On Friday the sun came out for the first time all month and my 2017 Baseball Prospectus arrived. Coincidence? I think not. Spring is here!
I’ve been a stark raving baseball fan since age eight. By the time I started high school in South Jersey I realized there was more to the game than the announcers and sportswriters imagined. I was joined in this conviction by my best friend, whom I’ll call Lou because he was a Cardinal fan and every bit as fast as their Hall of Fame outfielder, Lou Brock. Lou and I were both left-handed. We both loved baseball. We both hated the local team, the Phillies. We both suspected game results were affected by the park the team played in. And we both suspected fielding average was an inadequate measure of defensive skill.
Exhibit A for the latter suspicion was Phillie shortstop Larry Bowa. Phillie fans annointed Bowa the best defensive shortstop ever, but Lou and I saw him as nothing more than a sure glove — as long as the ball was hit right to him. So routinely did Bowa give up on grounders that Lou and I would say “Even we would have the best fielding average in the majors if we didn’t try for balls two steps away — and we’re left-handed!” I was especially adamant about Bowa’s inferiority because he was compared to New York’s Bud Harrelson — and at the time I was a Met fan.
In the Eighties Lou and I were vindicated. A friend gave me Bill James’s 1982 Baseball Abstract as a gift. It was a revelation. Applying clever statistical analysis dubbed sabermetrics, James forever discredited baseball’s keepers of conventional wisdom, changing how the game is understood as sweepingly as Darwin did biology. Few essays have given me a bigger tingle on first read than his “In Defense of Range Factors,” an argument for incorporating plays-per-game into the evaluation of fielders. It singled out Bowa as an egregious example of a fielder whose percentage of balls handled without an error, the traditional measure of quality, told only part of the story. Going by plays per game, it became clear to James that Bowa “covers about as much area as a string bikini.” I would have sent that essay to every Phillie fan I knew if it didn’t entail the risk of hearing back from them.
(James also verified our suspicion that ballpark characteristics such as playing surface [natural or artificial], fence distance, and foul area have a profound effect on the game.)
Sabermetrics met with ridicule until the twenty-first century, when a couple of major league teams finally gave it a try. Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane’s embrace of sabermetrics allowed his under-financed club to compete with the filthy-rich Yankees and vaulted him to fame as the subject of Michael Lewis’s Moneyball. James himself took a front office job with the Boston Red Sox and helped them smash the Curse of the Bambino with World Series wins in 2004 and 2007.
There was no turning back at that point. The Baseball Prospectus I received Friday boasts that 45 of its alumni are working for major league teams.
Larry Bowa? He became a managerial rooster of minor repute and hasn’t helmed a team since 2004, when his belittling of sabermetricians as nerds who never played the game turned too plainly anachronistic.
By contrast, Lou became a fantasy league wizard whose team wins or contends every year.
As for me, I’m celebrating spring by putting aside my other reading to pore through the Prospectus. The writing can be precious — the literary equivalent of one eephus pitch after another — but there’s no hype or boosterism, a relief from Major League Baseball’s over-commercialized ethos. And it’s still proving out my suspicions. Ah, Prospectus, tell me again how even with an ailing back Buster Posey was the fourth-best player in the universe last year . . .