Don Mattingly and the Tyranny of Math

Here stands a great hitter.

Here stands a great hitter.

I understand people who are resistant to placing their faith in numbers. It must be especially threatening to those who have built a professional identity through a lifetime of success either without the use of, or more likely, in direct opposition to analytics. To be told your entire life you are great, knowledgeable, or both, and to then have those core values, really your entire sense of self, challenged must be difficult. To value what you see, what you have done, everything you have been taught, well, this is a difficult thing to toss away, even in the face of overwhelming evidence.
I was taught this was a rock. It's still a rock, right? It sure looks like a rock. I'll bat it leadoff just in case.

I was taught this was a rock. It’s still a rock, right? It sure looks like a rock. I’ll bat it leadoff just in case.

So when I write that Don Mattingly is an idiot, please understand it’s done with affection, understanding and compassion. He was a great, great player. He’s from Indiana. But idiot he is.

Today, Mattingly announced new addition to the team Jimmy Rollins will bat leadoff for the club. It’s as if Mattingly has never taken a moment to read my blog.

To sum up in simple terms. On-base percentage is important. Really, really important. The higher the number, .320 being about league average, the better. Now, the player batting higher in the lineup will, over the course of the season, have more plate appearances compared to players who bat in the bottom half of the order. Taking all this into consideration, in conclusion and in general, players with a high on-base percentage should bat higher in the lineup, given that OBP is staggeringly important and they will have more at-bats. Players with a lower OBP should bat lower in the lineup, given that OBP is staggeringly important and they will have fewer at-bats. Welcome to advanced mathematics.

More is better than less.

More is better than less.

Rollins, who is 36 years old and well and truly in decline from his peak years, managed a .323 OBP last year. Nothing shameful about that at all. It was above the league average and few teams boast an accomplished table setter, let alone a Rickey Henderson. Rollins is also a shortstop, and everyone knows shortstops can’t hit in comparison to the rest of the league. It was even an improvement over his previous two seasons and completely in line with his career mark of .327. Rollins is not a terrible hitter. It’s just that he’s not very good at getting on base when compared with his own teammates.

Take a look at the projected 2015 Dodgers opening day squad, including starters and backups.

A Chart

A Chart

We notice that Rollins is worse than every player on that list, with the exception of Juan Uribe, who comes in at .302 (yeesh). Center fielder Pederson has almost no major league experience in culling his .351, but his collective minor league years tallied an OBP of over .400, due mostly to an excellent walk rate. Now, if we take a look at another chart, we can see how Rollins fared when taking only 2014’s numbers into account.

Another Chart

Another Chart

In this chart, Rollins is worse than every player except for Andre Ethier and he wins that contest by .01. Rollins is 36 years old. The overwhelming likelihood is he will be unable to match the previous season’s numbers, let alone exceed them. So I must respectfully disagree when Mattingly says, as he did today, “We don’t truly have anyone else that fits in that (leadoff) role.” Every other player in the lineup with the possible exception of the fifth best outfielder and likely backup 3rd baseman would be better in the leadoff spot than Jimmy Rollins.

What he really announced, loud and clear, is not the opening day lineup, but that the player who fails to reach base as successfully as his teammates will occupy the position where reaching base successfully is the single most important qualification. If there were ever a spokesperson for the rejection of analytics in sports, it is Don Mattingly and his stunning aversion to OBP. I know it’s hard to get out to the theater sometimes, but Moneyball is on DVD by now, right?

So basically, Dodger fans, gear up to enjoy the following phrase from Vin Scully this season – “…and here’s Carl Crawford striding to the plate with one out and nobody on…”


One thought on “Don Mattingly and the Tyranny of Math

  1. Pingback: To Live and Die in Eternal Hope | Summer of Baseball

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