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March 22, 2011

Prospectus Hit and Run

I Don't Wanna Go Down to the Basement

by Jay Jaffe

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As Opening Day approaches, hope springs eternal all around the majors. Some teams' bids at contention are founded upon the presumed maturation of exciting youngsters. Others rest their hopes on their stars' ability to turn back the clock and play as though their time had never passed. You could be forgiven for thinking that the latter was the strategy of the Anti-Sabermetric Brigade, a constellation of writers who insist upon fighting a war that has been fought and largely settled. Yet, signs of their resurgence keep popping up.

Take the San Francisco Chronicle's Bruce Jenkins (please). Buried further down in a recent column in which he dismissed Hollywood's admittedly questionable attempt to adapt Michael Lewis' 2003 book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game to the silver screen, Jenkins invoked the tired stereotypes that Murray Chass and Dan Shaughnessy long ago wore out in lampooning sabermetrics:

It won't be long before we get the first wave of nonsense from stat-crazed dunces claiming there's nothing to be learned from a batting average, won-loss record or RBI total. Listen, just go back to bed, OK? Strip down to those fourth-day undies, head downstairs (to "your mother's basement and your mother's computer," as Chipper Jones so aptly describes it) and churn out some more crap. For more than a century, .220 meant something. So did .278, .301, .350, an 18-4 record, or 118 RBIs. Now it all means nothing because a bunch of nonathletes are trying to reinvent the game?

This celebration of anti-intellectualism comes as the Red Sox enter their ninth year with the decidedly nonathletic Bill James as a key part of their front office. James showed generations of baseball fans how to appreciate life beyond batting average, won-loss records, and RBI totals via his Baseball Abstract series and later works, and since he came on board under the enlightened ownership of John Henry, the Sox have produced the majors' second-best record while reaching the playoffs six times in eight years. This cry of "Nerds!" in a near-empty library comes as the Rays, a team whose payroll is a fraction of those of the AL East's beasts (the size of a bad Yanks or Sox contract, even), have nonetheless won the division twice in the past three years thanks to a savvy front office that includes Wall Street escapees as well as former members of Baseball Prospectus.

More importantly, it comes at a point when quantitative analysis has long since made inroads into virtually every major-league front office, because teams have shown the foresight to hire some of those so-called stat-crazed dunces. The easy availability of advanced statistical data on the internet and the low barriers to entry via self-published blogs have created a new generation of smart baseball minds whose names may not be as well known as James or even BP alum Keith Law (to cite a nearly decade-old example of an analyst who graduated into a front office) but who have already been put to work behind the scenes of a major-league franchise near you.

It's not hard to see why Jenkins so bent out of shape. He's a newspaper columnist at a particular moment when the survival of the medium is threatened due to declining circulations and dwindling ad revenues. Readers have chosen to take their eyeballs elsewhere, maybe because they're tired of killing trees, or maybe because they want somebody to impart some baseball knowledge without relying upon hoary and much-discredited stats, to say nothing of underwear jokes as threadbare as Jenkins'.

It's not baseball that's been reinvented. The game still has its nine innings and 27 outs, though that gosh-darned new-fangled designated hitter—now heading into its 39th season—has compromised its nine-men-a-side elegance. It's publishing that's been reinvented, and so Jenkins rages against the dying of the light with only slightly more dignity than Chass, who now dwells in a medium for which he long ago declared his loathing.

Which isn't to say that it's only newspaper men past and present refocusing their ire on the statheads. Take brothers Sheldon and Alan Hirsch, one a nephrologist, the other a professor of legal studies at Williams University and a sports columnist at FrumForum.com, which is "a site edited by David Frum, dedicated to the modernization and renewal of the Republican party and the conservative movement." It seems a strange platform from which to launch an anti-sabermetrics diatribe, which is what the brothers' The Beauty of Short Hops: How Chance and Circumstance Confound the Moneyball Approach to Baseball purports to be.

It would be intellectually dishonest of me to review Short Hops, since I have not read any of its 212 pages or even held them in my hands. But what won't escape my comment is its marketing approach, which appears designed to bait adherents of sabermetrics as well as those who enjoyed Lewis' polarizing bestseller into shelling out $29.95—no discounts on Amazon, and likely no review copies to be had from McFarland, an academically-focused publisher—for the right to be swayed by the Hirsch brothers' arguments. Take the fanfare with which Alan Hirsch trumpeted his book's arrival via his column:

As we show at length in The Beauty of Short Hops, the basic premise of Moneyball is fallacious. Oakland, which crashed and burned shortly after publication of Moneyball, succeeded primarily because [A's general manager Billy] Beane was fortunate enough to land three terrific starting pitchers. When those three departed, he apparently became a lot less smart.

Just as Moneyball’s central conceit collapses upon scrutiny, ditto many of its specific claims, ranging from the best ways to scout players to the proper statistics for evaluating pitchers. These and many other sabermetric “insights” are demonstrably silly.

More importantly, the saber-obsession with numbers occludes a major aspect of baseball’s beauty – its narrative richness and relentless capacity to surprise. Baseball, thank goodness, transcends and often defies quantitative analysis. Games are decided by bad hops and bad calls, broken bats, sun and wind, pigeons in the outfield, and fans who obstruct players, among other unforeseeable contingencies That may seem obvious (apart from the pigeons), but not to the folks who increasingly run the show. Rather than celebrating baseball’s delightfully spontaneous quality, sabermetricians deny it or rebel against it.

Already we've got enough straw men to fill out a starting rotation. Moneyball was published in the spring of 2003, a point at which the A's were coming off three consecutive playoff berths while averaging 99 wins a year, second only to the Mariners. While they could not maintain that blistering pace, the 92 wins they averaged over the next four years (still fourth in the majors) enabled them to crash and burn their way into two more playoff berths, including their lone post-season series win on Beane's watch.

As if that weren't enough misrepresentation, even more dishonest is Hirsch's refusal to allot some of the credit for the acquisition of those "three terrific starting pitchers" to the smarts behind the A's success. Tim Hudson, Barry Zito, and Mark Mulder were all drafted out of colleges and fast-tracked to the majors at a time when the A's organization recognized that such a strategy was undervalued due to the industry's focus on drafting high schoolers. Beane's big three turned in star-caliber performances for Oakland while being paid salaries well below market, a major key to the A's ability to compete on a shoestring budget. Note that the team still made the playoffs after the trades of Hudson and Mulder, and that none of the three pitchers has since matched the bang for the buck that they did in their green-and-gold heyday.

By the third paragraph above, Hirsch is celebrating Bartmans, stray pigeons, bad umpiring, and the weather as though Beane himself hadn't acknowledged the role of chance in baseball, most notably via the book's single most famous line: "My shit doesn't work in the playoffs." A year after Derek Jeter made his unlikely flip play to tag Jeremy Giambi, and a year before the egregious baserunning errors of Oakland's Miguel Tejada and Eric Byrnes helped the Red Sox climb back from the brink of elimination in the 2003 Division Series, Beane would get his fill of unforeseeable contingencies.

Hirsch further conflates the use of sabermetrics in front offices—where winning, not aesthetic beauty, is the order of the day and where quantitative analysis has been accepted to one degree or another—with that enjoyed by fans in the service of enhancing their appreciation of the game. On the former note, the great proto-sabermetrician Branch Rickey famously said that luck is the residue of design before Billy Beane was even a twinkle in his mother's eye, recognizing that while there may be no accounting for bad breaks, sound planning, an understanding of what truly wins in baseball, and even the ability to exploit market inefficiencies—including breaking the color barrier, as righteous and just as that was—were all hallmarks of a successful organization.

As for the fan in the cheap seats, just because they've read Baseball Prospectus or other stathead websites doesn't mean they've lost the capacity to appreciate the game's narrative richness. Hell, even watching a random mid-August game, I sometimes feel as though my head is exploding because there's so damn much narrative; where do you think those 3,000-word game summaries come from? As fans we can easily punch up numbers and scouting reports from a variety of sources to show the path each player on the field has taken to the majors. We know about this manager's ability to run a bullpen that squeezes a couple extra wins out of his team's projected record more often than not, and that manager's proclivity for getting the platoon advantage more often than any other, and that the first-base coach was one of the game's greatest base stealers in his day. We know all of this and a whole lot more, not because we've been enslaved by the numbers but because we've got the power to interpret them in their context. We appreciate the game's spontaneity and its capacity to surprise, too. If nothing else, a decade’s worth of DIPS theory has ingrained the understanding that much of what happens once the ball leaves the pitcher's hand is beyond his control, whether you want to call it luck, randomness, or the intervention of baseball gods to be named later.

Furthermore, it's not as though the appreciation of baseball's less numbers-oriented qualities is going out of style. Of the hundreds of baseball books that get published each year, how many are devoted to the randomness of trivia or the narrative richness of a pennant race or a definitive biography? What is Moneyball itself but a well-told story?

We should be so lucky if Les Brers Hirsch intend to complete their takedown of all things Moneyball with their own well-told story, but in light of the column excerpted above, I more than half-suspect their assault will consist of half-baked attempts to take apart something they seem to half-understand. Without a copy in hand, I can't tell you, and here lies the danger of falling into their trap. It's fruitless to continue attacking a press release, and worth remembering that one thing that gave Lewis' book its power was that its most vocal critics couldn't be bothered to read it. Lined up in opposition to those who saw Moneyball as a validation of the use of sabermetrics within baseball's front offices were industry insiders such as Joe Morgan, who boasted about not having read the book and famously couldn't be bothered to distinguish between its author and its protagonist. Having been afforded a brief glimpse of the shaky foundations of the Hirsches' arguments, I'm not making a beeline to the bookstore for more, but I won't rule out the possibility of reading Short Hops if only to find out what tack their incursion takes.

Carrying more weight and less rancor than the Hirsches' attack is a recent guest piece by John Thorn written for Bleacher Report, titled "Farewell to Stats? Baseball Needs More Story, Less Sabermetrics." Recently anointed as the Official Historian of Major League Baseball, the venerable Thorn has popped up all over the place lately. He just published Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game, a landmark effort to debunk the myths surrounding the sport’s origin. Last weekend, he penned a short New York Times piece which outlined the contributions of three men with much stronger claims on introducing key innovations than either Abner Doubleday or Alexander Cartwright. With his book finally on the shelves, commissioner Bud Selig—who disconcertingly enough has admitted to buying into the Doubleday myth—somewhat nonsensically named Thorn as the chairman of a 12-person committee appointed to study the game's origins. No doubt he couldn't be bothered to read the book, either.

In any event, Thorn's Bleacher Report missive notes the years he spent working on eight editions of Total Baseball, the 10-pound encyclopedic register that included a "sabermetric reconfiguration of the raw data" via linear weights and metrics such as OPS+, but which has largely been supplanted by Baseball-Reference.com and other Internet sites. Beyond that, Thorn is rather maudlin:

Today my sabermetric writing lies behind me rather than ahead, and I think I am about ready to say, "Farewell to Stats."

For a whole generation of fans and fantasy players, stats have begun to outstrip story and that seems to me a sad thing. Even the unverifiable hogwash that passed for fact or informed opinion in baseball circles not so long ago seems today wistfully enticing, for its energy if nothing else.

…Frankly, in today's baseball writing I miss such Sternian balderdash: the wink and the nudge of a Barnum or the tall-tale bluster of a Davy Crockett. Amid today's mix of straight-on account and sabermetric analysis, I miss the fun.

For this I could blame Bill James, Pete Palmer and maybe myself a little too. The press has often termed me a sabermetrician, placing me in the company of my betters. In fact I never was a statistician. I just believed that in numbers one might uncover truths not visible to the naked eye, in the way that flying at night a pilot must trust the instrument panel rather than his senses.

Thorn has certainly earned the right to that viewpoint, but it strikes me more as the product of one 63-year-old scholar's personal decision to refocus his own energies than a mandate for the wide world of baseball writing to shift away from using advanced statistics. As anyone who partakes in the debates regarding the voting for end-of-season awards or the Hall of Fame can tell you—take the debates over the Cooperstown-worthiness of Jack Morris and Bert Blyleven—unverifiable hogwash is still in abundant supply among fans, professional journalists, and even those inside the game. It's not just the Chassses and Jenkinses who continue to prop up the standard back-of-the-baseball-card statistics and the static worldview they support. The entire baseball industry is notoriously slow to change, and stadium scoreboards, broadcasts, and the morning's box scores even in their electronic form still reinforce the primacy of the old stats, regardless of what's transpiring in front offices and at sabermetric websites.

Furthermore, few writers are as skilled at telling stories as Thorn, and even fewer can revel in poking fun at the hogwash—as he does in Eden, explaining how the patriotic zeal of Alexander Spaulding and his co-conspirators led to the Mills Committee "proving" that baseball was wholly American in origin—while at the same time adding to our knowledge.  Instead you've got the old guard claiming that everything they know about baseball they learned while still in short pants, that they have no need to keep abreast of new knowledge, unlike doctors, lawyers, scientists, or reporters in other fields, and that anybody willing to debate such notions is lacking in personal hygiene and other social graces.

Lawrence Ritter once said, "The strongest thing that baseball has going for it today is its yesterdays." As the storyteller whose landmark oral history of the early game, The Glory of Their Times, focused attention on generations of older ballplayers, Ritter mined those yesterdays with a skill that few could match. Thorn clearly sees similar value in exploring the game's history, and he has contributed a lifetime of work toward that end, but it's not as though newer efforts on the statistical front don't have something to add. Take the work of Retrosheet, which has published box scores of nearly every game dating back to 1919, and play-by-play accounts of nearly every game dating back to 1950. Such a trove of data opens new lines of inquiry into the statistics of yesteryear, enabling us to better appreciate bygone players, ballparks, and pennant races, and to tell new stories about old seasons, the way the Baseball Prospectus staff did in our own It Ain't Over: the Baseball Prospectus Pennant Race Book.

The bottom line is that baseball has far more going for it than just yesterdays. We've got new and better tools and technologies to appreciate the present as well as the past, and new voices and new outlets through which to tell the stories that emerge from this enhanced era. What unites the disparate laments of the anti-sabermetric brigade is the hardly unfamiliar desire to return to a simpler time when a more centralized authority reigned. Perhaps that’s inevitable if you're of a certain age, but focusing only on yesterdays and the passing of bygone eras is a dead end if you're trying to build baseball's audience for the future. That may not be a goal of some of the men with whom I've taken issue above, but it's certainly one that those of us at Baseball Prospectus and other sabermetrically-minded organizations share. Is that really worth fighting against?

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

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