We don't know as much as we want to think we know

BALTIMORE, MD - MAY 20: Vladimir Guerrero #27 of the Baltimore Orioles breaks his bat during the game against the Washington Nationals at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on May 20, 2011 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

On Thursday, I got into a twitter conversation with a few guys, @DempseysArmy, @BmoreSportsLife, and @luke_jackson10, about how much better the Orioles will be offensively this year. We ended up talking about lineup optimization and specifically Vladimir Guerrero. Luke then prompted me to write in to one of my favorite baseball podcasts, Up and In: the Baseball Prospectus Podcast (which I can't recommend enough), and try and get a comment from Kevin Goldstein and Jason Parks. I did, and they answered the e-mail on air. How cool!

My e-mail:

I'm a relative rookie at amateur baseball analysis, though I'd like to think I'm getting smarter every day. I absorb as much as I can about whatever sides of the games I can get my hands on, and so I've read a lot about lineup optimization, including the caveat that the difference between a "perfect lineup" and a "perfectly horrible lineup" is not nearly as big a deal as I want it to be as a frustrated fan.

Still, last August when the Baltimore Orioles were grinding away with one of their worst hitters, Vladimir Guerrero, entrenched as the clean-up hitter I began to get angry with manager Buck Showalter who, in the heat of the season, seemed to me to be either not paying attention to Vlad's underwhelming performance or otherwise unwilling to shuffle him around. The fact that the actual production of the team would not be significantly helped seemed less important to me than at least giving a sign that a sub .700 OPS was unacceptable.

As I said, I can admit that I generally don't know what I'm talking about and as time goes by I'm starting to think I was wrong to criticism Showalter or the Orioles because his job is literally managing personalities, and as I see it today, when faced with the option of potentially making the work environment uncomfortable by slighting a Hall of Famer versus picking up the 0.03 runs per game or whatever that would be gained in a hopeless season by optimizing the lineup, I would personally certainly almost always take the former option.

So my question is this: Is this close to the general thought process of big league managers? Is it different for AAA managers (or at the lower levels where development trumps winning even more)? Is the culture of the game one that demands some degree of deference to big-named veterans, and should it be more or less than it currently is?

Thanks guys. I'm not even close to a long-time listener but I have very quickly become a big fan of the podcast and BP at large.


Their transcribed reply:

Kevin Goldstein: Thank you, Andrew.

Jason Parks: It's a good question.

Kevin Goldstein: It is a good question, and I get to use my Strat-O-Matic line: These are not Strat-O-Matic cards, these are human beings folks. And yeah, there are a whole lot of reasons to maybe not move guys even if it might make sense to move guys. There are players who have expectations. There are players who are going to pout, and yeah, that's not necessarily a good thing and that doesn't necessarily say a good thing about the player.

Let's think about, getting away from Vlad for a second, let's talk about the Yankees last year. Think about the Jorge Posada situation. Think about what an insane ruckus was caused the day they moved him to the bottom of the lineup. Was that worth it? Probably not. Was that really going to accomplish something? Probably not. So sometimes that's where you're going to leave a player.

That's where Vladimir Guerrero expects to hit, and if you don't have him there he's going to be pouting. And he's not alone as far as guys who would be pouting if you moved him down to seventh or eighth. So sometimes you just have to let things be when you can let them be. Especially when you're the Orioles and you're not going anywhere.

Jason Parks: Right, and you have to look at those players. Those players have a lot of influence in that locker room, and when somebody like Vlad is struggling and still getting at-bats, if he were to be taken out of the lineup and he's pouting in the clubhouse, that's a future Hall of Famer that has the potential to poison some of the younger players in that locker room. It's a very delicate balance that managers needs to negotiate on a daily basis. It's not easy, and you don't know what it's like until you're there, unfortunately. It's, really, academic for us to speak about it.

Vlad is the MacGuffin here. I probably even knew at the time that I wrote a blogpost in this very space decrying his continued presence as the clean-up hitter that I was being angry and dumb. If you read or listen to Goldstein a lot, you will know that one of his themes is that fandom breeds irrationality, and when doing any kind of analysis, irrationality is bad. It leads to cathartic but poorly formed thoughts and writings. I read that post about Vlad today and it comes off like a jilted 7th grader's whining.

The more important takeaway for me is the last bit that Jason Parks said: You don't know what it's like until you're there. Too often sports fans fall into the know-it-all category. Sabermetrics has, to some degree, empowered that feeling, but I don't think familiarity with advanced stats is at all an indicator of a person's willingness to assume.

We think we know what's best for the lineup. We think we know why Nick Markakis doesn't have any more power in his swing. We think we know what happened to Brian Matusz. We think we know a lot. We think we know what kind of executive Andy MacPhail was. We think we know if Ryan Braun took steroids, and why that would be bad if he did.

The truth is we really know very, very little.

This assumption of knowledge is something we should fight because it, like being an irrational fan, leads to terrible thinking and writing. It is far more interesting and great to, to take an example from my to-do list, discard your opinion on Nick Markakis' "noodly arms" and instead try and find some legitimate, provable reasons why his power numbers decline year after year. There's so much we can learn by approaching baseball in that way. I wish more folks would look at things this way more often, starting with yours truly.

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