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Sports

April 2, 2012

The War Is Over, but the Work Isn't

Having asserted their dominance over their backwards-looking doubters, baseball numbers guys Steven Goldman and Jay Jaffe seek to answer the unanswerable.

Michael Gluckstadt

Back in 2007, when the statheads at Baseball Prospectus released Baseball Between the Numbers: Why Everything You Know About the Game Is Wrong, the sabermetrics wars were in full swing. Joe Morgan was still sharing commentary on Sunday Night Baseball, which included his dismissal of those who rely on "computer numbers"; and the site Fire Joe Morgan was still offering its commentary, which routinely would rip on Joe Morgan.

Steven Goldman, Jay Jaffe
"Many a stathead I know says that their mother saw Moneyball and now understands what they do better." — Jay Jaffe

Steven Goldman, Jay Jaffe

In 2012, the war is over and the sabermetricians and basement bloggers have won decisively. Thanks to Brad Pitt and the film version of Moneyball, even your mother now knows that on-base percentage is a more useful statistic than batting average. VORP makes as many regular appearances on Baseball Tonight as John Kruk's mullet. Arch knight of the old guard Murray Chass has left his lofty newspaper perch for a blog, despite claiming otherwise. Both Joe Morgan and Fire Joe Morgan have moved on to other endeavors.

So having asserted themselves in the baseball realm, are the statistically-inclined set content to rest on top of the game's Iron Throne? Hardly. Now that they've convinced the world of its merit, the folks at Baseball Prospectus still have to produce the work they've championed. What's more, they have to do it in a field growing ever more crowded with experts now working at every major-league team (well, maybe not the Royals) and newer ventures like Bloomberg Sports.

To that end, they've put out Extra Innings: More Baseball Between the Numbers from the Team at Baseball Prospectus, edited by BP's former editor-in-chief Steven Goldman (now with Bleacher Report). The new book picks up where the previous one left off, answering even tough questions that are difficult to answer even with advanced metrics, such as "How Can We Evaluate Managers?" "What Really Happened in the Juiced Era?" and "How Should the Hall of Fame Respond to the Steroids Era?" Those last two chapters are contributed by Jay Jaffe, a longtime BP writer and recurring guest on the MLB channel's own Clubhouse Confidential show, another indication of how far the league itself has come in its understanding of the role numbers play in the game.

In the interview below, which has been edited for length and clarity, Jaffe and Goldman tell Gelf whether the steroids era is over, where Joe Girardi may have gotten his managerial advice, and which players should have had a tougher time getting into the Hall of Fame.

Gelf Magazine: Why did you decide to put together a follow-up to Baseball Between the Numbers?

Steven Goldman: The original was very successful, and we kept hearing from people who had talked about what a difference it had made in their understanding of baseball. More than five years on, it seemed like there was a new set of questions for us to try to answer, questions that were in some ways harder for not being easily resolvable by recourse to numbers.

Gelf Magazine: Do you feel that fans and people in baseball are now more receptive to some of the ideas and concepts explored in that book than they were in 2006?

Steven Goldman: Definitely. We got a Moneyball movie. We have a show with Jay Jaffe on the MLB network. We have the success of the original Baseball Between the Numbers itself. We're always going to face an uphill battle—On the Origin of Species was published in 1859 and it still is struggling to gain acceptance in some quarters—so we shouldn't count on declaring victory anytime soon.

Jay Jaffe: Oh, absolutely. The audience for sabermetrics has grown, broadcasters are citing concepts like run expectancy and wins above replacement, MLB Network has produced a daily show called Clubhouse Confidential where the news of the day is viewed through a sabermetric prism—and I'm lucky enough to be a recurring guest there. The Moneyball movie put some of those basic concepts out in front of a new audience as well; many a stathead I know says that their mother or their significant other saw the movie and now understands what they do better. Inside front offices, nearly every team now employs somebody doing advanced analytical stuff, and some aren't shy about letting the public know they're doing so, though the extent to which they take that input to heart may still vary. At the SABR Analytics Conference in Arizona in mid-March, several teams had employees there, and many GMs and other team executives participated. The Indians' Mark Shapiro and Chris Antonetti, the Cubs' Tom Ricketts, the Brewers' Doug Melvin, the Angels' Jerry DiPoto, the Padres' A.J. Hinch… the list goes on. This stuff is only increasing in prevalence.

Gelf Magazine: What's been the biggest shift in the way sabermetrics have been adopted in the last few years?

Jay Jaffe: As I said before, I think it's being taken more seriously inside front offices, among the media, and among audiences. There's probably more resistance in the mainstream media than anywhere else, because there's a need to appeal to a broader audience, and to do so you generally have to underestimate that audience's sophistication. Plus there's an old guard in the media which quite rightly regards advanced stats and non-mainstream writing/blogging as threats to their authority and their livelihoods. Some have changed with the times, others have steadfastly refused to do so and look like dinosaurs. Murray Chass says hi from his mother's basement, where he is blogging in his underwear.

Gelf Magazine: Why did you decide to start the book with the chapter on performance-enhancing drugs?

Steven Goldman: The first Baseball Between the Numbers came out just as the PED issue was becoming a big story and we didn't get to address it except in passing. There is so much hearsay where the effects of these drugs are concerned, and Baseball Prospectus is all about getting at the truth of things, debunking the conventional wisdom. So many assert that they understand exactly how these things worked and what the impact on player production was. I wanted us to see if that was true.

Gelf Magazine: The first two chapters isolate the effects that steroids may have had on specific players and the era. Based on those numbers, do you believe we are now in a post-steroids era, or at least one in which their use is far less prevalent? (Ryan Braun notwithstanding.)

Jay Jaffe:I think we're mostly beyond it. Very few players are being caught testing positive, but there's an increased level of sophistication where a guy like Manny Ramirez can get nailed not for taking a steroid but for having an elevated testosterone level, which gives MLB license to examine his medical records, where they found documented proof he was using a women's fertility drug often used to restart natural testosterone production following a cycle.

Gelf Magazine: Jay, your Hall of Fame formula JAWS measures players up against the advanced stats of others already enshrined in Cooperstown. How different would a "JAWS of Fame" in which only the top players selected by your metrics are inducted look from the current one?

Jay Jaffe: JAWS is essentially based upon the average career and peak value of the Hall of Famers at a given position. If the voting systems were efficient, the averages would be much, much, higher, and some of the slam-dunk candidates we've talked about in recent years would actually be mid-to-lower tier guys who would have to battle to get in instead of waltzing in on the first ballot.
Tony Gwynn is a good example. With 3,000 hits, eight batting titles, and umpteen All-Star appearances and Gold Gloves, he was a lock and he received 97.6 percent of the vote, among the highest of all time. My system places him 11th out of 23 right fielders in the Hall, ahead of only two BBWAA-elected right fielders; the rest came in via various iterations of the Veterans Committee and some of them are among the weakest players in the Hall of Fame. Mind you, I'm not saying Tony Gwynn should be a bottom-of-the barrel candidate by any means, but the guy wasn't as valuable as people think—Tim Raines, for example, was more valuable and he didn't win all those awards. If JAWS were deciding the Hall of Fame, Gwynn would have faced a Raines-like uphill battle for acceptance.

Gelf Magazine: Steve, in the book's introduction you reference a writer who went to work for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Baseball Between the Numbers's editor Jonah Keri now writes for Grantland. Nate Silver dissects political polling for the New York Times. How has greater exposure affected the makeup of the BP staff?

Steven Goldman: You could include me as well, since I've since departed to become a national baseball writer for Bleacher Report. Just as RCA picked up Elvis from Sun Records, the mainstream tends to absorb the cutting edge in order to maintain its advantage. BP has always been the home of smart baseball writers and analysts, guys who had first-rate minds. It is heartening to see them get recognized and receive wider exposure. As for how it affects BP, it just means that BP has to work harder at scouting and player development. Fortunately, there's always someone coming along with a better mousetrap.

Gelf Magazine: Steve, you wrote the chapter in the book on evaluating managers and have written extensively about the New York Yankees. Is Girardi a good manager?

Steven Goldman: Yes, I think he is, at least as far as present managers go. He's got that team prepared and focused, and that's the main thing a manager can do nowadays. He's a very smart man, but he's not creative. It's like he read a book called The Art of Managing and he's not willing to go very far from its tenets. He would rather lose a game going by the strictures he himself has established than think outside of the box. Again, he's very intelligent, but he suffers from an odd rigidity.

Gelf Magazine: How useful is the information gleaned from the first few years of PitchFX? Is there ever such a thing as having too much information?

Jay Jaffe: I think there's some pretty outstanding stuff coming out with regards to PitchFX. Just the fact that we can get the basics on what a pitcher throws and what it does, trajectory-wise—on every pitch—is amazing. If I'm writing a story, I want to tell readers not just that Matt Kemp hit a home run, but that Kemp hit a 2-2 slider that wound up belt-high and over the plate, and I'm probably not going to be right about that stuff very often if I'm going by what I saw real-time and simply reviewing a replay. We've learned some pretty incredible things not only about pitching from PitchFX but about catcher defense as well. Mike Fast's work at BP was so good that he got hired by the Astros within a couple months of publishing it, and players like Jose Molina and Russell Martin stand to make extra millions of dollars because of it.
Now, all that comes with the caveat that using humans to review pitch classifications, as the tireless folks at BrooksBaseball.net do, is much better than aggregating the data without quality control. I'm particularly bothered when I see someone attach run values to a given pitch in a given year—based on run expectancy outcomes—not only without quality control but without any baseline to tell us at what level those stats correlate from year to year, i.e., what is skill and what is random. You can have too much information if you don't know how to distinguish the signal from the noise.

Gelf Magazine: Though the last few years have seen a swing toward a more sabermetrically-inclined approach to the game, one of the criticisms that still seems to sting is that numbers guys "take the fun out of the game," or as one self-identified purist once told me, "They make recess look like math." Do you think there's any truth to that?

Jay Jaffe: A couple weeks ago I came across a great quote by John Thorn from The Hidden Game of Baseball, a landmark book he co-wrote with Pete Palmer in 1984 which paralleled some of what Bill James was doing at the time with the Baseball Abstracts in that it introduced sabermetrics to a wider audience and questioned the conventional wisdom. Here's what Thorn wrote: "Baseball statistics are not the instrument of vivisection, taking the life out of the game in rder to examine it; rather, statistics are themselves the vital part of baseball, the only tangible and imperishable remains of contests played yesterday or a hundred years ago. Baseball may be loved without statistics, but it cannot be understood without them."
I quite like that. You don't need the numbers to love baseball, but you definitely do if you want to understand certain aspects of it. I fully understand that there's a broad segment of the audience who doesn't care that much—we're not here to oppress them, but you can bet we're likely to speak up when we hear somebody godding up a mediocre closer or blathering on about clutchness.

Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.







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Article by Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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