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The Inside Track | COMMENTARY

Baseball Nerds Are Having Their Day

June 01, 2003|Thomas Boswell | Washington Post

For nearly 25 years, there's been a huge food fight in baseball. The argument was basic: How do you evaluate a player?

On one side were general managers, scouts and managers. For the most part, they evaluated players the old-fashioned way -- with their eyes, stopwatches and radar guns and by looking at statistics that were popularized in the 19th century.

Their mindset was always, "How fast does he run? How hard does he throw? What's his batting average? Does he look like a major leaguer should look?"

On the other side -- led by statistical gurus such as Bill James and Pete Palmer, and assisted by countless lesser "seamheads" (including, at times, me) -- were the geeks, the outsiders, mere fans, who thought they knew better.

The default setting of those who talked about runs created, adjusted production or total average was, "What's his on-base percentage? What's his slugging average? Forget steals and defense. Does he draw lots of walk?"

Guess what: "Revenge of the Nerds" may be playing in a ballpark near you.

Many of us never thought this day would come. Now, with the best-selling success of "Moneyball" by Michael Lewis, sophisticated statistical analysis has finally become a publicly acknowledged part of baseball's mainstream. As Lewis has chronicled, the methods used by the Oakland Athletics in recent years have succeeded so suddenly and so well that, after reading "Moneyball," many an owner -- especially poorer ones -- will have to ask, "Why aren't we doing it this way?"

A few years ago, Oakland General Manager Billy Beane bought the whole New School stat-analysis worldview, inspired by James' popular "Baseball Abstract" but expanded by many people over many years. Beane's 100-win, low-budget A's have been constructed almost entirely on academic ideas that are heresy to traditionalists.

In Beane's world, the stats always rule. If they dictate that you replace Jason Giambi (lost to free agency) with obscure Scott Hatteberg, so be it. If numbers say that an unwanted Class AAA submarine pitcher named Chad Bradford will be a star, then you trade for him. Without ever seeing him. And if those stats say spend a No. 1 draft pick on an overweight college catcher nobody else wants, then do it and ignore the laughter. In Oakland, scouts are de-emphasized. Drafting high school kids, who have few valid stats to analyze, is almost verboten. And fresh-out-of-college whizzes with computers run the A's in cyberspace.

Just as important, Beane's disciples or imitators, are now in complete control of the Boston Red Sox (for whom James is a consultant) and the Toronto Blue Jays -- the Red Sox lead the American League East and the Blue Jays are three games back. The virus has spread. The genie is out of the lamp. There's no turning back now.

Forward-thinking individuals in baseball understood many of the new statistical models long ago, but they were never in control of a franchise.

What's different now is that one person -- Beane -- has been allowed to build an entire organization using the tools that some knew existed long ago. A handful of tenets are at the core of what Beane is doing. Though some of the math is hard, the conclusions aren't. His "secrets" may be alarmingly easy to copy.

* Analyze all hitters through on-base percentage. Getting on base, while making the fewest outs, is the heart of offense. Walks are wonderful. Hitters who know the strike zone drive pitchers crazy. High on-base hitters usually take many pitches, foul off two-strike pitches and, as a result, exhaust the pitch limits of most quality starters. Result: Crummy relievers enter the game and get waxed. Even in a three-game series, the high on-base team wins a war of pitching attrition. The Yankee teams of Joe Torre have used this theory in recent years. The Red Sox do now.

* Slugging percentage is the only other vital offensive statistic. Power matters. Combine on-base and slugging averages, with much more emphasis on the former, and you'll automatically build a high-scoring lineup. Hard as it is to believe, many high on-base average players come cheap. Walks are boring. Nobody comes to see, or pays big salaries to, walkers. (So, Beane grabs 'em easily.) As for batting average, ignore it. Forget stolen bases, too. Until your success rate is over 70 percent, attempting to steal is, mathematically speaking, a waste of time.

* A superstar, such as Giambi, can be replaced -- at reasonable cost -- in pieces. When the A's lost Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon and DH Olmedo Saenz after 2001, they added David Justice, Hatteberg and Jeremy Giambi. The combined on-base percentage and slugging percentage of the three new players roughly equaled the statistics of the three lost players. Jason Giambi wasn't missed.

* Any decent pitcher can be turned into a star closer because any solid pitcher should be able to pitch one inning when he always enters with the bases empty. Once you create such an overrated star, you immediately trade him at peak value. Then just develop a new closer since it's so easy to do.

* To evaluate pitchers, use the breakthrough DIPS theory of stat man Voros McCracken that's been invented in the last three years. DIPS stands for "defense independent pitching statistic." To learn how good a pitcher is, McCracken measures only his strikeouts, walks and home runs, because those stats are unconnected to his defense. This method unearths radically underrated pitchers who had poor ERAs or bad winning percentages simply because they were unlucky. Buy 'em cheap. Then wait for their luck to turn.

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