You Can Throw Your Calculators Away

What’s My Point?

Sabermetrics is the analysis of baseball through objective evidence, especially baseball statistics that measure in-game activity.  The term is derived from the acronym SABR, which stands for Society for American Baseball Research.  But professional baseball is not feeding sabermetrics the correct data for their conclusions.

Why Does it Matter?

The term “Garbage in, Garbage out” is the most accurate description I can give.  If the sample used is garbage, then the answers won’t be accurate.  Sabermetrics requires accurate information or organizations may misinterpret the data.

Grandpa and The Center of Percussion

My Grandpa was a rocket scientist.  He worked for Rockwell most of his life and he is the one who taught me about baseball.  The first thing I remember him teaching me was what he called “the center of percussion.”  Grandpa took a bat and balanced it lengthwise on his finger.  He then said,

“Morgan, the mid point between my finger and the end of the bat’s barrel is the center of percussion.”  I said, “Center of percussion? What’s that Grandpa?”  He smiled and said, “The SWEET SPOT!”

I was 10.

When I was 14, he came home with a computer printout that he had been working on to teach me about launch angles.

“Morgan, see this chart?  This chart tells us how far you hit the ball according to the pitcher’s velocity, your bat speed, and launch angle.”  I said, “Can Grandma make me a milkshake?”

After Grandma made me a milkshake, we sat down and he explained to me that math and physics would be able to teach me what I needed to do to have the best outcome at the plate. I said, “That’s cool.”

Runs Produced

Grandpa was sitting on his chair when he said,

“Morgan.  What is the most important stat in baseball?”  I said, with zero conviction, “Batting average?”  Grandpa smiled and said, “Runs Produced.”

Grandpa hadn’t realized that I had never heard of that statistic. Nor did he know that there was no “Runs Produced” statistic on the back of my 1986 Topps Daryl Strawberry rookie card that my Grandma had bought for me.

He told me to add my RBI to Runs and then subtract Home Runs.  I said,

“Why do you subtract Home Runs?” Grandpa smiled, “We are trying to isolate the absolute number of Runs you produced and your Home Run is accounted for with one of your Runs.”  I said, “Cool.”

He went on to explain to me that I can take that number and divide it by my At Bats and that number would give me an indication of how many runs I was expected to produce based on a single at bat.  It changed my life.

Selected in the 61st Round of the 1994 Amateur Baseball Player Draft…Morgan Ensberg

Rodney Davis was a former player and scout for the Seattle Mariners.    Towards the end of my senior year in High School, Rodney came over to my house to have dinner with my family and I to tell us about professional baseball. But, apparently he also came over to see if the rumors that I was a basketball player were true.  We went over to the park and played 1 on 1.  After the game he said that he was surprised with how well I moved on the court.  He also said, “We would like you to go to Junior College and get 200 AB’s.  We think you walk too much.”  I told him that I had never heard that before and that I don’t try and draw walks, I only know how to hit mistakes.  I loved Rodney, he wasn’t against walking at all.  He was saying that he needed a bigger sample to evaluate the type of player I was.

You Are to Sit on the 2-1 Change-up!

Mike Gillespie was my coach at the University of Southern California.  He opened my eyes to baseball data.  Players charted the opposing pitchers’ velocity, pitch type, and location.  He would then take this information and compile it season over season.   For every game he usually had one specific flaw in the opposing pitcher’s repertoire that we needed to exploit if we were in the right situation.

Sitting in the locker room before a game he would say,

“The pitcher’s name is Johnson.  He has a fastball, curveball, and change (change up).  He will throw 1st pitch off-speed.  Now listen to me on this one… Now hear me on this one… He is 12 for 12 throwing a change up 2 and 1.  You are to sit on that… You are to sell out and believe it is coming… If I see you swing at anything except a change up there, I will revoke your scholarship.  You will go back home and live in your parents’ basement.”

I loved it!  He was very serious, but also funny, and he wanted to be clear with us that this was the best way to win the game.  He was teaching us that if you had the right information, you could gain an advantage and win.   By the way, he couldn’t take my scholarship away from me, because I didn’t have one.  I was a “walk on.”

I Don’t Care…Just Get the Bunt Down

This was all of the information given to me about bunting in minor league ball.  Did the coaches care where we bunted the ball?  Did they want us to show the bunt early or show the bunt late?  As you can imagine, we were terrible at bunting and nobody really knew how to sacrifice effectively.

“The data on the MIG is inaccurate,” Lt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, Top Gun

In this scene, “Charlie,” played by Kelly McGillis, is a civil defense contractor whose job it is to study the capabilities of the enemies’ jets.  She later says, “The MIG 28 cannot do a 4G negative dive.”  Maverick and his friend “Goose,” played by Anthony Edwards, immediately look at each other and exchange puzzled looks. They start talking.  Charlie interrupts Maverick and Goose and asks if there is a question.

Maverick:

“We just so happened to go up against a MIG 28 in a 4G negative dive.”  Charlie says, “Lieutenant the Pentagon sees to it that we know more than you.”  Maverick looks back with a smile and says, “Well, it doesn’t seem so in this case.”

The Data in Your Sabermetrics is Inaccurate

Sabermetrics is being limited by the quality of information that is being provided.  What is great about this system is that it gives you an absolute value for effectiveness.  Sabermetrics doesn’t care if you sacrifice the runner over or not.  But, it will tell you how effective you are at sacrifice bunting.  However, Sabermetrics is calculating the outcomes instead of calculating the process possibilities.

So What are We Supposed to Look at Smart Guy or Should I Call You Maverick?

I need to know the probability of success when sacrifice bunting a ball in a 5 foot by 5 foot box that stops 20 feet from home plate and no more that 5 feet from the foul line (this can be either foul line).

I need to know the probability of success when sacrifice bunting in that spot when a batter shows the bunt as the pitcher comes set (early) vs. showing the bunt as the pitcher begins his delivery (late).

I need to know the probability of success when showing the bunt early and pulling the bat back to slash.  A slash is where the player pulls the bat from a bunting position back to a hitting position and tries to hit the ball to the side of the charging infielder.

But what I really need to know is the opposing pitcher’s pitch and location when the batter shows the bunt early. This will allow me to tell my batter what to expect when he is up there trying to get this bunt or slash down.

I need to know the probability of my opponent throwing a fastball away so that I can anticipate which middle infielder will cover second if I put the runner in motion for a hit and run in this sacrifice situation.

Maverick and Charlie End Up Together

Sabermetrics verifies mathematically what it takes to win a baseball game.  This analysis is correct.  But baseball players have to help you identify nuances that can only be found by playing the game.  Your genius will be perfected when you can show us the probability of bunting a ball in a location that baseball players know will move the runner 100% of the time.  Your ability to prove if a batter should show a bunt early or late is the type of information we need.

Grandpa proved to me that I should evaluate my performances based on Sabermetric principles when I was 10.  I just didn’t need a calculator to believe in it.


205 Comments on “You Can Throw Your Calculators Away”

  1. Didi says:

    Your grandpa is one heck of a thinker, Morgan.
    Glad you share the lesson with us, thanks.

  2. Kevin says:

    Morgan – thanks for sharing your thoughts on baseball. Keep up the good work!!

  3. A fine critique, Morgan.

    In fact, complaints about data collection have been core to sabermetrics from the start. We’ve realized there are great deficiencies in our currently available information, so we’ve established hundreds of tools to try to mitigate that problem.

    I don’t think any of use would complain if the MLB added 10 scorers to each press box and started recording every little ounce of possible data. That would probably make us all very, very excited in the nerdiest ways possible.

    • Brad I really feel like I can help sabermatrics proponents with filtering out this data. One major problem is that you guys are looking for tendencies without having the luxury of knowing certain baseball patterns. This is NOT a criticism. My point is that there is no way you COULD notice some of these patterns because you haven’t been taught to look for them.

      Morgan

  4. Morgan Ensberg!

    I just discovered your blog, but it’s now one of my favorites. Your point of view is (obviously) unique, yet also refreshingly open-minded.

    As for The Book, I’ve had several people tell me that it’s better to start with some Bill James (as suggested here earlier).

  5. Where’s MGL? Trying to get his tail out from between his legs? Hopefully writing that treatise “on hitting and playing third base in the major leagues.”

    • I am sure he will be back. To be honest, I don’t think we should be coming down hard on the guy. I always try and understand where the statements are coming from. There is no question that he was defensive there, but that has to be from past experiences. We all mess up and I think that you have to mess up in order to grow. Just some thoughts there. I hope he comes back.

      Morgan

      • Michael says:

        Oh yeah, definitely. MGL is accustomed to baseball players, announcers, and basically the whole mainstream media attacking sabermetrics. In his defense, he’s coming in with that history. In his not-so defense, he didn’t wait to hear what Morgan had to say: very often, sabermetrics doesn’t describe the process by which certain results are achieved. For sabermetricians, that doesn’t always matter. For baseball players who’d like to improve at the game, it always does. We know that players who walk often, and have say an OBP of .380, are very valuable. That’s mathematically verified. How they walk – what approach they take at the plate, how they recognize pitches, how they study film, so on and so forth – is tangential to them. To ballplayers, it’s essential.

        Still, I wouldn’t say that sabermetricians aren’t concerned with “process.” In fact, much of their research tries to uncover the reasons for why certain events happen instead of others. But certainly Morgan’s correct that to them it’s not as central as it would be for, say, a batting coach.

  6. Blez says:

    Morgan, this is brilliant stuff. I’m a huge A’s fan and follow them closely and I think the stats vs. scouts war is overblown.

    By the way, I would love to chat with you about your format here. Send me an email when you have a chance at blez@sbnation.com.

    Thanks and keep up the great work.

    • Thanks Blez. When I went to USC (Trojans) kids from California were classified as SoCal and NorCal. The only unique part about this was that only the NorCal kids brought it up. When I was growing up in Hermosa Beach, we never once said NorCal or SoCal and we had no idea there was even a rivalry. In fact, I still don’t. My point is that I don’t even understand why this is an issue. What does it matter if a team uses a formula or if they use intuition. Don’t you need both?

      Morgan

  7. Couch Tater says:

    Hi Morgan – I enjoyed your articles. I’m not into all of the advanced metrics and quite frankly, can get bored pretty quickly, if sites get too heavy into them. I’m not opposed to the statistics, just like diversity.

    I think someone may have mentioned this article by Jon Sciambi who broadcast the Braves up until this year. A great read.

    http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=10101

    Also as a Braves fan, Jason Heyward was just told today he would make the team as a rookie. I would love for you to recall that experience in a blog post. Good luck!

    • Coach I hear you on getting too complicated. The last thing we need is to make the game more complicated to players. My believe is always in developing fundamental skills. The problem is that very few coaches actually know how to do this. My life has been spent trying to understand what motivates a player and how can we put our players in a position to succeed.

      As for Heyward that is great news. There is no better place than Atlanta and Bobby Cox to bring in a young player. Cox is the best at it in my opinion. I will write something about that at some point.

      Morgan

  8. John Pontoon says:

    Nice article, Mr. Ensberg. I was quite a fan of your playing career, and frankly I think you sat a heck of a lot more than you deserved, but what can you do, y’know?

    I have a quick comment about this “runs produced” thing. Your Grandfather made a very common logic mistake in subtracting home runs from that total. Here’s why: each RBI and each Run Scored represent HALF of a run. If you are at bat and, say, Jeff Bagwell knocks you in, you get a RS and Bags gets an RBI. Your Run plus Jeff’s RBI total two things, even though only one run was scored.

    If you hit a homer, you’re responsible for BOTH halves of the run. Thus, the subtraction of HRs from that total penalizes every HR for no sensible reason. Lotsa people still make that mistake.

    Nice to read you. Keep up the bloggin’.

    • Great point. You are absolutely correct there. The problem is that once again your natural reaction is to focus on what I am saying and not what I am trying to say. In the article I specifically was trying to lay the foundation that Grandpa was speaking according to my age. He knew exactly how to “truly” define runs produced, but he was trying to teach me something that had nothing to do with numbers. He was teaching me that people will focus on things that don’t give you the true value of the contribution. If I wanted to be great, I would have to look past what everyone else concentrates on and instead look at how the foundation is built.

      By the way, Grandpa would have smiled at what your post. Then he would of looked you in the eye and said, “Now you get it.” Nice work John. You get it.

      Morgan

      • John Pontoon says:

        Holy frijoles, I finally remembered to check this. Mr. Ensberg, you seem to be as great a guy as you were a ballplayer (which was, again, quite great.) It’s funny, at this point in time there are several literary industries worth of people trying to look past the obvious to achieve TRUE UNDERSTANDING of players’ contributions. It’s wonderful and crazy how much people care about this Ball With Bases game.

  9. Dave says:

    Morgan,

    Great blog. Nice to read an “inside” perspective.

    It seems to me that this is not so much a study of pitchers and their proclivities as it is of catchers? Is that fair to say? I guess a “game plan” is formulated by the pitching coach as he looks at the opposing lineup, but isn’t it a catchers responsibility to carry out the plan?

    Dave

    • DAVE!!!!!!!!! Exactly!!!! I have a story. We were playing the Tigers and “pudge” was behind the plate. I started noticing that he would CLAP his glove really loudly on the inside part of the plate. But I realized that this was too apparent. He was trying to get me to think he was setting up inside. I decided that I would sit on a off-speed pitch. The pitch was a change up and I just “picked” one of Pudge’s “tells”.
      I also would find out who the umpire behind the plate so that I could get a better understanding of where the pitcher and catcher would attack to exploit his strike zone.

      Dave you fired me up!!!!!

      Morgan

  10. Dave says:

    Hi Morgan,

    Awesome! I used to be a catcher and although it was nothing compared to what you mentioned, it was the “game within the game” that was most enjoyable.

    Dave

  11. Matt Brown says:

    Morgan,

    I think I have a litmus test to tell if you are truly a sabermatrician or an old school baseball guy at heart… Brad Ausmus.

    There are various stats that place him at various levels of ineptitude, but one of my favorites is OPS+, which is a hitting measure that neutralizes for park and league. By that measure, Brad Ausmus is the 11th worst player of all time. If the Dodgers give him enough at bats, he might even make it into the top 10. Once upon a time, he was a good defensive catcher, but that was a long, long time ago. He’s still pretty good at blocking balls in the dirt, but his arm and his bat far, far outweigh this one decent attribute. Yet he’s been able to hang around because he’s a “good clubhouse guy”, media friendly, and pitchers seem to like him. They don’t actually perform any better when he’s behind the plate, but they still like him. I realize you used to play with the guy and won’t say anything negative about him here, so this is realy a litmus test for just you to run through in your mind. On which side do you fall — Ausmus has been one of the most destructive players of all time, or Ausmus is a fine player and has been a great aset for all the teams on which he’s played?

    • I’ll answer it.

      Brad doesn’t let any ball pass him on defense so he is ideal for young wild pitchers. Every umpire loves Brad catching because he gets real low. Now if pitchers don’t do better with him behind the plate then there is a big problem.

      Brad has to be on a very powerful offensive team so that the rest of the team can make up any offensive deficiency.

      How was that without getting too deep into other numbers?
      Morgan

  12. ashermerlin86 says:

    Mad respect to you, Morgan. As a true fan of the game, it’s always great to see guys who played and are true students of the game comment and give advice to those up and coming. Not to mention, a guy of your calibre, who (no offense) hit 36 dingers, but never did anything afterwords is easy to label under the steroid title, but this blog tells me otherwise.
    Congrats for producing great material. Keep it up!

    Also, seeing Chris Richard make a come back with the O’s, and seeing Gabe Kapler come back last year – you’re only 34 and it was only 4-5 years ago that you almost hit 40. Maybe it’s not quite time to give up on the dream…

  13. ThreeFingersBrown says:

    Thanks for the insight Morgan. First time visitor to your blog, but I’ll be sure to be back regularly.

  14. Nick Sheehan says:

    Hey, I found your blog while searching on Google your post looks very interesting for me. I will bookmark your site. Keep up the good work!

    low cost franchise opportunities

  15. Francisco Merejo says:

    Nice Blog Morgan.

    Remember you playing for Estrellas Orientales here in Dominican Republic. Love to read some of the amazing and sometimes funny anecdotes of things that happens in Winter baseball.

    Francisco.

  16. Steve Bonner says:

    Probably others have pointed this out but I’ll just add my two cents. I think “SABRmetrics” is a catch all that isn’t really all that valuable.

    SABRmetrics is a field of analysis, not a statistic.

    That said, I tend to agree that progressive baseball metrics like WAR, VORP, WPA, are good at helping to understand what is likely to happen, and are good at showing why certain outcomes occur.

    I do not think that ‘SABRmetrics’ would be particularly valuable from a coaching standpoint, and I’m not sure how many people advocate their use in that manner.

    Great blog. Love your style and candor. And love the bits about Bagwell. Being a Yankee fan I never really knew much about him, but he seems like a phenomenal guy.

  17. Rick says:

    I don’t agree on WAR because it combines offensive worth with a defensive metric, while decent up to a point, is still flawed. Both Dewan and MGL admit they aren’t where they need to be with their defensive metrics.

  18. Lee Panas says:

    Very honest and insightful blog Morgan. I hope you post frequently all season. I think you are right that sabermetrics is not particularly useful to players and coaches, at least not yet. Your bunting example is a good illustration of why that is so. I don’t think it’s even particularly useful for most fans as they sit down and watch a game.

    Where sabermetrics becomes more relevant is in seeing the big picture. It won’t tell you much about one game but it tells you a lot about what happens over the course of a season. It helps to explain , as you say, what it takes to win games.

    Sabermetrics is especially useful for player evaluation. It helps us quantify how much each player contributes to his team in terms of scoring runs, preventing runs and ultimately winning games over the course of 162 game season. It is also helpful in predicting future performance. This makes it a valuable to fans and, to a certain extent, GMs. As you say, it has less value to players and coaches as they play the game.

    Lee

  19. Stephen Luftschein says:

    You’ve really effectively codified what I’ve always told my friends. I firmly believe in Sabremetrics as an adjunct tool.

    However, the problem with statistical AVERAGES, is that they are just that.

    The relevance to THIS specific situation is always effected by non mathematical situations. Perfect example is your change up scenario. As soon as you sit on it, you change the emotion of the pitcher, his feel for that pitch in that situation. So while the one at bat may not greatly effect probabilities, they do effect future occurrences.

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