Before Moneyball, the mainstream more or less ignored sabermetrics. Those who brought up statistics were dismissed as roto-geeks; the game couldn’t be boiled down to numbers, and if these losers would get their heads out of their spreadsheets and actually watch a game, they’d know that.
But now, as Moneyball showed everyone, they’re on the inside, taking over some of the game’s most prominent franchises, and what’s more, they’ve been successful. Sabermetrics no longer belongs to fringe outsiders, it’s part of the game. Sabermetric teams are still a minority, but it is firmly entrenched, and likely to spread.
But the mainstream public was, and is still largely unaware of the particulars of this type of baseball research, and while Moneyball has done a good job of informing people of how the A’s were different, it hasn’t taught sabermetric theory very well at all. When the public is underinformed, it’s the media’s job to step in and provide information.
Instead, they’ve gone into attack mode. Seeing an undesirable change, a new way of thinking about baseball that was utterly foreign to them, they have eschewed objectivity in favor of self-preservation, attempted to hold back the irresistible tide of progress. They have been hostile, they have been mean-spirited, and they have been ignorant.
They are the mainstream, they reach a far larger audience than we at The Hardball Times, or our colleagues at Baseball Prospectus and Baseball Think Factory do, and consequently, the general public does not get both sides of the story. Rarely are sabermetric principles written about without being critically analyzed by a traditionalist, and often by someone who doesn’t understand them. My fellow Yankees fans have noticed, I’m sure, that the Yankees cannot play the Red Sox, A’s or Blue Jays without broadcaster Jim Kaat taking a swipe at Moneyball and sabermetrics. He has clearly demonstrated that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but the lack of dissenting voices leaves he and his audience believing that sabermetrics is a deeply flawed science.
Like any science, there are of course errors made. For a long time statistical analysts have believed that clutch hitting was an illusion, but recent studies have indicated that clutch hitting does seem to be a real phenomenon, that it is measurable, and that it is significant. Does this mean that the traditionalists were right? Not exactly — lacking little other than selective memory to draw their conclusions with, the traditional line of thought has very often misidentified a player as being “clutch” or a “choker,” and the actual impact of clutch performance is far less than the mainstream supposes it to be. Even if Luis Sojo was clutch, he still stunk.
But just like the studies that indicated clutch hitting was not real, the studies that showed it likely was are based on research, not dogma and unsupported assertions. Productive Outs are important because that’s how games are won — so says Jim Kaat and Paul O’Neill and Bruce Fields. Nevermind that the facts pretty clearly show that Productive Outs are not important to winning, and may in fact be counterproductive, people who played the game said it, therefore it must be so. Well, that’s not how it works. Truth is not a popularity contest, and having the popular view doesn’t mean you have the right view. Galileo died under house arrest, but the Earth still revolved around the Sun.
The new meme is that sabermetrics ignores chemistry, that sabermetrics dehumanizes baseball. Exhibit A: the Dodgers’ trade of their “heart and soul,” Paul Lo Duca, along with dominant reliever Guillermo Mota and rightfielder Juan Encarnacion to the Marlins for “platoon first baseman” Hee Seop Choi, “fifth starter” Brad Penny, and a prospect.
The general view in the mainstream is that the Dodgers got fleeced, that this trade was only justifiable if they could grab Charles Johnson and Randy Johnson in related deals, which they didn’t. And it doesn’t make any sense. Unless you decide that chemistry is something that can be manifested in one or two players rather than an entire team.
Chemistry certainly has value, getting along with your co-workers can certainly have a positive impact on the quality of your work — for some people (there’s always exceptions). But the media has made it seem like Paul DePodesta, the Dodgers’ GM, places no value on it whatsoever. Which is, of course, ridiculous. DePodesta simply values chemistry, or at least the impact of one or two players on it, less than the mainstream does, which is not tough to do. Even critics of this trade agree with the point DePodesta has tried to make: as Harold Reynolds said on Baseball Tonight, “Winning does a lot to make chemistry.”
The analysis of the players involved defies logic, too. Mota is undeniably a dominant reliever, but Lo Duca is hardly an elite catcher. Through last night’s games, Lo Duca had a .282 :GPA:, very good for a catcher, but well above his career mark of .263. Further, his pre-All-Star break GPA has been .283, while his post-break GPA has been .235, and it’s not the fluke result of one bad second half, he’s been worse after the break in every full season of his career. It’s clear that the man gets tired in the second half, and at 32, that’s unlikely to change.
Choi is dismissed by many for being unable to hit left-handed pitching and striking out too much. The inability to hit lefties is real, as evidenced by his .196 career GPA against them. But that’s in a mere 65 plate appearances, far too small a sample to be considered his true talent. A player as young as Choi shouldn’t be dismissed as a platoon player, most lefty batters struggle against lefty pitchers early on, they need to be exposed to lefties to learn how to hit them. Maybe Choi should be benched against lefties in the pennant race, but at only 25, it’s way too early to give up on him as a full-time player.
While everyone is pooh-poohing Choi as a legitimate hitter, I noticed a comparison to another lefty-hitting first baseman who had trouble with lefties and breaking pitches early on. While the mystery guest’s line is from his age-24 season, rather than his age-25 season, like Choi’s projected full-season numbers for this year, the comparison is still a good one:
PLAYER AB H 2B 3B HR BB SO AVG OBP SLG OPS GPA Choi 459 124 29 2 24 84 127 .270 .386 .495 .881 .297 Mystery Guest 488 132 28 2 25 58 139 .270 .353 .490 .843 .281
Choi’s numbers are better than our guest’s, and Choi compiled them in a pitchers’ park, while our guest compiled them in a hitters’ park.
Eventually, our mystery guest was exposed to lefties enough to hit them acceptably, and crushed righties enough to finish in the top five in the MVP voting twice. If Carlos Delgado had been traded for a 32-year old catcher and a very good middle reliever in 1996, it would be getting ridiculed as one of the dumbest trades in history already. Choi may not become Delgado, but considering his numbers are still better than Delgado’s age-25 numbers (.290 GPA), he’s off to a good start.
Even if Choi never develops into a truly great hitter, he’s still a better hitter than Lo Duca, and considering Lo Duca’s history of second-half collapses, the Dodgers’ lineup is likely better off this season with Choi, let alone in seasons to come. And Choi isn’t all the Dodgers got in this deal. Brad Penny has been dismissed as the Marlins’ ex-fifth starter, but in terms of performance, he was their third starter, behind two pitchers having outstanding seasons — and DIPS says he was their best starter (3.43 to Carl Pavano‘s 3.63 and Dontrelle Willis‘ 4.03). The Dodgers’ starting rotation has a 4.27 ERA (not good for Dodger Stadium), their bullpen a 2.95 ERA. Taking Mota out of the equation still leaves the Dodgers with a good bullpen, adding Penny gives them a frontline starter they desperately needed if they were going to do anything in October.
The Dodgers didn’t necessarily win this trade, but they certainly didn’t lose it, and they almost certainly got better. They did NOT get fleeced. They traded from strength to address weakness, as did the Marlins. In the long term, the Dodgers will certainly come out ahead in this bargain, and there’s no apparent reason why it should hurt them now.
Except chemistry, which is all that appears to matter to the mainstream. They broke up a winning team, sending off important elements of their success to acquire what they hope to be elements of greater success. What team has done such a thing? I can recall none.
But if no team has done it, then why must it be a negative? If there was a long history of failure following teams trading good players for other good players while in a pennant race, then there’d be a point — it obviously doesn’t work. But there’s no history, not one of success, not one of failure. To not try to get better because you’d be doing it under circumstances that have never been tried before, that’s foolishness.
The sabermetric debate has been categorized by some as a debate between opposing religions. It’s not. This isn’t the Crusades, it’s more like the Scopes Monkey Trial. In 1986, writing of the misconception of Milwaukee County Stadium as a hitters’ park, Bill James wrote:
Anyway, the “dispute” isn’t a disagreement about the evidence, but a disagreement between people who are looking at the evidence and people who aren’t. It’s like asking a naturalist why he doesn’t do a complete, once-and-for-all study on the evidence of evolution and creationism. The evidence is already conclusive; it’s just that there are people who don’t intend to accept it unless the hand of God appears in the sky one afternoon and writes “ALL RIGHT! I CONFESS! I DID IT BY EVOLUTION! IT TOOK ME YEARS! I’SE JUST KIDDING ABOUT THE SEVEN DAYS! AND BY THE WAY, MILWAUKEE COUNTY STADIUM IS A PITCHER’S PARK … BE BACK NEXT MILLENNIUM. LOVE, GOD. P.S. IF YOU DO ANY MORE MOVIES I’D PREFER DEBRA WINGER TO GEORGE BURNS.”
There are some who still refuse to look at the evidence, and they never will. I say nuts to them. They’re not going to come around, and we shouldn’t care anymore. Let them continue to overvalue heart, chemistry and other intangibles. The truth is on our side, and by focusing on the next generation of fans, the next generation of sportswriters, and the next generation of general managers, the game will be better served, and objective statistical analysis will be given equal footing with subjective scouting.
We do this not because we desire to hold the popular viewpoint, but because we love the game, and we love our teams. We do this because we want our favorite teams to be run intelligently. We do this because it’s the right thing to do.