Sunday, September 5, 2010

Paying attention to the numbers

Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Adam Dunn hit his 34th homer of the season during today's win.
PITTSBURGH — Baseball, more than any other sport, is a game of numbers. There's a stat for everything, and there's virtually nothing anymore that can't be quantified.

Stat geeks, fans and media members alike put great stock in these numbers. We use them to form opinions and make evaluations of teams and players. But we often forget one simple fact about all these numbers: Players rarely pay attention to them.

Adam Dunn had no idea he hit his 350th career home run today in the Nationals' 8-1 thumping of the Pirates. Jason Marquis has no idea what his ERA stands at after six solid innings this afternoon (it's at 7.14, down more than 13 points since he returned from the disabled list). Ian Desmond doesn't know that he's hitting .386 since moving up to the No. 2 spot in the daily lineup.

And most certainly, no one around the Nats' clubhouse stopped today to note that with 59 wins, they've now matched their entire season totals from both 2008 and 2009.

These simply aren't the kind of things ballplayers spend much time contemplating in the middle of a long season. During his three months on the DL following surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow, Marquis was aware his ERA stood at a pathetic 20.52. But didn't obsess over it, knowing that wouldn't do him any good.

"I discussed it at length with a few people that are close to me," he said. "That didn't reflect the pitcher of who I was, because I was hurt. If I was feeling good and thought I was making pitches and I had that ERA, then it gives me something to think about. But that wasn't Jason Marquis. I mean, it was Jason Marquis, but pitching hurt, trying to battle through it."

It took a couple of starts back to get his feet wet, but Marquis has rediscovered his form. Counting today's outing, he's now posted a 2.25 ERA over his last four starts.

"It was tough for him early," Jim Riggleman said. "I know he wasn't satisfied, and everyone was concerned about his results. Ever since he got his arm straightened out and been able to go out there on a regular routine, he's been much better. ... This is the guy we thought we were going to get."

Marquis should get four or five more starts to close out the season and bring his overall numbers even closer to respectability. But whether he finishes with three wins or five wins, whether his ERA winds up in the 5.00s or the 7.00s, his biggest concern is leaving the Nationals confident they can count on him to be a stabilizing force in 2011.

"I don't know how many starts I have left," Marquis said. "But whatever it is, when I take the ball I'll be ready to give my team the best opportunity to win and go into the offseason feeling confident and knowing I got through an injury on the positive side."

Dunn's season-ending numbers will carry more significance, if for no other reason than how they might impact his contract negotiations. The reigning NL home run champion surely is going to command more than the second-place finisher.

So it does matter to plenty that Dunn today clubbed his 34th homer of the season. The big guy, of course, has no clue where that leaves him among league leaders.

"I'm sure I'm ... top five, maybe?" he said.

Uh, try top two, Adam. You're only one homer behind Albert Pujols for the NL lead.

For all his prodigious power, Dunn has never won a league home run title. He's finished second twice before (in 2004 and 2008) but has never finished on top. Not that he's trying to do it.

"I wouldn't aspire to do it, but if it works out that way, it would be pretty cool," he said. "If it doesn't, I mean, that's not a goal that I set out for at the beginning of the year. If that happens, it will be cool. But if it doesn't, I won't go home and cry about it."

So, you aren't one of those guys who checks boxscores every day?

"I don't check boxscores," he said. "Well, I do now. It's football season."

Like his teammate at first base, Desmond doesn't pay any attention to boxscores, either. He doesn't know on any given day where his batting average stands.

We'll take care of that for him. On July 27, Desmond's batting average stood at .247. After today's 2-for-3 showing, it stands at .289.

That's a 42 point improvement in less than six weeks for a guy who plays every day.

"To be honest, I've been approaching the game the same exact way since April," Desmond said. "I'm just hitting now. There's not really a rhyme or reason. You work all year to get to a spot. It just took me until July to get there, unfortunately."

There is one overriding factor, however, that may explain Desmond's upswing more than anything else: He's finally escaped the 8-hole where he hit most of the season's first half. Since becoming Riggleman's regular No. 2 hitter on August 6, he's batting .386.

Desmond admits he feels less pressure when hitting at the top of the lineup. In the 8-hole, he's probably only getting three plate appearances per game. Not a lot of opportunity to make adjustments as the evening plays out. And, of course, it's never easy batting in front of the pitcher, especially for a rookie.

As a No. 2 hitter, Desmond can rest easy knowing he'll get four or five plate appearances each game. And with Ryan Zimmerman and Dunn lined up behind him, opponents aren't going to pitch around him.

"It just makes me feel like I'm part of the team, I guess," he said. "I feel like at the top of the lineup, I can help Dunn and Zim and Morse and all those guys get RBI. If I'm on base setting the table for them, I'm just trying to help the team. And as a result, I'm getting on base and getting hits and walking more."

All of that, plus plenty of other factors, leave the Nationals heading home for a Labor Day matchup with the Mets at 59-78. They've matched their win total from each of the last two seasons, and while no team should ever be excited to win its 59th game, this does represent another sign of progress for a franchise that desperately wants its on-field results to start looking better.

By the end of this season, the Nats will be able to say they've made actual progress in the standings. If they go 11-14 the rest of the way, they'll finish at 70-92 (an 11-game improvement). If they go 16-9, they'd finish at 75-87 (a major leap forward, however unlikely).

Of course, the players inside that clubhouse won't be paying a lot of attention to the standings on a daily basis, making a concerted effort to reach any given number of wins. They've been pretty good all season at focusing on the task at hand on that given day, nothing else.

They'll leave the stat-collecting and analyzing to the rest of us.


TheOptimist said...

They can still break even by going 23 and 2..

sm13 said...

70 wins in 2010 is within reach (an 11 game jump), improve 10 more games and that's 80 in 2011, add the return of Strasburg in 2012 and another 10 win step up, 90 wins and playoff contention are not a wild fantasy, they are reality. Let's go Nats!!

Les in NC said...

...And when Stras returns we should have Harper lining up for us on an everyday basis! IMO, Bryce should be able to out perform any current outfielder that we have, defensively, offensively or whatever. 2012 should be a season that we all finally expect to make the post season!

Jake said...

Glad MarkZee got the stat bug! Can u imagine if the Nats had a .360 OBP guy leading off? It would be like last year with lots of Zim RBIs!

They have to find a way of extending Dunn as the Nats may have him wearing a Nats cap in the HOF in about 15 years. Pudge will probably wear a Rangers cap so Dunn could be a coup for the Nats. Before anyone doubts Dunn in the HOF, he should be 500 to 600 when he hangs it up and in the post steroid era should get him in the hall.

Anonymous said...

Another very nice piece, Mark. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Let's get Dunn signed to an extension. What's the holdup?

LoveDaNats said...

Does Dunn want too much money?

N. Cognito said...

Maybe Dunn wants to be a free agent. Why wouldn't he? See what he can get on the open market.

Steve said...

As noted, a nice piece, as usual, Mark.

However, I'm left thinking that professional hitters do indeed -- or should -- know what their numbers are. Can you imagine Ted Williams not knowing his batting average? (I'd say Pete Rose, but I'm not going there.)

carolync said...

Mark, I enjoyed your article as usual. Can you tell me how to find stats that show Desmond has great range? I thought UZR and UZR/150 were the best available advanced metrics for range. On FANGRAPHS, these show our Zimmerman with the best range among MLB third basemen which seems right. But they show Desmond as below average --tied for 17th among rated shortstops. I'm not sold on Desmond. I've waited all season to see Espinosa whom I think is a much smarter all around ballplayer. Thanks.

Mississippi Snopes said...

UZR and UZR/150 are not range statistics, they're overall defense stats. Desmond's errors hurt his UZR and UZR/150 stats.

Let Teddy Win said...

Do Nats fans realize how lucky we are to have a BLOGGER giving us this kind of writing?

Faraz Shaikh said...

I have to admit too. We are very fortunate to have such a great blog. I really enjoy reading posts and comments on this blog.

JayB said...

Let Teddy Win said...
"Do Nats fans realize how lucky we are to have a BLOGGER giving us this kind of writing?"

You're welcome.

Oh! You weren't talking about me?

HHover said...

Carolnyc -

You need to look at some of the components that go into UZR--on fangraphs, look specifically at RngR, or "Range Runs Above Average." In this measure of range, he ranks 5th best among regular MLB SSs. What kills his UZR is his ErrR - "Error Runs Above Average" - where he ranks dead last.

Big Cat said...

Too bad we can't play Pittsburg everyday, they are just dreadful.

Ok Riggs, you gave Kennedy some time, now lets get the kid back in there today

JaneB said...

Steve... I disagree that professional hitters necessarily need to stay on top on their numbers. Their job is to hit; that means being in this moment. Most people don't actually perform better when they are trying to hit a goal; so it stands to reason that approaching each pitch as a discrete entity rather than as an opportunity to increase their average is the smart way to perform better. I work with performers of all kinds, and what motivates them to improve is not always what works TO improve their actual performance. Counterintuitive I know, but real.

And Kasten, Rizzo, Lerners: sign Dunn. It would be such a breach to the fans and the team if you don't. He's got productive years left and we DO want him in Cooperstown in our uniform.

Go Nats!

souldrummer said...

@Les in NC
I'm Michael Burgess, and I disapprove of this message. Plus I'm raking in the Eastern League and have Harrisburg on the brink of the playoffs.

Doc said...

Interesting article as usual, Mark. Teddy Ballgame aside, I don't see the point of 1st team players paying attention to their stats. It's sufficient that they know what they are doing between the lines, e.g., game focus, muscle memory, etc.

I'll bet the bench jockeys pay attention to their personal stats---for most of the game, what else is there to do.

The better GMs, e.g. Beane, Epstein, pay attention to numbers that count, and rely on their sabermatricians for real data. Most managers, apart from some basic stats, are probably and primarily 'eyeballers'. Paying attention to 'numbers' should help you become a better 'eyeballer', though.

IMO football coaches do better with stats than baseball managers.

HHover said...


I agree, and would add that another downside of old-school managers is that they also cling to out-dated, simplistic rules even when the #s don't bear them out.

I'd include here Riggs' devotion to lefty-righty match-ups, and small-ball decisions like the one to have Desmond lay down a sac bunt yesterday with no outs and Morgan on second in the 1st.

Post a Comment