TAKING A SABER TO SABERMETRICS

By Murray Chass

March 20, 2011

This was going to be a column about a new baseball book, but a couple of matters intruded and have to be dealt with first, both having to do with the book, “The Beauty of Short Hops” by Sheldon and Alan Hirsch. It is subtitled “How Chance and Circumstance Confound the Moneyball Approach to Baseball.”Hirsch Book 225

When I first heard about the book, I eagerly anticipated its arrival because I was told it was a critical assessment of two subjects I have written about on occasion – the 2003 Michael Lewis book about Billy Beane, “Moneyball,” and the proliferation of new-age statistics, initiated by Bill James, known as sabermetrics.

When I have written about “Moneyball” negatively, which is the only way I have written about it, its advocates have written to me telling me I don’t understand the book.

Not that I needed reassurance, but the Hirsch book shows me most clearly that I have always understood it. They make many of the same points I have made since the book became a best-seller. Talk about unmerited rewards.

The book slices and dices the thinking behind “Moneyball” in the first chapter, then moves on to sabermetrics. When I have written about the new-age statistics, I have mostly expressed disdain for them and have paid the price, receiving tons of e-mail from promoters of the new statistics.

I could have warned the brothers Hirsch, but they quickly learned how uncivil (in some cases that’s putting it mildly) the WAR, VORP and UZR crowd can be. Two things I have learned that the brothers will learn: I am always wrong, and the sabermetric way is the only way that counts.

But I said there were two matters to deal with before I get to the contents of this terrific book. They are both blogs written about the book.

One blog, by Rob Neyer, criticizes the book based not on the book itself but on a news release about the book. When Neyer was at ESPN.com, he seemed to be building a respectable reputation, but he has moved to a new Web site, SBNation.com, and I guess that site’s standards are lower than ESPN’s because I doubt that his blog on the news release would have been posted on the ESPN Web site.

“Is it worth pointing out,” Neyer writes, “that these same Red Sox have built their organizational philosophy around the Bill James-Moneyball myths? That without sabermetrics the Red Sox wouldn’t have won one World Series, let alone two?”

Like other Moneyball advocates, Neyer conveniently forgets or ignores the fact that in 2004 the Red Sox, at the July 31 trade deadline, were in a fierce three-way fight for the American League wild card and were in danger of being undermined by a porous infield.

Moneyball teams didn’t consider defense a priority, and the Red Sox were one of them. When they realized the reality of their circumstances, they decided to gamble on not being thrown out of the Moneyball clan and traded for shortstop Orlando Cabrera and first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz, solidifying their infield defense and enhancing their playoff chances.

The second blog was worse than the first. Appearing on thefastertimes.com, this one was written by Lincoln Mitchell, who is identified as a teacher of international politics at Columbia University. College teachers have long operated under the threat of “publish or perish.” In this instance Mitchell should have opted for perish.

“I have not read Murray Chass’s new book,” Mitchell’s blog begins, and I stopped reading right there. I was immediately puzzled. What new book? I have a new book? Why didn’t someone tell me?

Mitchell Blog 225The truth is I did not write the book he writes about. It’s not as if Mitchell got my name mixed up with one of the Hirsches in the first reference. He repeats my authorship another half dozen times or so.

A comment following the blog points out that he has the author wrong, and a second comment says, “I think it’s pretty funny that you wrote 764 words and got the author wrong 8 times. Doesn’t say much for your analysis.”

Three days after the blog was posted it was still on the site, name of the author unchanged, no “oops,” no “never mind.” And of course, not having read the Hirsch book, having no idea what was in it, Mitchell proceeded to criticize it anyway, just as Neyer did on the basis of a news release.

And I’m criticized for criticizing bloggers? Where oh where have the professionals gone?

Incidentally, I have no problem with anyone criticizing me. That’s what writing is all about. Some readers like what you write, some don’t. It would become boring if everyone agreed with what I wrote. But there’s one thing I can count on and now the Hirsches can count on it, too. Write critically or disdainfully about new-age statistics, and the critics will erupt.

There is no right or wrong. The critics say we are wrong, and they know what they are talking about, right? They urge me to consider the statistics, and I have. I do not find that they enhance my enjoyment of the game I have watched for many more years than they have breathed on this earth.

I will enjoy the game the way I want to. If I am missing something, so be it, but I don’t think WAR, VORP and UZR are going to do anything for me. As my friend, the former baseball commissioner, Fay Vincent, wrote about this new book, “For those of us who have long questioned the focus on statistics in baseball, this is a welcome book.”

Ah yes, the book. I started out to write about the book – did I say it’s terrific? – and I think I got sidetracked.

To introduce the authors, who have no professional connection to baseball, Dr. Sheldon Hirsch, 55 years old, is a nephrologist – he treats people with kidney problems – and Alan Hirsch is a college professor, teaching legal studies at Williams College.

Both graduated from Amherst College and Sheldon from Tufts Medical School, Alan from Yale Law School. Their father taught high school and college mathematics for 50 years, including statistics and probability. He can be blamed for their interest in statistics that led them to write this book, which was published by McFarland & Company.

The Hirsches are kinder to sabermetricians than I am, but they do a great job explaining why much of what they do is faulty.

“Focusing on numbers,” they write, “while overlooking the nuances and subtle forces that can’t be quantified sabermetricians fail to appreciate the complexity of the game they seek to try to transform.”

Close to 10 years ago, Michael Lewis sought to turn a very good general manager into a god-like general manager. billy-beane-225Billy Beane, however, was not up to the task. Lewis’ book glorified Beane to the extent that has enabled the Hirsches to point out all of the flaws that made Beane’s system look foolish

Lewis, they remind us, wrote that before the 2002 draft Beane listed eight players he wanted to choose from, all college players, whom Beane coveted over high school players.

Besides their college status, the players on the list fit the hitting profile Beane wanted, with heavy emphasis on on-base percentage, as he built a winning organization from players no one else seemed to regard as highly as the Athletics did.

The eight were Jeremy Brown, Stephen Stanley, John Baker, Mark Kiger, Shaun Larkin, John McCurdy, Brant Colamarino and Brian Stavisky. The names should not be familiar to you because they never made it. They never even made it far enough for you to consider drafting them as sleepers for your fantasy league team.

“If they had made it big,” the Hirsches write, “Beane would have been deservedly hailed as a genius. That they went nowhere cannot be dismissed.”

That they went nowhere was a failure of the system that Lewis touted, which in turn demonstrated what a flawed book he perpetrated on the baseball-reading public but also on others who credited Lewis with profiling a revolutionary system.

“Lewis’s blind love of his story produces any number of absurdities,” the Hirsches write.

Lewis and Beane, they say, were led astray by “their warped perception of various players,” but even worse they swallowed a theory/formula conceived by a sabermetrician named Voros McCracken. His “discovery” was that the only statistics that were relevant to judging pitchers were walks,strikeouts and home runs.

What happens when a ball is hit but not over the fence, this idea says, has nothing to do with the pitcher but is mostly a matter of luck. Bill James, who is credited (blamed) for starting sabermetrics, agreed that McCracken’s idea was “’basically true.’”

“In the real world,” the Hirsches write, “the best that can be said for McCracken’s idea is that it would be true if it weren’t false. Its falsity is easily demonstrated.”

The book notes that McCracken’s “goof” got him a job with the Boston Red Sox, whose new owners hired James in 2002 to advise the baseball operations people.

James plays a prominent part in the new book, not all of it negative. James, the authors write, helped cure “the colossal ignorance pervading the baseball world” but “inadvertently ushered in…excessive faith in a particular path to knowledge and insufficient appreciation of how much can never be quantified.”

In a recent conversation, Fay Vincent recalled the eulogy Bobby Brown, the former Yankees’ third baseman, delivered at Joe DiMaggio’s funeral.

“I played with him,” Vincent quoted Brown as saying, “and there’s no statistic that measures how many times he took an extra base in the last three innings of a game and there’s no statistic that measures how often he threw out a runner at third base in the last three innings of a game.”

James didn’t see DiMaggio play. He didn’t see much of Roy White and Horace Clarke either, and the authors cite that as a shortcoming in his assessment of players.

Growing up in Kansas, the Hirsches write, James saw the Kansas City teams play a lot and came to know the players’ abilities very well. With players on other teams, it was a different story. White and Clarke were two of those players. Their names caught my attention because they played for the Yankees in the early 1970s when I began covering the team.

In assessing White, the authors write, James wrote that he “’did everything well.’” But the authors say correctly that White didn’t do everything well. He had one of the weakest outfield arms in the majors. True.

Horace Clarke 225James, they write, ranks Clarke among the top 100 second basemen, ignoring the fact that Clarke had a “tendency to bail out on the double play.” Also true.

Those weaknesses, the Hirsches point out, do not show up in box scores and can’t be quantified.

The same problem holds true for the popular, relatively new statistic, UZR, or ultimate zone rating. Mitchel Lichtman created this statistic to rate players defensively, but the authors say it doesn’t come close to meeting its creator’s claims for it.

An obvious shortcoming in UZR, the authors say, is its consistently low ratings Derek Jeter earned until 2009. Jeter has demonstrated many unrated intangibles, most notably his retrieval of an errant throw and his backhand flip to get Jeremy Giambi at home plate for a series-saving out in the 2001 playoffs.

No big deal here. Just another failed rating system. As the Hirsches write, “Sabermetrics has uncovered no blueprint to follow in the quest for a championship team.”

Referring to the way some statistical formulae have been changed over the years, they also suggest that 10 or 15 years from now we may have a “reversal of the previous reversals” and “even more hyper-sophisticated formulae that even fewer people can understand.”

Proponents of sabermetrics should do themselves a favor and buy the book to find out if they should have something to think about. Those who have no use for sabermetrics should buy the book to find out why they are on solid footing.

I have chosen not to explain the authors’ reasons for finding fault with much of the sabermetricia they write about. If I were to give all of their reasons for their criticisms, you wouldn’t have to buy the book, and they wouldn’t appreciate that. Then they might accuse me of conspiring with Lincoln Mitchell to make their book my book.

 

BONDS IS BACK

Finally, the long-awaited, long-delayed perjury trial of Barry Bonds is scheduled to begin Monday. That is, it will start if the government has any evidence left with which to try him. The federal court judge, Susan Illston, has thrown out more evidence than your wife or your mother has thrown out old clothes.

Barry Bonds SmileThe jury, once it is seated anonymously, will not hear, among other things, testimony from or relating to Bonds’ former trainer, Greg Anderson, because he has refused to testify against Bonds and would rather sit in jail instead.

Anderson, who has already served time twice for refusing to testify before two grand juries, cannot be forced to testify but can be jailed on a judicial contempt charge. He can also be tried for criminal contempt, but that is unlikely to happen.

As a result of Anderson’s refusal to testify, the jury will not hear testimony that is linked to Anderson, such as the steroids calendar the trainer allegedly kept for Bonds.

The jury also will not hear voice mail messages Bonds left for his then girlfriend, Kimberly Bell, on which Bonds supposedly is enraged, examples of what prosecutors say is ‘roid rage. Bell, however, will apparently be allowed to testify about physical changes in Bonds’ body during the years they were together.

Several former players are also scheduled to appear as witnesses for the prosecution, relating their experiences with receiving steroids from the same laboratory that Anderson allegedly worked with.

If Bonds is convicted, there is no certainty that he would serve time. A lawyer familiar with the federal court system said prosecutors will try hard to have Bonds sentenced to prison, but there’s no guarantee the judge will accede to their wishes.

The perjury charges stem from Bonds’ testimony before a grand jury in December 2003. He testified that he did not knowingly use steroids, and the government argues that he knew what he was using was steroids.

Bonds played for four more seasons after his grand jury appearance and hit 104 home runs, breaking Henry Aaron’s career record and finishing with 762. He retired after the 2007 season.

Comments? Please send email to comments@murraychass.com.