Sabermetrics: Bill James and Tom Tango…Get in the Box! You’re Up!

I am putting the finishing touches on my thoughts on Sabermetrics.  You can throw your calculators away because we won’t need them.  Well, we might need them at the end to tally up the score.

I’m going to go warmed up and drink a gallon of coffee for this one….I have a feeling that you aren’t going to like this.

Morgan Ensberg

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61 Comments on “Sabermetrics: Bill James and Tom Tango…Get in the Box! You’re Up!”

  1. Steve Stein says:

    I’m the original stat-drunk computer nerd so I doubt I’ll like whats coming. But before you tee up Sabermetrics, answer this one: did you LIKE batting second?

  2. lisa gray says:

    I don’t know how into the number crunching you are, but it will be interesting to hear what you have to say. A guy with a degree in finance should at least be able to evaluate the fangraph salary evals, for example.

    how do I put this

    If any evaluations using numbers are invalid or ineffective or pointless, it would be most helpful for you to explain why rather than resorting to the usual “back in my day” stuff or the “scouts’ eyes tell us all we need to know” or “you can’t measure Intangibles” – none of which do a thing to explain why any sort of sabermetric evaluations are useless or even counter-productive.

    • Lisa have you thought about why I wouldn’t need a calculator? I have to use something to gauge effectiveness. What are other things that you think can help me gauge baseball?

      Morgan

      • lisa gray says:

        smile

        i am not a lawyer and i didn’t even sleep in a holiday inn last night, but IF you don’t want to use numbers to evaluate a baseball player, then you have to define the word “EFFECTIVENESS” before i can even try to answer your question.

        as for me, i have a very open mind and hope you can give us some understanding and not just use the usual barfogenic bull durham phrases about what shade of makeup some guy wears.

        and don’t mind MGL – he’s just gotten too tired of people “refuting” his work by claiming that he walks around dirty, in his underwear in his mama basement.

        every single stat geek i know, and i know a LOT of em, can’t wait to hear what you have to say – and not like they’re cats jumping on drunk mice neither…

  3. rob reed says:

    This is gonna be interesting. :) Great blog, Morgan… thanks for your insights.

  4. Rally says:

    I’m a somewhat well known statnerd, as the owner of baseballprojection.com. I’m looking forward to what you have to say Morgan, and expect it to be enlightening as everything else on your blog so far. I really need to add a link here on my site, once I get home from travelling around the cactus league.
    How useful is sabermetrics to those who actually play the game and make the decisions? I’ve got an open mind to that question.

    • Rally! Most players don’t know what SABR is all about. There weren’t and SABR stats in any clubhouse I was in.

      Morgan

      • Brian Cartwright says:

        I have enjoyed reading your blog. Your thoughts are new to us and so far you look to be well ahead of Joe Morgan or Tim McCarver. I’m waiting to see what you have to say on this subject and won’t pass any judgment until then.

        However, a clarification on what you posted above. SABR (if you use only those four letters and capitalize them) is an organization, the Society for American Baseball Research, of which I have been a member. Although Bill James, 30 some years ago, coined the term ‘sabermetrics’ in their honor, they actually have very little to do with analytical statistics. SABR deals mostly with baseball history, the players, parks and ‘raw’ stats.

        There are people in front offices who engage in our brand of quantitative analysis, and I’ve been involved with a handful of them that past couples years. Whether a fan or management, we are looking for much of the same understanding of what the stats mean. Who is the better player, the better fielder, etc. You have mentioned Garner’s use of spray charts for fielding positioning. This is the kind of thing I like to look at. Should you only use Eckstein’s balls in play at Minute Maid, or at all parks? Is it more important to break down the data by LHP vs RHP, or by pitch type, as these may have more of an impact on where a player hits the ball. When is a sample large enough to be meaningful and thus useful? etc

  5. Gary says:

    This might be a bumpy ride.

    • Get your helmet on Gary. This might be rocky.

      Morgan

      • mb21 says:

        I’m not sure what to make of that kind of comment, Morgan. You run a really good blog and it’s especially nice to see a player be as honest with the public as you are. It’s refreshing, but I’m really hoping you don’t take an opportunity to flame those who have indeed made the game more effective. Also, these are guys who spend thousands of hours researching the game they (and you) love. They spend more time thinking about and researching baseball than most fans spend just watching it. Their passion for this game is different than your passion, but it is just as deep.

        I’m very interested in how sabermetrics is or is not used by the players. I expect that it isn’t used, because the truth is that there are few things it could really help with in making someone a better ballplayer. However, these metrics are used by front offices because they provide valuable insight that the traditional stats do not and it would be shortsighted and petty of you to attack them on the basis of how the players use them or see them.

        Everything else you have written here has been done in a fair manner so I’m hopeful this post about sabermetrics will be the same.

  6. MGL says:

    I am Tom Tango’s colleague on “The Book Blog” and co-author of “The Book, Playing the Percentages in Baseball.”

    When you are done writing your treatise on sabermetrics, I am going to write one on hitting and playing third base in the major leagues, even though I have never done either, and know very little about it. Then we can be on the same level!

    MGL

    • Jon says:

      MGL,

      Shouldn’t you at least let Morgan put his thoughts down on paper before critiquing them? I don’t mean to sound snarky, but it would usually be helpful to suspend judgment until you have actually read what he has to say.

    • Gary says:

      MGL is a total bomb-thrower. He’s has to be by the far the most polarizing and condescending of all the stat geeks, and that’s saying something. Quite frankly, he does much more harm than good when it comes to spreading the word about sabermetrics. Just my 2 cents.

      • Jon says:

        That’s too bad, especially since the majority of the statistically-inclined crowd (I would include myself there) are pretty mellow and genuinely enjoy discussing baseball. Sort of paints the rest of us with the wrong color.

      • triplesalley says:

        Using the phrase “stat geek” is pretty condescending, Gary.

      • TCQ says:

        He also invented this one thing…crap, can’t quite remember. UZR? Is that what I’m thinking of?

        The tone may not always be ideal, but it’s pretty hard to refute the things MGL’s done for sabermetrics…

  7. The sabermetric community begs you to take Mr. Tango’s advice and judge us by our work and not by other’s opinions of us. In Tom’s words:

    “…if he quotes me, and if he’s right, then I’ll be happy to concede the point.”

    http://www.insidethebook.com/ee/index.php/site/article/bizarro_world_morgan_ensberg_about_to_have_a_blog_post_that_includes_me/

  8. beckeesh says:

    On the edge of my seat!

    I’m loving your take, Morgan!

    I’m linking to you from my blog, too.

    beckeesh from disastros.com

  9. E Ticket says:

    Just want to take this opportunity to say that this is some of the best writing by a MLB player, ever. No sensationalism, no gossip, no hyperbole. Insight with context with the intent of enlightening, rather than self-promotion. Something rarely found in professionaljournalism and the mainstrream and/or typical snarky blog, let alone from somebody who has been there, done that.

    Just an incredible effort and so rare. Great job!

    • I am glad you like it. Quick story. I spoke with GM’s, Presidents of teams, and huge broadcasting companies. We sat in there and I said, “I think we should teach fans the game. They want to learn. If we could show them what we do and how we prepare, it would blow them away”. I was trying so hard, but I just couldn’t convey what I was thinking clearly enough. This blog has allowed me to show the readers what I am speaking about. I love that you want to learn! Wait until the season starts! We are going to learn a ton together.

      Morgan

  10. TheHawk says:

    Hey Morgan,

    Thank you for sharing your baseball knowledge via this terrific new blog.

    Please feel free to ignore the stat guys who seem to be displaying a defensive, minor hostility before you’ve even written on the subject.

    I look forward to what you have to say on sabrmetrics, whatever it is. As I understand it, the goal of sabrmetrics is to best understand what makes for a successful baseball team. It also seeks to understand the relationship between performance and economic value.

    Now, because you’ve played baseball at the highest level and have played for a contract, I believe you’re very much in a position to gauge what has value in sabrmetrics and what might not. You have every right to share an opinion on what makes for a successful baseball team, regardless of MB21’s and MGL’s feelings.

    More than anything, I won’t be judging anything you’ve written until you’ve actually written it.

    • I like your style Hawk. Have you seen Top Gun?

      Morgan

    • vivaelpujols says:

      The goal of sabermetrics, as defined by Bill James, is the search for objective knowledge in baseball.

      Many sabermetric studies do not have an agenda, but are simply searches for quantifying relationships in baseball. A very small subset of sabermetrics is understanding the relationship between performance and economic value.

      I personally, don’t see what Mr. Ensberg would be qualified to judge the merits of sabermetrics, which is an applied science, no more than a cancer survivor would be qualified to judge the merits of oncology.

      • Gary says:

        I personally, don’t see what Mr. Ensberg would be qualified to judge the merits of sabermetrics, which is an applied science, no more than a cancer survivor would be qualified to judge the merits of oncology.

        ************************************************

        Uh, sabermetrics isn’t curing cancer. Indeed, none of the sabermetricians went to Sabermetrics school. None have an advanced degree in it.

        Look, I love a lot of the sabermetric analysis, but when you write things like that, you make the whole of it look like a silly joke. If you guys want to be taken more seriously by skeptics, you really need to dial down the attitude. I’m on your side, but with friends like you all….

      • vivaelpujols says:

        I personally don’t care about being taken seriously by skeptics Gary. Sabermetrics is a niche, and I don’t expect the majority of the population to care/believe it. Nor do I have any idea who you are, so your indignation (and you clear bias against saberists evidenced in your reply to MGL) means very little to me.

        I will say that, yes, sabermetrics is an applied science. How you interpret that is your own prerogative, and clearly nobody thinks it has anything to do with “curing cancer”. Books have been written about it, there are sabermetric classes offered at several colleges, and there is a standard and informal peer review that go into being taken seriously as a saberist. Those who are taken seriously as saberists have established themselves in an online community, and are recognized by the masses to be a competent analyst.

        Mr. Ensberg has not demonstrated himself to be qualified in any way to judge the merits of sabermetrics, or I should say, certain facets of sabermetrics. The skills required to play baseball at the major league level have nothing to do with the skills required to analysize baseball stats, query huge databases, make statistical inferences, and make testable hypothesis.

        Of course, I have no idea what Mr. Ensberg will write. And if he does make legitamite arguments against certain facets of sabermetrics, especially ones at the more granular level and can back them up, than I will listen and learn. If he offers the standard main stream BS against sabermetrics, without properly understanding what he is talking about…

      • Gary says:

        Look, I bought THE BOOK. I daily read the Hardball Times, FanGraphs, Baseball Think Factory, etc. I know about VORP, WAR, FIP WPA, etc. I buy into it, but for the love of all things decent – sabermetricians get over yourselves. You bring a lot of truth to the table, but you don’t have a monopoly on it, so stop acting like you do. And stop trying to act as though you can only be criticized by a fellow member of your club. You’re making me hate your product. I read it because I appreciate the insights, but I’m finding it more and more difficult to slog through the snark and condescension that accompanies the analysis.

      • vivaelpujols says:

        Gary, I really don’t care what you think about sabermetrics and analysts. I think my argument is perfectly reasonable assuming that being a saberist requires subject matter expertise. If you don’t except that there is not much I can do to change my mind.

        Again, we’ll see what Mr. Ensberg posts. If it’s “UZR is bad stat because I saw Texeira play last year and he looked good” than I will be disappointed. If he offer’s something insightful and recognizes that he is ignorant about certain aspects of sabermetrics, than I will praise him.

      • That is a really interesting point but it doesn’t sound like a very positive comment to me. It sounds defensive.

        Morgan

      • Gary says:

        “I think my argument is perfectly reasonable assuming that being a saberist requires subject matter expertise.”

        *********************************************************

        Expertise as measured by whom? Is there something like a bar exam for sabermetricians? Does Joe Posnanski have the requisite expertise? How about Brian Bannister? Or is it limited to the club that writes for BPro, Hardball Times, FanGraphs, etc?

      • vivaelpujols says:

        It’s limited to those who understand what they are talking about!

        I’ll give you an example. Many mainstream media types criticize UZR as a bad stat because it has Texeira as below average defender last year. However, I’ll bet you whatever the standard internet fair is that those people don’t actually understand how UZR is calculated, exactly what it tries to do, where’s it’s limitations are, etc. They are simply taking one data point (Texeira’s UZR) and using that to invalidate the stat, and that is an incorrect criticism.

        Mr. Ensberg’s post was not like this at all, and I really appreciate that.

        If you, Gary, understand roughly how UZR is calculated and are familiar with the current research on it, then you have the right to criticize it and have your concerns be taken seriously. This works with stuff like DIPS estimators,

        • My limited understanding of UZR (I am reading Tango’s book right now) doesn’t allow me to really comment. But I will say that having a stat is better usually then just saying a guy is good because he doesn’t make errors.

          Morgan

  11. E Ticket says:

    I’ve found that there is little reason to fear different points of view, presented in a logical manner. Too many old school folks hang on stingily to the old ways of evaluation by observation only couple with few triple crown line stats and w-l era, fielding percentage and so on.

    Many in the metrics camp seem to be similarly defensive about their evaluation by calculation and completely dismissive of the insights and opinions of the professionals who do this incredibly difficult thing called major league baseball. I personally see great value in both,

    Progress and change in evaluation enable real value to be more readily quantified objectively, rather than solely based on subjective observation. When the two contribute proportionately to the discussinion the result is more certainty, and with more certainity, comes mutual agreement and hence advancement of the sport.

  12. Becky B. says:

    Hey Morgan! You’re getting A LOT of good press here in Houston!
    Thought you would like to know! Keep it up, we are HUNGRY for
    baseball knowlege from you!! You never can tell….you just might
    end up basck here after all! Becky:) ) :) :)

  13. Browngoat says:

    can’t wait to read your take, Morgan. Love the blog!

  14. Mike says:

    Hey Morgan,

    Thanks for the compliment. Yes, I’ve seen Top Gun, and unfortunately, Kelly McGillis ain’t quite what she used to be. I’m also obviously a big Andre Dawson fan. The Hawk has made it to the hall.

    Vivaelpujols,

    You define sabrmetrics as “knowledge” and also an “applied science”. Well, I would think that the knowledge you get from sabrmetrics could be applied towards winning baseball games. Otherwise, what’s the point?

    Once gain, I think Mr. Ensberg is in a position to express some understanding of how baseball games are won and lost, both in general and intricate, statistical terms. Furthermore, I don’t think anyone here is in a position to judge his “qualifications” for sabrmetrics until they know a single position of his on anything.

    • vivaelpujols says:

      Hey Mike. What I meant by “criticizing sabermetrics” was criticizing the validity of a certain stat or principle. And this takes knowledge of the intricacies of the stats and the justifications behind the principles. Having played baseball at the highest level doesn’t give you the expertise to be able to criticize how UZR or DIPS is calculated, because they are just completely unrelated.

      Mr. Ensberg’s post was not at all like I expected, and broached no degree of of arrogance. Instead it was informed, interesting and (almost) completely correct. And I loved it.

  15. dcs says:

    I’m curious as to Morgan’s response to the quick sabermetric evaluation of him as an MLB player. That is, a player with very good plate discipline and some good power in the prime years, an overall average fielding 3bman who was above avg in the earlier years and below avg in the last couple seasons. Was the rapid decline due to chronic injuries, which were not able to be overcome? Was part of the reason you are out of baseball that they simply don’t much appreciate your ability to work the pitcher for walks? Sabermetrics probably evaluates you as a better player than the MLB insiders do.

  16. richard koehler says:

    ok Morgan,

    How would you suggest that an owner (millions on the line), fans (hundreds or thousands on the line over a season), and, possibly most important, fantasy players with 2 bucks and office bragging rights on the line, evaluate the relative worth of the commodities (that word should get some blow back) they are investing in?

    While I’m a sports fan and will watch Euros racing while carrying their wives, strongmen pulling an aircraft, and, yes, soccer teams moving slower than the specimans in a Walmart fish tank,I like to have a “value added” way to discuss my favorite teams latest acquisition, especially when we’re talking about a 5 team, 36 year old whose next year, according to generally excepted statistics, will not be Favre like.

    Game on, my friend.

  17. triplesalley says:

    As a “stat geek,” I’m very excited to hear what you have to say- be it good or bad.

    -JT

  18. Jeremy says:

    I actually am a law student, but no definitions needed here. Starting to get into that spring/baseball mindset again and I’m loving the atmosphere that comes with this time of year. Especially after my first Michigan winter. I’ve always been sort of a SABR guy, but maybe that’s because I don’t have any of the playing or coaching experience that the “other side” usually has. College cross country is about as athletic as I can get, and it definitely does not translate to anything else. I’d be interested to get your take on the organizations that have seemed to take a liking to the SABR stuff and used it as a way to exploit or get ahead in the player market (like in Moneyball where they discuss Oakland’s front office). Did you encounter any of that when you were on the free agent market, and did it affect the way you negotiated with them or the types of offers you would receive? I would imagine that an agent would have to come up with some favorable numbers to counter that of the front office in question, if that’s truly what the organization went by.

  19. Mike says:

    I love it… there’s not even a post and people are already fired up in all directions.

    I love the blog so far, by the way. There’s a lot of thoughts in here that remind me of a master’s degree program I did in sport psychology. I think you take a sport psychologist’s approach to analyzing the game, mixed with first-hand knowledge and a bit of sport science. Not many people can do this, and I’ve learned more from a few of your posts than I have from years of John Kruk yelling loudly on TV.

  20. […] By Derek Hall Former player Morgan Ensberg has a blog and it’s a pretty good one too. But he committed an act of blasphemy when he wrote that a post on sabermetrics was forthcoming. […]

  21. Dave says:

    Howdy,

    I don’t think that ANY little league player was instructed on their performance as it related to sabermetrics. I recall it was all about the things that allowed you to play well.

    Terry Francona loves guys who don’t make OUTS!

    Dave


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