complex systems (and most important decisions one makes are about complex systems, not simple ones). Tools that make us reduce the variables we are going to marinate in and distill down the number of options for each we will consider are necessary steps on the way to conclusions. When we reduce and oversimplify prematurely, though, we are counting on chance to give us a boost. People who work this way can be veritable gushers of incompetence.

I think Commissioner Bud Selig forms many of his opinions based on hyper-simplistic model, and I think that's why it was "inconceivable" to him that an All-Star game could go into extra innings and the teams would run out of players.

It's easy to make decisions this way. It's not generally useful. In fact, I consider it The Curse of the Budbino.

In the next entry, I'll point to a clever set of fairly simple set of metrics one of the brightest sabermetricians uses to try to predict playoff success.

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