A Whole New Ballgame (#atozchallenge)

I love baseball. You probably got that idea already. What you probably didn’t know is that I also love statistics. My bachelor’s degree is in Operations Management, and statistics were a big part of my degree.

It would stand to reason that, If I love baseball and I love statistics, I would love baseball statistics. And I do. I know how to calculate batting average, slugging percentage, on-base average, fielding percentage, earned run average, opponent’s batting average, walks per nine innings, strikeouts per nine innings, and walk-to-strikeout ratio. Those haven’t changed in all the time that I’ve been following baseball.

In the last few years, a whole new set of statistics has emerged. Statistics like OPS, ERA+, OBP+, UZR, UZR/150, wOBA, WAR, fWAR, etc. have changed the way we look at baseball and how teams are built. This is a new breed of baseball statistics called sabermetrics, which derives its name from the Society of American Baseball Research, better known as SABR.

The guiding light of SABR is Bill James. A little background on him: he’s from Holton, Kansas (a point in his favor) and graduated from the University of Kansas with degrees in economics and English, after having served a year in Korea during the Vietnam war. He was the last person from Kansas to be sent to fight in the war, and never quite made it.

After graduation, he got a job as a night watchman at a Stokely-Van Camp pork and beans factory, and started writing baseball articles. These weren’t your typical baseball articles; these were articles that asked a question (“which pitchers and catchers allow runners to steal the most bases?”), then go into an involved discussion of what he discovered by analyzing box scores. He self-published The Bill James Baseball Abstract in 1977, an 80-page collection of what he learned from reading and analyzing box scores from the previous season. He took out a small ad in The Sporting News to sell the first few editions, and as it became more popular he added more things like essays on players and teams. By 1982, it was published by a major book publisher.

One of those statistics is called fielding-independent pitching, which rates a pitcher based on the number of walks, strikeouts, and home runs he allows (i.e. the things that he can control directly). That statistic was developed by a James devotee who uses the name Tom Tango, or TangoTiger. (See? You knew I was getting to today’s word.) Tom has written The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball, and contributes to ESPN’s TMI blog, as well as running his own website.

Sabermetrics are great. Read the book Moneyball or see the movie with Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill. (Someone asked, “Who would play you in a movie?” I would say probably Jonah Hill, mostly because William Conrad is gone.) It’s the story of how the Oakland Athletics were able to build a winning team by looking at the numbers a player generated rather than by relying on scouting reports. It’s not the first time the A’s have used statistics to plan strategy; future Hall of Fame manager Tony LaRussa and his pitching coach, Dave Duncan, used statistics to plan how a pitcher should approach a hitter. The MLB Network show Clubhouse Confidential features sabermetricians looking at the game through the numbers, rather than traditional, scout-based evaluations of players.

Sabermetrics has been around for 35 years now, and I haven’t learned much about it. It’s time that I educated myself. It’s just a shame that I haven’t paid much attention up to now.

7 thoughts on “A Whole New Ballgame (#atozchallenge)

  1. From Tango to baseball statistics, impressive. I read Moneyball years ago and had been putting off watching the movie. Brad Pitt playing Billy Beane, c,mon. Finally relented and saw it on the weekend and was impressed. I am crying in my Red Sox stats at the moment.


    1. I loved the book, and thought the movie was an interesting take on parts of it. At least it wasn’t two hours of watching guys calculate statistics.


  2. It’s great when two things you love come together. I didn’t know that baseball statistics could be so in-depth. Thanks for sharing.


  3. Another baseball fan here, John. It’s the only pro sport I enjoy or watch. A wonderful way to wile away a hot afternoon. and we don’t even have a pro team in Calgary


      1. Nah, I don’t think so. Our season is too short. and we’re only 1.25 million people. successful teams need much more. but it’s a nice thought. thx.


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