Archive for September 8th, 2012

Regarding the Limits of Run Differential

“There are three kinds of lies,” Mark Twain famously wrote, “lies, damned lies, and statistics”.

And yet I think that even Mr. Clemens himself would agree that the importance of statistics in baseball cannot be overstated.  Maybe it’s because of the idiosyncratic nature of the game, or its rhythm and pace, which leaves ample time to ponder events probabilistically.  But whatever the reason, it’s clear that numbers are stitched tightly into the rawhide fabric of the game.

Most of the time, this is a good thing.  Where would we be without ERA, WHIP, OBP, or OPS?

Statistics help us to make sense of baseball by distilling tons of events into concentrated doses of truth that we can use to appreciate the difference between Prince Fielder and Justin Smoak.

Sometimes, however, statistics can be misleading.  Sometimes we can rely on them too heavily, and in so doing, make the ironic mistake of distorting an analytical tool until it resembles the very kind of ignorance it was intended to diminish.

After 14 long years of futility, the 2012 Baltimore Orioles seem poised to contend for a playoff berth and possibly a division title.  How are they doing it?  With an incredible bullpen, an opportunistic (but not spectacular) offense, improved defense (particularly in the second half), and a great manager.  That would be my analysis.  When baseball sabermetristas analyze the 2012 Orioles, however, they often propose a very different mechanism for their success.

Luck.

I would like to argue that this analysis, which typically stems from blithe regurgitation of “run differential” argument is unfair. It’s also flawed.

Here’s why.

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