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Monday, January 16, 2023

How a Group of Message-Board Misfits Changed Baseball

A graduate student at UC Davis, Huckabay played semi-pro baseball in the Sacramento Valley League, held a campus job running the university’s Scantron machines, did stand-up comedy for $10 a gig and argued about baseball on an early-internet discussion group at Rec.Sport.Baseball, part of the Usenet system, a proto-Reddit.

Once Huckabay realized he could write three lines of code to automate the Scantron results, he spent some of his time on the clock reading Rec.Sport.Baseball. “Oh, gosh, I don’t want to make it sound too bad,” he says, “but it was no more than 97 or 98 percent of my time.”

Rec.Sport.Baseball became Huckabay’s neighborhood coffee shop, a community of future scientists, engineers, dermatologists, lawyers who would argue before the Supreme Court and an oddly large number of guys named Dave. It was a place where Huckabay mingled with fans from Tokyo and heard the name Ichiro seven years before he debuted in Seattle, where posters published their own research projects and waited for peer review. People didn’t just discuss slugger Rob Deer; they wrote odes to the patron saint of walks, strikeouts and dingers, or, as the r.s.b posters originally christened them, “The Three True Outcomes.”

NaOH Posted: January 16, 2023 at 08:03 PM | 32 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
  Tags: baseball prospectus, gary huckabay, history of baseball stats, sabermetrics

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Statements posted here are those of our readers and do not represent the BaseballThinkFactory. Names are provided by the poster and are not verified. We ask that posters follow our submission policy. Please report any inappropriate comments.

   1. NaOH Posted: January 16, 2023 at 02:24 PM (#6113360)
And this link will work around The Athletic paywall: https://archive.is/3uXOp
   2. Pat Rapper's Delight (as quoted on MLB Network) Posted: January 16, 2023 at 04:14 PM (#6113374)
cordially, as always,

prd
   3. McCoy Posted: January 16, 2023 at 07:37 PM (#6113387)
   4. base ball chick Posted: January 16, 2023 at 10:09 PM (#6113409)
thanks for posting the link. i have wondered what happened to all those guys who set up BP.

they all got their wish with the final chapter of their books - How To Make Winning Baseball Games Boring As Heck With Increased Strikeouts and Minimal Action

yeahyeah, i know. gotta get them kidz offn mah lawn
   5. John Northey Posted: January 16, 2023 at 10:48 PM (#6113416)
Ah, the old days of alt.sports.rec.baseball - I was always on the Jays sub section as I found asrb just too busy to read/contribute to back then. Eventually I migrated to Battersbox.ca and enjoy it.
   6. Moeball Posted: January 17, 2023 at 12:05 AM (#6113423)
You mean this wasn't about us?
   7. aberg Posted: January 17, 2023 at 04:07 AM (#6113432)
they all got their wish with the final chapter of their books - How To Make Winning Baseball Games Boring As Heck With Increased Strikeouts and Minimal Action


I don't think it's controversial to say that there can be tension between what is statistically optimal and what is broadly aesthetically pleasing or most entertaining. It would seem logical that the stewards of this form of entertainment would try to align those incentives so the way to win IS the most entertaining product, but baseball has been painfully slow to even try to sync up those interests.
   8. Bruce Chen's Huge Panamanian Robot Posted: January 17, 2023 at 06:41 AM (#6113436)
Seeing Usenet described as a "proto-Reddit" made me irrationally angry.
   9. cHiEf iMpaCt oFfiCEr JE Posted: January 17, 2023 at 08:21 AM (#6113438)
So was it the Rays or Astros that taught Click how to pick out and wear a suit?
   10. Tim M Posted: January 17, 2023 at 09:53 AM (#6113442)
cordially, as always,


Haha, right!? "RM", where the names changed but the initials were always RM. Did anyone ever find out what the deal was with that guy?
   11. Mellow Mouse, Benevolent Space Tyrant Posted: January 17, 2023 at 10:52 AM (#6113450)
I was really sad to see that Gary was having major health issues. He and I were really close through high school but slowly lost contact in the years after.
   12. Srul Itza Posted: January 17, 2023 at 12:36 PM (#6113455)
I though it was RLM, not RM.


And the relevant acronym, SDCN -- Stat Drunk Computer Nerd
   13. cHiEf iMpaCt oFfiCEr JE Posted: January 17, 2023 at 12:40 PM (#6113456)
Was anyone else troubled at the choice of headline? The authors lead and closed with Huckabay's tragically debilitating condition but the editor seemed to opt for something more clickbaitish?
   14. Der-K's tired of these fruits from poisoned trees Posted: January 17, 2023 at 01:25 PM (#6113460)
i thought it was rlm too but i went back and looked and - i was wrong.

that was a shame to see that about gary.

this is narcissism, but i was struck by similarities between what was mentioned about various people in that piece and where i was at the same time (sleepwalking through grad school, spending most my time modeling baseball stats in the lab, running a scantron machine part time, doing comedy on the weekend to make a few bucks, etc...). granted, they impacted baseball and i did not (nor did i try to, nor is it likely i would or could have). but, like, that's who i was and would have been absent usenet (where i mainly lurked), not something rsb and the like manifested in me ... maybe it says something about a zeitgeist more than it does about the people who came together to do that thing, like these changes were going to happen at that point regardless.
   15. What did Billy Ripken have against ElRoy Face? Posted: January 17, 2023 at 01:37 PM (#6113464)
maybe it says something about a zeitgeist more than it does about the people who came together to do that thing, like these changes were going to happen at that point regardless.
Yep. It's totally unfair to blame any particular group of "nerds" for what baseball has become (for those who don't like the changes). It was inevitable. Baseball is a massive capitalist industry, and as soon as the technology became available to gather data that could rationalize the industry, the data were going to be gathered and smart people were going to use it to rationalize operations. That's how capitalism works. If it wasn't those nerds, it would have been other nerds.
   16. GregD Posted: January 17, 2023 at 02:08 PM (#6113470)
Yep. It's totally unfair to blame any particular group of "nerds" for what baseball has become (for those who don't like the changes). It was inevitable. Baseball is a massive capitalist industry, and as soon as the technology became available to gather data that could rationalize the industry, the data were going to be gathered and smart people were going to use it to rationalize operations. That's how capitalism works. If it wasn't those nerds, it would have been other nerds.
The article quotes Beane saying (surely self-servingly) that the boards replicated the private discussions they were having in a way that unnerved him and made him worry about a mole.

Surely overstated but suggests that the key role of the "nerds" on the outside was to disseminate stuff beyond proprietary control in a way that educated other teams about what the As (and maybe another team or two?) were actually trying to do, thus speeding the process of copying. But once Beane's lieutenants started getting hired out, the cat would have been out of the bag anyway
   17. TDF, trained monkey Posted: January 17, 2023 at 04:37 PM (#6113505)
Yep. It's totally unfair to blame any particular group of "nerds" for what baseball has become (for those who don't like the changes). It was inevitable. Baseball is a massive capitalist industry, and as soon as the technology became available to gather data that could rationalize the industry, the data were going to be gathered and smart people were going to use it to rationalize operations. That's how capitalism works. If it wasn't those nerds, it would have been other nerds.
For all we talk about sports being "entertainment", it's the best teams that make the most money (because fans are only entertained when the team wins) and owners only care about making money.*

*You would think the Castellinis would figure out they would actually make more money if they at least tried to win, but they haven't yet.

   18. SoSH U at work Posted: January 17, 2023 at 04:55 PM (#6113508)
It's totally unfair to blame any particular group of "nerds" for what baseball has become (for those who don't like the changes). It was inevitable.


A specific group of nerds, sure. But nerds generically are responsible.


For all we talk about sports being "entertainment", it's the best teams that make the most money (because fans are only entertained when the team wins) and owners only care about making money.*


But there are always going to be best teams. It would be nice if the overall product wasn't wretched.
   19. Hank Gillette Posted: January 17, 2023 at 09:39 PM (#6113535)
The man who founded Baseball Prospectus, who created a book that became a website that helped revolutionize an industry, no longer watches baseball. He can’t.

A spinal injury robbed Gary Huckabay first of his ability to walk, then of his eyesight and finally of his passion for the sport. He tried listening to games on the radio, but it wasn’t the same.


Really sad what happened to Huckabay physically.
   20. the Hugh Jorgan returns Posted: January 17, 2023 at 10:28 PM (#6113538)
A spinal injury robbed Gary Huckabay first of his ability to walk, then of his eyesight and finally of his passion for the sport.


I turned 58 at the end of last year, Gary is 57. You read about these things and as my Russian barber says, "we all wish for many things, beautiful things...when we are unwell, we only wish for one thing."

Such a tragedy what has happened to him but he's probably lived the best version of Huckaby he could've been and that's to be greatly admired.
   21. Walt Davis Posted: January 18, 2023 at 01:59 PM (#6113587)
*You would think the Castellinis would figure out they would actually make more money if they at least tried to win, but they haven't yet.

I think it's really not clear anymore that this is true. Or at least you probably have to win a lot to make it true. Every team gets their $230 (or whatever it is exactly these days) in common/shared revenue plus half their local revenue. It doesn't take a lot to generate $80-100 M in local revenue and running a baseball team isn't all that expensive -- on a per employee basis, I assume it's a very expensive industry but it simply doesn't have that many employees. Anyway, if you're bringing in at least $270-280 in revenue every year and the league will let you run a $60 M payroll, that's a lot of extra money in the owners pocket. Since you only keep half the local revenue, from that point for every extra $1 you spend you need to add something like $2.20 in local revenue to make it worthwhile. It seems unlikely that Wil Myers (1/$7.5) adds $18 M in revenue.
   22. Perry Posted: January 19, 2023 at 04:26 PM (#6113684)
Haha, right!? "RM", where the names changed but the initials were always RM. Did anyone ever find out what the deal was with that guy?


I wondered, too, and even asked in the comment section of The Athletic article, but nobody responded. I'm pretty sure none of the RLM names were real and the initials may not have been either. I think he was interviewed for and quoted in a "SDCN vs. their antagonists" article once, but I don't remember where and even there he probably hid his identity. All I remember is he was Canadian and a Jays fan, or claimed to be.
   23. Zach Posted: January 19, 2023 at 05:35 PM (#6113698)
The fact that this fun-looking rec.sports.baseball story is paywalled says a lot about the state of the world.

The Internet used to be a lot more fun.
   24. Zach Posted: January 19, 2023 at 05:47 PM (#6113699)
The article quotes Beane saying (surely self-servingly) that the boards replicated the private discussions they were having in a way that unnerved him and made him worry about a mole.

The causality probably went the other way.

My recollection is that recreational sabermetricians started going pro mostly after Moneyball the book and especially Moneyball the movie. The BPro crowd seemed more focused on the career pipeline, so maybe a bit earlier for them. Before that, the state of the art was probably more on the recreational side.
   25. Hank Gillette Posted: January 19, 2023 at 06:04 PM (#6113701)
The fact that this fun-looking rec.sports.baseball story is paywalled says a lot about the state of the world.

The Internet used to be a lot more fun.
It was a lot more fun when new internet companies were giving away stuff and the content of virtually all of the newspapers was free.

While I miss that, it was never a viable business plan, and most of those companies who gave away stuff to generate new customers no longer exist. People who provide content want to eat, just like the rest of us.
   26. Zach Posted: January 19, 2023 at 06:52 PM (#6113704)
I'm talking about the days when people created their own material, just for fun.

The story ends up being more about BPro than rsbb or even Primer, but at the time BPro was founded, the amateur stuff was the best stuff out there. In fact, a lot of the early Primates came here from the Rob Neyer comments section, because *that* was one of the best places to go for people with a saber bent.
   27. McCoy Posted: January 19, 2023 at 07:50 PM (#6113710)
Moneyball the film came out in 2011. By that point all the internet baseball nerds were employed by either teams or companies or they had moved on.

2003 when the book came out is more likely a lot more accurate of a year for when things got serious in baseball. Even in the book Michael Lewis talked about companies full of baseball nerds trying to sell their services to clubs. 2003 is also the year BPro went premium. Somewhere between 2003 and 2011 ESPN.com created a paywall as well and then I think eventually just gutted the site of content creators
   28. Zach Posted: January 19, 2023 at 08:08 PM (#6113711)
Yeah, that's probably closer to the right timeline. I had forgotten how long the delay was between book and movie.

The book was actually timed pretty well -- it was describing a revolution that was already well underway, but hadn't penetrated the public consciousness yet.
   29. Snowboy Posted: January 20, 2023 at 06:29 AM (#6113724)
Huckabay got hurt playing CF?
I thought his nickname was "E5"?
Anyway...the good old days.
   30. Ron J Posted: January 20, 2023 at 11:31 AM (#6113742)
#21 Or to restate, marginal revenue is a smaller part of the pie and this may have broken the financial incentives to field a winning team.
   31. Ron J Posted: January 20, 2023 at 11:33 AM (#6113743)
Memory says that RLM was doxxed. Pretty sure I know his name and where he lived at the time this happened.
   32. Ron J Posted: January 20, 2023 at 11:34 AM (#6113744)
#29 He was a pitcher before he blew his arm out.

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