Baseball has a statistic for everything.
Ask the sabermetric crowd, and they’ll pull out their Bill James Handbook, Baseball Prospectus Annual or John Dewan’s Fielding Bible faster than you can say "Value Over Replacement Player." They’ll rattle off a player’s Plus/Minus rating, Runs Created and Win Shares like it was the Gettysburg Address. They’ll break down Equivalent Averages and pore over PECOTA projections that say the Yankees will finish third in the AL East in 2010.
It’s enough to make old-school scouts’ heads spin. (Old-timers are tougher to convert to 21st century thinking than finding a Washington politician who doesn’t vote along party lines.) All they need to discover the next Josh Beckett or Albert Pujols, they’ll say, is a radar gun, stopwatch, notebook, tin of Copenhagen and eyes that can see.
The truth lies somewhere in the middle. For every MLB revolutionary like Billy Beane, there is a Latin American kid with a broom stick, milk carton and rock as his learning tools — and a dream to play in the Show as his motivation.
The human element to baseball cannot be overlooked, but neither can the analytics. Every number tells a story. Just because some of the stories seem to be written in hieroglyphics or Sanskrit (for some) doesn’t mean they can’t be useful.
People are quick to discredit what they don’t understand. But it’s not necessary to know how to compute Park Factor to look at those numbers, glean some knowledge, gain some insight and take away a little valuable information.
Statistics don’t have to be intimidating. The common fan doesn’t have to be Stephen Hawking to appreciate sabermetrics. Anyone who struggled with math past eighth-grade algebra is not going to be tested on differentials or finding an algorithm that calculates whether the number of runs Jacoby Ellsbury prevents is greater or less than the pieces of gum Terry Francona chews in a nine-inning game. Analytics are just another objective tool to further understand the game.
For teams, analytics can play a vital role in tactics, strategy and technique. They are a way to gain an edge on opponents and find undervalued assets.
The Red Sox understand this as well as any team in pro sports. It’s no coincidence the Red Sox have averaged 94 wins a year since John Henry bought the team with Tom Werner and Larry Lucchino after the 2001 season. Henry lives, breathes and eats numbers. He made a fortune on the global futures markets, and one of his first moves after becoming principal Red Sox owner was hiring Bill James.
Henry, Werner and Lucchino all are progressive thinkers who believe in bringing as many bright minds together as possible to make the right decisions. Earlier this month at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, Indianapolis Colts president Bill Polian alluded to the multidisciplinary approach of the Red Sox. Polian — an old-school mind who quietly has embraced new-school thinking – noted that every aspect of the Red Sox organization is melded together, making the whole more than the sum of its parts.
At "Dorkapalooza" – as Bill Simmons dubbed the conference — there were over a thousand nerds in attendance. Half of them make Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting look slow. And they are the future of sports.
Will the sabermetric formulas ever be accessible to everyone? Probably not. But as long as analytics make sense to the smartest minds in the room, sabermetricians will continue to find their ways onto more and more major league payrolls.
Don’t fear if you’re still holding onto a transistor radio. The stat revolution isn’t going to make bird dogs obsolete or remove the human element of experiencing a game. All these new metrics do is offer tools to mine for talent and help put teams in a position to win games.
Being on the front lines of cutting-edge analysis doesn’t guarantee rings, parades or glory. But it’s better to be ahead of the curve than behind the eight ball.
The key is balancing both sides of the equation and merging old ways of thinking with new methods of thought. Ignorance might be bliss, but knowledge is power, and experience plus intellect equals a competitive advantage.
The reason the Red Sox consider Ultimate Zone Rating and crunch so many numbers behind the scenes is to have the best shot of winning a World Series.
Everyone from the Fenway program vendor to Moneyball case study Kevin Youkilis can support that goal.
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