Bob Brookover and the Imaginary Devout
Making the rounds on Twitter this morning was an article by Bob Brookover titled “Inside the Phillies: Who needs sabermetrics?” It was the annual advanced statistics hit piece from Philly.com, which occasionally likes to claw at the vital new frontier of advanced analytics from the threshold of its own industry’s grave. As Mr. Baer likes to point out, I should not bother to engage with it, nor with the tired debate that surrounds it, since, quite simply, the nerds have already won. Even putting aside the renewed hype surrounding Moneyball, advanced statistics has penetrated almost every front office in baseball (but not the Phillies, if this piece is to be taken at face value), and its influence continues to blossom.
This offseason, the Cubs rushed to acquire one of the more prominent frontmen for analytical front offices, Theo Epstein, and paired him with Jed Hoyer, a man with a background in baseball but who had also worked with Epstein on the Red Sox in the mid 2000s. The Astros, after interviewing Keith Law, who blends equal part scouting and statistical analysis into his evaluations, ended up poaching Jeff Luhnow from the Cardinals. The 45-year-old, taking over for the ignominious Ed Wade, has an educational background that blends business and engineering, including an MBA from Northwestern University. Luhnow then hired former Baseball Prospectus pitch f/x guru Mike Fast, as clear a sign as any of the tack that organization will be taking.
This is not to mention the Rays, who have had a young, analysis-oriented front office running the show for several years (as detailed by Jonah Keri in the book The Extra 2%), or the Mets, who, financial catastrophe notwithstanding, did hire a trio of postmodern executives in Sandy Alderson, J.P. Ricciardi, and Paul DePodesta. Gigantic, multi-million dollar baseball franchises want nothing more than to persist and remain as profitable as possible, and this impetus inevitably leads them to hire executives that are innovative, open-minded, and knowledgeable — people that will embrace all the information available to them, and use it in the most effective way possible. Naturally, these people are drawn to the wealth of data provided by advanced statistics.
The “war,” insomuch as it ever existed, is over. Brookover and company are sportswriting’s own Hiroo Onodas, hurling impotent volleys into the darkness, failing to realize their “enemy” long ago left the engagement. This is, in part, why articles like Brookover’s are so charmingly futile and anachronistic. It’s difficult not to read it with the same minor amusement as when one watches a child kick a table he’d just stubbed his toe on, only to injure himself further.
But there is also the glaringly obvious reality that Brookover invested zero energy into supporting research for his piece. Unlike Brookover, I don’t get paid to write about things, and I likely never will. But if I were to set out to write an article about, say, free range chicken farming, I might be so bold as to go and interview a farmer, or seek out the most well-regarded literature on the subject, or, hell, at least run a few google searches. Brookover clearly did nothing of the sort. His “sabermetrics” bogeyman is constructed of decade-old marginal metrics and other statistics and concepts that are only seen in parodies of traditionalist invective. He brings up VORP several times. This, appropriately, makes me nostalgic for the days of Fire Joe Morgan, but it has not been a widely-cited metric in many years. PERA is also mentioned, which makes me think that maybe, at one point, he deigned to open a copy of Baseball Between the Numbers, but he failed to talk about ERA estimators that are actually frequently used, their purposes, and (since it would fit his narrative) their own individual shortcomings. He discusses the “equation” (seriously) of OPS, which undertakes the enormously complicated task of adding two numbers together, as if it were some mystical numerology. Brookover allows Charlie Manuel to say this —
“When you’re sitting there and a guy brings up sabermetrics, they don’t know nothing about that guy, and that may be the biggest thing,” Manuel said. “Sometimes a guy will look at you and say, ‘Why did you play that guy, he’s 1 for 16 against that guy with seven punch-outs?’ But when I’ve watched that guy, he might be 1 for 16, but nine of those at-bats the guy hit about three or four balls hard.
— either not realizing or not caring to point out that any sabermetrics guru worth his salt would laugh at using a 16 at bat sample to evaluate how a batter matches up against a pitcher. Manuel, to his credit, says he appreciates the amount of data contained in OPS and OBP. Actually, he came out of it looking the best, far better than Brookover at least. Amaro seemed to believe that the gap between his minor league OPS/OBP and major league performance was something notable, as if any advanced analysis would try to use raw minor league data to project a player’s major league performance. If the key to war is knowing your enemy, it’s no surprise that Brookover has been overrun. What gratification is there in setting up an easy effigy to burn if you can’t even make it resemble your target?
Maybe his greatest failure, though, is missing the folly of war in the first place (although, as in every piece of this kind before it, Brookover doesn’t miss an opportunity to make a tired reference to a certain Edwin Starr ditty). In the third paragraph Brookover writes that “[t]he most devout sabermetricians will try to tell you that there is no better way in the world to evaluate players than through their convoluted equations.” This, to be blunt, is utter garbage. I’m sure in some recessed, dark corner of the internet, you can find some miserable wretch who comes close to fulfilling Brookover’s sad stereotype. But it is overwhelmingly the case that sabermetrics advocates acknowledge the need to combine advanced statistics with accurate, reliable scouting in order to get anywhere at all. Keith Law harps on this regularly. The aforementioned Jeff Luhnow said the following when he was hired:
There’s a misperception about what the winning formula is. You can’t be the elite scouting and player development organization without the best scouts and coaches in the industry. Those are baseball people who have been in this their entire life and use their good judgment and experience to make decisions.
The complementary part is adding a whole new area, which is really utilizing whatever technology and whatever capabilities are available, whether it’s understanding medical assessments, understanding performance histories, different ways to evaluate character. There’s a lot of science that can be added to the equation.
But it’s really all about gathering up as much valuable information as you can, organizing in a way that makes sense and making the best possible decisions.
The true “devout sabermetricians” know that scouting and advanced statistics desperately need each other to be usable, and that one must intimately understand the purpose and limitations of the metric he or she is citing. This is why things like sample size are so often brought up, and why the internal battle over UZR among the statistically-minded rages on. Clear-minded, responsible consideration of statistics is the first priority for the “devout,” and, funnily enough, it’s something that completely escapes writers like Brookover. All of the sudden, when their narrative needs boosting, they’ll discard all of their inhibitions about the abuse of statistics and throw around RBI, fielding percentage, or 15-at-bat pitcher versus hitter matchups as it suits them.
That’s the most absurd facet of pieces like these, which appear in media across the country. There is a pathetic pretense that they’re cautious of numbers, that the “devout” rush to recklessly apply a number to any and everything. But it’s entirely too transparent that it’s not numbers they’re concerned about, it’s your numbers. They aren’t my numbers. They’re some other numbers. Those other numbers indicate that, all too often, the final analysis is far more nuanced and complicated than they (unfairly) think their readers are willing to put up with. The numbers they have — RBI, small sample quirks, antiquated counting stats — make for some snazzy headlines and rabble-rousing discussion pieces that, superficial as they are, help spoon a little syrup into the desiccated gullet of print media. The rest of us, interested only in finding out as much about the game we love as possible, embrace the heaps of useful data offered by both traditional scouting and advanced analysis. We don’t always know what we’re doing, or which (if any) conclusion can be drawn, and that’s why an informal peer-review is always taking place, on the internet and elsewhere. It’s not a church stuffed to the rafters with devout, it’s a vibrant, self-auditing community of people who regard baseball with the same pure veneration that some traditionalists would like to claim a monopoly on.
My dad was unquestionably the first and primary inspiration for my interest in baseball. He delayed wedding my mother because it was the fall of 1980 and the Phillies were World Series-bound; he took me to countless Phillies games as a child; he coached and sometimes umpired during my unfruitful but enjoyable little league career. He’s been watching the Phillies since the 1950s, and he certainly doesn’t share the same enthusiasm for advanced statistics as I do, and I wouldn’t expect him to, nor care whether he does or not. Because, like normal human beings, we can have discussions that transcend one particular approach to appreciating baseball. Still, because he is a smart, open-minded man, he doesn’t limit himself to the traditionalist comfort zone. He mentions the things he reads about Bill James, or interesting observations that arise out of a more advanced analysis of some historical player or season. Occasionally I’ll bring up a statistic like ERA+ or WAR, with a brief explanation, and he’ll (to a stunning degree of accuracy) list historical players who he guesses would rank the highest. Just as there is a vital interchange between traditional approaches and newly-conceived analysis in the operation of baseball franchises, and in the work of blogs like this one, casual baseball discourse is also best served when these ideas are freely exchanged.
I don’t know Bob Brookover beyond his writing. I’m sure he’s a good guy who loves baseball just like the rest of us, and that he and I (or you) could have some interesting, mutually enjoyable discussions about baseball and the Phillies. When it comes to pieces like this one, beyond the woeful execution, I question the motive and the necessity. In a month, baseball will begin again, and we’ll all be too happy and engaged to fixate on articles like this. But in the relative quiet of spring training, I’d sooner work to prevent the car wreck than spend all of this effort rubbernecking.