Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Baseball Veers Into Left Field

Stephen Webster/ Wonderful Machine (Associated Press: Reese)
Voluminous Data Yield Some Arcane Research; ‘Pee Wee’ and Life Expectancy
When baseball dubbed shortstop Harold Reese “Pee Wee” and first basemen Fred Merkle “Bonehead,” they probably weren’t trying to lengthen the players’ lives. But according to researchers at Wayne State University, major-league players who have nicknames live 2½ years longer, on average, than those without them.

The nickname findings are part of the wide-ranging and often arcane academic research that deals with the national pastime. In another study, we learn that players whose first or last name begins with “K” strike out more than those without “K” initials. And in case you were wondering, research finds Democrats support the designated-hitter rule more than Republicans.
As any numbers geek knows, baseball has always been the wonkiest of sports, rife with statistics and theories. Whether baseball purists like it or not, scores of analysts and number crunchers have knocked down the gates of the hallowed game and are now climbing over the furniture with their protractors and measuring tapes.

Scores of armchair statisticians and Retrosheet, an organization dedicated to digitizing baseball history, have compiled hundreds of thousands of bytes of errors and sacrifices—all easily downloadable to the public. The ballclubs themselves have taken notice and most, if not all, have statisticians on the payroll.

“You have such a large, detailed database to start with,” says Phil Birnbaum, editor of the statistical-analysis newsletter for the Society for Baseball Research (SABR). “A lot of things that are just interesting things about life, you might first hear about them in baseball just because the data is there.”

Indeed, 90 years of plate appearances helped marketing professionals Leif Nelson of the University of California-Berkeley and Joseph Simmons of Yale University show that players with K’s in their initials strike out more than those without K initials. (“K” is the scorekeepers’ mark for a strikeout). The findings were part of a larger study published in 2007 in the journal Psychological Science that people unconsciously seek out outcomes corresponding to their names despite their conscious desires.

“Even Karl ‘Koley’ Kolseth would find a strikeout aversive,” they wrote, referring to the 1910s-era player. “But on the whole, he might find it a little less aversive than players who do not share his initials, and avoid it less enthusiastically.” (Mr. Kolseth actually never struck out in his 24 plate appearances for the Baltimore Terrapins, but Kevin Kouzmanoff of the Padres struck out 139 times last year).

In the May 2007 Quarterly Journal of Political Science, Christopher Zorn, a Penn State professor, and Jeff Gill, of Washington University, demonstrated that Democrats tend to support the designated-hitter rule more than Republicans or independents do. Using data from a 1997 CBS News poll, they suggested that the DH, introduced in the American League in 1973, not only represented radical change from tradition, but also struck some conservatives as anticompetitive. “Liberals all like the designated hitter,” Prof. Zorn contends, “because it’s sort of a welfare program. It lets hitters hit longer into their careers and takes responsibility away from the pitchers.”

Perhaps the most prolific of the baseball quirkologists are Ernest Abel, a professor of medicine, and Michael Kruger, a statistician at Wayne State.

In the past four years, Messrs. Abel and Kruger have also argued in academic journals that professional baseball players live a little longer than average folks; that players who debut at a young age have a shorter life expectancy than their slower-developing teammates; that players with “positive” initials have a longer lifespan than those with initials like “P.I.G.”; that southpaws are a little shorter than right-handers; and that major-leaguers are more likely to die on their birthdays than chance would predict. Hall of Famers are likelier still.

Prof. Abel, who has written books on a wide range of topics, including graffiti, genetic disorders and “Marihuana: the First Twelve Thousand Years,” says names, initials and death just intrigue him.

“I do a lot of reading,” he says, “and like to speculate on a lot of different aspects of behavior.” Baseball, Prof. Abel points out, is not only a good place for data, it’s also more interesting than doing a study on, say, academics. “What kind of kid grows up and wants to be an economist?” he says.

It’s not to suggest that baseball research isn’t worthwhile, since findings can have real-world applications.

W. Christopher Winter, medical director of the Martha Jefferson Hospital Sleep Medicine Center, led a soon-to-be-published study, funded by Major League Baseball, showing that teams that are adjusted to their time zone have a “circadian advantage” over teams that have just traveled across the country. “Baseball is a great way to raise awareness,” says Dr. Winter, who notes that findings can apply to shift-workers. “It’s a sexy topic and it gets a lot of attention.”

Much of the latest academic work owes a debt to the expanding field of sabermetrics, the science of baseball analysis. For sabermetricians, no topic is too small or hypothesis too unlikely. SABR’s journals publish articles like “Was Roy Cullenbine a better hitter than Joe DiMaggio?” (In short, no). At the organization’s upcoming conference, David Smith, president of Retrosheet, will answer the question: If a pitcher reaches base and has to do a little running, does it affect his performance on the mound?
Bill James, considered the father of sabermetrics, argues that occasionally statisticians are like sentries looking into a fog. “We’re trying to see if there’s an army out there,” he once wrote, “and we have confident reports that the coast is clear—but we may have underestimated the density of the fog.”

Some of the statistical analyses in the academic papers may be foggy as well.

“Whenever we try to prove something by statistical analysis we are at risk of going wrong in 6,000 different ways,” Mr. James says in an email.

The nickname study depends on the assertion that certain players did not have a nickname, which is difficult to establish with certainty. Prof. Abel says, though, that his nickname books and histories are fairly reliable. “People who do statistics on baseball,” he says, “are very meticulous.” (Despite this, Prof. Abel does not publish in SABR’s Baseball Research Journal. “It’s too esoteric,” he says.)

Prof. Zorn, the political scientist, notes that his study on Democrats and the DH rule was limited by the data set. Dr. Winter, the sleep scientist, says his study about circadian rhythms made assumptions about the causes of performance even though other variables can affect a person’s internal clock.

“Being on a plane, the restricted dietary choices, dehydration, lack of comfort, disruptions in sleep,” he says, “all those things certainly affect an individual’s performance.”

As for the K-name strikeout study, Mr. Birnbaum of SABR notes on his blog that if the data are recalculated using plate appearances instead of players’ career strikeout rate (thus placing more weight on players with longer careers), the results don’t hold up.

Meanwhile the study’s co-author, Prof. Nelson, says he welcomes critical review. “It remains entirely possible,” he says, “that [we] are incorrect.”


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