Earl Weaver and the Malleable Process

Earl Weaver was a man ahead of his time (via kowarski).

Earl Weaver was a man ahead of his time (via kowarski).

I’ve always wondered how the course of baseball history would have been changed if the word sabermetrics was something other than “sabermetrics.”

I’m not trying to imagine an alternate dimension in which Bill James pleasantly lives his life in Kansas without ever becoming interested in baseball, never bothering to self-publish that first Abstract. I’m not trying to imagine a reality where Michael Lewis’ editor balks at the prospect of having his star writer watch half-attended baseball games in Oakland for a year, insisting instead that Lewis churn out another, more marketable tale of Wall Street finance.

What I’m saying is: imagine that all of the same statistics have been developed by all the same luminary thinkers, and we have all of the same great web sites pumping out all of the same cunning, tireless analysis on the daily—but everybody uses a word other than “sabermetrics” to talk about sabermetrics.

Because I—the English major who only learned the name Vörös McCracken after the market value of OBP had been inflated up and out of the A’s price-range—have this theory that the literal, actual word “sabermetrics” has, in fact, halted the proliferation and implementation of its guiding concepts.

I intend no slight to the venerable Society of American Baseball Research! It is a total accident of the English language that the portmanteau bearing the Society’s acronym sounds, um, well it sounds a little cold and impersonal. It sounds like a supremely confidential and volatile series of experiments being conducted in a secluded New Mexican laboratory. As a new reader baptized into the Internet’s deluge of sabermetrically-slanted writing, the next word that would pop into my mind, via association, was “cryogenics,” that moonshot strain of science that once had incidental contact with baseball, and also vaguely rhymes with “sabermetrics.”

Personally, after an initial wave of misdirected denial—“Whaddaya mean it’s not good to steal a base?!”—I quickly converted to sabermetric strains of thinking (and left all thoughts of cryogenics behind). And I intentionally say that I “converted.”

At this moment in the arc of baseball’s history, the main efforts of the sabermetric thinker are directed towards statistical evangelism. Whether it be networks attempting to gingerly integrate something beyond ERA and RBI into their broadcasts, or a front office wondering how to traverse the mighty philosophical chasm between conference room and clubhouse, spreading the sabermetric gospel is an increasingly relevant priority.

And during these conversion efforts, just as when more traditional religions are the topic of discussion, heels are dug into the ground, the retorts become ever-more personal, and minds become ever-less receptive. Last year, the MLB Network even launched a daily chunk of programming exclusively centered on this very flashpoint of flaring tempers, the whole show designed to be a perpetual argument that never gets resolved.

So, I wonder, what if we’d always been using a word less scientifically tinged than “sabermetrics?” What if the name of the Society of American Baseball Research converted to an acronym that sounded a bit less like a branch of physics for graduate candidates only? Would your local numbers-averse color commentator let his guard down and reap the wisdom of WAR if this century’s wave of new stats went under a less imposing name, like “bobometrics?”

I honestly think it would help. But I think the optimal name for sabermetrics would be something in even plainer English. My vote goes to: “process numbers.”

To claim that the rift between “new-school” and “old-school” thinking originates in a love for calculators versus a love of dirt on the uniform is to subtly but profoundly miss the point.  The recipe and methodology behind the sabermetricians-only statistic FIP is really quite a bit simpler than the steps required to concoct the “simple” statistic ERA. With ERA’s strained leap in logic in assigning different weights to runs—earned vs. unearned—that all count for one apiece on the scoreboard, it is actually further immersed in numeric doodling and further divorced from the events that took place on the field than FIP’s simple tallying of home runs, walks, hit batsmen, and strikeouts.

Their dates of origin aside, the true difference between FIP and ERA is their measurement of, respectively, process and result. A low FIP is indicative of a good pitching process, of controlling the strike zone without committing crippling mistakes. A low ERA is indicative of a good pitching result, a result that is often significantly influenced by whether the shortshop does or doesn’t make that diving grab. Your belief in one statistic over the other reflects your belief that either good past process or good past result will be the most help for a team as they try to win future games. Spreadsheets and grit really have very little to do with it.

Process numbers. That doesn’t sound so bad, right?

- – -

So what if there was a character in baseball’s colorful dramatis personae of generations past who exclusively believed in his process and used that process to manage teams to 16 consecutive seasons above .500? What if he managed his teams to four pennants and one World Series title, all before retiring at the same age that Terry Francona is right now (55)? What if that character’s background was not in the Ivy League but in the minor leagues, spending 23 years playing and coaching on every possible rung of the farm system? What if his team’s scouting database consisted of hand-written index cards, but he came to the same strategic conclusions that would be deemed revolutionary decades later by tacticians armed with the Internet?

Would such a man reconcile the school of old and the school of new, exerting tremendous and institution-altering influence as the father of so many sound, game-winning practices? Would the process numbers that he leaned upon rule the day as teams scrambled to copy-cat his successful ways?

Well, no.

I’m talking about the late, great Earl Weaver, manager of the Baltimore Orioles from 1968 to 1982 and ’85 to ’86. Even though Weaver’s name is universally revered, and even though his Orioles were an institution of dominance (his 16 consecutive winning seasons compare favorably to the Yankees’ current streak of 22 winning seasons—the latter achievement being, to some extent, seized by financial force), his strategic innovations would not be replicated until Moneyball was on display on the bestseller’s table at every bookstore.

In 1984, during his first (brief) retirement, Weaver sat down with sportswriter Terry Pluto and came up with Weaver on Strategy, effectively a complete treatise on his managerial tactics, covering topics from coach-player relationships to how to handle a bullpen. Mixing brilliant chapter titles and headings (“How Not to Get Fired: All It Takes Is a .596 Winning Percentage,” “Clubhouse Meetings: A Real Waste of Time”) and wry retorts to a manager’s mundane obligations (Weaver provides the list of nine rotating clichés that he blabs to the media in spring training, depending on the day’s events), Weaver on Strategy deserves a spot that it doesn’t have as one of baseball’s most iconic books.

Thirty years after the publication of Weaver on Strategy, it is truly remarkable how Weaver arrived at the same conclusions that felt revolutionary to a general audience when they tumbled out of Brad Pitt’s mouth on the big screen. Here is an incomplete list of strategies—call them “Moneyball strategies” or sabermetric strategies or faith in the process—that came to Weaver after so many long afternoons of inventive and deductive thinking in his years of minor league wandering:

“Forget about the bunt unless there is no other choice. Look instead to Dr. Longball and his assistant, Dr. Three-Hit.”

Sacrifice means you are giving up something. In this instance, you’re giving up an out to the opposition. There are only three an inning, and they should be treasured.”

“For the steal to be worthwhile, the runner should be safe around 75 percent of the time.”

“Fielding is the most overlooked and maybe least understood talent in baseball.”

“The most important job a manager does each day is fill out his lineup card. Once the players are in the game, it’s up to them to produce; all a manager can do is put the best team on the field.”

“Sportswriters and announcers spend too much time talking about ‘clutch’ players, ‘winning’ players, and ‘losing’ players.”

“On the whole, I’d say a good clutch player is usually a good player to begin with.”

“The home run makes managing simple. Frank Robinson would come to bat with two guys on base. I’d yell, ‘Hit it hard, Frank.’”

By the time these words were written in 1984, James no longer had to stuff envelopes with copies of the Abstract by himself; his work was being published and released by a proper publisher. But it is still incredible how thoroughly deep in the Stone Ages baseball was at this time.

Weaver writes: “It took me six years to convince the front office that we should have [radar] guns in our minor-league system [...].” The Orioles front office was concerned about the financial burden of purchasing radar guns, a paradigm that is unfathomable to the modern mind. What’s more, ownership would not pay for the Orioles’ gun man to travel with the big-league team—Weaver could only have the pitches tracked for Baltimore home games, and the speeds had to be relayed to the dugout via hand signal by the gun man in the stands.

Of his scouting system, Weaver writes: “The Orioles have an index card on every player in the American League.” An index card!

Weaver is renowned for his famous love of the three-run homer. This, too, meant something entirely different when Weaver said it, compared to how we hear it today. Weaver’s 1973 team finished with a 97-65 record and 119 total home runs, a total that would have been good for 28th in the major leagues last year. Weaver says he prefers for his team to “hit at least 150 homers.” Well, 150 home runs would have been good for 19th in the major leagues in 2013, just behind the unintimidating Minnesota Twins.

The most astonishing passage in Weaver on Strategy is Weaver’s long and impassioned defense of his decision to give playing time to slight-of-build Glenn Gulliver during the 1982 stretch run (the Orioles would finish 94-68). Looking at Gulliver’s career slash line, it should be obvious both why Weaver loved to put Gulliver in the lineup and also why nobody else wanted to see him there: .203/.356/.271. Weaver was rightly enamored with Gulliver’s uncanny ability to draw walks, and all everybody else could see was that anemic batting average.

Gulliver’s ultimate fate also would be impossible if only he were born just a few decades later: after Weaver gave Gulliver 185 plate appearances in 1982 (Gulliver’s rookie year), new Orioles manager Joe Altobelli allowed Gulliver only 57 plate appearances in 1983. And then … nothing. Gulliver’s major-league career was over after 242 plate appearances, 46 walks, and 0.8 WAR. While Scott Hatteberg is portrayed in an Oscar-nominated movie in this generation, Gulliver only saw an unending string of minor-league bus rides in his.

It’s not that every last thing Weaver said and believed aligned perfectly with sabermetric orthodoxy. Weaver frequently proclaims his faith in the influence of individual batter-pitcher matchups, specifically claiming that, after a sample size of 20 plate appearances, he would use those statistics to guide his lineup construction. While Weaver was an early adopter of using spray charts to influence defensive positioning, he was patently uninterested in spray charts of games that did not involve the Orioles, a self-imposed restriction that no doubt led to limiting sample sizes.

These stumbles are quite small and should not substantially discount Weaver’s innovations. If Weaver had been a manager is this generation, I don’t doubt that he would use the available proliferation of modern tools to invent to his team’s advantage, because Weaver’s most valuable asset, and far more so than any single strategic wrinkle, was always his open and receptive mind.

Weaver’s attitude is best reflected in his personal mantra (which also serves as the title of his 1982 autobiography), “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.” Or, as he writes in this book, on the subject of taking in as many statistics as possible: “Maybe I wouldn’t use everything, but I wanted to see it. I believe that what you don’t know can hurt you and that you can never know enough.”

In addition to being positively zen, Weaver’s humble, student’s mind was always flexible enough to adapt to the situation at hand. It’s hard to argue that being willing to be continually taught by the game, no matter your role or experience in it, is anything other than the most important process of all.

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Comments

  1. bucdaddy said...

    Didn’t Weaver say something along the lines of “My toughest decision every spring is the 25th man”? Or am I thinking of another manager?

    In any case, Weaver seemed to be a genius at roster and lineup construction, juggling and platooning to get the most he could out of flawed or one-dimensional players, which is pretty much a very sabrmetric thing to do.

    I’m a Pirates fan, and one of the frustrations some of us have with Hurdle and his predecessors has been their tendency to bury one or two players on the bench forever (we call this the Ciriaco Conundrum). I don’t think Earl did much of that. Earl wouldn’t want to waste 4% to 8% of his roster. With Earl, every player would have a specific job that, yes, he might be called on to do only once a week. But when it was his time, Earl would have put him in the best possible position to succeed.

    Miles: Have you read Christy Mathewson’s “Pitching in a Pinch”? IIRC, he often describes John McGraw as having what we would now think of as a sabrmetric mind, always studying the game, always looking for an angle and an edge. I’ve read a book more or less written by Johnny Evers, too, in which, IIRC, there are some primitive spray charts. As successful as those three men were at baseball, it seems remarkable that it took MLB as a whole another 80 or so years to cotton to numbers analysis. Part of that, I know, is that computers and video have made the observation and crunching so much easier, even just since Bill James’ early days.

  2. obsessivegiantscompulsive said...

    I love Weaver’s book, thanks for the nice article!

    I too wonder about his influence upon the game in subtle ways. You write about how he was saber before it was cool to be saber, but his methods might have suffered for the same reasons sabermetrics did: he might have been successful, but others did not buy into it and spread the word, they were used to the old ways. I think part of it was that he was an original, and probably people thought that his unorthodox ways only worked with him and couldn’t be duplicated. And the way he talked, he sounded like a cranky old man often times, and people tune that out.

    I also wonder though if it might have made their way into baseball internally. Pat Dobson, a pitcher under him, moved on to become Brian Sabean’s advisor before his untimely passing. I find that a lot of the Giants actions look saber, though most of the public views them as anything but, particularly since Sabean had some unkind comments about Moneyball (and led ultimately to Baseball Prospectus openly asking for him to be fired in their 2010 Annual – ooops). Perhaps other O’s he managed might have front-office jobs and passing along his nuggets of knowledge.

    I would also note that in common business practices, you do not want to expose any proprietary secrets that gives your organization a strategic advantage. It would be like sharing the formula for Coca-Cola. So Weaver’s methods might have been used and duplicated internally within the game, only nobody was talking about it specifically. It is just that publicly, nobody was aware of his methods, other than perhaps O’s fans.

    For example, I’m a big baseball fan, big reader, but I only discovered that he wrote that book because it was on the discounted list for an on-line baseball oriented retail site. I was a big fan of Weaver too, growing up just after the time he started managing, I was aware of his four 20-game winner rotation, the Robinsons, Boog, and Belanger. I greatly admired him and his style, and I spent most weekend trolling the local Waldenbooks store, and I still didn’t see his book.

    And my recognition of having a rotation of great starters made me wonder about the Dobson-Giants connection, when I saw that the Giants were constructing one of their own. Particularly once they drafted Bumgarner and Wheeler, even though Giants fans saw that they needed hitters, so why another pitcher (Bumgarner has shown exactly why another pitcher!). Then I read BP’s study of success in the playoffs and having a good 3-man rotation, while not key, was a strong factor.

    I would not begrudge that Weaver didn’t see some things that we know today. That’s like faulting Newton for not seeing what Einstein figured out. We should celebrate the things that Weaver did right for oh so many years. Thanks again for reminding us.

    • bucdaddy said...

      “It is just that publicly, nobody was aware of his methods, other than perhaps O’s fans.”

      Weren’t the Orioles famous at one time for being among the first teams (or the first teams that got noticed for it anyway) to have a “way,” as in “The Orioles Way”? Maybe I’m misremembering, but I thought there was a kind of organizational manual intended to assure that players from rookie league to AAA were uniformly taught to do things the same way, all learn the game the same way, so that when they got to the big club they knew how the O’s ran their relays and cutoffs, for instance. (It even sticks in my mind that they insisted all their minor league teams be called “Orioles” and the uniforms look the same. Or maybe I’m making that up.)

      Anyway, the point I’m getting to is this: If your organization insists on consistency all up and down the chain in what it believes is the proper way to do things, then even outside observers should have no problem picking that up. Go watch any of their teams work out, over time it should become evident.

      I’m not sure Earl wasn’t the same way. At least his tactical moves could have been studied and imitated. It shouldn’t have been so hard to see how, for instance, he used the Merv Rettenmunds on his team. My impression of Rettenmund was that he was always a platoon player with the O’s, but in looking back at the ’71 team I was somewhat amazed to see that Merv got a full season’s worth of at-bats without ever having a starting job (and the other seven starters except the catcher somehow did too). And Rettenmund had a huge season.

      What couldn’t be duplicated, I guess, was Earl’s personality. I got the feeling Earl didn’t care whether anyone loved him, as long as his guys produced. Palmer hated Earl, didn’t he? Earl probably had no problem telling guys exactly what he thought of them, cantankerous SOB that he was. But given his track record of run-ins with umpires, I imagine every one of them knew Earl had their backs. And it also should have been clear he insisted on putting them in the best position to succeed, whatever their talent.

      I was at a game against the Mariners in old Memorial Stadium when Earl argued a balk call on one of his pitchers. It wasn’t enough to argue. He gave a demonstration. He borrowed the pitcher’s glove, got up on the mound and came to a set position, and pointed at his foot several times as he yelled at the ump. Then he gave the glove back and trotted to the dugout.

      It got the roar of the crowd that it deserved.

  3. Ralph C. said...

    I don’t think a different name would’ve made saber metrics any more palatable to people. Even “process numbers” has a sterility or science-ish tinge to it. No bane really could’ve sugar-coated the ruffling of some peoples’ long-regarded and hailed beliefs about baseball. To take a match to “baseball is 75% pitching” is scary no matter what you label it.

    I loved those Weaver books. I still think his handling of pitchers would be sound in today’s game. Would a Weaver be going with 12 or 13 pitchers, or would he be the maverick of baseball managers?

    Nice article.

  4. Dennis Bedard said...

    There is a flip side: Jim Plamer has remarked that the only thing Weaver knew about pitching was that he could not hit it. Weaver is one of the few managers who never played in the major leagues. Interesting that he was 1-3 in WS play. The ’69 O’s were probably the greatest team ever to not win it all.

    • bucdaddy said...

      In fairness, the 1971 and 1979 teams had the Pirates by the balls, 2-0 and 3-1, when the Pirates’ pitching suddenly turned shutdown. Don’t know how much of that was Earl’s fault, sometimes the other team (a good team too, or it wouldn’t be in the Series) shows up too.

    • John C said...

      Any team can have a great week and pull off an upset. If the ’62 Mets played the ’27 Yankees every day, there’d probably eventually come a time when the Mets would win four our of seven games, just by dumb luck. And that’s an extreme example. The World Series always pits two good teams against one another. Earl Weaver just happened to be on the bad end of a few times when the other team got hot at the right time. He didn’t forget how to manage when the calendar turned to October.

      He probably would have achieved much more in the postseason under modern rules. I know at least three times, in 1968, 1980, and 1982, he had the second-best team in the AL, but didn’t get to the playoffs because he finished second in the league (in’ 68) or division. The 1980 Orioles won 100 games and stayed home. There were other times the Orioles would have been a wild card under the modern alignment.

  5. The Ancient Mariner said...

    *Weaver on Strategy* is still about my favorite baseball book, and you’ve done a service calling it to people’s attention. That said, I have to disagree with you on the word “sabermetrics.” I don’t know what the difference in our backgrounds might be, but to me, a saber/sabre is nothing but a long, curved, single-edged sword carried especially by cavalry and used primarily as a slashing weapon. “Sabermetrics” doesn’t sound like some arcane branch of physics to me, but rather like something that might be studied by a swordfighter.

  6. Ralph C. said...

    For those who might not know this, the “saber” in sabermetrics is actually a nod to SABR, the Society Of American Baseball Research. To make it a word, Bill James, who coined the word, used “saber” instead of “sabr”.

  7. Hank G. said...

    All the $.01 copies of Weaver on Strategy have disappeared from Amazon.com. I blame this article.

  8. Marc Schneider said...

    The problem is not the word but the attitude, especially initially, of some advocates of advanced statistics. There are still fans that act as if anyone that enjoys pitcher win-loss stats should be sent to Siberia. We know that RBIs and pitcher wins and batting average are misleading stats but they are still fun and they have a lot of history behind them. I think sabermetrics would be more accepted-at least by fans-if a lot of the advocates didn’t act like they had discovered a cure for cancer.

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