I complain alot about sports media, of course. But, with Spring Training under way, there's no denying that there are more good outlets for really good baseball analysis than there have ever been, and there's also no doubt that the sabermetric revolution has had a generally positive impact on the way the game is analyzed. In part, this is a result of the simple fact that more mainstream baseball talking heads than ever now refer to statistics that tell us more about a player's real contribution to his team than has ever been the case. There are older stalwarts in the business, like Peter Gammons, who peppers his columns with references to OBP and slugging, and there are the younger turks, like Tom Verducci of SI, who appear well-steeped in the newer approach. And, significantly, the most widely consumed sports media now employ as commentators sabermetric practitioners. SI features Joe Sheehan of Baseball Prospectus, ESPN.com has had Rob Neyer - a Bill James disciple - for years and, more recently, Keith Law, a Baseball Prospectus alum, and the list goes on. The beat writers around the country also can no longer afford to ignore completely the new wave of baseball data, though some try.
This is good because, as Alan Schwarz says, baseball is a numbers game, and understanding the game means, in part, putting the numbers in their proper context. It's the single greatest contribution of sabermetrics to have insisted on, and practiced, that point.
This is all a preface for pasting in here the ten major conclusions Bill James outlined in the last Baseball Prospectus he wrote, in 1988 (for a cliff's notes version of all of James' abstracts from 1977-1988, go here). The state of research and analysis, including through the use of highly sophisticated computer programming, has advanced immeasurably since 1988 and, contrary to some folks, sabmetrics is not a cult with a single dogma and no dissenting views and many of the smartest analysts have challenged many of James' conclusions. But, for those of you who follow baseball closely, as the season advances and you consume baseball media, it will be worth keeping these ten conclusions in mind when you consider the question: does this talking head know what they're talking about? I will plan to do the same, of course. Without further ado:
Of all the studies I have done over the last twelve years, what have I learned? What is the relevance of sabermetric knowledge to the decision-making process of a team? If I were employed by a major-league team, what are the basic things that I know from the research I have done which would be of use to me in helping that team?
1. Minor-league batting statistics will predict major league batting performance with essentially the same reliability as previous major-league statistics.
2. Talent in baseball is not normally distributed. It is a pyramid. For every player who is 10 percent above than the average player, there are probably 20 players who are 10 pecent below average.
3. What a player hits in one ballpark may be radically different from what he would hit in another.
4. Ballplayers, as a group, reach their peak value much earlier and decline much more rapidly than people believe.
5. Players taken in the June draft coming out of college (or with at least two years of college) perform dramatically better than players drafted out of high school.
6. The chance of getting a good player with a high draft pick is substantial enough that is clearly a disastrous strategy to give up a first-round draft pick to sign a player like Rick Dempsey, Pete Falcone, or Bill Stein.
7. A power pitcher has a dramatically higher expectation for future wins than does a finesse pitcher of the same age and ability.
8. Single-season won-lost records have almost no value as an indicator of a pitcher's contribution to a team.
9. The largest variable determining how many runs a team will score is how many times they get their leadoff man on.
10. Any one of the following:
A great deal of what is perceived as being pitching is in fact defense. True shortages of talent almost never occur at the left end of the defensive spectrum. Rightward shifts along the defensive spectrum almost never work. Our idea of what makes a team good on artificial turf is not supported by any research. When a team improves sharply one season, they will almost always decline in the next. The platoon differential is real and virtually universal.
(For clarification, here's a handy explanation of the defensive spectrum).