Welcome to the New Age of Information

Baseball's conventional wisdom is taking a beating from a new stat-crazy culture that turns the numbers inside out
Baseball's conventional wisdom is taking a beating from a new stat-crazy culture that turns the numbers inside out
April 04, 2004

Myths are so ingrained in baseball that even the accepted origin
of the game is untrue. Consider Abner Doubleday your leadoff
hitter in a deep lineup chock-full of falsehoods and fables
dressed up as conventional wisdom. Doubleday's supposed invention
of the sport in the late 1830s was debunked at least as far back
as 1936, yet the myth endures because nostalgia is baseball's
oxygen and inertia its defining property. Change is to be

Thus batting average, a statistic introduced in 1880 to measure
the value of a hitter, is still embraced as the ultimate arbiter
of the "batting champion." The sacrifice bunt, a weapon of the
Dead Ball era a century ago, remains a paragon of smart,
fundamental play. And the Cubs and the Red Sox are fated never to
win the World Series because of the imprecations of a farm animal
and a long-deceased pot-bellied slugger, respectively.

Well, be careful not to choke on your Cracker Jack, because much
of baseball's beloved conventional wisdom is crumbling. All it
took was a technology-fired information age that, among other
things, has put personal computers in 60% of U.S. homes. With a
few clicks of your mouse you can discover that the rain in Spain
does not stay mainly on the plain. (The inland highlands get 50
centimeters annually, the coastal plains much less.) Even Old Man
Baseball, gray, handsomely wrinkled, clothed in flannel and set
in his ways, cannot escape being redefined by the information
age--like it or not, and there are plenty of traditionalists on
the side of not.

"Emotions are often the true cause of these myths," says Ron
Antinoja, a computer scientist schooled in artificial
intelligence who four years ago started Tendu, a state-of-the-art
baseball information service that supplies data by subscription
to a handful of major league clubs. "When something happens to
human beings in stressful situations, it causes a stronger memory
and a bias about those facts."

After lefthander Tom Glavine signed as a free agent with the Mets
in December 2002, he told New York's pitching coach at the time,
Vern Ruhle, that he almost always gets ground-ball outs with his
changeup. It sounded good--Glavine's changeup, his signature
pitch, runs down and away to righthanded hitters--but it just
wasn't true. Not even close. Ten years ago no one would have
argued with Glavine. Ruhle did. He checked with Tendu, which spat
out the cold reality, based on an analysis of 83% of Glavine's
pitches in 2002: Of the total plate appearances ending on
changeups only 25% resulted in ground outs.

"In God we trust," says new Mets pitching coach Rick Peterson, a
Tendu disciple with the Athletics last year. "All others must
show data."

Statistical information, along with the dissecting of that
information, often referred to as sabermetrics, is becoming the
coin of the realm, as embraced by the A's and highlighted in last
year's best-selling book Moneyball. In some cases it is replacing
the subjective analysis of scouts; the number-crunching Blue
Jays, for instance, have cut 85 of the 123 staffers in their
scouting department since general manager J.P. Ricciardi arrived
two seasons ago--but more often statistical information is
supplementing the subjective analysis.

[pullquote][quote]"It's going to take time," Antinoja says of baseball's statistical overhaul. "Don't think of it as a
revolution. It's an evolution."[/quote][/pullquote]

A scout might advise his team to pitch carefully to Alex
Rodriguez and keep the ball away from him. Tendu, however, can
define precisely how sharp his batting eye is: Of the 139
first-pitch fastballs thrown off the outside corner of the plate
to Rodriguez last year (based on 83% of his total at bats), he
swung at only 15 of them. Good luck getting A-Rod to chase early
in the count. And anybody with an Internet connection can tell
you that Rodriguez was a much better hitter after the first pitch
was a ball (.325) than when it was a strike (.257).

Tendu is far from the first or only such service. The Elias
Sports Bureau, STATS Inc. and Inside Edge, for instance, have
been offering their own informational mining operations for
years. Tendu, however, drills deeper, revealing such buried
treasures as pitch sequences (what a pitcher tends to throw, for
example, after he starts a hitter with two straight fastballs)
and specific hitter weaknesses (e.g., low-and-away sliders on
2-and-2 counts).

Marlins manager Jack McKeon, the 73-year-old Yoda of the dugout,
might have little use for that kind of data after years of
trusting his gut (page 67). For that matter, Cubs manager Dusty
Baker and Twins manager Ron Gardenhire treat such quantitative
analysis as a five-year-old does a plate of lima beans. But these
are men raised on the game's myths and legends. Antinoja has
found that the younger generation, which considers computers as
familiar as toasters, more readily accepts data. New Red Sox
manager Terry Francona, for one.

"It's going to take time," Antinoja says. "Don't think of it as a
revolution. It's an evolution."

An entire brat pack of private-school-educated, khaki-wearing,
fuzzy-cheeked intellectuals who never came close to playing a
major league game are infiltrating front offices (page 64). They
know the inferiority of batting average as the measure of a
hitter (Jason Giambi, for instance, was prolific last year--among
the majors' top 10 in on-base percentage--despite a .250
average); why traditional stats, such as RBIs, can be as
deceiving as a fun-house mirror (Tony Batista, despite 99 RBIs
last year, reached base on only 27% of his plate appearances);
and how to calculate something called Raw Equivalent Average: (H
+ TB + 1.5 x (BB + HBP) + SB + SH + SF) divided by (AB + BB + HBP
+ SH + SF + CS + SB/3).

Harvard grad Paul DePodesta, 31, who is the Dodgers' new general
manager, last year gave a pointed speech to business executives,
in which he spelled out a system for evaluating players based
heavily on statistical information. The speech opened
appropriately with a reference to Thomas Paine's Common Sense.
DePodesta mocked the old myth-laden system, which he called
Subjective 1.0. He said the baseball industry "is run by these
old-time guys with leathery skin who chew tobacco," including
scouts who "prized that tradition [of] no accountability at all
in player evaluation."

"I was still waiting for the time I would be sitting in an
organizational meeting," DePodesta said, referring to his tenure
as an assistant G.M. in Oakland, "and I would ask a scout, 'Well,
Bob, what do you think of this player?' and he would answer,
'Well, Paul, he had a good beat, I could dance to it, and I'd
give it a nine!'"

Scouts, of course, recommended Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry
Zito--the star pitchers at the core of the A's success--well
before the franchise, as DePodesta says, "went after our scouting
system" in a 2002 overhaul. Boston G.M. Theo Epstein, 30,
considered one of the high priests of the new religion in
baseball, still relies on 69-year-old Bill Lajoie for advice and
admits that both disciplines are valuable. "Looking through two
lenses to improve the focus" is how Epstein describes the use of
subjective and quantitative analysis.

DePodesta's manifesto, however, carries the same
emperor-has-no-clothes spirit of Paine's landmark pamphlet. Paine
was 38 when in January 1776 he wrote that the colonies had no
choice but full independence from the monarchy. "Time," Paine
wrote, "makes more converts than reason." There was, he knew, no
going back.