Sunday, October 12, 2014

Depeche Mode -- "Policy of Truth" (1990)

You'll see your problems multiplied
If you continually decide
To faithfully pursue
The policy of truth

(We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming to bring you this angry-old-man rant.)

2 or 3 lines faithfully pursues the policy of truth, unlike the many brown-eyed baseball reporters whose columns you may read in your daily newspaper, or whose commentary you may hear on your local sports-talk radio station.  (2 or 3 lines does not have brown eyes.  2 or 3 lines has green eyes -- although some people might call them hazel, and hazel eyes are sort of kind of brown.)

Let me introduce you to the very brown-eyed Washington Post baseball columnist, Tom Boswell.

Boswell is one of the best baseball writers ever when it comes to telling a story.  I still have my original copy of his story about the infamous 1978 Yankees-Red Sox playoff game -- which is not only is a masterful account of a very dramatic single game, but also a masterful account of that entire season (which featured an epic Red Sox collapse that allowed the Yankees to tie them for first place after trailing by 14 games in July).   It is perhaps the best piece of baseball writing I have ever read.

But do you remember Procrustes, the mythical Greek giant who forced his captives to lie on an iron bed and then cut off their feet if they were too long to fit the bed, or stretched them if they were too short?

Boswell is a disciple of Procrustes who sometimes tailors the facts to fit his point of view rather than vice versa.  

Boswell recently wrote a column that said that playoff baseball is a "different and crueler sport" than regular-season baseball, and that the Washington Nationals -- who have the best won-loss record in baseball over the past three seasons -- lost the National League Division Series in both 2012 and 2014 because they are "psychologically weak."  

This is nonsense of the first order, of course.  Baseball players who are "psychologically weak" don't make it to the major leagues in the first place -- much less achieve the best record in their league.

Boswell examines the Nats' individual performances in the 2012 and 2014 playoffs and decides which players have the psychological cojones to perform well in the postseason, and which ones are "paralyzed by playoff pressure."

Keep in mind that we're talking about a total of nine games here.  (The 2014 Nats who weren't on the team in 2012 are being judged on the basis of just four games.)

Boswell lists seven Nats who he thinks look psychologically tough enough to withstand postseason pressure based on their 2012 and 2014 NLDS performances.

One of the seven is starting pitcher Jordan Zimmerman.  Zimmerman was outstanding in his one start in the 2014 NLDS, giving up a single run in 8 2/3 innings.  

Jordan Zimmerman
But in 2012, he pooped the bed in his start, giving up five runs in only three innings.  (For those of you who are keeping score at home, that works out to a 15.00 ERA.)

If you combine Zimmerman's 2012 and 2014 stats, he had a 4.63 ERA in his two starts.  That's not terrible, but it's certainly not good.  So why in the world does Boswell say that when you look at Zimmerman's October performances, he "looks adequately suited" to the month?

It beats the hell out of me.  Maybe because his 2014 start was so good that you discount his 2012 numbers?

That can't be it.  Because another of Boswell's seven favorites is shortstop Ian Desmond did just the opposite.  

Desmond had seven hits in 19 at-bats in 2012, for a very good .368 batting average.  But he had only three hits in 18 ABs in 2014, which works out to an anemic .167 batting average.  

Ian Desmond
Combine the two postseasons and Desmond hit .270 -- pretty good, but somewhat deceptive because he had only one walk and one extra-base hit (a double).

Each of these players was good in one postseason series and awful in the other one.  What does that tell you about what you can expect from them in the next postseason?  

To quote the late, great Edwin Starr, "Absolutely nothin'!"  Both players came to the major leagues in 2009, so I'm going to give a lot more weight to their performance over the course of six long regular seasons than I'm going to give to what they did in a mere nine postseason games.

By the way, Boswell says "the jury's out" on whether Nats center fielder Denard Span has the wherewithal to succeed in the playoffs.  

Denard Span
Like Desmond, Span had a horrible 2014 NLDS, hitting only .105.  But he hit .357 in two postseason series with his former team, the Twins.  So his total playoff numbers are essentially identical to Desmond's.  

However, Desmond passes the Boswell test, while the jury is still out on Span.  Go figure.

(If Boswell worked for a Los Angeles paper, I guess he would be telling Dodger fans that Clayton Kershaw was not psychologically tough enough for the postseason because he had a 7.82 ERA in his two NLDS starts this year.  Kershaw is the best regular-season pitcher in baseball, and he can pitch for me in the playoffs any day of the week.)  

Any college kid who has taken Statistics 101 will tell you that you can't draw meaningful conclusions on the basis of such a small sample of data.

Let's say you went to a typical American neighborhood and started knocking on doors, asking everyone whether they were going to vote for Tweedledum or Tweedledee.

Alice meets Tweedledum and Tweedledee
Let's say you stopped after surveying 162 voters, and tallied up the results.  You find that eight more favored Tweedledum than favored Tweedledee.   

You wouldn't be sure that Tweedledum was going to win the election based on those numbers -- 85 to 77 is pretty close.  But you might be willing to make a small wager on Tweedledum based on your sample of 162 voters.

If you then surveyed four more voters, and three of them said they preferred Tweedledee, would you fly to Vegas and make a big bet on Tweedledee?

OF COURSE NOT.  (If you disagree with that answer, don't fly to Vegas -- fly to Washington, DC, and play poker with me.)  

The Giants won three of four against the Nationals in the playoffs in October.  Does that mean they were better than the Nats?  

Before you answer that question, let me point out that the Nationals won eight more games in the 2014 regular season than the Giants.  Let me also point out that the Nats and Giants met seven times in the regular season, with the Nats winning five of those seven games.

Ian Desmond and Denard Span and the rest of the Nats hitters had a very bad NLDS, hitting only .164 and scoring only nine runs in 45 innings.  The Giants weren't much better, scoring only nine runs themselves.  But they got a couple of more breaks than the Nats, and they won three out of four.

Matt Williams
Boswell mostly blames the Nats' manager, Matt Williams, for their loss.  Williams did make a couple of questionable decisions, but if the Nats had hit anywhere near as well as they did in the regular season, they would have won the series easily and no one would be criticizing the manager.  (The Kansas City Royals manager, Ned Yost, made a whopper of a mistake in the AL wild-card game, but his team rallied late and took him off the hook.)

Boswell's colleague at the Post, Barry Svrluga, is not very brown-eyed at all.  As Svrluga wrote recently,

It's a dangerous thing, trying to figure out success in baseball's playoffs, perhaps the most random postseason of all.  

If Svrluga had deleted "perhaps" from that sentence, he'd be 100% correct.

Sh*t happens, Nats fans.  Don't take the playoffs too seriously.  Wait 'til next year.

Depeche Mode's name can be literally translated as "fast fashion."  But the band named itself after a French magazine whose name is more accurately translated as Fashion News or Fashion Update.

"Policy of Truth" was released in 1990 on the group's seventh studio album, Violator.

Click here to listen to "Policy of Truth":

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