Mark Richardson —
Baseball is played very differently today than when I was young. There has been a revolution going on for several years that has fundamentally changed the way players and managers approach the game, how it is taught, and how fans watch it. The changes began around the year 2000, when a group of devoted baseball fans had, some years previously, formed a group which called itself The Society for American Baseball Research, or SABR. It began as a casual online meeting place for hardcore baseball aficionados to gather and discuss their favorite pastime. But, as any true fan can attest, opinions shared must be challenged, and tested, and verified. So, it wasn’t long until discussions of strategy became matters of great debate over effectiveness.
As the SABR membership grew, opportunities were discovered to test some of these theories in a concrete manner. As more and more members brought real analytical skills to the group, it was decided that the game’s history should be taken apart, piece by piece, and examined under a microscope. So, a group of over 100 members, all of whom when not arguing about baseball, were employed in various occupations in which the study of numbers was the most significant element, assigned themselves a gargantuan task. Thus mathematicians, CPA’s, statisticians, and so on took on the job of breaking down the history of baseball, game by game, to determine what strategies had proven successful and which, throughout the years, had not.
To this end, they split the work evenly among themselves, some taking this 20 year period and others that period, and still others yet another 20 year segment of time, and each, then, pouring over newspaper accounts of every game, or at least nearly every game played in the major leagues from the their origin in 1871 to the time of the study. After many grueling years of analysis, the information assembled entailed many thousands of games, and the results yielded many shocking facts. Things that even the most astute baseball fans believed to be unshakably established as facts about the game were found to be false, and things deemed unimportant were suddenly seen as the most significant of all. For instance, the bunt, long regarded as a very necessary offensive tool, was discovered to have nearly no effect on scoring at all. The hit and run play, in which a base runner takes off for the next base while the batter swings at the pitch that is delivered, almost regardless of the pitch location, and the stolen base, were found to be far more devastating when unsuccessful than had been previously supposed. Batting average, for well over a century regarded as the best measure of how good a hitter a player was, was revealed to be anything but that. And new measures such as OPS (the combination of a batter’s on-base percentage and his slugging average), WAR (wins above replacement), and RISP (batting average with runners in scoring position) were revealed to be the statistics which measured a player’s true worth. These new statistics were originally called SABRmetrics, after the people who had brought them to prominence, but have in recent years been called the new analytics.
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The first team to embrace the new analytics was the Oakland A’s, under the direction of General Manager Billy Beane. Beane’s story was told in Michael Lewis’s 2004 bestseller, Moneyball, which was made into a feature film starring Brad Pitt as Beane. Lewis portrayed Beane, probably accurately, as a visionary who embraced the concept of emphasizing statistical analysis as a revolutionary new way to approach the game. Beane himself, though, looked at it in a bit of a different light. He regarded himself as a desperate front office man confronted with the problem of putting a winning team on the field without a payroll large enough to do so in the traditional manner.
Beane began searching the waiver wires, the Rule 15 draft options (those players under contract to another team but left unprotected by being omitted from the team’s 40 man roster), and other bargain basement methods of obtaining players whose skills had been unappreciated or undervalued by their previous teams. His search was focused on those players who had a history of reaching base successfully, of scoring runs, of completing plate appearances without making outs. This last component is vital to the understanding of the new SABRmetrric measures. Every batter who goes to the plate and does not make an out has contributed to the continuation of the inning, thus increasing the opportunity for run scoring. A successful at bat does not mean hitting a home run or getting a base hit; it means not making an out. Every out puts an offense closer to the end of the inning, so avoiding outs is the single most important outcome of every plate appearance.
Beane secured as many players as possible with high on-base percentages and slugging averages (a measure of the player’s ability to get extra base hits), and his success (the A’s reached the playoffs five times in six seasons with the roster of players who had been regarded as expendable by other teams) led other GMs, most notably Theo Epstein of the Boston Red Sox to follow his example. Epstein was the youngest General Manager in major league history, and he was eager to embrace the new analytics and Beane’s way of thinking. His success in Boston was to culminate in the first World Series title for the Red Sox in 86 seasons.
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The new analytics have wreaked havoc on us old timers who loved the game that we are now told was played ineffectively for 150 years. I was, in fact, on board with the uselessness of the sacrifice bunt from a very early age. This play, of course, is one in which the batters bunts, or softly deadens the ball as it is pitched to him, in order to give himself up so that the base runner(s) might safely advance to the next base. After watching baseball with a dedication bordering on obsession for a few years as a child, I told my friend Rick Wyman that there was nothing more stupid than a sacrifice bunt. “It never works,” I told him. All they ever get from it is an easy out.” Rick thought I was crazy. Why would managers, who had been around baseball all their lives, employ a strategy that didn’t work? When I was about 12 or 13 years old, the Baltimore Orioles hired Earl Weaver to manage the team. Weaver was in fact the first true progenitor of the SABRmetricians who would change the game decades later. He recorded the results of every play on index cards, which he then carried in his back pocket. By season’s end it looked like he was toting the Encyclopedia Britannica around in his pants. He was also the first manager to utilize computers to sort his information. One day the Orioles were playing in the Saturday Game of the Week, and broadcaster Tony Kubek interviewed Weaver before the game began, and he asked Weaver why he never used the sacrifice bunt, which was so dear to other managers. Weaver said, “Because there’s nothing more stupid than making an out on purpose. We only get 27 outs a game. Why would we want make any of them on purpose?” I felt absolutely vindicated. I couldn’t wait to tell the unbeliever Rick Wyman what Weaver had said. Rick was singularly unimpressed. He could care less what crusty, white-haired old Earl had to say. In Rick’s mind, Weaver didn’t even have the good sense to be a member of the Chicago Cubs organization, so what could it matter what he thought about anything? Now, of course, thanks to the tireless work of the SABR crew, we know that the sacrifice bunt is indeed both futile and foolish. We know that a team has a better chance, in fact a MUCH better chance, of scoring a run in an inning in which they have a runner on first base with nobody out than they have of scoring when they have a runner at second with one out. We didn’t know the numbers back in the 1960s, but some of us knew that the bunt was just plain dumb.
There are now also new and complex ways to determine an individual player’s contribution to his team’s victories. We used to think that batting average was one of these contributions. But the new analytics tell us otherwise. We are all impressed by batters who hit for an average above .300. That has always been the measure of greatness. The odds are so stacked against the hitter in a game in which the pitcher always knows which of four or five pitches he going to throw while the batter can only try to guess what to expect, and in which the pitcher has eight teammates scattered about the diamond to help him retire the batter, while the hitter has to go it alone. This being the case, a batter who successfully hits safely in seven out of ten at-bats is a great hitter. But does this equate to a solid contribution to wins? The new analytics say, “maybe not.” If all a hitter does is hit, he is not going to reach base often enough to make a real contribution. Because, while a .300 batting average is excellent, a .300 on-base percentage is abysmal. In order to be considered an effective hitter, a player must find other ways of reaching base safely. The most common way, of course, is by drawing walks. There has been a saying in baseball for as long as there has been baseball, which goes, “A walk is as good as a hit,” but nobody ever really believed it. Turns out it is absolutely true. It stands to reason; the more base runners a team gets, the more opportunities it has to score. But OBP itself is not enough, either. In order to be a real contributor to victories, a hitter must compile a stout OPS. The OPS is the combination of on-base percentage and slugging average. The slugging average is determined by dividing the number of at-bats by the number of extra base hits (doubles, triples, and home runs). This is the measure of a batter’s power, or the success he has in putting himself in scoring position. So if a hitter has a batting average of .324 and an OBP of .482, his OPS is .806, and his team can thank him for a stellar contribution to wins.
The new analytics have taught general managers just what types of players they should be seeking, what skills translate to winning baseball, and what skills that used to be valued should actually be avoided. They tell managers what strategies to employ and what player match-ups make the most sense. They tell pitchers, hitters, and base runners what methods of attack make the most sense. But, have the changes that these new ways of looking at what works and what doesn’t work take more away from the game than they have brought to it? I would argue that they have. The shifts that defenses employ, wherein they stack all the infielders on one side of the diamond when they have determined that a batter is most likely to hit the ball to that side, the limits on the number of pitches a pitcher is allowed to throw, the near-absence of the stolen base and the hit and run, two of the game’s most exciting plays prior to their extinction, all coupled with the new rules prohibiting contact with catchers and infielders by base runners, have all diminished the game by degrees. The focus on slugging average has resulted in a new phenomenon, the launch angle, as players study the angle of their swing to determine which is the most optimal to the generation of power. This lust for greater power, in turn, has exponentially increased the number of strikeouts. Every year for the past 12 seasons there has been a new record set for the number of hitters striking out. And coinciding with this, the number of home runs have seen new records, surpassing even the astronomical totals of the steroid era. In an average game these days, far more pitches are not put into play than are as the game has devolved into a game of strikeouts, walks, and home runs.
Much of the excitement that I knew the game to possess when I was young is gone. I don’t think baseball is ever going back to the game I knew, and I lament the loss. But I still love baseball, still watch it on TV and listen to it on the radio, and still read and write about it. It is in my blood and it always will be. So as a new generation makes it’s mark upon the game, and one more old codger moans and groans about the loss of “real” baseball, it comes into my mind that when I was ten I laughed at the old men who said the things I’m saying now. Things change, but somehow, they wind up the same.