03 October 2007

An Open Letter to Mr. Sabermetric Baseball Encyclopedia, Lee Sinins


I read your ATM report today about your new definitions of the AL, NL and World Champions, and I wanted to respond. And, being hard up for topics on my blog, I'm posting this there as an open letter. I hope you don't mind. I'll be happy, of course, to publish any responses you may have to offer, as I am quite interested to read them. And I need the material.

Anyway, let me begin by saying thanks for all you do. It's interesting and useful work, and I appreciate your unique approach to baseball analysis.

With that said, this is just silly.

Sure, the postseason is a small sample size and anything can happen, so the "best" team doesn't always win. Your "new" system has some of the same inherent flaws as the real one, namely that teams are rewarded for good performance in a small sample size, after which they get the chance to pad their records by playing more games. They still may not be the Best Team, but may have played well enough to beat, and therefore eliminate the Best team from playing any more games and therefore from vying for your Championship.

Think of it this way: Most of us look at this year's records, with 4 AL teams that won 94+ games but nobody in the NL with more than 90, and we think that the AL is generally better, and their 137-115 record in Interleague games backs this up. But what if it didn't? What if the NL was actually a much better, more talented league, and they just happened not to play well in Interleague games? This is certainly not an impossibility, given that those series, too, are small sample sizes, even smaller than those in the post season. But the NL, being generally more talented across the board, spends the rest of the season beating up on each other, such that no team has a chance to win more than 90 games, but no team loses 95 games either. Parity, at it's finest, right? Except that your new system has almost precluded the team from the more talented league (in my analogy, anyway, of not reality) from becoming the Champion they deserve to be.

The real question, of course, is about team quality, and there are lots of ways to measure this besides wins and losses. But then what's the point of even staging the games if you're just going to ignore those? An argument can be made from the teams' run-differentials that the padres should be in the playoffs ahead of the Diamondbacks and that the Braves should supplant the Phillies. Those numbers, runs scored and allowed, are a better measure of team quality than wins and losses, at least in some cases, but the fact remains that those teams got the wins they needed to get postseason berths, and nobody can take that from them, at least not until their opponents in the NLDS get their shot. Would you prefer them to name playoff teams based on something other than wins and losses, and how would you have them sort it out once they get there?

Looked at a different way, how big a sample do you need to make it count? 10 games? 20? 50?? I'm guessing that you would prefer the two leagues to announce only one League Champion each, i.e. go back to the pre-1969 approach, admitting only the team with the best record (or perhaps the teams with the best RCAA + RSAA totals?) and then play a much longer series to determine the World Champion, but I don't know you all that well, so I could be wrong.

In any case, it seems to me that you're relatively unconcerned with how interested the fans are in their teams come September, or how interested people would be in watching, for example, a 35-game series between the same two teams, even if it would be a better way of determining a Champion than the current one. Fans like you and I, who would watch the whole season if it were 12 months long and 365 games, can have trouble relating to the mindset of the casual fan. I understand that. Do they have to play another entire season to make a decision on who the champion was from last season? Where does it end? What is your ideal scenario?

I would suggest that the current scenario is not so bad as you think. It rewards teams for playing well over the long haul, requiring them to win more games than anyone else in their division, or, barring that, more than anyone who doesn't win a division, to get a chance at October Glory. That's not perfect, but you have to balance the priorities of baseball purity with the political and economic realities that this is a business, and without the fans' interest, there's no business to be had, no money to be made, and therefore no reason to keep playing. Baseball does not exist in a vacuum, and is not played just for the sake of the Game, not on this level, anyway. Taking away those other three playoff teams, whether they deserve to be there or not, takes away millions of casual fans from the seats and sets where they would normally be watching baseball in the latter part of the season, and does damage to the game as a whole.
The system also rewards teams for playing well in the short term, in the clutch, as it were. Small sample size or not, you've still got to win 4 out of 7 games, and lousy teams generally can't do that against good ones. It's far from perfect, and I'll be among the first to admit that. I even think that there should be some kind of caveat worked into the system to prevent a "division winner" with a losing record form getting into the postseason, as I wrote after last year's postseason, so it's not as though I have anything invested in the system as it currently stands. I just find it arrogant and distasteful to change the definitions of the postseason champions and rename them all at your own whim. If you want to say that the 2006 Cardinals were really not as good as the Yankees or Mets or Tigers or whatever, we can have that discussion. if you want to say that they didn't deserve to win the World Series and did so only because they got lucky (or because the Tigers got unlucky, if you will), well, that's another point on which you'll get little argument out of me, or anyone else outside the realm of Cardinals fans, I expect. But if you want to say that they really did not win the World Series, well, then I think you've gone too far. You're just sticking your head in the sand. You're free to not like the system, but don't pretend it doesn't exist.

Well, if you've kept reading this far, I thank you, and as I mentioned, I do sincerely look forward to reading anything you have to offer in way of response, even if it is just raspberries.



Travis M. Nelsonhttp://boyofsummer.blogspot.com

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