Make comparisons!

By Jason Wojciechowski on April 23, 2011 at 12:30 AM

This piece by Satchel Price at Beyond the Box Score (from over two months ago) is a look at a supposed A's strategy of building up and then tearing down their farm system. The article is very close to a simple summary of the facts, but concludes that the A's have pursued such a strategy.

I have two problems with the piece, the first of which is smaller and kind of an aside, and the second of which I want to spend more time on.

First, it doesn't acknowledge that this very ground was covered all the way back in 2002, by Jonah Keri's piece at Baseball Prospectus called The Success Cycle. The universality of the success cycle in baseball has turned out to be questionable, but it seems to be an accurate model for teams without the financial werewithal of the Red Sox or Yankees -- you want to have times when your prospects mature and are joined by talent from outside the organization that fills holes, and you'll have times when you're not going to be good, so you trade the players who caused your last good team to restock your system and charge up for the next up cycle. That, of course, describes exactly what Price claims is happening in Oakland.

Second, the piece examines only the A's and their minor league cycle. It does not look at the universe the A's operate in, Major League Baseball. It doesn't even look at a subset of that universe (small-dollar teams, say). Instead, it discusses the A's and only the A's. It is thus entirely unclear how anything at all can be concluded. For instance, suppose every other team has a cyclical minor league system -- then would we really say the A's pursue any particular strategy? What if the good small-dollar teams all do this, but nobody else does? Then we might say a strategy is being pursued, but it changes our perception of how unique that strategy is.

This is a common problem in baseball writing. How many times have you read some batter's hitting stats without any league or position context? If I tell you Sam Samson hit .285/.320/.410 in 1974, do you know what that means? If you do without me telling you, it's because you remember or know the league offensive context for 1974 and you can thus make a comparison: Mr. Samson got on-base at about so much above or below the league average, slugged so much above or below the league average, and so forth.

This is one reason why I favor "+" stats, like wRC+ -- they inherently make a comparison by teling you what percentage above or below league average the player is in that particular statistic. (Note that even "+" stats don't provide all the context I might wish for -- namely, there's no information about distribution. Is offensive value tightly clustered around the mean such that 20% above league average is quite special, or is it more spread out so that two standard deviations gets you all the way out to (say) 70% above league average?)

My point is not to pick on Satchel Price with all this. The point about comparisons has been floating around my head for a while, and while clearing out my Instapaper queue, Price's piece came up, so it seemed a good jumping-off place to make this larger stand.