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August 29, 2008 at 9:27 AM

The Indians and other disappointing “sabermetric teams”

11:12 a.m. NEWS: Mill Creek’s own Travis Snider just got called up by the Toronto Blue Jays. Not bad for a kid drafted in 2006…and now, back to this morning’s post…
No time like today, with the Mariners in Cleveland, to bring up a topic that’s generated heated debate around the blogosphere the past week. It began with this blog post by sabermetric writer David Pinto over at Baseball Musings. Pinto “mused” in print about 2008 being a “Bad Year for Sabermetric Teams”. He goes on to mention the Indians, Nationals, A’s, Blue Jays, Tigers, Padres and Royals as examples of how “sabermetric teams really disappointed in 2008.”
Pinto, a former lead researcher for ESPN’s Baseball Tonight and founder of Baseball Musings, also mentioned the Red Sox and Diamondbacks still being in contention, while not exactly guaranteed to make the playoffs. Said the biggest triumph for sabermetrics was the Tampa Bay Rays.
No doubt about it, the teams Pinto originally mentioned have disappointed so far. Forget about Cleveland’s 10 consecutive wins. Too little, too late. The Blue Jays did this just about every year I was in Toronto. They underachieved/stank until the season was meaningless, then padded their win totals when the pressure was off, the year was shot and it didn’t matter. Sometimes padded it up to 86 or 87 wins, which got everyone all excited over the winter and helped them forget the season truly ended by June. Come the following year, the fans were disappointed again at why that team could not escape third place. So, the Indians might be regressing (or progressing) to the mean, but honestly, they have been a huge disappointment. Not exactly what you would expect from an organization that — a year ago — was being hailed as an example of how to do things right in baseball. Hey, everyone has off years. But the Indians do need to generate excitement to repair all the damage that was done attendance-wise in the six or seven years they spent building to this point. Don’t forget, they lost a huge chunk of their fans during their rebuilding phase after 2001 and even coming within a game of going to the World Series last year did not win those fans back. The Indians can’t really afford off-years. They have to seize their window of opportunity.
Anyhow, the Pinto post generated some mild response. But the whole thing didn’t blow up into a full-fledged debate about the possible impotency of sabermetric teams until this post appeared a couple of days ago. It was the proverbial red flag in front of a bull. Particularly this graph:
“Statistical baseball analysis is such an attractive discipline because it’s so inclusive, and in some cases, so easy. The numbers don’t care if you’re a novice, tinkering in your study, because analytics is a science, and the numbers speak for themselves. A person doesn’t need years of experience on dusty sandlots with a radar gun and the “right eye,” or the ability to look a prospect and see the types of “baseball moves” that scream “big-leaguer.” All one needs is a calculator, an excel program, a few message boards, and a lifetime membership to baseball prospectus, and voila! Not only can one be smarter (and theoretically have more successful ideas) than the ignorant scouts who have the audacity to practice their craft the same way it’s been done for decades, one also has the license to high-mindedly scoff at the mere mention of the words “hustle” and “character.”
The tricky thing about someone thinking they know everything is that unless they’re, like, a God or something, they don’t, and when they finally realize how wrong they’ve been the intellectual crash is inevitable. It’ll be interesting to see if statistical baseball analysis doesn’t really work what this crash will look like.”

Ouch. Predictably, there was plenty of reaction.

Much of it can be found over here in Baseball Think Factory’s Newsblog discussion thread, where the poster asks: “Can’t we just let the whole scouts versus sabermetric thing go?” Apparently not. Though the author of those words appears to imply it was The Big Lead that reignited the debate and not sabermetrics analyst Pinto. This was actually a case of one sabermetrically-inclined writer questioning whether some of the teams championed by the movement had failed. Not a more traditional, scouts-inclined blogger picking on some “sabermetric teams” for failing. I thought I’d clear that up because this is what can happen too often on the Internet when facts get in the way of a good beef. Although, in fairness, Pinto never actually mentioned scouts and what more “traditionally-inclined” teams have done this year, so maybe Think Factory gets a pass on this one. If Pinto got the ball rolling, the second post truly did push it down the hill.
Here’s another good retort.
For the record, I agree with what was written on Think Factory. Scouting and sabermetrics do go hand-in-hand, like a hot dog and mustard…and relish, some hot peppers…getting hungry.
And it’s in this light that I have to say, I’m confused by the entire premise of Pinto’s original post. How exactly did all of those teams come to be classified as “sabermetric teams”?
And how do we classify them going forward? Should we even try?
Last I remembered, the Blue Jays had been banished from their sabermetric membership because GM J.P. Ricciardi made a handful of really dumb moves that ignored numbers-logic and ticked off Baseball Prospectus. That Ricciardi had previously made plenty of dumb moves, numbers or not, hadn’t seemed to matter to that point. We can all agree though, he’s made some dumb moves. But are the Blue Jays really a sabermetric team?
Are the Nationals a “sabermetric team” because manager Manny Acta likes sabermetrics? Let me put it to you another way: were the 2002 Oakland A’s a “traditional scouts team” because manager Art Howe leaned that way? In my book, (not to mention Michael Lewis’ book) the general manager makes most of the personnel decisions and puts his “stamp” on the team. Not so much the manager, though managers do have input and have to implement the plan. So, I won’t have last word on this. You tell me.
As for the Rays, they are partially sabermetric. But the big names carrying them this year, aside from Evan Longoria, Matt Garza, Dioner Navarro, Jason Bartlett and a couple of others, were acquired by the previous non-sabermetric regime. So, how does that work? I will grant that the Rays lean sabermetrically. Is that enough to declare it a victory for the movement if they win a World Series this year? Maybe it is.
I’ve never been sold on the Red Sox being a “sabermetric team”. But, at least, for me, that’s a little more believable and closer to reality than when I heard them called a “Moneyball Team” in 2004. Never mind that manager Terry Francona, who managed that World Champion, never bought into the whole Moneyball premise when he was a coach with the A’s under GM Billy Beane. But we just got done saying that managers don’t truly put the stamp on their team. It’s the GMs. Fair enough. But I could never reconcile how a team with a $128 million payroll was supposedly seeking “value” out of overlooked players. Some, yes. But there were some big ticket items on that Red Sox payroll. Plenty of teams around baseball can find “hidden value” if allowed to blow that kind of dough — and that payroll was in 2004 dollars.
But yes, there is some sabermetric thinking at-play in the Red Sox offices. As there is in most offices around baseball. Even the Mariners, known around the game as the poster-children for anti-sabermetric failures, employ some numbers crunchers as consultants. One, as we’ve written, is Mat Olkin. We’re still trying to figure out who the other guy is.
But does that make the M’s a “sabermetric team”? Because if partial sabermetrics use is enough to make the Red Sox and Rays into “sabermetric teams” — not to mention the Nationals and Tigers — where is the cutoff point? Is it enough simply to have sabermetric advisors on staff? If so, welcome the M’s to the list of sabermetric disappointments, please. If not, what’s the cutoff? Do you have to use numbers in 50 percent of personnel decisions? Do half the players on a roster have to be favored by sabermetric analysts?
This is where the whole debate gets tricky. And tiresome. It’s a beautiful debate for those who love to argue because it will never end. Do you think the Oakland A’s winning a World Series under Billy Beane will ever shut people up about him? Uh, did Beane failing to win any World Series shut up the people who worship him?
Of course not. This is the debate that has no conclusion. If you’re running MLB, you have to love it. Unlike steroids and bogus home run chases, the sabermetrics-scouts debate is perfectly legal, ethical, keeps fans talking about the sport for years on end, and won’t be undone by anything as simple as a BALCO investigation. There will be no winners and losers. Only middle ground that both sides will grudgingly learn to live with. Sort of like Yugoslavia before Josip Tito died. We all know what happened next. Thankfully, nobody’s going to die in a sabermetric-scouts debate. We hope. But as you can see, all it takes is one little spark to ignite the flames again.
Have fun with it. Try to answer some of those questions I asked. If you can, and you all agree, you’ll be further along than most have gotten over the past five years.



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