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Need a leadoff man? Go figure

Statistical analysis is changing how baseball players are evaluated, though character, and scouting, still count with many old-school types.

March 31, 2007|Bill Shaikin | Times Staff Writer

If you're a serious baseball fan, you know Ernie Broglio. If the trivia category is "All-Time Worst Trades" and the challenge is to name the player the Chicago Cubs got when they traded Lou Brock, the answer is Broglio.

Brock got into the Hall of Fame on his first try, as the outfielder atop the St. Louis Cardinals' lineup during their glory years of the 1960s. The Cardinals counted on Brock to hit .300, score 100 runs and steal 50 bases every year.

Juan Pierre can do all that.

The Cardinals were thrilled to have Brock. So were their fans. No one questioned his value.

The Dodgers were thrilled when they signed Pierre over the winter, but a vocal brigade of fans objected and a chorus of statistical analysts chuckled.

As Pierre enters his seventh full season, the statistics from his first six are essentially similar to the numbers Brock put up in his first six. The criticism of the Pierre signing reflects the rise of a new wave of statistical analysis and its widespread dissemination via the Internet.

In Brock's era, batting average ruled. Today, the Dodgers are condemned for paying attention to the wrong statistics.

Keith Law, a former assistant general manager for the Toronto Blue Jays, labeled Pierre on ESPN.com "a player whose ideal role is defensive replacement/pinch runner." At Baseball Prospectus, a baseball think tank, Marc Normandin alluded to Pierre's high stolen base total in calling him "more useful to your fantasy baseball team than a real team." Dodger Thoughts blogger Jon Weisman, slapping General Manager Ned Colletti, said the signing of Pierre had "validated the worst fears of anyone who suspected he was too enamored of pointless statistics ... to make sensible decisions."

The criticism spread to talk shows, to message boards and even to the Dodgers' website, where public relations director Josh Rawitch pleaded for mercy for Pierre.

"I sure hope you will all give him a chance," Rawitch wrote, "to win you over."

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The waiver wire buzzes regularly, and players can be yours for a token fee. Kevin Towers, general manager of the San Diego Padres, looked up one day to find his young assistant begging him to claim a minor league infielder with a mediocre batting average, no power and a weak arm.

"He's an on-base machine," the assistant said.

"Look at his size," Towers said. "Look at the scouting reports."

The Padres passed. The Angels claimed David Eckstein, who developed into the shortstop on their World Series championship team.

"We followed him and saw what he ended up doing," Towers said, "and said we better start paying attention to some of these things."

And the young assistant? He was Theo Epstein, hired two years later as general manager of the Boston Red Sox, at age 28.

Epstein represents a new generation of baseball executives, one that challenges conventional wisdom through statistical analysis. Playing experience is not required.

"You've got guys who would normally spend four years at Goldman Sachs out of college now applying for baseball jobs," Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane said. "Instead of running hedge funds eight years later, they're on their way to becoming general managers. To me, that's great. You want the best and brightest in your game."

And so the analysts multiply -- some with jobs in baseball, some in search of them, some enjoying a hobby, all in search of information that could give a team an edge. With a laptop computer, fans can conduct their own research -- in evaluating players and otherwise -- then publish it.

On a recent morning, Beane took note of a website that attempted to calculate how many runs the A's could score with every possible lineup combination.

"With the Internet and blogs, you have so much more," Beane said. "You've almost got a 'wisdom of the crowd' situation."

That wisdom can turn intuition on its head, or validate it. Two decades ago, Angels manager Gene Mauch dismissed conventional theory by using Brian Downing as a leadoff hitter. Downing did not fit the mold of the typical leadoff hitter -- he did not hit .300 or steal bases, as Pierre does -- but he walked a lot and therefore got on base more often than his teammates.

The data is in. The correlations have been checked. Mauch was right.

"The two statistics that are the greatest determining factors in whether you win games," Beane said, "are team ERA and on-base percentage."

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The traditional display on a ballpark scoreboard presents the Triple Crown offensive statistics -- batting average, home runs and runs batted in. The Baseball Prospectus glossary offers dozens more, from on-base percentage and slugging percentage to newer measures listed by such acronyms as EqA and WARP-3.

"It seems like each and every year there's a new stat to look at," Towers said. "I think there are organizations that aren't looking at that type of stuff, and I think they're missing the boat."

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