Wednesday, September 15, 2004

This Should Bring Rain

What have baseball’s sabermetrics gurus done for your team lately?

The current obsession may be with moneyball and abstracts, but in the end the statistical analyses underlying more and more baseball operations just aren’t adding up. Exhibit A, for instance, shows that none of the winners of the World Series over the last decade can be said to have benefited very much from the wisdom of either Billy Beane or Bill James in reaching their goal. Rather, all of them achieved their success the old fashioned way: they drafted wisely, traded shrewdly and/or outspent unabashedly to acquire premier free-agents. The vagaries of judgment and the hard cold reality of money remain the keys to ultimate success.

This season is no exception.

Precisely what theory was employed when Boston signed Curt Schilling?. What figures did the Cardinals run when they built their current offensive juggernaut? In Schilling’s case the theory was basic: he wins much more than he loses. Next. The Cards didn’t rely on anything but conventional albeit canny baseball instincts in building their team largely through trades for the likes of Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen, Edgar Renteria, and Larry Walker or in the occasional astute draft choice. Cards’ GM Walt Jocketty is an acknowledged master wheeler-dealer, especially at the trade deadline. His success has more in common with poker than printouts. Rolen, it can be argued, was a colossal steal given the Phillies, his former team, were desperate and their options few. So, too, were the acquisitions of Edmonds and Renteria. (Go ahead, name the players traded for any of these players.) And that fellow named Pujols? He played his high school ball in Kansas City, MO. The Cardinals simply did their homework in their own backyard.

As for Billy Beane’s A’s, their success still depends heavily on the same three starters – Mark Mulder, Barry Zito and Tim Hudson - they drafted several years ago. Even proponents of money ball will acknowledge statistics on high school or college players don’t figure nearly as prominently when evaluating talent at that level as they do with players already in professional ball. Too many variables. The A’s have gotten close several times, but they haven’t made it to the series yet. Indeed, their last appearances in the Fall classic pre-date Billy Beane’s tenure by a long stretch.

Beane has already been anointed a genius and Hall of Fame candidate ostensibly for being the first GM to employ statistical analysis as the primary basis for all personnel decisions while taking a small-market team with a relatively paltry payroll into the playoffs four straight years. No matter what off-field principles propelled the A’s to success on the field, however, they have never advanced beyond the first round under Beane’s guidance. If you think winning the big one doesn’t matter, quick, name the greatest team of the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s based on the same criteria people apply to Beane’s Oakland teams, i.e., total number of wins and playoff appearances. Did you guess the Baltimore Orioles, who appeared in five league championship series between 1969 and 1975 and three World Series? But because they only won the ‘71 series, tarnishing an otherwise extraordinary run, relatively few people remember those tremendous Orioles teams without consulting a reference. (Fans are far more likely to remember the Oakland A’s of 1971- 1975, great teams to be sure but not necessarily better than the Orioles clubs. The A’s appeared in five straight championship series, winning three straight between 1972- 1974. As it turned out, two of their three wins were over the Orioles. In those three years they also went on to win the World Series. Billy Beane was nine years old when Oakland began their run.) Success, then, is still measured by winning the big prize, not coming in second…or third!

The latest laboratory for statistics-mania is clearly Boston where GM Theo Epstein holds forth. So committed is Epstein to this orientation he put James, the father of modern baseball statistical analysis, on the payroll. Of course the fact that he also signed Schilling and inherited Pedro Martinez and Manny Ramirez should not be overlooked. Nevertheless, fans of the numbers will no doubt argue that when and if the Sox make it to the top, their success will come down to so-called Billy-ball signings such as that of Bill Mueller in 2003. Mueller won the batting title last year, his first in Boston, hitting 34 points higher than his career average. This season Mueller is hitting 44 points below last year. Last season, therefore, was a statistical fluke. And flukes, as we all know, have no place in the worlds of Billy and Bill.

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