Jim Walsh's Big Hairy Weblog Thingy

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Talkin' Baseball

I just finished a baseball book that rocked my world, and has me thinking about how to apply its ideas more widely.

Moneyball by Michael Lewis is a book about sabermetrics, a method of analyzing baseball statistics by ultra-objective and even mathematical means. The term was coined by one Bill James, who developed the concept as a means of killing time while (no kidding) working at a Hormel meatpacking plant in Kansas City.

“Sabermetricians” have called into question many ideas in baseball heretofore held sacred. For instance the concept of “batting average” is considered overrated, because of its limited usefulness in predicting a team’s actual ability to generate runs, and by extension, win games. In the sabermetric view f'rinstance, a player who has a knack for getting on base by walks (arguably a function of a batter’s manipulation of the strike zone) is a player of genuine value.

This kind of thinking is heresy among baseball traditionalists.

The sabermetric philosophy of pitching is just as radical. The most basic premise is this: the pitcher has no control of whether a ball falls for a hit once it gets put into play. They can prevent home runs and walks, and keep balls from from being put into play by striking out batters. These three factors alone are what make a pitcher stand out. Ergo, the traditional “earned run average” is a misleading figure that tells you little about a pitcher’s true potential.

Confused yet?

The leading practicioner of sabermetrics is Oakland GM Billy Beane, who uses sabermetric principles in staffing and running the A’s (the story of how Beane's own experiences as a player soured him on the traditional seat-of-the-pants approach to baseball strategy is a high point of the book).

The major advantage of the system seems to be in how it allows a team with a limited budget to get “more bang for the buck” by selecting talented players that other teams would overlook. The A’s have certainly enjoyed some success in recent years, out of proportion to their team's relatively meager budget (at this writing the A's have pulled out an early-season slump and are kicking some serious booty). Several of Beane’s protegees have moved on to upper management jobs at other teams where they presumably apply sabermetrics.

The defending champion Red Sox have also applied sabermetric principles in recent years (they hired Bill James as an advisor). Advocates of the system like to crow how a bunch of number-crunching nerds beat the Bambino Curse!

The sabermetric school does have its share of detractors, mostly among traditionalists like Hall-Of-Famer/ESPN color man Joe Morgan (he was part of Cincinnatti’s “Big Red Machine” in the seventies). Ironically, using the sabermetric system of analysis, Morgan comes off as one of the top two or three second basemen to ever play the game.

Morgan’s rants on the subject border on the comical; despite being corrected on numerous occasions he continues to insist Billy Beane wrote Moneyball! For the record, he says he’s never read the book and refuses to do so...

All this may sound like so much Chinese arithmetic, but I can assure you the book Moneyball is one hell of a read. The book has a certain momentum to it; it carries you along. I recommend it very highly.

Like I said at the beginning, the book has me thinking about how to apply "Moneyball" principles to other areas of life, particularly my own area of quasi-expertise, radio programming. Specifically, how can a station (or a chain) with a limited budget get more bang for the buck using sabermetric-type principles? I'm working on it and will have more to say in the near future.

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