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The Sabermetric Revolution book reading

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.

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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.

The Hall of Fame Pitch for Curt Schilling

This is a guest post written by Ted.  

Curt Schilling has always been a very polarizing figure to the fans and media that follow Major League Baseball. Outspoken and controversial, Schilling has never shied away from making his political, social, and baseball opinions public knowledge. In addition, the recent catastrophic failure of his video game company, 38 Studios, and their default on a $75 million loan to the state of Rhode Island have left many shaking their head at the very mention of Curt Schilling’s name. However, when it comes to Curt Schilling the baseball player, polarization should not exist.

Last January, Schilling was eligible for the Hall of Fame for the first time. He ironically received votes from 38.8% of Hall of Fame voters (Schilling’s uniform number for the majority of his career was 38) for induction. 75% is needed for induction into the Hall of Fame. Needless to say, Schilling was far off from being immortalized in Cooperstown. Was this right? Did the voters give Schilling fair consideration? I have no vote for the Baseball Hall of Fame, but I’ve studied Curt Schilling’s career at length, and I’m convinced that the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) who vote for the Hall of Fame inductees every year got this one very wrong.

In my opinion, there are two factors to analyze when considering any player for the Hall of Fame – qualitative and quantitative. I want to focus on the quantitative factors first and then discuss Curt Schilling’s qualitative Hall of Fame attributes.

Schilling finished his regular season career with a record of 216-146 and a 3.46 ERA in 569 games (436 starts). He also pitched 3,261 innings and had 22 saves. He walked 711 batters and struck out 3,116. His career WHIP was 1.137. In the postseason, he had a record of 11-2 in 19 games with an ERA of 2.23. He pitched in 133 1/3 postseason innings, walking 25 and striking out 120 with a WHIP of 0.968. He won World Series Championships with Arizona (2001) and Boston (2004 & 2007). This is the extent of many traditional voters’ analysis of Schilling’s career. Many of these voters looked at his regular season career ERA as being a little high and most importantly in their mind, his win total of 216 much too low.

In order to truly analyze Schilling’s career, it’s important to go much deeper. First, wins are an extremely flawed statistic. The pitcher can only control so much during a baseball game. Lack of run support or a bad bullpen can hurt the starting pitcher’s chances of picking up a win in any start. In addition, pitchers are often victimized by poorly positioned fielders, fielding errors, and just plain bad luck on batted balls in play. A pitcher should be judged on what he can control, namely allowing runners to reach base. In this regard, walks and strikeouts should be emphasized. The pitcher can prevent runners from getting on base via a walk, and he can take the risk out of batted balls in play by striking the batter out. When it comes to walks and strikeouts, Schilling was a master at his craft.

Schilling is 22nd all-time in strikeouts per 9 innings pitched at 8.6. He is 82nd all-time in walks per 9 innings pitched at 1.962. However, Schilling’s most telling statistic is he’s 2nd all-time with a strikeout/walk ratio of 4.383. Over a 20 year career as mostly a starting pitcher, this is truly remarkable. Schilling’s knack for being a power pitcher with excellent control consistently gave his team a great chance at winning his starts by limiting the amount of runners on base with a free pass and the chance of batted balls in play producing runs. He excelled at what he could control as a pitcher.

From an advanced statistical standpoint, Schilling belongs amongst the greats of the game. He is 62nd on the all-time Wins Above Replacement (WAR) list at 79.9 and 26th all-time on the WAR for Pitchers list at 80.7. There are several Hall of Fame pitchers on that list ranked behind Schilling including Old Hoss Radbourn, Don Sutton, Red Faber, Amos Rusie, Jim Palmer, Carl Hubbell, Bob Feller, Dennis Eckersley, Juan Marichal, and Don Drysdale. Schilling is equally impressive in the career rankings of various Hall of Fame advanced metrics. He’s 36th all time for pitchers in Baseball-Reference.com’s Black Ink and Gray Ink. He’s also 27th all time for pitchers in Jay Jaffe’s JAWS which measures Hall of Fame credentials based upon players already enshrined. It emphasizes the 7 best WAR seasons in a player’s career which demonstrates a player’s level of dominance during their prime. In short, Schilling is statistically right in the thick of some of the best pitchers the game has ever seen.

Qualitatively, Schilling has provided baseball with some of its greatest moments. Known as a big game pitcher, Schilling, along with Randy Johnson, was a rock for the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks en route to the franchise’s first World Series Championship. He shared the 2001 World Series MVP award with Johnson and went 4-0 during those playoffs with a 1.12 ERA. In 2004, Schilling was crucial in the Red Sox’ first World Series Championship in 86 years. During that postseason, Schilling won Game 6 of the American League Championship Series while having a severely injured tendon sheath in his right ankle. This is famously referred to as the “bloody sock” game. Schilling went on to pitch successfully in the World Series against the Cardinals with that same injured ankle. In 2007, Schilling again played a major role in bringing another World Series Championship to the Boston Red Sox. For those writers who look at a player’s careers in terms of championships and how they perform on the big stage, it doesn’t get much better than Curt Schilling.

While I expect Schilling’s vote total for the Hall of Fame to increase this year, I don’t expect him to be inducted in 2014 as this year’s Hall of Fame ballot is exceptionally strong and many voters are known for limiting their ballots to only a few, select players even though they can vote for up to ten. First year players on the ballot include Tom Glavine, Mike Mussina, Frank Thomas, and Greg Maddux. In addition, second year eligible players that should see a boost in their vote totals include Craig Biggio, Mike Piazza, Roger Clemens, and Barry Bonds. However, I hope that many voters will look at their ballots more closely this year and really dig into the career numbers of Curt Schilling. If they do, they’ll find a pitcher who has more than enough quantitative and qualitative attributes to be immortalized in Cooperstown.

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