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Analytics is only as good as its assumptions, even for the Yankees

To the delight of some and the dismay of others, the New York Yankees were swept by the Detroit Tigers in the 2012 American League Championship Series. It is a small consolation to Yankees fans that the Tigers themselves were swept by the San Francisco Giants in the recently concluded World Series. Nevertheless, such postseason performance is unacceptable to devout Yankees fans, whose expectation of postseason dominance begins with the first pitch on Opening Day. What will console disappointed Yankees fans is taking a big broom to the Yankee roster and sweeping it clean of blameworthy personnel.

Such a sentiment is understandable when put in the context of Yankees-style talent management. Perfected by the late owner George Steinbrenner, Yankees talent management includes acquiring players who have exhibited superstar performance with another team, overpaying them, managing them by fear and intimidation, creating a workplace environment of high tension, and summarily dismissing them when performance is judged unsatisfactory. The latter of these appears to be a singular pleasure for Yankee management and fans, who regard stripping a player of the Yankee uniform and further participation in Yankee tradition as due humiliation for the perceived affront of not winning.

Much speculation has occurred about who might be on the chopping block. The most obvious candidate is Alex Rodriguez, whose 2012 performance, particularly during the postseason, justified very little of his USD 275 million contract. Beyond that the view is murky, and requires closer analysis.

Saber rattling

Major League Baseball was an early adopter of analytics, in the form of sabermetrics, a set of quantitative techniques applied to baseball statistics to facilitate objective comparisons between players and teams, even of different eras. One such comparison involves Yankees outfielders Nick Swisher and Ichiro Suzuki. Both have produced impressive numbers during their careers and are popular with fans. Yet in the minds of Yankees fans expecting better results in 2013, one of the two needs to go.

Yankees blogger Steven Goldman applies a respectable, sabermetrically sound argument to retain Swisher and dismiss Ichiro, based on a careful compilation of standard sabermetric figures:

If you like OPS, Ichiro has a career .784, Swisher .814. If you want that league- and park-adjusted, it’s 113 for Ichiro, 118 for Swisher. If you prefer wOBA it’s .339 for Ichiro, .359 for Swisher. True Average? .284 for Ichiro, .288 for Swisher.

Factoring in Ichiro’s seven-year seniority, Goldman concludes:

…the best-case scenario for Ichiro in 2013 is likely something roughly like what he did for the Yankees in 2012, which wasn’t quite as good as what Swisher did in 2012.

However, another Yankees blogger, Ed Valentine, rebuts this argument quite well:

It’s not about the Sabermetrics. It’s not even about the age difference. It’s about the playoffs. For the Yankees, it has to be about the playoffs, and the type of players you need once you get there.

Valentine argues the Yankees should optimize for postseason performance, during which time strategy shifts more to game fundamentals: pitching, defense, and base running. Valentine notes that postseason performance cannot depend on the occasional home run, but rather consistent execution of fundamentals, especially in situations where tomorrow may not come. Under these assumptions Ichiro clearly performs better than Swisher.

Goldman’s arguement assumes that the characteristics of regular season and postseason performance are the same. During the regular season, single game performance is less important than long term performance, and consequently teams optimize on mean performance while accepting high variance. In the postseason, teams must minimize variance, as losing even a single game can change team dynamics and strategy significantly, especially as a team approaches elimination.

Wait till next year!

The old saying that “you get what you measure” applies even more rigorously when your organization depends on analytics. But you also get what you assume. Even for the Yankees outfield, conducting analytics without checking or clarifying assumptions may produce impressive results on paper, but may also yield on-field performance that ultimately falls short of everyones’ expectations.

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      Author's profile photo Stephen Burr
      Stephen Burr

      Enjoyed your blog - thanks.

      I'm no baseball fan (being a Brit I rarely see it although I've been to a couple of games in NYC and Houston) but I liked your use of it to illustrate the point.

      Not only do we need to be aware of bad data but bad (measurement and use of) statistics!  Sometimes as you highlight, it is the assumptions we make before we analyse that trips us up.

      Thanks again,


      Author's profile photo Former Member
      Former Member

      Hello Stephen:

      Thank you for your kind words. I was rather worried after I posted that the blog would have little appeal to an EMEA audience, and so I am encouraged that baseball is becoming more and more a global experience (the official Major League Baseball website has Japanese, Korean, and Spanish language options). One of my fondest baseball memories was meeting Nikolay Gervasov when he was touring the US as a member of the Soviet National Team.

      While those of us in the United States might be preoccupied with analytics covering baseball, it is worthwhile for us to remember that four of the ten most valuable sports franchises in the world are European football teams: Manchester United, Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Arsenal, with The Red Devils and Los Blancos ranking number one and two. And indeed, there has been some excellent academic research in the last ten years covering the talent managment practices and performance drivers of Premier League teams.

      And personally, I would like to see the Yankees keep Ichiro and let him retire in a Yankee uniform, with a World Series ring on his hand!