Finding Balance Between Sabermetrics And Time-Honored Tradition

*This column was originally published on Dalton Johnson's blog Life's A Ball on May 8, 2014.

From the first days that baseball was played, the essence of the game was built on the eye test and the love of the game. The game on the sandlots, stickball in the streets of New York City and all the boxes of Cracker Jacks in the stands made the game America’s pastime. Baseball has also been a numbers game for over 100 years.

Bill James, the grandfather of sabermetrics, coined the term to honor SABR, the Society for American Baseball Research. James defined sabermetrics as “the search for objective knowledge of baseball” in 1980. The word is thrown around like it's brand new, but its website says the fist makings of baseball statistics were created from a New York Times cricket journalist in the late 1800s. Henry Chadwick, a British-born journalist, saw his first baseball game while covering cricket in 1856. In 1860 he was working for Beadle Dime, editing Beadle Dime’s Base-Ball Player, when he essentially made the scoring guide for years to come. Chadwick created the first system for a scorecard and recorded hits, home runs, total bases and used the letter "K" for strikeouts.

Traditional baseball experts and past players are not as keen on sabermetrics, as they rely more heavily on the eye test and knowledge of the game. No statistic can reveal a player’s heart, hustle, baseball IQ or the “it factor.” Baseball people seem to lean hard one way or the other with the topic of advanced stats in baseball, but these people must find a happy medium. The ideal situation is for people full of baseball knowledge and advanced statistical knowledge to come together and use both resources. Baseball has been played and will always be played with heart and hustle. There will always be players who outplay those full of way more talent, due to sheer hard work, love for the game and doing the little things well.

Jackie Robinson, the most courageous man in baseball history, who broke the color-barrier in Major League Baseball in 1947, is example A of the love for heart and advanced stats. The man who signed him to the Dodgers saw that courage and knew that he would be tough enough to handle the outside world full of hate. Branch Rickey, Brooklyn’s president and general manager at the time, saw the “it factor” in Robinson. This would suggest that Rickey was a baseball traditionalist of the eye test and clearly believed in factors deeper than statistics for a great baseball player. Despite this, he was also an innovator of statistical analysis, which today we call sabermetrics.

On Aug. 2, 1954, Rickey wrote one of the first articles on sabermetrics in LIFE magazine titled, “The 'Brain' of the game unveils formula that statistically disproves cherished myths and demonstrates what really wins.” The article perfectly puts together statistical analysis and personal observation. Rickey wrote on personal observation:

“Statistics, of course, cannot tell the whole story. They fall short of bridging the gap between human expectancy and fulfillment. They cannot measure such intangibles such as intelligence, courage, disposition, effort.”

Rickey showed both team and individual sabermetrics in his article. For team statistics, he used O-D=G. This formula used “O” for offense and the club’s runs per game minus “D” for defense and the opponents’ runs per game, with the equation equaling how many games back of the league leader the club was. In 1953, Brooklyn won the National League by leading the league with a 1.71 O minus D. The Dodgers scored 6.16 runs per game and gave up 4.45. According to Rickey, the formula was 96.2 percent accurate for the final MLB standings over the past 20 years at the time of the article.

For the individualistic offensive side, Rickey used OBA, On Base Average, which is now called on-base percentage, and EBP for Extra Base Power. Today’s stats use a different formula to create a player’s slugging percentage. With the two formulas put together, Rickey compiled a list of the greatest hitters in baseball since 1920 up to the article’s release, based on combing the two. Babe Ruth was considered the greatest hitter with a .481 OBA and a .271 EBP, to combine for a .752 Batting Rating. What’s interesting and important is that Rickey still noticed that a player like Ty Cobb, who won with a high OBA and low EBP, rated low based on the two, but deserved to be higher for his speed and intangibles. Rickey wrote, “He beat you with brains, aggressiveness and opportunities, all the things that show up in clutch which we cannot estimate for an individual player.”

After offensive advanced statistics, Rickey did see pitching as important with new data, but found no interest in defensive statistical analysis: “There is nothing on earth anybody can do with fielding. Fielding averages? Utterly worthless as a yardstick. They are not only misleading but deceiving.” In recent years, sabermetrics have really advanced fielding statistics past just fielding percentages. Rickey’s article is so important, because Branch Rickey perfectly combines baseball knowledge from playing and being around the game for so long and gaining information on the game through advanced statistics. He begins his article by saying, “For 51 years I have judged baseball by personal observation, by accepted opinions and by accepted statistical methods.” That’s the baseball traditionalist in Rickey, and then he goes on to make compelling arguments that work for advanced statistics and can still recognize that observation is key with players like Ty Cobb and Jackie Robinson.

(Jackie Robinson was a star of the eye test and sabermetrics. AP Photo.)

Neil Paine of FiveThirtyEight, wrote a fascinating article on the day after Jackie Robinson Day in 2014, where he points out that despite Robinson ranking 108th all time in WAR according to Baseball Reference, that is a deceiving stat because he didn’t start playing in the MLB until he was 28 years old. In Robinson’s second season in 1948, he was the seventh-ranked position player by WAR and led the league in 1949, 1951 and 1952. He also finished second in 1950 and 1953. His age 29-34 seasons were the fifth-greatest ever by any position player by Baseball Reference’s equation for WAR with a 47.5 total in those five seasons. Only Willie Mays, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner and Lou Gehrig had higher totals in their age 29-34 seasons, and all are four of the greatest players ever and cemented in the Hall of Fame.

On the defensive side of the field, which Robinson’s GM Rickey was against, stats also show what a great player he was. Paine points out that total zone estimated that Robinson saved 81 more runs than an average MLB player. He also gave the Dodgers 10 more wins when looking at defensive WAR. The eye test absolutely loves Robinson for changing the game and could tell that he was a fantastic ball player. While no statistic could measure his intangibles, sabermetrics do make us appreciate Robinson as an all-time great player even more.

Before the 2014 MLB regular season began in April, a panel of baseball experts at ESPN ranked 277 players on a scale of 0-100 for the “Baseball Tonight” (BBTN) 100. Mike Trout ranked as the best player in baseball with a score of 98, and Miguel Cabrera, the American League MVP in 2012 and 2013, ranked second with a score of 96. Paine wrote another article for FiveThirtyEight titled, “Where Sabermetrics and the ‘Eye Test’ Disagree,” in which he uses WAR per 600 plate appearances to argue against some of the different rankings by the BBTN panelists.

With his way of rating players on a 0-100 point scale, Paine compared Prince Fielder and Craig Gentry. Paine wrote that from 2011-13, Fielder only produced a 3.3 WAR/600, which should give him a rating of 62, but voters gave him a 79 and rated him as the 38th best player in baseball going into this season. Gentry created a 6.7 WAR/600, good for what should have been an 82 score, but received a 45 and was not in the list of the top 100 players. By using WAR/600, Paine argued that Gentry is a better player than Fielder.

Paine’s way of thinking to argue against the BBTN 100 is exactly what makes baseball traditionalists cringe. Craig Gentry is not a better player than Prince Fielder, and suggesting what a player would be worth when getting 600 at-bats, when he’s been nowhere close, is not a fair way of judging a player. Fielder is a five-time All-Star, has won three Silver Slugger awards and has been Mr. Reliable. He has played in every single regular-season game four times, and his least amount of games in one season was 157 in a 162-game schedule, up until last year. The least amount of at-bats that Fielder has ever had was 569 in his rookie season and in the 2013 season. Baseball Reference had Fielder’s 162-game average slash line—batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage—at .284/.388/.523 with 34 home runs and 105 RBIs before 2014. Gentry on the other hand, has never even been an everyday player with the most games he has played in being 122, and the most at-bats he has ever had in a season is 287. His 162-game average slash line is .281/.356/.369 with two home runs and 31 RBIs. The biggest differences are that Gentry would average 29 stolen bases compared to Fielder’s two, and Gentry is a better defensive player. Comparing these two players does not work, due to multiple factors, most notably the games played and the big differences in the way they play the game. In this case, sabermetrics does not work in comparing and contrasting players.

Gabe Kapler, a 12-year MLB veteran, who retired after the 2010 season, was interviewed by Tomas Laverty of XN Sports about traditional baseball stats and sabermetrics. The two began the interview talking about the AL MVP debate between Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout. Kapler used his experience to talk about how there is more than just stats to look at for the MVP and his desire to understand new stats better:

“But this debate isn’t ultimately about stats, it’s about the ripple effect that is not yet and never will be quantifiable. For example, how much better a base-runner was Trout than Cabrera and therefore, how did that put pressure on opposing pitchers, thereby benefiting hitters like Albert Pujols who had the good fortune of hitting behind Trout in the lineup? How did the calm presence of Miguel Cabrera at the plate influence the young Tigers hitters that looked to him for guidance? As long as there are critical peripheral questions, it will be difficult to find just the right formula. That said, I encourage all of us to search and get closer to the right mix of spices.”

Kapler believes that Trout was the best player in baseball last year and is trying to embrace most sabermetrics, but still sees issues with some. What Kapler does not believe in so much is the new “clutch” advanced statistics, because of all the multiple variables to what someone may consider to be clutch. Kapler said to Laverty, “What we are essentially trying to figure out is how a player performs under pressure, which is highly variable. I think we will get a better understanding, but we will fall short of true predictability.”

What Kapler hates the most about baseball today is the close-mindedness. The two biggest statements to take away from Kapler’s interview are: “There are absolutely factors that are immeasurable,” and “A progressive baseball mind will unequivocally take scouting and analytics and combine the two.”

In the Minnesota Twins clubhouse, there is a dividing line between traditional baseball and sabermetrics. Tyler Mason of Fox Sports North talked to Minnesota’s second baseman Brian Dozier, who is against sabermetrics, and All-Star reliever Glen Perkins.

"Obviously that's part of the game now more than ever. I really don't (pay attention to it) because as far as defensively, sabermetrically, anything like that, I think it's people behind a desk trying to dictate how you play the game. That's not the way the game's been played. Nobody can see what's inside of you,” Brian Dozier, Minnesota Twins second baseman

Perkins considers himself a numbers person and sees that sabermetrics help show him that if he is pitching well, the numbers will balance themselves out. He uses the sabermetric FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) to help him. Perkins said that if his FIP stays around two while his number of innings pitched increases, then his ERA will get closer to that too. "So it tells me that what I've done so far is the right things. Balls that fell are going to get caught. I think that it gives me an outlook of keep doing what I'm doing and things will even out. It keeps me sane,” Perkins told Mason. While this is only one MLB clubhouse, it’s safe to say that this is how most players are divided between sabermetrics and traditional baseball thoughts.

Again, baseball has been and always will be a game based on much more than only numbers. That being said, the game has been full of numbers beyond the traditional stats for much longer than people realize. Experts of the game are black and white on the subject, but they must blend a gray to take baseball analysis to its full potential. The two biggest role models for baseball analysts, players and experts might be two big fans of the eye test: Branch Rickey and Gabe Kapler. Rickey admitted that he viewed baseball in the traditional way for over 50 years, yet he could adapt to advanced statistical analysis back in 1954. Kapler, as an ex-MLB player, summed up the state of baseball by saying:

“We can either bury our heads in the sand and fight the change or we can embrace it and get on board, knowing that baseball will be deeper and more interesting to analyze. Between the lines our men will still get dirty, I promise.”

The traditional ways of baseball thinking are here to stay, as are the advanced ways of sabermetrics. Jerseys will still get dirty, and hustle plays will still be loved. What’s best for baseball is to use its resources in the best way to bring America’s pastime to its full potential.

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