I came across this article from '04 that I had saved and thought it might be interesting to anyone who missed it.
Looking Beyond Batting Average
By ALAN SCHWARZ
Published: August 1, 2004
Branch Rickey, a baseball executive just eight years removed from signing Jackie Robinson, called it "the most constructive thing to come into baseball in my memory."
Fifty years ago this week, a 10-page spread in Life magazine, then the nation's most widely read periodical, introduced America to the science of baseball statistics. Readers opened their Aug. 2, 1954, issue to a sprawling feature titled "Goodby to Some Old Baseball Ideas," with Rickey standing professorially at a faux blackboard, pointing at his heretofore secret equation, which, he wrote, "reveals some new and startling truths about the nature of the game."
That vertiginous equation was as alarming as it was befuddling to an audience quite content with batting average, thank you. But as preposterous as it still appears on its face, the formula, and the long article Rickey wrote to explain it, actually used concepts that some modern major league clubs are still learning to appreciate.
Getting his first look at the equation last month, Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman said: "Wow! The guy was generations ahead of his time."
The formula is easier to parse than it looks at first glance. It assesses a team's overall strength by noting the difference between its offense (the first half of the equation) and its pitching and defense (the second half). The first group of terms, upon closer inspection, are shockingly similar to methods used today.
The first term is what we now call on-base percentage. The second, which Rickey called isolated power, is a modification of slugging percentage. The third measures how often runners score per time they reach base. Batting average is nowhere to be found. So, as baseball traditionalists cringe at today's most popular "new" metric among the stat-inclined - on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) - its roots stretch back to Branch Rickey.
The second half of the equation evaluated pitching by opponents' batting average, walk percentage and more esoteric devices. But Rickey spent most of his (undoubtedly ghost-written) article trying to wean readers off rating hitters by tried-and-true batting averages and runs batted in.
"If the baseball world is to accept this new system of analyzing the game - and eventually it will - it must first give up preconceived ideas," wrote Rickey, at the time the top executive of the Pittsburgh Pirates. He continued, "Two measurable factors - on-base average and power - gauge the overall offensive worth of an individual."
Chances are that the formula did not originate with Rickey but with his right-hand statistics man, Allan Roth. (Yes, although traditionalists shudder at how modern major league teams are hiring stat gurus, Rickey did so as early as the 1930's while running the St. Louis Browns.) Roth, hired in 1947 by Rickey while he ran the Brooklyn Dodgers, sat in the stands and kept his own specialized statistics: performance against left-handed and right-handed pitchers, with runners on base, by ball-strike count and more - all to discover any edge Brooklyn could exploit.
"Baseball is a game of percentages," said Roth, a Montreal native who went on to a long career figuring numbers for NBC's "Game of the Week." "I try to find the right percentage."
As for the formula that later appeared in Life, it did little within the baseball industry but underscore Rickey's considerable ego. (He was known for his many maxims - including "Luck is the residue of design" - but another might as well have been, "Don't let anyone guess how smart you are when you can simply inform them.")
The longtime journalist Leonard Koppett, then a young writer for The New York Herald Tribune, told me not long before his death last summer: "Ah, the famous equation. There was no response. No one followed it."
But for some other readers of Life, the 10-page spread introduced them to a new way of looking at baseball. Most of them were young, mathematically inclined boys who had played in the sandbox of baseball statistics and welcomed the idea of something more sophisticated.
One of those was an incoming Duke University senior named Tal Smith. He had suspected that batting average was overrated and that other contributions, like walks and extra-base hits, were more valuable. Reading Rickey was a revelation.
"I'd never seen anyone refer to the game in this way; it had always been romanticized, not analyzed," Smith recalled. "I devoured it. It was an advanced course in a subject I was already interested in."
Smith later began his career in baseball front offices and soon became a pioneer in the use of statistics, particularly in salary arbitration cases. He is now president of the Houston Astros. As with so many revolutions, the open-minded youth of one generation became the decision makers of the next.
Rickey suspected as much as he preached from his pulpit in Life. He didn't expect his stodgy industry to follow his lead, but he foresaw the day when what we now call OPS would move from cult to currency.
"They will accept this new interpretation of baseball statistics eventually," Rickey concluded. "They are bound to."