Adeiny Hechavarria is a difficult player to judge apparently, as the opinions of various Miami Marlins fans are mixed. The primary reason for that is the question of his defense, which is a question we have reviewed before. It is easy to see that Hechavarria can make spectacular plays on defense, but on the aggregate, the zone-based metrics seem to think he is below average.
As someone who employs the use of numbers, that certainly gave me pause. It was an unexpected result to see Hechavarria supposedly performing poorly at shortstop, because he does not look the part. But, as Socrates once said, "the only true wisdom is knowing you know nothing;" I know that I am not adept enough to make 100-percent accurate judgments of a player's defensive caliber.
But other fans don't necessarily buy into this. I get a lot of statements like the sentiment shared by Twitter follower Steve Pachter.
@fishstripes Don't need those kinda stats.Lies, damn lies, and stats. 40 plus years of watching Baseball enough for me ! Hech terrific!— Steve Pachter (@thepacman321) August 16, 2014
Steve is entitled to his own views, of course, and he and everyone else are welcome to enjoy baseball however they feel like. But if we want to learn more about the game, it would be helpful to realize that our best tools are not just our eyes, but everything available to us that we find valid.
This is not to discount the "eye test." Essentially, the eye test is present to judge validity of information you receive. But as Bill James once intimated (and I'm paraphrasing), a new statistic should be 80 percent what you expect and 20 percent unexpected. If you found a way to measure performance that matched up 100 percent with conventional wisdom, what was the point of your work? If you found something that did not match up at all, then it was very likely incorrect. There is a balance of meeting and defying expectations of conventional wisdom.
Let's combine those two points into a thought exercise. I posed this challenge some time last week on Twitter, and now I will pose it here.
Fun experiment: try watching just one batter for an entire month. Don't write stats down. At end of month, try recreating his batting line— Michael Jong (@MRJManiac) August 16, 2014
Think about what this challenge is asking for you to do. For one month, your only task would be to watch one player hit baseballs against all competition. When he is not at the plate, you can think and rethink about his plate appearance. You can think about his successes and failures on each and every pitch, analyze every swing or non-swing. But you cannot tally any statistics: all you have to access is your memory of his plate appearances.
Once you have reconstructed his month at the plate, try the following.
Then, from just watching that one guy, try figuring out how much better or worse he was than the rest of the league.— Michael Jong (@MRJManiac) August 16, 2014
Keep in mind, you were only watching this one guy all month, and now you have to judge his month's performance versus everyone else in the league. You, of course, can use what you remember of everyone else in the league, but you can only go off of memory of what you may have seen in the past, because your job this month is to try and focus on just this one guy.
It sounds extremely difficult right? Remaking stats from just your observations is hard. But consider that that is what every single fan says that they can do when they tell me to "just watch the games and use your eyes!" Watching the game and using only your eyes to evaluate a player's defense is doing exactly what I described above, only without the proper stats to verify your findings. When you tell someone to do that, you are saying that you can not only tally Hechavarria's plays made and plays that should have been made but were not (itself a difficult a task) and compare how his performance does versus the league average of a league that you did not watch!
By the way, that is exactly what managers are asked to do when voting for the Gold Glove award winners in each league, except that they do not get the luxury of watching a single player for an entire month because, you know, they're busy being managers. When you see how egregious some Gold Glove award victories often are, remember that that is how you tend to judge defensive players too.
Now consider how hard it is to do given your standing as a fan. You and I are not pro scouts, so we are naturally less gifted at watching players and assessing performance. Your regular fan does not have the amazing access of a professional baseball scout, to say nothing of the training and experience that can help with this sort of work. The typical fan view is not from field level, but from either higher up at the stadium or, worse yet, from the television broadcast. Neither of those vantage points give you great views of a defensive player in action. With our scouting challenge, you at least get a centered view of the plate appearance of your player focus. But with defense, you would be watching the plate appearance and depending on the timing and effectiveness of the camera shift to make your observations of the defender. You get very little to no idea of positioning before the play occurs. You do not see the player's initial reaction to a ball. There is a ton of missing information about defense from watching on television.
With a month of focus and the benefit of repeating things on video, you may be able to do a decent, if not very tasking, job of recreating a player's batting line. Comparing him to the league may be nearly impossible, but it's doable if you happen to be a knowledgeable fan. But fans that say that all they need is their eyes are not telling you to focus on one player. They claim, implicitly, that they can watch their favorite team as a biased fan and carefully evaluate each and every player on the field defensively, because they seem to have strong opinions on each player's defense.
This is not to say that the eye test is bad. The eye test is good! It helps to validate the things we see. If you are talented or good enough, it catches things that change a lot faster than the statistics might. But in the face of our inferior skills and the difficult resources we have, I think it is reasonable to not just use the eyes and instead turn to the statistics to supplement our thoughts. Neither should "win" over the other, because neither the zone-based defensive metrics or my scouting ability are perfect. But with both pieces in hand, we can maybe glean a little more information than we had before.
And that is all I am asking of with Marlins fans and supporters of Hechavarria. There is some question about his defense, and the "just use your eyes" argument is not a retort. Just like the stats, your eyes can definitely lie.