Thursday, June 15, 2017

"Better, Worse Or (Conspiratorially) Just Different"

(NOTE:  This post have may have accidentally been posted before.  If you read it then, you are not having a deja vu experienced; you legitimately "vued" it before.  My mistake  and if you have already "vued" it, your day off.)  

Among other innovations, the advent of computers has altered the way baseball players are evaluated and, arguably even more transformatively, the basic strategy of the game.

(Note:  This post is not really about baseball, although it will be difficult to detect that because this post is entirely about baseball.  I love a juicy second-paragraph enigma, don’t you?)  

Do you remember the book – or more likely the movie because Brad Pitt was not in the book – Moneyball?  Moneyball was about a financially-strapped major league baseball team, the Oakland A’s (“A’s” for Athletics, who were formerly the Kansas City A’s and formerly before that, the Philadelphia A’s, meaning the team was a fiscal disaster wherever they played because you do not move a prosperous ball club.  Twice.)

The Oakland A’s applied computer-derived sabermetrics”, involving previously ignored statistics concerning their on-field productivity, in order to purchase and trade for bargain ballplayers, adjudged by the new system to be more attractive than they were previously considered. 

For example, batters used to be evaluated on the basis of their batting averages, a calculation that did not include walks.  Following, as is regularly proclaimed at Little League games that “a walk is as good as a hit”, sabermetrics rejected “batting average” in favor of “on-base percentage” – a calculation combining accumulated hits and walks – thereby upgrading the inherent value of average hitters who were assiduous “walkers.” 

(Note:  You may not feel better for knowing about this, but someday this information will come spouting out of your mouth and you will thank me retroactively for passing it along.  You can bank my “Your welcome”, pulling it out after that startling “nugget of information” unexpectedly bursts forth.) 

Applying the “sabermetric” approach, the Oakland A’s fared statistically better than their low-budget financial status would have reasonably predicted.  Paying attention to the A’s surprising success, considerably wealthier teams, like the Boston Red Sox, absorbed “sabermetrics” into their player evaluation process and, applying that “One-Two” punch of big money plus shrewd statistical analysis, they won three World Series in nine seasons (2004, 2007, 2013), after not winning since 1918.

Proving, if more evidence were required, that this modern technique for evaluating ballplayers really works.

Since the earliest adopters of “sabermetrics” were – duh! – younger general managers and team presidents – because the older folk have difficulty adjusting their digital alarm clocks when the time changes – baseball teams began recruiting ever younger upper-management executives.  The Red Sox hired Theo Epstein to run their team when he was only 28.  (I can imagine seasoned “experience-based” general managers, seeing the “Youth Movement” handwriting on the wall, immediately submitting down-payments on retirement residences in Boca.)    

Soon, there were young baseball top executives everywhere – the Yankees, the Dodgers, Epstein himself migrated from the Red Sox to the Cubs, who, in 2016 captured their first World Series since 1908.

Since demonstrable success inevitably breeds “Pour it on”, the “sabermetric” tsunami expanded to all aspects of the game, generating “edge”-manufacturing maneuvers the young executives believed would help them win ballgames.

Obliterating “The way things have always been done” – using the current Dodgers as an example, as I am familiar with their strategic machinations – to deliver the statistically projected advantages to promote victory, no tradition or habitual expectation has been spared obligatory “sabermetrical” examination.

As a result, when a player comes to the ballpark, save for the acknowledged supestars of the game, none of them is now certain what position they will be playing that day, where they will be slotted in the batting order or, in fact, based on their statistical record against the scheduled opposing pitcher, whether they will actually be playing in that game at all.

Starting pitchers are now required to appear as “relief” pitchers.  “Closers” – pitchers used to finishing out games – are required to come into the game whenever they’re most needed, and directed to face more batters than they were previously conditioned to.

And then, there’s the “shift”, in which infielders are repositioned in a non-traditional manner to take hits away from batters known to send the ball in a predictable direction, a strategy so successful against hitters who are unable to adjust to it that there is talk of outlawing the “shift” because it is stifling the offense.

And now comes the “turn.”  Or at least a curious question about consequences.

Consider the rarely if ever articulated detectable trade-off around “sabermetrics.”  In the name of heightened efficiency geared to ultimate on-field success, players are now required to surrender their habitual “comfort zones” career-long habits, expected procedures and cherished, clung-to superstitions – performing instead to the determining exigencies of the “numbers.”

I wonder if there is a measurable static for “No longer knowing what exactly is going on.”

Enter into this narrative, as “challenging alternative”, Albert Pujols, age 37, a prodigious batter on the precipice – who just clobbered his 600th career home run, a feat only eight players in baseball history have ever accomplished, three of whom were on steroids and Babe Ruth was on hotdogs – Pujols, a guaranteed shoo-in for eventual induction to baseball’s hallowed Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

Let me quote here from a recent newspaper article:
“(Pujols) is famous for the consistency of his pregame routine, in which he hits off a tee in a cycle from right to left, transitions to hitting soft tosses, then turns on the pitching machine…. Angels batting practice pitcher Mike Ashman, estimated Pujols does the same drills 158 games per season.”
Observing this unwavering regimen two days in a row, Angels back-up “utility player” Cliff Pennington observed,
“And then he does the same thing the third day, and the fourth day… We’re all human.  We all think, ‘Maybe I’ll try this.’  But he doesn’t do that.  He just goes on.
“And you’re like, ‘Well maybe that’s why he’s so good.’”
Two alternate approaches:  One, “statistical analysis” where players are shunted around like chess pieces, and Two, players following a predictable – and emotionally satisfying – routine.
And who exactly is heading for the Hall of Fame?
(I know.  The “Sabermetric Era” is just beginning.  But top honors are traditionally accorded to “Exceptional Excellence” not “Flexible Versatility”, and that standard is unlikely to change.)
The second thing to notice:
The shift in power and attention – from the athletes on the field to the executives in the front office.  Which leads me to skeptically wonder.
The “sabermetric” revolution:
Is it really about winning more ballgames?

Or is it simply the ultimate paybacking “Revenge of the Nerds”?
Note to Previous "Vuers":  I get that the "sabermetric" statistics are derived from the players' performance.  What I am questioning are the emotional consequences of the strategies based on them.  And if I have to explain that, I needed to write it better.   

1 comment:

JED said...

I just need to read and understand better.

Instead of taking the day off, I am going to re-read this post with my thinking cap on.