SABR rattling/The Red Line
In the third marking period of my junior year at Gwinn High School, I received a C+ in my trigonometry class.
Grades mattered in my family, and a C+ was a bit of a traumatic experience. My teacher told me it would teach me a lesson about hard work and perseverance, but at the time, the only lesson I drew from it was to avoid math as much as possible.
Looking back, I think I got enough math for my profession. I can figure most of the simple statistics and on a good day, even the Michigan High School Athletic Association football playoff system.
But deep down, I would like to understand sabermetrics.
For the uninitiated, sabermetrics (named for the Society for American Baseball Research) is the study of baseball through quantifiable mathematical means. It’s a controversial topic, partially for the way it attempts to create logic from one of this country’s most celebrated folk art forms and partially for the way it has used data to upset such conventional wisdom as the importance of the sacrifice bunt, situationally dependent statistics such as the win or the run batted in, and given us such foreign-sounding metrics such as OPS+ and WAR.
Bill James, the father of the study, published a “Ten Commandments of Sabermetrics.” Here’s a few:
1. “Thou shalt not bunt.”
The bunt, paramour of fundamental baseball, has been a battleground in the sabermetric-old school wars for years. It is said that Rube Foster, father of the Negro Leagues, would not employ a player who could not bunt the ball into a cap on command. The sacrifice bunt in particular, is derided by the new school as a waste of a precious out.
I used to be a big proponent of the bunt – I was a small kid (hard to believe now) with minimal power and enough speed to get a hit out of it. Now, I refer back to the wisdom of Wee Willie Keeler, who said “keep your eye clear and hit ’em where they ain’t.” Even if you aren’t trying deliberately to make an out, you are dramatically reducing the amount of area “where they ain’t,” referring to the defense, compared to just swinging for the outfield. The barehanded throw across the diamond is a staple of third basemen the world around, so what’s the point?
7. “Thou shalt not abuse thy starting pitchers.”
In the short term, James is right in more cases than not. Of course, the Tigers seem to be an exception to this rule in that I’d trust Max Scherzer’s 200th pitch more than I would Phil Coke’s first, especially if it were to a righty.
In the long term, I disagree.
Scherzer was traded to the Tigers with the near-universal belief that his mechanics would ruin his arm. They haven’t. Justin Verlander has thrown the most innings of anyone in baseball in the last three years. He’s having an off year but remains 9-6. I wish I had an off year like that.
The Nationals, you may remember, sat Stephen Strasburg down for the year after hitting an artificial innings limit. No matter they made the playoffs, he was unavailable. Take it from me after watching nearly two decades of Tiger futility: when you make it to October, flaunt what you’ve got. The world could be hit by a meteor tomorrow, and then what use is Strasburg’s pristine arm?
8. “Thou shalt make no effort to ride the hot hand, for the hot hand is but a shape in the wind.”
Here, James denies the existence of clutch performance. Here I disagree for the simple reason that baseball is played by humans and some humans simply respond to pressure situations better than others. Ask any performer who has forgotten the words to the National Anthem mid-song.
The human body cannot be ignorant of situations, nor can it maintain the same level of focus in every situation.
There’s a reason that Carlos Pena is still employed as a Major Leaguer and I think a lot of that has to do with his tendency to hit .500 with 35 home runs a year in the two months of the season in which his team has already been eliminated.
My conclusion is this: let us examine baseball with a fully holistic approach. There is much to be learned from the mathematical side of the game and I hope one day someone will explain it to me. There is much to be learned from experience as well.
No matter what it did to my grade-point average, math is not to be feared.
Brandon Veale can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/redveale.