I don’t want to get all Firejoemorgan.com here, but the latest column by espn.com’s Tim Kurkjian is pushing my buttons. As if we needed it, he’s delivered a heaping helping of nonsense, highlighting five guys whose “intangibles” magically lead to victories, despite their horrific performance. (Don’t worry, Jeter’s name is mentioned, though he’s not one of the five). [EDITED TO ADD: FJM did go all FJM on this story.]
Here’s the premise:

Baseball is a game of intangibles. It is a game that requires doing “the little things,” which can mean something as big as barreling over a catcher or as subtle as a whisper in the ear of a teammate after a good or bad at-bat.

There are players all over the game with these qualities, such as Derek Jeter, who is that guy in the pickup basketball game who you look at and say, “We’re going to win, he’s on our team.” Intangible players come in all shapes, sizes and job descriptions.

The link header explains why these stories bug me so much: “The hidden value of intangibles.” See, only a genius like Kurkjian can find these diamonds. It takes a special mind to explain how Darin Erstad is valuable. The rest of us can only look at stuff like, I don’t know – RUNS to see which team wins. You can dismiss this as being a “stat geek,” but what’s the better approach to evaluating a baseball game, actually watching the game to see what happens, or letting guys like Kurkjian, Harold Reynolds, or Hal McCoy convince you that you don’t know what you’re seeing . . . although they’ll be happy to tell you who’s really valuable.

Anyway, Tim’s guys after the jump:

Sandy Alomar: “He comes to the ballpark like a 20-year-old every day ready to play knowing he’s probably not going to play,” said Dodgers third base coach Rich Donnelly. “And with less than two outs and a runner at third, I wouldn’t mind having him up there. But mostly, he’s a great teacher.”

Reality Check: Alomar’s played in 22 games, and has 54 plate appearances. Oh, and that all-important “runner on third, less than two outs” situation? He’s 1 for 3.  (Arroyo’s 1 for 4 with a walk.)  Alomar’s being paid $750k to be a glorified coach. Very intangible.

Darin Erstad: His skills have eroded somewhat, his body has lost some of its life at age 32, but he remains the fiber that keeps the Angels together. That is clear in all he does, from dutifully switching positions — center field to first base to center field; not an easy transition — to steamrolling Braves catcher Johnny Estrada at home plate two years ago … all in the name of the only thing that matters to him: winning.

Kurkjian adds, because he’s obliged to pursuant to his BBWAA membership, that Erstad grew up in cold weather and played football.

The case for Erstad: He grew up in cold weather, played football, switched positions, and knocked down a catcher two years ago. The truth: He’s an out machine. He’s terrible. The Angels have won despite him for a long time. Now they stink too. His season numbers: .220, .273, .319, 592 OPS. That’s worse than Juan Castro. He’s such a winner his team is in last place.

Julio Franco: He will be going back to the playoffs again this year, and that is no coincidence. Franco has become a team leader in so many ways, none more important than the way he takes care of himself, be it bringing his own healthy food to the ballpark or waking up at 3 a.m. to drink a protein shake or getting his sleep — even if it’s a nap on the couch in the clubhouse before the game.

Guy has an 833 OPS, at age 47, in a pitcher’s park. How about we focus in the fact that he can still hit, instead of trying to convince us that taking a freaking nap in the clubhouse constitutes leadership. (Franco played with Rose, Schmidt, Carlton, Blyleven, and Bake McBride, by the way).

Mike Matheny: To understand who Matheny is, all you have to do is watch him in the bullpen before the start of a game: He is on his knees, all alone, practicing blocking imaginary pitches in the dirt. Most catchers never practice that; Matheny still does it at age 35. No one blocks a ball better than he does, no one calls a better game than he does and no one goes to the mound and calms down — or jacks up — a pitcher better than Matheny.

Since when did “practicing defense” become an intangible? Matheny can’t hit, but he’s supposedly a good defender. That’s how he keeps his job. Of course he practices. How is that something “intangible” that makes his teammates better. As for the “calming guys down” thing, I have no clue. I know Chris Carpenter just won a Cy Young award the year after Matheny left St. Louis. I know Jason Schmidt’s ERA jumped by over a run last year, once Matheny arrived in SF, and head case Bret Tomko’s went up by 0.44.

Mark Derosa: Texas manager Buck Showalter calls DeRosa “an irregular regular,” meaning a guy who plays every day but rarely at the same position. One day it’s second base, the next day right field, the next day third base, and never with a complaint. And wherever he has played this year, he has hit.

It is so rare for a player, at age 31, to change his hitting approach after watching a teammate, but that is what DeRosa has done after seeing the success of Rangers shortstop Michael Young, a hitting machine. Showalter loves DeRosa because he’s so smart — he went to the University of Pennsylvania — and because of his competitive nature, including his football background. DeRosa played quarterback at Penn after an amazingly successful high school football career in New Jersey.

That’s what we call “a winner,” and you can never have enough winners on a major league team.

I thought that’s what they called “a football player,” or perhaps “a quarterback.” (So why isn’t Adam Dunn on this list? ) Again, though, why is it “hidden” that Derosa has a 904 OPS this year? That’s the very definition of a guy “bringing a lot of tangibles to the table.” He’s slugging .508. Isn’t that “doing the big things?” Just tell me the guy can hit. The fact that he was a QB ten years ago is so imporant . . . that it didn’t help him until this year?

5 Responses

  1. al

    i dont think “intagibles” are imaginary, i just think that no one’s measured chemisty and things like that yet. you could if you could survey players. You could get plenty of quantitative data on it, and run all kinds of analyses, but it hasn’t been done so most stats minded fans dismiss it.

    this is a mistake imho, because it commits the very sin that the stats revolution tried to abolish: ignoring information because you’re lazy or set in your ways.

    have you ever had a job where the atmosphere or office politics made you less productive? Have you ever had the opposite, where a mentor helps you out or gets you on track? I have, so i believe that it probably happens in baseball too.

    The thing is, we as fans don’t have access to clubhouses. we have no way of knowing what’s really going on, so the easiest thing is to pretend it isn’t real. We love stats because they make us feel like we can understand the game, that we can figure things out, and this makes us feel like there are parts of the game that we’ll just never get. We do the same thing with front offices all the time, assuming that the information we have about transactions is all that exists, when really it’s probably about 1%.

    I’m not saying tim’s piece is great, but i think he’s knows a lot about baseball, and he’s know stranger to stats. Remember, the first kind of evidence that medical companies consider when looking at a medication they might test is anecdotal evidence. It’s not the strongest type of evidence, it’s not going to get you through the FDA, but it is evidence: evidence enough to to more testing.

    that’s all tim’s piece is, anecdotal evidence that team chemistry and relationships affects winning. Is it enough to understand their full effect if any? No, but it’s certainly no reason to dismiss the notion. We have no evidence to say that it chemistry doesn’t affect winning, not even anecdotal evidence, so he’s ahead of us because he has access to players and managers and i’d guess that most of us don’t. Saying that intangibles don’t exist because they aren’t measured right now is a dangerous statement to make, because it assumes that the stats we have now are a completely accurate way of assessing the game, which leaves no room for innovation.

    Don’t become the next batting-average-wins-and-losses dinosaurs.

  2. greg

    Going by that logic, Sean Casey deserves $10mil per

  3. al

    to me, intagibles have less to do with a player’s individual performance and more to do with how they affect the team overall. maybe clutch hitting or getting out of jams could also be considered intagible, but you could pretty easily study those trends, as i think bill james has done, thus making it tangible.

    What i’m talking about doesn’t exist “in the game” as you’re saying chris, if by in the game you mean player stats, because chemistry isn’t measured at all right now. But you could, you could come up with chem-neutral stats i bet. The methodology would be complicated, involving much more social science research, but it could be done and then you’d know more about how to evaluate the game.

    i’m certainly not saying that chemistry is worth more than talent, so i don’t know where that casey comment came from, but it’s probably worth something. Defense at first isn’t worth all that much, but that doesn’t mean that it has no value.

    This actually reminds me a lot of the 90’s, when stats were really getting into the fans hands, and defense went out the window. We couldn’t easily quantify the effect of defense on runs, and still have trouble, and basically stopped using it to evaluate players. Give me the OPS, that’s all i need!

    Hell, look at how DOTF gives peoples stats. We have no idea if jay bruce is giving back half of his OPS in the field, but it could be true. Or pitchers hitting. Now days BP has started to give that sort of thing, noting where defense or batting dramatically changes a player’s profile overall.

    If people wanted to, you could eventually do the same thing with chemistry and leadership. But here’s the thing, would it be worth it? It would be really hard and time consuming, the info it would yield wouldn’t tell us all that much about the game, and it would make a very human thing feel mechanical.

    So maybe we can just leave it with things like Tim’s piece. We can understand that chemistry probably has an effect, and we can also understand that it would be pretty ridiculous to try to quantify it.

    So once a year or so we get some anecdotal evidence about a few players who help their team out in ways that don’t show up on the sheet. Is that such an affront to our understanding of the game that we have to tear it down as meaningless?

  4. greg

    I’m sure it’s like any job, where if you’ve got two guys with the same abilities, you’ll go with the guy that works harder and is easier to be around. That being said, Manny Ramirez stays employed for one reason – he can rake.

  5. al

    i posted a longer thig but it didn’t show up, so i’ll sumarize:

    i mean chemistry and leadership when i say intagibles, not personal work ethic.

    they don’t matter as much as talent, so the casey comment was off base.

    defense doesn’t matter as much as offense for position players, but it does matter. same here.

    we could measure chemistry and leadership, but it would be really hard, and since it’s probably not all that important, do we really want to?

    If the answer is no, then it seems like pieces of like Tim’s are reasonable because they let us understand the game a little more. Does it challenge our understanding of the game so much that we need to tear it down as meaningless?