Sunday, April 02, 2006

The Beginning of the Stathead Era

With baseball season starting, I thought I'd link to this Life magazine essay from 1954, "Goodby To Some Old Baseball Ideas", by the greatest baseball executive of all time, Branch Rickey. (Best known for creating the "farm system" and bringing Jackie Robinson to the majors.)

The essay is famous among baseball stat geeks because Rickey -- with an assist from his in-house statistician Allan Roth -- debunked nearly every cornerstone of conventional baseball wisdom and argued for all kinds of new statistical measurements that have only now, in the "Moneyball" era, become the new conventional wisdom. He was saying all kinds of things in 1954 that Bill James would be arguing for thirty years later, and that most baseball executives simply refused to accept in the face of all statistical evidence. Some excerpts:

- Batting average is only a partial means of determining a man's effectiveness on offense. It neglects a major factor, the base on balls, which is reflected only negatively in the batting average (by not counting it as a time at bat). Actually walks are extremely important. Ted Williams, a student of batting values, bragged more about the 162 gases on balls he got five years ago than about his .343 batting average or his 43 home runs.

- The ability to get on base, or On Base Average, is both vital and measurable.

- Fielding averages? Utterly worthless as a yardstick. They are not only misleading, but deceiving. Take Zeke Bonura, the old White Sox first baseman, generally regarded as a poor fielder. The fielding averages showed that he led American League in fielding for three years. Why? Zeke had "good hands"! Anything he reached, he held. Result: an absence of errors. But he was also slow moving and did not cover much territory. Balls that a quicker man may have fielded went for base hits, but the fielding averages do not reflect this.

- As a statistic, RBIs [Runs Batted In] were not only misleading but dishonest. They depended on managerial control, a hitter's position in the batting order, park dimensions and the success of his teammates in getting on base ahead of him. That left two measurable factors—on base average and power—by which to gauge the over-all offensive worth of an individual.

- What is wrong with the Pirates? The formula opened my eyes to the fact that the Pirates' OBA [On-Base Average] is almost as high as that of the league-leading New York Giants. We get plenty of men on base. But they stay there! Our clutch figure is pathetically low, only .277 compared to New York's .397. This could give reason for a change in the batting order, a closer grouping in the batting order of the club's high OBA hitters.

So if you're going to talk about how "Moneyball" and stat geeks took the fun and mystery out of baseball by applying statistical analysis to everything, and debunking fun stats like batting and fielding average: Branch Rickey did it first.

Update: Date corrected; I originally had it as 1952. Thanks to commenter "MLM."

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