A mild obsession of mine has been the degree to which sports commentators show themselves to be aware of sabermetric analysis. I have mentioned before that Mike Francesa has clearly learned something from that analysis, while his partner, Mad Dog Russo, has been more resistant to it. But, that appears to be changing. Mike and the Mad Dog have adopted the Pirates as one of their teams for 2007, so they had manager Jim Tracy on the show Friday, and Mad Dog showed me something a couple of times. First, in discussing the Pirates' poor record in one-run games during the first half of last season, Russo asserted that records in one-run games tend to even out: if a team does poorly in that category in one season, they tend to do better the next. It may seem like a trivial point, but that notion, first advanced by Bill James 25 years ago, goes to the heart of Sabermetrics: the degree to which baseball outcomes are driven by chance and are, therefore, better understood in terms of statistical probabilities than presumably innate qualities like "heart" "will" "desire" and "clutch." This is especially noteworthy coming from Russo because so much of his belief system about sports performance is embodied in those character-driven assessments.
I was, therefore, frankly shocked to hear him say that.
But, that's not all folks. A few minutes later, Russo raised the question of whether the Pirates' speedy center fielder, Chris Duffy, could hit enough in the leadoff position. Russo granted that Duffy would get his share of infield hits, but added that "I know he can run, but can he hit, can he have an on-base percentage of .350?"
Shocker number two. Not only did Russo utter the phrase "on base percentage" - which I am not sure I have ever heard him do before, but more impressively he nailed the line at which it would be acceptable to leave Duffy in the lead-off spot. I don't know who's been talking to Russo or what's he's been reading, but this was a stunning display. Tracy, answered Russo's question by saying that OBP is what they would be looking for in Duffy, a sign of how much conventional understanding of the game really has changed in the past 10-15 years.
As an aside, Duffy's chances of achieving that level are not great. He turns 27 in April, so he's already about at his peak, and in 440 career majorleague at bats, he's got a .336 OBP, which appears to have been driven primarily by a fluky .340 batting average in limited action in 2005. Last year, in over 300 at bats, Duffy's OBP was .317. He has no power at all, a poor walk rate and, in a sign that only so much has changed, appears to be in the leadoff spot because he can run, whereas the most important task for a leadoff hitter in any inning is getting himself to first base. His minor league suggests he can do better than .317, but not necessarily better than .340, which makes him marginal for the leadoff spot.
But, kudos to old an dog for learning a new trick. This is the same guy who, I recently pointed out, once believed Rico Brogna to be a better player than John Olerud, which is sort of like believing that ten pounds is heavier than twenty pounds. He's apparently come a long way, baby.