Alan Schwartz said it best: "When you get right down to it, no corner of American culture is more precisely counted and more passionately quantified than the performance of baseball players . . . [statistics] are recorded, analyzed, and memorized with an exactitude that we summon only for matters so, well, important."
Can anyone deny Schwartz' point? Today, numbers on Nielsen television ratings and the U.S. Census, even presidential elections and trillion-dollar federal budgets, are routinely greeted by a mixture of popular confusion and apathy, but baseball's numbers have always been a notable exception. Even 1800's-era fans knew that the game's individual achievements and clear results lent themselves to handy measures, so everyone knew that marks like ‘.300' and ‘3.00' could provide shorthand for hitting and pitching excellence. Baseball stats have always had a clarity and power all their own, too, so generations have embraced numbers like ‘4,191', ‘511', ‘60' as player milestones on career hits, wins, and single-season home runs.
That stats-mindedness has always been there in baseball's fundamental appeal, but the modern era has been defined by a veritable explosion in the game's numbers. Spurred by analysts like Bill James and Pete Palmer, statisticians have adopted sophisticated new measures/acronyms like OPS, VORP, SLOB, qERA, and WHIP to express players' real (read: independent and objective) impact on a ballgame, impacts that were skewed in traditional metrics like batting average and wins. The media have followed the modernizers' lead, to the point where nearly every player match-up and game situation can be subject to multiple, stats-laden commentaries. ‘Moneyball' front offices have taken the subject still further in recent years, using detailed formulas and tiny indicators to inform every move they make, from amateur drafting and Minor League promotion to prospect trades and superstar signings.
Of course, all the above have only fueled the exploding popularity of fantasy baseball, which now has an estimated 15 million plus fans finding their own ways to examine the sport through compilations of individual performers' stats.
It's a numbers-rich landscape that's mostly taken for
granted nowadays, but it's a much different game than the one Steve Mann knew as
he came of age in the 1970's. While Mann, like millions of other fans, had an
interest and knack for the Pastime's statistics, he had few if any stat-savvy
mainstream analysts, commentators, or executives to take that interest into any
kind of deeper, more practical application. After gaining education degrees from
Mann's pioneering ‘run productivity average' caught the
attention of Houston Astros president Tal Smith, who hired Mann to be the first
formal statistician in Major League Baseball since the 1950's. After a 1979-81
stint in the
While Mann has written several well-received fantasy baseball books and contributed to the early 1980's start-up of the STATS Inc. service, his main claim to fame may be in his role in the sport's numbers boom. With the exception of giants like Palmer and Dick Cramer, few approach his decades-long role in introducing and popularizing baseball statistics. After nearly 25 years of arbitration hearing work, it's doubtful that anyone has surpassed Mann in the hands-on, practical application of baseball's most important and meaningful performance statistics.
All in all, not a bad impact for a sore-armed lefty who never pitched an inning in the Majors. Recently, a gifted individual named Steve Mann discussed lent an insider's perspective to baseball, the prototypical numbers game.
How did you first get interested in baseball?
My father - naturally it
starts there - basically grew up as a Brooklyn Dodgers fan. After he moved to
He was a real fan. I remember having my first catches with him when I was four years old, in a park across the street from our apartment. That was my first taste of the game.
How did you first get interested in statistics?
I guess it goes back to when I was 10 or 11, when one of the kids in the neighborhood brought in a game called ‘All-Star Baseball'
It was a board game with a spinner. There would be these stacks of player cards, and they were laid out in such a way that they reflected the player's actual performances. For instance, I remember Ducky Medwick, a Hall of Famer, had a huge ‘doubles' area on his card because he led the world in doubles per at bat. Obviously, Babe Ruth had a huge ‘home runs' area.
Anyway, at 10 or 11, I was playing this numbers game, one based on actual performance. It was pretty close to a replication to the real game. We were keeping the stats, crunching the numbers, so that by the time I was a teenager, I was already hooked on stats. In retrospect, it was a great way to enjoy doing loads of math computations.
When did you start analyzing baseball statistics in a more sophisticated way?
After being introduced to ‘APBA Baseball' - a more grown-up version of ‘All-Star Baseball' - some years later, my friends and I held a draft to select players. This was around 1975, 1976. Mike Schmidt was very early into what would be a Hall of Fame career, and Pete Rose was still near the top of his game as a leadoff hitter. I asked myself - ‘OK, which player would I rather have in the draft?'
I started laying out the problem. ‘OK, Rose hits over .300 and draws a good number of walks. He doesn't hit home runs but does get a fair amount of doubles. Touted as a base stealer, but he has a miserable success rate. Let's put him to one side'.
Then there was Schmidt. ‘A .250 hitter who gets on base because he walks a lot. One of the best home run hitters in baseball. A good base runner but without a whole lot of steals.'
So, two very different players. Who do I want?
I knew that I couldn't start assigning weights to various parts of their performances, because I didn't have anything to base those weights on. I could go on for an hour about the explanations, but to make a long story short, the answer had to come down to runs. I had to know how many runs a player produced, personally.
Why didn't you just refer to the traditional measures, ‘runs scored' and ‘RBI'?
Because I knew they were highly dependent on one's position in the batting order and the quality of one's team. If you're in the one-hole, for instance, you're in the best possible position for scoring but in the worst position for RBIs. There are built in biases like this that have nothing to do with a player's inherent skill and results. They're team-dependent numbers that aren't measures of individual performance.
Anyway, I thought, to get rid of that bias, I had to assign weights to the numbers. It then dawned on me that if you just take all the walks, singles, doubles, triples, home runs, and steals and see how many runs and RBIs they produced, on average, throughout the league you could eliminate the dependency problem. With the overall league averages at hand, you could then give each offensive event its proper weight and go from there.
The problem kept working its way backwards. To find the league averages that I needed, I had to get play-by-play information. I got that material from David Montgomery, who was in the Phillies front office at the time. We had gone to school together from second grade through college.
I used the Phillies play-by-play book for 1975 and broke down all of the 12,000 plate appearances contained in it. On the basis of that analysis, I built my first formula to predict a team's run production. The results were phenomenal - better than a 90% correlation between the individual offensive stats and a team's final run total.
Did you realize that was the beginning of a career?
I knew from the start that I was taking a fundamentally sound approach, but I didn't have any idea what it would produce.
In sports analysis, the first question is always, ‘Where do wins come from?' After all, what you most want to know is how and why teams are successful. Then, if you can answer that question reasonably well, your next target is the players. Specifically, you want to discover how much they contribute, individually, to team performance.
So, yeah, without really setting out to do more than play a board game, I had stumbled on to something pretty exciting and, I thought, important.
Were you aware of Pete Palmer's ‘OPS' concept when you came up with your formula in the late 1970's?
'OPS' was originally devised by Dick Cramer and later improved upon by Pete Palmer. It had been completed by that time, but I didn't know about it.
I first started talking to Pete after I developed my weighted formula, which I called ‘the run productivity average'. He was the one who told me about ‘On Base Plus Slugging', or ‘OPS', and it immediately impressed me with how elegant that was.
Because it's a very simple, clear, logical way to attack the problem of accounting for run production, even to those who aren't steeped in numbers.
‘On Base Percentage' is an exact measure of success in a hitter's primary objective, which is to get on base. ‘Slugging' is a good measure of power, which amounts to the intensity of the success rate. Add them together and you've got a fairly comprehensive measure of hitter effectiveness, in one neat little package.
I guess the most famous proponent of that stat has been Bill James. Were you aware of his work by the late 1970's?
Yeah, I read his first couple of Abstracts. In fact, I was made aware of Bill's work while I was in the Astros' front office, before he became a phenom. But he was not an advocate for OPS.
What did you think of James?
That he's an incredibly gifted writer, first of all. He definitely knows how to ask a compelling question and draw in a reader into an issue.
Another thing about Bill is, he's very imaginative. He's very good at looking at the little nooks and crannies of the game to see if they have any substantive impact. When it comes to that kind of blue-sky, freewheeling thought, he does a terrific job.
But, I disagree with how he goes about a number of things.
How do you mean?
As you might know, Bill and I
worked on some arbitration cases together in the late 1980's and early 1990's. I
remember talking to him one time; I'll never forget it, in
Well, even if James didn't necessarily have the same technical background, you agree his concepts were for many readers very enlightening?
You've hit the nail on the head. If I had to give him a title, it would be ‘The Great Popularizer'. And he is. There's no taking that away from him. Bill James grabbed a hold of what was sort of an arcane effort at the time, and took it out into the public arena. I think that was something that ended up spawning the fantasy baseball thing.
Did you know about fantasy baseball at that time?
I didn't get wind of what could be called ‘postmodern' fantasy baseball until '83 or '84. Even though I was pushing forty, I thought it might be a fun thing to do, but I didn't like the design of the Rotisserie game very much. I mean, on the face of it, it's absurd to equate stolen bases and home runs. Once again, although the broad concept was outstanding, the details were all wrong.
The great achievement of Daniel Okrent, Glenn Waggoner, and the other designers of Rotisserie was bringing fantasy baseball into real time. In the past, games like 'Strat-o-Matic' and 'All-Star Baseball' dealt with games and individual performances that had already occurred. It was all ex post facto. This new form of fantasy baseball still required the participants to figure out the numbers in advance, but it also demanded that they make judgments about ballplayers' roles, playing time, and particular facets of performance as the season went along.
When you first started working with the Astros and then as an arbitration consultant, you didn't have an academic degree in math. Did that present a stumbling block for you?
My academic background is in
philosophy, not in science, per se. My grounding is in the analysis of
conceptual problems, such as, 'What constitutes a morally sound education?' I
did take graduate-level courses in statistics and probability theory at
What I found is that having an open mind, being as detached from one's biases as possible, and trying to exercise that objectivity at all times are at the core of every genuinely professional analytic undertaking. Like they say on 'CSI', "You follow where the evidence leads." And you draw no conclusions until enough evidence is in to support or refute them. It's that dispassionate, scientific attitude that I fully embraced in graduate school and that I have tried to sustain throughout my three decades as a baseball analyst.
When it gets to the serious mathematics of statistics and probability theory, I always go straight to a Pete Palmer or an Eddie Epstein, because I know how to talk to them and get what I'm looking for, and they know how to do the job. In other words, when it gets really tricky, I rely on full-fledged experts. But I have found that to get a degree in 'baseball-ology', you don't need all that much familiarity with formal math.
Starting in 1981, you began working for Tal Smith on the management side of arbitration hearings. What was that like?
Oh, I was thrilled. Here, finally, was an opportunity to introduce many of the findings of Pete Palmer, Dick Cramer, myself, and other analysts. (laughs) 'What's a guy really worth?' It was a whole new adventure with the genuine jolt of fulfilling a childhood dream of making it to the big leagues.
Were you worried about your lack of familiarity with Major League salaries?
As exciting as it sounded, I said, ‘Tal, I don't know anything about salaries'. He said not to worry about that, that he'd only need me for the performance side. So I said, ‘Sure!'
Why did you decide to work on management's side of the arbitration process?
Well, Tal and I were on good collegial terms. More compelling, however, was that my business partners and I were trying to establish a baseball analysis company, and we were certain that we would have to rely on the clubs to attain our goals. We also felt that we would ultimately need to be in the good graces of the Commissioner's Office in order to get approval to put our people in press boxes.
I had no problem in working against the players in monetary terms. I mean, they were going to be fine no matter what. (laughs) I remember Tal once said (mock outrage), 'I'm going crazy in this business. Backup catchers are making more money than I do'. And he was right. I reasoned that if backup catchers were making more money than a former club president – and six times what I was earning – I wouldn't feel like a turncoat for opposing the players over their income.
It was tough for me, because I've always been politically liberal and pro-labor. And there were times . . . Once, I remember, we were doing an arbitration case for Gabe Paul and Phil Segui of the Indians. Both of them were in their 70's at the time. At a breakfast meeting before a hearing, they just about danced around the table with glee reminiscing over an instance in which they'd held up players' promotions by a few weeks just so they could keep down their service time and thereby delay their arbitration eligibility for a full year.
What was it like when you decided to move to become an arbitration consultant to the players?
It was a great relief. Look, it's so much more pleasant to argue for someone than to argue against him.
Well, with the management side, you were being pro-team.
True, but the job is to tear the player down. The subject of every arbitration case is the player, and you're either for him or against him. The teams, by definition, are against the player in every hearing.
It's so much easier to be for someone than against him. That counts a lot for me, especially since, like I said, I'm pro-labor in my personal sympathies anyway.
Those early arbitration proceedings were kind of notorious now, in that many arbitrators seemed clueless about Major League salary structures and performances. What was your experience?
I wouldn't say that the arbitrators were wrong in one out of three or one out of four cases, which seems to be the view of a lot of people in the industry. After doing 55 cases, my sense is that they were dead wrong in only about one out of seven. I mean, trying to look at it objectively, they appeared to me to be wrong about that often, whether they ruled in favor of management or labor.
So much has changed since those early days though, in the rigor of preparation. And ball clubs seem a lot more eager to decline arbitration for weaker players or to lock up young stars.
Things have changed, tediously and incrementally, over the years.
My resistance is largely
cultural - there are too many corporate magnates from other industries, mostly
people with inexperience in running an operation with an analytic mentality, who
are calling the shots for the clubs. I mean, Billy Beane has done a great job in
continuing Sandy Alderson's system in
Most clubs continue to ignore proven, reliable, scientific findings that have been accessible to the public for 20 to 40 years. That's the way it is.
Would you say that's true even today?
Hmmm. General Managers who truly understand numbers and look at them thoroughly and systematically? You can identify maybe half a dozen. Even then, we don't know what happens when teams actually pull the trigger on transactions. You and I have no idea how much Bill James influenced Theo Epstein's decisions, or how much Theo Epstein influenced Larry Lucchino's decisions. We know that the Red Sox' front office did take an analytic, stat-minded approach to making decisions, but exactly how much they relied on statistical analysis is known only to them.
If you're right, and not a whole lot of teams do take statistics seriously, it might be good for the overall game, in that it gives an opening to smaller budget teams with better understanding of the numbers game.
Yeah. I said to Bill James a long time ago, 'We're really lucky these guys don't get it, otherwise we wouldn't be here'.
It's been a very slow process. Having been in this nearly from the beginning, I feel comfortable giving credit to guys like Dick Cramer and Pete Palmer. They're really the fathers of modern baseball analysis, thanks to the work that they did in the mid- to late-60's. But, nearly 40 years later, there might be less than half a dozen teams that have truly adopted their findings and used them in serious ways.
Do you think that organizations can be successful without using a lot of statistical research and analysis?
Sure. Look at the Dodgers from the time of Branch Rickey through the 1980's and maybe into the 1990's. I think that more than 90% of the time, their staff ERA was in the top three in the league. They owned pitching like no one before or since and, obviously, they were perennial contenders.
How did they do that?
Don Drysdale said that the thing that set the Dodgers apart was that they had practitioners of the art of pitching, all year long, moving in and out of the organization, talking to pitchers constantly. With the Dodgers, there was constant discussion of the art of pitching mechanics and mentality and so on.
Yes, Rickey emphasized that
both hitters and pitchers should have a mastery of the strike zone. 'OPS' only
confirms that wisdom, for example, by rewarding hitters for laying off bad
pitches and rewarding pitchers for compiling low walk rates. Yet, the Dodgers'
primary success seemed to be in teaching. That's a model that the Braves have
There's another example - Tony La Russa.
For years, La Russa has been well-known for his use of technology and intricate breakdowns of the stats. I have always felt the real key to his success is that he pulls a team together and staffs it with coaches and players who are utterly devoted to winning. The hallmark is the readiness - the players come off the bench and perform, and it seems that no one who plays for La Russa is ever lackadaisical or goes into long slumps.
I may be whistling in the wind here, but it's possible that La Russa's tight ship may actually contribute even more to his success than his strategic and tactical skills.
Have you ever come across a manager who has used stats in a rigorous way during a game?
Stats have very little to do with the game between the lines after one has written out a lineup card, which is the essence of in-game strategy. Stats are more valuable when it comes to global evaluations of a player, particularly when front office decisions are made about acquiring players or negotiating salaries.
Larry Dierker of the Astros is the only guy I know of who has made a direct application of analytic work to his game-day work as a manager. He had me share Pete Palmer's probability tables with him - it's a very long, complex mathematical map of base/out situations and inning situations for a variety of run differentials. For example, if you have no one out in the seventh inning of a tied road game, and if you have surrendered an out to move the runner from second to third, have you improved the probability of winning that game? Pete's chart contained all of the relevant probabilities.
Now, Larry used that chart some degree, but only to some degree. Most other Major League managers seem to use some stats for particular pitcher/hitter matchups, in the way Earl Weaver was looking at them 30 years ago, and then supplement them with old-fashioned, seat-of-the-pants baseball knowledge.
Do you think that stats can be overemphasized in particular instances?
In any particular hitter-pitcher matchup, there are any number of elements at play. It isn't only 'sinker/slider right-hander against a pull-hitting righty batter.' It's also about what they've done lately, how they look today, the home plate umpire's strike zone. You could go on and on about the significant variables in every single plate appearance, and you'll never know how many there are, let alone how to quantify each of them. In those cases, you generally have to trust experience, instinct and first-hand observation.
You'd go with a hunch instead of the percentages?
I think, for myself - for any self-respecting analyst - you have to look at situations as they really exist. Go against the historical numbers, if that's where a well-considered hunch takes you. 'OK, here are the numbers, but I see something else here and now'.
To me, that's what an academic mentality, at it's best, is all about - trying to get the best answers. The numbers are highly useful tools in baseball, but philosophical training is all about keeping your eyes and ears open. There are always surprises in life, including baseball life.
Do you see a lot of misuse of statistics by writers?
Well, writers still get ‘OPS' wrong, just plain wrong.
Do any examples come to mind?
Well, here's a 'for instance'. A fairly well-known writer had a piece in the New York Times recently. What he did was take the ‘on-base plus slugging' for Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds, and try to show how much better they were than their peers. It's flat-out incorrect to use the sum of the on-base and slugging percentages in your calculations. You have to isolate the ‘on base percentage' and compare it to the league norm and then isolate the ‘slugging percentage' and compare it to the league norm. There are two separate calculations in the process.
Now, that may not sound like much, but it ends up making a huge difference in giving an accurate picture. And so, even the New York Times has given inaccurate information to the fans, within the last few weeks.
Not to pick on this particular writer - I don't want to name names - but he consistently makes another error, and that's in treating 'on base percentage' as the center of the baseball universe. That's bogus, too. Actually, if you want to rely on a single number to predict runs scored, slugging is a slightly more reliable indicator than on base.
Like I said, it's a long, slow process for everyone to catch up to concepts that guys like Dick Cramer and Pete Palmer were using nearly 40 years ago.
There seems to be a very mixed bag in today's perspectives. On the one hand, nearly everyone who's taken at all seriously seems to agree that statistics like slugging and 'slugging with men on base' are more important than RBI's for hitters and that ERA's and 'walks/hits per nine innings pitched' are more important than wins when it comes to pitchers.
On the other hand, relatively few fans seem to know what a good 'OPS' or 'WHIP' number really is. All of the important benchmarks in the game are expressed in the older language of batting average, home runs, wins, saves.
I agree completely. Strange how that works.
The population of people interested in baseball has a pyramid shape, with a certain number of experts on top and a steadily expanding number of people who know less than dedicated analysts. It'll always be that way.
The only question is - how many people are at the very top? It seems that more people are getting more and more knowledgeable, so that the top of the pyramid is spreading out.
How does psychology work into your analysis of baseball performance?
As with all other complex subjects, including even mathematics, there are elements of both science and art in baseball analysis. I believe that one of the keys to predicting individual performance well is the ability to recognize where science and art meet, that is, where a player's statistics and his mastery of the game intersect.
With that said - frankly, I don't know the players well enough to form firm psychological opinions about them. Though I have a good number of credits in graduate-level psychology, I am not an expert in the field. I would venture to say that very few decision-makers in a front office or a dugout have the skills to read the personalities, attitudes, or competitiveness of their players well. Even if a GM or manager could psychoanalyze players reliably, how would someone else in the organization, including the guy who hired him, know if he really does have that skill?
How would you account for someone like Joe Torre, though? He seems to have the ultimate reputation for being the ultimate guy in dealing with players' motivation and egos.
Oh, I suspect that there are people who practice good sports psychology.
I met Joe when he was still with the Braves, and what I observed in him is a degree of 'listenership' and maturity that I haven't seen before or since. Like many others, I got the sense that he's an excellent player psychologist and that he really does have a sense how to get the most out of every individual. Surely he's superior to a guy who's too laid-back or someone who's flying off the handle all the time.
Yet, that's only an impression. Would I bet the ranch on it? No way. Generally, the best team, that is to say, the most talented team, wins.
Then you don't think that something beyond the numbers, team chemistry, for instance, impacts on Major League teams' performance?
I was on a high-powered fast-pitch softball team in the late 1970s that once included three guys who were pursuing advanced degrees in counseling psychology. The one year that we all played together, we talked for hours on end between games about a wide range of psychological factors that seemed to have a real bearing on individual and team performance. We also worked very hard that season trying to figure out how best to accommodate the various personal strengths, weaknesses, attitudes, and feelings of all members of the team.
That year, we ended up winning the league championship in a 1-0 nail-biter in the final game, but the real achievement of that team? It was the enormously high degree of camaraderie and genuine teamwork that we summoned throughout the season. We'd have been very happy campers even if we hadn't won. The victory was merely icing on the cake. That was team chemistry right there, on our team.
The collegiality – the teamwork – was real, and you can extend that to any area, not just sports. I mean, a law firm, a restaurant, an agency, you name it. Personalities can come together and act in a mature, professional way, and that works.
All these things are part of the game, but here's my take on it: I've never seen any evidence that team chemistry amounts to anything on the Major League level. These aren't part-time players in an amateur league we're talking about, they're professionals. To make it to the top level, you have to have certain mental and emotional attributes. Most of those who have made it to the Major Leagues are guys who aren't bothered by others' behavior. I would venture to say that nearly all of them are unfazed by their teammates' antics.
But think of all the first-round picks that ended up as wash-outs, and all the Roy Oswalts and Andy Pettittes of the world, who end up as stars even though they're almost ignored as high school players. Surely they had a good player makeup that didn't necessarily show up in their physical performance.
It's interesting. One of the reasons I like to go back to numbers is because you have these people in baseball who think they're psychologists, just like they think they know how chemistry works.
Let me tell you this story. I
had a chance to play with Reggie Jackson back home in a
The next pitch, Reggie hits it even harder. Same thing - it's right down the line but just does curve foul. Strike two. The next pitch is a ball so it's 3-2 with the bases juiced. Here comes the payoff pitch.
Reggie swings and misses.
At that point Reggie grabbed his bat and looked at it like he would break it in half. He was, I kid you not, trembling with anger. He threw down the bat, walked past us in the dugout, got on his bike, and pedaled off into the sunset. That's it. Reggie never came back to our team.
Years later, in 1981, when I was working in the Astros front office, Tal Smith asked me who the club should be looking for in the free agent market. The team desperately needed a left-handed power hitter, so I identified three players who stood out - Reggie Jackson, Rick Monday, and Bobby Murcer. I reported that Reggie was clearly the best of them, then Monday, and if you couldn't get either of them, Murcer wouldn't be bad for a couple of years.
A shouting match promptly ensued, not with Tal, but with a couple other people from the front office. My opponents' attitude was, ‘We can't have a guy like this on our team. He'll ruin the chemistry of our club'. I told them the story I just told you and they said, ‘See what a selfish a—hole he is!'
I said ‘Yeah, there's no getting around that. On the other hand . . . on the other hand, this was a 15- or 16-year old kid who was so determined to succeed, it was beyond belief'.
That episode, as far as I was concerned, was more about Reggie Jackson's commitment to success than his selfishness. That kind of driving ambition is part of what you need to be a Major Leaguer. I think Reggie was showing that 'Mr. October' drive, even as a kid. My opponents in the argument saw something completely different.
So, yeah, there are surprises. I just trust the facts – including the numbers – more than those who want to tell me, 'Oh, this is a bad guy' or 'Oh, this is a good guy'. Even when you think you've got a fix on that sort of thing, you often find that you don't.
Do you think there are new statistics to be found in baseball?
There's one great unsolved mystery in baseball - no one knows the precise value of fielding.
Well, in the older days, there was 'fielding percentage'. Today's sabermetrics use 'range factor'.
They're both gross estimates. To get the best analysis of fielding, you have to make adjustments for strikeouts, ground ball/fly ball pitchers, and the speed and trajectory of the batted balls. To measure range, you have to know where the fielder is standing before the pitch is made and precisely what kind of chance he has been presented.
There are some startling defensive evaluations out there. For instance, I like to talk about Ken Griffey, Jr. For years, as you know, he won Gold Gloves for the Mariners. At the same time, STATS, Inc. found that he was the worst centerfielder in the game. Not 'among the worst', I mean, 'the worst'. Bill [James] didn't know what to do, and neither did I or anyone else.
One thought was that he was playing too deep. Maybe he was getting a lot of highlight time - and Gold Gloves - for those wall-climbing catches in deep center, but was letting too many balls fall in front of him, resulting in below-average coverage of batted balls.
Now, if you had detailed fielding data - especially about positioning and speed/trajectory - you could clear up those kinds of situations.
You could compare fielders on an apples-to-apples basis.
With all that fielding information, you would be able to figure out how many runs a guy gives up in the field. It would tell us how much better or worse a given fielder is than the average fielder, much the way 'OPS' does for hitters. It would be a chance to see the forest for the trees and allow us to say, with authority, 'pitching is 60% of defense' or 'pitching is 80% of defense'.
Oh, but it gets even better than that. With a full picture of pitchers' performance and fielders' performance, there would be a whole new valuation of all players. There is reason to believe that the fielding mystery will indeed be solved. If so, I have a feeling that it will bring a few jolting surprises to the whole baseball community, including the sabermetricians – and including me.
Do you think that will happen sometime soon?
Why not? You can calibrate all of these things using a small array of television cameras during each game. It's all there on the screens, and it would be no great challenge to write up programs to capture the critical data. It would make all the sense in the world.
Suppose that every GM and Assistant GM becomes an expert in those new fielding statistics, and all the other ones out there. What would happen if everyone got smart about baseball?
Billy Beane is a kind of poster boy for statistical analysis, and I think his success, in part, has to lie in the fact that he has analytic know-how. That's part of the answer, there's no question. But the rest of the process of building a ballclub is so much bigger and more difficult. By that I mean you've still got to select, develop, and train the players! I'm talking about a sustained, working system to keep tabs on all of the important elements of baseball performance. Stats are more important in baseball than in any other complicated human endeavor, due to the exacting geometrical design of the game, but they're only one piece of a massive puzzle.
Now, even if everyone reaches statistical nirvana - and I don't think that happy day will come anytime soon - there will still be those more formidable challenges to tackle in every big league organization.
I'd always think the next great area of improvement might come in the Minors, with the teams who are committed to investing and monitoring their youngest prospects in the best possible way.
That may well be.
As an industry matures, organizations find other ways by which to gain a competitive edge. If every club has analytical skills, something else will turn out to be important. Maybe it'll be in the Minors, maybe elsewhere. One way or another, I hope and expect that the game will grow even more interesting and enjoyable.
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