This past Thursday, I attended a book reading at Booklinks Booksellers in Northampton, MA. Benjamin Baumer and Andrew Zimbalist were reading from their new book, The Sabermetric Revolution: Assessing the Growth of Analytics in Baseball. Approximately 30 baseball starved fans braved the cold New England night to learn a few things about sabermetrics and baseball analytics. It was a very informative hour that included the reading of a few book excerpts, a lively Q&A session, and complimentary wine. What could be better on a February night than good baseball discussion and free alcohol!
Andrew Zimbalist is the Robert A. Woods Professor of Economics at Smith College and a noted sports economist who has written numerous books concentrating on the business of sports, especially baseball. Benjamin Baumer is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Smith College who spent eight years working as a Statistical Analyst for the New York Mets. The Sabermetric Revolution is their first joint project.
Professor Zimbalist opened up the event by reading from the preface of their new book. At the outset, Zimbalist made clear that a major focus of the book is debunking numerous statistical myths and cause and effect relationships about baseball that were promulgated in the book Moneyball by Michael Lewis and the subsequent movie starring Brad Pitt. The authors take no punches in lambasting Lewis for gross inaccuracies in his 2003 book. Zimbalist stated that Michael Lewis fell in love with a story and dramatically overplayed some of the success of the 2002 Oakland Athletics as sabermetric in source.
Professor Baumer continued the event by reading a brief excerpt from Chapter 2. He discussed the rise in use by most MLB franchises of sabermetric analysis in direct response to the popularity of Moneyball. Considering Baumer’s direct experience with the industry, his insight into the actual operations and use of statistics in baseball was fascinating and very eye opening.
After a joint discussion between the two authors about the use and application of the various baseball analytical metrics currently en vogue, the floor was opened to questions from those in attendance. Many of the audience questions focused on Baumer’s experience with the Mets and his opinion of the utility of sabermetrics on the baseball industry. The authors made a point of stating that many newly coined statistics are still in their infancy and their exact utility has yet to be truly discovered. They specifically mentioned Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) as a statistic that has yet to prove its true usefulness as a real world baseball application.
One audience member asked if players have used these advanced metrics to change their approach to the game. Baumer responded that when he was with the Mets, the baseball operations staff pleaded with the field manager and coaches to convince Jose Reyes to walk more from the leadoff spot. He did, and his impact on the field from the top of the batting order substantially increased. However, Baumer noted that this was an exception to the general rule. In a broader sense, using sabermetrics to find the player you need rather than to change the player you have seems to be the more successful application.
One gentleman asked if there has been any evidence that other sports use statistical analysis. The authors responded that while baseball is unique in that players have such individualized contributions to their team, there has been some proof of its applicability to football and basketball in particular. Baumer noted that current Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens used statistical analysis in his time coaching the overachieving Butler University Bulldogs.
The evening closed with Zimbalist and Baumer reemphasizing the purpose of their book. Ten plus years after Moneyball was published, they wanted to take a critical look at what parts of sabermetrics work, what parts don’t, and how the sports and industry of baseball is evolving while using analytical tools.
As an aside, I am currently reading the book and thus far I’m most fascinated by the career trajectories of the much heralded 2002 Oakland Athletics amateur draft class. Lewis went out of his way to talk about the advanced statistical tools used to make the draft selections, and now 11 years later Baumer and Zimbalist revisit the draft and the players that the Athletics took. Needless to say, the actual careers of most of the players highlighted by Lewis did not exactly match the accolades espoused in the book.
If you are interested in baseball and sports analytics, this book is a must read.