Friday, June 1, 2007

Inauspicious: Pascarelli on Polanco

Last year and this, I have listened regularly to ESPN's Baseball Today podcast, hosted until this week by Alan Schwarz. I have enjoyed the podcast in part because Schwarz and his guests (especially Rob Neyer and Steve Phillips) did a good job of combining responsible statistical analysis with current news and anecdotes.

Schwarz has now departed to work for the New York Times, and Peter Pascarelli has taken over the hosting duties. Yesterday, an email asked him to discuss the best second basemen in the American league. After entertaining a couple of other possibilities, Pascarelli brought up his own choice. He began,

My favorite second baseman, though, in the American League is Placido Polanco, who I think is one of the most underrated players in baseball.

This surprised me: I've long thought of Polanco as an overrated player, a useful guy talked about as a star because he's versatile and makes contact well. But I haven't followed the story for a while, so I waited for more details. Pascarelli continued,

And those of you who like stats might be interested to know ...

At this point I literally stopped in my tracks and waited, suspecting that I was about to hear a customized statistic designed to carve out a little slice of Polanco's performance that makes him look especially good. Sure enough:

... that since 2005, Placido Polanco has the best average with runners in scoring position of any player in baseball, and that is something which I bet a lot of you didn't know.

Well, I certainly hope most people didn't know that. It's a misleading fact in three ways: 1) it's about batting average, a stat whose limitations favor Polanco; 2) it relies on one measure of clutch hitting--clutch hitting is an idea enormously susceptible to distortions and small-sample variations, and people who pick one measure are almost always doing so to slant their evidence; and 3) it arbitrarily chooses 2005 to the present as its time frame.

In fact, if you look at different time periods and a different measure of clutch hitting, Polanco will look much worse; he has stunk with men on and two out, for example.

My point is not to knock Polanco, who is a very good player. My point is to knock Pascarelli, who (like Bill Simmons, to relate this to my blog title) seems to confuse statistical expertise with the recitation of isolated and slanted numbers--which is pretty nearly the opposite of statistical expertise. Pascarelli closed his comment thus:

All of you who think of yourselves as experts, well, take a back seat to me, pal, I knew that number and you didn't.

He sounded like he was kidding. Sort of. I fear we've lost an excellent podcast.