CSS Button No Image Css3Menu.com

Baseball Prospectus home
  
  
Click here to log in Click here for forgotten password Click here to subscribe

Happy Labor Day! Regularly Scheduled Articles Will Resume on Tuesday, September 2.

No Previous Article
<< Previous Column
Baseball Prospectus Ba... (02/17)
Next Column >>
Baseball Prospectus Ba... (02/19)
No Next Article

February 18, 2004

Baseball Prospectus Basics

Reshaping the Debate

by Joe Sheehan

The following essay appeared as an introduction to Baseball Prospectus 2000.

"Stathead."
"Stat-drunk computer nerd."
"Rotisserie geek."

You can earn a lot of derision when you look at things in a new way, and the people who have applied statistical tools to evaluate baseball players and teams have heard the above epithets and more. The work of people such as Bill James, Craig Wright and Clay Davenport has often been dismissed as the mind-numbing analysis of people who need to put their slide rules away and get out and watch a game once in a while. Their efforts, which have been dubbed "statistical analysis," have expanded and improved the body of objective baseball knowledge, and their work is even beginning to penetrate the insular world of baseball front offices.

But the term "statistical analysis," as applied to baseball, isn't descriptive enough. Actuaries analyze statistics, and while the work pays well, it is pretty dry stuff. Life-expectancy tables and risk/benefit workups aren't going to get your average Red Sox fan excited, nor should they: baseball fans care about their teams, and the players on them, not a series of numbers.

But baseball statistics are not numbers generated for their own sake. Statistics are a record of performance of players and teams. Period. Benjamin Disraeli's oft-quoted line--"There are three types of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics"--just doesn't apply.

Looking at statistics--looking at the record of player and team performance--helps analysts reach conclusions about players. So when Rany Jazayerli writes that Jose Rosado is one of the 10 best starting pitchers in the American League, that's not an analysis of statistics, that's an analysis of performance. In the same way that a scout watches a player run and decides whether he's fast or slow, analysts look at a player's EQA and determine how good a year he had. That's performance analysis, a more descriptive term for the work we do.

The distinction is critical in moving this type of baseball analysis from an outsider view to the mainstream, so that in the front office of a major-league team it can be as acceptable to look at a player's on-base percentage as to look at a scout's opinion of his foot speed. Organizations need to credit a pitcher for his consistently good Triple-A performance in the same way that they mark him down for his below-average fastball.

Reshaping the debate between traditional baseball people and the analyst community will give a significant push to what is currently a creeping movement. If you look at the success of the New York Yankees of the late 1990s or the 1999 Oakland A's, it's clear that some teams have embraced one of the fundamental tenets of baseball analysis: the importance of on-base percentage in scoring runs. In fact, the A's have become the first organization to emphasize plate discipline in their player-development program.

We have seen the work of Wright and Rany Jazayerli on pitcher usage, particularly young-pitcher usage, start to make inroads within the game. Teams have become increasingly aware of the workloads they put on their best pitching prospects, recognizing relationships between workload and injury and workload and ineffectiveness. Given the significant investments that organizations make in their top talent, this is a prime area in which baseball analysis can make a financial impact as well as an on-field impact.

Performance analysis does not, and should not, exist in a vacuum. First of all, it is important to understand the context of statistics, and the Davenport Translations you see in this book are prima facie evidence of this. The line ".280/.350/.450" is about as informative as a George W. Bush campaign speech. At what level was this performance? How old is the player? In what park and what league does he play? What position?

And once you have all those answers, you still have only half the picture. Every player has a skill set, abilities that make him the player he is. Each player has certain strengths and weaknesses. Skills analysis--the province of scouts, managers and coaches--isn't made obsolete by performance analysis. It's enhanced by it.

Knowing that a 23-year-old right-hander has a live fastball, a middling curve and a change-up he can spot at will is essential. A pitcher's repertoire, a hitter's bat speed, a short-stop's arm...if you're going to develop a complete, accurate picture of any player, you must know these things. But you also want to know if the pitcher has an acceptable strikeout rate, because that's the best predictor of career length. You want to know if the player can drive the ball, as measured by his slugging percentage and isolated power. And if that shortstop is among the league leaders in assists and double plays, it's an excellent indication that he is great at using his arm to get outs. Isn't that what fans and general managers really want to know?

Performance analysis has limitations. Amateur baseball players, with aluminum bats, shorter schedules, and widely variable levels of competition, are best analyzed by their skills. Performance analysis of players in short-season leagues is also unreliable, both because of limited sample sizes and the adjustments that the players, usually new to professional baseball, are making. Given a choice between a scouting report and a Davenport Translation on an 18-year-old with 200 plate appearances in the Gulf Coast League, the scouting report will be a better tool.

Performance analysis paired with skills analysis is how successful teams are going to be built in the 21st century. Good organizations will accept that there's as much to be gained from looking seriously at a player's track record as there is from looking at the scouting reports on him. Successful teams will be built on principles that have developed from performance analysis. Ideas that were radical just 10 years ago will become conventional wisdom, as people like Billy Beane have success, and as other organizations imitate what made the A's successful.

Reshaping the debate continues a cycle that began with Branch Rickey's conclusions about on-base percentage and continued through Bill James's work in popularizing sabermetrics. It provides a means for the baseball mainstream to embrace the concepts of performance analysis while maintaining their established, valuable methods of skills analysis. Eventually there will be no debate, as both will be used routinely in evaluating talent and building baseball teams. A better brand of baseball for everyone will be the ultimate legacy of performance analysis.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

Related Content:  Analysis,  Work,  Managers Of The Year

0 comments have been left for this article.

No Previous Article
<< Previous Column
Baseball Prospectus Ba... (02/17)
Next Column >>
Baseball Prospectus Ba... (02/19)
No Next Article

RECENTLY AT BASEBALL PROSPECTUS
Premium Article What You Need to Know: August 29, 2014
Premium Article Pebble Hunting: This Article Mentions Fehlan...
Premium Article The Prospectus Hit List: Friday, August 29
Premium Article The Call-Up: Dilson Herrera
Premium Article Minor League Update: Games of Thursday, Augu...
Prospectus Feature: Roast A Parks
Premium Article Raising Aces: Mis-Priced

MORE FROM FEBRUARY 18, 2004
Premium Article Can Of Corn: Bulking Up
Prospectus Triple Play: Baltimore Orioles, C...
Premium Article You Could Look It Up: 1984 Part II: The Univ...
Premium Article Team Health Reports: Milwaukee Brewers

MORE BY JOE SHEEHAN
2004-02-24 - Premium Article Prospectus Today: Redbirds in '04?
2004-02-20 - Premium Article Prospectus Today: Sweet Home Chicago?
2004-02-19 - Premium Article Prospectus Today: Diggin' in the Mailbag
2004-02-18 - Baseball Prospectus Basics: Reshaping the De...
2004-02-17 - Premium Article Prospectus Today: Acquiring A-Rod
2004-02-12 - Prospectus Today: Tilt
2004-02-10 - Prospectus Today: Optimism for the O's?
More...

MORE BASEBALL PROSPECTUS BASICS
2004-02-23 - Baseball Prospectus Basics: The Support-Neut...
2004-02-20 - Baseball Prospectus Basics: Statistical Cons...
2004-02-19 - Baseball Prospectus Basics: Measuring Offens...
2004-02-18 - Baseball Prospectus Basics: Reshaping the De...
2004-02-17 - Baseball Prospectus Basics: Introduction
More...

INCOMING ARTICLE LINKS
2004-06-23 - Scouting the Debate