Sabermetrics: Past, Present & Future

Bill JamesOne early spring night in 1976, Bill James, a night security guard at the Stokley-Van Camp pork and beans cannery in Lawrence, Kan., sat reading the copy of Street and Smith’s Baseball Yearbook.  Beside him sat several other preseason baseball publications which he had bought – called annuals.

“Reading through them I realized, ‘These are terrible. Why am I wasting my time reading the analysis of people who know half as much about baseball as I do?’” James recalled in an email interview.  “So I just started writing my own preseason annual.”

The 27-year-old set to work analyzing box scores and compiling data during his late-night shifts at the cannery, and in 1977, James self-published the very first Bill James Baseball Abstract.

James’ Abstracts were unusual because they analyzed baseball in a different way than other publications.  Rather than write from an insider’s perspective, James wrote his analysis from the point of view of a fan.

Because of this, he gained widespread popularity among hardcore baseball fans and his work gained critical and commercial success.  James dubbed his brand of analysis sabermetrics.

Sabermetrics, as James defines it, is “the search for objective knowledge about baseball.”

Since then, sabermetrics has revolutionized baseball analysis and changed ways of thinking about the game.

Even among casual fans, batting average is replaced with weighted On Base Average (wOBA).  Traditional pitching stats like Earned Run Average and win-loss records are replaced with defense-independent pitching statistics (DIPS).  Runs Batted In are eschewed in favor of Slugging Percentage (SLG) and Isolated Power (ISO).

Age old rules of thumb are shown to be incorrect, leading to new theories on roster construction and lineup and bullpen management.

“Sabermetrics is a discipline, a branch of knowledge,” said Tom Tango, a co-author of The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball.  “It has a certain set of methodologies, it gets to the truth through a set of assumptions.”

The Book, which Tango wrote with Mitchel Lichtman and Andrew Dolphin, is one of the most-cited and praised sabermetric works of the past decade.

“My first exposure [to sabermetrics] was over 30 years ago, reading about linear weights from Pete Palmer in Baseball Digest,” Tango said in an email interview. “That led me to Bill James’ Baseball Abstract.”

Tango, Lichtman and Dolphin pored through years of data to answer many questions about baseball – such as when to sacrifice bunt or issue an intentional walk.

While Tango’s work has had an impact on baseball analysis, in the long run he doesn’t envision sabermetric stats completely taking over.

“The only thing that sabermetrics will ensure that becomes the norm is that batting average, RBI and pitcher wins will be relegated to tertiary stats status,” Tango said.  “Sabermetrics will eventually expose those stats, and similar ones, the way spoon-benders are exposed.”

One man working hard to make sure that that is the case is Brian Kenny of MLB Network, Major League Baseball’s 24-hour television channel.

Kenny passionately debates the more traditionally-minded Harold Reynolds on the day’s baseball storylines.  He tries – often unsuccessfully – to convince Reynolds to use “saber stats” and view the game through a sabermetric lens.

On Twitter he crusades for sabermetric causes with the hashtags “#KillTheWin”; to get people to stop judging a pitcher’s performance by how many wins they have, and “#StopBunting”; because evidence has shown sacrifice bunting is actually counterproductive.

While his abrasive style rubs some the wrong way, Kenny has become the public face of the sabermetrics movement.

“[The Kenny-Reynolds debates] are good in establishing both sides of things,” said Tango. “It gives us a good basis for discussion.”

Those discussions, even if they don’t lead to people fully embracing sabermetrics, enrich the fan experience by giving them another way to view the game.

“The people who I know who are interested in sabermetrics are the people who watch the most baseball, and are the most passionate about the game,” said Jacob Pomrenke, the Web Content Editor and Producer for the Society for American Baseball Research, in a telephone interview.

James, a member of the Society for American Baseball Research – often abbreviated SABR – called his new discipline sabermetrics to honor the organization, which was founded in the Baseball Hall of Fame Library in Cooperstown, N.Y. in 1971.

SABR is dedicated to the study of baseball, through not only statistics, but through its history.  Much of their research involves answering questions about baseball.

When he began writing his Abstracts, James answered questions such as, “Which pitchers and catchers allow runners to steal the most bases?” and “Who is the best player in the game today?”  Now organizations like Baseball Prospectus and The Hardball Times examine things like “How much value do teams get from free agents?” and “How important is defense and base running in a player’s overall value?”

But while the questions being answered over the years have evolved, the goal of sabermetricians has not – they are still on a quest for objective knowledge about baseball.

In 1988, James stopped publishing his Abstracts, citing not only the heavy workload, but the number of similar publications that were available.

Sabermetrics was growing in popularity and usage among diehard fans, but sabermetrics had yet to gain significant traction in front offices.

That all changed when in 1995, when the death of longtime Oakland Athletics owner Walter Haas brought about the sale of the team to Steve Schott – a cousin of the infamous, late Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott.

Schott and his partners did not want to spend money in the same way that Haas could, so they ordered then General Manager Sandy Alderson to drastically cut payroll.

Alderson turned to sabermetric statistics to try to determine which players could be acquired cheaply because they possessed abilities that were undervalued by the market.

When Alderson left the Athletics to work for the Commissioner’s Office in 1997, his protégée, Billy Beane, took over his post.1986 Donruss Billy Beane

Beane went on to perfect the system created by Alderson, building the Athletics into a playoff contender on a shoestring budget.  Michael Lewis’ 2003 book, Moneyball, popularly chronicled the story of the Athletics’ – and Beane’s – improbable success.

The book brought sabermetrics to light for the general public, but front offices had already taken notice.

In 2001, Keith Law was hired by J.P. Ricciardi – one of Beane’s disciples – as a consultant for the Toronto Blue Jays.

And in 2002, the Red Sox hired Bill James himself.

“I had had several other opportunities to consult for other teams, and had actually done a little bit of consulting with other teams,” James said.  “The real problem with that was that I worked with people who really didn’t understand what my work was about, and would ask me or assign me to do things that weren’t really within my area of expertise.  Because of that, I had generally gotten into the habit of declining to pursue those opportunities.

“When the Red Sox contacted me, I realized that these were people who actually did understand what I was talking about, and that I could have an impact on the discussion because I would be talking to people who understood what I was saying.  So that was very different, and I appreciated the challenge.”

Two years later, the Red Sox’s 86-year World Series championship drought was over.  Sabermetrics helped to defeat the Curse of the Bambino.

“Every single front office – all 30 major league teams – have people dedicated to statistical analysis,” Pomrenke said.  “It used to be just a couple teams – the Dodgers, the Cardinals, the Orioles and the A’s were doing this type of research on their own – now they’re all doing it.”

Over the past year, the Houston Astros have been a shining example of a team using sabermetrics to try to improve.  Under new owner Jim Crane, the team has hired two former Baseball Prospectus writers to work for the team as analysts and a saber-friendly manager in Bo Porter.

While the Astros are coming off their third consecutive 100-loss season, many baseball insiders say that the team is finally on track to return to its former glory.

Meanwhile, Alderson has been the General Manager of the New York Mets since 2010. Beane’s right-hand men during the Moneyball era, Paul DePodesta and Ricciardi, now work under Alderson as the Vice President of Player Development and Scouting and Special Assistant to Alderson, respectively.

Again, after five straight losing seasons, insiders believe the team is on its way to contention.

Then there’s Joe Maddon of the Tampa Bay Rays.  Considered to be one of the best managers in baseball, Maddon is well known as a supporter of sabermetrics and often uses them to make his in-game managing decisions.

When Maddon took over the team – then called the Devil Rays – in 2006, their record was 61-101.  Thanks to his guidance and sabermetric analysis in the front office, by 2008 the team had reached the World Series and finished with a 97-65 record, despite a $43 million payroll.

The list of teams who have turned to sabermetrics and found success goes on and on.  Of the 10 teams to make the postseason in 2013, only the Cincinnati Reds had a front office that was not outwardly in favor of sabermetrics.  For the third time since 2010, the Reds failed to win a series in the playoffs.

The Philadelphia Phillies – whose general manager, Ruben Amaro Jr., is one of the most anti-sabermetrics executives in baseball – finished 73-89, continuing their backward slide over the past two seasons.  Other teams that have shunned sabermetrics have experienced similar slides into baseball irrelevancy.

But as teams hesitate to deviate from the traditional methods of evaluating players, Pomrenke suggests that sabermetrics are not really new at all.

“Sabermetrics really goes back a long way,” Pomrenke said.  “It kinda seems like it’s more of a mainstream thing since Moneyball, but within the baseball community it’s been around for a long time.”

In the 1960s and 70s, Baltimore Orioles manager Earl Weaver kept meticulous note cards to help him refine his platoon system and pitching changes. Branch Rickey – famous for being the man who signed Jackie Robinson to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers – hired statistician Alan Roth to evaluate player performance in the 1940s.  According to Pomrenke, as early as the 1910s and 20s people were toying around with the idea of an early version of on-base percentage.

These examples are more the exception than the rule, though, and up until recently, most teams relied primarily upon scouts and managerial wisdom passed down through the ages to make decisions.  Much of that wisdom has been shown to be nothing more than a collection of old wives’ tales.

But a lot of traditionalists still stick to the adages that they believe to be true, despite the ever-growing mountains of research to the contrary.

“Most of these people in the game have a traditional scouting background, or they played,” said Eddie Epstein to Rob Neyer in a 2002 interview.  Epstein worked as an analyst for the Baltimore Orioles and San Diego Padres in the 1990s.  “And they’re of the mind-set that you can’t know anything about the game unless you played. They think the game isn’t measurable … In baseball, all the trees think they know what the forest looks like.”

This August, Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips got into a heated exchange with Cincinnati Enquirer reporter C. Trent Rosecrans after Rosecrans posted criticized Phillips’ low on-base percentage on his Twitter account.

Rosecrans pointed out that Reds manager Dusty Baker made a bad move putting Phillips in the second spot in the batting order because his on-base percentage was only .310.  In The Book, Tango’s research showed that teams score more runs when players with high on-base percentages hit at the top of the lineup.

Phillips took offense to Rosecrans’ criticism and went on a profanity-laced tirade which was captured on video.  The sabermetrics crowd heard of the incident and saw that Rosecrans was right to criticize the move, and Phillips and Baker were in the wrong.  Traditionalists pointed to Phillips’ RBI total and other old school ways of thinking about lineup construction as why Rosecrans was wrong – even though the research shows he was right.

“Some players that aren’t as valued by sabermetric writers as much, I think there’s an incentive personally for them to not go too deep into the sabermetric stats to evaluate their own performance,” Pomrenke said.

“This has really always been kind of an outsiders’ thing,” he continued.  “It takes so much energy and focus to perform as well as they do on the field, that all this stuff is more for fans, and the front office, and the media.  This is for us to debate, and not for the players themselves.”

Of course, that doesn’t stop players like Phillips, Rays pitcher David Price or even Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz from publicly criticizing sabermetrics.

“You know, I think the computer is [expletive] up this game a lot,” Ortiz said to Yahoo! Sports columnist Jeff Passan before the 2013 season started.

What Ortiz ignored was that those computers are part of the reason he is still going strong.  After the 2002 season, the Minnesota Twins – Ortiz’s original organization – gave up on him, and James and the Red Sox saved his career and scooped him up, because their analysis showed that he could be a good player if given the chance.

Eleven years, three World Series rings and 373 home runs later, the computers have turned out to be right.

The computers have been right about many other players, like Rays second baseman/outfielder Ben Zobrist.  Zobrist is the kind of player who is not great at any one facet of the game, but is good at just about everything.

“We tend to seek out dominance or greatness, and it’s very hard to evaluate all-around skill and talent,” Pomrenke said.  “Guys like [Zobrist] are underappreciated.  If a guy does one thing well … we all recognize that, but someone who is good at a lot of things has historically been underappreciated.”

He continued that sabermetrics helps bring these players the recognition that they deserve.  Players like Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim v Oakland AthleticsOver the past two seasons, Trout has finished second in the American League’s Most Valuable Player award voting without putting up overwhelming stats in any traditional stat category.  But since Trout is so good at so many different things – and especially proficient at getting on base – he has finished with more than 10 Wins Above Replacement each season.

To put that into perspective, there have only been 43 seasons where a hitter has accumulated 10 WAR since 1920.  The only players to do it more than once are Babe Ruth, Barry Bonds, Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams, Rogers Hornsby, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Trout.  But since Trout did it without the aid of a spectacularly high batting average or home run or RBI total, his excellence may have gone unnoticed if not for sabermetrics.

The old school way of thinking has allowed Miguel Cabrera – with his superior traditional numbers – to win the MVP both years despite WAR saying that he has been less valuable than Trout.

So as they gain a more significant foothold, sabermetricians continue to get the word out and convince people to change their thinking.

“I don’t think that sabermetrics really needs to fight that fight, because the fight is over and sabermetrics has won,” Pomrenke said, not seeing a reason to argue with people who insist that sabermetrics don’t work.

“It is pretty easy to demonstrate that [the notion that sabermetrics doesn’t work] is untrue,” James said. “Our boys have kind of taken care of that for me.  We have three World Series rings.  We don’t have to explain nothin’.”

Tango colorfully echoed James’ sentiment.

“If someone studies the results of the research, and then provides criticism of the methodology, assumptions, data and underlying basis of the research, then I can have a conversation with that person,” he said.  “Otherwise, providing a summary opinion with no evidence is tantamount to bulls**t.  It’s the very definition of bulls**t.  And I’m not interested in debating bulls**t.”

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Joe Vasile is the voice of the Fayetteville (NC) SwampDogs.  Follow him on twitter at @JoeVasilePBP.

41 comments for “Sabermetrics: Past, Present & Future

  1. Chris F
    December 16, 2013 at 10:51 am

    Part of the equation for evaluation to be sure. The answer to everything? Not a chance.

    • Joe Vasile
      December 16, 2013 at 10:17 pm

      Sure…even the Athletics have a mix of scouts and stats that they use to make their decisions.

  2. Metsense
    December 16, 2013 at 11:09 am

    As a Met fan of 50 years I have embraced (but don’t fully understand the nuances) of sabermetrics.
    I especially enjoy the corelation between the players metrics and the cost of their contract.
    An example that is familiar is the recent release of Justin Turner. Turner’s OPS has been higher than 25% of the starting second baseman in the NL (but still slightly below NL average) in each of the past three years.He was cheap even with arbitration, and yet the Mets cut him because he couldn’t even be traded for a second level minor league player. Isn’t this the value most teams, especially teams needing a second baseman, would jump at as a stop gap measure?
    Joe, thoroughly enjoyed the article. Any new sabermetric books I should put on my Christmas wishlist?

    • Joe Vasile
      December 16, 2013 at 10:16 pm

      If you haven’t read “The Book” yet, I highly recommend it. I’m working my way through it now, and it’s really quite good.

  3. Jerry Grote
    December 16, 2013 at 11:49 am

    I live in a world where competitive advantages exist in month time-frames, and regressions to the mean happen in milliseconds. What we are seeing today is not that teams all have sabermetricians, but that they each use a unique methodology … one that is not shared with the general public.

    It is no longer the use of advanced statistics in the makeup of teams that will drive competitive advantages; teams where the manager (as Joe points out with the Rays) and complete coaching staff swallows the doctrine of the team. I think the ability to define value out of statistics is slowly winnowing, and the organizations that can implement system wide effectively doctrine will continue to have the competitive advantage.

    Its why I find what goes on at Citifield to be so completely stunning. We have basically the first GM to implement the study into roster construction, working with Terry Collins. OK, TC is no Art Howe, but he’s not exactly Joe Maddon either.

    I mean, look at the signing of Bartolo Colon. Here’s a guy that for all the world right now, today, could be Montero or any one of a number of guys in our organization. That’s the modus operandi of SA – acquire guys that throw nothing but strikes.

    How things work in Queens: Carlos Torres walked 1.8 innings per 9, and he got 86 innings of work. Outside of Matt Harvey, do you know how many innings were given to players with better numbers than Carlos? 97. To Meija, and Hawkins. One of them is gone, the other is injured.

    It boggles my mind that Collins got resigned.

  4. Chris F
    December 16, 2013 at 12:45 pm

    A logical (not necessarily sabremetric) assessment of the Collins situation gets exactly to where you are JG. Unfortunately, the Collins re-hire is related to being a blind “yes-man” to Alderson. People like Francona or Hurdle simply wouldnt just be the mouth piece for the FO.

    The rehire of Collins and crew casts major aspersions on the quality of Alderson’s achievements IMO.

  5. December 16, 2013 at 2:23 pm

    Joe, I enjoyed this – especially the last paragraph.

    • Joe Vasile
      December 16, 2013 at 10:23 pm

      Thanks Brian! When Tango gave me that, I knew immediately that that was what the piece had to end with.

  6. Sean Flattery
    December 16, 2013 at 5:40 pm

    Many of the sabermetrics have validity. However, I think WAR is an absolute fantasy. My question would be: If your telling me someone has a 2.1 WAR, What exactly are you telling me?? The answers I’ve gotten from that question have yet to make sense.

    The debate is valid, but the layered methodolgies and data that go into many of the new stats are too ambitious for their own good. Just my opinion.

    • December 16, 2013 at 6:07 pm

      I’m telling you that player is 21 runs better than a replacement player.

      • Name
        December 16, 2013 at 6:47 pm

        I actually did a regression study on fWAR compared to team wins.
        I found that the point estimate of WAR to a team win was pretty close 1, which means that a player who has 2.1 WAR increased the team’s win total 2.1 wins. However, the standard errors were relativity high so that using WAR to predict a team’s final win total for a season was very unreliable. One explanation i came up with was the fWAR tries to normalize all luck elements and so needs a long sample size to be accurate, or what i called “approach-based”. On the other hand, bWAR is more of a “results-based” metric, putting more emphasis on what actually occurred and not trying to normalize luck.

        So my overall opinion is that WAR is the “best”(but best does not always equal good) that we have so far in trying to determine a player’s total contributions to his team and is useful for comparing players to an extent, but its applications beyond that seem to be limited at the moment and we should be wary of other values that depend on WAR, especially the overuse of costing a contract using WAR/dollars spent.

      • Sean Flattery
        December 16, 2013 at 10:04 pm

        But is that true??? And who is this hypothetical replacement player?? And why do 10 runs equate to a win? Inquiring minds want to know,haha

        • Joe Vasile
          December 16, 2013 at 10:22 pm

          What is a replacement level player: http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/unifying-replacement-level/

          Why do 10 runs equate to a win (caution- Math): http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=342

          • Sean Flattery
            December 16, 2013 at 10:53 pm

            Thanks Joe. I’ve actually read one of them before. Sorry, there’s just too many flaws in those formulas for me. I mean the Pythagorean formula lops all the games together as equal, that’s a biggie. Statistics can reveal many things, but attaching a team win number correlating with individual statistics(only certain ones)is a huge reach, and inaccurate….I do like alot of the other statistics tho, they delve deeper into the numbers. WAR is fantasy.

            Also, sabermetrics had absolutely nothing to do with the Curse of the Bambino ending. Could Pomerenke be more arrogant with delusions of grandure!!

            And sorry Joe, you just can’t say “This team won because they used statistical analysis”..That’s opinion, not fact. Many will argue other factors leading to Red Sox and Tampa Bay’s success…obviously!

            Billy Beane saves his owner alot of money too. He’s made way too many clunker trades to count…The last two years, thankfully for him, has redeemed him from alot of miscalculating of talent.

            • Joe Vasile
              December 17, 2013 at 12:43 am

              I was one who said the thing about sabermetrics helping to end the Curse of the Bambino, not Pomrenke. James, Tango, and Pomrenke were all very humble actually, and down to earth. The full quote at the end from Pomrenke at the end was said in the context of sabermetrics has won because all teams in baseball use them, so clearly they have merit. There was nothing arrogant about the guy.

              I put that line in there about the Bambino because it was the Theo Epstein/Bill James buying spree from 2002-2004 that won the Red Sox a championship. I was careful not to give it full credit, because that would’ve been foolish, which is why I said it helped to, not it did.

              I have no problem with your first point, or your last two, because they are legitimate arguments, but please don’t get arrogance from anyone that I interviewed, because I was kinda surprised actually, that I didn’t encounter any of that.

              • Sean Flattery
                December 17, 2013 at 4:10 pm

                I was only referring to the quote “We have three World Series rings, we don’t have to explain nothing” quote seemed arrogant. And James actually said that. I guess its more enthusiasm from a job well done, than arrogance tho. So I’ll retract that statement.

                Its a great article, and does show how statistical analysis has progressed. My opinion is that it de-values the human element(instincts, situational hitting, etc.) It implies watching the games and scouting aren’t relevant, which irks me alittle.

                Allen Craig had a 2.2 WAR last year and he batted an astounding .454 BA with RISP with 97 RBI. If this isn’t a reflection of a flaw, I don’t know what is.

                • Joe Vasile
                  December 17, 2013 at 4:30 pm

                  When I interviewed him it was shortly after the Sox had just won, so he was still riding high from that I assume.

                • December 17, 2013 at 4:41 pm

                  I’m confused where you think the flaw is.

                • Sean Flattery
                  December 17, 2013 at 5:10 pm

                  Well, as I was made aware, 2.2 WAR means that Craig’s Replacement(An amalgam of AAA player) will account for only 22 runs less then him hence 2.2 Wins less?? That can not be accurate?? So Lagares with his 3.7 WAR would be more productive?

                • December 17, 2013 at 8:51 pm

                  When you look at players you want to give credit for what’s real, what’s skill and not give (as much) credit for what is luck. That Craig hit so well with RISP is not something that’s likely to repeat itself in future years. It was wonderful for the Cardinals in 2013. But when they’re putting together their 2014 team, they’re not thinking – “We can count on Craig to hit better than Ted Williams with RISP!”

                  It’s all in what you want to measure. Craig took advantage of his opportunities and that shouldn’t be trivialized. But at the same time we should recognize that while when his hits came in 2013 was very valuable – that doesn’t mean he possess some super clutch ability to do similarly on a year-in, year-out basis.

                  If Mike Trout plays a full season, I’ll wager any amount of money that he’s going to play at a star level. If he plays 150 games, he’s going to post at least a 5.0 fWAR. Only 23 hitters reached that level in 2013.

                  Meanwhile, I wouldn’t wager anything on what Craig would hit with RISP. Last year the #23 hitter (minimum 100 PA w/RISP) had a .368 BABIP. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if Craig hit .368 with RISP in 2014. And it wouldn’t surprise me if he hit .268 or .200, either.

                  Craig had a .474 BABIP in those situations last year. The NL average BABIP with RISP is .294

                  If we check the top 20 people with the highest BABIP with RISP in 2013 and compare it to the same list in 2010, there’s not one person that appears on both lists. One of the guys on the 2013 list is Pete Kozma, the one guy the Cardinals felt they absolutely needed to upgrade for next season, so they went out and got Peralta.

                  Funny enough, Peralta had one of the best BABIPs with RISP last year with a .403 mark. The year before he had a .252 BABIP in the same split. Lifetime he has a .319 BABIP with RISP, which tracks pretty well with his overall .315 BABIP.

                  Meanwhile, using the top 20 fWAR in 2010 and 2013 we see Longoria, Votto, Cano, Cabrera, Choo and Tulowitzki as repeaters on both lists.

                • Sean Flattery
                  December 18, 2013 at 12:20 pm

                  Fair points..I just don’t like the term WINS in there. If they used a different term, like Value over Replacement, I might be more on board.

    • Eric R
      December 17, 2013 at 3:57 pm

      “Many of the sabermetrics have validity. However, I think WAR is an absolute fantasy. My question would be: If your telling me someone has a 2.1 WAR, What exactly are you telling me?? The answers I’ve gotten from that question have yet to make sense.”

      A .300 batting average means that you get a hit 30% of the time, excluding when you draw a walk, get hit by a pitch, sacrifice or reach on error. What does that mean in regards to your team winning or losing? How much better is that .300 hitter than a .280 hitter, big picture?

      No way to know, because:
      (1) AVG doesn’t tell you if the players hits for power or not.
      (2) AVG gives no value for drawing walks. A walk is clearly worse than an extra base hit and sometimes worse than a single, but always better than an out [or multiple outs, GIDP/GITP]
      (3) AVG doesn’t tell you if the player is a good fielder or a bad fielder, or if you are talking about a high or low offense position
      (4) AVG doesn’t tell you anything about the players skills once they reach base
      (5) AVG doesn’t tell you anything about the offensive environment [park, league]

      Pretty much any argument against advanced stats is an argument against all stats, since they all share the same flaws [and some, like AVG, have many, many more].

      • Sean Flattery
        December 17, 2013 at 5:29 pm

        I understand your point, I do! And I agree, an individual’s AVG cannot reflect a team’s wins or losses either. Pro and anti metrics aside.Speaking only of the case of Allen Craig, his .454 BARISP with 83 of 97 RBIS in those situations is a stat that screams Optimal Run Production. Does it not? You’d rather have Gerardo Parra with his 6.1 WAR because he can go get it in the OF? C’mon! By attaching 2.2 WAR to a batter who contributed in those all important situations that lead to wins,where most fail, devalues his accomplishments. Just the way I see it

        • Name
          December 17, 2013 at 10:04 pm

          Craig is a damn fine hitter, probably top 50 in baseball, but WAR is an all-encompassing stat which includes defense and base running. Fangraphs has his Baserunning at -5.9, 3rd worst among qualified players. To put that into perspective, the fatty Fielder had a higher baserunning value at -5.3, over a greater amount of games too. Likewise, his fielding is also pretty terrible coming at at 104/140.
          He can swing a stick very well, and that’s about it… hence his low WAR value.

          • Sean Flattery
            December 18, 2013 at 12:17 pm

            I get it, just don’t agree with it. Mainly, due to overvaluing baserunning and defense. It’s important, but doesn’t change games as much as productive hitting. I just hate placing Wins with individuals. Don’t like the Win stat with pitchers. I actually hate it more when they associate Wins with QBs in the NFL….but thats a different discussion.

  7. December 17, 2013 at 5:41 am

    Great post- really enjoyed it. Just a little caution, though. I think there are a couple of unnecessary overstatements. I find that both sides in the Sabermetric discussion- the traditionalists and the advanced Stat guys both make this error of overstating their case. For instance- To say that the Sox scooped up Ortiz and “saved his career” is a bit of a reach. The guy had something like a 270/350/820 slashline over almost 5 seasons with the Twins- Not exactly shabby. And while the Sox did indeeed “scoop him up” they didn’t really understand what they had with Ortiz, either. He was backing up the great Jeremy Giambi until June 1, when that noted Baseball sage and Sabermetric Oracle, Grady Little, put him in the lineup as the permanent starter.

    • John Measor
      December 18, 2013 at 4:04 pm

      A good catch by Raff… this is a really good article for its concision Joe – congratulations on that; it could well serve as a primer to those not steeped in the last few decades of the march of the quants on the baseball diamond (not there yet! the HOF and many broadcast booths remain bastions of opposition, for different reasons).

      The two things I would note:

      - it would be interesting to discuss the Ortiz decision by the Twins in context rather than rely on memories; either by asking decision-makers (Terry Ryan no?) from that Twins front office or even checking contemporaneous newspaper records (pre-Internets!). I think the idea that the Twins made a mistake is hardly controversial, who would argue against it? However, we shouldn’t make the assumption that the mistake was made through entirely faulty logic. The Twins afaik could well have made the decision based on the cost that Ortiz would become in the arbitration process, rather than simply throwing his talents away for nothing – as they in effect ended up doing. The Red Sox made the correct assessment; Ortiz had talents beyond what the Twins saw and were willing to pay for. That ‘willing to pay for’ is equally important to ‘talent(s)’ that went unseen IMO.

      This is a flaw in the overall ‘stats’ vs. ‘traditionalists’ framing of the narrative. Moneyball laid bare that its the use of statistics and models to assess where value can be found – so not just numbers of any one type, but rather *seeing* what others were not seeing, attaching a value to that, and making decisions and acquisitions accordingly. Clearly, the Red Sox made the correct assessment, but I doubt they could honestly tell you that they projected Ortiz to become the borderline HOFer that he became when they picked him up.

      So, perhaps the Twins weren’t [completely] stupid – they might have thought “Ortiz is a good hitter, but can only DH and we’re not willing to pay what he’ll command for a bat-only player”. Wrong decision, but at least they had a logic that is defensible – because then the question becomes ‘could we have projected Ortiz’s future production and valued it accordingly?’ NOW sabrmetrics can shine on through (!) for the value it added to traditional scouting in making an assessment of Ortiz and his future.

      This leads me to my second (minor) critique of the framing above … people are making these assessments, not machines. The computer, the algorithm, the mathematics, don’t make decisions – the GMs and front offices do. Credit where credit is do, not just to adopt analytics and sabrmetrics, but to continually adjust and adapt and be able to translate that ever-shifting knowledge to current decisions and the physical rosters of MLB clubs. Tom Tango (http://www.tangotiger.com/index.php) continually frames this quite well, and as many above I would highly recommend “The Book” (now out in ebook form!!) – no decision is *always* wrong in isolation. Similarly, no player is without merit; Joe Maddon’s true strength lies in his ability to see strengths in players and play them to that strength … he’s repeatedly stated that its about accepting players for who they are rather than wishing they were all like Willie Mays. On that note, as with Tango’s “The Book” I’d also recommend Jonah Keri’s (http://jonahkeri.com/) “The Extra 2%”.

      Thanks again for the concise and well sourced article …

      • Joe Vasile
        December 18, 2013 at 4:37 pm

        Thanks for your kind words. I do recognize that the Ortiz situation was a bit of an oversimplification by me, and since multiple people have brought it up, I might as well just explain myself.

        This piece was written by me as a final feature for a journalism class I had this semester. I wrote this piece with the intended audience being my professor, who knows very little about baseball, and probably almost nothing about sabermetrics, so I put some things in with that in mind (the Branch Rickey-Jackie Robinson line) and simplified other things. My first draft came in at about 3,300 words, and this final published version is ~2700, so I cut a bunch of things out as well, one of which being a few lines from the Ortiz section which would have addressed some of those concerns.

        As far as the way the narrative is framed, that was another product of me writing this for my professor, and not necessarily a baseball audience. The assignment was to craft a long-form narrative feature, so I needed to find a way to frame this in a way that I thought that she would like and find easy to follow.

        I also didn’t end up rewriting this piece for publication here. This is word for word what I handed in. If I would have anticipated this blowing up the way that it has, I probably would have retooled it a little bit for more of a baseball audience.

        Your criticisms are right on, and like I said earlier, I really appreciate all the kind words from you and everyone else.

  8. Old Dude
    December 17, 2013 at 11:46 am

    How did the Phillies do so well in 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 against all those teams using sabermetrics? Cincinnati gets into the playoffs and you decide they can’t win it all because they don’t use sabermetrics? The A’s use it and they can’t get to the World Series either. Alderson’s been in New York for 4 years and they haven’t improved. Talent will win out whatever method you use to evaluate it.

    • Joe Vasile
      December 17, 2013 at 3:28 pm

      Pat Gillick built those teams. Amaro has dismantled them.

  9. Patrick Albanesius
    December 17, 2013 at 1:39 pm

    Wonderful article. I haven’t been a huge sabermetrics fan, but I certainly understand its use and importance in today’s game. It’s sort of like communism. In theory it works perfectly. Then you add people, and it gets a little screwy.

  10. Dan
    December 17, 2013 at 7:36 pm

    This article is enjoyable, thank you for posting it.

    “And they’re of the mind-set that you can’t know anything about the game unless you played.”

    There are former Division 1AA athletes turned sports radio hosts thank think you can’t know anything about the game (that they played) unless you played.

  11. Travis Bickle
    December 18, 2013 at 9:34 am

    While the saber stats do hold value, this article wants us to think they are the answer to everything. The writer presents a completely biased case. Counter thoughts he fails to address: The moneyball A`s won because of pitching as did those Red Sox teams. Few casual fans even know what wOBA is. David Ortiz most likely became great thru his use of PED`S after joining the Red Sox. Not because the Sox knew he was a diamond in the ruff. Mike Trout although very very good, can`t be most valuable when his team is a loser. MVP awards are usually awarded to the player on a winning team who is most valuable piece of the team. No one cares how valuable you are to losing. And ask anyone in the game who is more feared Trout or Cabrerra and the answer is Miggy 99 out of 100 times. It`s great that the Saber stats have added to the game but to pretend they rule everything as if other factors don`t exist is a disservice to the reader.

    • Name
      December 18, 2013 at 11:12 am

      Ask any pitcher if they want Trout or Cabrera on the field behind them and the answer is Trout 101 of of 100 times. Ask any pitcher if they want Trout or Cabrera on the basepaths and the answer is 102 times. You are completely ignoring 2 aspects of the game; it isn’t solely about what you can do at the plate.

      “MVP awards are usually awarded to the player on a winning team who is most valuable piece of the team.”
      This is the old-school sentiment and in my opinion, completely wrong. For the most part, you can only control what you do and you can’t control the people around you. Why should you be penalized or credited for that matter for what you teammates can and can’t do?
      Here’s an example that you might be able to relate to:
      There are two classes taking the same exact test In one class, the students test scores are 10,15,20,25,100. The second class’s test scores are 80,80,80,80,90. The average of the first class is 34 while the average of the second class is 82. Who should deserve to be named the smartest student? Under you old school thinking, it should be the student that gets the 90 in the 2nd class. That seems ridiculous to me; you should evaluate each person individually and the person who gets the 100 should be named the smartest student, even though his class is not as smart as class 2.

      • Sean Flattery
        December 18, 2013 at 12:14 pm

        Your analogy only works if you place equal value on everything. Do you really think baserunning and plate performance should be equal value?

        • Name
          December 18, 2013 at 2:35 pm

          I don’t, and i don’t think we have a good formula for putting weights on those but you can’t ignore that the other dimensions to the game not named batting. I think most people would agree that hitting is first, following by defense and baserunning.

      • NormE
        December 18, 2013 at 4:33 pm

        The one problem I have with your point is that the Trout-Cabrera issue has to do with MVP, not best ballplayer. Yes, most would agree that Trout is the better all-around player, but the vote for MVP changes the parameters. Until they change the name of the award, or the definition of mvp, the argument will always be between who is “best” and who is “most valuable.”. Travis makes the traditional argument that most valuable means that you helped the team win. It is rare that an MVP came from a losing team.

        • Joe Vasile
          December 18, 2013 at 5:10 pm

          Isn’t the best player also the most valuable by definition. The best player provides his team with more value than any other player. Who is the better hitter? Cabrera. Who is the better and more valuable player? Trout. It’s not Trout’s fault that the team around him stinks. Nor is it Cabrera’s that he has a really good team around him.

          • NormE
            December 18, 2013 at 5:40 pm

            If I may not quite accurately quote Branch Rickey: “We finished last with you Mr. Kiner, we can finish last without you.”

            Joe, I’m not necessarily disagreeing with you, but the history of MVP voting has usually been along the more traditional winning team over losing team lines. It probably would be accurate to state that the baseball writers who do the voting have usually been unfriendly/uneducated about the use of sabremetrics. Perhaps they should read your very fine narrative above.

  12. Brian Savadge
    December 23, 2013 at 3:30 pm

    Joe, one other poster commented on the Ortiz/Bill James stuff but I will add to it by re-writing what you wrote …and then some…

    “James and the Red Sox saved his career and scooped him up, because their analysis showed that he could be a good player if given the chance.” Correction —if given PED’s!

    More on Ortiz– “Eleven years, three World Series rings and 373 home runs later, the computers have turned out to be right.” Correction —the PED’s turned out to work!

    As to James bragging about HIS part of Red Sox 3 rings– and journalist like you crediting him with those successes…(where Ramirez, Ortiz and PED’s it could be said were AS responsible) — how come James went dead silent and nobody wrote about HIS role and HIS sabermetric genius when they had their epic collapses and or were in last place under KING JAMES sabermetric magic wand? He got a FREE pass and keeps getting them when the SOX suck!

    That “Wins and losses” door swings both ways with sabermetrics–if you are going to take (in your case give) credit for winning — then the saberist community should man-up for all the teams with losing records out there with Sabermetricians in their front offices.

    On that perfectly placed segue– Wasn’t Mr. Tango the answer for the Mariners woes? Wasn’t he suppose to bring WINNING to Seattle and after 4 years HIS sabermetric mind did what for the Mariners? Ans: ZIPPO! They stunk when he got there and stunk as much if not more in his time.

    Oh and how did his sabermetric genius play out in Chicago with the cubs? We casual fans keep hearing (from journalist) how he is some saberist savior while the reality is he has never been associated with a winning baseball franchise he has worked for!

    His genius lies in writing books filled with mathematical “what ifs” that sell yet he has failed to sell his saberist genius as a working methodology in the REAL world of front office baseball. Leaving his Seattle fans and now Cubs fans to say “as if” this guys sabermetric systems were our answer and “what if” his system really does stink?

    Joe you and your ilk need to write more about “those teams” and times where even the biggest brains in the sabermetric community have failed to make winners in the game “played on the field” not on some saberist simulator… you know (maybe you don’t) that game played between the lines called baseball.

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