Over this past weekend, Trevor Crowe said something that made me think:
The first thing it made me think: Trevor Crowe has an iPad? That’s really neat. Maybe I should get me one of those…
It also made me think: Why the quotation marks? Does Trevor Crowe not believe that numbers actually exist? That they are so ethereal they must be referred to with scare quotes? Have numbers become, after all this, scary?
Then I got down to the meat of his comment. Namely, that people like me are dorks who don’t wear jocks. At least not for their intended purpose. And for that reason, no one should be casting any aspersions on Orlando Cabrera’s play this season.
His argument, of course, is that if you were to judge Orlando Cabrera on his numbers—those things that are measurable—you will miss all of the things that he brings to the table that aren’t measurable. I assume he’s talking about Cabrera’s leadership or his intelligence or his grit or his enthusiasm.* Let’s just lump these things into a single category called “Ecksteiness”—as in, “Wow! He may not have a great batting average, but that Cabrera has off-the-charts Ecksteiness!”
*It is possible of course, that Crowe was talking about Cabrera’s clutch ability or his defense. But those actually are attributes that we jockless wonders attempt to quantify, so I’m leaving them out. For whatever it’s worth, Cabrera’s performed well in both categories over the course of his career. He gets quantifiable credit for them.
And, while it’s hard for me to avoid a snarky response, I think ole’ Crazy Eyez Rally Killa™ might have a point here. There is so much about baseball that we can never know as fans, things that analysts can never quantify—so much darn Ecksteiness floating around—that every judgment we ever make is necessarily based on incomplete information. For example, I have no idea whether, at the major league level, having “confidence” at the plate really matters. I would assume that it does, but I would also assume that most professional athletes are already particularly confident beings. They are, after all, among the best thousand or so people in the world at what they do. The point is, I just don’t know. I can’t know. I don’t wear a jock, remember? And Ecksteiness comprises a thousand other things just like “confidence” that may or may not have an effect on a team’s ability to score or prevent runs.
So quite naturally, camps become established. In the face of all this confusion, you’re forced to be either a numbers guy or a jock guy. You either believe in the intangibles or you worship at the altar of pocket protectors. As soon as someone mocks the other side—something of which I’ve been particularly guilty at times—the arms race is on.
Which seems to me sort of sad. Because I really don’t believe that everything in baseball is quantifiable.
Certainly, a good deal of it is, maybe more than some believe. I know, for example, that Orlando Cabrera’s on-base percentage is currently .295. I know that he has made more outs for the Indians this year than any other player on the team. I know that his fielding hasn’t been as good as I’d hoped (though I’m not sure he’s cost us six runs as his UZR suggests).
But I also know that we’re winning. And I know that last year we weren’t. I know that this team feels different to me. They seem more cohesive. And, most importantly, I know that I don’t know enough to say that Orlando Cabrera is not responsible for some of this. He really could be—despite all the outs for which he’s been responsible.
It reminds me of the debates that statheads get into from time to time about managers. Make no mistake: managers do have an effect on the games. Pitching changes matter. Stolen base attempts and bunts matter. Even lineups matter a little bit. But none of these things matter nearly as much as our debates would lead you to believe. It seems to me that a manager’s biggest job isn’t strategy or in-game decision-making, but making sure that the roster stays focused and plays hard. These are things that—no matter how hard we try—we’ll always have some trouble quantifying.
Sometimes I hate Manny Acta’s decisions during the game. I reserve the right, as Jay Levin once put it, to engage in the lowest form of discourse: managerial second-guessing. But I also believe—even simultaneously—that he’s doing a great job, and was absolutely the right choice for Shapiro to have made.
The question to me then, is how much to weigh those intangibles? For a manager, I’d say you have to weigh them pretty significantly. I mean, unless your manager is Dusty Baker and he single-handedly destroys the arms of your best two pitchers by giving them unconscionable workloads, a manager’s biggest job is fairly hard to measure. Sure, it’s important to put players in a position to succeed and to know the percentages, but it’s a lot more important to have good players (which a manager can’t control) and motivated players (which he probably can, to an extent).
For players though? I don’t know. Crash Davis said you never mess with a winning streak, and I tend to agree. During that 14 game home-winning stretch, I wouldn’t have messed with the lineup either. Let O-Cab keep hacking away at the first pitch if that’s what’s working.
But the winning streak is over now, and Orlando’s still making outs at a prodigious pace. Someone with a pay-grade higher than my own will have to figure out pretty quickly if his Ecksteiness sufficiently counterweights his poor play. I would probably be thinking at least about tweaking the lineup, if not looking to Columbus for help. After all, two of our more Major-League-ready prospects happen to play second base (and that’s not even counting Jason Donald, who, once upon a time, mattered). I’d think about whether what we’ve gotten from Cabrera is already more than we had any right to expect, and that sometimes you need to quit while you’re ahead.
But what do I know? I don’t even own a jock.