[Baseball Prospectus now has a Chicago Cubs-centric site called BP Wrigleyville, led by friend of the program, Sahadev Sharma. I’ll be contributing there about once a week, and you’ll see me posting here a portion of my articles from over there. Like this one.]
In certain sardonic corners of the Cubs-related Internet, word that lefty reliever James Russell was back with the club on a minor-league deal was greeted with a “he was gone?” (Or, worse, a “he was ever here?”) (Or, worse still, a “World Series, here we come!”)
Although he departed less than a half-season ago, Russell’s time with the team has almost completely been forgotten by Chicago Cubs fans. While plumbing the depths of the collective Cubs fan psyche is an exercise likely to take you down rabbit holes of self-loathing you thought impossible, I’m going to take a stab at the four primary reasons Cubs fans totally let Russell go from their minds:
- His mixed start to 2014, emphasized by his failure to retire Miguel Montero in the 100th Anniversary Game, leading to an embarrassing come-from-ahead loss on that noteworthy day.
- The feeling that comes with the build up to the Trade Deadline when you know a player is going to be dealt, as it was with Russell last year (fans have a way of distancing themselves, not unlike former lovers in a cratering relationship (actually, it’s exactly like that)).
- The terrible Cubs teams for which he played (you’ve got to be a pretty serious nerd to care deeply about a lefty reliever on teams that lost an average of 93 games over a five-year period).
- His results were underrated, thanks in large part to advanced statistics.
The first three mostly did the trick, but I want to linger for a moment on that last one.
Generally, when we utilize advanced statistics to analyze player performance, we’re mostly interested from a predictive perspective. That is to say, the bottom-line results often interest us less than the underlying, suggestive performance—sure, the guy gave up seven runs, but how much of that is really attributable to his performance? How much can we take away from that performance, then, and how informative is the performance with respect to what comes next?
It’s all well and good when, for example, a pitcher gets through a few scoreless frames because none of the six guys he walked has scored, and the liners he’s given up have been right at his defenders, but that certainly doesn’t inspire confidence the next time the manager decides to hand him the ball. So, we regularly look at player performance through a certain lens: some of his numbers say he did X, but these better numbers say he should have done closer to Y.
I love this exercise. I applaud this exercise. I use this exercise liberally.
But what this exercise has conditioned forward-thinking baseball fans to do is to sometimes ignore the actual results a player achieves. We don’t really care that Jair Jurrjens allowed just 62 earned runs in 215 innings in 2009 and helped the Braves win a bunch of games, because everything from his walk rate to his strikeout rate to his LOB% to his HR/FB to his BABIP screamed terrible future regression. He didn’t actually pitch all that well, he was simply the recipient of divine results. And who cares about results that don’t tell us anything about the quality of the player’s current or future performance?
Well, we should probably care a little ….