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.

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24 comments

  1. Giving_Chase

    March 02, 2012 08:04 PM

    Great read, Ryan.

  2. JC

    March 02, 2012 08:41 PM

    My favorite part was the use of “rabble-rousing.”

  3. John

    March 02, 2012 09:20 PM

    Insightful and well-written.

  4. pat

    March 02, 2012 09:54 PM

    Well done. You should get paid to write!

  5. Ryan

    March 03, 2012 11:08 AM

    You spent way too much time responding to a half assed article like that. You probably also used too many big words for Brookover

  6. Jim

    March 03, 2012 06:29 PM

    Enjoyed the piece. But you don’t address what I wondered about the most upon seeing Brookover’s article: is it right that Ruben Amaro and the Phillies think sabremetrics is baloney? Could that actually be true?

  7. Tim

    March 04, 2012 12:26 AM

    I think Ryan’s point is spot-on about Brookover and the people who create sabermetric strawmen to thrash around. However, I must agree with Jim in that the most troubling thing is what this reveals about the front office’s approach. I’ve long assumed that Amaro feels that way about advanced statistics, but to have him confirm that is disappointing. This approach, the depletion of the farm system, and the team’s reluctance to exceed the luxury tax limit make me think that things aren’t going to look too good in a few years.

  8. Ryan Sommers

    March 04, 2012 02:34 AM

    Yeah, I sort of avoided addressing that aspect of it intentionally. There’s only a few conclusions you can draw from that, and none of them are particularly fun to contemplate. Amaro has expressed that sort of sentiment about advanced statistics before and I think we can take that at face value probably. I do wonder whether they actually think “sabermetrics” is the sort of dumb non-sabermetric stuff they were talking about in the article.

  9. hk

    March 04, 2012 07:18 AM

    I think that the Phils try to be very coy when discussing advanced statistics, but I take some solace in the following:

    * RAJ said they use some advanced statistics and maybe should use more.

    * They do have a baseball information analyst on their staff.

    * According to Proefrock,they look at advanced stats to try to determine how other, more sabremetrically-inclined teams might value players and try to use the information to their advantage (presumably when their scouts views differ from the stats). If true, regardless of whether they (and Brookover) know it or want to admit it, this strategy is very Moneyball-like, only in a twisted way.

    * Charlie admitted that he’ll use an advanced stat if something “lights him up” and he understands it.

    * Charlie claims to be a guy who always looked at OPS and (more importantly) OBP.

    To me, the team’s biggest failing when it comes to sabremetrics is their lack of understanding of, or lack of willingness to accept, the concepts of positional value and replacement players. This may be why they seem very opposed to WAR, WARP, VORP, etc. The problem is that these concepts aren’t really as much about new school statistical concepts as they are about supply and demand. To me, this failing is why the Phils will be paying ~$37.5M per year for the next 5 years to an aging 1B and a pitcher from whom they’ll be lucky to get > 300 IP over that period.

  10. Ken

    March 04, 2012 09:27 AM

    I thought Brookover was the one who expressed the archaic, or obnoxious toned comments in his piece. I liked Edwin Starr, so I resent his getting dragged in as a reference. Peeps using that line actually think they are being creative. Good luck on that conclusion.

    To be honest, I thought the Phillie personnel quotes were more receptive to advanced stats than quotes I’d seen in prior years. That may sound shocking, but based on that memory, it’s the conclusion I drew.

  11. gkit

    March 04, 2012 10:10 AM

    If you have a problem with that article it should be with the Phillies not Brookover. As I read it, Brookover was just “reporting” how the the FO feels about the subject, which is what a reporter is supposed to do. Maybe I missed something( I did read it over again) but to me the only opinions expressed were by the Phillies not Brookover.

  12. hk

    March 04, 2012 10:55 AM

    gkit,

    From my perspective, the problem with Brookover seems to be that he has a belief that the Phillies don’t need or use sabremetrics and he wrote an article in which he attempted to show confirmatoin of that belief. In doing so, he did not seem to know what questions to ask and he also ignored some of the pro-sabremetric comments from the front office including those that I listed above.

  13. awh

    March 04, 2012 01:00 PM

    “But there is also the glaringly obvious reality that Brookover invested zero energy into supporting research for his piece.”

    Ryan, welcome to the party. That has been a criticism of mine directed at mainstream sportswriters for quite some time.

    The only thing, IMHO, to which it can be ascribed is simple laziness – lay writers, lazy editors, lazy publishers.

  14. LTG

    March 04, 2012 06:58 PM

    IMHO, mmmmm peeps.

    But to contribute fully developed thoughts, awh’s comments about laziness reminded me of ESPN’s most recent headline blunders. I’m beginning to wonder whether they are intentional, lazy, or due to over-worked staff. The last blunder did not even get media attention. They put the line “Know your roll” under a picture of Tiger Woods. I guess if the racist double-entendre is less than blatantly obvious, the media doesn’t notice.

  15. Jeff T

    March 05, 2012 07:59 AM

    I bet Proefrock feels the same way about the gas gauge on a car:

    “I honestly can’t tell you the last time WAR or VORP or any of those things were brought up in a conversation,” assistant GM Scott Proefrock said. “We’re aware of them, and we understand what they are. It’s just not something we find relevant.”

  16. jonny

    March 05, 2012 09:20 AM

    The Phillies indeed use sabermetrics, just not in the same way fans or “statnerds” do. Amaro is a graduate of Stanford and I highly doubt he ignores useful data when faced with it. Charlie on the other hand needs to know more about his relief pitchers and how to understand their tendencies and faults (JC Romero, Ahem!)The numbers were there to tell him who to use him against, and who to avoid, yet he didn’t seem to know or care. I love the guy but he needs work in that dept imo.

    Great read Ryan but this is what we expect from the failing Philly.com. It’s no wonder why they fail, as they don’t give people what they want. They shove down our throats what they think we want. They could drastically improve by embracing all facets of the sports they cover and for baseball sabermetrics is something that needs to be embraced if they want to survive.

  17. Tom G

    March 05, 2012 11:43 AM

    Whenever I read a piece like Brookover’s, I always think of the old adage “We mock what we don’t understand.”

    As for whether or not the Phillies used advanced stats, my guess is that they do, just not as much as we would like. I also tend to think Bill is correct in what he wrote a few years ago in that Ruben would like to keep it quiet. After all, he mentions in the article that he considers those stats when he is talking to GM’s he know’s are interested in advanced stats, etc.

    At least I hope so anyway. On the other hand, when you look at Ryan Howard’s contract, it is hard to see how a guy who puts any credibility in advanced stats gives out that deal.

  18. Steve

    March 05, 2012 01:15 PM

    Great article, Ryan. Keep it up!

  19. Scott G

    March 05, 2012 01:16 PM

    Bill,

    While I understand that most people who frequent this site don’t need it, I think it would be good for you to recycle that post from a little less than a year ago with the game that shows how misleading your eyes can be! It makes me sick when I hear about how people don’t need stats. Rather, they can use their eyes to tell them what they need to know. It’s particularly infuriating when people use this argument for players they rarely watch due to geography. I doubt many people who claim how great Michael Jordan was because they “saw him play” even saw 10% of his games played. Not taking anything away from MJ btw.

    Plus, it was fun and addicting!

  20. Sean

    March 05, 2012 01:38 PM

    I don’t even know why anyone thought we needed an article about this, I always thought that Howard and Papelbon’s contract were more than enough evidence.

  21. Dante

    March 05, 2012 02:27 PM

    Ryan,do you think a big reason the old-school sportswriters don’t care about sabermetrics is they just simply aren’t numbers people? Think about it – they likely were English/Journalism majors and took maybe 2 math courses since high school, neither of which were statistics classes. Of course Brookover would call them convoluted equations – he struggles with the simple task of compiling the components of OPS! This would explain why younger writers like Dave Murphy at the Daily News embrace statistical analysis and Conlin and Brookover just brush it off. Of course, there is the obvious threat this causes to their livelihood, much in the way employees in their 50′s get laid off in favor of fresh faced, eager college grads who are tech savvy.

  22. KH

    March 07, 2012 01:26 PM

    Why would this suprise anyone coming from Brookover. In a article about why he didn’t vote for Jeff Bagwell for HOF he basically said he wasn’t going to vote for anybody from the steroid era for the hall of fame regardless of whether any evidence existed or not. This guy thinks he is some kind of godlike being.

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