Email Exchange: The Advanced Age of Advanced Metrics

houston

Today’s article: “Sabermetrics Gets Soft,” Ben Lindbergh, Grantland

Cameron Seib:

Outside of murder, fraud, and possibly assault, no individual act is more disgraceful than that of going soft (aka becoming a pussy, bitch, boner, etc.). Mike, our friend Jim went soft once, and he’s still struggling to live it down. And that was in high school!

“A bitch ni**a, that’s that shit I don’t like!” – Chief Keef

Mr. Keef’s message is one I’ve been trying to spread for some time now, and so it was with great delight that I saw the headline of Ben Lindbergh’s article on Grantland yesterday. Finally, someone was going to give “smart” baseball fans the truth they needed: sabermetrics is a field rife with pussy-bitch-boners, and it’s time we revert to old school (aka RAW) analytics.

Sadly, Lindbergh’s piece was anything but an assault on baseball nerds. That would’ve been pretty silly, really, as the writer’s a well-known numbers guy himself. In fact, this whole opener’s been silly!

What Lindbergh actually discusses is the recent Saber Seminar, and how, in a world where every MLB front office now uses sabermetrics to some extent, general managers and scouts are having to figure out new ways to gain the advantages that advanced baseball metrics once provided them. Nowadays, as Lindbergh says, “having innovative ideas and doing the research to support them isn’t always enough to differentiate one front office from another.”

To remain ahead amidst the increasing equity in analytical knowledge, teams are focusing on how they can better utilize that information than their competition. For the Houston Astros, GM Jeff Luhnow thinks doing so is a matter of rallying organizational-wide support for sabermetrically-backed strategies. Baseball players themselves are, it’s probably safe to say, more traditionalists in their methods. And, as Luhnow has seen, implementing things like the infield shift into everyday play can be met with resistance from the guys on the field. Of course, having the numbers to show that a shift is advantageous in certain situations is useless unless your infielders are actually willing to put on a shift. With every team now able to identify valuable players/strategies via analytics, Houston thinks it has the most to gain by converting any remaining saber-haters within its ranks.

The other team Lindbergh details, the Boston Red Sox, is also starting to think beyond the numbers alone, though it’s hoping to maximize talent in a different way. As an organization that’s more accepting of sabermetrics, Boston doesn’t have the same concerns as Houston, so it’s trying innovate in relation to what Lindbergh terms “soft factors.” Things like sleep, nutrition, and mental health. Red Sox GM Ben Cherington isn’t exactly planning to micromanage his players, but he’s hoping to gain marginal advantages wherever possible, perhaps by preaching a strict diet while other teams let their players go full Golden Corral at all hours.

Mike, my first thought after reading this piece was, ha, no, Jeff Luhnow, you’re not actually trying to succeed by smartening up all the dumb players. Nope, your big innovation is acting like your peers have the intelligence of a PlayStationSure you don’t want Bud Norris for Kevin Gausman, CPU?

Really, though, Lindbergh’s piece was great and got me thinking in a number of different directions. I’ve often wondered what the next inefficiency to be exploited will be, as Billy Beane won’t always be able to see value in a guy considered a backup by the rest of the league — pretty soon (if it hasn’t already happened), every team will know which players are good and which aren’t. Houston’s approach is interesting, though I ultimately don’t think it’ll be that groundbreaking, because there simply aren’t that many sabermetric strategies the players themselves are responsible for putting into action. I think Boston’s route has the potential for higher reward, specifically if they hone in on improving players’ mental well-being. Baseball fans are mystified each year by all-stars turning scrubs, and the reverse happening for others. It’s not as if talent fluctuates so drastically from season to season, and my initial guess is that a lot of streaking and slumping is a product of a player’s mental stability at the time.

Mike, hit me with whatever you’ve got.

Michael Rosen:

I think I’m going to use “going full Golden Corral” as a metaphor for situations in my own life. Like, any time I make a decision in which I’m consciously sabotaging myself for marginal short-term pleasure, I’m “going full Golden Corral.”

Anyway, to baseball and sabermetrics and all that jazz. I think I linked you this piece on Monday afternoon, so we’re breaking our own rules a little bit in talking about this, but whatever, rules are meant to be broken, right? I don’t know why that phrase exists, because the whole point of rules are to maintain order, so that is patently untrue. But, I think that this particular occasion provides a legitimate reason to break said established rules, since you and I are veritable baseball nerds, and the quantity of baseball nerd-fodder in Lindbergh’s piece doesn’t come around all that often.

First, since I don’t think we’ve written on Lindbergh before, I just wanted to pen a quick aside about Lindbergh, the writer. Grantland exposed me to his work last year, I believe, and he’s quickly become one of my favorites. He’s also got a great podcast (Effectively Wild with Baseball Prospectus’s Sam Miller) that publishes every single day, a godsend to a podcast addict like myself. He’s not some great prose stylist like Brian Phillips or Wright Thompson, but the guy is great at finding interesting ways to break down parts of baseball you’ve never even thought about before.

Okay, now, to the piece. The predominant reason I liked the piece (and, by extension, what Luhnow and Cherington had to say) is that it kind of solidified a lot of random thoughts I’d been having about baseball recently into a coherent package. The idea of “soft” sabermetrics — it’s basically a big “fuck you” to the ways people like Dave Cameron and co. wrote maybe three or four years ago, like baseball is some objective scientific pursuit. And I don’t mean to denigrate Dave — I think I’m probably one of his biggest defenders — but there was a presumptuousness in some saber-leaning writing for a really long time, the subtext of which always seemed to be “I could run these teams better than you can.”

I think when I was reading Cameron at age 16, I kind of bought into that mindset, because it’s awesome to think that I am so much smarter than everyone else. But as I’ve grown older, I, personally, have become less narrow-minded, and have come to understand that there’s a reason the people who are running the teams are in the place they are. These are organizations worth hundreds of millions (and sometimes billions) of dollars, and any rational person isn’t going to leave the fate of their billion-dollar investment to a dolt. Instead of assuming everyone in baseball front offices is an idiot that doesn’t know the difference between xFIP and wRC+, I now try to see things from the team’s perspective, and try to rationalize why they may be making any given decision, instead of automatically assuming they’re acting from an uninformed perspective. Admittedly, rooting for a team with Jack Zduriencik in charge has made this difficult.

Which brings me back to the piece. Despite my attempts to view any given decision from the perspective of a team, there was always incongruity in some specific cases between what I saw as the correct, rational decision and what teams generally did. One of the big ones was the implementation of relievers, and the apparent lack of awareness of the concept of leverage. But the Tony LaRussa anecdote spoke to both a particular and general point. Specifically, the story helped me understand the nuances of the manager’s perspective on leverage and relievers. In the general sense, though, it lent a concrete perspective of “the human element,” rather than an abstract one.

That abstract conceptualization of the human element is always present for me when I do try to rationalize decisions of the managers and the front offices. I’m aware of the fact that running a baseball team is more complex than thinking of players as data points to arrange in particular ways, but that’s the extent of it. My perspective is heavily weighted to one side (the sabermetric side) — I read FanGraphs daily and generally think from a sabermetrically-inclined perspective — while my team’s perspective basically only exists as an afterthought — “yeah, but, these players are people too.”

So, yeah, this is just a long-winded way of saying that the LaRussa anecdote and Lindbergh’s piece as a whole lent me a good deal of nuance and concrete perspective from the team’s side of things, which I think I previously lacked. Cam, did any of that make sense?

CS:

“Rules are meant to be broken, right? I don’t know why that phrase exists, because the whole point of rules is to maintain order, so that is patently untrue.”

And that, kids, is Exhibit A in the act of going soft. Yeah, Mike, your words did make sense — they made it plain and clear that you’re due for a course with Professor Keef.

I totally get what you’re saying. As a junior in high school, I too was quite ready to assume my position atop the Mariners’ administrative order. When you look at baseball as nothing but numbers, you assume any potential front office decision would be pretty easy to make. Because data is objective — it lets us determine right from wrong, better from worse. So under this mindset, who to target in free agency isn’t answered by nuanced analysis, but simply seeing who ZiPS projects for a higher WAR.

But, yeah, as I’ve also accepted, I would be a shit GM, because the job requires much more than looking at Fangraphs. I’ll always value numbers-driven analysis over eye-test evaluation, but sabermetrics, at least currently, can’t capture everything important about a player’s value. It reminds me of a discussion we had after the M’s signing of Robinson Cano (god bless it), specifically in regards to a response piece Cameron wrote. He was pretty critical of the move, mostly because he didn’t see any way in which Cano could live up to the value of his $250 million contract, at least when considering the market value of a win. That much, we agreed, was safe to conclude, but Cameron was treating the matter too narrowly. Sure, every team’s goal should be to maximize the value of each dollar spent, which the Cano grab wasn’t doing. But that consideration alone ignored what else Cano might provide, in terms of unquantifiables.

Now, we weren’t talking about things like “leadership” and “clutchness” — buzzword intangibles that Harold Reynolds has tattooed on his forearms. We were thinking in regards to Cano’s ability to ease the free agency process for Seattle. Because the M’s have been so shitty the past decade, Seattle has become a rather undesirable destination for players, and our front office has had to compensate by offering more money to free agents than others will. We saw this with Cano, in fact. Jack Z had to pay him so much money in part because, yeah, he was coming to fucking Seattle. Cameron blasted this, saying the M’s should’ve held out for players that were willing to sign for their true value. That’s all fine and utopic, but it’s not realistic, because Seattle really has been terrible for a long time, and no one’s been inclined to come here when they can get just as much from another team. This problem, of course, isn’t solved by standing pat in free agency and saving money for the “right” moves. What does help solve it, though, is signing a guy like Cano, a superstar who immediately makes your team much better, and has been the biggest reason in the M’s going from terrible to contenders. Next offseason, guys won’t be so hesitant to head northwest, because Cano transformed Seattle into a pretty decent place to play. He’s never going to do good on each of those 250 million dollars, but he revived the organization from its rut, so we won’t have to pay so goddamn much the next time a Cano comes around.

That’s the stuff wRC+ and FIP can’t capture.

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