Thursday, June 11, 2009

The dubious importance of timing

(Don't worry, there's football contained herein.)

So I've been following a discussion on my favorite comedy/baseball site about the importance of RBIs. My views on the validity of RBIs as a stat pretty much boils down to a comment by Hossrex, in response to the original article writer, Patrick:

Patrick: “You seem to think that hits with men on base is luck, like a roll of the dice.

No. Getting a hit is skill. However, whether or not there are runners on base when he gets the hit is luck… like a roll of the dice.

That's about as good as I can put it. I've held the belief for a long time that when a player gets a hit -- or scores a touchdown or a goal or whatever -- is less important and very random when compared to his ability to get hits. A player who gets 200 hits in a season or who hits 40 HR in a season is going to do some of that with runners on base and do some of it with runners not on base. Whether he does so with men on or not is a factor almost completely beyond his control. His RBI total is a factor of his overall hitting ability and the skills of the batters hitting in front of him -- not in his ability to deliver "clutch" performances.

A few other people in the comment chain bring up Albert Belle, possibly the best RBI man of the 1990s. A look at his stats shows the following splits (listed as AVG/OBP/SLG/OPS):

Bases Empty: .296/.363/.571/.934
Men On Base: .293/.376/.557/.932

Take away Belle's intentional walks with men on base (reducing his OBP to .359 and his OPS to .916) and the fact that OPS rises when men are on base as a rule, and you can argue that Belle was worse with men on base! His OPS with runners in scoring position is a healthy .991 (dropping to .965 when you take out intentional walks), but those encompass less than 60% of his plate appearances with men on.

Two other noted "run producers" of the 90s fare similarly (removing intentional walks):

Juan Gonzalez
Bases Empty: .290/.332/.552/.884
Men On Base: .301/.340/.569/.909

Joe Carter
Bases Empty: .255/.294/.467/.761
Men On Base: .264/.306/.461/.767

So why did these men accumulate so many RBIs and gain a reputation as "RBI men"? Part of it is that they were, in actuality, good hitters. Guys who hit 30-40 HR a year are going to drive in runs, just by happenstance. Another factor is the guys hitting in front of them who get on base a lot and generally run well. Albert Belle had Kenny Lofton leading off for him. Gonzalez had Will Clark, Rusty Greer, and a few others.

But nobody had their table set better than Joe Carter, who almost certainly has the worst non-RBI numbers of anyone with his hitting line. How can you not drive in runs when you have, at various times in your career, Roberto Alomar, Paul Molitor, and even, for a few months, Rickey Henderson, batting ahead of you? Carter ranks 57th all time in RBI but 261st in slugging percentage and 625th in OPS, and, as demonstrated above, was no better at driving runners in than he was at hitting with nobody on base.

But this isn't supposed to be a "bash Joe Carter" post. The point is, instead, to try and illustrate that just because a player does what he's supposed to do -- such as get hits or score TDs -- he is probably not any better (or worse) at doing it at specific times than his overall skill level would indicate.

And that brings us to situational stats in football and this question. If you give the ball to Adrian Peterson (or Emmitt Smith, or Walter Payton, or Jim Brown) on 3rd-and-2 at your opponent's 20 down 7-3 with three minutes left in the first quarter, does he have any better of a chance of gaining that first down if it's 3rd-and-2 at the opponent's 20 down 7-3 with three minutes left in the fourth quarter?

I say "no."

Putting aside unquantifiable things, like player fatigue level, general play calling during the day, and so on -- and I arranged the example to make a run or pass pretty much equally likely in either scenario -- I don't believe that a player performs any better or worse in the same scenario at different points in the game and that his accumulation of "good stats" (whether they be RBIs or first downs or whatever) are due more to their being in a position to succeed more often than their peers and performing at a rate roughly identical to their established skill level.

In my baseball examples, a player is going to approach each at-bat pretty much the same way, whether there are runners on or not. In my football example, the running back is going to try to gain that first down (or more) with everythign he's got, whether it's the first quarter or the fourth (and, frankly, if he puts forth "extra effort" in the fourth, why can't he do that throughout the game?). Obviously, some game circumstances can change things, but, for the most part, baseball players are trying to hit the ball as hard/well as possible and football players are trying to gain as many yards as possible every chance they get.

You can approach this any number of ways. Does Peyton Manning pass well on third downs becuase he's good on third downs or just because he's good, period? Does Sidney Crosby have a lot of game-winning overtime goals because he "turns it up a notch" in overtime or becuase he's a great player overall? Alternatively, does Adam Dunn strike out a lot with the bases loaded because he's not "clutch" or because he just strikes out a lot?

And then there's my favorite "circumstantial" football stat, the fourth-quarter comeback. I've heard more than a few times the last few months that Brett Favre has 42 fourth quarter comebacks. Putting aside the notion that, in order to have to make a fourth-quarter comeback, you have to be behind (*coughinterceptionscough*), can anyone tell me how many times Brett Favre has taken his team into the fourth quarter while behind and not come back? Anyone?

Didn't think so.

Favre has 100 losses as a starter. His team trailed at some point in the fourth quarter in all those losses, so that makes Favre's "4th quarter comeback rate" 42/142, or about 30%. Seems rather "meh," I think. And yes, several of them might have been the other team scoring with little to no time left and Favre not having a realistic chance to come back, but I'd also wager some of the victories involved the Packers taking the lead (maybe on a run or a defensive score) with 14:50 to go in the fourth quarter and not relinquishing it. Hardly dramatic, but it still counts as one of the 42.

Then there's the question of whether Favre (or any other QB famous for his late-game heroics) is actually even better in the fourth quarter than he is in the other three. (Looking at split stats is deceiving, since offenses and defenses do radically change their approaches depending on the time of the game and the score. Still, his 79.6 career passer rating in the 4th isn't anything to get excited about.) If so, why doesn't he play that well throughout the game? Such monikers are usually the result of an overall high quality of play and a few legendary performances in big situations (Joe Montana, John Elway, and Reggie Jackson are all good examples) etching the player's name into posterity. Remember, just a few years ago, Peyton Manning wasn't "clutch." Then he won a Super Bowl.

But this isn't even a "bashing Brett Favre" post. (I've done plenty of that lately.) If you've gotten this far, I just hope you can open your mind to the thought that opportunity and overall skill level matter as much when evaluating a player as his counting stats and that when a player does something is less important, in the long run, than doing it consistently and getting plenty of opportunities for "big moments."

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