Blind Spots in Baseball
In 1991, I was 11 years old and able to watch what was probably the best World Series of all time (or at least in my lifetime) as the Minnesota Twins held off the Atlanta Braves. In that series, I was pretty impressed by a young infielder named Mark Lemke who just hit all series.
Against the Twins, Lemke hit .417/.462/.708, and while all I really ever knew was the batting average part of that line at the time, he looked like a great young player, and for years, anytime I’d hear his name, I’d just think “Dang. Mark Lemke. He’s really good.”
In hindsight, we know that’s not the case. He was serviceable; he was fine. But good? Lemke had one season by OPS+ that would put him even in the neighborhood of average, and only one season where his bWAR would be what Baseball-Reference would categorize as greater than just a sub. But it didn’t matter over the years, as I didn’t know what those numbers were or what they meant until much later, so my perception of Lemke was always influenced by those initial observations.
For years, I had myself convinced that Lemke was an All-Star kind of player. I bring this up not to suppose that it was the advanced stats that led to my awakening – that I would have continued thinking Lemke was great until the end of my days without Fangraphs and B-R. It’s more that I was blinded by a performance in the biggest stage and the truth wasn’t to be seen.
Let’s look at another example: Justin Maxwell.
He’s bounced around the league a bit, going from Washington to New York to Houston to Kansas City. He’s 30 years old. In limited time, he’s been right about league average based on his OPS+ (99 as of Saturday morning). He has good power (.199 ISO), but he’s prone to strike out (31.5% career rate) but he can at least take a walk (10.5%). He’s not a perfect player; he’s not a bad player. There’s potential (the power) but some factors that may limit him (age, contact ability).
There’s been a small groundswell to have him take over at DH. I’ve seen it on Facebook comments, Twitter, article comments, and Iâ€™ve heard it from radio callers. Heâ€™s done fine since the Royals acquired him, but I wonder if thereâ€™d be as much support for him if not for September 22, 2013. Bases loaded, last home game. A 3-2 count, and Maxwell destroyed a Joakim Soria pitch for a grand slam.
It was an awesome moment, but one that I think made Maxwell look like something he may not be. Maybe with the opportunity, he can hit for better average and put his power to use, but the track record is there: he’s likely not more than an average player. On a daily basis, Maxwell probably canâ€™t do what Billy Butler has done as a hitter at DH.
And that’s fine! Teams need the average guys just like they need superstars. And Maxwell can play the field, so Iâ€™m not trying to say he isnâ€™t valuable himself. One big moment, however, doesn’t usually turn someone into something they’re not. It can change their perception, and that’s about it. Bill Mazeroski and Frank White have similar career numbers and excellent defensive reputations. One is in the Hall of Fame. One is not. If Maz doesn’t end the 1960 World Series with a homer, is he in? I don’t think so.
This battle between truth and perception happens all the time. I wasn’t a fan of the Jason Vargas signing. He’s about as generic a pitcher as you’ll find, and I don’t think there’s a lot of upside to him. During spring training, I saw that the Rangers had signed Joe Saunders, and I thought to myself “I’d rather have Saunders than Vargas.”
Then I looked at their numbers. Vargas has been much better than Saunders. Better strikeout rate, better walk rate, better WHIP. He handles more innings. He’s two years younger. I had an idea in my head that Vargas wasn’t as good as he might be, and an alternative looked better because of that idea. (Vargas is still a pretty average guy, though.)
The point of all this is to find those blind spots and try to avoid them or be open to other ideas. Before 2013, one of my goals was to be less reactionary to the day by day games and performances. It’s the internet, so people are easily pushed up or down the roller coaster, and it’s easy to lose perspective in the moment. This season, a goal for myself is to avoid falling into the trap of seeing a player the same way in the midst of ever-changing evidence.
A forum such as this one is difficult to navigate without losing something in a blind spot. We’re fans first and writers second. We enjoy discussing the game and the players, but in the end, we’re going to have our favorites. And that can create problems when analyzing honestly. Billy Butler is a great example of this at work.
He’s been most productive hitter on the team over the past five years, leading the team in RBI and finishing in the top three in runs scored every year since 2009 (well, except when he finished three runs behind third place in 2011). He’s been an All-Star, a Silver Slugger, and a face of the franchise. But a down year in 2013 soured many against him and a horrid start to 2014 have him all but burnt in effigy, and it brings up an uncomfortable feeling if you’re a fan of Butler, as I am.
Somewhere, you have to realize that players are declining and this could be the start of it for Butler – or worse, last year was the start and we’re seeing the collapse now.
On one hand, there’s a track record, and it’s only a few weeks into the season, so the hunch is that he’ll turn things around and be the usual Billy Butler. On the other hand, players sometimes just stop being productive and the question of “can this player really get it back?” has to be addressed. Butler’s been moved down in the lineup and he’s gotten a few hits after the move, but until he ends up hitting homers instead of singles and line drives instead of grounders, the question will be hanging over him and his fans. At a certain point, if he’s still not hitting, even the most dedicated of supporter won’t be able to miss the evidence, fandom or not.
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