Saturday, October 19, 2013

Is Ben Zimmer Right About Intangibles?

See I Can't Say What It Is, but He's Got It from today's Wall Street Journal. You might need to be a subscriber to read it. Excerpts:
"When Boston Red Sox manager John Farrell made the decision to keep light-hitting left fielder Jonny Gomes in the lineup against the Detroit Tigers in the American League Championship Series this week, he acknowledged that his choice had nothing do with the numbers. "The one thing that we can't fully measure is the intangibles that Jonny Gomes brings," Mr. Farrell said.

Last week, another Red Sox outfielder was hailed in a similar way. Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon, whose team lost to the Red Sox in the first round of the playoffs, had this to say of Shane Victorino : "He just drips with intangibles.""

"The first player who was routinely praised for his "intangibles" was the scrappy second baseman Eddie Stanky, nicknamed "The Brat." In the words of Leo Durocher, who managed Stanky with the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants, "He can't hit, can't run, can't field... All the little S.O.B. can do is win.""

"When Stanky joined the Giants in 1950, he was keenly aware that his value to the team was hard to measure."

"Intangibles" have persisted in baseball despite the advent of complex statistical analyses that seek to capture all facets of a player's on-field talents. For stat-heads, talk of "intangibles" is a fuzzy-minded refusal to grasp empirical data. But until baseball is taken over by robots, there will always be a need to label natural gifts that elude quantification."
Luck or randomness will always play a role in baseball. The best team does not always win and then we start spinning to stories to explain why on team did win. Were the Mets better than the Orioles in 1969? Maybe. But the Orioles won 91 in games in 1968, 109 in 1969 and 108 in 1970 (winning the World Series). The Mets win totals were 73-100-83. They did not even win their division in 1970, let alone the Series.

The 1927 Yankees had a 4 game losing in streak in the middle of the season, all against teams with losing records (both at the time and at the end of the season). The two teams were the White Sox and Indians.

The article says Jonny Gomes is light hitting but he had an OPS+ this year of 111. 100 is average. Last year he had 142.

Victorino had a WAR of 6.1 this year, 9th best in the AL among position players. He was 10th in the NL in 2011. It seems like he looks pretty darn good based on quantitative measures.

Stanky is famous for not being good at anything but still helping his teams win. He had 4 top 10 finishes in WAR in his career, including a 1st in 1950. He had 7 top 10 finishes in fielding WAR. He had 5 top 5 finishes in OBP, including to 1st place finishes. Maybe back then getting walks was not recognized as a skill, but it sure is now. He led the league in walks 3 times and had a total of 7 top 10 finishes. Maybe he was not fast, but the numbers sure show what skills he did have that contribute to winning.

Branch Rickey did not think much of intangibles. Here is what he wrote in LIFE magazine in 1954:
"But somehow baseball's intangibles balance out. They reflect themselves in other ways. Over an entire season, or many seasons, individuals and teams build an accumulation of mathematical constants. A man can work with them. He can measure results and establish values. He can then construct a formula which expresses something tangible..."


Ryan Pollack said...

Here's the thing about intangibles ... people can promote that idea all they want because there is no way of proving that there is or is not such a thing.

If you could prove that something like "grit" (a classic intangible) or "the will to win", existed, it would be measurable, and therefore would no longer be intangible. It'd be tangible.

So you would have proven nothing about the existence of intangibles -- only that you found a way to measure something that, prior to then, had existed but was not measurable. That is not the same as "intangible".

Cyril Morong said...

Good point. Thanks for reading and commenting.

Bill Miller said...

Branch Rickey was so far ahead of his time in so many ways. I think the point you implicitly make about modern stats actually accounting for what have often been referred to as intangibles is right on the money. The difference is, now we have names and stats for these so-called intangible skills. Having said that, I've played on fields with guys who inspired me to play harder due to their competitiveness and leadership ability. Not sure I played better, but I did try harder.

Cyril Morong said...

Thanks for dropping by. Rickey was definitely an innovator and visionary. And what you say about one player inspiring another probably happens. If the other guy plays better, it will show up in his stats. So the inspiring player would not get the credit. It would be interesting to see if players would be willing to reward some of their teammates based on something like this. If they did, it would mean they really believe in it. Would players be willing to give more playoff money to certain guys?