The Ultimate Small Sample Size

Yankees do not plan to pursue Carlos Silva
Fan Confidence Poll: March 28th, 2011
"This might send the Yankees to the World Series!" (AP/Charles Krupa)

It can only take one game – one play, even – to make a career. With a single pitch, throw, hit or game, a player can lock in their legacy forever. The funny thing is, the play that makes the player can be absolutely nothing like the rest of his career.  I don’t think this is Yankees or even baseball specific. Olli Jokinen, once a New York Ranger, will always be remembered by Rangers fans for the shot he missed in the shootout in the last game of the regular season last year, knocking the Rangers out of the playoffs and allowing the Philadelphia Flyers to go on their Stanley Cup run, even though they were bested by the Chicago Blackhawks in the finals. Jokinen had been, by most hockey measures, at least a half-decent player all his career. The one-play legacy is the ultimate example of small sample size, the very thing that we basement-blogging nerds rage against. Small sample size is the worst enemy of most statistics. Alex Rodriguez batting .156 looks pretty terrible before you find out that’s only in eight games. Francisco Cervelli batted .360 with a .848 OPS….in April 2010.

Think about it. As Yankee fans, we’ll always remember Aaron Boone’s game 7 home run off Tim Wakefield.  Boone played major league baseball for thirteen years, and out of all those years (4329 career plate appearances), he showed up in a hundred games or more for only half of them. He was traded for in the middle of 2003 and appeared in only 54 regular season games with the Yankees. He never hit over 30 home runs. He never batted over .300. His career batting numbers are .263/.326/.425 with a 94 OPS+. There is absolutely nothing notable here.  He was a Randy Winn or a Josh Towers. But then, of course, he came up in the eleventh inning of the ALCS Game 7 after pinch running in the eighth, and now no one will ever forget him. The ad on his baseball reference page even features the play.  My favorite part about the Aaron Boone home run is that we lost that World Series against Josh Beckett’s Marlins, and this never, ever comes up in the Aaron Boone discussion. That memorable home run, viewed through the lens of contemporary Yankees success mentality (World Series or bust!) was ultimately futile. It did nothing aside from give Yankees fans one more year to rub “the Curse of the Bambino” in Boston’s face. Little did we know what awaited us next year….

Just like Boone’s single plate appearance lifted him from forgettable bench player to historical Yankee figure, one play can make fans think a good ballplayer is worth absolutely nothing. I’m pretty sure I don’t need to go into detail about Luis Castillo given my audience, but he dropped a routine pop-up in an effectively meaningless summer game, allowing the Yankees to score two runs, win the game, and eventually win the World Series. Okay, maybe the two things weren’t connected, but Castillo’s error lead to an exaggeration in his vilification (which was already prevalent) by Mets fans and a massive increase of ribbing by everyone else in baseball. When Castillo was released not too long ago, even Sandy Alderson was quoted over at ESPN saying, “I don’t think there’s any question that there’s some linkage between his situation and a perception of the Mets that has existed to this point. That’s something that was taken into account. At some point, you have to make an organizational decision that goes beyond just an ability to play or not play.” As Mets blog Amazin Avenue, pointed out, Castillo was certainly good enough to be on the Mets: his career .290/.368/.351 is solid, and the 2009 where he hit .301 is closer to his norm than the .234 he hit in 2010. It’s worth noting that he also only played in 84 games last year due to a lingering foot injury caused by a nasty bone bruise.  Castillo’s not a bad baseball player, but the fact that everyone knows him for one error makes him seem far, far worse than he actually is.

Bill Buckner. Bucky Dent. Armando Galarraga. Dallas Braden. These names have plays – or in the case of the two pitchers, games – that stand out in their careers. Despite throwing an almost-perfect game (for our purposes, it was perfect on Galarraga’s end), the Tigers wouldn’t even carry him on their roster in 2011, and he’s now pitching for Arizona. Braden’s 4.00 FIP and 4.20 ERA are not as remotely impressive as the perfect game he threw on Mother’s Day. It’s these kind of events that highlight the unpredictability of baseball and, even more so, remind both us as fans that anyone can do anything – but when you’re trying to build the best baseball team you can or blame a losing streak on someone, it’s probably worth looking at the long-term numbers and not just remembering the best or worst play you can think of.

Yankees do not plan to pursue Carlos Silva
Fan Confidence Poll: March 28th, 2011
  • Mike Myers

    Cool write up. But remembering that play makes me remember that day and feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Thinking about Eli’s super bowl drive makes me feel that way too. So does the career of players I grew up with like Andy, Jorge, and Jeter. I think ill enjoy remembering both the single accomplishments and careers.

    • Mister Delaware

      Yup, just took 5 minutes to find some fan videos on YouTube of it. I just remember it happening way to quick after coming back from commercial, like I didn’t have time to ramp the nerves back up after the 2 minute relax period.

      • Mister Delaware

        “way too”

  • Yanks

    It was the 11th inning when Boone hit his homer, not the 9th

    • http://twitter.com/firstheart42 Hannah Ehrlich

      Derp.

      • jsbrendog

        derp a dooooo

  • Sean C

    This might be the flip-side to your article… This is how my dad views Jeter: he still sees this kid that dove into the stands and came out bleeding from the face and still making the play, that jump throw from way out in the grass to just get that runner at first, Captain Clutch(Mr. November), etc. Jeter’s obviously a HOFer with probably enough great plays/hits/etc. throughout his career for it to no longer be a SSS. He doesn’t see the star in his declining phase, or at least he’s refusing to see it. This is what my dad goes to every time I try to bring up the inherent perils of having a 36 year old SS: “Who else is going to (insert Jeter memory here)?” I probably sound like I’m bashing Jeter, but I respect him for what he’s done for the Yankees. And maybe it’s a “what have you done for me lately?” problem on my part… I guess what I’m trying to say is it’s crazy how something a player did can be so heroic and make us overlook what might have been a completely unimpressive ML career. On that same line, I guess a career of awesomeness can make us overlook the problem that could currently be manifesting itself before us (e.g.: my dad). I’m not Jeter bashing or hating baseball history, this article just got me thinking along these lines.

    • http://twitter.com/firstheart42 Hannah Ehrlich

      I think this fits very well into the article, actually. Sometimes things happen to players – or they do things – and we get so caught up in that image that what’s actually going on is irrelevant. Jeter’s earlier years a .320 hitter and his adventures diving into the stands would be similar to a Tigers fan ignoring Galarraga’s obvious poor ability and instead saying, “He pitched a perfect game! Of course we need him!”

    • mike c

      one .270 season and everybody’s giving up on jeter… I know it’s the fashionable thing to do, but a career .314 hitter gets the benefit of the doubt in my world

      • barry

        Everyone forgets that the year before the word was that “Jeter looks revitalized, especially at defense.” Jeter does just as much for the Yankees on the field as he does off. He still sells a crazy amount of jerseys, no?

        • Sayid J.

          Selling jerseys doesn’t win games. Strasburg was in the top 20 of jersey sales too.

          • barry

            Strasburg sold so many Jerseys because he was all that ESPN talked about for a good 3 months. He was supposed to be and probably still could be a franchise changer like Jeter is.

        • jsbrendog

          and selling jerseys doesnt help the ynakees anymore than any other team due to revenbue sharing from merchandise

          • barry

            oh trust me it helps. Take an economics class. Merchandising is major income to sports teams, and thanks to certain players like Jeter it helps to increase what the Yankees can do exponentially. Its not just a baseball team or player, its a complete product.

          • barry

            Here’s a look at the top 10 teams by licensed product sales in 2010:

            1. New York Yankees
            2. Boston Red Sox
            3. Los Angeles Dodgers
            4. Philadelphia Phillies
            5. Chicago Cubs
            6. St. Louis Cardinals
            7. Chicago White Sox
            8. Atlanta Braves
            9. Minnesota Twins
            10. Detroit Tigers
            Now your assignment: Find the correlations between that list and payrolls in the MLB.

      • FIPster Doofus

        Jete’s age + .270 is scary. If he hit .270 six years ago, I think most people would’ve given him the benefit of the doubt and expected a bounce back. Now? It’s hard to be super confident in a 36-year-old middle infielder.

    • Urban

      I honestly don’t understand what you’re trying to say here. Comparing Jeter to Boone doesn’t make sense. Jeter is known for an exceptional career of high consistency, while Boone is known for a singular spectacular moment.

      • YanksFan

        He’s talking about our perceptions of a player. Boone is based on one play so he might be perceived better than what he was as a career. Jeter is a HOF player but we may still see him as the 25 yr old as opposed to the 37 yr old downside of career player that he is.

  • barry

    Luis Castillo is a replacement level player so I really don’t understand why this argument is being made. He plays average-sometimes above average defense, gets on base a lot, has hit 28 homeruns and scored 1000 runs in 7100+ PA. No one ever said “Aaron Boone is a great player,” at least not to me. But if someone said “Luis Castillo sucks,” I’d have to agree. He’s gotten on base a lot and done nothing else. In fact, Boone’s career wOBA is .001 higher than Castillo (.328 vs .329). The Mets got rid of him because he’s a shitty player from a shitty part of Mets history, he was villified because he was being paid like a premier player and playing like (fill in replacement player) who contributed nothing.

    • http://www.twitter.com/tomzig Tom Zig

      Luis Castillo the Met has been a replacement level player. Luis Castillo before the Mets was an ok player. Something about playing for the Mets turns great players into ok players and ok players into replacement level.

      • barry

        Ok, I’ll agree that he was an ok player before the Mets, for the Marlins and a brief stint with the Twins. The Mets really don’t ruin players, it’s just been a poorly managed team. No other GM besides Minaya would of given him that money, and maybe the money made him complacent.

        • jsbrendog

          or, you know, he got old and is a mid 30s speedster whose game depends on being quick with bad knees.

          • barry

            So 3 above average years on the bases makes him a “speedster”?
            Luis the speed machine was obsolete by ’04.

  • cano is the bro

    i could watch the luis castillo dropped pop up over and over. It is one of the most hilarious and ridiculous walk offs I have ever seen

    • barry

      True, and it is a highlight of his dismal career in NY.

  • http://nyystadiuminsider.com NYYSI Ross

    I think the phenomenon that you’ve described in this post is EXACTLY what makes sports great. I think that we get TOO caught up in the statistical analysis at times and don’t sit back to enjoy the amazing, unpredictable and unlikely events that often occur – but that we’re never quite expecting.

  • Cuso

    The Jeter comparison isn’t applicable to the posted article. In the cases of Boone, Castillo, Jokinen, etc., the author is outlining the folly in the perception of ONE event (good or bad) distorting fan perception of that player’s career.

    In the Jeter example, you’re talking about a hall-of-fame player facing a natural decline that all players (hall-of-fame or otherwise) experience.

  • http://www.twitter.com/tomzig Tom Zig

    Aaron Boone with that one famous (or infamous if you’re a Sox fan) HR has turned himself into a household name and got himself a post-baseball career as a sometimes broadcaster.

    Good for him.

    • jsbrendog

      he is awful to listen to though imo. but still better than kruk and williams, but bad nonetheless

  • http://www.twitter.com/astrophunq Dax J.

    Great read, Hannah. There’s also Bud Smith, who threw a no-hitter with the Cardinals and was never heard from again. Everyone will remember him (if they look him up) for that no-hitter.

  • jsbrendog

    this. exactly. it is almost like the exact opposite but the same idea

    • jsbrendog

      reply fail

  • Frigidevil

    The best example of this? David Tyree.