Wednesday, May 12, 2010
Just Look with Your Eyes and Tell Me What You See: Why Baseball’s “Stat Geeks” Have Gone too Far
Blogger's Note: The following is the first in a series of baseball-related blogs that will run every two weeks from now until the conclusion of the World Series. With the exception of this first edition, all blog entries will run for the first time on Mondays (meaning the next edition will be posted on the 24th of May. When you're done reading, post your comments on the bottom of the page.
From the mind-bending Sabermetrics* of legendary stat oracle Bill James to the open-minded, five tool visualization of revolutionary scouting executive Branch Rickey, there has always been a degree of separation between Major League Baseball’s pre-eminent team-building mindsets. For years, the concept of scouting was ruled by an instinctual sense of five tool traditionalism. Prospects were judged based on their perceived potential in the five basic skill sets: running, throwing, fielding, contact hitting, and power hitting. Resident professionals were judged based on their rate of production in the most straightforward statistical categories (batting average, home runs, stolen bases, RBIs, errors). It was a system based on the discerning “What you see is what you get” perspective of the rough-necked, pipe-toting baseball traditionalists. Although it’s always been a game of numbers, baseball had no place for its wide legion of geeky mathematical fanatics who valued obscure projections over simple intangibles and proven qualities….until a highly respected baseball visionary welcomed them as both a trendy and tactical competitive advantage.
If the 2010 portrait of a major league front office is beginning to resemble a casting call for “Revenge of the Nerds,” then Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane is the sensual jock head who lets them party in his frat house if they agree to do his homework. A three sport high school superstar before he became a major league outfielder, Beane appears, at least on the surface, to fall under the “old school” executive stereotype. But as the general manager of the small market A’s, Beane doesn’t have the financial wiggle room that many of his large market competitors enjoy. Prior to free agency, such small market teams could compensate for their financial constraints by drafting and developing a strong core of homegrown players. While today’s cash-strapped franchises have no choice but to take on a similar mindset, they almost always are forced to watch their slew of budding prospects blossom (both on the field and in their pockets) with a more wealthy organization. So with the help of his number-crunching scouting branch, Beane developed a more analytical method for measuring the value of a player. The approach, nicknamed Moneyball by the 2003 best-selling book that explains the concept, is centered on the idea that the collective wisdom of baseball insiders is both subjective and flawed. Traditional statistical gauges such as stolen bases, RBI’s (runs batted in), and batting average have been replaced by on-base percentage and slugging percentage as a more cost-effective measuring stick for offensive production. For example, in the early 00’s the A’s featured an exciting young offense spearheaded by 2000 AL MVP Jason Giambi. Following the 2001 season, however, Giambi signed a 7 year, 120 million dollar deal with the New York Yankees. Aware that they would be unable to compete with the slew of big market offers Giambi would receive, the A’s went searching for a cost efficient replacement. They settled on former Red Sox catcher Scott Hatteberg, whose career was rendered all but a footnote after a ruptured nerve in his right elbow left him unable to throw or hold a baseball. In a popular chapter of Moneyball, Beane explains that the A’s pursued Hatteberg due to his unusually high on-base percentage for a hitter of his mediocre stature (.273 career batting average, .361 career OBP). For a “moneyball” franchise, such obscure statistics are considered a more direct correlation to the desired end result (Ex: OBP = runs scored). In the 2002 and 2003 seasons, after replacing one of the most prolific hitters in baseball with a tattered symbol of mediocrity (who couldn’t even grip a baseball), the A’s won a combined 199 games and back to back American League Western Division titles.
Nearly a decade after Billy Beane allowed them to sip his beer; the nerds are now hosting the frat parties. The 2003 release of Moneyball ignited a league-wide ripple effect that has severely altered the traditional perception of a major league ballplayer. While not all teams have adopted the “moneyball” philosophy, the idea of hiring “stat guys” to more accurately project a player’s future rate of productivity has become a necessary modus operandi for even the wealthiest organizations. But what happens when these “stat guys” begin to abuse their suddenly authoritative positions? What happens when their obscure percentages become capable of relegating a once-in-a-generation player to the level of his more down-to-earth peers? If there’s a single variable to the “moneyball” constant, it’s Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard. In his four full major league seasons, Howard has averaged 49.5 home runs and 143 RBI’s (a 4 year stretch topped only by Babe Ruth from 1926-29, when he averaged 51.75 homers and 151.5 RBI’s). In 2007 he became the fastest player to reach 100 home runs. In 2009 he joined Babe Ruth, Ken Griffey Jr., and Sammy Sosa (no slouches in their own right) as the only players to record four consecutive seasons with 40 plus home runs and 130 plus RBI’s. He won Rookie of the Year honors in 2005 (after starting for only half the season). He won an MVP in 2006 (his first full major league season). He’s been the catalyst and cleanup hitter for the most successful team in baseball over the last couple of seasons (2 consecutive pennants and a World Series championship). Both statistically and objectively, Howard is the most prolific pure power hitter since (and I don’t hold my breath before saying this) the “Great Bambino” himself. In another lifetime, he would be a pop culture icon of Ruthian stature. But when the stat geeks inherited the earth, they brought with them a cunning sense of numerical cynicism. Instead of lauding Howard for his incredible power and intangible value, they instead focus on how his equally prolific (yet not uncommon) tendency to strikeout is the primary benefactor that constipates both his batting average and on-base percentage. Last week, when the Phillies awarded their franchise meal-ticket to the tune of a 5 year 125 million dollar contract extension, the stat geeks reacted as if Texas Instruments had ceased production on any new calculators for the foreseeable future. During his afternoon drive program on 97.5 “The Phanatic,” local sports talk radio host Mike Missanelli lambasted ESPN insider and former Toronto Blue Jays “stat guy” Keith Law when Law proclaimed that, by virtue of a Sabermetric-based projection, Howard’s value as a player will steadily diminish as the contract goes on. “His skill-set doesn’t translate well to an older player,” explained Law, referring to Howard’s power heavy offensive persona. Law even went as far to say that fellow NL first basemen Adrian Gonzalez and Prince Fielder were “better all-around players than Howard.” When Missannelli subsequently proved him wrong through a series of straightforward statistics (essentially beating Law at his own game), Law retracted his argument by explaining that Fielder and Gonzalez have “better value” because they’re better suited to maintain an elite level of play for a longer period of time on a cheaper salary. Law’s reaction to the Howard signing represents the essential core problem with a Sabermetric mindset. For people like Keith Law, a baseball player’s “value” is nothing more than numbers on a stat sheet. Never mind the fact that Ryan Howard carries the Phillies through the scorching fever-pitch of their annual September pennant surge. Never mind the fact that he lost 40 pounds and showed up two months early to Spring Training in a tireless effort to improve his defense over the last two off-seasons. Never mind the fact that, when the Phillies were down to their final out in game 4 of the 2009 NL Division Series against the Rockies, Howard confidently pleaded with his teammates to just “Get me to the plate, boys.” (When they obliged, he responded with a 2 run game-tying double). Logic will tell you that the Phillies rewarded Howard because he’s the pre-eminent power hitter in the game. The clincher, however, was his intangible value that simply can’t be measured on a stat sheet. Think about it in terms of his peers: Would the Phillies lineup be nearly as imposing with Adrian Gonzalez batting cleanup? Prince Fielder stands 5’11 and weighs 270 pounds. So how did he go about improving on this less than ideal ratio? Not by embarking on a more demanding workout regimen, but by becoming a vegetarian. The concept of intangible value is barely limited to this one specific example. When the A’s replaced Jason Giambi with Scott Hatteberg, sure it made for an inspiring chapter in a perspective-altering book, but were opposing pitchers honestly weary of Hatteberg’s penchant for drawing walks? With game-changers like Giambi, pitchers are often relieved when they draw a walk.
In spite of their front line status as modern baseball visionaries, Billy Beane and his geeks can boast of only one playoff series victory (in 5 appearances) for the A’s during the “moneyball” era. The fact of the matter is, it becomes difficult to compete for championships when you’re replacing core players with statistical experiments. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the dire financial constraints that hamper many smaller market franchises. Instead of settling for the scrap heap, why not trust your instincts and lock up a core player long before he becomes subject to a free agent bidding war? Even though the Phillies have the 4th highest payroll in the major leagues, do you think they would have had a chance of re-signing Ryan Howard if they were forced to bid against the Yankees or the Red Sox? By setting the market on their own terms, the Phillies have found a happy medium between the nouveau riche of Sabermetrics and the old guard of instinctual rationale. Unless other franchises can do the same, they will always be forced to settle among the quick-sanded mediocrity that buckles the majority of major league franchises. The rise of statistical analysis has transcended the economics of baseball into a broader realm of 21st century idealism. But as any rough-necked, pipe-toting old hack will tell you, sometimes it’s still better to just look with your eyes and tell me what you see.
* Sabermetrics refer to the analysis of baseball through statistical evidence; coined by the Society of American Baseball Research.