Friday, August 10, 2007

Baseball Players, “Consistently” “Inconsistent”

It’s often said by analysts that part of a player’s value is his consistency. This usually results in laughter by statheads. While this might just be because saying someone is consistent doesn’t say anything about their ability, I think a couple other things are going on here as well.

An example of a player often referred to as consistent is Tony Gwynn. Looking at his stats though, he had as wild of swings in AVG as every major league hitter is subjected to, because the stat is a result of a lot of other factors, with a players ability not having a huge part in it. In terms of Gwynn’s batting averages, he went .329, .370, .313, .336, .309, .317, .317, .358, .394 in one stretch. They were basically all good years, so in that way he was consistent. Hitting .317 two years in a row is a statistical oddity, not a reflection of how consistent he was. Now what if he was on average, 50 points of a worse hitter? Then the stretch would be .279, .320, .263, .286, .259, .267, .267, .308, .344. All of the sudden it looks like he went from below average (.263) to batting title worth (.344), a huge difference. But in fact each of those sequences of numbers have the exact same variance (or lack of consistency). I think one reason why good players are also viewed as “consistent” is because they usually supply some baseline of production (in Gwynn’s case it was a baseline of .310 and then fluctuations higher), so they don’t have “bad” years.

I feel like in baseball lifer lingo good has come to mean consistent and often vice versa as well. No one would call a guy who hits between .200 and .275 every year consistent though, he would just be described as bad. But that’s the thing, stats like average have a high amount of variance nomatter whether you are good or bad, no one can really be consistent with such a stat. It’s not a reflection of them the hitter, it’s a reflection of other random stuff that the hitter doesn’t control.

People understand home runs, and getting hits. Since they are no abstract stats, they believe hitters have control of doing those things. But people are also used to hitters having good years, and bad years, and the same for pitchers. Beckett had a bad year last year, he’s having a good year this year. Right? That’s why when someone actually is good every year it stands out and makes it seem like that guy is in more control somehow, and thus must be better. What is happening though is that everyone is looking at the wrong stats to begin with, looking for consistency where there can’t be any.

In terms of the consistent performance of having a 95 mph fastball and an 85 mph curve ball and the ability to throw both for strikes, perhaps Beckett has always been a good pitcher. Last year he was 10th in the AL in batting average against at .245. This year he is 9th in the AL at .238. The difference in the two years is how many balls went over the fence and maybe choices of pitch sequence. He is the same pitcher though in terms of stuff. Does Beckett exactly control what a hitter is expecting, or whether he gives up homers, or line drive singles, or line outs? Not as much. What he definitely does have control over is this ability to throw his nasty pitches. This is a consistency he can control through practice and good training, etc. Those feats are reflected in his BAA, which has virtually never wavered in his career. For me what I find important for a pitcher to be consistent about is his ability to continue to be a flamethrower every year who throws strikes. As soon as he shows up to spring training throwing 90 mph instead, then I could see a label of inconsistent being appropriate. Though it is also possible he could morph into a new kind of pitcher who is also productive in his own way.

Take a pitcher who could actually be a poster boy for inconsistency, Estaban Loaiza. His BAA has fluctuated all over the place in his career, as a result of his stuff being excellent some years and terrible other years. I think there are ways for baseball players to be inconsistent to their detriment, but it’s not something you would notice by just looking at stats that have a high level of variance in of themselves.


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