The New Balance For MLB Executives, Fans

Posted on May 15, 2014 by Michael Anft

New formulas for measuring baseball players are proving their worth in MLB front offices and creating a generational divide among fans

The New Balance

Illustration by John Pennisi

One night, not too long ago, an older baseball fan was ruing his son's more modern love of baseball, a love built on a foundation of numbers. A game that had helped make them close was now churning up some heated discussions.

"He's telling me there's no such thing as a clutch hitter," said an incredulous Russ Smith, the father and a website publisher in Baltimore. "It's like we're watching a completely different game." 

And they're watching it differently. His son, Booker, read comic books as the two, who live in Guilford, watched games on TV. Russ' eyes were glued to every pitch. But that wasn't the issue, as Russ, 58, saw it.

Booker follows baseball because of the elegant, prolific stats the game brings with it, and not necessarily to see how his team is doing. 

"He's got a mind that is mathematical," Russ said. "He's a different animal."

This kind of breach in intergenerational baseball thinking is nothing new within the family. Russ' father-in-law still scores games manually, something Russ and many members of his generation stopped doing once they became busy as fathers. The game brings changes. Because baseball represents a tradition, some tend to see those changes as convulsions, cataclysms.

As the Smiths jousted about whether Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz was a clutch hitter, Russ would argue that Ortiz, and players like him, thrived on late-game dramatics -- something he didn't need stats to figure out. Booker countered by saying that measurements such as RISP (batting average with runners in scoring position) varied for each player from year to year, with little correlation or consistency among them. 

"Derek Jeter could be ranked first [in RISP] one year, then 600 the next," Booker said. "It makes no sense." 

Clutch hitters were as mythical as centaurs.

Now a 19-year-old freshman at George Washington University, Booker had, by 15, read Moneyball, Michael Lewis' 2003 lionization of Billy Beane, the Oakland Athletics' general manager and symbol of diamond success through higher math. (Beane, no surprise, is Booker's favorite general manager, even though he and his father are die-hard Red Sox fans.) By 18, Booker took over a McDonogh School statistics class from his teacher. The class was studying the statistical approach depicted in Moneyball

"She thought I understood the material better," he said.

He included his love of baseball analytics in his college admission essay. Booker said that although he wasn't athletic, he had been drawn to the game because his father was such a big fan. But he didn't really understand what the big deal was -- until Moneyball was published.

"I wrote that statistics, for me, took baseball away from athletes and delivered it to the nerds," he said.

The debates between Russ and Booker echo those that happened often in baseball front offices. Remember the scene in Moneyball when Beane and scout Grady Little shout it out about the value (or not) of advanced numbers? Baseball insiders say those kinds of disagreements about sabermetrics -- a term distilled from SABR, short for the Society of American Baseball Researchers -- occur less frequently now. 

While fans may still square off about whether sabermetrics are worth their time -- and many just ignore them -- many of the people who run teams have had a conversion experience.

"The analytics give you an objective basis for assessing a player's value," said Dan Duquette, the Orioles' executive vice president of baseball operations.

As a young executive in Montreal during the 1990s, Duquette was one of the first front-office people to extensively use the new metrics. 

"You can compare your players more objectively to other teams' players," Duquette said. "It can help you figure out how to be more resourceful."

Since Duquette joined the Orioles in 2012, he has promoted Ned Rice, formerly of the team's public relations staff, to a director position in its major league administration department, which includes analytics. Duquette has also added three positions in analytics and redirected some resources from scouting toward video scouting. 

Using video to analyze a player's performance is now the rage in MLB. Some teams, including Colorado and Houston, emphasize it as the linchpin of their approach to gathering baseball intelligence, even more so than traditional scouting.

"There's a word picture in every player that tells you where they hit the ball, how often they swing at pitches in the strike zone and plenty of other things," Duquette said. "Video helps you develop that picture."

Baltimore already has a place in early analytics history, Duquette noted. During the 1960s and '70s, Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver would keep index-card stats on how pitchers and hitters fared against each other, and how righties performed against lefties, and vice versa.

Davey Johnson, then the team's second baseman, would crunch numbers on a computer at O's owner Jerry Hoffberger's Carling National Brewery. Johnson once devised a formula showing he would best fit in the Orioles' lineup not in the six slot, where he often ended up, but as the No. 2 hitter. Weaver, who called Johnson "Dum Dum," ignored him.

Other names are more prominently known for propelling the grand old game toward a technocratic future. Earnshaw Cook wrote a book called Percentage Baseball in 1964. It caused nary a ripple among baseball men (much less fans), but it did later inspire some to investigate the statistical possibilities the game offered. 

Among them was Bill James, who started SABR and coined the term sabermetrics during the 1970s. His annual Baseball Abstracts became the bible for a new generation of uber-fans, and influenced the formation of websites -- such as BaseballProspectus.com, FanGraphs.com and MLBTradeRumors.com -- that rely on newfangled stats. 

One of Baseball Prospectus' visor-wearing hotshots, Nate Silver, invented PECOTA, an acronym for a statistic designed to predict a player's performance. Silver now runs FiveThirtyEight.com, which is focused on data-driven journalism, and he has been recognized for correctly predicting the results of the 2012 presidential election in all 50 states.

Sabermetricians look at baseball simply at first -- focusing on runs, because the team that scores the most wins -- and then develop formulae, some complex, to measure how many runs hitters create for their teams, how many runs defenders prevent and how many runs pitchers deny the other team.

Measures including OBP (on-base percentage), lefty-righty splits for both hitters and pitchers, OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) and BABIP (batting average on balls in play) have become favorites among certain fans and front-office strategists, often replacing traditional lines such as batting averages. Others prefer K/9 and BB/9 (strikeouts and walks per nine innings) as a means for predicting how a pitcher will perform. Some value those statistics more highly than ERA, the traditional method for measuring a pitcher's worth.

"In baseball, you often hear people talk about intangibles, such as character and toughness," said Mike Ferrin, co-host of SiriusXM Radio's daily "Power Alley" show, as well as the once-weekly "MLB Round Trip with Baseball Prospectus," which is aimed at stats enthusiasts. "What we're trying to do is find tangible answers. 

"It's still pretty simple what we're trying to decipher: who the guys are who strike out less, hit more home runs, have high on-base and slugging percentages, and pitchers who are most effective at keeping hitters' numbers low."

Even though such measurements don't matter much to most fans, they are already having an effect on how people understand a game, Ferrin said. There are more and more defensive shifts, as hitters' tendencies are mapped out more extensively via sabermetrics. Managers focus more on the big inning now than they did before, constructing lineups in which strikeout kings are marginalized and inserting pitchers who can get strikeouts often against opponents.

"You can control a lot if you can keep guys from putting the ball in play," Ferrin said.

As the value of an out has reached almost the status of a fetish, bunting -- particularly for a sacrifice -- has become an even rarer skill. And as power has waned during the post-steroid era, the stolen base is again achieving prominence. 

"There's not as much risk in attempting to steal as there was before," Ferrin said, "because there are fewer opportunities to score in a game."

Advanced metrics have advanced a new style of play.

Ferrin said the new approach wasn't as much of a departure from the observational one scouts have used for 1.5 centuries as it appears.

"Scouts have always used numbers," Ferrin said. "The question is, are they using the right numbers?"

Among front-office types, it's not just the numbers, but also how you balance them that is important. If, for example, Orioles third baseman Manny Machado has a high RF (range factor: a formula that is nine times a player's putouts and assists divided by innings played) and UZR (ultimate zone rating), showing that he saves runs with his defense, how important is it to watch him play? Do those numbers make him more valuable than, say, former Orioles third baseman Brooks Robinson?

"It's important to remember that these numbers are just another tool scouts can use," said a longtime big league scout, who requested to remain anonymous. "When you size up a player, you have to look beyond the obvious athletics. Brooks was slower than the typical player, but he had a great first step and terrific hands. You need more than numbers to see that, particularly early on in his career."

But the old scouts-versus-numbers dichotomy no longer applies, the scout said. 

"Ninety percent of the time, the analytics support a scout's report," he said. "When I started, we had no radar guns or computers, yet we could still zero in on the right players. There are no absolutes in baseball. You can't make a definitive statement about much of anything. You're dealing with human beings."

Sabermetrics is hardly a hard and fast measuring tool, he said. A player is a moving target. 

"Guys change from month to month," he said. "Eighty percent might be the same player at any given time, but 10 percent are on the way up, and 10 percent are on the way down. You have to know which is which."

Joe Klein, formerly a front-office executive for four major league teams and now the executive director of the independent Atlantic League, said statistics alone weren't enough to evaluate a player.

"You can't equate 200 at bats to an answer to a question," Klein said. "How a guy is going to perform -- if you use nothing but numbers, you're going to get beat. I'd rather trust [Orioles manager] Buck Showalter's instincts than rely purely on numbers."

But if the stats and formulae support a scout's judgment, Klein said, they might help him find the right players and put his role players in a better position to win. 

To some inside baseball front offices, the battle about sabermetrics is finished. 

"I think everybody realizes that the numbers are an important tool for figuring out how valuable a player is on the field," Duquette said. "The purpose of Moneyball was to show that the analytics were accepted by the mainstream, wasn't it?"

***

On baseball analyst Keith Law's blog at ESPN.com, one poster wrote: "Do you truly love baseball? It seems like it's mathematical and cold to you. Like you don't have a soul or something."

Yes, sabermetrics has won over baseball executives, statistically inclined fans and even most scouts. But the jury's out about whether the people who finance the whole enterprise can stomach it. There's some question, to say the least, as to whether one's excitement for the game can be translated into a passion for algorithms, lengthy formulae and other things.

Part of the trouble is the names of these number-pretzel concoctions. Categories such as Pythagorean expectation (how many games a team should win based on its run differential), NERD (a piece of esoterica designed to quantify a fan's aesthetic  experience of a game or team) and PECOTA (a formula to predict a player's performance) throw letters and algorithms at what Charley Eckman and Nuke LaLoosh once said was a simple game.

"We haven't done a very good job of communicating these ideas to fans," Ferrin said.

The traditional populist stats packages, such as baseball cards, haven't rushed to change the information on the other side of the photo. You won't find NERD and BABIP there. And publications that predate James', even Cook's, aren't exactly in a hurry to turn and face the strange, either.

Just ask Pete Palmer, editor of the even-more-dated Who's Who in Baseball, which qualified as baseball's bible long before James' Abstracts wrested that title. Generations of young fans have read Who's Who in bed by flashlight during summer nights, memorizing the batting averages, ERAs and RBIs of their heroes.

Who's Who, with its barely red paper cover, gauzy mug shots, and eye bleed-sized minor league and major league stats for nearly everyone who will play big league ball during the coming season, will celebrate its 100th year in 2015. Now that it has its own iPhone app, the "Old Testament" of the diamond will likely be looking to create its own website and offer more modern analytical stats, right?

"Well, not really," Palmer said. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it, I guess."

Don't mistake Palmer for a baseball Luddite. He's co-author of the numbers-centric The Hidden Game of Baseball and the annual The ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia. He said he had invented OPS during the 1970s and had come up with something called Total Player Rating around the same time. 

He's not afraid to crunch, twist and otherwise manipulate numbers. But he hasn't been asked to change Who's Who to reach fans that might be younger and/or interested in sabermetrics. And, he said, he doesn't particularly care to.

"I could do it if they wanted," he said of his bosses at Harris Publications. "But I don't really rock the boat on it. I'm not sure fans are into the really advanced stuff. People seem to be happy with what we're offering them. For a lot of people, the only thing that matters is if their teams wins."

That echoes Russ Smith's thoughts -- fans just want to see the good guys win right away. Al Davis was right.

"I'll say that to Booky," Russ Smith said, "and he'll say: 'Oh, but you have to balance this year out with the need to build for the future. We'll have a great team in 2018.' And I'm like, '2018!' "

Booker's dogged promotion of all things statistical has worn down Russ, who said he no longer thought of hitters as clutch or not.

"He's convinced me," Russ said. "What he says is true, plus I don't want to go through the debate again. He has educated me." 

Booker has taught Russ a new way to appreciate the game, and the war between the generations is now in a cease fire, at least in their house.

Although baseball is a game of inches, numbers and probabilities, it also exists as a measure of something else: human happiness.

Issue 197: May 2014

Correction: A previous version of this story made a reference to Russ Smith's father instead of his father-in-law. PressBox regrets the error.

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