My once a year post on baseball

Dubner worries a lot about whether people comment on our posts, which is definitely evidence that he doesn’t have enough important things to worry about.

Every time I have made a post about baseball, it has unleashed a torrent of comments. So as an Easter gift to Dubner, here is my annual baseball post.

I’ve been working for the last year with a fantastic young man named Ken Kovash. He is unusual in that he got his MBA from the University of Chicago, but while doing so he also took a bunch of economics classes. After getting his MBA, he asked if he could come work with me, and although I told him he was crazy to pass up salaries four times greater than I could offer him, he decided to stick around and work with me anyway. We’ve spent a good part of the last year working on some baseball related projects, as well as some more traditional applications.

While our joint work on baseball is not yet ready for prime time (although baseball genius Nate Silver of Baseball Prospectus makes mention of one piece of it here), Ken has been doing some baseball-related analysis on his own that offers a substantial challenge to the conventional wisdom among sabermetricians. The particular issue Ken has been examining is “protection.” In other words, does it help me as a batter if the person in the on deck circle is really good? The existing research, by excellent folks like J.C. Bradbury who has a nice blog (and has written a book on the economics of baseball which I have not yet read but have heard great things about) argues that protection is a myth. When you look at the outcomes of at bats, you don’t see measurable effects of having a good batter behind you. In Ken’s research, which you can read here, he makes a nice economics-style argument. There is a lot of randomness in how an at bat turns out which makes it hard to detect an impact of protection even if it is really there. There is a lot less noise, however, in some of the inputs to an at bat, like whether the pitcher throws strikes. By focusing on how the pitcher pitches to the batter, rather than how the at bat actually ends, Ken is able to cut through the noise to find strong evidence that it seems to matter who bats behind you.

After a year, Ken is pretty tired of me. So let me make a pitch on his behalf. Here is a guy with great work experience prior to his MBA, an MBA from the U of C, and a set of data skills honed through a year of working side-by-side with some top economists. I think there are very few folks anywhere who have the combination of skills that Ken has. As much as I would like him to stick around, somebody should steal him away from me! Ideally, it would be a major league baseball team that is looking for a guy who lives and breathes baseball, knows the existing sabermetric literature cold, but also brings a business perspective that goes far beyond his ability to manipulate statistics. Failing that, I think just about any firm would want to have Ken on their payroll. If you want more details, you can contact him directly at kkovash[at]gmail[dot]com.

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  1. shmoo says:

    Hi Ken!

    - Eric K.

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  2. shmoo says:

    Hi Ken!

    - Eric K.

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  3. That’s a nice plug for Ken, but by putting his email address on the web, you’ve doomed him to a lifetime of spam. I suppose a $250,000 salary would make up for that, but still…

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  4. That’s a nice plug for Ken, but by putting his email address on the web, you’ve doomed him to a lifetime of spam. I suppose a $250,000 salary would make up for that, but still…

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  5. Victor says:

    The real point of protection is to prevent a good hitter from being walked. The data shows that putting good hitters behind a player means he’ll see more strikes, reducing the number of unintentional walks he’ll get. The pitcher will also intentionally walk the hitter much less. Putting your worst hitter behind your best hitter will mean he’ll rarely get to swing with runners in scoring position.

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  6. Victor says:

    The real point of protection is to prevent a good hitter from being walked. The data shows that putting good hitters behind a player means he’ll see more strikes, reducing the number of unintentional walks he’ll get. The pitcher will also intentionally walk the hitter much less. Putting your worst hitter behind your best hitter will mean he’ll rarely get to swing with runners in scoring position.

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  7. brotherseven says:

    I finished my last year of collegiate baseball in June of 2006 at Brigham Young University. I’ve been pitching my whole life and I can tell you that there is truth to what Victor is saying. On the other hand there is never a rule that establishes what strategy will take place in a certain situation. It’s all circumstantial. So while I agree with Ken in some situations, I would have to agree with J.C. Bradbury in the majority. For example, if there’s a guy on second and I absolutely need a double play ball with a good hitter up… I’m going to walk the guy, no matter who is batting behind him! But then again, if the batter has gone 0 for 3 that day with 3 strikeouts and has looked like garbage, I’m going to pitch to him because I know I can beat him. Also maybe I walk the guy, and a really good hitter is on deck… There is always the option of switching things up and substituting in a different pitcher that has had good success against this really good hitter. I’m tellin you, there is just too much a team can do in any situation. You can’t control a study like this, all you can do is look at the numbers and I’ll bet that while protection can play a small factor, for the most part, it’s irrelevant. One last thing, I know who’s on deck when I’m pitching, but that doesn’t mean I’m thinking about it. My focus is getting the out at hand!

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  8. brotherseven says:

    I finished my last year of collegiate baseball in June of 2006 at Brigham Young University. I’ve been pitching my whole life and I can tell you that there is truth to what Victor is saying. On the other hand there is never a rule that establishes what strategy will take place in a certain situation. It’s all circumstantial. So while I agree with Ken in some situations, I would have to agree with J.C. Bradbury in the majority. For example, if there’s a guy on second and I absolutely need a double play ball with a good hitter up… I’m going to walk the guy, no matter who is batting behind him! But then again, if the batter has gone 0 for 3 that day with 3 strikeouts and has looked like garbage, I’m going to pitch to him because I know I can beat him. Also maybe I walk the guy, and a really good hitter is on deck… There is always the option of switching things up and substituting in a different pitcher that has had good success against this really good hitter. I’m tellin you, there is just too much a team can do in any situation. You can’t control a study like this, all you can do is look at the numbers and I’ll bet that while protection can play a small factor, for the most part, it’s irrelevant. One last thing, I know who’s on deck when I’m pitching, but that doesn’t mean I’m thinking about it. My focus is getting the out at hand!

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