Wednesday, September 30, 2009


Jaws and Sabermetrics

As some of you may recall, this past spring, Baseball Prospectus ran a contest where baseball fans all around the country could submit a baseball article on a topic of their choice, and the best would be selected and put through an American Idol-ish elimination process. The winner would get like a couple-thousand dollars and would be placed immediately onto the BP staff.

Of course, being an egotistical blogger myself, I decided to throw my hat into the ring. Realizing I couldn't hang with the big boys when it came to hard core stat-crunching, I decided to try a different tack and submit something that was a little different, a little quirky and fun. I decided to combine my two great loves, baseball and the movie Jaws, into a silly article about the stats vs. scouts argument. Why not, I figured. If it was well-written and entertaining enough, maybe I could sneak in to the Top 10.

I didn't win, nor did I really expect to. I actually didn't even get any feedback, even though Will Carroll promised that everybody would get some sort of comment on their work. Jerk.

(At the risk of sounding like an asshole munching on sour grapes, I will say that a couple of the finalists wrote articles that were just flat out not good [one was a bland puff piece about the Rays; another was a rip job on Raul Ibanez that I think anybody could have written], and I can't see how anyone in their right mind would think they qualified as the best in a contest determining who gets to write for one of the most prestigious baseball think tanks around. I'd say it reflects the general deterioration of quality in BP's work over the past year or so, but then again, a few of the finalists submitted solid pieces that could blow my shit out of the water any day, so there you go.)

Anyway, I've been sitting on it for a few months, and I thought some of you readers might enjoy it. It's a little long, but I'd love to hear what you think upon reading it! Enjoy!


Killing the Shark: Jaws and Baseball

It’s a common scenario, played out many times in sports bars near you. Paul and Jimbo sit down to watch their favorite team over a couple of brews and mozzarella sticks. They both have equal passion as baseball fans, they’ve rooted for the hometown boys since childhood, but times are tough. Their team is right in the middle of a down year, the fourth in a row for this franchise, and the two men are losing their patience. Soon an armchair GM debate breaks out between the two of them. They are both certain that they could run this team better than the clueless jokers currently in charge, but how?

Paul says that the team needs a total makeover in front office philosophy, so he’ll hire the best stat gurus in the business world to crunch the numbers and assemble a team of highly efficient hitters and pitchers. Jimbo scoffs, saying that his own two eyes will suffice to put together a first place team, and he’ll hire the greatest collection of scouts ever to grace the high school bleachers.

Jimbo tells Paul that his team of athletic, toolsy players and tall, hard-throwing hurlers will beat the tar out of Paul’s Google-obsessed nerd troupe any day. Paul responds by telling Jimbo that while his scouts are busy fretting over The Good Face, Paul’s statistically advanced squad will be leaving them in the dust. Soon voices are raised, fists start to fly, and the two have to be separated. The pals eventually make up, only to repeat the same charade the next week as the beer flows and their team continues to pile up the losses.

Okay, so this is a bit of an extreme example, an exaggeration of how many fans picture the stats and scouts argument. Though it has been inflated to the point of ideological warfare by the tenets of Moneyball and the extremists who linger on the nutty fringes of fan message boards, the debate over qualitative versus quantitative analysis in baseball still exists, and it is still fiery. The discussion is not limited to your average Joe at the barstool, but one spread throughout actual baseball front offices, to sportswriters and broadcasters who cover the game, and even to rotisserie baseball players who just want to win that office league.

The debate revolves around a simple question: what is the best method to build a winning baseball team? Is it the more statistically-inclined variety, determining a player’s value based largely on his numbers and how they project? Or is it the more qualitative method, judging the likelihood of a player’s major league success based on his raw physical tools and his ability to utilize those gifts as he matures?

If we take a look at which major league franchises utilize which philosophy, we get mixed results. The obvious poster boys for the “stat” crowd are the Oakland A’s, but after a run of success in the early decade, they’ve come upon hard times, with two straight losing seasons based largely on a poor team offense suffering from, ironically, terrible on-base percentages. On the other hand, the Boston Red Sox won two recent championships and the latest trendy statistically-motivated team, the Tampa Rays, came very close last season.

On the other side of the ledger, in 2005, the Chicago White Sox rolled to a title by eschewing statistic-heavy team-building in favor of more old-fashioned small ball baseball ideas, while scout-leaning teams like the Twins and Angels have met with consistent success for the majority of the 2000’s. Then again, similarly inclined franchises like the Astros, Mariners, and Giants seem to be stuck in a perpetual malaise.

So what is the best way to run a team? Well, to answer our query we had best look at an example from a rather unexpected source: Sheriff Martin Brody, the Roy Scheider character from the Steven Spielberg all-time classic Jaws. In order to save the citizens of the sleepy town of Amity from a killer shark, Brody and his cohorts, Quint and Hooper, set out on an expedition to kill the murderous fish. The clever way in which Brody finally dispatches the shark can serve as a valuable lesson to baseball fans and analysts everywhere.

Wait, you say. What does a popcorn movie about a man-eating Great White have to do with the inner workings of a multi-billion dollar industry? Simple. When Brody, Quint, and Hooper set off on their mission to kill the giant shark at the end of Jaws, their internal battle to find a suitable method of defeating the beast, with their strikingly different viewpoints, is a microcosm of the entire stats-versus-scouts debate.

On one side, there is Quint, the old salty fisherman who believes that the men can sail out in his dinky old schooner and kill the shark with harpoons, shotguns, and weighted barrels that will keep it from submerging. Hooper, on the other side, is the fresh-faced, yuppie ichthyologist who insists that his collection of fancier, newfangled anti-shark equipment is the way to go.

Naturally, both men eye each other skeptically, and are at odds virtually the entire time they are out at sea. Hooper dismisses Quint’s old fishing methods as outdated, primitive, and wholly incapable of handling a 25-foot killer shark. Quint views Hooper as a rich, naïve city kid and openly questions the effectiveness of all the equipment he is bringing on board. When Hooper brings aboard his anti-shark cage, Quint derisively asks, “What do you have there? A portable shower or a monkey cage?” Then, with one doubtful eyebrow raised, he says to Hooper: “Cage goes in the water. You go in the water. Shark’s in the water. Our shark.”

So which method finally wins out? Well, neither, frankly. The shark is much too big for Quint’s barrels and easily dives underwater time and again, evading the hunters. Harpoons and the shotgun are equally ineffective, and the shark eventually eats Quint before proceeding to completely destroy his boat. Farewell and adieu, indeed! Likewise, Hooper’s modern methods also fail to impress. When he goes underwater in his anti-shark cage, intent on killing the shark with a poison-tipped spear, the shark completely rips the cage apart and sends Hooper scurrying to hide behind a rock.

Just when it looks like the heroes are doomed, Brody figures out a way to kill the shark by combining the two methods. He throws one of Hooper’s scuba tanks into the shark’s mouth, then takes Quint’s shotgun, shoots the tank as it rests between the big fish’s teeth, and blows it to hell. Using a careful balance of both the old school fishing technique and the new, Brody, as unskilled a seaman as you could imagine, does what the two other experienced men could not.

Baseball aficionados and ideologists on both sides should take heed of Brody’s lesson. Statistics can tell us many things over the course of a year or many years that we simply cannot see with our two eyes or pick up with our instinct, while good scouting can give us insight into certain features or skills of a player that sheer numbers can’t. Good team building is about accumulating and utilizing the best information available, and you simply can’t get the best information by adhering strictly to one methodology. You have to have it all.

Take the example of Milwaukee starting pitcher Dave Bush. In 2006, Bush put up amazing peripheral numbers, including the best K:BB ratio in the majors, but his ERA was a mediocre 4.41. Going by the numbers, it stood to reason that his strong peripherals would catch up and he’d have a breakout 2007, right? Wrong. Instead, Bush regressed in almost every category and his ERA jumped nearly a full run.

With good scouts on hand, we could have determined that there must have been something with Bush that made his lofty strikeout numbers in 2006 a fluke, namely the fact that he relied a lot on a tricky delivery that wouldn’t fool hitters quite so much the second time around. Conversely, if a there is a player who is beloved by scouts (like Jeff Francouer, per se) but who has poor underlying numbers, such as poor plate discipline and terrible OBPs, we can make an educated guess that he isn’t going to live up to the potential that his physical skills might imply.

In the end, an intelligent melding of both the numbers- and scouting-based methodology, with cooperation between the scouting department and the statistical advisors, is the best way to project which players will succeed, which ones won’t, and what is the best path to take the franchise. It works in the front office, in your fantasy league, and at the bar. As Rob Neyer noted, “It's all pieces in the same big puzzle. The trick is figuring out where all of them fit.” Just as in trying to kill that damn shark, the solution is to combine the best of both worlds to field the best team.

Send me your name and I'll send you the original feedback via email. There were so many entrants that we couldn't come up with a method to get people their initial feedback without just posting it. A lot of people would *not* have wanted their feedback posted, believe me.
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