Baseball is a religion, which makes Bill James the leader of some heretical schism.
True believers in the Word of Bill can be identified not by the ability to recite the formula for Wins Above Replacement or what PECOTA stands for; those are misguided fanatics following false prophets, like the Rosicrucians out of Foucault’s Pendulum. They are so caught up in their statistics that when the numbers contradict what they see on the field in front of them, they trust the stats and not their own eyes.
A big part of James’ self-assigned mission wasn’t to lead the league in AC (Acronyms Created) or NSFW (New Stats for Wonks … why, what did you think it meant?). He only created or tried to popularize new stats when the existing ones didn’t accurately reflect what was going on. He’s not the guy to blame when the color guy insists on telling you that Bill Pecota (no relation to PECOTA, the acronym) is a great hitter with two men out and two in in scoring position on Thursdays in August because he’s 2-for-3 in that situation. In fact, James has spent much of his career trying to teach curious fans how to spot useless and misleading stats and understand the truth behind them.
So when James sees numbers that don’t make sense, he tries to a) understand why and b) suggest a clearer way of looking at them. This is from his New Historical Baseball Abstract:
Total Baseball rates Nap Lajoie as a good defensive second baseman in 1914, when he was 39 years old, playing second base for a team that lost 102 games. They rate him as an even better defensive second baseman the following year, when he was 40 years old and playing second base for a team that lost 109 games, and as an absolutely brilliant defensive second baseman when he was 41 years old and playing second base for a team that finished 36-117. … The proposition that the 1916 Philadelphia A’s lost 117 despite the brilliant defensive play of their 41-year-old second baseman is absurd, and is in fact false …
OK, so what does that have to do with crime …
The lead story in Thursday’s Rutland Herald has several “criminal justice officials” pooh-poohing the testimony of Burlington Police Chief Mike Schirling to the effect that criminals know the state doesn’t want to jail them for property crimes and are laughing at the efforts of police to prevent crime. It cites data — given the somewhat stenographic tone of the piece, perhaps that ought to be Data — from the Vermont Crime Information Center that crime is on the decline, in the name of debunking the notion that publicly promising to keep property criminals out of jail might make them callous about getting caught.
Defender General Matt Valerio calls Schirling’s comments “irresponsible … there’s no [D]ata to support what he’s saying.”
Translation: That pesky policeman, making the nice sheeple worry about crime. But it’s in the numbers — there’s less crime than before, so don’t worry.
But how good is that Data?
- Given that the NYPD spent a good chunk of this year struggling to sort out the fact that it was fixing its crime numbers, there might be cause to worry that other numbers from other departments might not be waterproof.
- We had four break-ins on our block this summer (three garages, one house). None of them resulted in official police action, so none of them were recorded in the statistics … I know, I know … it’s anecdotal, not Data, but four on our block … how many in the city? The state?
- Given that realtors are warning their clients about securing properties against what they see as an epidemic of copper thefts (anecdotal) and given that insurance companies won’t cover vacant properties for extended periods as a result (anecdotal).
- Given that there’s a picture on the same page of the Herald proving (anecdotally) that crooks are making off with most anything metal these days.
- Given that <anecdote> when you take a property crime to the police, they shrug and say they can’t help you if you don’t have a serial number to prove that you used to own the saw that went on sale in Rutland on Craigslist four days after an identical one disappeared from your garage … </anecdote>
- And given that the Data points to a recidivism rate upwards of 40 percent even taking as gospel the dubious notion that everything gets reported …
… there’s a lot of anecdotes to suggest that maybe the nice, soothing Data is suspect, at a time when corrections and the police are getting money thrown at them from all corners.
One of the ways James questions the accuracy of numbers is to look at anecdotal evidence. Surely if Lajoie was playing amazing defense in his dotage, somebody at the time would have noticed and written something about it? No? Nothing? Well, maybe we should look at the numbers more closely.
If it looks to the police and to the residents of communities getting overrun by drug-related crime that we might have a problem, maybe we shouldn’t be kowtowing to the @#%&*(! spreadsheet.
I know math is hard, but while you’re handing out that brass plaque in honor of the successful eradication of property crime, you better make sure it’s bolted to the wall. Wouldn’t want it, you know, stolen.