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12.29.2006

Past v. Future 

A longtime reader expressed surprise in the comments (which I'm trying to fix, by the way, to avoid the dreaded comment spam) that I wasn't so worked up about the Zito news.

Like Grant over at the McChronic, my mind is of two minds. As always, he does a great job of portraying this particular anguish: a mind with two minds is a terrible thing to taste.

Where the hell was I? Oh yes: Barry Zito. It comes down to this. You can let your fan-boy mind get giddy at the thought of a Cy Young winner and Most Durable Starter and Groovy Dude coming to the Giants -- our Giants, yes, indeed, he chose us! He loves the Giants, and by extension...he loves me! It's very self-affirming.

Or you can strap on your nerdhat --



you know you have one -- and tsk-tsk at the declining K-rate, the growing tendency to give up the big fly, and all the other indications that there is a good chance Zito will not be worth the cool buds and tasty waves of cash he's about to surf through.

Fanboy v. Nerdhat. It's a clash between past and future. Fanboy says this guy's been good, even really good, hey, everyone wants him so he must be really really good and will continue to be so. Nerdhat says, in fact, ahem, I regret to inform that past success is not necessarily a predictor of future outcome. (No wonder Nerdhat can't get chicks.)

The supreme leader of the Nerdhats, Baseball Prospectus's Nate Silver, unleashed his two different prediction systems on Zito and found the one that calculates dollar value (MORP) was much friendlier than the one that calculates performance metrics (PECOTA). Here's why:

The key difference between these two sets of projections boils down to the predictive value of ERA; if Zito’s ERAs were an accurate reflection of his ability (as our “dumb” projection assumes), then this contract would have been perfectly reasonable. But while ERA is a very useful backward-looking metric — it’s helpful in settling Cy Young Award debates, for example — it’s not such a good forward-looking metric. A pitcher’s peripheral statistics [strikeouts, walks, groundball/flyball ratios, etc] predict ERA much better than past ERA itself. Sometimes the differences are trivial, and sometimes they amount to 57 million dollars.

I’m beating a dead horse here, I know, but it’s for a good reason: misunderstanding the predictive value of past ERA is the single biggest mistake that teams make in spending their free agent dollars.


The Nerdhat in me agrees. The Fanboy in me desperately wants Nerdhat to manger merde et mourir. Or in more Nerdhatlian terms, Fanboy wants Zito to be an outlier, to confound the general trends, to show heart and courage and veteran savviness and gnarly shreditude. It'll take a fair amount of luck for Barry Zito to fulfill the promise of his contract, but when you really think about it, how often does a baseball team win a championship without a fair amount of luck?

One last thought courtesy of Elbo before I leave for the long weekend: Moneyball ushered in the concept of the undervalued skill. For Billy Beane it was on-base percentage. When others caught on, it was reportedly defense. Then a counterintuitive writer famously (to certain Giants' fans, anyway) mused that Sabean's strategy of signing old players was the next step in this philosophy. Is the new undervalued concept the long-term contract? If teams are flush with cash and can insure those contracts, perhaps paying Barry Zito $18 million in 2013, or Alfonso Soriano $45 million in 2018, or whatever, is a huge bargain because of inflation.

SMALL PRINT UPDATES:

Zito is now on the 40-man roster with a '07 salary of $10 m, the approximate figure the papers are reporting today. (Sounds like the contract will be heavily backloaded, surprise surprise.)

Now reading: Nicole Krauss's The History of Love. Actually I just finished it. Highly recommended. It's a bittersweet sad comedy about an old Jewish New Yorker who wrote a book when he was a young man in Eastern Europe, but his best friend stole it with the best intentions and published it as his own. It's about beautiful souls reborn in new bodies -- or is it all one soul? -- and the magic of the written word. Krauss has a fantastic ear for her characters' voices -- cranky octogenarian Jews (like there's another kind? I ask you), depressed single mothers, Russian immigrant teenagers.

Now listening to: X's Under the Big Black Sun. If back in 1982 my 12-year-old tastes delved beyond the ever-pungent Bon Scott versus Brian Johnson debate, I would have been totally in love with Exene Cervenka. Fortunately I got religion, if not puppy love, in my late teens. After collecting dust for a few years, this one's still an all-time favorite. Just give me those old-time punkabilly harmonies and I'm a happy middle-aged guy.

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