Thumbing My Nose At Sabermetrics

By Chris Rewers on Monday, July 19, 2010

I'm sure Tony La Russa had has reasons for deciding to bat his pitcher eighth back in 2007, but I was suspicious of his motives.

The unconventional tactic of the St. Louis Cardinals manger was simply LaRussa's way of demonstrating his brilliance. La Russa wanted to show everybody that he was the smartest guy in the room.

LaRussa's thoughts as he wrote the pitcher's name in the No. 8 spot on his lineup card for the first time probably looked something like this:

"They have been playing major league baseball since 1876 and the pitcher has always batted ninth, and despite over 125 years of evidence that this is the way things ought to be, I know better. I am the wisest manager who has ever lived. I am the great Tony La Russa!"

The tactic, I'm quite sure, made little difference in his offense's production. I haven't made a study of it, but assume that if it was an effective tactic it would be widely imitated. The pitcher in the nine spot remains conventional wisdom.

LaRussa's move was rooted in his arrogance, but I also believe that it was the manifestation of the "sabermetrics- gone-overboard" craze that originated with Bill James in the late 1970s, gained mainstream acceptance in the 1990s with the success of Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane, and by 2010 has totally gotten out of hand.

I am not a math whiz. Computing a pitcher's earned run average, to me, is a complex mathematical equation. So whenever I visit, I am increasingly feeling lost.

Statistical analysis has gotten totally out of hand.

The math geeks have totally infiltrated baseball. To wit:

* The use of OPS (on-base average plus slugging percentage), WS (win shares), WAR (wins above replacement), and pythagorean winning percentage are now routinely used in statistical analysis.

* A recent e-mail from a colleague included a link to an article discussing the FIP (fielding independent pitching) of the Minnesota Twins.

* The July edition of the 2010 Wrigley Field Official Scorecard includes a future match-ups feature by Christina Kahrl of Baseball Prospectus. In her analysis of the Philadelphia Phillies, Cincinnati Reds, Houston Astros, and St. Louis Cardinals, Kahrl uses statistics like equivalent baserunning, fair run average, average on balls in play, strikeouts/walks per batters faced, true average, and park-adjusted defensive efficiency.

The emergence of these heiroglyphics came about because computers enabled math geeks the ability to process the high volume of data that a major league season presents, agents were seeking new ways to win arbitration cases, baseball management sought ways to counter the claims of the agents, and fantasy baseball geeks and gamblers are always looking for an edge.

But statistics never tell the whole story.

How, for instance, can you use a defensive statistic like range factor [RF = (Assists + Put Outs)/(Games Played)] to determine defensive ability? It seems to penalize a defensive player who plays behind a pitching staff with a penchant for strikeouts.

My point is that the use of statistics cannot replace gut instinct.

Statistical formulas aren't needed to determine that the Cubs stunk to high heaven in the first half. The roots of the Cubs' struggles were the lack of production from Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez, and a lack of clutch hitting by the team in general.

A degree from MIT isn't necessary to determine that.

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