Cheer the Players? Nah. Just Crunch Their Numbers

By Peter Grier writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, October 2, 2006 | Go to article overview

Cheer the Players? Nah. Just Crunch Their Numbers


Peter Grier writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


At some point during the World Series, which begins Saturday, one broadcaster will turn to another and say something like, "This at- bat should be a good matchup for Tigers infielder Neifi Perez. Normally, he's a light hitter, but he's 8 for 15 against left- handers whose uniform numbers are higher than 12."

Or maybe something like, "Here comes Joel Zumaya in from the Tiger bullpen. You don't often see him in the second inning, but our research shows he throws hardest between 4 and 4:20 p.m."

An exaggeration? Maybe. Broadcast sports analysis isn't yet quite like astrology.

But there's a larger point here, and it might come as a surprise to casual fans, the kind who only tune in for the Series: Number crunching is swallowing baseball.

Old standbys like batting averages and RBIs (Runs Batted In) have been outmoded for years. Now, general managers and serious fans talk about QERA (an acronym for "QuikERA"), VORP (Value Over Replacement Player), and other measurements that sound like unheard-of species from "Lord of the Rings."

Some of these tools have reinvented professional baseball. Others cause real mathematicians to break out laughing.

Baseball lifers - figures often associated with the word "crusty" - believe some of them ignore the role chance and personality play in the game. Earlier this week an interviewer pointed out to Tigers' manager Jim Leyland that the American League has won six of the last eight World Series. What did Leyland think of that?

"Not one [bleeping] thing," said Leyland. "Nothing."

For those sports fans who are fully aware of this trend I'm sure there's a story about Iraq somewhere in this edition. For the rest here's a quick history of baseball's new statistical analysis, which is sometimes called sabermetrics after the Society for American Baseball Research.

Some 30 years ago an obsessive Kansas City Royals fan named Bill James started musing about what made a good baseball player good. He asked himself basic questions such as, "Which catcher allows the most stolen bases?" and began compiling data to answer them.

His insight was that baseball - like most human endeavors - was rife with accepted principles that really were unexamined guesses. Why should a team's best hitter bat in the clean-up fourth spot, really? Why should the best relief pitcher serve as a closer who only pitches in the ninth inning? Why was a hitter's batting average more important than their on-base percentage, which also accounted for walks?

Eventually Mr. James came up with other measurements, such as Runs Created (a player's total bases multiplied by the sum of his hits and walks, and then divided by plate appearances) and Win Shares (a statistic that combines offensive and defensive numbers in a manner too long for this parenthetical comment). …

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