Nerds In Paradise

Photo Credit: Getty Images/Ringer illustration

by: Rich Daniels

Jayson Werth, you have been heard. 

In an interview last week on WIP sports radio in Philadelphia, the recently retired outfielder seemed to have considerable venom for many in the game he played for fifteen years at the Major League level. In addition to saying he never would have played for the Mets and ripping super-agent Scott Boras for allegedly not doing enough to find him a major league job prior to this season, Werth took aim at those who he characterized as ruining the game: sabermetricians.

Werth lamented "nerds" in the game whose involvement was long on analysis and short on playing experience. The 39-year-old was unhappy that the dead reckoning of days gone by had been replaced by spreadsheets and had taken over the game. Werth even claimed that analysts tell players not to bunt to beat defensive shifts but instead to keep hitting into the teeth of said shifts. The one-time All-Star summed up his remarks by calling sabermetrics a joke. Parting shots from a player that held on too long only to hit .206 in triple-A.

Sabermetricians are the result of a different breed of people that have gravitated to baseball. 

Bill James was arguably the first true sabermetrician. His Baseball Abstract first appeared in the 1980's in the form of a book report, photocopied pages stapled together like we all did in middle school history class. What James produced was a detailed mathematical analysis of baseball's offensive statistics. I received my first copy as a Christmas gift in 1989. My parents had run out of baseball books to get me as I had digested every statistical collection I'd ever gotten my hands on and developed a path firmly away from memorabilia. What James had to offer was an absolute alternative view of the game I'd played at many levels into my late 20's. I was hooked.

Bill James married mathematics beyond addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division to the familiar statistics baseball people had used as measuring sticks for generations. He revealed that slaving to accumulate piles of a couple of stats took away from a more productive overall performance. James provided an insight on the game unlike anyone ever had. The trail into the previously denied paradise of baseball had been blazed for math nerds.

There had been forerunners like Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver who kept meticulous records of how his players had performed against individual opponents, which aided him in making decisions about platoons, pitching changes and pinch-hitting moves. But James was altogether different in his approach and operated as a baseball outsider until the door was opened by one of the real innovators.

What Werth is really expressing a problem with, is the replacement of old-school baseball executives and baseball lifers who spent decades in the game as players-turned-front office climbers, giving way to individuals that in decades past had been more familiar to Wall Street and corner offices in big corporations than executive positions in baseball. 

Beyond being young, upwardly mobile and highly educated, these young executives did not have the typical analytical blind spots that Bill James had been revealing since before some of them were born. Billy Beane was the first to realize the value of advanced metrics in formulating a strategy as was well documented in Moneyball. Theo Epstein became the next sabermetric icon as the Red Sox general manager who brought about the end of the Curse of the Bambino. Others have followed like Houston's Jeff Lunhow, Colorado's Jeff Bridich and the Rangers' John Daniels to name a few. It is men like this that saw the value of and created the space for math nerds in professional baseball.

Baseball's "Old Boy Network" was broken, likely forever. 

Index card catalogs and rolodexes were replaced with smartphones and laptops. For someone like Jayson Werth, drafted by the Baltimore Orioles in 1997, well before the sabermetric revolution, this was an encroachment of outsiders, inferiors even. Taking direction and instruction from men who had played before him must have been easy to accept being the grandson (Dick Schofield, the older), nephew (Dick Schofield, the younger) and stepson (stepfather Dennis Werth) of former major leaguers.

Witnessing individuals providing strategic input not having played the game to any appreciable level must have been a special kind of irritating. Werth was also echoing the objections of players from generations past, most famously Goose Gossage who had gone on an expletive-laced near-tirade against advanced metrics in 2016. Clearly, there is still opposition to the widespread trend.

The real problem for those of us observing all this is that both sides have strong points to make. 

Sabermetrics provide detailed trending for the long haul. Baseball savvy and experience is at its finest when examining the human factor in individual match-ups. The Red Sox, the team that hired Bill James to provide in-house advanced metric analysis, used baseball experience at a key moment to help end their 86-year curse. James has unflinchingly labeled base stealing as highly unproductive due to the fact that there must be an 85% success rate for positive returns to even begin happening. Yet it was a momentum-robbing stolen base by Dave Roberts in Game 4 of the 2004 American League Championship Series against their rival Yankees that enabled the Sox to come back and win in 12 innings. Boston then made history by coming all the way back from a 3-0 deficit to win the ALCS and went on to take the World Series.

Indeed it makes sense to bunt the ball to a largely unprotected side of the infield, especially early in an inning. It also makes sense to routinely grind at-bats deep into counts in order to get the optimum pitch for a hitter, risking more strikeouts for the return of harder hit balls and increased walk rates.

Old school reckoning gets bogged down in batting averages and counting categories while sabermetrics can't measure the effects of fear, intimidation, confidence or heart. 

The old saying is, "There's a time and place for everything." The organizations that find the right balance between these two schools of thought will undoubtedly achieve optimum performance. History tells us that debates and discussions like this often yield true and sweeping innovation. It's safe to say that sabermetrics are here to stay and are best applied to the long-haul regular season, while old-school knowledge and experience are the keys to match-up oriented playoff baseball. 

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