FUZZY MATH AUGUST 1, 2013
Breitbart, the news and opinion site that bears the surname of its late founder Andrew, has several verticals. All present aspects of the world through a conservative lens. The lead stories on “Big Hollywood” right now quote Variety accusing the forthcoming blockbuster Elysium of “pushing a socialist agenda” and polemicize against super-relevant Hollywood figure Oliver Stone. “Big Government” is covering the IRS pseudo-scandal, super-relevant political figure Jesse Jackson, and an “Illegal Convicted of Child Porn [Who] Might Not Be Deported Due To Immigration Reform.” And so on.
And then there’s Breitbart Sports, launched at the beginning of this year. What does sports coverage from the right look like? I do not want to hazard any definitive statements, but judging from a recent, original article about how to properly evaluate starting pitching in Major League Baseball, the conservative take on sports has roughly the same relationship to empirical numbers as the conservative take on politics does.
In this article, columnist John Pudner introduces a new, proprietary metric, called Value Add Baseball. The idea behind it is to evaluate starting pitchers based not on how well they pitch, but how well they pitch in specific game situations. If a starting pitcher’s team scores six runs, he can give up five runs and still maintain a lead; by contrast, if a starting pitcher’s team scores only two runs, then he can give up three runs but still fall behind. The point of Value Add Baseball is to adjust for this: To make it clear that the pitcher who allows five runs when his team has scored six has done better than the pitcher who has allowed three runs when his team has scored two.
Sound crazy? It should! “The starting pitcher is the one player who has responsibility each game for getting his team the win,” Pudner writes. But, actually, it is not the pitcher’s job to get his team the win. It is the team’s job to get the team the win. Baseball is a team sport! The starting pitcher contributes to the win—typically, I agree, more than any other individual player does—by helping, along with his defense and catcher, limit the other team’s runs. But this metric holds the pitcher completely responsible. And it subscribes to the myth of “pitching to the score,” which is just plain wrong.
Consider: It is generally agreed that the best baseball game ever pitched came on May 29, 1959, when the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Harvey Haddix was perfect through 12 innings before he gave up a run to the Milwaukee Braves in the bottom of the 13th. (Hank Aaron was on base at the time.) Because the Pirates themselves had scored no runs through 13, Haddix “lost” the game. If I understand Value Add Baseball correctly, his “rating” for that game is worse than that of a starting pitcher who gave up five runs through seven innings while his own team scored nine. That is, plainly, ludicrous.
I called Dave Cameron, the managing editor of FanGraphs (which uses WAR, or Wins Above Replacement, for pitchers). Value Add Baseball is “basically judging the pitcher on what his team scored, and that makes no sense,” he told me.
The concept of praising pitchers for “pitching to the score” is widely reviled in the sabermetric community. “The argument is mostly made in favor of Jack Morris getting into the Hall of Fame,” Cameron noted of the former Detroit Tigers and Minnesota Twins pitcher. “All the old-timey guys say Jack Morris pitched to the score. The problem is, you actually look at his career, it’s not true. When his teams scored four runs, he won as much as everyone else.”
Leaving aside smaller quibbles—like the fact that giving up eight runs when your team has scored ten still means using the bullpen, which is worse than giving up only one run and going the distance—the logic behind “pitching to the score” makes roughly no sense. “Every at-bat, the pitcher's goal is to get the guy out,” Cameron told me. “They might pitch a little differently, but they’re not going to just start allowing runs.”1 Because there is no time limit in baseball—because, as Yogi Berra famously put it, it ain’t over 'til it’s over—there is no benefit in baseball to giving up runs. (In football, teams will sometimes go to a prevent defense that implicitly allows a score when they are up many points, because it also takes time off the clock—but that strategy only makes sense because there is a clock.)
Oh, and also, Value Add Baseball does not adjust for defenses! (Though it does adjust for ballparks.) “All runs are the responsibility of the pitcher,” Cameron noted of the metric (indeed, it uses unearned runs, when in fact, such runs are considered “unearned” for a reason). “If you don't adjust for defense, you're missing part of the picture.”
WAR, which is what Fangraphs and most analysts use to evaluate pitchers as well as position players, is not perfect. For one thing, there are competing versions. For another, the first person who will tell you that FanGraphs’ WAR is fallible is FanGraphs’ Cameron. “It’s not a perfect way of doing it either,” he told me, “but we can at least say that it’s only [accounting for] plays that are basically the pitcher and the batter.” However, it is vastly superior to a metric that grades pitchers for how well the other people wearing the same uniform as he is do when it is their turn at the plate. Or, as Cameron put it, “For a metric to be useful, it needs to be able to separate out actual good from just the flaws of the metric.”
So the interesting question becomes: Why is Breitbart Sports advancing this? I don’t know the answer, but it is hard not to perceive a connection between this willful use of bad numbers to create an alternate reality and some of the more hysterical right-wing polling predictions during the last presidential campaign. (We didn’t hallucinate Dick Morris predicting 325 electoral votes for Mitt Romney; there’s video to prove it.) Conservatives right now are ranged against public-opinion majorities on virtually every issue (Obamacare is a notable exception). Until the so-called fever breaks, we can probably expect them to go to extravagant means to pretend otherwise rather than to confront that fact. And their escapism is bleeding beyond politics, and invading poor, innocent sports.
Conservatives want their numbers. Even if it means that the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw—who is having an all-time season—is ranked the second-best pitcher this year, and first-place Pat Corbin, of the Diamondbacks, has a Value Add Baseball score 20 percent higher.