You need an Ivy League mathematics degree these days to understand baseball statistics. Major League Baseball general managers come from places like Cornell and Dartmouth and Billy Beane, whose sabermetrically-imaginative leadership of the Oakland Athletics is chronicled in “Moneyball” is regarded as a guru.
At the risk of being out of touch, I still enjoy analyzing baseball the good old-fashioned way – with my eyes.
I agree that there are new and innovative ways of breaking down statistical information. It’s great. I value the opinions of those who spend time crunching the numbers and coming up with stats like WAR, Adjusted OPS+, Base-Out Runs Saved and Fielding Independent Pitching.
It’s all fascinating. There are stories to be told inside the numbers. There’s nothing quite as enjoyable as listening to a sabermetrician break down numbers. I would much prefer that over the root canals I’ve had.
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But when I watch a baseball game — and I watch a bunch — I enjoy getting lost in the game. I like situations. I want to see if a player hustles or knows which base to throw to. What’s a pitcher going to throw on a 3-2 count with a couple of runners on base? The suspense and excitement of the game are enough to engage me.
As for explaining a team’s success, I’m a big chemistry guy. It’s been my way of thinking that the best teams, while certainly talented, have that hard-to-explain element not even brainy mathematicians can comprehend.
It’s something that works with a team of 25 players, a manager and a coaching staff that might not be working with another team with just as much talent.
Back to Beane and Oakland for a moment.
The A’s brokered the biggest deal at the July 31 trade deadline, acquiring left-handed pitcher Jon Lester from the Boston Red Sox in exchange for left fielder Yoenis Cespedes.
Lester was the final piece to the A’s World Series puzzle, according to the stats guys. And since he arrived in Oakland, Lester has been as advertised, going 3-1 with a 2.93 ERA.
But Oakland has tanked. After building a four-game lead over the Los Angeles Angels as recently as Aug. 9, the A’s have lost 8 of 10 to fall 1 1/2 games behind the Angels in the American League West.
In 19 August games, Oakland is batting .226 and has a 3.63 team ERA.
Is this sabermetrics gone awry? Or is it simply a case of the chemistry of the A’s being compromised?
Meanwhile, in Kansas City, the Royals have been the month’s hottest team after doing little at the trade deadline. Kansas City didn’t go get somebody to hit in the middle of its lineup, as many of the team’s fans were pleading with the Royals to do. They mostly stood pat.
Yet KC is 15-4 this month. The Royals are batting .281 with improved pop and the pitching staff’s ERA is 2.95.
Oakland went and got Lester, just a couple of weeks after acquiring starting pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel from the Chicago Cubs, and the A’s haven’t been nearly as good.
The Royals traded for Erik Kratz, a backup catcher, and used a waiver-wire transaction to bring barely-.200-hitting outfielder Josh Willingham over from Minnesota after the deadline. They’ve been tearing it up.
Which proves that no matter how many mathematical tools are devised to explain how and why things happen, numbers will never unlock all of the game’s mysteries.
Baseball is fraught with happenings that defy logic. Every player in the history of the game has gone through a slump – or an incredible hot streak – and is left speechless as to why.
Of course, some players are more talented than others and you don’t need a spreadsheet to pick them out. What you’ll see during the final five-plus weeks of the season are teams that get really hot (Royals) and teams that fade from the pennant chase (Reds). And the reality is that the roles could have been reversed except for some unexplainable force. Perhaps it’s karma.
The A’s are still 74-52 with the biggest run differential (plus-162) in baseball. ESPN.com has their chances of reaching the postseason at 98.2 percent. That’s ahead of the Angels (97.3 percent), who are in first place.
Chances are, Oakland will come out of this August swoon and start clicking again. But it’s not a certainty and nobody, not even those Ivy Leaguers, can tell you it is.
Baseball is an everyman sport, but those of us who like to trust our eyeballs over an analytical breakdown are feeling a little looked down upon. I believe what my dad always said: WAR is never a good thing.