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?
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Jonas Salk never had polio and yet he THOUGHT could reinvent the vaccination game!
Having said that, the evolution of writing and analysis has only made the sport more enjoyable for some and allowed many more to view the game in a different light. Better analysis by basement dwellers has improved the product on the field and the in-game strategy by managers. In the end, those who continue to frown down upon the intellectual curiosity of the statistically curious tend to make themselves look more foolish than the targets of their vitriol.
However, broadly, you're right. With that (IMHO, unfortunate) exception, the game is still very recognizable, and furthermore, so is the obsession with stats. Furthermore, the notion that one can always do better with stats and interpreting them to help play/manage/trade better is in no way new. People tend to forget that even "basic" stats like slugging average were once "advanced metrics" in their own right. You don't enjoy the pop of a ball in a glove any less because you think about f/x and VORP than our fathers (and mothers and grandparents) did, when they were adapting to this new-fangled thing where you sum the number of bases on hits and divide by at bats, rather than good old batting average.
You know, the beauty of baseball to me is that it accomodates both the left and right brainers of the world. You can write more prose about baseball than all the other sports combined, but you can also take more statistics and make more statistical arguments as well. As a fan, I don't have to take either side and can see the beauty of both!
No wonder it's the best game. And it still has no clock.
Now, off to read more sportswriters bashing each other....deadlines, you know....
Many who rely on statistical analysis treat unexplained or error variance as attributable to "luck", as opposed to factors that were not considered in the analysis.
BP is moving away from this, as SIERA, for example, is trying to find out why certain pitchers may consistently under- or over-perform their FIP or the typical BABIP. But for a long time, it was, "pitcher X has an era of 3.50, but should have had a 4.0, he was lucky". This looseness of stats can be legitimately criticized, but the Chasses of the world go way overboard.
BTW, Mr. Johnson, the unfortunate thing, IMHO, is that the DH wasn't adopted across the board. Another victory for the hidebound, and a poorer quality of baseball for NL fans.
Even the most Chassian of anti-sabermetricians understand this, but refuse to acknowledge it. They'd rather quote ERA than any advanced pitching stats. ERA, of course, is adjusted for defensive errors, since the pitcher can't control that. ERA is the very first DIPS stat, it's just clumsy, overly-complicated, and far too subjective to tell us as much as we'd like.
Do you mean the underwear or the jokes?
"Already we've got enough straw men to fill out a starting rotation."
Wonderful turn of phrase. Great read all around. Jenkins has be taking a beating of BP the past few days.
I too looked forward to the book. Baseball and myth busting -- what could be better? Well, in my view, a better written book on the subject.
I look forward to your review. Enjoy.
However, I suspect the continuing popularity of fantasy sports and interest in sabermetric principles among fans, especially younger fans, ensures that the audience for those who not only don't embrace sabermetrics but actively dismiss or ridicule it will continue to shrink. Truth usually wins in the end.
But I think you're right.
But we tend to forget that this discomfort with uncertainty cuts both ways. Remember that the folk wisdoms often have a quantatative component that's hidden by how the data was compiled (namely through observation, through years and years of experience). What those narratives remind us is that some of these old chestnuts contain truths that are not so easily dislodged as it might seem at first glance. A very fine economist, Nassim Taleb has done some good work at explaining how reliance on data, especially the misunderstanding of data by people once or twice removed from the origin, created the recent economic crash.
My point is that I think it's great to try to lead the old traditional horsed to the well of sabr when possible but it's also important for the sabr side to remember that traditional still, in many ways, provides the template upon which statistical analysis is built, even where it is just the premise to be overturned. What's more, that template becomes more interesting when we expand the topics.
A great example is the notion of clutch performance. A traditionalist will swear it's there, a sabr guy will say the numbers say not so much. Perhaps the answer is not in statistics but in neuroscience. Jonah Lehrer has some interesting things to say on what's goin on in the brain when you choke or don't choke.
A philosopher by the name of Jacques Barzun wrote, "Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball." One reason I think this has a kind of truth to it is because baseball has a continuity, a fixity of rule and of stats, that makes it a great laboratory onto which we can project all kinds of stuff and mix it up. One of the things going on in America right now is this great collision of narrative and new ideas and so many of the ideas in that collision are present in baseball. What better way to learn and enjoy that to take the broadest and most inclusive perspective as we look for new truth?
But worse, the appeal to a "narrative" approach is a complete red herring. It's conceived by the story-tellers who refuse to acknowledge that they have fundamentally misunderstood the game they've watched and reported for so many years. They make this appeal to convince readers that saberists cannot tell a story, and therefore the metrics they have created can be ignored (and both can be banished to their parent's basements evermore).
Balderdash. The writing on BP and other sites demonstrates that writers who understand today's advanced metrics can also wax poetic about the game. The game we all love. See also: Baseball ProGuestus series.
Writers have to use the tools that they understand. Those with a facility for storytelling and an understanding of the underlying metrics of the game will tell grand stories with an underlying trust of the facts.
Ken is aboslutely correct, above, that baseball writers who refuse to use the underlying metrics that have stronger correlations to game outcomes will soon find themselves out of readers and out of work. Evolve or risk finding themselves at the short side of the cladogram.
I am saying that setting up Bruce Jenkins or Joe Morgan as strawmen makes about as much sense as those on the anti-saberist side saying stuff like: "Pecota? That thing that said Jake Fox would hit 25 home runs in 2010? What a joke!"
The point I was trying to make in my somewhat garbled mess above, is that Bruce Jenkins aside, there is a lot of information about the game that resides in the old chestnuts about how to play the game right. Not everything is a red herring. Even those who full embrace sabr, the Theo's of the world, also emphasize the qualatative approach as well. Scouting, non-qualitative player evaluation, roster construction.
So the job of the statistician is to be rigorous in finding the red herrings and thorough and accurate when debunking those things. But it is also to know the limitations of what can be described with relevance mathematically. That was why I referenced Taleb. Data crunchers have to be constantly vigilent against the belief that numbers can describe everything.
Finally, my larger point was that baseball is a great place to explore the collision between the qualatative and the quantatative and to bring other disciplines into the mix as well. Neuroscience, biomechanics, economic theory, game theory, psychology and group behavior and so on and so on. Because the rules are seldom changing and the objectives are clear, it makes a great control for watching our own behavior and applying those lessons to the wider world.
Stats have always been some part of that -- whether the number is .300, or 714, or 56 -- these are data that all but the most uninitiated have some familiarity with. For those of us who want to take it further and understand the numbers, indeed the game, a little deeper, there really is no harm to anyone else's enjoyment.
It is a quarter century since James published the first Abstract, which was the spark for the advanced analysis of the game. (As James would concede, he wasn't the first. But he was the most important, essential to all those who have made significant contributions since then.) In that short span of time, a number of important discoveries have impacted the way managements (or at least most managements) run baseball teams. Some of the most basic observations that have changed the game are that minor league performance is far more predictive of major league results than previously thought, that strikeouts (both pitcher and hitter) are more significant than previously realized, that OBP is more important than AVG, and that if tools don't translate into performance at a relatively young age, it is extremely unlikely that they will do so later.
I really don't care if there are people who think these improvements in statistical analysis are all bunk. They're just appreciating the game on a different (and not necessarily worse) level. I confess I sometimes suspect that these statistics and analysis are too complicated for some of them, and they realize there is something going on that is important that they would like to but don't understand. But whether or not that is so, their criticisms are irrelevant. Sure, for 100 years .220 meant something. It meant that a player like Carlos Pena, who is a lot better than many players who hit .278, couldn't play in the majors. We know better now, most baseball execs know better now. The criticisms do not negatively impact the important work of trying to understand better the game and its players. That's what's worth focusing on. If Murray Chass doesn't like it, or doesn't understand it, I couldn't care less.
Dumb down the public & do not confuse the issue with facts.
No surprise; it sounds like the standard operating procedure from that side of the aisle.
(Just a quick observation, not a segue for a heated debate.)
Outstanding piece, Jay . . . the slight blood boiling not withstanding.
Last night after BP's NYC bookstore gig, I stopped by a friend's birthday drinks gathering, where I renewed acquaintances with an independent film director I'd briefly met last summer. Making small talk, he said he didn't know much about baseball but said that a friend of his had written a book a few years back about the game... a guy named Michael Lewis. Had I heard of it?
Suffice it to say that the director knew nothing about the book or the ensuing culture war (to say nothing of the Brad Pitt Hollywood vehicle) but used to work at MTV with Lewis' wife, Tabitha Soren. Broke me up...
It's not like these statistics somehow say things that run totally contrary to logic. Stats guys and "old school" baseball analysts alike both think that Albert Pujols is awesome. No one's running around pointing to stats whilst screaming that Mark Kotsay is the next Babe Ruth.
Sure, stats can bust a bubble or two (see also: Jeter, Derek. Re: fielding) but by and large VORP and EqA and all the other weird sounding numbers just establish who's good, who's not, and who's performing above average. What's so terrible about that?
Put another way, I love the smell of a ballpark, tales of player redemption, and the taste of a $7.50 Turner Field hot dog as much as the next guy. I just like to know that the ballpark is a hitter's park, the guy's BABIP is disproportionally high, and that the hot dog will be giving me indigestion soon. And yet, somehow, that middle point means I hate baseball. Go figure...