Thursday, January 06, 2011

Kevin Gregg and the battle between stats and your own eyes

I know it seems like I have it in for Kevin Gregg. I wrote about him torpedoing the 2008 Marlins playoff hopes.

In 2009 I couldn't figure out why the Cubs would want him.

In 2010 I wrote about how he shouldn't be the closer for the Blue Jays.

And last month I kind of freaked out when I saw the Red Sox were interested in him.

Now he has 2 years in Baltimore, and he supplied some relief... for ME! As a Red Sox fan, I didn't want him in Fenway. Now I know he is going to stay in the AL East, which is great for any AL East team NOT named Baltimore.

Look, I never met Kevin Gregg. I am sure he is a nice guy. I am sure he has talent. But I feel like I am Bizarro World when I hear people say things like "Gregg has a track record that suggests he will be a fairly dependable closer."

I guess if by dependable you mean "you can depend on him to blow some big games."

But this got me thinking. There seems to be two very different schools of thought in baseball today when it comes to evaluating players:

There is the old school of scouting, watching the players and going with gut instinct.
And there is the statistical evaluation with an ever evolving series of numerical criteria.

The problem with the first school is of course it is totally subjective. You could see someone have a great game the first time you saw them play and skew any scouting report to that opening impression. Plus there is no way to quantify things like "heart" and "clutch" and "gets his uniform dirty." Yeah someone could get a clutch hit... but what if they got it off of a lousy pitcher?

Stat heads often have little patience for any praise or criticism for a player not based on numbers. I am sure someone out there can tell me why, statistically, Kirk Gibson's home run off of Dennis Eckersley was not impressive.

But of course there is a reason why they cling to stats: They are not subjective. It is a game of numbers. Your worth comes from the numbers, not some vague intangible. "Moxy" doesn't win ball games. A good on base percentage plus slugging can.

There are problems with the stats approach as well. While focusing only on stats and eliminating any human emotion might be a great way to assemble a fantasy team, the players are actually human. And sometimes there are elements to someone's game that have nothing to do with the WAR that can make a player a bad fit.

All the statistical analysis showed that Edgar Renteria was a terrific fit for the Red Sox. Anyone who knew the guy felt that the rough Northeastern media environment would not gel with the shortstop. The Red Sox signed him and BANG! he didn't fit in and had one of his worst seasons.

Last year when Javy Vazquez was reacquired by the Yankees, the stat heads were saying they had an ace and a bulldog. Look at his strikeout per inning ratio! Look at how many innings he pitched! Look at his situation wins saved! But I said and many other people said "Didn't he flop in New York? Didn't he fold up like a tent? And why would Ozzie Guillen trash Vazquez's ability during a pennant run?" The statistical analysis won out, and to the surprise of nobody and except people analyzing the stats, he was a disaster in New York.

This brings us back to Gregg.
You can look at his strikeout totals, his good strikeout to walk ratio, his high save total and any other means you want to fold his stats into an oragami swan.

The most disturbing trend in his career when you look at the stats has nothing to do with numbers. It has to do with the teams.

The Orioles will be his fifth team in the last six seasons. Isn't that a red flag? Doesn't that tell you that each of these teams kicked the tires and drove the car and said "In theory it is great... but you can have it."

All games, saves and blown saves are created equal on the back of the baseball card but not in reality. The games he blew down the stretch for the Marlins were huge stretch run games that took wind out of their sails in the Wild Card hunt. The games he blew out of the gate for the Cubs helped them stumble into the 2009 season and they never recovered.

Each of those teams had him and didn't seem to have any urgency to keep him.
That's a red flag folks.

Not convinced?
Still think that you analyze the stats and that is the end all and be all of figuring out who to sign?

How about this compromise?
You look at the stats, but then before offering a contract, you poll the fans. You know, the people who actually LIVED with the player for a season.

Remember Armando Benitez?

If you looked at his stats, you would come to the conclusion that he was an elite reliever. His strikeout to innings pitched ratio was insane. His ERA was solid. He piled up saves.

He won the Rolaids Relief Award in 2001.

Ask Mets fans about that great season he had in 2001. He was so hated by Met fans that year for his critical blown saves down the stretch that you would have thought he had wiped his butt with the flag flown at Ground Zero.

And this was AFTER he blew key post season saves in the 1999 Division Series, 1999 NLCS, 2000 Division Series and 2000 World Series.

I lived in New York when he pitched for the Mets. I lived near San Francisco when he pitched for the Giants. Don't talk to me about his stats. He was a disaster in both places.

How his agent kept getting him big contracts was a topic of an early Sully Baseball post.

Oriole fans who now have Kevin Gregg to deal with also remember Benitez and him blowing games in the 1996 and 1997 post season.

Yeah he had great numbers. But sometimes the numbers didn't add up.

Kevin Gregg, like Benitez and Vazquez, keeps getting passed around to teams who think they are getting a stud while their former team is chuckling.

So am I saying to throw stats in the garbage?
Of course not. Relying too much on scouting and subjective opinion is nuts. And relying only on numbers is perilous. Like a good pitcher, you need a combination of the two. Look at the numbers, understand the circumstances that the stats were piled up in.

And if the people who actually watch the player flinch when you mention him... maybe take a pass.

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  1. Sticking with the murder theme (Alfredo Simon), the Orioles just killed themselves.

    Is there any relation between the signing of Kevin Gregg and the falling birds in Arkansas?

    I'm reading too much into this...

  2. I, like most Orioles fans, didn't get too excited about this signing. Don't be too surprised if Gregg isn't closing for us, though. We have Koji Uehara, who was nearly perfect down the stretch last year. There seems to be some sentiment that Koji will remain the closer and that Gregg may actually thrive in a setup role. Time will tell.

    Nice post, Sully. Always love reading your thoughts on baseball and flags.