The art of sabermetrics—first brought to the mainstream by Michael Lewis’ 2003 book, Moneyball—is, essentially, the math of baseball. Since the book’s publication, a new breed of baseball personnel—such as the Cubs’ Theo Epstein (formerly of the Red Sox) and Boston’s Ben Cherington—have followed in Oakland A’s general manager and Moneyball star Billy Beane’s footsteps, and the way a winning team is built has changed fundamentally.
The most crucial statistic to understanding the sabermetrics revolution is WAR, or wins above replacement. It also might be the most complicated metric to understand. The above video is as simple as possible a breakdown of what the stat means and why it’s important.
I thought it was a good first game. The game shouldn’t be Statcast centric anyway. What I found missing was context. A player runs 17 MPH to a play. Great! What does it mean though? How fast are the average players? Who are the fastest players? Same thing with other defensive plays. How often do similar plays get made? How often does the player make similar plays compared to average players? Who are the most similar players? Some of this stuff will take time to build the right databases. Right now it’s just raw data. Eventually, I assume, the context will come.
[A.J.] Ellis has ranked among the worst framers (catchers who get fewer strike calls than they should as measured by, again, Pitch f/x) in the majors the past few seasons. That put him in an uncomfortable situation this past winter with the Dodgers’ front office now in the hands of a coterie of highly sophisticated, analytically inclined decision-makers who believe strongly in the value of the pitch-framing metrics.
“I’ll be honest – I was motivated by the realization that that aspect of catching was becoming highly valued by this new wave of analytical front-office types,” said Ellis, who spent time during the off-season working to improve his pitch-framing skills with Milwaukee Brewers bullpen catcher Marcus Hanel. “And I knew that deficiency in the long run could affect my future employment.” ...
They have a very smart group of people upstairs. [Ellis said] They can isolate it… when they explained that to us in spring training, ran us through the process and laid it out for us, it strengthened my understanding of it and my commitment to what they’re doing – because they’re doing it the right way. It got me on board, is what I’m saying.” ...
Yasmani Grandal was already on board – without really knowing it.
Grandal does not have a reputation as a good defensive catcher. But he ranks very high as a pitch framer and that was a big factor in the Dodgers’ desire to acquire him from the San Diego Padres this winter…
Bad news for Ellis, though. While there are techniques that can improve the way a catcher receives the ball, pitch framing appears to be an innate skill that you either have or you don’t.
“The really interesting thing about framing for me is – it is pretty much one of, if not the, most persistent skills in baseball,” [GM Farhan] Zaidi said. “A batting average will fluctuate, a pitcher’s ERA will fluctuate way more than this metric of catcher framing will fluctuate… Obviously, Yasmani is working with an entirely different set of pitchers. He was a top-five framer last year. He’s a top-five framer now.”
This unconventional strategy is emblematic of the cutting edge of modern, in-game sabermetrics. With every team from the small-market Rays to the moneyed Dodgers now employing a host of analysts, all the obviously beneficial tactical techniques are already in use. All that remains are the scraps. So even as the tactics have become unconventional, the margins have become thin and the advantages minute. For clever front offices like the Rays, negotiating the brave new world of saber-equality may mean relying on subtle, trifling tweaks like reliever-first outings.
Mat Latos has dropped 15 points since the season began…
Here’s something to jazz up your baseball debates: a ranking of the top starting pitchers in the major leagues. These rankings (which include postseason performances) will be updated every morning, though we’ll show each pitcher’s score as of April 1st of each year (that’s the “Started Season” column). If you’re interested in how we put this together, read about Bill’s concept in this article.
I’m sold on Curtis Granderson this year. First, as the article mentions, he made some adjustments in his pitch selection last year. Second, he’s tweaked his swing this off-season, cutting out most of the hitch he had in his swing.
Hey, Bill! Long-time Braves fan here (through some good years, and some VERY bad ones) and it really hurts to see the Braves trade away Craig Kimbrel. I know they claim to be “rebuilding,” but Kimbrel has been one of the best relievers in the game over the last couple of years, and he’s only 26. Wouldn’t you consider…that position, at least…to be already “built?”
It’s Upton. The signing of BJ Upton was utterly inexplicable, for reasons I should probably be polite enough not to outline, but once he was signed, his contract became a huge millstone that was going to drag the organization down for a long time. They almost had to get Upton’s money off the books before they could START re-building, and how are you going to do that? You’ve got to give the other team something they DESPERATELY want—Kimbrel—in order to get them to accept something that they don’t want to have anything to do with—Upton’s contract. I think it was a smart move on Atlanta’s part to do that, but it is terribly sad what has happened to the organization. Just two or three years ago, with Heyward and Freeman, Martin Prado and Brian McCann and Andleton Simmons, it looked like they really had something going. It got away from them with stunning quickness. It always hurts the fans to give up players that they have grown fond of.
Taking a game from yesterday, let’s say we gave Johnny Cueto, who got 21 outs in a Reds win without getting the decision, .77 of a win (Jumbo Diaz got the win by getting one out at the right time). Do you think that over the course of a full career, or even a full season, that a starting pitcher’s win total would be significantly different if wins were calculated in this way? They would certainly get credit for any game the team won, but they would lose some points for every non-complete game. Seems to me it might actually balance out in the end….thoughts?
I’m surprised that we don’t KNOW yet. Here’s what I think: 1) We should definitely fix the rules so that wins and losses are scored as rationally as they can be, regardless of whether it makes a difference or not, 2) I’ve been talking about starting a campaign to try to get this done for years, but it’s one of those things. . .you have to focus on it or you’re just wasting your time, and also, everybody who gets involved in the effort wants to fix the rules a different way, so you have to work out some consensus among yourselves before you can even begin the process, and that takes a year of organizational meetings before you can really start, 3) I don’t understand why we don’t KNOW what difference it would make, since it wouldn’t be a huge project to re-score wins and losses from 1950 forward, so that we wouldn’t be operating in the dark as to what difference it would make, and 4) SPECULATING about what difference it would make, when the answer is knowable but unknown, would be lazy and counter-productive, since we should never speculate about that which we COULD easily know.
Re: the BJ Upton signing being “utterly inexplicable.” I’ve been trying to understand the signing for a long time now, and I always arrive at “bad idea” or “poorly considered”—which is a step short of “utterly inexplicable.”...
Well, not to be accusatory, but BJ Upton just does not hustle. This is very rare at a major league level; there are really only two major league players non who just don’t hustle, plus there are some older guys who conserve a lot of energy but have paid their dues and can get by with it. But it is politically incorrect to SAY that a player wont hustle, even if he won’t, so this kind of escapes the record—not the stat record, but the conversational record. People don’t talk about it; it’s considered impolite. So when the Braves signed this contract, I thought, “Jesus Christ, did they miss the memo on this guy? Did they not scout him? Or have they so completely bought into this notion that it is improper to charge a major league player with laziness that they actually don’t SEE what anybody else can see?” Which happens all the time outside of sports; people don’t see things that they ought to see, because they don’t want to believe in them. It doesn’t usually happen IN sports, because if you do that in sports you will lose. So I don’t know. . .either they didn’t do their homework, or they talked themselves into believing that it’s just a bad rap; there is no such thing as a major league player who doesn’t want to play. To me, it is inexplicable.
I did pretty well last year, although Travis Ishikawa didn’t end up getting the Pirates’ job and that hurt.
HACKING MASS, our competition to pick the least dangerous hitters and least effective pitchers in the majors, returns for the 2015 season!... You’ll have a full week to enter (the deadline is April 13, 2015, at midnight PST), but it’s easy to change players, so feel free to go all in on Freddy Galvis on the entry form today, then switch to Adeiny Hechavarria Monday morning…
Simply pick the players who you think will be the stiffest at each position. A team’s aggregate stiffness is measured by summing the ESPN (Exuded Stiff Points, Net) of all of the players on your team. We’ve updated the scoring logic since the last HACKING MASS competition to better fit the times, so for hitters, ESPN is 0.700, minus his OBP, minus his SLG, and multiplied by plate appearances—i.e., (.700-OPS)*PA. For pitchers, the formula is the pitcher’s ERA, minus 3.74, times his innings pitched, divided by three, or (ERA-3.74)*IP/3. This results in similar Stiffness scores for the firmest hitters and pitchers…
In each case, it isn’t enough for a player to simply suck; somehow the Stiffest of the Stiff must find a way to remain in the lineup or rotation. Possession of incriminating photos of managers and GMs, telekinesis of ink onto lineup cards, large contracts that need justification, and ties to the underworld can all be important attributes of your players besides their lack of hitting and pitching talent.
The 43-year-old company won’t reveal the specific MLB team using its Urika-GD appliance — which costs anywhere from $100,000 to more than $1 million — due to privacy and competitive reasons. But in an interview with GeekWire, Cray VP of Marketing Barry Bolding explained why his company’s products are now attractive to sports franchises and baseball clubs in particular.
For starters, Bolding notes that 95 percent of baseball stats have been created over the last five years thanks to the growing amount of data sensors and innovative methods of analyzing players.
“They are gathering so much data that a single person with an Excel spreadsheet can no longer analyze, in a sophisticated way, all the data they have,” Bolding said. “They need bigger and bigger computers to be able to analyze the data.”
There is nothing to gain from adding recent game performance into the hitter projection mix and one should not choose a lesser-projected player over another because they have done well in previous games. Assuming equal Hittertron (or DFSBot) projections and both hitters are starting that next day, choosing the ‘hotter’ player is perfectly fine. As is choosing the hitter who has performed better against the opposing pitcher. Or choosing the hitter whose last name comes first alphabetically. Or choosing the hitter who is on your favorite team. Because each of these approaches will net out to about the same results in the long run.
If you’re nodding your head and muttering “Moneyball,” then you, my friend, are hopelessly behind the curve.
That best-selling book, now more than a decade old, examined how the Oakland Athletics used data analysis to gain a competitive advantage. New statistics — with acronyms like WAR, BABIP, and FIP — begin to move out of the realm of hardcore number crunchers and into the mainstream.
Some fans have embraced the new science, commonly referred to as sabermetrics. Others have remained skeptical and even disdainful of the newfangled formulas. They’d prefer to rely on traditional methods for measuring player performance — wins and losses for pitchers, batting average and runs batted in for hitters.
But within baseball, that battle is over. Most of the teams have full-time data analysts and have embraced the concept that data can help guide better decision making both on and off the field. If you want to know which teams are not fully on board just look at the bottom of the standings.
It’s always been about finding the truth and integrating good new ideas with good old ideas.
Banister, like Hurdle, seems like an old-school baseball man who saw the light. He came to the Rangers and let loose with this to the Dallas Morning News: “We hang onto tradition. But is it tradition, or is it truth? You’ve got to seek the truth. If the numbers say the same thing year after year, there’s gotta be some truth to it, right?”
I don’t want to name the names of the old-school gatekeepers. If you follow the sport, you know who they are. They were trained in a very different time. Only a few years ago, these old salts resisted the wave of open-minded thought, and Joe Maddon was safely tucked away with the low-payroll Rays, where he could only do so much damage. Maddon was the modern prototype of a manager, an extension of an exceptional front office that won 90 games five times in six years. Had he stayed with Andrew Friedman in Tampa Bay, he would still be marginalized. This is not likely with the rising Cubs.
Maddon to Chicago. Hurdle with a model franchise. Banister exporting the new approach to Texas. The shift-happy Astros with analytically-inclined A.J. Hinch. The Orioles over-performing with Buck Showalter every year. The old walls are breaking down, and the best ideas are flowing freely.
More than a decade after “Moneyball,” and a full 30 years since “The Hidden Game of Baseball,” the fully integrated approach of analytics and coaching has arrived. The teams with everyone on board will benefit from the new competitive advantage.
Here’s a nice interview with sabermetrics pioneer and good guy Pete Palmer. The recently re-released The Hidden Game of Baseball was my introduction into sabermetrics (before I even knew the word) and it changed my life. I am on my third copy now and still refer to it from time to time.
Hey Bill, on the Tommy John surgery boom, a couple of questions: 1) I’m pretty sure you’ve answered this in detail before, but is the proliferation mostly the result of Little League and high school kids throwing curveballs long before they should? And/or: 2) Were there a larger number of early-career burnouts before Tommy John? When I was in Little League (early ‘60s), our best pitcher threw a nasty curve. We dominated the league when he pitched, which was pretty much all the time because we only played a couple times a week. But I remember him asking the coach to take him out of a close game toward the end of the season because his arm was so sore. This may not have anything to do with TJ surgery, but I bring it up just because the curve has been a holy grail for pitchers for a long time.
Well, I’m not any kind of athlete, but I was on a high school baseball team that played for the state championship; I didn’t really play, but anybody who wanted to be was on the team in theory, and the other guys were pretty good. When we played in the state championship, the coach allowed our best pitcher to pitch a 7-inning complete game on Saturday and another on Sunday. Some of the questions you are asking don’t really have answers. In my view the increase in the number of surgeries is driven mostly by the lack of fear of the surgery. People aren’t really afraid of that surgery any more; we figure that almost everybody comes back from it, so if there are indications that there is going to be a problem, we’d rather get it taken care of at the start of a young player’s career, rather than when he is ready to move to the major leagues. There are probably other factors driving the frequency of the surgery as well, but exactly what they are is poorly understood, I think.
... in thinking about Brooks [Robinson] at 3B—or, say, Mariano Rivera at “closer—do you find yourself thinking “was this historically great player played out of position?” Should Brooks, really, have been playing shortstop? And would that have further boosted Brooks’ potential value in an overall historical perspective?...
Regarding Mariano as a starter. . ..one year the Red Sox beat up Mariano pretty badly toward end of the year, and I suggested to Terry Francona that maybe the Yankees had over-exposed him to us, let us see him too many times. Part of what made Mariano magic was that he pitched so few innings every year that he only faced each opposing hitter two to three times per year, on average, if the opponent was a regular. One year he pitched about 10 times against us, and we started to hit him really hard. I suggested to Terry that maybe we just saw him too much, but Terry didn’t buy it at all; he said, “No, we just happened to catch him two or three times when he didn’t have his best stuff.” I was never sure whether that was a “true” reaction or a politically correct-this-is-what-us-professionals-say-about-that type of reaction. . . .Regarding Brooks as a shortstop, Brooks didn’t have quick enough feet to be a shortstop. What made him wondrous was that, like John McDonald, he had that wondrous ability to put his glove in front of the ball in exactly the right position at exactly the right moment; of course, he had other skills that McDonald didn’t have. But his feet weren’t quick enough to have been a shortstop, I don’t think. But your point is a good one; there probably are Hall of Fame players who were sort of miscast. I always though Fisk probably should have played third, and might have been Mike Schmidt if he had.
Topical question: as a fan, it sort of bothers me when a young super-talent is indisputably one of a team’s 25 best for Opening Day, but gets sent down for three weeks to retain an extra year of club control. Is this an ethical issue, in your judgment, or perhaps the rules should be re-written to avoid this annual controversy?...
If the player uses the rules negotiated between the union and MLB to maximize his income, is that unethical? Of course it is not. Why, then, would it be unethical for the team to use those rules so as to maximize their return? It would raise an ethical issue if the young player was being exploited in some way, not given value for his contribution. But a player who has a STARTING salary of $500,000 a year cannot reasonably be seen to be exploited.
Reading about Darrel Evans made me wonder, have any players ever thanked you for what you wrote about them in the old abstracts? I remember for some of them, it seemed like you were the only guy who realised how good someone like Brian Downing, Ken Phelps or Ron Roenicke was, or could be. IF they got a chance.
Yes. . . .actually, a good many times. I have heard from Darrell Evans, not thanking me exactly, but I think he’s aware of what I have written about him; seemed to be. But we definitely hear from athletes who appreciate things that are said about them. . .not only me, but those I work with. One of the players who received a Fielding Bible Award, a lesser-known player, wrote to Baseball Info Solutions in February to thank them for the award.
Nothing against Votto, Phillips says, but he’s up there swinging the bat, believing driving in runs is the best way to help your team win games.
Nothing against Phillips, Votto says, but he believes the best way to score runs is simply getting on base, no matter the situation.
And regardless what statistics may say, they’ll never change their ways, believing their method is best.
“I don’t do that MLB Network on-base percentage (stuff),’’ Phillips told USA TODAY Sports. “I think that’s messing up baseball. I think people now are just worried about getting paid, and worrying about on-base percentage, instead of just winning the game.
“That’s the new thing now. I feel like all of these stats and all of these geeks upstairs, they’re messing up baseball, they’re just changing the game. It’s all about on-base percentage. If you don’t get on base, then you suck. That’s basically what they’re saying. People don’t care about RBI or scoring runs, it’s all about getting on base.
“Why we changing the game after all of this time? If we all just took our walks, nobody would be scoring runs. Nobody would be driving anybody in or getting anybody over. How you doing to play the game like that. People don’t look at doing the things the right way, and doing things to help your team win.
“I remember back in the day you hit .230, you suck. Nowadays, you hit .230, with a .400 on-base percentage, you’re one of the best players in the game. That’s amazing. I’ve never seen (stuff) like that. Times have changed. It’s totally different now.
We’ve all been cognizant of DIPS for ... gosh, it’s been nearly 15 years now. But for whatever reasons, we don’t usually pay nearly as much attention to DIBS. Maybe because there’s not a single baseline for DIBS, as there is for DIPS.
What Jedlovec has done, though, is drill about as deeply into hitters’ performances as possible, and come up with something that’s more useful, more predictive, than even the more sophisticated numbers we usually reference.