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April 5, 2004

Baseball Prospectus - You Could Look It Up: Backlash
by Larry Mahnken

Here's a great article by Steven Goldman about the backlash against sabermetrics sparked by last year's publishing of Moneyball. There's some great lines here, including my favorite:
Statistics are a tool, not unlike a microscope. Statistics are a hammer, a speculum, a thermometer. A statistics-based approach to understanding of baseball is one of many paths to knowledge of the game. Calling those who take that path "freaks" or "Nazis" makes as much sense as calling a Ph.D. chemist a wimp because he tests the qualities of his cyanide compound by means of Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy rather than just drinking the thing.
Boggs, Henderson, and Raines all "manufactured" runs, to use a term favored by the conservatives, by finding ways to get to first base. Coleman couldn't get to first base at the Annual Cotillion for Semi-Inebriated Cheerleaders Who Are Really, Really Turned On By Ballplayers.
I was reading the Sports Illustrated Season Preview Issue, and the section about Sabermetrics. It's a decent primer for a fan who's never seen the "new" stats, or thought about the game in terms of OBP, but it is, of course, flawed, as most mainstream writeups of sabermetrics seem to be. I suppose the reason for that is that the writers of these articles don't have an understanding of the field in the first place, so they're more or less writing a report on what they've picked up, which will be necessarily flawed because they didn't have enough time to research it.

In other words, these articles give a lot of readers a misunderstanding of sabermetrics in the same way that Moneyball gave some people a misunderstanding of scouts.

Anyway, there's some decent stuff in there, but there's some laugh-out-loud stuff, too, as traditionalists show their ignorance. Jack McKeon--who I will point out is an excellent manager--wrote an article that in part says how smart he was for playing Pudge Rodriguez over Mike Redmond against Tom Glavine even though reporters told him that Redmond had a great Batting Average versus Glavine (currently .500/533/.690), while Rodriguez was only batting .250 against him. Rodriguez went on to hit the game-winning home run! Thus proving stats wrong!

Oh yeah, Rodriguez was 1 for 4 with 3 walks against Glavine going into that game. Mr. McKeon, meet Mr. Sample Size. You made the right decision, and Billy Beane, Bill James, Paul DePodesta, and any other number-cruncher would have told you to do what you did. The lesson you learned wasn't to ignore stats, but to ignore reporters who try to feed you those stats.

If you recall, Joe Torre was faced with a similar situation last year, pinch-hitting Ruben Sierra for Nick Johnson with the tying run on third, bases loaded and two outs, because Sierra had a great batting average against the pitcher, Buddy Groom, in a very small number of ABs, and the last hit being in 1996. Joe made the wrong decision, and Jack made the right one, and both of them probably think that statheads think exactly the opposite.