Thursday, February 19, 2009

A-Rod: Something in the water?

(Shown, left: Rare photo of A-Rod publicly administering a dose of self-confidence.)

"I'm not sure what the benefit was. I will say this, when you take any substance or anything, especially in baseball, it's half-mental and half-physical. If you take this glass of water and you say, 'I'm going to be a better baseball player,' if you believe it, you probably will be."

Alex Rodriguez, at a spring training news conference this past Tuesday, on his years of juicing in Texas.

The media have jumped all over this quote in their customary (that is, gullible and unthinking) way. That same night on MLB Network I heard Harold Reynolds deliver a lengthy dissertation about the so-called mental game, and how "anything that gives you a mental edge or that you even think gives you a mental edge [?] is going to help you at the plate." And of course the other members of the panel all nodded like the uncritical Sportsthink cultists they are. Even Bob Costas nodded, which saddened me greatly.

The simple truth is that an analysis of A-Rod's career stats
leaves no reason to assume that anything changed in Texas other than his physical strength, and perhaps not even that.

Texas has some rather cozy hitting conditions, and is therefore considered a relatively easy park in which to hit home runs.
(And by the way, non-fans or even just casual fans would be amazed at the time and brainpower that true baseball addicts put into sorting and analyzing stats of all types, including those that tell us which ballparks are the easiest in which to go yard. Take a look at this.) Beyond that, it strikes me as silly to credit confidence when the more obvious factor is improved strength. That's a little bit like saying that you've been working out like a fiend, and you feel much better about how you look in the mirror, and that's why you're now suddenly able to lift a lot more weight—rather than that the reason you look better in the first place is that your muscles are growing and getting stronger.

So let's look at some stats where confidence might be expected to have an impact on hitting, but didn't in A-Rod's case. Take, say, strikeouts. In his final three years in Seattle, A-Rod struck out 351 times. During his three years of admitted steroid use in Texas he struck out 395 times. Unlike most baseball fans, I've always been somewhat dubious about stats
whether we can infer from them what we think we can inferso I don't know whether that increase can be considered statistically meaningful.* In other words, I don't know if it can be used as an argument for why A-Rod actually became a worse hitter in Texas. I do know that if confidence has any role at all to play in hitting, you'd certainly expect it to show up in one's ability to avoid striking out. The nervous hitter jumps at pitches, digs himself into a hole at-bat after at-bat, ends up hitting the pitcher's pitch. The confident hitter (or so it goes) is relaxed, gets a good pitch to hit, and hits it.

Now you might say, "Well, wait a minute. Maybe Alex was so confident that he just swung at everything because he knew he'd crush it, and that reckless abandon accounts for the extra strikeouts along the way." Sorry. A-Rod also began walking more in Texas: 249 times vs. 201 times in Seattle (even including his last year in Seattle, in which he walked a career-high 100 times). So if confidence was a factor, it was the quiet kind of confidence that allowed him to sit back and wait for his pitch.

Batting averages? His numbers for his final three years in Seattle were .310, .285** and .316. His three juiced seasons in Texas he batted .318, .300 and .298. Again, that's pretty much a wash. In fact, in 13 full seasons in The Bigs (leaving out 1994 and '95, when he saw limited playing time) A-Rod's average annual numbers
, adjusted on a 162-game basis, are .306 with 34 doubles and 44 homers.

His Texas numbers were .305, 30 and 52.

Where's the huge skew everyone appears to be talking about? To me, it basically looks like the only difference is that a few more of his "doubles" began clearing the fence in Texas. That's about it.

In any case, I defy Harold Reynolds or Bob Costas or A-Rod himself or anyone else to explain any of this as the byproduct of anything but physical strength...if that. Sure, in Texas his HR output jumped to 52, 57 and 47, an average of eight extra dingers per year. But (a) as noted, Arlington is a hitter's park, certainly more so than the Kingdome, (b) everybody was hitting more balls out back then, a happenstance that some attribute in part to the ball itself***, and (c) A-Rod smacked 54 home runs again in New York in 2007, when he was presumably drug-free
and when he was coming off a year that, by his own admission, had shattered his confidence.

Again I ask: Where is the "Confidence Effect" in all this?


On an unrelated note, but apropos of the long piece I just finished for Skeptic, could someone explain why all of this damning evidence against Casey Anthony is being released prior to trial? Seriously. Do we need to know this now? (Sure, the press got it from court documents, but those documents could've been sealed, and the judge could've issued a gag order along with harsh penalties for breaching it.) More to the point, how can anyone argue that the pool of jurors who could honestly give Anthony a fair trial, or even the mere presumption of innocence, hasn't been tainted out of existence?

* But since statistical comparisons form the crux of the anti-juicing argument, we have no choice but to bring them up here.
** This is the lowest average of his career once he became a regular and, we can assume, is an "expected" variation covered under the Bell Curve. Rodriguez also hit .286 in 2004, his first season with the Yankees.
*** though MLB has consistently denied this.


Elizabeth said...

Again I ask: Where is the "Confidence Effect" in all this?

Steve, not knowing much about baseball, I can only guess that it is in repeating the mantra over and over, which makes everyone feel good.

Speaking of A-Rod, how do you like his "me young and stupid and my cousin made me do it" defense? And "we did not know what it was but it was over the counter so we thought nothing of it" crap? Even I thought, c'mon, man, don't make it worse with such lame excuses. The whole role model thing just flew right out the window (and landed under the bus, along with the aforementioned cousin).

Steve Salerno said...

Eliz: Yep. Maybe it's not quite as lame as Barry Bonds' "I thought it was flaxseed oil," but it's close. And the thing is, both Bonds and A-Rod always struck me as fairly bright guys--not your typical "duh" ballplayers who have to be shown which side of the glove to put your fingers in. How do they say this stuff with a straight face?

Elizabeth said...

"I thought it was flaxseed oil"

LMAO! I did not hear that... Priceless.

Y'know, we gotta write a book (or a pamphlet, for those with short attention spans like moi) on the art of apology (wait... has it been written already?)

One of the cardinal rules of a decent apology is: do NOT make your offense (and yourself) appear worse with a totally unbelievable "explanation" of it. Flaxseed oil, my ass.

When you say something that stupid, you insult everybody's intelligence (not to mention your own) and remove any remaining shreds of sympathy in those who may have given you the benefit of a doubt. And you make people angry, which means they want to kick your sorry behind for that insult, even if not for the initial offense itself.

Flaxseed oil... No doubt OTC. And from a cousin. Sheesh. (LOL)

roger o'keefe said...

Which raises the question, since A-Rod's performance in Texas is not that different from his performance at any other time in his career, and he now admits being a juicer in Texas, does that mean he's been on steroids all along? I don't follow baseball all that closely, not like I used to anyway, but I'm sure I'm not alone in thinking there's much more to tell here.

Steve Salerno said...

Roger: This has been a subject of conjecture since vague backstage whispers first linked A-Rod to steroids some years ago. I think it's possible that he owned up to what he felt he had to own up to, minimally, because otherwise it was going to come out anyway and then he'd look even worse (and MLB or even the authorities might have felt compelled to step in, as they did with Miguel Tejada). Beyond that, who knows.

RockitQueen said...

Steve, the Anthony evidence is being released thanks to Florida's Sunshine Law.

Steve Salerno said...

Thanks, Rockit. I'm not disputing that DAs often have claimed the right to make these sorts of disclosures; I'm disputing whether they ought to have the right to do this, and whether some areas of these sunshine laws are in direct contradiction to a defendant's presumption of innocence. In the UK, for example, the moment a defendant is formally charged with a crime, the entire process is sealed and no one is allowed to even comment on a case publicly (let alone release evidence) until the defendant has his/her day in court.