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September 4, 2007
For What You Are About to Receive
Itís been an unfortunate part of writing for BP that Iíve written a number of words about the passing of friends. Today, Iíve got another obituary to write, but this one is not in the least bit painful.
Baseball analysis is dead.
It is not wounded, it is not in hibernation, it is not at the nadir of a repeating cycle—it's dead. Good thing, too. Let it go unmourned. Don't get me wrong. There are still lots of interesting questions to answer, and as I'll go into, I've purposely tightened the definition of analysis to illustrate the point. When I'm talking about 'baseball analysis' here, I'm talking about the rigorous review of player performance data. I'm not talking about the inclusion of pitch velocity and location data that's now becoming available, and I'm not talking about the integration of scouting data with performance data. I'm strictly talking about activities like developing value metrics, forecasting, and all the other stuff we do with the massive yarn-ball of data we've all put together over the years.
Baseball analysis is dead because its utility has pretty much vanished. Analysis and information are only interesting and useful if they inform a decision, and even then, there really needs to be some sort of advantage or gain present relative to competitors in order for the time investment to be worthwhile. At this point in history, baseball analysis really has very little to offer on that front.
Why? Because the decisions that baseball analysis informs are all pretty simple. Think about it—what are the real lessons, the ones that can actually be applied, that one can take from baseball analysis? Let's go through the biggies:
Really, those are the two big lessons. There are a ton of other lessons, many of them valuable, many of them related to correcting the dysfunctional behaviors created by managing to baseball's accounting system, rather than to winning games and championships. Everyone reading this has mentally thrown something at the TV screen, or died a little inside when their favorite club has brought in some Jim Acker or Doug Johns clone into a tie game in the seventh when the club's well-rested, fire-belching Closer of Doom is adjusting his junk in the bullpen, waiting for the team to get a lead (but not too big a lead) that will probably never materialize because the reliever headed for the mound is curious whether or not Albert Pujols can hit his 90 mph thigh-high fastball; the amount of bad managing and decision making that takes place because of an antiquated and Kafkaesque recording protocol is staggering. But generally speaking, most of that improvement is small beans compared to the two biggies listed above. And that's the deal. That's why baseball analysis is pinin' for the fjords. It's a simple issue of a bad business case.
MLB organizations aren't particularly large businesses, but they act like them, particularly when it comes to ossification and resisting change. Part of that is the exalted stature that tradition enjoys within the game, and part of it is the protected status that MLB alone enjoys in American business. That means that if you want to change something within an organization, you need to make the case. And making the case means showing a compelling reason why the organization should commit to some investment, or overhauling some existing process. The bar for "compelling" in that sentence is usually set extremely high.
Within one of MLB's 30 organizations, it's pretty easy to make the case for the two biggies above. "Sir, if we limit John Throwhard's pitches to about 100 per game, he's much more likely to stay healthy and effective. Each pitch beyond 100 increases his chances of morphing into Jose Lima by two percent, and we're paying him nine million bucks each season until 2014." That's a pretty easy case to make, and even then, getting to that point took a lot of hard work and time. (For the record, one of the best persuasion tools available to someone trying to make a case for something a little tougher is to draw the parallels and connections to accepted traditional wisdom, but that's another column for when one of my NDAs expires.) Most of the actions suggested by rigorous analysis that haven't already been adopted are difficult to sell to a skeptical audience, and inertia usually wins the day.
Another way to look at the issue brings the point home much more directly—the scouts versus stats battle never really existed, and that the scouts won. People making their living in front offices have played Oracle and IBM to the analysis community's "open source." Those companies (and others) are happy to let a self-directed, competent, and uncompensated gaggle of fragrant, bearded unix gurus take time out from watching Mystery Science Theatre 3000 to develop a fantastic piece of software for the masses, then adopt it as their own without having to spend a huge amount of their own resources on the project. In terms of baseball analysis, the front office folks have learned the lessons, at least the most important ones, and have already internalized the key points that can make their clubs better. In short, the real cause of death for baseball analysis is that it just isn't very difficult to do, particularly if what you want is a 20/80 solution—80 percent of the maximum available benefit for only 20 percent of the investment.
Any club that actually wants to use baseball analysis now to develop and maintain an advantage relative to their competitors has a tough task in front of them. They need to expand the scope of the data used for the analysis. They need to identify real changes that can be made in their operations if real phenomena are unearthed. They need to have people of sufficient skill to find these new discoveries. They need to develop a culture receptive to adopting the changes implied by this newfound wisdom. And finally, they need to find a way to keep other organizations from discovering the formula to their secret sauce. That's a reasonable description of what clubs need from their search on the datafields of the game, and it's precisely what baseball analysis cannot provide. Because baseball analysis is dead.