Monday, September 5, 2011

Joe Posnanski on the value of wins in pitching -- The more you know the less you know


This is not a mathematical response to Joe Posnanski’s feeble (on purpose) attempt to resurrect the win as a measure of pitching on his blog and in the Kansas City Star today. I appreciate the power of math as much as the next guy, so don't think of this as some anti-science Republican contender crazy-ass response.

But... I'm trying to wrap my mind around watching a baseball game in which the pitcher is irrelevant. In slow-pitch softball this is very nearly the case but we still spend the winter trying to perfect knuckle balls and teeny dinky little curves and screwballs. Of course these trick pitches don't matter at 20 miles per hour but we simply can't resist. Mentally -- and visually -- it is impossible to take the pitcher out of the center of the diamond. I mean, what if Jeff Francis had not given up four runs yesterday? Would the Royals not have won 6-5?

It seems to me the more we know -- open our minds and allow math to tell us -- about baseball, the more complex and interrelated, and ultimately unknowable, the game becomes. Which is not a bad thing. Just an uncomfortable thing.

Twain wrote that becoming a river boat pilot spoiled the magic of the Mississippi River for him. The river was never the same once he learned its tricks and the mathematics of navigating it.

Like many of my friends, I really like Joe’s blog. Seems to me his writing has improved dramatically across the years. Gone are the cutsie phrases he liked to repeat across the breadth of a column until you yelled ‘Uncle.’ The subject matter is often richer, the writing even more elegant, and the substance enhanced by a lot more interviewing and – yes – more math. I’ve always liked reading him, even before I saw him tip the kid at D’Bronx who made his sandwich.

But I’m wondering why so much of his writing is even better today. Probably getting away from the Kansas City Star is one reason. It would be difficult to shine consistently in that organization – what with the lack of competition among the company he kept (was Jason Whitlock ever really any sort of competition for a writer, let alone a reporter?), the lack of demanding editors, the limit of the small stage. How can you really expect to get up for yet another column for such a small, somewhat unsophisticated audience?

And, you can’t discount the way writing about losing teams must have worn on him. This is a problem many small market writers face daily. Can you really expect his best stuff every morning when he has to write about yet another nine-six loss? Look at what writing about a losing small market team is doing to Lee Judge. He’s been reduced to writing about whether it is better to lose early or lose late.

And, of course, Joe writes A LOT more now than he did in Kansas City. He writes every day in the blog, tweets constantly about what he intends to write, and works on several big takes at once for publication elsewhere – meaning on much bigger stages. Red Smith wrote something about the winning percentages of daily columnists – I think he said he thought two wins a week was pretty good. But he was talking about writing two winners out of five tries. Joe has far more opportunities to win each week (and also to clunk), so you’d expect his wins to be higher but – because you do get better the more you write – you might also expect his skills to improve which means those wins might be inflated by just more practice.

Then again, he writes in the ‘dead bar’ era of newspapering. Whereas most newspapers had their own bars back in the day, and newspaper men wrote a lot more columns on damp bar napkins, you’d just naturally expect Joe to write more winners and less soggy, get-me-over, losers.

But the thing about Joe that is truly stunning is how deep he goes into a column or a post or a story with quality stuff. Many writers – most writers – can knock out a few good graphs at the top of the piece. But, Joe is a finisher. Good to the last drop. Of course, some of that is because he writes – I’m guessing – on very portable computers which – unlike typewriters – can be drug along with you nearly anywhere. So, he doesn’t have to finish in one sitting. And, since he is probably not antsy to get to the company bar in the middle of his column, and because the stakes are higher at the better organizations for which he toils, he has more stamina and better equipment. You’d expect him to go deeper into a column, wouldn’t you?

I mean, how much of how good Joe Posnanski is, can we attribute to Joe Posnanski and how much is out of his control? We’re used to reading one of his pieces and saying, ‘Man, that was well-written. Another winner for Joe.’ But when you really think about it, how much of that winner is really Joe’s doing?


PPS: In looking around for the Red Smith winning percentage I happened on this wonderful piece by David Halberstam about the Great Walter Smith. It is a book review, but it is much more. Please, if you are a writer -- or reader -- don't miss it.

Beauty in math courtesy:


  1. I've lost my copy of the Southpaw. Any chance you can recite the starting lineup for the 1952 Mammoths for me?