June 6, 2012
Philadelphia Phillies second baseman Chase Utley is my favorite baseball player. Today, he is expected to be activated from the disabled list to play in the 77th game of the Phillies season, and his first game of the year.
From the time he became a regular starter in 2005 through the 2009 season, Utley consistently ranked in the top-6 of Major League Baseball players in the statistical category of Wins Above Replacement (WAR), averaging 7.72 WAR (only bested in that span by Albert Pujols’ otherworldly 8.66 WAR). In the two years that followed, Utley put up 5.7 WAR in just 115 games in 2010 and 3.7 WAR in just 105 games in 2011. It’s easy to look at Utley’s career from a glance and say his knees became somewhat of a chronic debilitation that led to the steady decline of his career, which is true, but WAR, and many other sabermetrics, provides a much clearer picture, and sadder for someone like me, as to just how much, statistically, his chronic knees killed his career.
Wait, saberwhatics? Sabermetrics, which you may have heard of a few times around the release of the film Moneyball even if you’re not a baseball stat nerd, is named after the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR) and is the analysis of the history of baseball and its players using the exciting tools of mathematics and statistics. Today, SABR kicks off its annual convention at the Marriott City Center in downtown Minneapolis with over fascinating panels and presentations like William Spaniel’s “The Fear of Injury: Explaining Delay in Contract Extensions” and John Harney’s “The Growth and Political Roles of Youth Baseball in Taiwan, 1920-1968.”
It’s like the Comic-Con for baseball stat nerds, but we use WAR not for Warcraft, WHIPs are used for explaining pitcher efficiency, and OPS describe a batter’s power/on-base ability rather than make you answer the Call of Duty. Unfortunately I’ll be on a family vacation for most of it (they’re always getting in the way), but I couldn’t be more excited it’s in town!
What, you don’t think that sounds exciting? Well, you’re wrong, but I can see why you’d come to such a terrible conclusion.
You see, the producers behind Moneyball were fully aware of what they were doing when they cast Brad Pitt to be the face of the film adaptation of Michael Lewis’ 2003 book about how Oakland Athletics’ general manager Billy Beane supposedly changed Major League Baseball by using a highly analytical approach to filling out his club’s roster.
Of course, the whole story is much more complicated than that. And much less sexy.
Because while Hollywood may want you to believe baseball statisticians can look like this…
The cold, hard truth is that they’re more like this…
First of all, Beane was essentially just a washout ex-baseballer following in the footsteps of his predecessor, the budget-slashing Athletics GM Sandy Alderson. Beane also had much help from, and received a lot of the public credit for, the work of several assistants, including one named Paul DePodesta who also happened to be a Harvard-graduated statistician that was previously an advanced scout with the Cleveland Indians (and was subsequently put in the film Moneyball as the highly fictionalized character Peter Brand, portrayed by Jonah Hill).
But more importantly, well before their stories unfolded and were detailed in non-fiction, there were the seminal percentage-based works of Earnshaw Cook in the 1960s, as well as the more widely-known works of Bill James in the late ’70s and beyond. And, of course, there was the formation of SABR in 1971 by baseball historian and writer L. Robert Davids.
And that, ladies and gents, is a very compact, not-at-all comprehensive account of how sabermetrics, the mathematical analysis of baseball, was born. See, isn’t that exciting!