Sam Miller of Baseball Prospectus wrote a compelling article on wins above replacement (WAR) for ESPN the Magazine, and there was one particular section that was most interesting to me:
I'm not a mathematician and I'm not a scientist. I'm a guy who tries to understand baseball with common sense. In this era, that means embracing advanced metrics that I don't really understand. That should make me a little uncomfortable, and it does. WAR is a crisscrossed mess of routes leading toward something that, basically, I have to take on faith.
And faith is irrational and anti-intellectual, right? Faith is for rain dances and sun gods, for spirituality but not science. Actually, no. Faith is how we organize a complicated modern world.
Faith works on both sides here, too. Dodgers manager Don Mattingly played 1,785 games in the big leagues, and has coached and managed for nine more seasons. He has been directly involved in more than 3,000 major league baseball games, so it's understandable if his faith is in his eyes.
"I really believe numbers tell you a story. You have to look into them, but you also have to evaluate men also," Mattingly said. "I do like the numbers, they do tell a story, but I want to make sure they fit too."
In the quest for information in baseball, there is no either/or debate between stats and scouts. There is only more, more, more, and then more after that. From both direct observation and statistical analysis, the key is sorting through and making sense of it all.
"As you watch the games over the course of the season, your eyes tell you one thing," Mattingly said. "But sometimes they tell you a story and you think, really? I'm not buying that."
One stat Mattingly singled out as not liking in particular was batting average on the first pitch.
"Let's say this guy's hitting .420 when he puts the ball in play first pitch. When he puts in play. If I'm hitting first pitch, I'm looking for a fastball right down the middle and I swing and put it in play, my chances should be pretty good I've hit a ball hard," Mattingly said. "Now it doesn't tell me if I'm looking for a fastball and the guy throws me a curve ball, and I swing and miss. Those don't count. Or is he cheats and hits them foul. That to me is a little bit warped."
For what it's worth, the National League average in 2012 when putting the first pitch into play was .332/.339/.543.
Mattingly will often ask Alex Tamin, the Dodgers' director of baseball contracts, research and operation, for specific statistics, including some that are proprietary to the team and quite private.
"Maybe the defensive rating on a guy a certain direction, and I don't see it. I see this guy getting good jumps that way. It seems like he catches everything over there, but the ratings come back like he's below average," Mattingly said. "Then I have to look into it more. But you know what it does, it makes me pay attention more."
While the willingness to be open sounds nice, there can be blind spots. Mattingly said on several occasions in 2012 that with Andre Ethier's swing he believed the right fielder could hit left-handed pitchers, even though the numbers didn't show it. Ethier hit .222/.276/.330 against southpaws in 2012, and has hit .238/.296/.352 against them in his career.
But it's understandable given the Dodgers' relative lack of right-handed options that Ethier wasn't benched more often. Ethier, who signed an $85 million, five-year extension last May, wasn't going to get benched against lefties in favor of Juan Rivera or Jerry Sands. Last August, Mattingly addressed the issue.
"As we get into September we'll have a few extra guys, we'll be able to do some things. Every team is going to have guys who are options," Mattingly said. "If they were tremendous options they wouldn't be in Triple A."
Mattingly this week also expanded on defensive statistics, the formulas for which we don't fully know, as Miller explained.
"With the defensive ratings, they're telling you things you aren't getting, and are over a bigger amount of time. You kind of take a look at all of them," Mattingly said. "They all can't be wrong, so you're taking a blend of those and see what they look like."
Defensive numbers are at the heart of the debate of whether or not Hanley Ramirez should play shortstop. Ramirez played shortstop for all of his career until moving to third base with the Marlins at the beginning of 2012. Ramirez moved back to shortstop after the Dodgers acquired him last season, but the defensive numbers haven't been kind.
In ultimate zone rating, Ramirez has been well below average defensively in each of the last three seasons and five of the last seven.
In defensive runs saved, Ramirez has been below average in the last four years and five of the last seven.
In fielding runs above average, Ramirez was below average in the last four seasons and six of the last seven.
But Mattingly is sticking by Ramirez at shortstop.
"Here's my belief with Hanley Ramirez: On any given day he's out there, he's a guy with a really good chance to be the best player on the field," Mattingly said. "That's why I go back to I won't move Hanley, Hanley will move himself.
"Hanley can do this: If Hanley puts his attention on playing defense and do what we ask to do, and that's to be the best player he could be at shortstop. We're not asking him to be Omar Vizquel, or 16-time gold glove winner Ozzie Smith. We're asking him to catch the balls he is supposed to catch, make the plays he's supposed to make, and turn the double plays you are supposed to turn."
Will Mattingly's faith in Ramirez pay off?
As noted philosopher Thomas Petty once said, "You take it on faith, you take it to the heart. The waiting is the hardest part."