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Points by Ben Simmons during Game 3 victory over Nets

Hiding behind numbers

Posted by Eric Fisher On October 3

Whoever coined the phrase “numbers don’t lie” never watched the Phillies.

Numbers determine which players are in the lineup. Numbers determine where outfielders are positioned. Numbers determine when the team will execute a defensive shift. For all we know, numbers may determine when players eat sunflower seeds and how many they put in their mouth at one time.

Every baseball teams uses numbers. But the Phillies take it to an extreme.

That’s why outfielder Nick Williams, frustrated at only starting two of the first six games this season, responded to a question about why he wasn’t playing by saying, “I guess the computers are making (the lineup). I don’t know.”

It’s also why veteran pitchers Jake Arrieta and Pat Neshek publicly expressed displeasure when an exaggerated defensive shift resulted in hits when balls went cleanly through areas where fielder would have been if not for the shift. We’ve also seen shifts that led to Carlos Santana, playing out of position at third base, becoming even more out of position by shifting to an area normally occupied by the shortstop. The results were predictable.

How heavily do the Phillies rely on analytics? Their outfielders pull cards out of their pockets to determine defensive positioning, consulting them as if they were a caddy checking a yardage chart before advising a golfer about which club to use.

And, of course, there was an incident in early September when umpire Joe West confiscated a notecard that reliever Austin Davis was using. Davis wasn’t happy about having his notes taken away.

“Our analytics department works really, really hard to come up with this stuff for us,” Davis said, “and I want to use it because they work all day to come up with stuff to help get guys out.”

I apologize for being snarky, but Davis’ 4.15 ERA indicates that either the analytics department doesn’t know what it’s doing or Davis is incapable of executing the plan.

Perhaps we should take a step back. Before reading Davis’ quote, maybe you didn’t realize that the Phillies had an analytics department. According to reports, as recently as 2013 they didn’t have one. Now the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. The Phillies have a director of baseball research and development, a major league player information coordinator and a senior quantitative analyst.

The guys in those positions, with degrees from Stanford, Penn and MIT and backgrounds in economics, mathematics and – I can’t make this up – aeronautics and astronautics, and with work experience that includes Google and aerospace and defense technology giant Northrop Grumman, crunch numbers all day in order to determine where players should be positioned on defense, which pitches should be thrown in which situations to which hitters and probably which flavor of Gatorade to drink during which innings. By the way, there are three additional quantitative analysts and three software engineers working in the research and development department.

One problem with analytics is the results are only as good as the information being put into the equation. When the analytics department inputs information, it assigns value to different factors. Think about the quarterback rating in the NFL. The formula assigns different weight to different factors. But assigning weight to various factors introduces a subjective element into a process that is supposed to be objective.

A larger problem is that everything can’t be quantified. There is a push in many businesses today, from sports to education, to quantify everything. The idea is to provide data upon which to base every decision.

The problem is that data can’t account for every factor. For example, data can’t quantify stupid. I’m not questioning Odubel Herrera’s intellectual ability, but I know that he’s a dumb baseball player. He doesn’t have a good approach at the plate, he repeatedly makes mistakes on the bases and in the outfield, and he occasionally doesn’t hustle. Analytics can’t quantify any of those things.

I also don’t need analytics to know that Rhys Hoskins is a bad left fielder or that Dylan Cozens has trouble making consistent contact, particularly on off-speed pitches. Furthermore, when statistics contradict what I see with my eyes, I distrust them – statistics, not my eyes – even more. Phillies manager Gabe Kapler, an analytics devotee, cited FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) last week to imply that starters Vince Velasquez and Nick Pivetta had better seasons than it appeared. If that’s what the FIP says, then that’s further proof that numbers do lie.

Data shouldn’t replace judgment. An editor of a newspaper should use his or her instincts and news judgment to decide which stories go on the front page rather than base those decisions solely upon surveys about which kinds of stories readers want to read. Teachers should use their professional judgment to know which strategies work in their classroom – and it could be different for different groups of students – rather than rely on some formula that attempts to quantify the effectiveness of various learning activities.

Baseball managers should be trusted to make the proper decisions. Numbers should be used to inform those decisions, not as a crutch to justify bad decisions.

I remember Flyers head coach Roger Neilson, one of hockey’s innovators with regard to video and statistics, saying, “Most people use statistics like a drunk uses a lamp post. It’s more for support than for illumination.”

Analytics can be a useful tool. But that’s all it should be: a tool. Analytics shouldn’t be the baseball bible, dictating every decision and replacing good judgment.

You want numbers? Here are some numbers that mean something. 80-82 (the Phillies’ record this season), 17-34 (the Phillies’ record during their final 51 games) and 6 (consecutive losing seasons).

Regardless of the numbers the computers in the analytics department spit out, those are numbers that don’t lie.

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