Sunday, February 12, 2012

Inventing The Cooperstown Metrics Committee.

This is going to surprise you (no it isn't), but Bill James wrote an impassioned, intelligent article about baseball on Friday. I'll wait for you to pick your jaw back up off the floor. Anyway, James was making a statistical case for Dwight Evans' induction into the Hall of Fame based around win shares. As usual, I'm pretty sure he's right. And as usual, James got me thinking.

It took almost three decades after James (and some lesser-known but no less important like-minded people) started self-publishing their now-famous ideas before advanced statistical analysis gained any real traction in baseball. Sabermetrics (if we can still call it that) was first an outsiders' niche, then the province of a few forward-thinking franchises, and finally it wove its way into the broader fabric of the game. But not completely.

The metrics movement in baseball has reached a bit of a crossroads moment. Most people who care deeply about the game understand that VORP and OPS are superior measures of a player's efficacy and impact compared with more traditional stats. We evaluate and assess using far more of those tools than even five years ago. I can check the WHIP of every MLB pitcher on But Bill James still has to write pieces like this, because saber stats have stalled when it comes to fording two crucial rubicons: Hall-of-Fame consideration, and casual fans. Though their numbers are dwindling, there are still plenty of respected baseball thinkers who prefer the eye-test, gut-feeling method of player evaluation, and some of them think advanced stats are pure hooey. Many of those same people also vote on who gets enshrined in Cooperstown every year, and mostly they don't want to hear about a .268 career hitter with decent but unremarkable power who drew a ton of walks and played good defense as an HOF candidate. Baseball collectively applauded itself when Felix Hernandez was awarded the Cy Young, but when it comes to admission within the supposedly sacred walls in upstate New York, that's apparently different.

I think it's safe to say that within the next 50 or so years, this will cease to be the case, and advanced metrics will get their due in the HOF consideration process. As a fresh generation of BBWAA members emerge who are much more acclimated to and comfortable with things like FIP and Win Shares, Cooperstown's arbiters will automatically factor metrics into their equation. However, given the temporal limits on eligibility, a lot of good ballplayers are going to get the shaft in the meantime. Which is why I'd like to suggest a Metrics Committee.

If the Veteran's Committee (it's not really called that officially anymore but never mind) can amend the errors of snubbed players and other people ineligible for election by the BBWAA mostly based on hazy "I played with/against that guy and he deserves to be in the HOF" nostalgia, why can't we create a group whose purpose is to find the statistically productive and relevant but underrated players of the past and make sure they get their due? It will be like Jim Caple's "CSI Box Score" gimmick, only, you know, with a purpose and on a grand scale. It's not like this stuff is difficult to calculate. I just checked to see how far back they've already gone with the application of modern metrics to historical players, and I can go get Ted Williams' WAR and BABIP from his rookie year in 1939 on FANGRAPHS. The raw data is all right there, we just need a committee of stat-savvy baseball heads to figure out what constituted an HOF-caliber statistical performance in each era of the game and then nominate and elect those who meet the criteria. If we're going to be snobby to the point of building a separate Cooperstown wing or outright exclusion for the steroid-era players, why can't we make positive acknowledgement of those who performed well but went unnoticed because we just weren't there yet from an analysis standpoint? Heck, I'll volunteer to go crunch all the numbers. Let's make this happen.

I mentioned earlier that the other area in which advanced metrics are not being readily assimilated into baseball's culture is in the realm from whence the bulk of MLB's income derives: the casual/old-school fan. This is partially because things like batting average and homers are easier to understand than the formula that tracks, say, UZR, and partially because those basic stats have been around forever and fit into the average baseball mind like a ball into an old, broken-in mitt. People just aren't comfortable with something that dares them to alter their perceptions about a game they've been watching and enjoying their entire lives. It's strange and new and ... math-y. But there is a relatively easy way to grease the wheels on bringing metrics to fans, if only the TV and radio networks will play along.

Think about it: broadcasts of baseball games contain some of the most useless information on planet earth. "Gonzalez is batting .308 lifetime against right-handed relievers with runners in scoring position after the All-Star Break on nights when there's a full moon ...", that sort of thing. It's maddening that the producers and announcers think a) we care and b) such arcane statistical blips would have any relevant bearing on the outcome of a given at-bat because, well, we don't and they don't. That stuff slides right off the consciousness of the average viewer/listener, who just wants to know whether or not that last pitch on the outside corner was really a strike. But they keep beating us over the head with this rubbish instead of telling us things that would be genuinely informative. Instead of these hyper-specific and totally irrelevant tidbits, how about you tell me what a guy's OPS is? Or mention that his abnormally low BABIP suggests that he'll hopefully be out of his hitting slump sometime soon. I know it seems like this might confuse people and turn them off, but bear with me. For the first, I don't know, 3-5 years you incorporate advanced stats into a broadcast, give the league average along with the player in question. This way you give the fans a sense of context, and through repetition, they will eventually know that an OPS over .900 is good as intuitively as they know that batting .325 is good. Sure, it'll be a process, but it will ultimately lead to better-informed fans and a deeper enjoyment of the game, and anything would be an improvement over So-and-so's strikeout rate in the 2nd inning against
batters under 6'1" over the past 7 starts.

It is the nature of baseball's peculiar ethos that change, like Red Sox-Yankees games, is excruciatingly slow. Embrace of the new and different by the game's cognoscenti and fans occurs at a speed more akin to continental drift than to the fiercely propulsive world of 21st-century human entertainment. Attacks upon the status quo are met with set jaws, and different viewpoints with pitchforks and torches. Every square nostalgic foot of tradition's battleground is defended to the last. Only if an innovation becomes blatantly obvious or necessary will it be grudgingly embraced. And even then, not always. The curmudgeons in the press box, the dugout, the commissioner's office, and the stands continue to mistake the sport for a Van Gogh painting that needs to remain untouched behind velvet ropes when it's actually a mobile, and ought to be allowed to twist and shift with the wind. That's their business, of course, but eventually advanced metrics are going to become a universal part of the game. Is it so much to ask that we speed that process up a little? It sure would be nice for Dwight Evans, and a whole lot of other deserving folks, if they could maybe get into Cooperstown while they're still alive.

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