Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Between Heads and Tails There's Guts...

It's not easy to determine how much of the universe is relevant to a given event, a pitch, an at bat. The event appears local; a pitcher on a hill of dirt, a batter 60 feet away. But every hitter and pitcher brings with them the mark of every hit and pitch from everywhere they've been, the stuff of prediction and maneuver.

Many psychological states are metaphorically described as physically concrete and tangible; a hitter may carry a burden, or the weight of the world into the batters box. These days, with adjusted and normalized stats, every pitch carries with it the entire league, the entire history of baseball even. Its only 4 feet by 6 in the batters box, but a whole lot can fit. If these stats are more predictive the more of the universe they encompass, are not these numbers carried with a hitter into the box, somehow making it- physically or otherwise- more or less likely that a particular something occurs? Or is the at bat isolated,a self-contained box of novelty and uniqueness? Are matters local, but statistics global?

I dunno, I just work here.

Its hard to predict playoff series, of course. Small sample size yes, flicks of contingencies and mood and clutchiness, sure, but there is also the question of relevance; which stats, if any, are most predictive in a short series? Throw out everything but that particular hitter/pitcher matchup? Or drag in the whole universe? Ignore Ortiz' stats vs. righties when Saunders is pitching? Is Ortiz the feared slugger temporarily non-existent in that scenario, or at least relegated to an irrelevant part of the universe? Or is he in there too, dormant or potent? Why am I using the rhetorical device of rhetorical questions today?

The recent head to head stats don't look good; the circumscribed universe looks confining. Beckett in two starts this year vs. LAAoA: 13.1 IP, 20 H- .345 opponents BA- 11 ER, 2 HR, 2 BB, 14 Ks. In a July 30 start at Fenway: 5.1 IP, 7 ER, 11 H, 8 K, 1 BB. And this start was sandwiched between 1 run in 7 IP vs the yankees, and 2 runs in 6.2 IP vs KC, not amidst a poor streak.

But of course Beckett is the postseason ace, the man who harnesses powers not implied by past performance, who spontaneously delivers something new and amazing, the man who finally lowers the axe after feeding the chicken every day hence (to borrow Bertrand Russell's illustration of the fowl's faulty induction; just because the farmer's always brought food, that doesn't mean tomorrow he won't bring the axe.)

New ace Jon Lester faced LA once this year, back in April: 5 IP, 9 H, 4 R, 2 HR, 2 BB 1 K. DiceK, he of the most unwatchable 18-3 record of all time, had one start, too: 5 IP, 7 H, 6 R, 2 HR, 2 BB, 3 K

But is that all that's relevant? Facing anaheim is similar, so that's one category to project, but postseason performance is another- does Lester's start against Colorado last year count for something now? Is it projectible? Does this baggage travel with each pitch?

From 2005-2007, John Lackey had a 5.53 ERA in 5 starts vs. Boston, and an underwhelming .344 opponents BA. But this year, Lackey was 2-0, allowing 7 H in 16 IP, 5 ER, and 10 K, stifling the Sox for a .132 BA. Which manifestation will show up? And Saunders was also 2-0, 3.38 ERA (though he did walk 9 and only whiff 6.)

Is that all they carry? Of course not; there are plenty of burdens and weights of the world to go around; we all know the Angels have lost 9 straight postseason games to the Sox going back to '86 (the relevance of which greatly decreases as we move backward in time, as we are wont to do), whereas anaheim has won 8 of 9 this year, including two recent sweeps.

So what projects, what predicts? Can we cherry pick; are they in season?

The Angels won 100, best in the league, but were 10th in runs scored, 9th in homers, and not even best in pitching; 5th in starting, 4th in relieving. These runs scored and against are the two legs that make the hypotenuse of their Pythagorean expected record a more humble 89-73, good for 6th in the league in +/-, just barely ahead of the Yankees, and well behind Toronto, who actually finished a run better than Tampa (+104 to +103, giving the bluebirds something to really be sad about; 94 shoulda wins.)

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the Sox were 2nd in runs and 3rd in starting pitching (though 7th in bullpen,) but good for the leagues best +/-, and an expected record of 97 wins; that's 8 ahead of the the angels in the separate Platonic realm of ideal mathematical records. So does that project, or is it the bumbling too too real team that can't win one run games on the road that takes center stage on TBS, where, contrary to popular opinion, there's only one october?

It's tempting to predict one team or another in 5, but that means saying that it will be tied after 4, which amounts to the specific prediction that one particular team will win one specific game; a hazardous guess indeed. Statistical tendencies to understand the transpirings seem not applicable to single perspirings. At the level of sweat, as the joe morgan's of the world know, the players, not the numbers, play the game.

The playoffs are fun because worlds hang in the balance, teetering on the edge of uncertainty and contingency, with no time for regressing to the mean.

Shit happens, crazy shit.

Nonetheless, 95 wins down, 11 to go.

No comments: