The Freakonomics answers are up, but first here’s James’ appearance on 60 Minutes for anyone who did not see it.
From what I’ve seen, the reviews on James’ appearance are a mixed bag. Some people think it was terrible, others think it was okay, other loved it, etc. fwiw, I don’t really have a strong opinion. It only scratched the surface of James and sabermetrics, but I’m not sure what can be expected out of a short segment geared toward a mainstream audience like that.
One part that clearly missed the boat, at least in my opinion, is where they say James’ ideas were finally picked up by Billy Beane in Oakland. I mean, Beane was a player when James was writing all of this stuff. I believe he credits a lot of his philosophies to Sandy Alderson. Eric Walker worked for the Giants in the late 70′s and then for Alderson in Oakland later on. If you wanted, you could trace it back to Roth and Rickey with the 1950s Dodgers — and probably further back. Of course, it wasn’t “sabermetrics” back then and maybe Oakland was the first team to widely accept it, but I thought that there should at least be some mention of that other stuff. But again, I realize it’s a short piece. You could do an hour on this stuff and miss out on a bunch of details.
Another thing that was missing, and other have mentioned this, is the aspect of Mr. James’ great writing. I haven’t read nearly enough of his material to really comment on his writing, but everything I have read has been great, in its own unique way. The guy was not just the number cruncher they may him out to be — he was a writer, too – if not more so than he was a ‘Stat Man.’
That said, I thought it was pretty solid overall. I mean, it is still pretty cool to hear strike out to walk ratio on cbs. However, that brings up another interesting issue — and another issue where (1) I’m not sure of my opinion and (2) my opinion doesn’t matter in the first place. That is, how do hardcore saberemetric folks feel about this stuff in the mainstream media, getting widespread attention? If you’re in favor of spreading these ideas to the masses, then you’re probably in favor of this segment, despite its shortcomings. If you are not particularly concerned with the broad appeal of sabermetrics, then you probably either weren’t in favor of it or … didn’t really care either way. I could see a good argument for either of these two approaches depending on personal preference.
Anyway, what may be more interesting are James’ responses to the questions he received from readers at the Freakonomics blog. I mentioned the questions last week and here are some of his (imo) interesting answers:
Q: Generally, who should have a larger role in evaluating college and minor league players: scouts or stat guys?
A: Ninety-five percent scouts, five percent stats. The thing is that — with the exception of a very few players like Ryan Braun — college players are so far away from the major leagues that even the best of them will have to improve tremendously in order to survive as major league players — thus, the knowledge of who will improve is vastly more important than the knowledge of who is good. Stats can tell you who is good, but they’re almost 100 percent useless when it comes to who will improve.
In addition to that, college baseball is substantially different from pro baseball, because of the non-wooden bats and because of the scheduling of games. So … you have to pretty much let the scouts do that.
I did not think he would say 95-5 there. What’s interesting is the improvement/growth aspect that takes place. Even though a college player may be great, relative to his peers, surely he’s a mile off, in most cases, from the big leagues. While the numbers may tell you who is better at that time, they may not tell you who is going to get better over time. I think that’s pretty much exactly what James said and I’m not sure why I’m repeating it. Anyway, I’m skeptical that it’s 95% scouts, 5% stats all the time, but I’m not sure James would say that either if he had more space. That said, I have no real idea either way.
Q: What new statistic are M.L.B. clubs using now with regularity that they didn’t use two years ago? What will be your answer in two years?
A: The pitch by pitch data — the pitch fx and similar data from Baseball Info Solutions — gives us dramatically better detail about what pitches pitchers are throwing how often and how effectively. It will take us twenty years to figure out what some of this stuff means, but it is clearly generating a lot of excitement.
Well, I agree. The analysis by Mike Fast, Joe P. Sheehan, Kalk etc., etc. (literally, there are a good 10-20 — and probably many more — people who’ve done an unreal job with this stuff) has been awesome. I also think it’ll take years to really understand much of it — like, say, what does an extra inch of “break” in a slider mean? And on and on. There are multiple areas of research that I don’t even think have really been explored (at least publicly) with this data, as well.
Q: What statistical software do you use?
A: Just Excel
Figured he’d be using more sophisticated software (not that excel isn’t sophisticated, as I know nothing about the sophistication of statistical software …). On a somewhat related topic, I remember reading an article on the Red Sox using some scout software that I found while researching for some college paper. Its purpose was to basically maintain and organize scouting reports. Have to see if I can dig it up sometime ….
Q: Has looking at the numbers prevented you from actually just enjoying a summer day at the ballpark? Have we all forgotten the randomness of human ballplayers? By reducing players to just their numbers can we lose sight of the intangibles such as teamwork, friendships, and desire.
A: Does looking at pretty women prevent one from experiencing love? Life is complicated. Your efforts to compartmentalize it are lame and useless.
I closed with that question last time, so I figured I’d close with it again.