The best take I’ve read about the Ryan Howard extension had nothing to do with win-to-dollar analysis or aging curve critiquing. Nope, it was Jonah Keri’s entry into the Howard content marathon. For full disclosure: I do consider Keri a friend and he is my editor elsewhere. Neither plays a role in my fandom over his piece. Keri’s article extends beyond the field. He nary mentions runs batted in or home runs hit. Instead he focuses on subjects like appealing to authority, open-mindedness, and the role Twitter plays in instant reaction.
Decisively on the other end of the spectrum from Keri is this article by Gregg Doyel. I’m sure Doyel is a smart person. I have read a few of his pieces in the past and found them enjoyable. He is what he is. A columnist with edge whose job it is to get reaction and be assertive. He’s very good at that. At the same time, if there is an anti-thesis to Keri’s piece, this is it. Doyel appeals to authority while slamming folks for using statistics (not just sabermetrics, stats in general), and then maintains his initial reaction.
Arguing over whether a sports team or a human being is infallible is silly. Nobody is perfect. The Phillies obviously do some things right. They have won two straight National League Championships, and yes, they have some very, very good players on their roster. Great players even, like Roy Halladay and Chase Utley. However, that does not make them perfect. No team is perfect. The highly esteemed Theo Epstein once traded Josh Bard and Cla Meredith for Doug Mirabelli. I think most would agree that Epstein is still a good general manager.
The Phillies themselves have made some extremely questionable signings since Ruben Amaro took over. Consider that they traded Cliff Lee in part because of his nine million price tag, yet they are paying the clearly inferior Jamie Moyer eight million and will pay Joe Blanton ten million next season. Lee is the best pitcher of that group and will ostensibly be so for the near future too. Maybe the prospects the Phillies got from Seattle become key contributors on a future Phillies’ team. Or maybe not. This is where part of Doyle’s argument falls apart. Read this:
The Phillies won the World Series in 2008 and got back to the World Series in 2009. They are the hottest franchise in baseball, and Howard is an enormous reason. So is Chase Utley, who is signed through 2013. So is Jimmy Rollins, signed through 2011. And Shane Victorino, signed through 2012. And Jayson Werth, who becomes a free agent after this season but who, I am guessing, will be back. Why? Because the Phillies are the Yankees or the Red Sox of the National League, and Werth strikes me as a winner. Winners don’t leave winners.
Lee was a big part of that 2009 World Series team too, but Amaro traded him for a bunch of players who will not be a big part of the 2010 team. So much for keeping that nucleus completely together. Now, Howard was a big part of those teams. And he’s a big part of the 2010 Phillies. And, no matter what happened this week – barring tragedy or trade – would’ve been a big part of the 2011 Phillies. Since, you know, he was under contract through the same time span as Rollins.
Doyel doesn’t seem upset in the least about Rollins not having an extension and presumably was not upset about Howard’s contractual status prior to the extension occurring. Doyel also doesn’t seem to consider that re-signing Werth – the pending free agent – before signing a huge deal would’ve been more beneficial to the Phillies’ budget and leverage in negotiations.
Doyel then goes on some inane blast against statistics before using cherry-picked statistics to prove his point. That point is that not every old player is useless. During this, he makes some unfortunate comments about Keith Law, who worked in a front office that made a number of cost-efficient moves. Doyel disagrees with Law’s perspective on the Howard deal, and asserts that people, like Law, are wrong. But the Phillies are not. You heard it here first, the Phillies employ robots.
I’ll completely ignore that Doyel clearly doesn’t care about small samples or park factors given his comments about Paul Konerko and Jorge Posada. Instead, let’s reach the final part of Keri’s article, about instant reaction. Keri admitted that his initial reaction was rash and aimed towards humor. He then took the time to consider other perspectives and changed his mind on the degree of awfulness. Has Doyel changed his mind? I don’t know, but I’d guess not too much.
We’re not done here though. I would be remiss if I didn’t note the part that Doyel is absolutely correct about. He writes that numbers should never end a conversation, but rather, should be used to begin them. He’s right. I’ve been writing on FanGraphs for more than a year. I would wager that 95% of my posts have begun with some kind of number. Maybe that number represented a winning percentage or a wOBA or a streak. Whatever. The conversation began with some kind of number.
He’s also wrong, though.
Numbers sometimes can end conversations. Should numbers end conversation over just how bad Ryan Howard’s contract is? Maybe not. Matt Swartz of Baseball Prospectus provided a counter to the popular sentiment that the Howard extension is the worst thing ever and seemed to say that it’s bad, but not the worst thing ever. Is Swartz right? I don’t know. Is Law right? I don’t know. Is Doyel right? I don’t know. This isn’t Baseball Prospectus versus FanGraphs, or stats versus scouts, or even older writers versus younger writers. That’s why we add so many voices and that’s why we add so much information. There’s enough room for thought from every side.
People who clearly have lacking knowledge of statistics will say that statistics can be tweaked in whatever way pleases and supports the statistician’s opinion. These people have insufficient knowledge of the sabermetric community. If I publish something incorrect or fabricated I fully expect to have Tom Tango or MGL or Rob Neyer or some other smart individual calling me out on it. The constant and immediate peer review is a fantastic and terrifying thing.
Look, you can argue that a day feels longer than 24 hours for as long as you want. That doesn’t make you anymore right. It doesn’t change that 24 hours being a day is a fact either. It just means you’re your perspective is skewed on the subject for whatever reason. Perspective is the ultimate key when dealing with numbers. That’s why we use baselines, averages, and standard deviations. That’s why we have constant peer review. That’s why we don’t appeal to authority and that’s why we keep open minds.
Perspective is important. Baseball and baseball analysis is full of perspective. Doyel’s piece was not.