April 5, 2004
You Could Look It Up
In 1937, George and Ira Gershwin wrote a song for the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers picture Shall We Dance that was an instant classic satire of the human need to scoff at the merest hint of progress:
They all laughed at Christopher Columbus
They all laughed at Rockefeller Center
Just as Terry Cashman rewrote the lyrics of "Talkin' Baseball: Willie, Mickey, and the Duke" for just about every franchise in the game (right down to the Rangers version, "Talkin' Baseball: Buddy, Sunny, and the Scoop"--my cat's favorite version because he loves Texas and a clean litter box), there should be an edition of the Gershwin song for baseball, one of the most reactionary of institutions. As a culture, as an institution, from the inside of the commissioner's office to the lowliest beat writer, baseball fears change and always has. "Fear springs always," said Ralph Waldo Emerson, "from ignorance." Actually, fear sometimes springs from being chased by an enraged grizzly bear, but in general Emerson's point stands.
Night baseball was a travesty. "High-class baseball cannot be played under artificial lights," said ossified Senators owner Clark Griffith in the 1930s. The farm system was "raping the minors." Radio broadcasts were thought to be a threat to attendance, so the American League banned them for a while, and even after the league relented, the three New York City teams actually signed a five-year ban. Integration would not work for a million and a half reasons too disgusting to relate here--the most repulsive of them, probably also the most seductive to the pasty white magnates of the 1940s, was Yankees front man Larry MacPhail's formulation that African-American stars would equal more African-Americans in the stands which would cause fewer Caucasians to come to the games which would mean decreasing franchise values.
The list goes on: The Pacific Coast League had to evolve into a de facto major league before there was a franchise west of the Mississippi. Free agency would destroy the game. "Without a reserve system," former commissioner Bowie Kuhn wrote in his autobiography, "our vast array of minor leagues would hardly survive… It was not hard to imagine that we could even lose a major league."
Nowhere has the baseball establishment's ostrich-like qualities been more evident than in the continued reaction to the now year-old book Moneyball, Michael Lewis' look at the operations of the Oakland A's front office under the management of Billy Beane. The reception to the book has at times been downright bizarre, including the confused dismissals like those of ESPN's Joe Morgan, who repeatedly insisted that Billy Beane should not have written a book extolling his own genius despite the fact Beane was neither the book's author nor its instigator. Beane cannot be found within its pages cackling like Lex Luthor about how he's smarter than the entire Detroit Tigers organization put together and Dusty Baker too. Yet as recently as this February, a columnist with the Long Beach Press-Telegram perpetuated the myth, writing: "Oakland's Billy Beane has done a terrific job with modest funds with the A's, but he's also a shameless self-promoter who wrote a book about his imagined genius and is despised by scouts around baseball."
Many of those critics who actually read the book--or seem to have read it--have frothed as if they were members of some baseball version of HUAC circa 1950. The book has given birth to a retrograde, reactionary movement, all of it provoked by its important but less than revolutionary point: In a money-scarce environment, a business must maximize its chances. A good way to do this is to improve your intelligence-gathering operation, then start looking for opportunities the well-heeled operations might have missed.
Moneyball is not Thomas Paine's Common Sense, inciting a people to rebellion. It isn't Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin or Charles Darwin's Origin of Species; yet we have our own counterrevolution promoted by the establishment. Recent favorites: In mid-March, New York Times columnist Selena Roberts hacked and mocked her way through a piece on Beane and Moneyball, including this car accident of a paragraph:
At 42, Beane didn't invent sabermetrics, a sci-fi word formed from S.A.B.R., the Society of American Baseball Research [sic] (a k a The No-Life Institute). But with its philosophy filtered through his Ivy League predecessor in Oakland, Sandy Alderson, Beane applies the tenets of numeric efficiency found in the stapled baseball abstracts of the 70's fringe writer Bill James.
We'll skip the enumeration of the flaws in the above--"fringe writer" James has sold an awful lot of books, for one--and move right to the easy anti-intellectualism of that "No-Life Institute" crack. Think back to grade school. What's the first thing the dumb kids say to the smart kids to belittle them? They call them geeks, nerds, freaks. Anti-intellectualism is the last P.C. prejudice--certainly the Times would not allow one of its writers to refer to "The Urban League (aka The No-Whites Institute)"--and it's an easy way of mocking an idea without really addressing it.
ESPN.com's Rob Neyer pointed out another example just a few days ago, a St. Louis columnist who appealed to the sentimentalists among us to pity the now-endangered scouts, as if they were some tribe of pygmies being relocated to make way for a new Wal-Mart:
But this awkward adaptation to "Moneyball" is foolishly compromising these men and dissolving this time-honored culture. The new trend in baseball is to trim scouting staff while making room for the technical operatives. That is cause for alarm.
When said columnist responded to Neyer, he suggested that Neyer put away the "Beane/Bill James badge" and, rising to a crescendo of bad taste, thanked Neyer for "all the e-mail from the stats Nazis."
Finally, there is this passage from a Publisher's Weekly article from last week, in which a book editor hyped his new offering on the New York Mets with an allusion to the sabermetric/Moneyball culture:
The '86 Mets are arguably the last of the great hell-raisers. They stand as a rambunctious reminder that baseball was a lot more fun before the SABR-metrics [sic] freaks took over.
We're back on the playground.
3: ANY SUFFICIENTLY ADVANCED TECHNOLOGY IS INDISTINGUISHABLE FROM MAGIC.
"Sabermetrics" applies to a wide area of study, a good deal of which has nothing to do with Billy Beane and Moneyball. Some of the hostility the book has received is due to misreading; if not read closely it can easily be misconstrued as a Beane hagiography. The source for the anti-intellectual sentiment cited above is harder to pin down, but is ultimately traceable to a knee-jerk reaction by the mainstream baseball press to being deprived of their "expertise" by the smartypants sabermetricians. Despite years of following the game, they were being told, in effect, that they didn't know enough, or that what they knew--about RBI, stolen bases, about the very qualities that made good ballplayers--was just plain wrong.
Feeling threatened, they struck back. Tragically, the counterrevolution is based on a misunderstanding. The A's' focus on on-base percentage is entirely compatible with old-school subjective observation. Each method of inquiry informs the other, providing team decision-makers with a more complete picture of a player. Statistics are an objective record of a ballplayer's performances. Interpreted adroitly, statistics can provide an informative, sight-unseen picture of a player; a young pitcher's strikeout rate, for instance, is a powerful indicator of his future prospects. There is a great deal, though, that numbers cannot tell you, which is where subjective, first-hand observation comes in.
Numbers may tell you that a pitcher had a 1.50 ERA last year, but they don't tell you that he throws across his body, his neck may snap with every pitch, he's aroused by underage livestock, his personal habits are so bad that like the colonial terrorist Nathaniel Bacon he may be devoured from within by his own body lice, and whenever a runner reaches third his he loses control of his curve and his bladder. You need an experienced scout to tell you that, and you always will.
Moneyball gives the 2002 amateur draft as an example of these two forms of analysis in conflict, but in reality their complementary relationship goes back to the beginning of time. Due to an ill-timed injury in 1934, some scouts advised their teams to take a pass on Joe DiMaggio. Here were the two competing inputs teams faced when the Clipper was a 20-year-old with the San Francisco Seals:
Performance analysis: "He's hitting .350 with a ton of doubles and homers."
That's where the discussion ended for a lot of teams, but the Yankees continued the conversation.
Performance analysis: "Yeah, but even with the bad knee he's hitting like crazy. There must be more to this story. Go get a second opinion."
Statistics are a tool, not unlike a microscope. Statistics are a hammer, a speculum, a thermometer. A statistics-based approach to understanding of baseball is one of many paths to knowledge of the game. Calling those who take that path "freaks" or "Nazis" makes as much sense as calling a Ph.D. chemist a wimp because he tests the qualities of his cyanide compound by means of Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy rather than just drinking the thing.
4: LIES, DAMNED LIES, WITHOUT STATISTICS
Unfortunately, the reaction has put many baseball writers in the untenable position of denying facts that are probably true. The vastly overstated Beane/Moneyball/sabermetric bias against scouting is a red herring, as is the macho derision of sabermetricians. The truth is, while statistics provide the evidence for most of the new theories of the game, most of the ideas advocated by the so-called statheads can be explained by plain old common sense. Over in the Pinstriped Bible about a year and a half ago, I attempted to summarize what I had learned in 20 years of following baseball in the form of 19 "commandments." Let's revisit a few of those now and see if we can justify them in the most simplistic way possible, without resorting to "freaky" sabermetric weirdness--that is, no "advanced" stats, no math, which I can't do anyway:
It's how often a player reaches base that's important, not batting average, not RBI.
Remember league and position averages: numbers have meaning only in context.
RBI are opportunistic; RBI are a team stat and are not indicative of a player's ability.
The next year, Mattingly was even better, improving his numbers to .352/.394/.573. Oddly, he drove in 32 fewer runs. The problem was Henderson, who saw his OBP drop to .358 in 1986, meaning he was on base less often. Better Mattingly + Worse Henderson = fewer RBI opportunities for Mattingly. If RBI were an expression of a player's ability, we should hold the shortfall against Mattingly despite his being better than the year before. That doesn't make much sense.
Stolen bases don't matter all that much.
Then there's the home-run era that we've been living in more or less continuously since 1920. Say your team has a runner on first base in a game at Coors Field. Most often, there is really very little to be gained by having your runner attempt to move up one base, at the possible cost of a caught stealing, when the next hitter has every chance to hit the next pitch out of the ballpark.
If you're playing at Pac Bell, where everyone except Barry Bonds has trouble hitting for power, then the stolen base becomes more valuable--but that's what pinch-runners are for.
The main function of the batting order is to distribute plate appearances.
A strikeout is just another out.
Placing good bats on the right side of the defensive spectrum is one of the keys to winning.
The 27 outs of a ballgame are precious. Managers should not give them away lightly.
A player's offensive and defensive contributions must be in balance.
The odds are on the closer's side.
5: DON'T SMOKE A HUNGRY TIGER AND OTHER OBVIOUS SURVIVAL TIPS
There's nothing complicated in the passages above. It's simple, common-sense stuff like, "don't have a picnic in a war zone" or "the polar bear at the zoo is not gesturing for you to climb into his cage." This is the great secret of Moneyball and of sabermetrics: Keep your eyes open and see the obvious. When gathering intelligence, shelve your biases, forget your inherited wisdom, and listen without prejudice.
If you can do it with a flashlight, great. If you can do it with the Hubbell space telescope, swell. If you do it with statistics you're going to be mocked, but the ideas are still valid. The cosmic joke of the backlash is that no one has yet attacked sabermetrics on its merits. Those of us who work with performance analysis tools know that we rule the stats, the stats don't rule us. The same cannot be said for our critics.