The Limits of Projections: Franklin Gutierrez
Yesterday, we talked about Nelson Cruz and how his frankly bizarre late-career surge makes him especially hard to project. If the historical similarity scores bring a bunch of players with only slight resemblance to what Cruz’s career arc looks like, you’re not going to be all that confident in the result. This is a very different spin on the Ichiro problem – that PECOTA never knew what to DO with Ichiro, because his historical comps were all dead-ball era players. That’s just going to happen with every player at some tail end of the distribution.
Franklin Gutierrez, though… We’re not even looking at a distribution. Systems are trying to project a player based on sporadic playing time over several years, and violently conflicting production between bouts of near-crippling illness. If Nelson Cruz’s similarity scores bring back Jermain Dye, Hank Sauer and Ellis Burks, Guti’s top comps are catarrh, flux, and biliousness (most similar through age 32: King’s Evil). Projections generally don’t have to consider athletes who’ve missed this much time due to injury, because those players retire. Projections don’t generally have to consider players who hit .211/.270/.340 in the hitter’s haven of the Pacific Coast League, then sit out an entire year to rest their failing, almost mutinous, body and then hit .292/.354/.620 in a short big league stint.
To say that projection systems weren’t built to handle this is both obvious, and it gets you to pondering that Franklin Gutierrez himself may not have been built to handle this. Nelson Cruz is a couple of standard deviations from the mean aging curve, but he was a recognizable type of player whose yearly statistics just look funny when read sequentially. Franklin Gutierrez is part role-player, part symbol of hope and recovery, and a big part cautionary tale. Cruz’s case teaches us about the limited predictive value of edge cases. Gutierrez teaches us about our limited narrative abilities.
“Narrative” tends to be a pejorative in many segments of the game, or discussions of the game, but it’s a word that can mean a variety of things. To sabermetric fans, it’s often used regarding stories that jump from results to psychologically-tinged explanations of them. A declining batting average is the sign of a player wilting under the bright lights of New York, or fading in the doldrums of a go-nowhere Atlanta team. This closer’s blown saves prove he doesn’t have the intestinal fortitude to close, and this reliever needs a clearly-defined role to succeed. Even teams get in on the act, as this article about the Braves pushing back on the “narrative” that their past two offseasons constitute a rebuild.
Of course, everything about statistics needs some kind of frame, some story – this is what happened, and this is what I think it means. It’s been years since Fangraphs was just numbers and graphs; they’ve got tons of words on there now, and more of them every day. Journalists – traditionally the target of the pejorative sense of the word “narrative” – occasionally push back at this: you don’t like my explanation of what happened? Fine, say why – don’t just shut down discussion by scoffing “narrative” and walking away. Look, I hate pieces that substitute pop psychology (“they just didn’t have the will to win”) for meaningful analysis of a team’s successes and failings, but both are ways of explaining why something happened. We all actually WANT narrative, but we don’t want shitty, cliched narrative, and yes, sabermetric writers are capable of producing that sort just as much as any on-deadline beat writer. We don’t want familiar tropes about this or that specific 5-1 loss, or another bullpen failing. We all desperately want some kind of meaningful, illuminating story about what the heck happened to Mike Zunino or DJ Peterson last year.
Franklin Gutierrez is a human rebuke to dull, cliched, boilerplate stories. Everything about Franklin Gutierrez is insane, and teeters on the edge of credibility, from his defense in 2009 to the fact that HE SLUGGED .620 LAST YEAR, AND YES THIS NEEDS ALL-CAPS. Describing anything about his career simply *requires* exclamation points. Some of my favorite pieces on this website the past few years have been about Guti, a players who’s logged all of 500 plate appearances since *2011*. The thankful, the depressed, the philosophical and mournful – Guti *makes* us do this. You don’t “project” Gutierrez’s statistics, because you can’t know when you’re going to see any. You know you’re going to feel something when you do, though, and that’s much more interesting.