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Jose: Not So Bad After All

Mike SteffanosTuesday, April 17, 2007
By Mike Steffanos


Nice Tom Verducci piece on SI.com about Jose Reyes. Verducci compares Jose to a pretty darned good former major league infielder that you might have heard about this week:

... in his own way, Reyes gives tribute to Robinson every time he sets foot on a baseball field. It's not only that Reyes, a Dominican, never would have been allowed to play major league baseball in the years before Robinson. It's also that Reyes is the closest facsimile that we have today to Robinson: the most exciting player in baseball, a joy to watch.

No player can beat you in more ways than Reyes. Last season, for instance, he stole 64 bases and drove in 81 runs, becoming only the second player in 91 years to reach those thresholds (Joe Morgan in 1973 and '75) and only the sixth since 1900 (Benny Kauff and Hall of Famers Ty Cobb, Eddie Collins and Frank Chance are the others). The scary part is that Reyes, 23, still is learning the game and improving at an incredibly fast clip.

With respect to the great Mr. Robinson, my favorite part of the whole article was this sentence:

Reyes seems to be disproving a widely held belief that plate discipline, like speed, is an inherent ability that can be improved only marginally. Last season he doubled his rate of walks per plate appearance (.076) from 2005 (.037) and this season, though obviously early, he has doubled it again (.151). [my emphasis]

The relative worth of Jose Reyes has been a battleground between stat guys and tool guys since his first step on a major-league field. As someone who has come around to a position somewhere between the two camps, I found some of the discussions amusing. To some extent, however, it was also annoying. There were just too many folk in the stat camp who saw Reyes as a sort of baseball Antichrist.

"He's just an Out Making Machine!" they would scream in their annoying little voices, with little annoying bits of spit flying out of their mouths as they stamped their annoying little feet on the ground for emphasis. Their annoyingly beady little eyes would refuse to acknowledge any evidence of the talent that practically radiated from Reyes, since they were blinded by the numbers and the harsh judgment that these numbers dictated.

When you'd try to get them to acknowledge that Jose could improve on his numbers and live up to the talent, you ran smack into the brick wall of their attitude towards plate discipline to which Verducci alluded. For some reason, there was a very doctrinaire subset of stat folk who seemed to take the accolades that Reyes received as an exciting young player with a lot of potential as a personal insult. He was labeled as "ridiculously overrated" by one writer last summer. The "O" word was a favorite of that entire crowd. While many proponents of statistical analysis were willing to keep an open mind towards Reyes, others were openly and continuously hostile.

Even this spring on Yahoo.com, their writer chose Reyes as the player most likely to disappoint Mets fans. Superlatives aside, the only way this kid disappoints me is when he isn't in the lineup.

For years, those of us who loved Reyes were bombarded with all of the negatives. I remember listening to Mike Francesa scream at Mets fans who didn't like the idea of trading Jose Reyes for Alfonso Soriano. Even Mets fans Joe Beningo and Sid Rosenberg were trying to jam that one down our throats. I wonder how many Mets fans would even consider that deal today.

For all the truth in the fact that Willie Randolph is not a particularly good manager when it comes to in-game strategy, he always had the right tact with Reyes. So many young players fail to improve their plate discipline because they are instructed to take more pitches. What happens is they just wind up getting into unfavorable counts and then swinging at the pitcher's pitch. Eventually they revert back to old habits. Randolph worked with Reyes on getting better pitches to hit rather than just trying to get a few more walks, and that was the correct approach. For Reyes, Randolph's tenure as manager came along at the perfect time in his development.

I love all of the things that stats can teach us, and have no desire to go back to the days when only the most elementary numbers were used. Sometimes, though, there just are too many pundits out there that depend too much on what their numbers tell them. Most of the guys making the harshest judgments on Reyes probably only saw him play a handful of games. No matter how sophisticated we get with the use of statistical analysis, we need to be careful to understand that it can't replace actually watching a guy play.

Shea Goodbye
Loge13.com is a web site dedicated to chronicling the last days of Shea Stadium. Today, coincidentally, just happens to be the 47th birthday of the old girl. Loge13.com is celebrating with a whole week of posts celebrating the glory that is Shea.

As a Mets fan, I am all too aware of Shea's flaws, but I'm also sick to death of the endless whines by the New York media on how much they hate the place. The old stadium deserves some credit for all of the great moments. Congrats to Loge13.com for giving Shea its due.

About Mike: I was the original writer on this web site, actually its only writer for the first 15 months of existence. Although I am grateful for the excellent contributions of my fellow writers here, I have no plans of stepping back into strictly an editorial role. I started this thing in the first place because I love to write and I love the Mets, and blogging here keeps me somewhat sane. If you haven't had enough already, more bio info can be found here.

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Comments (7)

Hi Mike.

Having been a huge Reyes fan since he came up, the stats guys bugged me too. I am certainly happy that we've now got the ability to undertake more in-depth analysis than was possible in the past, but when it comes to judging potential, and a guy's ceiling, sometimes you can just see by watching a guy that the numbers don't tell the whole story. I used to think that I was too old to have a "favorite" player (the last being Doc Gooden) but watching Jose Reyes has brought it all back for me.

The kid - for all the carping we heard - swings at very few bad pitches, and hits everything hard. He's going to be a high-average hitter, in addition to everyting else.

As to Shea, I spent three years as a vendor there - for the Mets and the Jets - in addition to going to a ton of Met games growing up. For all it's shortcomings, I have nothing but good memories of the place. I can't wait to see a game in the new stadium (though it's going to be impossible to get tickets for the foreseeable future) but I'll miss the old Shea.

Great piece Mike. This is an issue I've been waiting for someone to finally write about. While stats are a great part of the tradition of baseball, they are merely a surrogate for what happens on the field itself. Even with his recent statistical explosion, Reyes' value will never truly be appreciated or understood by stats and the eggheads that pray to them.

There is no stat for the fear Jose puts into opposing team's pitchers once he reaches 1st base, or the number of lifeless pitches to LoDuca that follow his reaching. There is no calculation for how large the hole on the right side of the infield grows as 1st baseman desperately try to prevent him from getting his lead. And there is simply no number that adequately expresses the life Reyes breathes into both his teammates and the thousands of Met fans screaming at Shea.

All of those things play a large part in the now familiar dismantling of opponents at the hands of the Mets. Yet statisticians have yet to figure out how to quantify all of that value. There is however, one simple stat that encompasses all of the above effects Reyes has on the game.

Wins.

I have a great appreciation for all the things that the collective we refer to as "the stats guys" have brought to our understanding and appreciation of baseball.

And I might as well say that I pay close attention to who makes the outs, too. Most of the time it is extremely telling of how much success a player's team is going to have. And Jose DID make a ton of outs his first few years; the fact is he was hurting the offense about as much as he was helping it. Those people calling him the worst player in the game were crazy, but there was a basis to their point of view.

That number went down, quite a bit, last year. In 2005 he led the league in outs made; in 2006 he came eighth, decreasing his total by 58 outs. That, folks, is an enormous change in hitting. Virtually ALL of those outs became times on base, so they weren't neutral events at all, they were scoring opportuinties.

That single change, not his increase in power, is the biggest reason why Reyes has gone from a questionable offensive talent and the juggernaut he is today.

Honestly, I don't think Jose's ability to develop better plate discipline teaches us much about whether the skill is something you can teach other young players. I think what Jose has done is very special and rare, for the reasons you outlined: most players won't endure the painful learning experience; they will slip back into what the did before. I think we can all remember the struggles that Jose had early last year while he was trying to make the adjustments. He stuck with it, by golly, and Willie stuck with him. Both parties deserve a world of credit.

I don't much like the "stat guys" being lumped into a group, with assumed group intelligence and tendencies. The reason is that David Gassko, who you reference, doesn't deserve to be lumped in with Bill James or Pete Palmer. From what I have read of him the man is severely lacking in common intuitive sense, and is willing to follow a hastily constructed premise to an absurd conclusion. Also he is very willing to ignore the obvious.

The article you reference was part of a series in which Gassko was "proving" that bigger players develop power more than smaller players. Beyond the obvious reason for why this might be so, he completely failed to consider that those bigger players were, as a group drafted for their power hitting abilities, whereas the smaller players were drafted for their other skills. He spent three articles and thousands of words making a trite observation of no predictive signifigance beyond the one hidden in his initial construct: that players drafted as power hitters are more likely to BE power hitters.

More recently he is tackling the question of how quality of play has changed over the years. Make that increased; the possibility that quality of play might have actually declined is not to be considered.

On this piece, let me simply say that if your analysis is leading you to the conclusion that Honus Wagner would be viewed as a good fielding, light hitting infielder today, you MIGHT wish to re-examine your initial assumptions. Wagner was, after all, the greatest offensive player in the National League for fifteen years or so.

Wagner played in a game that drew from a very large population pool, plenty large enough to insure a high level of play. As large as today? No, but far beyond the point of what one might call diminishing returns to increased population. These things aren't linear, any more than development in cultures are linear; have you ever thought of all the accomplishments that came from a population of less than 100,000 people in ancient Athens? Or for that matter, the intellectual accomplishments of the Founding Fathers, from a Colonial America of approximately 2,800,000 souls? No doubt the level of play HAS changed -- but it's just foolhearty, to assume that more people to draw from equals to a MEASURABLE change in the level of play. To conclude further that the best players of yesterday couldn't cut it today, is to deny that humans can adapt.

Honus Wagner kept himself in great condition; he was possibly the first player to use weight training in his workouts. And he could do EVERYTHING on the diamond; assuming that he couldn't hit today because the League includes black and hispanic players is absurd on the face of it.

Re-examining your work requires imagination, and a passion to get things right; I am not so sure Mr. Gassko possesses these traits. Frankly I place him among the "clever fools" category, and have been avoiding reading his stuff lately.

ajsmith - I feel the same about Reyes, and about Shea.
--------------------------------
Salman - In fairness, there are a lot of different types of stat guys out there. I've read a lot of good stuff over the last few years, and differentiate between that and some of the narrow-minded, doctrinaire garbage that this post was about.
--------------------------------
dd - I have an appreciation too, as I mention in the piece. I do have a problem with those who see stats as the be-all and end-all for judging ballplayers. I remember back when I listened to WFAN every day while working and these 18-year-old roto league geniuses would call up with that "out making machine" line and bitch about Reyes, one after another. These are the folks I lampooned. My words were: "There were just too many folk in the stat camp who saw Reyes as a sort of baseball Antichrist." It wasn't a blanket condemnation of those who like statistical analysis, particularly since I am one of those.

Of course Jose WAS raw and had a poor approach at the plate, but you have to look past numbers sometimes and look at extraordinary talent. Instead of whining about his limitations, and blaming him because the Mets had no one more suitable to bat leadoff, you figure out how to make the most of that talent. Even if Jose never managed to develop the plate discipline to be an effective leadoff hitter, he still brought a lot to the table.

We need more than numbers to evaluate players when they are young and raw. Murray Chass rightfully took a beating for the silly anti- stats article he wrote earlier this year. There are Murray Chasses on the other side, too. David Gassko comes to mind.

By the way, I didn't lump the stat guys into a group. Please re-read what I wrote before you say that. Again, I'm a believer in the usefulness of stats, and I enjoy what they have to teach us when intelligent, open-minded people utilize them.

I wasn't really saying that you lumped the stat guys into a single group, Mike.

You wrote the article, of course, but you also started a more general conversation; or perhaps it is more accurate to say you restarted a continuing conversation of many parts in which many things have been said. I was generally addressing that greater thread, although it was ajsmith's response that got me started.

No, by now I believe I have a pretty fair idea of where statistical analysis resides in your scheme of things baseball. As it happens it is not so very far from where it resides in my own mind.

That's good, Dan. I can't afford to piss you off. I need to pick your brain on home improvement projects. :^)

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