“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.
Does health really matter to a team that stinks? To most teams–notably last year’s Tigers–the answer is yes. For the 2004 Brewers, the answer is mostly yes. The Brewers could lose more games if Geoff Jenkins goes down than if he’s healthy, but it won’t be the difference between making the playoffs or not. Instead, they need to keep the players that might be trade bait healthy and focus on not overtaxing their young players. The Brewers are selling hope this season, not contention, so the most important players that will see Miller Park in April will be Sheets and Spivey–for different reasons. Sheets remains the one player that could conceivably be on the next good Brewers team; Spivey is the likeliest trade bait.
In part one of the current series remembering the 1984 season, You Could Look It Up revisited the champion Detroit Tigers–a phrase difficult to write with any comprehension giving the current decrepit state of the franchise–a team whose dominance came as the result of surrounding a strong core with a large cadre of role players. It’s a solution set that is largely impossible now, due to the prevalence of bullpens bulging with mediocre lefties. At various times in the 1984 season, Bobby Cox, manager of the Toronto Blue Jays, platooned at catcher, third base, right field, and designated hitter. The Toronto bullpen was widely perceived to have been a disaster, yet Cox used 12 pitchers all year long. Truly, we live in a time like unto the dark ages, where the wisdom of the past has been lost and superstition thrives. With no further ado, let’s continue by dropping in on George Steinbrenner and pals during the summer of Wham.
The Orioles are featuring some fresh, new faces. The Rockies are pegged “improve,” but what does that really mean? And the Mets have two of the best shortstops in the league playing in the same infield. All this and much more news from Baltimore, Colorado, and New York in your Wednesday edition of Prospectus Triple Play.
By now, you’ve no doubt heard that Barry Bonds’ trainer has been arrested after federal agents raided his home and found anabolic steroids on the premises. What’s perhaps more noteworthy is that agents also seized Greg Anderson’s computer files and a certain manila folder, both of which reportedly contain the names of Anderson’s litany of high-profile clients and their supplement regimens. Without a doubt, months of legal sword-crossings are to follow before the contents of Anderson’s records are ever released, but that fact in tandem with his close association with Bonds means a growth economy for wild speculation.
I’ve written elsewhere about how the dangers of steroids have been wildly exaggerated and how any actual detrimental side effects are likely due to its being illegal in the first place. I think the war on drugs is as feckless and dangerous as anything our government has ever attempted. There are unexamined penumbras of the DEA and our log of federal drug laws that are inherently racist and have led to a gradual erosion of our fourth amendment safeguards. But that’s not my concern today. My concern is the idea–one that seems to be gaining traction in the mainstream sports media–that notable increases in body size are prima facie evidence of steroid use. This couldn’t be further from the truth.