How the hell did Joe Girardi know Raul (insert curse word here) Ibanez was going to go all Kirk Gibson on us?
That’s the first thing I wanted to know. How does a manager decide to simply bench one of baseball’s greatest statistical stars of all time in favor of a dude who was only eight years younger than the manager himself whose career highlight was a single All-Star berth during the Yankee’s walk-off win (courtesy of Ibanez’ second home run of the night) in this past year’s Divisional matchup against the Orioles? Statistically speaking (disclaimer: I love statistics…I work with them for a living), it was a foolish decision, akin to Michael Jordan deciding he’d give hitting MLB fastballs a try or Grady Little sticking with Pedro Martinez when he was clearly done for the game.
Ever since Billy Beane and the Oakland A’s took statistical analysis to the moon and back and were made rock-stars along the way via Michael Lewis’ glorifying Moneyball, sabermetrics have announced that they are here to stay. New statistics with more acronyms than FDR’s New Deal programs have sprung up everywhere to determine everything from a player’s true run contributions to when a team should bunt and everything in between. Indeed, stats like UZR, OBP, BABIP, WAR, and VORP have been given greater importance among some than the traditional baseball stats we grew up memorizing on the backs of baseball cards, stats like ERA, BA, and RBI.
Along with changing the way teams viewed specific players came a changing of the guard in the scouting community. Gone were the days when a team would send a bevy of scouts across the country searching for the guy with the “You gotta see this!” abilities to hit home runs out of his school parking lot and throw to home from centerfield in the amount of time it took Clark Kent to transform into Superman inside a telephone booth. Now, more and more teams send out scouts with calculators and math backgrounds who plug in all kinds of numbers until they feel they can tell you all you need to know about player X. As teams got younger front offices, GMs and Directors of Player Personnel wanted more objectivity, leaving the old-school scouts and their quirky anecdotes in the past along with the multiple-inning save and gaudy RBI counts.
In a way, it’s been quite refreshing as a fan of baseball, a sport famous for stubbornly not changing with the times. It’s instilled new value to players who otherwise might have gone unnoticed in scouting circles and has allowed for a more cerebral understanding of the game’s nuances. We’re beginning to realize that maybe we’ve gone about valuing players the wrong way.
Purists, on the other hand, have no goodwill towards this new wave scouting with its calculators, charts, and MIT backgrounds. These are probably the same people who are against instant replay, the same men who probably wouldn’t have accepted Jackie Robinson purely because it was against tradition, and probably the same men who live in some real life episode of Mad Men. To their credit, there is some validity to their case for the old-school scouting approach, the greatest of which is nearly 100 years of history. Before advanced metrics became a way of life for baseball teams, the traditional scouting techniques produced some of the greatest players we will ever know. It didn’t take sabermetrics to know that Babe Ruth was otherworldly, to know that Sandy Koufax’ pitching performances were the stuff of legend, or to know that defensive whizzes like Ozzie Smith were as valuable as the mashers who raked 40 bombs a season.
And, at least in a few cases, sabermetrics would have likely worked against some players. Had Nolan Ryan pitched today, there’s absolutely no way he would have tossed seven no-hitters, for pitch counts are a byproduct of the new math-crazed era. In fact, many Hall of Fame pitchers who racked up wins, strikeouts, and complete games did so in four-man rotations and unlimited pitch counts, things that would have never flown in today’s world. You put some of those players in the data-constrained realities of today’s MLB, and some of those pitchers might not have ever had the chance to rack up those impressive stats that got them into the Hall. Furthermore, some supposed defensive geniuses made names for themselves purely off of the amounts of flashy, athletic plays they made. The eye test says they were studs in the defensive realm of the game, but advanced stats like UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating, a metric many scouts swear by that gauges a player’s true impact on defense) have begun to show us that more than a handful of these supposed defense-first studs were nothing more than hype.
So, who wins in this heavyweight showdown, the purists and their anecdotal scouts or the new guys and their number-crunchers?
If you ran your favorite Major League team and signed off on the mega-contracts of today, who would you trust? Would you want the guy with the cute stories who spent 80 hour work weeks surviving on coffee and chew while watching games, seeing players in person, and scouring tapes- the guy who’s probably seen it all and who knows what big leaguers should look like? Or, would you want the guy who presents his players to you in reports that look readymade for a Wall Street business meeting complete with charts, spreadsheets, and cold-hard data supporting his recommendations- the guy who probably knows more about computer programming than the history of the game?
At the bottom of it all we must understand that baseball, while a highly enjoyable sport and at times as entertaining as anything else, is a business. A big business (did you forget how much the Dodgers sold for this past year?) with very rich men in all levels- ownership, management, and players. If I’m Stuart Sternberg, owner of the Tampa Bay Rays and already at a disadvantage because of market size, what do I do? Do I gamble and rely on age-old (and oftentimes outdated) criteria to dictate who I spend my millions on, or do I look at the guy from Harvard Business School who has reports for days proving to me why I should invest in his players?
Real evidence is worth everything.
There’s always going to be a Raul Ibanez who makes the numbers look like lies. No amount of statistical evidence suggested to Girardi last fall that it made sense to yank an all-time great for Ibanez. Girardi acted on a ‘hunch,’ a phrase that makes its rounds in old-school scouting circles. That hunch paid off for a day in the grandest of ways. So, yes, there will always be the exception, there is in every data set you’ll ever come across. There’s a name for these exceptions, they’re called outliers.
Making a baseball career out of betting on outliers is the equivalent of hitting on seventeen in blackjack. It’ll pay off every blue moon and make you look like a genius. But every bet in between those blue moons will make you look like the fool you are.