View Full Version : Evolution revisited

01-26-2006, 05:43 PM
I posted this piece last year on opening day. It took me several years to come to these conclusions. I'm posting it again because I've seen a lot of fighting on the board lately between newer posters and long time contributors in the stats vs. scouting battle.

ev·o·lu·tion n.

1. A gradual process in which something changes into a different and usually more complex or better form.

Numbers have a special relationship in baseball. No other sport has such a long history of celebrating the numeric benchmarks that have been passed down from generation to generation. The .300 hitter…. the 100 RBI guy… 30 homers. They were standards with which we all agreed. It was how we defined excellence. They gave us perspective, a way to judge players from one era to another.

But there was always an uneasy feeling among “baseball men” that there was more to player evaluation than simple numbers could ever reflect. Subjective judgment was still more important, in spite of the variety of opinions you could get among talent evaluators. People who spent a lifetime in baseball used statistics as a side dish, but not as the main course. How could a number ever express the beauty of Mazerowski turning a double play? What equation could describe the jump Mays got on the ball off the bat?

We were right when we argued that statistics didn’t tell the whole story. We were right when we gave more weight to scouting methods steeped in subjective judgment.

The reason we were right wasn’t that statistics is an imperfect science. The reason was that the particular statistics that we grew up with were inadequate in expressing what was going on. So, we very often drew the conclusion that stats are incomplete, and we were right.

But baseball, for all it’s tradition and history, does not exist in a static environment. It’s dynamic, ever changing, evolving. And a big part of that evolution in the past 30 years comes from a group of dedicated baseball lovers who were also mathematicians. These were people who, like the “baseball men” of the day, saw the current statistical measures we used were inadequate. But they didn’t stop there, as we did. They looked for better ways to express performance through mathematics.

And they came up with some surprising conclusions. Things that were counterintuitive to the traditional baseball world. Much of this “new thinking” came in the form of complex equations, far beyond the simple formulas used for batting average, ERA, and the counting stats that had been used as benchmarks ever since Henry Chadwick conjured up the first box scores.

The community of mathematicians saw the value immediately. This was their turf, and it wasn’t even that complicated, relative to the kind of things they were doing in other fields. But it was voodoo to most baseball men. An egregious transgression, perpetrated by a bunch of people who “never played the game”.

And as the movement grew, the divide between the “baseball men” and the “statheads” grew ever wider. It became a turf war. And it got ugly.

The “statheads” ridiculed “traditionalists” like it was a dirty word. Moneyball portrayed scouts as tobacco chewing Neanderthals, simpletons, incapable of seeing the big picture. And traditionalists loved to tell stat guys to get their nose out of their spreadsheet and actually watch a game. It was personal, demeaning, and very emotional on both sides.

I was one of the guys who laughed out loud when I first heard some of the conclusions coming out of the sabermetric movement. Before I even scratched the surface of trying to understand what they were doing, I lumped the “new math” of baseball into the same category as the old stats, the ones that I and all of my friends KNEW were incomplete in describing the big picture.

And I was right, from my perspective. But my perspective was skewed. It was incomplete. So, even though I was convinced from all my years of playing and coaching and studying the game I loved that I was right, I wasn’t. In the grand scheme of things, I was wrong.

The craziest thing about all of this is that both sides come from a noble place. Both sides are seeking the truth about baseball. Both sides want the same thing.

I’ve been studying and debating and really agonizing over all this for the past 4 years. And I’ve bought in completely.

And I’m glad that I didn’t come to these conclusions easily. I’m glad that I resisted, kicking and screaming all the way. I’m glad that I demanded proof, and challenged it at every turn.

But to me “buying in” doesn’t mean that I have to abandon what I know and have learned from a lifetime of observation. I’ve said over and over that a “balance” between statistical analysis and subjective judgment from observation is the optimum approach. I now believe this more than ever. There has to be a blend with which the two disciplines can co-exist.

In my opinion, the perfectly evolved baseball mind doesn’t exist on either extreme of the spectrum. It’s somewhere in the middle, depending on your background and experience. You don’t forget how to crawl when you learn how to walk. You just find a better way of moving. I submit that both extremes have to give up old attachments and open our minds, and learn a better way of thinking about the game we love.

I would love to see the fighting stop between the so-called “traditionalists” and the so-called “statheads”. It’s gone on for too long. The personal attacks, the condescension, it’s all so counterproductive. It’s a turf war that serves no useful purpose.

I don’t mean to stop the discussions. I don’t want the challenges to every new and old idea to stop. That’s how we evolve, we test our theories against one another, and we seek the truth. But the personal rancor and invectives are childish and ridiculous, demeaning to all involved.

We all seek the truth about the game we love. What could be more noble?

01-26-2006, 07:37 PM
Agreed, and I am starting to feel a bit bad for the new guys. They get jumped on from the word go with many of us that have hashed these arguments out many times. We have evolved ourselves, we can argue these points very well, as we have done and seen it done in the past. We need to allow them to evolve as well. None of us were brought up on OPS, RC, etc. ... somebody helped us understand these along the way. It was up to each of us to figure out how much we would rely on these newfangled numbers.

We also get a bit tired of arguing the same point every 3-4 months as new guys come aboard. Its a bit of a problem, but I think it is more incumbent on the crusty old vets here to take it upon themselves to be above the fray a bit.

If you want to teach someone something, show them your point of view, or share your opinion, belittling them is not the way to go.

As a GM I'd do exactly as you say. I'd blend both, use one to validate the other and use one to test the other. I doubt many disagree with this other than the weight you give to either discipline.

As a GM I'd weight the scout higher than I can as a fan. I can get ahold of the numbers, I can't get ahold of the scouting reports and determine which scouts are reliable and which are not. I can't watch more than a 150 games a year. I can't travel to see all the minor leaguers play.

On the same page, its pretty obvious that stats need to be interpreted as well, and some are much better at it than others.

Too much of anything is not a good thing. All things in moderation.


01-26-2006, 08:12 PM
I posted this piece last year on opening day. It took me several years to come to these conclusions. I'm posting it again because I've seen a lot of fighting on the board lately between newer posters and long time contributors in the stats vs. scouting battle.

Why do I have a feeling this has to do with me arugeing with several posters?
***edit out the rest of his post, caused the page to be much longer than needed***
Very good write-up, glad I read it.

01-26-2006, 08:17 PM
"batting average" is evil.

There I said it, and I'd say it again.


01-26-2006, 08:22 PM
Batting average isnt evil, its just slightly overrated.;)

01-26-2006, 08:26 PM
Three most evil things in Baseball/Redszone:

1. Puffy
2. Batting Average
3. The mayo/mustard/relish combo paste thing they used to have at the old Kingdome in Seattle.

01-26-2006, 08:28 PM
Now you get Puffy, smear him down with that mayo/mustard/relish combo paste thing, and get him talkin' about batting average.... THAT would really suck.

01-26-2006, 08:29 PM
Now you get Puffy, smear him down with that mayo/mustard/relish combo paste thing, and get him talkin' about batting average.... THAT would really suck.

That's an image I really didn't need.


01-26-2006, 08:31 PM
Stats are dead numbers on a page of past performances... just sayin' ;)

01-26-2006, 08:44 PM
Stats are dead numbers on a page of past performances... just sayin' ;)
Stats are the footprint in the sand that prove you were there, otherwise the bad historians will win.

01-26-2006, 08:44 PM
I'm just trying to keep a Zen-like balance between my inner Foghorn and my inner Egghead.

01-26-2006, 08:46 PM
I'm just trying to keep a Zen-like balance between my inner Foghorn and my inner Egghead.

There could be no goal more noble.


01-26-2006, 08:52 PM
I'm not sure where you got that picture, but I do NOT own a beanie.

just sayin

George Foster
01-26-2006, 08:58 PM
Stats are dead numbers on a page of past performances... just sayin' ;)

"The best predictor of the future is performances of the past."

01-26-2006, 11:54 PM
"The best predictor of the future is performances of the past."

That's the perfect quote for a history major like me. Kind of like "How can we know where we are going if we don't know where we've been."

Anyway, to be brief, I've taken the same approach as RFS. Rather than get into an argument about the new statistical methods, I decided to read up on it and believe it or not, this 50-something guy now gets it. I also talked to a lot of baseball nuts who I respected and who I knew had bought into it. The quote that got me?

Jimmy, one of the high school coaches said to me, "what if Sean Casey had stuck out instead of hitting ground balls with a runner on first and not hit into a double play? How many more runs would the Reds have had a chance to score? See a strikeout is just an out--1 out."

You have to make things simple for a history major...:thumbup:

01-27-2006, 12:02 AM
The first time I posted this piece, M2 asked me a pretty good question.

"RFS, just curious, what things have you bought into that you previously were resisting?"

My answer...

In general, I resisted the idea that someone without playing or coaching knowledge could evaluate a player just from numbers. And that was before I ever heard of sabermetrics, so my skepticism towards stat-based evaluation was relative to the stats my generation, and many before us, all knew chapter and verse.

Don't get me wrong, I knew the stats of my day inside-out and backwards, far better than most of my peers. But I always had the belief that you could see things that the numbers didn't tell you, and more importantly that there were a myriad of factors that people on the outside didn't see that carried a huge amount of weight.

When I first started hearing about sabermetrics, I considered it an interesting extension of the same old stuff, and I really didn't pay much attention to them until the past 5 or 6 years.

I've known a lot of scouts and coaches and players over the years, and traditional scouting methods were what I've always believed in.

The funny thing was, that I grew up in an era of a lot of change and advances in how baseball was taught. Radar guns, stopwatch timing of pitchers moves and catchers release times, we considered ourselves to be very much on the cutting edge. We were the guys who had the old guys scratching their heads with our new fangled approach.

How ironic it is to me that that dance goes on now, and I'm the old guy, making the new guys prove it, rather than just accepting what they say.

I really have no interest in doing the math, the regression analysis, proving or disproving the theories. I'm perfectly content to leave that to the guys who enjoy those challenges, and to sit back and watch them argue the math until they're sure it's right. But I want to know what they conclude, once there's a consensus.

Their conclusions and how they mesh with the established thinking is what interests me the most about the whole thing, and has had me doing a lot of reflection on what I really know in the past few years.

To me, making an effort to understand what the cutting edge thinkers of today are coming up with keeps you young. When you stop learning, you're old. You're the guy yelling at the kids to get off your lawn. I don't ever want to be that guy.

01-27-2006, 12:07 AM
And, as usual, WOY added an excellent perspective to the discussion with this.....

The three biggest influence in statistical study came from Henry Chadwick, Branch Rickey and Bill James. No math majors there... BTW I flunked math more than once and never took it after the one college course that was required. I must be an "anomoly"

This is for the "causal" fan who somehow always seems to get more "slack" cut to him/her than the ones who dare I say.... read BP over Hal McCoy... you know the ones that try and convince you the player they really like IS good despite the data.

This is from a Bill James SOSH Interview

James T:

How often do you find your visual impressions of players contradicted by analysis? Is there one particular aspect of the game in which you trust your eyes least?

Bill James:

I think the extent to which you can trust your eyes is fairly limited, but on the other hand, the extent to which you can trust the numbers is limited, too. If you watched Johnny Damon hit, based on his swing and his follow through and his balance, those kind of things, you would think he couldn’t hit—but he can. The visual impression is not contradicted by “analysis”; it is contradicted by the outcomes. That’s pretty common. There are fielders who look bad, but get the job done. There are pitchers who look like they are quick to first base, but who never pick anybody off. There are catchers who look awkward throwing, but who don’t give up many stolen bases.

But there are pitchers who go 15-11 who aren’t really good pitchers, too. There are hitters who hit .310 but don’t help you, there are fielders who field .980 who don’t help you. You have to be skeptical of all of it.

And for the otherside of the coin.

James T:

I have to ask you this. On an internet baseball fan site, I recently saw you quoted to the effect that veteran leadership had enabled the Red Sox to come back from down 0-3 in the ALCS. But, in that forum, the immediate response was to doubt your sincerity. Bill couldn't mean that! And these were people who held you in high regard. Are you resigned to your reputation at this point in time?

Bill James:

Well, believe it or not, I don’t worry about my reputation in that sense. I’ll let that take care of itself.

This is probably a long-winded answer, but I’ll try to explain it this way. If I were in politics and presented myself as a Republican, I would be admired by Democrats by despised by my fellow Republicans. If I presented myself as a Democrat, I would popular with Republicans but jeered and hooted by the Democrats.

I believe in a universe that is too complex for any of us to really understand. Each of us has an organized way of thinking about the world—a paradigm, if you will—and we need those, of course; you can’t get through the day unless you have some organized way of thinking about the world. But the problem is that the real world is vastly more complicated than the image of it that we carry around in our heads. Many things are real and important that are not explained by our theories—no matter who we are, no matter how intelligent we are.

As in politics we have left and right—neither of which explains the world or explains how to live successfully in the world—in baseball we have the analytical camp and the traditional camp, or the sabermetricians against the scouts, however you want to characterize it. I created a good part of the analytical paradigm that the statistical analysts advocate, and certainly I believe in that paradigm and I advocate it within the Red Sox front office. But at the same time, the real world is too complicated to be explained by that paradigm.

It is one thing to build an analytical paradigm that leaves out leadership, hustle, focus, intensity, courage and self-confidence; it is a very, very different thing to say that leadership, hustle, courage and self-confidence do not exist or do not play a role on real-world baseball teams. The people who think that way. . .not to be rude, but they’re children. They may be 40-year-old children, they may be 70-year-old children, but their thinking is immature.

Or, to put it in one sentence, if I worried about that @#%$ I would have folded my tent 25 years ago, when my ideas were anathema to the mainstream baseball establishment.

01-27-2006, 02:01 AM
"Pythagoras is dead," I said. "Just throw strikes."

I use to resist the run differential, but the track record just kept piling up.

I was puzzled as to how the strikeout could be such an important way to judge a pitcher and not so important for the batter, but I've begun to get my head around it.

I used to think that some events were being considered more important just because they could be measured better, which was like looking for a quarter down the street from where you dropped it because the light was better. But an organization could really use good measurements.

I still believe it's the Hall of Fame not the Hall of Stats or else why vote?

I always kind of suspected that small ball was overused, and now I can see why.

I still love the players who reinvent the game, the poetry in motion and "I don't believe what I just saw..."

And long, slow, deep, soft, etc., etc.

And I expect a lot more now from the announcers than nine innings of "do you think he'll send the runner here, Biff?"

01-27-2006, 02:04 AM
"batting average" is evil.

..and should be outlawed.

I mean it.

01-27-2006, 02:57 AM
The first time I posted this piece, M2 asked me a pretty good question.

"RFS, just curious, what things have you bought into that you previously were resisting?"

My wife asked me a similar question once upon a time.

My response: "I got tired of being wrong so often."

The Catalyst: Calvin Reese

The Irony: (to the board, of course)

The conclusions drawn from solid statistical analysis mesh with "traditional" thinking to the point of almost seamless integration. For example, the value of OBP and SLG folds back into the primary objectives of the game of baseball from the start- avoid Outs, acquire Bases.

From my perspective, much of what we consider to be established thinking has been either twisted over time or derived from a philosophy that was flawed from the start. Even something as simple as "manufacturing Runs" doesn't hold the meaning it should on an intuitive level.

Tell you average fan that an Adam Dunn Walk was a "Run manufacturing" event, and they'll look at you like you're stupid. Tell that same fan that a Tony Womack Bunt is such and they'll agree wholeheartedly. Use a Single, two Walks, and a Single to plate a Run, and that's "station-to-station" baseball. Use a Single, a Stolen Base, a Bunt, and a grounder to second to do the same and it's "smallball". Color me incredulous as I always assumed that runners had to go "station-to-station" to score a Run regardless. And I've yet to see a Home Run that didn't "manufacture" a Run.

And that's one of the primary barriers we have before us- language.

The word "tools" for example. Apparantly there are five of them. It seems that Plate Discipline isn't one of the five. Considering how important it is to identify Balls and Strikes being that OBP is the key offensive driver, it seems odd to me that such an ability isn't a "tool". I thought the following would be a relevant point of interest considering the the name "Gary Hughes" has been floating around...


<begin excerpt>

ALAN SCHWARZ: Let’s talk tools for a moment. Are the five tools (hitting for average and power, running, fielding, arm) as relevant today as they’ve always been? Or given what we’ve learned over the past 10 or so years, should something like plate discipline be made the sixth tool?

GARY HUGHES: I think the five tools are five physical tools. I don’t see where plate discipline becomes a tool.

<end excerpt>

To his credit, Hughes does say (in response to Voros McCracken) that Plate Discipline is "very important". But he doesn't consider the eyes and the brain to be physical tools? That's odd considering that Ted Williams' greatest "tool" was his ability to see with fighter pilot-like efficiency.

The interesting thing in that particular part of the conversation is that it's not the "stat guy" (McCracken) but the "old school" Gary Hughes who's getting indignant about things. Then Hughes goes on to say that strikeout-to-walk rate is going to tell you who the best player is usually. No. In short, Hughes doesn't think Plate Discipline is a "tool", thinks it's very important, but then demonstrates that he doesn't really understand what Plate Discipline is.

Eddie Bane goes even deeper into the tank with his take:

<begin excerpt>

Eddie Bane: Our job, when we go to a high school game, is there better be some swinging as soon as we get out of the rental car. I’ve never wanted to draft a guy where the first line in the report is, “He’s got a good eye.” We’re looking for guys who swing that bat. And if they’re swinging and missing in high school, we ain’t going to be very interested.

<end excerpt>

In Bane's defense, by the end of that chat session, it was he (not Hughes) who was more swayed by what he heard from the "stat guys". I'm not saying that Bane has been able to get over the hump on the integration of objective and subjective methodology, but at least he shows signs. And that's encouraging considering the excerpt above demonstrates nothing but a "swing the bat...swing the bat" mentality.

No one should assume that I posted all that to demonstrate that Eddie Bane and Gary Hughes are not smart men. I posted it to show that a concept that should be easy enough to integrate into the "traditional" mindset (that Plate Discipline is a "tool") is almost inconceivable to some but completely intuitive to others.

On the other side of the fence, folks can use the word "tools" as a swear word. I'm guilty of that surely. But let's face it, players need to have tools or they couldn't play professional baseball.

The negativity to the word isn't about the tools a player may possess. It's about the fact that he doesn't possess an obvious tool that isn't considered a tool by the traditional scouting community. When a scout says, "Tools", we scoff if he doesn't have the one tool that's most likely to result in his success at the MLB level. That'll change if the scouting community ever figures out that Plate Discipline isn't just a tool, but that it's the most important tool. That change is occurring right before our eyes in other locales across MLB of course. But it's not in Cinci yet.

But part of the gap also comes from the fact that it's difficult to identify true Plate Discipline in the High School ranks (at least statistically). Dominant hitters down there tend to be able to hit most anything with authority. Maybe Eddie Bane's problem is that he takes his "swing batta' swing" mentality to the extreme and applies it not only to the HS players he and his crew scout- but that he also applies it while reviewing college and minor league players who, at their levels, should be able to manifest a far more trustworthy "Plate Discipline" stat line. Could be the case because the Angels don't appear to trust some very disciplined young hitters right now.

Speed never slumps.

You can't steal first base.

Both widely quoted axioms. Both intuitive. One incorrect. One irrefutable.

Every baseball fan in America should like teams that play "station-to-station" baseball. Because every baseball fan in America is a fan of a team that plays "station-to-station" baseball. Every team "manufactures" Runs too.

Bill James? I've always questioned his work. Have never taken it on face value. Recently he's been a disgusting cornucopia of "I dunno". Maybe that comes with the territory when you start working for a MLB franchise and might need to throw the scent off your trail.

Voros McCracken? Suspected he was incorrect about the complete inability of pitchers to affect BABIP. Turned out that I was right. There are rare pitchers who can consistently produce lower BABIP numbers than the norm. But I have a feeling he'll never give us a comprehensive list of who they are right now. Why? He's working for a MLB baseball team.

Ultimate Zone Rating. Anyone ever think we're going to get the "best" UZR list again? Ever? Why not? The author of the statistic (Mitchel Lichtman) is working for a MLB baseball team.

Clay Davenport should already be working for a MLB team if he's not. Even an ambitious guy like Dave Studeman would probably be hireable if he ever gets his methodology under control (his nickname should be either "Dirty Stats" or "Captain Shortcut").

The integration of statistical analysis is well past the point of "begun". Frankly, I have a feeling that a number of teams we don't even know about use what we commonly refer to as "sabermetrics". In the end, we're going to see some level of actuarial-like integration for every MLB team. The question will always be, "How much?"

Some teams will be led kicking and screaming into such integration. The Dodgers come to mind. But does anyone really think that the Dodgers aren't currently using some processes that Paul DePodesta implemented? Heck, I've worked for a number of companies and I know that most of them are still using processes I implemented.

As always, the question will be "How much?" And to that question, I offer the answer "Enough to productively supplement the talent level of your scouts."

To me, the fateful irony of any "Stats versus Scouts" debate is (and RFS touched on this) that the scouting community itself has long looked to standardize it's own objective evaluation criterion. Stopwatches. Radar Guns. "Five Tools" scouting. Standardized point scales withing the "tools". Etc., etc. But if you walk up to Eddie Bane and tell him that the guy you just saw has "a great eye", Bane won't draft him.

I fail to see why an increased objective standardization is such an anathema to baseball fans considering the increased internal focuse on such over the past few decades. In fact, the only reasoning my brain can provide is that your average baseball fan tends to always be about two steps behind and math is hard- as is giving up long-held beliefs cultured and reinforced by coaches we listened to in grade school.

As with anyone who's ever played the game, I needed to break my own brain from that pattern of what I used to think was intuitive knowledge in order to understand what actually was intuitive, right, and clear. That doesn't meant statistics are "everything". The very idea of that makes me want to backhand the person who assumes that the "stat guys" actually feel that way.

Drive matters. Leadership matters. Character matters. Experience matters. But none of those things supercede what a player does on a baseball field. If you have a guy in your sights that you don't feel will put out enough effort or be so disruptive that he won't productively get through a LONG 162-game season, then don't draft him. Don't trade for him. Don't sign him. Stay away. But we need to understand that decision is about performance.

Intuitively, I know that a team weighed down by total jerks who don't project to play through a season will fail. But I also know, intuitively, that a group of great competitors who don't produce will also fail.

So what do you do? Find a group of players who project to perform who aren't total jerks and ride the wave of success to the playoffs.

Seems simple enough.

Seems like that's all "Moneyball" was telling us.

01-27-2006, 06:08 AM
Why do I have a feeling this has to do with me arugeing with several posters?

You aren't the first. I think that's why you've experienced so much frustration.

Sometimes folks just need to agree to disagree and walk away.

01-27-2006, 10:22 PM
Now you get Puffy, smear him down with that mayo/mustard/relish combo paste thing, and get him talkin' about batting average.... THAT would really suck.

01-28-2006, 01:02 PM
You aren't the first. I think that's why you've experienced so much frustration.

Sometimes folks just need to agree to disagree and walk away.

Well pretty much that is what ended up happening. The frustration came with a certain few not grasping what I was trying to say, and argueing against something else.

01-28-2006, 05:04 PM
Well pretty much that is what ended up happening. The frustration came with a certain few not grasping what I was trying to say, and argueing against something else.

Your frustration was a result of you posting inaccurate things and then being rebuffed by folks who did "grasp" exactly what you were saying.

dougdirt: I agree with you that if Dunn cuts down the strikeout numbers, his average, home runs, rbi and runs all will go up.

It's impossible to misinterpret the above statement. Ditto for other things you claimed to be fact that weren't.

My apologies for the hashness of my rebuke in the "Dunn" thread. However, you were not misinterpreted nor were you some kind of innocent victim who was somehow abused by the merciless throng of those who misunderstood you.