Sirens and Sagan

Jeff · July 12, 2005 at 9:52 am · Filed Under Mariners 

In Carl Sagan’s sagacious tome The Demon-Haunted World, he bemoans “the siren song of unreason,” which humans follow to irrational conclusions about such matters as UFOs, fairies and the rally cap. Adherence to unreason, he says, is “not just a cultural wrong but a dangerous plunge into darkness that threatens our most basic freedoms.”

Mariner fans are as susceptible to unreason as anyone else, and more so in the case of Willie Bloomquist. He is our alien abduction, our siren song. Or at least he is for John Levesque, who once again is killing me.

The reason behind the Mariners’ sweep of the Angels, and the reason they’ve been playing .600 ball over the last 10 games (yes, I know), isn’t the resurgence of the team’s top-tier talent — it’s the scrappy, hustling, hometown boy. Why? No one can really tell, least of all the P-I’s former TV critic.

Apart from sprinkling magic pixie dust around the clubhouse, Bloomquist is said to bring a “spark” to the team. He is also, like David Eckstein, “making things happen.” In baseballese, these terms are equivalent to the French “je ne sais quoi,” which literally means “I don’t know what.”

And that’s what Levesque means: he’s sure Bloomquist is doing something right, but he isn’t sure what it is, and even if he was, he couldn’t prove it. Call it faith-based analysis.

Where Levesque does try to offer statistical support for his position, it gets surreal and frustrating, akin to teaching a desert tortoise about French philosophy.

For instance, Bloomquist has had only 100 at-bats this season, but he has scored 15 times. Only Sexson, the team’s designated slugger, and Ichiro, the designated hit machine, score more often per 100 at-bats (17.8 and 16.5 times, respectively).

Calling this laughable is like saying Carrot Top isn’t: so obvious it’s hardly worth doing. But let’s endeavor.

Pinch-runners aren’t charged with at-bats, but they do score runs. Bloomquist is the team’s pinch-runner, and has scored two of those 15 runs as such. Plus, the statistic is flawed anyway: Sexson drives himself in with home runs, but other players have to rely on teammates to drive them in.

The forehead-slapping portion of the column, though, comes here:

Regardless, if Bloomquist provides those things that help the Mariners score 5.5 runs a game, as they have in their past 10, versus 4.2 runs a game, as they did in their previous 77, the Mariners’ brass should check their obstinacy at the clubhouse door and admit that maybe, just maybe, there’s something to letting him play every day.

Remarkably, there wasn’t anything to letting him play every day during the first nine games of 2004, where the Mariners went 2-7. Even more remarkably, no other potential causes for the offensive boost are explored in the column. Ten games is a blip on the seasonal radar screen, and it’s pure folly to credit any power surge to a player whose lifetime OPS is .670.

Confusing correlation with causality, drawing specious conclusions from a tiny sample size, and ignoring any contrary evidence — it’s as if Levesque hit the Logical Fallacy Pinata, and all the bits of flawed reasoning hit the keyboard at once.

This isn’t the first time Levesque has beaten this drum. It’s a pet issue for him, and that’s fine: we all have them. Even Carl Sagan admitted he’d be thrilled to find alien life out there, though he maintained that no real proof for such life currently existed.

But let’s try a thought experiment. Let’s say Bloomquist was geting on base at a .400 clip, but had scored fewer than 15 runs — 5 or so. Do you think Levesque would write a similar column, but use the argument “look, this guy has an incredible on-base percentage!” instead of this made up “run-scoring efficiency” hokum? I think so.

What that tells me is that the conclusions come first, and the rationale comes later. This style of reasoning is many things, but scientific it ain’t. Being reasonable means admitting to yourself when you want something to be true, and being honest with yourself when it simply isn’t.

It’s true, Bloomquist has hit well over the past few games. It’s also somewhat true, as Levesque says, that he “can play every infield and outfield position.” In the same vein, I can speak nine languages, if you don’t mind limiting conversations to “hello,” “where is the bathroom,” and “another beer, please.”

Every club needs a utility guy, a versatile type to fill the final slot on the bench. In that role, Bloomquist does fine.

These are the facts, though: Bloomquist has had more than 500 at bats, including long stretches of playing every day, to prove that he is a subpar major league hitter. He’s had about 1,500 minor league at bats that support the same conclusion. This is not a starter, not even for the Devil Rays.

Like Sagan, I would love to believe in mystical positive energy, mysterious keys to victory and Willie Bloomquist as an everday player. I would love to believe that rally caps matter. But the available evidence on this point wouldn’t satisfy Carl Spackler, let alone Carl Sagan.

This particular siren song thankfully doesn’t threaten our freedoms — but it does threaten the fate of the hometown nine. Plug your ears, and lash yourself to the deck if you have to. But resist.


170 Responses to “Sirens and Sagan”

  1. eponymous coward on July 12th, 2005 4:34 pm

    He’s the kind of guy like D. Bragg who will hang around…but he has more skillz than D. Bragg.

    Bragg’s played 900 major league games, and is 34. That INCLUDES three years as a full time player (127, 153 and 129 games), right around his career peak at ages 26, 27 and 28. So Willie’s actually BEHIND him at the same age (Bragg came up at 24 as well), since he’s not a regular yet at age 27.

    Aramis Ramirez, like Lopez is doing now, spent parts of his age 20 and 21 years in the majors. He’s 26 now (younger than Willie)- and has 700+ major league games.

    Unless you’re counting on Lopez being injured a lot or turning into a tremendous washout, betting on Bloomquist to have a longer career than Lopez is very foolish. Willie will be doing well to play in a thousand major league games for his entire career. Lopez could get to that point by the time he turns 29- which will leave his career AFTER he turns 29.

  2. Steve Thornton on July 12th, 2005 4:39 pm

    Reason says happiness, enjoyment and pleasure are necessary for our lives. Doesn’t being a baseball fan produce those emotions?

    Uh, you do know this is a MARINERS board, right?

    Try frustration, fear, loathing, boredom, shame, horror, anger, hostility, and abjection: “a low or downcast state”.

  3. Ralph Malph on July 12th, 2005 4:47 pm

    Some people love Willie because he reminds them of their image of themselves — a scrappy guy who hustles, who’d have made it if they just gave him a chance.

    We love to watch Everyman play, because he helps our adolescent fantasies to return to life.

    That’s why a lot of people watch baseball — because it helps us to remember how we felt when we were young and life was full of hope and promise.

    Of course most of those hopes and dreams ultimately will be crushed by the harsh light of reality, for Willie as they were for the rest of us.

  4. David J Corcoran on July 12th, 2005 4:48 pm

    153: Thanks for brightening my day.

  5. MarinersInsider on July 12th, 2005 4:52 pm

    One thing Willie has done this year … he’s made at least one spectacular play at every position he’s played this year. SportsCenter hilite-worthy plays go a long way in determining playing time during a season like this. I say use him until he comes back to earth; there’s nothing wrong with giving Winn-Reed-Morse-Lopez an occasional day off.

  6. chuckahaid on July 12th, 2005 4:56 pm

    “You feel like you’re in the zone BECAUSE you’ve made X number of free throws in a row, not vice versa.”

    It is true that good results increase confidence, but that wasn’t my point. Not only will there be statistical fluctuations in my success, there will also be physiological and psychological differences from free throw to free throw. During some stretches of shooting free throws I will increase my chances because I am actually shooting the ball with a better technique or more attention or more effort, pure and simple. Again, these effects may not be distinguishable from normal statistical noise, but it happens, and it is real.

    Apparently, the powers that be wish for this to be over so I will end my posting. You can email me if you think this is worth continuing.

  7. Steve Thornton on July 12th, 2005 5:04 pm

    If they are indistinguishable from normal statistical noise, then they ARE normal statistical noise. That’s what normal statistical noise is.

    I don’t really care to continue the discussion, but there are some folks up at the new Tulalip Casino who would LOVE to have you swing by and look for your hot hand.

  8. Rusty on July 12th, 2005 5:05 pm

    I agree with everything that eponymous coward says above, and in particular about how it’s not seriously going to affect the team or the development of any given player if Willie gets 200 AB’s, or so.

    This is not a Jim Presley blocking Edgar Martinez for 3 years situation.

    For those fretting about how long we will be playing Willie’s hot hand, I refer you to Tino Martinez’ home run streak. Tino’s last big day was a 2 HR day. After that, Torre gave him exactly 13 more At bat’s, where Tino went 1 for 13, before putting Tino back into his normal role. I think we can probably say that if Willie goes 1 for 13, all of this hub-bub will die down.

  9. Steve Thornton on July 12th, 2005 5:12 pm

    I really don’t think even the Mariners are going to give WFB 500 games in the majors, let alone 1,000. He’s not even halfway there (237). For all the chatter, I don’t think anybody sees him as a solution at SS, CF, or 2B — not even the people who like seeing him get some starts there. In a few weeks, it’ll all blow over, and he’ll be back as a utility guy getting a few spot AB and PR appearances. I don’t think even Bill Bavasi wants him on the 2007 roster. One thing about utility guys like him — they may get more exposure than he can handle in short periods, but they tend not to stick around forever. Even Rich Amaral didn’t get anywhere near 1,000 G with us. Neither did Domingo Ramos.

  10. F-Rod on July 12th, 2005 5:16 pm

    I wouldnt completely compare a gambler involved in a purely luck event like throwing dice to a baseball player involved in an extremely complex and athletic event like hitting a basebal. and i do feel that a lot of the game of baseball is mental, which can induce positive streaks

  11. chuckahaid on July 12th, 2005 5:24 pm

    Games of chance are another matter Steve, and your point is correct there. There are no hot hands in gambling.

  12. Marty Lighthizer on July 12th, 2005 5:47 pm

    Where is this ver Mangusson prospect? Sign him up! Get most of his extended family, too. (Including his cousin Villie F.) Once the whole Mangusson clan is on board, we can have Bjork sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”!

    (er, on second thought…)

  13. John in L.A. on July 12th, 2005 5:55 pm

    Thing is… you will never convince a gambler that he isn’t on a “lucky” or “unlucky” streak.

    Just can’t convince ’em.

  14. Steve on July 12th, 2005 6:25 pm

    I think a competitive activity is given to hot streaks and cold streaks. I’ve played some craps and shot some baskets in my life, and when I’m in a groove shotting free throws it’s not the same as when I’ve held the dice for half an hour before missing a point. When I throw the dice I know it’s random – I know that the probability of any particular number coming up is totally random. I also place my bets that way – I always have working odds on come out rolls. When I’m on a hot streak my oddsshooting baskets, though, I know my odds of making the next shot are higher than they are when I’m on a cold streak.

    There are some relevant statistical points about the free throw shooting, though:If I’m a 75% shooter, the fact that I’m on a hot streak doesn’t mean I’m suddenly a 90% free throw shooter. That hot streak will be offset by a cold streak later on, causing my overall percentage to regress to the mean. For example, let’s say that if I have made my last five shots in a row, I’m in a groove and my probability of making the 6th shot is 95% instead of 75%. But if I’ve missed at least two out of the last five, I’m cold and the chances of making the sixth shot drop to 50%. If I’m not in a groove or in a cold streak, the probability of making my shot is 75%.

    Over the long haul, my shooting will still be about 75%. But the probability of making any given shot will usually not be 75% – in fact, only about 15% of the time will my chances of making a shot be 75%. I will almost always either be in a hot streak or a cold streak.

    All it takes is a couple of misses for the hot streak to end.

    Because the initiation of the streak and the termination of the streak is random, the streakiness is part of the statistical noise. Any random sampling of shots will have an expected success rate of 75%.

  15. eponymous coward on July 12th, 2005 6:53 pm

    Here’s a fun fact:

    Miguel Olivo’s 2005 OPS: 423
    Ray Oyler’s career OPS: .508
    Mario Mendoza’s career OPS: .507

    Right now, Miguel Olivo project’s out to the worst season at the plate EVER by a Mariner with more than 250 PA’s. Even Mendoza’s seasons as a Mariner were better than this…

  16. David J Corcoran on July 12th, 2005 7:46 pm

    That’s a bad GMC commercial. It gives off anti-environment ideas, what with the car parts in the field.

  17. Steve on July 12th, 2005 8:23 pm


    Here’s a fun fact:

    Miguel Olivo’s 2005 OPS: 423
    Ray Oyler’s career OPS: .508
    Mario Mendoza’s career OPS: .507

    Right now, Miguel Olivo project’s out to the worst season at the plate EVER by a Mariner with more than 250 PA’s. Even Mendoza’s seasons as a Mariner were better than this…

    It projects out as perhaps the worst year ever by no-pitcher. Below are the lowest 10 season OPS for a player getting at least 250 PAs for the period 1925 – 2004:

    Rank YEAR OPS PA
    ==== =============== ==== ==== ====
    1 Mike Ryan 1968 .434 314
    2 Jerry Zimmerman 1967 .436 267
    3 Rich Morales 1973 .438 280
    4 Jim Mason 1975 .438 251
    5 Al Weis 1968 .438 301
    6 Luis Gomez 1980 .451 307
    7 Willie Miranda 1957 .453 349
    8 Doug Flynn 1977 .455 333
    9 Hal Lanier 1968 .461 518
    10 Ray Berres 1940 .461 289

  18. Rusty on July 12th, 2005 11:53 pm

    Now that things have cooled down a bit, I want to address one argument from above and which I’ve seen on other threads, and that is…

    “You guys must not have played sports much, or not at all, because you don’t understand anything about XYZ.”

    To which I reply… give us a break. My guess is that 90% or more of us have probably played in organized athletics. This board isn’t divided between jocks and nerds. It’s primarily composed of people who look for answers beyond what they can see with their eyes. So when you cart out this old and tired argument, you’re attempting to paint those more analytically inclined with a broad sloppy brush. Go ahead and use your own athletic experience to support your own arguments, but don’t question others’ experience because you really have no idea.

  19. Andrew on July 13th, 2005 7:05 am

    There are no such things as hot streaks and cold streaks. Just random statistical fluctuations. If you do anything long enough, you’re going to go through periods which appear streaky. The human brain is very good at finding patterns, even when they aren’t there.

    Research has been done in both basketball and baseball. The most recent previous events have no effect on the ability to predict future success. If I’m a 75% free throw shooter, my odds of making any free throw is 75% regardless of whether I’ve missed 5 in a row or made 5 in row. I realize that this may seem counter intuitive, but alot of statistics is.

  20. Steve Thornton on July 13th, 2005 11:39 am

    167 — go back a few years and check out the immortal Bill Bergen, Cincinnati and Brooklyn catcher in the early years of the last century. Here’s his OPSes (not BA, not OBP or SLG — OPS):

    1909, .319 in 372 PA
    1911, .337 in 250 PA
    1907, .347 in 143 PA
    1910, .357 in 273 PA
    1906, .359 in 372 PA
    1908, .404 in 320 PA
    1904, .411 in 347 PA
    1905, .431 in 265 PA
    1901, .433 in 326 PA
    1902, .438 in 342 PA
    1903, .518 in 218 PA

    Even in a league with an OPS in the low .600s (.615 in 1908), that’s not just putrid, but historically putrid. None of your guys ever came close to putting up an OPS less than half the league average; Bergen did it twice. That’s a decade of sub-Olivo stickwork. Musta called a heck of a game.