In Defense of Buster Olney

ESPN’s Buster Olney wrote earlier this week that Oakland pitcher, Trevor Cahill, was on quite a roll and as such, was right in the mix for the AL Cy Young. The following day, Buster got slammed!

It seems the sabre-heads didn’t take too kindly to Buster’s use of antiquated stats to defend his claim. His colleague at ESPN, Keith Law, spearheaded the attack and it was parroted by dozens in comment sections around the net. In the spirit of full disclosure, I also had a complaint with Olney but for reasons that are slightly different than the crowd.

Anyways, Buster fired back last night. In a series of tweets, Olney basically said enough is enough and results, rather than theory, is what is matters when judging past performance and awarding seasonal hardware. Here is a snapshot:

The premise that Cy Young candidates should be judged on what their numbers should be, rather than what they actually are, is amusing. That thought process certainly would have altered the results in 1961 — because I guess Roger Maris wasn’t supposed to hit 61 homers.  The Dodgers, I guess, should not have won the ’88 World Series; Bucky Dent should have flied out to left. Lucky? Really? They did it. The # say Orel Hershiser wasn’t supposed to pitch 59 consecutive scoreless innings. DiMaggio wasn’t supposed to hit in 56 straight. Were the ’07 Rockies not supposed to make the WS, based on the numbers before their streak? C’mon.The # are what they are, until they aren’t.

I don’t always agree with Buster. In fact, I kind of think he is a tool. But in this instance, he is much more right than wrong. Because this is what he is saying ….. when you are picking a Cy Young Winner, you need to go off what that player did over the previous six months. As such, you look at his totals. And not what they should have been but what they actually were. Sabre-heads have a hard time with this. Instead, they think it allows for too much “luck” to factor into the equation. So they like to smooth the results out. Adjust for luck and anomalies. And rely on predictive tools – like FIP and xFIP – too measure a pitcher’s performance rather than just saying …. What pitcher gave up the fewest runs and fewest hits over a healthy amount of innings?

When I pitched Clay Buchholz for CYA on Monday, I raised some of these issues, so in a sense I was slightly ahead of this brouhaha.  To save you the time, the gist of my argument was Buchholz had done one thing MUCH better than anyone else in the AL and that is keep the other team off the scoreboard. And last time I checked, that is really the only job of a pitcher. Well that and completing lots of innings.

But guys like Keith Law and to a lesser extent, guys like Dave Cameron at Fangraphs disagree. They want “art” to be factored into the equation. They want to isolate pitching performance as much as possible so the fact that Buchholz keeps the ball in the yard and strands runners better than anyone in the AL is not rewarded. Because, according to them, this is not the work of Buchholz. He is merely the beneficiary of good defense, strange winds, and poorly placed hits. And it is only after you adjust for these things that a true winner can emerge.

I just don’t agree with this. And one of the reasons is I think it is lazy. I say that because the sabre-guys think EVERYTHING can be explained by looking at the numbers. And everything falling outside the range of expected outcomes is suspicious. So in Buchholz case, the fact that he is keeping balls in the yard is illusory. As I said above, this strikes me as lazy analysis. After all, who is to say that Buchholz isn’t doing something, or a number of things, that is keeping the ball in these parks? A final thing here … if we kill guys for giving up too many dingers and not stiffening when guys are on base, how come we don’t reward those guys who thrive in these areas? After all, luck isn’t always in play. Just ask a guy like Greg Maddux.

The moral to this story is that I think there is a middle ground here. Yes, improved statistical analysis has helped improve our understanding of the game. And clearly, there are some lunkheads whose disdain for “new math” makes them now look ignorant and out of touch. But when I see some of the contra-arguments, like that launched against Buster, I sometimes think the pendulum has swung a bit too far. Not because the numbers lie. But because the application of the data is sometimes questionable.

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1 Comment

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One response to “In Defense of Buster Olney

  1. See my comment from Monday. Cut/paste.

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