In 1980, a night watchman with a degree in economics, who had never played the game, began using statistical analysis to explore it. His name was Bill James, and he started selling memeographed books of analysis over the Internet for $4 to about 70 baseball geeks. It started a new science called Sabermetirics, Statistical Analysis of Baseball Records. It now stands for Society of American Baseball Researchers. Bill James is now a special consultant to the Red Sox.
In Baseball Between the Numbers: Why Everything You Know About the Game is Wrong, the experts at Baseball Prospectus have collected 10 sabermetric analyses that examine or challenge old, conventional baseball wisdom. It is designed to introduce sabermetrics to people afraid of numbers. It explains all the acronyms that are the language of sabermetrics, and a glossary in the back allows the reader to look up terms he has forgotten.
Sabermetrics turned a lot of conventional baseball wisdom — folklore passed from one generation of old ballplayers to the next – on its ear. The first major league team to use sabermetrics to evaluate players was the Oakland A’s in 1999. With $40 million to spend on players, the A’s stayed competitive with the Yankees, Red Sox, Orioles, and Dodgers, who spent 10,times more. John Henry, who bought the Red Sox in 2002, installed a sabermetrician as general manager, Theo Epstein, right away. Two years later, the Sox broke the 86-year curse, and won the World Series.
Here are some of the major changes sabermetrics brought to the game:
SACRIFICE BUNTS AND STOLEN BASES became less important because giving up an out to move a runner from first to second, or second to third, is almost always a bad deal for the offense. Except maybe late in a crucial game, when a single run would tie or put your team ahead. A Rickey Henderson on, who steals more than 100 bases a year, turns base stealing into high percentage play, and disrupts the pitcher and defense, makes stolen bases are a better idea. But base stealers like that come only about once a generation.
BATTING AVERAGE used to be a batter’s most important statistic, hits divided by times at bat. But batting average does not count walks as anything. A guy who gets to first on a walk is just as likely to score as a guy who reaches on a single. A walk should be as good as a hit.
ON BASE PERCENTAGE, hits plus walks per times at bat is now more important than batting average. This has revolutionized teams’ and individuals’ approach to hitting. Teams now look for hitters with records that show patience and discipline, who make a pitcher throw a lot of pitches, hit a lot of foul balls, and draw a lot of walks. Ted Williams said pitchers usually make one mistake in every at bat. If you look at enough pitches in an at-bat, you’re far more likely to hit it than if you swing at the first or second pitch. The team’s best pitchers are its starters, and the relief pitchers who specialize in the 7th, 8th, and 9th inning. If you can force a pitcher to throw too many pitches, and leave the game before the 7th inning, you’ll get a crack at the soft underbelly of your opponent’s pitching staff.
RUNS BATTED IN, once considered a measure of a hitter’s ability to hit in clutch situations, is less important than it used to be. Batters do not control how many opportunities they get to drive in runs. One reason Lou Gehrig is the all-time RBI leader is that he batted 4th in great Yankee lineups in the 1920′s and ’30′s. He came to bat with runners on base, or in scoring position, more than anybody. If you could come up with a numerical measure for RBI opportunities, and measure RBI per opportunity, you’d have a much better measure of a hitter’s performance in the clutch. You might be able to do that by giving different numbers to different situations, based on how often runs score with a generic hitter at bat: a runner on first, a runner on second, a runner on third, runners on first and second, second and third, and bases loaded. That might take circumstances the batter can’t control (men on base) out of his run production statistic.
Three statistics are completely within the batter’s control: home runs, walks, and strikeouts. Sabermetricians claim that once a batter puts a ball in play, he has no control over what happens to it, whether it becomes a hit or an out.
Similarly, only three statistics are completely within the picher’s control: strikeouts, walks, and home runs. All other statistics, including runs and earned runs, measure the fielders’ performance as well as the pitchers’. Measuring the influence of the fielders is still the elusive Holy Grail of sabermetrics.
Teams that use sabermetrics draft fewer players out of high school. High school statistics are based on too few games and questionable competition. A college or minor league record is a much better predictor of a prospect’s performance.
Old school scouts used to love drafting high school pitchers who could throw a strawberry through the side of an aircraft carrier. But statistical analysis showed most of these prodigies develop arm trouble before they make the majors, or they prove unable to master a second or third pitch they can throw with confidence in any Major League situation.
If a big league hitter knows you will throw a certain pitch when you need to throw a strike, because you lack confidence in your other pitches, he’ll crush it, and you won’t be in the Majors very long. If you have a fastball and nothing else reliable, Major League hitters will time it and crush it. You need at least two pitches you are comfortable throwing in all situations. You learn these pitches in college or the minor leagues. Many high school prodigies, who always succeeded on speed alone, can’t learn to control another pitch.