One 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.
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.”
“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.
Over 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.