OmarWhat Do All These Numbers Really Mean?

One of the things that my Statistics professor at Ohio State always used to tell us has always really stuck with me. He always had this saying, “Beware of statistics, because once an individual has become aware of how to properly manipulate numbers, he can use them in any manner he pleases and can even prove to you that the earth is square.”

Now, I know that’s really just a load of hyperbole, but there is a point inside the saying. The point is, numbers are devious. There are literally hundreds of stastics that we can use to try to compare players in sports. What frequently happens is, people picks the numbers that prove their points, and leave the rest behind. They then pound those stats into everyone’s heads as though it were telling the whole story.

Some very, VERY smart statisticians have begun creating all sorts of metrics that they claim can be used to aid in comparisons of players across eras. They make some compelling arguments, and these numbers are a lot of fun to follow and to try to use. However, I sometimes wonder if these people aren’t just doing the same thing as has always been done…..using the stats that they deem relevant, to create these formulas. I tend to fall somewhere in the middle. I think all these new comparable metrics are a useful tool in analyzing players, but I also do not think they are to be relied on in any kind of vacuum.

All of this is to let you know upfront where I’m coming from on this. I saw something in Rob Neyer’s blog tonight that really grabbed my attention. In the post, Rob (one of my favorite baseball writers today) takes offense to an article in which a writer seemed to insinuate that Omar Vizquel is better than Ozzie Smith was. This was all done under the question of whether or not Omar is Hall Of Fame worthy. Well, Rob goes off, writing,

” I have to say, this is a new one on me. I’ve heard people suggest that Omar Vizquel is comparable to Ozzie Smith. But Dobrow is saying that Vizquel is better.

According to Win Shares and Baseball Prospectus’s WARP3, he’s not. Ozzie beats Omar in career Win Shares, 327 to 259; in WARP3 (Wins Above Replacement Player) he’s got him, 139 to 108. So it’s not close, at least according to these two reputable objective methods for evaluating a player’s overall value.

Granted, most methods suggest that Vizquel, all those Gold Gloves aside, has not been a great defensive shortstop. A good one, yes. But not a great one. But let’s say all the methods are somehow missing the truth. Let’s say Vizquel really was a great shortstop. Does that necessarily mean he was Smith’s equal?

Of course it doesn’t. Ozzie Smith defines greatness at shortstop, just as Willie Mays defined greatness in center field and Bill Mazeroski defined greatness at second base. Sure, other great center fielders and second basemen have come alone since Mays and Maz, but it does not necessarily follow that their successors were as great. Frankly, the evidence suggesting that Vizquel was as great as Ozzie simply does not exist. Or if it does, no one’s yet found it.

So let’s agree that Vizquel, at best, was a great shortstop but not as great as Smith. Does he make up for it with the bat? Was he, as Dobrow says, “considerably better offensively”?

Again, there simply isn’t any evidence to suggest that’s the case. In terms of raw batting stats, Vizquel comes out ahead with a .340 on-base percentage and .357 slugging percentage, compared to Ozzie’s .337 and .328.

But those numbers don’t account for their home ballparks or their eras. When you do that, using OPS+, Ozzie comes up 13 percent worse than league average and Vizquel 16 percent worse. And we’ve not even mentioned baserunning. Ozzie stole 548 bases in his career; Vizquel’s stolen 380 and has been caught more times than Ozzie was.”

Ok, fine, Rob doesn’t think Omar is of the same caliber as Ozzie Smith was. That’s fine, it’s his opinion. I watched Omar play every day for 11 seasons, whereas I barely remember Ozzie Smith playing, mostly because I almost NEVER saw him play except for the playoffs and All-Star games (pre-interleague play and pre-ESPN in my household). So I’m not qualified to make any kind of comparison.

But what I take exception to is Rob’s claim that, “Granted, most methods suggest that Vizquel, all those Gold Gloves aside, has not been a great defensive shortstop. A good one, yes. But not a great one.”, but he then goes on to say “Ozzie Smith defines greatness at shortstop, just as Willie Mays defined greatness in center field and Bill Mazeroski defined greatness at second base. Sure, other great center fielders and second basemen have come alone since Mays and Maz, but it does not necessarily follow that their successors were as great. Frankly, the evidence suggesting that Vizquel was as great as Ozzie simply does not exist. Or if it does, no one’s yet found it.”

Oh really, Rob? How can you go from at first trying to say that most statistical methods suggest Omar was not a great defensive players (just absurd) and then using a completely baseless claim that Ozzie “defined” greatness just Willie Mays “defined” greatness in CF. What does that even mean?? How can you hop so effortlessly from objectivity to subjectivity?  For someone like myself, Omar DOES define greatness at SS. He is easily the greatest defensive player I have ever seen with my own eyes. Does my subjective view of Omar trump your subjective view of Ozzie? No. And that’s the point. That’s why that whole paragraph was such a lousy piece of writing in terms of trying to prove ANYTHING.

The other paragraph that really bothered me was, “But those numbers don’t account for their home ballparks or their eras. When you do that, using OPS+, Ozzie comes up 13 percent worse than league average and Vizquel 16 percent worse.” Well, gee, wouldn’t you expect this in the steroid era that Vizquel played through? I don’t know for a fact that Omar was clean, but I’ve never heard anyone suggest otherwise, and I’ve never seen anything about Omar to suggest otherwise. So is it really fair to compare Omar’s reltive batting average compared to a bunch of other players who were illegally increasing their offensive production? Hardly. You could make a VERY compelling argument that Omar putting up better batting statistics than Ozzie in an era in which pitchers were juicing up to stay strong for every start is more impressive than any other comperative method.

Look, I don’t know if Omar was better than Ozzie. My only point is that we should use caution when spouting stats, figures, and opinions. You might end up trying to prove that the earth is square, on in this case, that Omar Vizquel was not a great defensive player. If you’ve ever seen Vizquel play the position, you would know precisely how ridiculous that kind of claim really is. And in this writer’s opinion, I see no reason why Omar is not Hall of Fame worthy.

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