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Wednesday, June 21, 2017

How the wonks won baseball coverage

“It’s a ball now. It’s my favorite period in the business — by far,” says Tom Boswell of The Washington Post, a great baseball writer who straddles sharply different eras.

“I wish it had always been like this. You have all the old approaches to coverage still available — profiles, human interest, humor, etc. But so much more, too. For people who love to analyze (me), there’s nothing as good as real data, plus tons of unmined data where you can discover patterns that others haven’t spotted. FanGraphs, MLB.com/Statcast and baseball-reference are just an addictive gold mine. You have to restrain yourself.”...

It wasn’t long ago that baseball statisticians like Bill James were a curiosity, with the rise of the species even spotlighted in a Hollywood movie, “Moneyball,” about the Oakland A’s and based on the Michael Lewis book that chronicled Billy Beane, its idiosyncratic general manager.

Now, metrics rule baseball. As put by Keith Law, a baseball expert at ESPN who once worked for the Toronto Blue Jays, the revolution is over. People aren’t slaves to data but it plays a central role, with many basic assumptions of the past undermined. Thus, even the casual fan may view a player’s on-base percentage as more important than his batting average.

RoyalsRetro (AG#1F) Posted: June 21, 2017 at 04:05 PM | 19 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
  Tags: bill james, reporters, sabermetrics

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   1. GGC:BTF's Biggest Underachiever Posted: June 21, 2017 at 04:50 PM (#5480227)
I recall seeing an article that featured Total Average in Sport or Inside Sports by Boswell. This might be before I heard of Bill James (that was the spring of 1985.)
   2. dlf Posted: June 21, 2017 at 05:35 PM (#5480248)
I recall seeing an article that featured Total Average in Sport or Inside Sports by Boswell.


He did an annual article which started in one in the early 80s and went to the other some years later. It introduced the stat (TB+BB+SB)/PA, a very good rough approximation of a hitter's offensive prowess and he frequently pointed out the value of walks. For those who have only read Boswell since the Nationals came back, you missed his best stuff. Hunt around for 'Why Time Begins on Opening Day' or 'How Life Imitates the World Series' for collections of columns and short stories written when he was beat writer and columnist following the Earl Weaver O's. Great stuff.
   3. The Yankee Clapper Posted: June 21, 2017 at 08:19 PM (#5480319)
Boswell made a lot of money with his books, and then notably coasted in his newspaper column. The Nationals arrival revitalized him some, but he doesn't write all that often anymore.
   4. Walt Davis Posted: June 21, 2017 at 08:34 PM (#5480323)
It certainly wasn't with our charm.
   5. Howie Menckel Posted: June 21, 2017 at 08:41 PM (#5480327)
yes, Boswell's 1980s books were outstanding writing. he was in Inside Sports, as I recall.
   6. Perry Posted: June 21, 2017 at 10:03 PM (#5480364)
Boswell invented Total Average in 1978 and wrote about it in Inside Sports in 1981. The Inside Sports article is reprinted in one of his collections, How Life Imitates the World Series. All his 80s collections are well worth reading even today.
   7. ERROR---Jolly Old St. Nick Posted: June 21, 2017 at 10:46 PM (#5480382)
[Boswell] did an annual article which started in one in the early 80s and went to the other some years later. It introduced the stat (TB+BB+SB)/PA, a very good rough approximation of a hitter's offensive prowess and he frequently pointed out the value of walks. For those who have only read Boswell since the Nationals came back, you missed his best stuff. Hunt around for 'Why Time Begins on Opening Day' or 'How Life Imitates the World Series' for collections of columns and short stories written when he was beat writer and columnist following the Earl Weaver O's. Great stuff.

Boswell's two great strengths were game day reporting when he covered the Orioles, and feature length player profiles, where his writing skills made him stand out, especially on deadline. It should also be noted that he was one of the few writers who could credibly write about not just the three major sports, but also about golf and even (once, at least) on pool. OTOH when he stopped being a beat writer his writing became less interesting and more predictable, and at times he can sound like Grandpa Simpson, but at his best he still can put out columns that are just about as good as any MSM writer.

His Total Average idea was interesting, but it got superseded fairly quickly, and for awhile there he also had the habit of bragging about it as if he'd revolutionized statistics, which he hadn't.
   8. DJS, the Digital Dandy Posted: June 21, 2017 at 11:00 PM (#5480390)
It certainly wasn't with our charm.

Speak for yourself!
   9. Cargo Cultist Posted: June 22, 2017 at 02:01 AM (#5480430)
Hunt around for 'Why Time Begins on Opening Day' or 'How Life Imitates the World Series' for collections of columns and short stories written when he was beat writer and columnist following the Earl Weaver O's. Great stuff.


Truly great stuff. "Minds Over Mastodons" is my favorite baseball essay to this day. I was at the games he wrote about, and he absolutely nailed it.
   10. GGC:BTF's Biggest Underachiever Posted: June 22, 2017 at 08:05 AM (#5480449)
(Total Average) introduced the stat (TB+BB+SB)/PA, a very good rough approximation of a hitter's offensive prowess and he frequently pointed out the value of walks.


One book I read about sabermetrics (It was authored by 2 profs, but the title escapes me) stated that TA correlates better with runs scored than OPS. I think that one barrier to acceptance of TA was not knowing the benchmarks.


Aside: People knew what a good batting average was and OPS/3 brings it to the same level as BA (as Don Malcolm or Brock Hanke once wrote in the Big Bad Baseball Annual.)
   11. dlf Posted: June 22, 2017 at 08:19 AM (#5480452)
I think this is the first article Boswell wrote on TA back in 1978: link.
   12. snapper (history's 42nd greatest monster) Posted: June 22, 2017 at 08:54 AM (#5480462)
One book I read about sabermetrics (It was authored by 2 profs, but the title escapes me) stated that TA correlates better with runs scored than OPS. I think that one barrier to acceptance of TA was not knowing the benchmarks.

Aside: People knew what a good batting average was and OPS/3 brings it to the same level as BA (as Don Malcolm or Brock Hanke once wrote in the Big Bad Baseball Annual.)


I don't think that's it; I've literally never heard OPS/3 mentioned until your post. I think it's the fact that OPS simply adds two long established and well known stats together. "On-base plus slugging" is pretty intuitve to any baseball fan.
   13. dlf Posted: June 22, 2017 at 09:10 AM (#5480469)
I don't think that's it; I've literally never heard OPS/3 mentioned until your post. I think it's the fact that OPS simply adds two long established and well known stats together. "On-base plus slugging" is pretty intuitve to any baseball fan.



I'd posit a different reason why OPS took off and TA didn't: the timing of the rise of the internet. If I recall correctly, both OPS and TA, under different names, date back to Branch Rickey's statistician Allan Roth and Pete Palmer respectively. But TA, as championed by Boswell, reached its peak in the 80s with Boswell's national platform and had no one else to champion it. OPS was championed by Neyer and others at the dawn of the baseball-on-the-net years and then became a sortable stat on ESPN.com and other commonly used sites before Retrosheet, BB-Ref, and others exploded.

Remember back to the 80s - neither OBA nor SLG were commonly available nor were the standards well known. I was a hardcore Bill James fan dating back to the '83 Abstract and certainly knew of both, but during the course of a season, couldn't have come close to knowing the members of the leader board in either. Many, many, many more folks could have told you their BAs than Ted Williams' OBA or Babe Ruth's SLG. OPS was not intuitive.
   14. TomH Posted: June 22, 2017 at 09:34 AM (#5480484)
I recall those early days when Boswell wrote of TA, and thinking at the time that TA+BA was probably a "better' metric to reflect run scoring than either alone. BA treated al hits the same, but TA gave the HR = 4 singles and a walk=1 single, which was overcorrecting.
   15. jmurph Posted: June 22, 2017 at 09:41 AM (#5480491)
I'd posit a different reason why OPS took off and TA didn't: the timing of the rise of the internet. If I recall correctly, both OPS and TA, under different names, date back to Branch Rickey's statistician Allan Roth and Pete Palmer respectively. But TA, as championed by Boswell, reached its peak in the 80s with Boswell's national platform and had no one else to champion it. OPS was championed by Neyer and others at the dawn of the baseball-on-the-net years and then became a sortable stat on ESPN.com and other commonly used sites before Retrosheet, BB-Ref, and others exploded.

Makes sense. I think Barry Bonds also helped, in all seriousness. Aside from the 73 (obviously) and the couple years of great batting averages, the traditional 3 batting stats didn't really tell the story of his greatness in the first half of the 2000s. But watching him put up historically silly OBP and SLG lines helped OPS become a more commonly discussed thing, at least anecdotally in the circles I was in at the time.
   16. GGC:BTF's Biggest Underachiever Posted: June 22, 2017 at 11:18 AM (#5480607)
Curve Ball may be the book that I had in mind. I Googled QEQA; which is what Big Bad Baseball called OPS/3 for Quick 'n' dirty EQA. Most of the baseball related hits are my posts here.
   17. cardsfanboy Posted: June 22, 2017 at 12:00 PM (#5480650)
I understand slugging being slighted a bit, but obp was pretty much always fairly well known, even if it wasn't fully appreciated. Also it was pretty easy in the 90's to find the leaders of slugging and obp since baseball weekly or The Sporting News carried that information, it didn't have everyone's numbers on that, but the leaders were listed. Slugging was added to baseball cards in 1981 so seasonal slugging was available to almost every kid for their favorite players.

Since I don't have any of them around me right now, I don't remember what stats the baseball register or baseball guide or who's who had for individual players, but again they did have a leaderboard which included slugging and obp.
   18. ERROR---Jolly Old St. Nick Posted: June 22, 2017 at 12:57 PM (#5480710)
Since I don't have any of them around me right now, I don't remember what stats the baseball register or baseball guide or who's who had for individual players, but again they did have a leaderboard which included slugging and obp.

The Guides began including slugging averages in 1947, but it wasn't until 1985 that they got around to OBP. I stopped collecting Registers in 1999, and even then all they had were the (Really) Old School stats. They didn't even list stolen bases until 1993. Who's Who began listing SB's way back when, probably in the 40's and definitely by the early 50's.

OTOH the Registers from the 50's had much more personal info, like "Ancestry", wives' names and wedding dates, hobbies, etc. The other thing that both the Guides and Registers had that's hard to find anywhere else are team pictures of all the teams. The early 20th century Reach and Spalding Guides and Spalding Record Books had hundreds upon hundreds of those team photos for every level from Major Leagues to college and high school teams to town teams and factory teams to the occasional prison and Insane Asylum team. I'm surprised that nobody's bothered to gather those many thousands of team photos and put them on some website, because it'd be an historian's treasure trove.
   19. madvillain Posted: June 22, 2017 at 01:24 PM (#5480743)
I understand slugging being slighted a bit, but obp was pretty much always fairly well known, even if it wasn't fully appreciated. Also it was pretty easy in the 90's to find the leaders of slugging and obp since baseball weekly or The Sporting News carried that information, it didn't have everyone's numbers on that, but the leaders were listed. Slugging was added to baseball cards in 1981 so seasonal slugging was available to almost every kid for their favorite players.


I was born in late '83 and came up on Frank Thomas. OBP was his thing, obviously. People talked about it back then. People knew it was important and that what Frank was doing hadn't been seen since Ted Williams. When my dad would take me to Chicago to see the Sox (all the way from N. MI -- what a trip as a kid to go from rolling lakeside farms to Michigan Ave in one car ride!) the Sunday edition of the Tribune would have OBP, AVG and Slugging leaders, a long with RBIs, RUNS, HRs, 2B and 3B. It was always neat seeing Frank at the top or near the top in most of those categories. I remember my dad teaching me the math behind OBP and Slugging, which was grade school stuff but was applied to baseball so way cooler.

When I played in HS and low level college in the late 90s and early aughts we all knew about OPS and I'm sure most of us looked at it more than just BA.

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