From the episode notes: “Ben and Sam answer listener emails about the importance of coaches, defensive stats, and how we know whether pitchers should gain or lose weight, with guest appearances by Colin Wyers and Doug Thorburn.”
Episode 78 (11/7/12, 42m)
Intro sound: The USS Enterprise transporter effect, as heard in this clip (stay tuned for a thrilling recreation of baseball’s “old school”-“stat geek” war).
Banter: This is the first full listener email show, in the sense that they read three here, two more than previously. The plan is for Ben and Sam to discuss one email, and then bring in Colin to discuss a second, and Doug to discuss a third. Sam comments that it’s “like that scene from Children of Men.”
Email #1: Kevin from Toronto asks about the impact of managers/coaches on a team’s on-field performance, and their value to organizations. The question is inspired in part by the coaching exodus of Kevin’s Blue Jays, as led by John Gibbons.
Sam explains the difficulty of there being so many variables in coaching, rather than other specific player skills which easily lend themselves to hard numbers. He adds that the range of coaches may be so narrow, that knowing whether one is merely good or bad could be sufficient. Ben adds how it’s hard to quanitfy given that it’s pretty much impossible to find controlled environments for comparisons, on account of how much changes around them year-to-year.
The guys then talk about how some coaches may have more value than managers. Sam takes a shot at ranking the impact of various coaching positions, with his order being pitching coach, manager, trainer, and hitting coach. Ben takes a shot with head trainer, pitching coach, manager, hitting coach. Ben adds that hitting coaches probably are least important, especially since many teams now have two of them. “Which shows,” Sam wonders, “how important they are?” “I don’t know where I was going with that.”
Email #2: Alan asks why defensive stats sometimes don’t seem to match up with the eye test, particularly with Curtis Granderson and Adam Jones, whose numbers weren’t flattering. A classic sabermetrics question.
For the answer, Ben dials up Colin Wyers live on the show, much to Sam’s confusion. At the time, Colin was Baseball Prospectus’s director of research, aka, the head stat guy. He was also very under the weather. (Colin has since joined the Houston Astros to lend his skills there, and talked to Ben and Sam about it in November 2013.)
Colin elaborates that it can be hard to judge outfielders in particular, even more so on TV, as you only see them on camera at the end of a play, but not at the beginning where they may have had a bad first read. Scouts will often focus on a particular player at any one time.
Colin adds that aging curves for defense are pretty much a downhill line, unlike with offense. Developing power among maturing players doesn’t carry over to defense. It mostly depends on speed and reaction, which favors youth, with the mental side being only a small factor. Colin and Ben both agree they would go with scouting assessments before relying more on the data after a big enough sample, but both would “hem and haw” if asked how big that should be.
Colin ends by commenting on how short-term offensive slumps/streaks can be evened out in the data more quickly than on the defensive side, where there are fewer chances.
Email #3: Matt asks about pitchers’ weight changes, and how it affects their team’s resulting view of them.
Ben calls Doug Thorburn, BP’s pitching mechanics guru, and a man in good health. Ben adds that he’s an EW listener, or is at least convincingly so. Doug says that the two physical keys are functional strength and flexibility, and that it can be a give and take between the two. It’s also hard to predict how a player will adapt to a change in physique. Some pitchers can have mechanics that are more sensitive than others to weight loss, whereas weight gain often can affect flexibility.
Sam asks if people in general have an optimal, ideal weight level, and Doug says they do, but it can have a negative effect on athletic efficiency. Even players who come into camp in The Best Shape of Their Life may not necessarily see positive results on the field if mechanical changes throw off balance or timing.
Ben asks about whether players who have already established a successful career should be averse to attempts at weight loss, even while fans and teams may feel that would be for the better. Doug agrees it’s often best not to mess around if they’ve done well, though it’s easier to make improvements nutritionally. He finishes by saying that nutrition and conditioning at the minor league levels are woefully lacking.
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