Why Did Fans Like Steve Lombardozzi So Much?

By now you’ve read many people’s opinions on the trade that made Doug Fister a Washington National. My own reaction can be summed up in three tweets from Monday night:

At this point I don’t have to tell you how underrated Doug Fister is, or how high he is on WAR leaderboards and for the most part I just did obliquely anyways. I don’t need to waste your time or mine hashing over that again.

Instead, what I’m more interested in is the reaction by a certain segment of the fan base to the loss of Steve Lombardozzi. @MASNCommenter on Twitter has been a hilarious send up of this and Nationals 101 wrote a good piece on how to explain to your friends that losing Lombardozzi is small potatoes.

However, what I’m concerned with is how a fan could come to love Lombardozzi so fervently in the first place. I don’t think it’s quite as simple as saying they just don’t know baseball. Commentators like FP Santangelo have also spread the Gospel of Lombo. And this isn’t an isolated event either. Players like Pete Kozma before the playoffs this year and Tim Tebow in professional football were beloved by fans despite little to no actual accomplishments.

The human brain is a complex and scary thing, it has the power to process near unbelievable amounts of information in infinitesimal amounts of time. To do so, however, it takes a lot of shortcuts and one the most common ones manifests itself as confirmation bias. 

Confirmation bias is often associated with political affiliations and only gathering information on a topic that agrees with a personal belief, while ignoring information that doesn’t. However, it can also affect the way we store information in our brains and recall it later. In particular, if I were to like a certain player I would be more likely to remember the times he did something good than bad. In the case of Lombardozzi, we can actually see in his numbers why such a bias would develop among some fans.

As a whole Lombardozzi’s numbers range from mediocre to terrible. There are however, two stats where he performs well: strikeout percentage and Fangraphs’ clutch measure. These stats are where we will find our explanation.

With Lombardozzi playing for most of his career behind a starting second baseman Danny Espinosa, who has a particular problem with strikeouts, it’s not hard to see why some fans would key in on that. Lombardozzi had identical 11.1% strikeout percentages in 2012 and 2013. That was the 22nd lowest K% in the majors in 2013 among players with at least 300 plate appearances.

The low percentage is mainly due to Lombardozzi’s high swing rate and contact rate. In 2013 Lombardozzi had the 30th highest swing rate (52.6%) and t-38th highest contact rate (87.2%) among major leaguers with at least 300 plate appearances.

One thing often said about Lombardozzi was that he “made things happen.” And we can see why this impression was made. Putting the ball in play results in significantly more action than a strikeout or walk – something Lombardozzi rarely ever had. While the results were more often negative than not, the mere act of making contact, something that his most obvious direct competitor struggled with, likely stuck in fans’ memories.

Additionally, there is a time when Lombardozzi’s contact resulted in a better than normal result: in high-leverage situations. Fangraphs’ clutch metric measures how well a player does in high-leverage situations versus how they normally perform. Most numbers fall between negative one and one and the MLB average is zero.

In 2012 and 2013 Lombardozzi had clutch ratings of .38 and .25, respectively. This was good for fourth on the team in both years among players with at least 300 plate appearances. Lombardozzi did provide value in high-leverage situations and it’s likely that those who were predisposed to liking him would remember these moments the best. Especially since high-leverage situations are inherently more memorable than other situations.

There are few problems with that. One, Lombardozzi only had 79 plate appearances in high-leverage situations in 2012 and 2013 combined. That is not a big enough sample size to be comfortable in any judgments. Two, as the Fangraphs explanation of the clutch metric states:

“Clutch does a good job of describing the past, but it does very little towards predicting the future. Simply because one player was clutch at one point does not mean they will continue to perform well in high-leverage situations (and vice versa). Very few players have the ability to be consistently clutch over the course of their careers, and choking in one season does not beget the same in the future.”

However, it does give us a good idea of why fans gravitated, likely without even knowing it, to such a completely ordinary player. Confirmation bias is a scary thing and often makes people lash out when confronted with evidence that is contrary to their belief. This behavior can definitely be seen among Lombardozzi supporters, as well as supporters of similar players.

One of the reasons I am such a big proponent of statistical analysis in baseball is to combat this very problem. Keeping an open mind is important and stats are an unbiased perspective that can and should be a key part of forming opinions. Stats are not always right, but in a disagreement between perception and statistics, err towards statistics.

In the end though, Lombardozzi is simply a baseball player. One who was probably given too much playing time for the Nationals and no longer will. A footnote in history who, if the trade works out for the Nats as it should, will likely be best remembered as part of a website’s annual worst MLB trades in history story.

2 comments

  1. Excellent. I think we’ve tweeted about it before, but the same thing in your brain that let your cave-ancestors recognize a Tiger quickly and get out of trouble is the same thing that leads folks to get swayed by 10 second political zingers and Quarterbacks being responsible for everything in the NFL-to say nothing of the overzealous love for plucky utility infielders. Good Bye Steve Lombardozzi, you were exactly who you were.

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  2. My own confirmation bias led me to believe that Lombardozzi was particularly good in situations where the team was already ahead, but not comfortably ahead. At one time, I tried to make a Twitter hashtag of #LombardozzInsurance a thing. It never caught on. Probably too long.

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