Sunday, August 21, 2011

Joe Nathan: A Case Study on Stupid Stats, Baseball Boyfriends, and Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is defined as that uncomfortable feeling we have because we simultaneously hold two opposing beliefs. Humans tend to eschew this inner conflict, so we do everything we can to get rid of these feelings -- something has to give or else we'll drive ourselves nuts. Usually cognitive dissonance is at its strongest when it applies to firmly held personal values or self-identity. It also applies to baseball.

Here are my dissonant beliefs:
  • I hate the Save stat
  • I love Joe Nathan

The Save state is generally dumb. Specifically, managing and administrating to the Save stat is dumb. Because of the all-mighty Save, teams anoint one man their "Closer" to use pretty much exclusively in Save situations. Usually, his royal highness is the best reliever on the team who can get out both left- and right-handed batters and who has the mental toughness to handle the pressure that comes at the end of a close game. And, usually, his royal highness makes more money than comparable relievers because everyone loves the Save stat.

But what does having a lot of Saves really mean? Not much. It's one of three random situations that someone decided would be cool to name. A pitcher is granted a shiny Save if he doesn't allow the opponent to tie or go ahead in these instances:
  • comes in the ninth inning with a 3-run or fewer lead
  • comes in the any time in the eighth or ninth inning and pitches the rest of the game with the tying run on base, at the plate, on deck, or in the hole
  • pitches the final three full innings regardless of the score (in 2007, Wes Littleton of the Texas Rangers earned a Save in a 30-3 win over the Baltimore Orioles because he happened to pitch the final three innings of the game)
A guy with a lot of Saves will use that to his benefit to earn money and get recognition. However, this completely made-up stat does nothing to measure the value of the pitcher -- the Closer has a lot of Saves because he's a good pitcher, not the Closer is a good pitcher because he has a lot of Saves. Saves tells us more about the team as a whole that the performance of the Closer.

Many times, the philosophy of "starter to reliever to maybe another reliever to Closer" works. The Closer pads his Save count, the manager looks good, the fans are happy, and the Closer's agent sees more dollar signs. Everybody's happy.

However, keeping the best reliever off to the side until the ninth inning is kind of a crappy strategy if you think about it. Sometimes, the highest-pressure situation of the game comes in the seventh or eighth inning, and the manager is reduced to trotting out a parade of lefty or righty specialists to get through. Or, he brings in his set-up man, who may be effective, but get no credit (yeah, he gets a Hold, but those are even dumber than Saves). Oh, and heaven forbid if the team is in a tie game on the road; the Closer will be stuck in purgatory until they go ahead and need him for the Save, regardless of how long the game goes on or how many sticky situations they get in to.

So, teams pay extra money and change their game strategy all based upon the notion of allowing the Closer to earn Saves. Everything about this screams "crazy."

With all that being said, I couldn't love Joe Nathan more. He, along with Michael Cuddyer, is my baseball boyfriend (yes, I have two baseball boyfriends; there are no rules to this and it's not like they care). And even more crazy, I couldn't be more proud and pleased that he recently became the Twins' all-time Saves leader.

Not only do I love it that he's earned so many Saves, I simply enjoy watching him earn each one of them. His nervous habits make the game so much more entertaining. I have great fun staring intently into my TV, radio, or him from afar and urging his success by commanding "no interesting!"

I've met him a couple times at autograph signings and Twinsfest photo-ops and such, and he's always smiled nicely and greeted the fans warmly. And in every interview I've seen with him, he's always said the right things and seemed sincere. I've never seen any hint of anything negative about him at all. In fact, I have read several reports vaunting what a hard worker he is -- especially during his rehab from Tommy John surgery.

He had enough class to remove himself from the Closer role when it was clear that he was hurting the team. Earning those beloved Saves wasn't such a priority if he couldn't do it well. He's an all-around good Twins player and someone Twins fans can be proud of.

Unfortunately, there isn't much I can do to resolve my dissonance. I can't change teams' minds about overvaluing Saves, nor can I persuade the Twins to keep Joe Nathan on the team forever. And I'm not likely to change my mind about either of my positions.

I suppose Bill Smith will soon be suffering his own bout of cognitive dissonance about Joe Nathan as well. On one hand, he'll love everything Joe has done for the team and, understanding that he'll be even better next season, will want him to keep notching those Saves. On the other hand, the team has a $12.5 million option on Joe next season, and that's a lot of money that could be used to add to the team in other key positions; a $2 million buyout to allow him to be a free agent might be a necessary choice.

I don't envy Smith's dissonance resolution at all.

1 comment:

CapitalBabs said...

yep... exactly... Love the man, hate the stat.

I love pitchers with great intensity. With the Nathanest, you know that the more he's twitching, the better he's doing. I get the tingles.