Thursday, August 11, 2011

Sign Stealing Allegations Ring False

By The Common Man

Amy K. Nelson and Peter Keating are taking a lot of heat today for their story in ESPN The Magazine about the Toronto Blue Jays allegedly stealing signs. Nelson in particular, has had to deal with a ton of sexist, misogynist crap on Twitter, on her Facebook page, and probably on the ESPN article itself. That’s wrong. It’s freaking wrong. It is 2011, and The Common Man thinks it’s ridiculous that anyone should have to put up with the hateful crap being leveled at Nelson today. If you want to dispute Nelson and Keating’s contentions, do it with evidence, not with vitriol. Do it with numbers and facts, not with personal degrading insults that suggest that women don’t have a place in sports journalism. They do, dammit. If you’re going to criticize Nelson and Keating, do it like this:


Nelson and Keating tell a very compelling story, about a mysterious “man in white” (a phrase that appears nine times in the relatively short article) who raises his arms when there’s going to be a fastball. She uses the anonymous stories of opposing players to back up her contentions, of how they threatened to hit Jose Bautista if the Jays “tried it again.” It reads like a spy novel and a revenge thriller, and it builds intrigue surrounding the elusive man in white, who appears and disappears seemingly at will. She also cites studies by Colin Wyers of ESPN and Baseball Prospectus, who found that
“Rogers [Centre] added .011 home runs, up from a rate of just .002 from 2005 to 2009…. But only the Blue Jays, and not their opponents, got a home run boost in Toronto. When the Jays were on the road in 2010, they hit home runs in 4 percent of plate appearances in which they made contact, compared with an AL average of 3.6 percent. At Rogers, their home run on contact rate soared to 5.4 percent, which is a home-field advantage seven times the magnitude teams typically enjoy.”
The Common Man has no reason to doubt the accuracy of that information. But there are more ways to score than simply hitting homeruns (although try telling that to Jose Bautista). Indeed, while the Blue Jays have outmuscled themselves compared to their road performance in 2011, hitting .262/.328/.444 at home versus .249/.312/.389 on the road, they’ve also allowed far more runs at home than on the road. Indeed, opposing batters are beating around the Jays’ staff to the tune of .267/.332/.429 at home, compared to just .248/.324/.388 on the road. Also, consider the following, derived from Toronto's 2011 splits on Baseball Reference:

Blue Jays runs per game scored and allowed, at home and on the road.

As you can see, Toronto sees an improvement of 0.65 runs per game at home versus being on the road, despite the fact that they have fewer opportunities to hit at home (because if they’re winning after 8 and a half innings, they don’t need to bat in the 9th). But they also have allowed 0.83 more runs per game at home than they have on the road. Indeed, Toronto pitchers have actually underperformed at home more than Toronto’s hitters have overperformed there.

And as you can see from the following chart, the Blue Jays actually are 19th in baseball in the difference between the performance of their hitters versus the performance of their pitchers at home versus the road during 2011:


MLB runs scored and allowed, at home and on the road.
This data is not sacrosanct, nor should it be taken as the be-all-and-end-all of the discussion. After all, the schedules around the league are incredibly unbalanced, meaning some clubs get additional chances to hit at Coors Field, while others are stuck playing at Target Field 9 times a year. It’s also wildly dependent on the pitchers each club faces. And we haven’t even gotten to the end of the season yet; there’s still plenty of baseball to play that could change these stats still further. And, of course, The Common Man is not a statistician.  Ideally, someone will look at these trends over the course of multiple seasons, and be able to normalize for ballpark factors.
Still, the general impression that this data leaves is that Rogers Centre is simply a good place to hit, regardless of who plays there or how they get their offense. Maybe the Jays have structured their team to take advantage of a jet stream or some exceedingly dry air, but their opponents seem content to bang out singles, doubles, and triples all day in the same conditions. So unless the Jays’ opponents have their own white-shirted men in the stands, perhaps Occam’s Razor is the best principle to apply here, until we actually have some evidence of malfeasance. Unless, of course, we should be suspicious of every team who does better at home than on the road.

(By the way, friend of the blog and weekend employer Dustin Parkes also had an interesting (and totally misogyny-free) takedown of the Nelson and Keating article here.)

1 comment:

William Tasker - Caribou, ME said...

Thanks for the proper take down of the sexist comments aimed at Nelson. That's totally wrong and we should know better.

That said, your offensive against her and Keating's conclusions are to the point.

As mentioned on the TaoofSteib in a comment, a point being missed here is the logic of a guy in a white shirt out in the outfield stealing signs. How did he do it? Binoculars? Never mentioned. Video feed? Never mentioned. Does he have the eyes of an eagle?

A proper journalistic story should be like a court of law. Prove the point or don't make it.