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November 27, 2012

Baseball ProGUESTus

What Mainstream Baseball Analysis Looked Like in 1984

by Chad Finn

Most of our writers didn't enter the world sporting an @baseballprospectus.com address; with a few exceptions, they started out somewhere else. In an effort to up your reading pleasure while tipping our caps to some of the most illuminating work being done elsewhere on the internet, we'll be yielding the stage once a week to the best and brightest baseball writers, researchers and thinkers from outside of the BP umbrella. If you'd like to nominate a guest contributor (including yourself), please drop us a line.

Chad Finn is a sports columnist for Boston.com and the sports media columnist for The Boston Globe. He lives in Wells, Maine, with his wife, two children, and a cat named after Otis Nixon who is older than Mike Trout. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeChadFinn.

There’s no way Cal Ripken can be stopped at the plate unless a pitcher has a Rich Gossage fastball, a Mark Clear curve, a Jerry Koosman change and the control of a Saint … Charles Dickens may have written the original Great Expectations, but Jon Matlack penned a Texas sequel in his first year with the Rangers. …While the tools that made [Joe Morgan] a potential Hall of Famer have eroded, his knowledge of the game remains keen. He may manage someday.

Before I dig in to the batter’s box here, an appreciative doff of the cap for making it this far, through that unexplained paragraph of subjective retro-hyperbole and a horrifying throwback threat of Joe Morgan having a team of his own to mismanage. (Though I suppose Morgan proved to a larger audience through broadcasting that the chasm between being a thinking man’s ballplayer and even an adequate analyst of the game he played so brilliantly can be puzzlingly enormous.)

Anyway, that explanation before I stumble into another too-early digression: Those snippets are from The Scouting Report: 1984, an annual that had a five-or-so-year run among baseball junkies in the middle of that decade. The cover on this particular edition features Carl Yastrzemski taking a pickoff throw at first base while an unidentifiable Oakland A’s baserunner (presumably Rickey Henderson, but I like to imagine it’s Shooty Babitt), dives headlong back to the bag. Above the photo is a line of text pitching the you’ve-gotta-buy-this context on the magnitude of the 672-page undertaking: “An in-depth analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of every active major league baseball player.”

As a teenaged baseball lunatic who lacked the foresight to answer that intriguing classified ad in the back of The Sporting News by a guy in Kansas selling something called a Baseball Abstract, but was adept at pestering his mom into a ride to Bookland, The Scouting Report was sold to me before I even cracked the cover. The $13.95 price was quickly justified once I did. Broken down alphabetically by team, each player of any prominence had his own page, with roughly 400 words of text, provided with various levels of knowledge by beat writers in the various cities, elaborating and evaluating over four categories: hitting, baserunning, fielding, and overall. For hitters, there were rudimentary charts showing in which zones they preferred the pitch and how they fared against lefthanders and right-handers. It even featured an introductory page of superlatives for each team.

The inside-baseball candor, which felt like eavesdropping on a b.s. session among sharp-witted, Copehagen-stained old scouts, was enhanced by the one-paragraph commentary on each player from one among broadcasters Dave Campbell and Denny Matthews and legends Brooks Robinson and Duke Snider. It was intoxicating: Who knew Jerry Remy and Glenn Hoffman were “The Squeeze Men” on the Red Sox? Actually, based on what Margo Adams revealed a few years later, that designation should have gone to Wade Boggs.  Speaking of outdated attempts at comedy …

If [Graig] Nettles ran the 100-yard dash against Lou Piniella, nobody would win … [The A's] would like to see him stop smoking and put on a few more pounds, but [Chris] Codiroli rather fancies himself as is ... [Ned] Yost seems to be a follower, not a leader … [Bob Horner] is signed to a big contract and is expected to win the Triple Crown before the contract expires ... Bill Scherrer doesn't look like an athlete. His teammates call him "Cig" because he smokes a few from time to time but mostly because he is built like one of those long, slender 10mm jobs ... You might say Jose Cruz has been very, very good to baseball ... The Astros have a nice problem. So does [Frank] DiPino, a bachelor who is often told by the ladies he looks like John Travolta … [Frank] LaCorte has changed uniform numbers, shaved off mustaches, even burned his uniform in attempts to fight off evil demons.

While the question of whether LaCorte, a former Astros and Angels right-hander, shaved off his mustache or the mustaches of others lingers unanswered for another year, a second explanation is overdue: Why write about this particular 28-year-old book, this postcard from those unenlightened days when WARP was not a fascinating tool to gauge a player’s value but instead described the speed at which Rickey Henderson went from first base to third, its prose and thinking as dusty as its cover?

Simple, really: In the aggravating aftermath of the Mike Trout/Miguel Cabrera Most Valuable Player debate and outcome, I dug it out from my baseball library in desperation for a reminder of how far baseball analysis has come.

Too many old-school baseball writers—not as many as five years ago, or even three, but still, too many—long for those days when narrative and the eye-test was how you evaluated player performance, when a scout’s honor always took precedence and data that did not confirm preconceived notions was disregarded as the sad domain of nerds who of course never actually watched a game. I’d love to know how many voters who checked Cabrera’s name have a deep yearning for How Things Used To Be.

I don’t mean to make an overt generalization; those are so annoying when they come from the other side. As someone who believes the best way to baseball success is by gathering as much information as available from both sabermetrics and scouts and then sifting it and utilizing it to the most logical effect,  I’d hate to discourage discourse. It’s just that after Cabrera trumped Trout, whose all-around credentials ultimately were a victim of ironic obliviousness (Brian Kenny’s impassioned case for Trout on Clubhouse Confidential, which included the acknowledgement that the anti-sabermetric crowd’s case for Cabrera was entirely based on stats, has permanent do-not-delete-status on my DVR), there was a sense of vindication, as if they’d permanently held off the nerd uprising from mom’s basements all over the land.

I loathe that sandbagging against the rising tide of information or the written victory laps after their guy won. If you have any thirst for knowledge and truth, you must. That’s why I went back 28 years, to rediscover this entertaining and amusing artifact, a forefather and rudimentary predecessor to Bill James’s Player Rating guides of the early ‘90s and the Baseball Prospectus annuals that are approaching 20 years of essentialness. I grew up in the ‘80s, but I unwittingly wanted what we have now. Sometimes you have to seek out that reminder that this is the golden age of information, and that it’s only going to get better from here.

This is not meant to annoy you or make you make use of your mathematics tables, but add up the at-bats, hits, runs, doubles, triples, and RBI of  Rance Mulliniks and his counterpart at third base, Garth Iorg, and you will be astounded … What’s most impressive about [Wayne Tolleson] is his scrappiness … If he could hit even .275 and be a little more patient at the plate, [Julio] Cruz would be on his way to the Hall of Fame … [Dan] Quisenberry is the kind of pitcher a team can build its staff around …More than one member of the Braves organization doubts that [Brett Butler] will ever develop sound baseball instincts … It's hard to say which [Bill] Buckner hates the most -- trying to bunt or drawing a walk ... Do not mention the name Rich Gossage to [Kirk] Gibson. He has not managed a foul ball off Gossage in three years.

Maybe the most meaningful progress in terms of baseball analysis in these 28 years is in the ability—and willingness—to research anything and everything potentially quantifiable, rather than accept the conventional wisdom and peck out insight-free nonsense about scrappiness and mathematics tables.

That Mulliniks/Iorg comment at least purports to see the light in regard to the value of platooning, a concept mastered by savvy managers such as Earl Weaver long before 1984 and something that was periodically evident elsewhere in the book, such as a notation that the star-crossed Astros shortstop Dickie Thon had hit 17 of his 20 homers on the road, concluding that he was in “the same superstar class as [Dale] Murphy and [Andre] Dawson.” There was even a proper appreciation of the all-around talents of Tim Raines and Lou Whitaker, two wonderful players who were underrated during their heyday.

But there’s so much that would be easily dismissed with a little bit of homework. Julio Cruz, whose best single-season adjusted OPS was 87 (and he was 71 for his career), should have been identified as an offensive sinkhole even by the more basic stats of the time. Brett Butler had 39 steals, 13 triples, and a decent .344 on-base percentage in his first season as a regular, and his extraordinary .461 on-base percentage in 367 minor-league games might have been a clue to his viability at the top of the order.

And even taking the suggestion of hyperbole into consideration, it couldn’t have been difficult to look up Gibson’s numbers against Gossage—for the record, he was 1-for-4 with a pair of strikeouts over those three previous seasons. He of course would exact his revenge with a three-run bomb off Goose in Game 5 of the ’84 World Series, a blast that four years later would be relegated to the second-most memorable home run of his career.

I can’t imagine how many factually cloudy proclamations I took at face value. Hey, but at least there was no reference to be found about Jack Morris pitching to the score.  Small progress, right?

[Paul] Molitor is the perfect example of a hitter who likes good old country hardball. Throw me the fastball as hard as you can, he tells the pitcher, and I’ll hit it as far as I can …Wade Boggs cannot field … [Rod Carew] never stretches to take a throw …  [Dale] Murphy is a throwback to the old days before specialization; he is a complete player ... Some scouts believe that [Tony] Gwynn has the talent to lead the NL in hitting once he has a few seasons under his belt … [Don] Mattingly started the year at first, was handcuffed by two balls, but later handled the position adequately. His best position is right field … [Rickey] Henderson is the only man to steal 100-plus bases three times, but even more remarkable is this: he does it strictly on natural ability … Pete Rose once predicted that [Bruce] Berenyi would become another Sandy Koufax … For a kid who was 21 years old in 1983, [Julio Franco] showed remarkable base stealing ability and knowledge of opposing pitchers (maybe he read the 1983 edition of this book).

Well, probably not.  But a reference to Franco does seem an appropriate way to close this out, for his singularly distinctive 23-season career bridged the eras and marched along with the progress in how we evaluated players.

I love these Scouting Report books. Not in the way I treasure an old Abstract or look forward to learning from the Baseball Prospectus annual—I don’t value the Scouting Report for input, but I love them, for all of their flaws, for their attempts at insight, but mostly for how they are a reminder of the knowledge we’ve gained. They’re earnest, a semi-accurate, jargon-laden, win-loving, RBI-fixated baseball time capsule of an era that existed a half-decade before Mike Trout was born. They were what we had, dammit, a charmingly misguided attempt at thorough analysis. Just like my just 14-year-old self who devoured them en route to something better, they had no idea what they didn’t know.

Related Content:  Scouting,  Sabermetrics

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