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Wick Wick Wack
2008-04-01 05:39
by Alex Belth
Note: The Bronx Banter blog has moved to bronxbanterblog.com.

Unlike many of my colleagues I did not grow up reading the Bill James Abstracts. I wasn't interested in numbers (I was given a copy of The Hidden Game of Baseball for my birthday when I was ten or eleven and didn't open the book until I was over thirty). I didn't read Bill James until about eight years ago when I inherited my cousin's collection of the Abstracts. I still wasn't especially interested in numbers (though is arguments were appealing), but I found James to be a wonderful critic and lucid writer (hey, I used to read Ruth Reichl's restaurant reviews all the time even though I never intended to go to any of the places she wrote about, I just liked reading her). In fact, the first post ever here at Bronx Banter was about the Red Sox hiring of James.

Which brings me to the 60 Minutes segment on James that was aired this past Sunday. Anyone catch it? I thought it was superficial at best. The worst part about it was that it divided baseball people into two groups--stat heads and the people who go by their "gut," by what their eyes tell them. In other words, the same, tired, old song. You would figure that 60 Minutes would be above this uninspired kind of journalism, even though they are a populist program. Billy Beane was mentioned as the man who brought sabermetrics to organized baseball. Nevermind Sandy Alderson, or Branch Rickey. Forget about Allan Roth. I guess it didn't fit their narrow profile, which didn't shed much light on the Red Sox or James.

Joe Posnanski has a good blog entry about the 60 Minutes piece over at his blog:

There were numerous silly moments, my favorite being when Morley Safer — whose first piece for 60 Minutes was, I believe, on Napoleon — made his statement about how Bill said there's no such thing as a clutch hitter, and Red Sox Manager Terry Francona replied, "I've heard him say that (ed. note: very doubtful) but then I'd want him to be introduced to David Ortiz."

Really? Does Francona really think Bill James is somehow unaware of David Ortiz?I'm always baffled when people say goofy stuff like this — when they go up to coaches and say, "Have you guys thought about playing zone?"* To me, this is a lot like hearing that a doctor has come up with a new method to perform a heart transplant, and saying, "Yeah, but have you tried that like thing where you have people open their mouths and stick tongue depressors on their tongues and stuff?"

*Roy Williams always had a classic Roy Williams-like answer whenever anyone came up to him with the "Have you thought of this" type suggestion. He would say, "No offense, but believe me, we've thought of it. Anything you have thought of, we've thought of. It's our frickin' job."

Georged

Veteran scribe Peter Golenbock is writing a book on George Steinbrenner. Peter asked if I'd be kind enough to post the following request. Here goes:

Dear Yankee fans, I am researching a book on the life and times of George Steinbrenner. If any of you have any interesting stories about him, as fans, employees, or recipients of his generosity, I would love to hear them. Send them to petergolenb@yahoo.com. Please include your address and telephone number.

Yanks, Jays take two tonight...

Comments (52)
Show/Hide Comments 1-50
2008-04-01 06:13:35
1.   williamnyy23
I didn't see the piece, but JoePo's synopsis seems to offer a good summary. I think what most people often forget is the journalists/media members are very often not experts about the topics they cover. Usually, only a select few journalists will actually be well versed in their beat...whether it be science, finance, politics or even sports. That's not really a knock on journalists either. Their job is turn access into a good story, not to teach a course on their subject.

Besides, after watching Congress take on baseball over the past few years, the same thing can be said of that esteemed body. Again, I think we all view Congressmen as sage experts, when in reality they are not. Of course, that only comes to light when we see them discussing an issue about which we know a lot. Still, it's something to keep in mind before deferring to someone else's supposed authority.

2008-04-01 06:29:43
2.   Dimelo
0 The funniest part, for me, about that 60 minutes interview was that I had a few college friends over and they love sports as much as me but don't follow baseball in terms of using the same stats I like to read about, and a slew of others here and other websites praise and cite religiously. Nothing wrong with that at all.

So we are all here, en mi casa, I'm setting up my slingbox and we are talking about watching the Nationals game later and rolling a few L's to relax. We had just finished watching the tournament and 60 minutes had run previews of Bill James so I knew it was coming and wanted to watch.

I like the movement created because of James, I guess we can give James this credit, but I can't say I enjoy the man all too much. I find him to be annoying, a Yankee basher whenever he gets the chance and way to full of himself.

Well, James comes on and you can't imagine the look my friends were giving me because I actually even knew who this very un-athletic and monotone man actually is and what he represents. I started to realize that those stats, that I "think" are so omnipresent because of me getting my news from different sources than most of my friends, hardly represents the mainstream and when you look at someone like James then you realize why they haven't caught on.

James looks more Napoleon Dynamite than someone who many like to cite as the leader of some new baseball revolution.

There's a reason why James sparks a reaction of a geek culture and not one indicative of a sports culture, IMHO. It really feels like two forces acting against each other (stat heads versus non- stat heads) and Sunday night I finally realized what those two cultures were when my old college buddies were here to make me realize that.

As much as I love those stats, I think it is best to keep them under wraps because most people will never understand.

2008-04-01 07:03:25
3.   Josh Wilker
I think Francona is on board with the Jamesian perspective much more than some of his fellow managers. In an article on Jacoby Ellsbury in Sunday's Boston Globe Magazine, he was asked by the article's author if Ellsbury was going to get the green light to steal. His reply distances him from "fundamentals"-preachin', Podsednik-lovin' types such as Ozzie Guillen:

"'Being aggressive and using speed - everybody enjoys it. It brings enthusiasm, energy to the ballpark. [But] we don't like to take the bat out of the big guys' hands. We don't like to make a lot of outs on the bases, because we have good hitters. When you're on first base, David Ortiz can drive you in from there.'"

2008-04-01 07:04:56
4.   Sliced Bread
Didn't catch the Bill James piece. Don't watch "60 Minutes" as much since the heart and soul, Don Hewitt, departed -- though I don't imagine they always got it right even on his watch.
Anyway, not surprised a mainstream media symbol, especially a CBS franchise like "60 Minutes" dropped the ball here. Remember, CBS absorbed a $1.5 million dollar loss selling the Yanks to Steinbrenner - perhaps believing Yankee baseball was dead.
2008-04-01 07:07:22
5.   Bagel Boy
And of course Gene Michael was using OBP to gauge talent(one of the tenets of Moneyball) long before the rest of baseball caught up. Wasn't it the early 90's by acquiring guys like Tartabull and Stanley and then in the development of Bernie? Indeed, Bernie seems to have been the template for the organization.
2008-04-01 07:12:42
6.   dianagramr
I saw most of the interview. It was nice to see James get his 12 minutes of mainstream fame, even if he did get painted as a geek.

We true fans know the difference between 60 Minutes idea of baseball and BBTN (even if BBTN still employs John Kruk and Steve Phillips)

2008-04-01 07:14:05
7.   Sliced Bread
2 nah, don't keep the numbers under wraps. smoke 'em if you got 'em.
what, by the way, is an L?
2008-04-01 07:19:45
8.   Dimelo
7 http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=L
2008-04-01 07:28:59
9.   rbj
As a kid in the 70s I'd look at the weekly stats in the newspaper and add walks to hits to see who was getting on base the most, didn't need to be told that OBP was important. And Alan Schwarz did a book a couple of years ago (read Alex's interview here and bought the book) about the history of baseball stats. There is a long history of "sabermetrics", at least in some crude form (no PECOTA, EqA, etc).

Haven't watched 60 minutes since the early 80s after their 10,000 segment on an evil business.

2008-04-01 07:30:53
10.   Sliced Bread
8 learn something new everyday round here.
Gave up my weekly cigar(s) for Lent(along with ice cream), and haven't broken the fast yet.
Waiting for a weekend day game, if I can...
2008-04-01 07:40:08
11.   williamnyy23
5 Every good baseball man has been using OBP to evaluate ball players. The old saying, "A walk is as good as a hit", is "old" for a reason.
2008-04-01 07:41:12
12.   williamnyy23
7 I had the same question...thought the worst so I figured I wouldn't ask...and 8 confirmed it. That's one of those references I am glad I didn't know.
2008-04-01 07:58:53
13.   Chyll Will
1 "Usually, only a select few journalists will actually be well versed in their beat... whether it be science, finance, politics or even sports."

Yeah, but if you had a whole newspaper full of such, you'd likely end up with the Wall Street Journal. Their comics are nothing more than refugees from a counterfeit dollar bill...

As far as L is concerned, I'm not a disciple, but I did love the episode of Sesame Street when Snoop Dogg was the guest. The sponsors really lit up the block that day: "Brought to you by the letters 'G' and 'L' and the number '425' >;)

2008-04-01 08:00:32
14.   RichB
0 Caught it. Yeah, it was very surface. I'm not sure if they spent that much time talking to James about the relationships between stat-heads and "traditional" baseball guys (i.e. they're very overlapping). It seems like they spent some time chatting about his (and sabermetrics) history and found enough material they considered to be interesting when they just scratched the surface. To be fair, they only had, what, 12 minutes? You can't explain a lot in that time. If you had 12 minutes to discuss sabermetrics to a broad audience, what would you say?

What was more disappointing was a documentary I saw on sabermetrics (I think it was this one: http://tinyurl.com/3b5h8j ). They had a full hour and didn't tell you much more than the "60 Minutes" piece did.

2008-04-01 08:05:58
15.   Bagel Boy
11 You mean like when they signed Mel Hall and acquired Balboni?

There was a clear shift in team philosophy, and especially lineup construction, between 1989 ad 1993. They went from emphasizing power to putting patience first.

2008-04-01 08:09:23
16.   Josh Wilker
15 : Interesting that that shift occurred during Steinbrenner's suspension.
2008-04-01 08:26:31
17.   RichB
15 Indeed. I like Cashman, but he's been too willing to go back to the old ways instead of following the lead of Stick Michael and Bob Watson. It seems he's had a change of heart more recently, but we'll see how quickly that changes if the young guns struggle.
2008-04-01 08:49:52
18.   williamnyy23
13 Not sure if that was a politically motivated comment, but I don't think the WSJ stands out any more than other major newspapers in that regard. From a sports perspective, however, I'd agree that the WSJ is famous for presenting some pretty facile articles that might seem compelling to the non-sports fan.
2008-04-01 08:52:56
19.   williamnyy23
15 Not sure where Balboni and Hall fit in to this. Also, just because I linked to your post, doesn't mean I was disagreeing with it. Rather, I was seconding your mention of Michael's use of OBP by pointing out that the notion has been around for a very long time.
2008-04-01 08:54:38
20.   mehmattski
Is there going to be baseball today? Please?
2008-04-01 08:57:36
21.   williamnyy23
17 What old ways has Cashman seemed inclined to go back to? Stick was definitely an architect of the Yankee dynasty, but Cashman has sustained success for 11 years since. I don't think he needs to be following anyone's lead. He's done a damn good job.
2008-04-01 08:59:53
22.   Bagel Boy
16 I think that's exactly why. You try explaining to Big Stein why OBP, instead of HR's, is a better first-order criteria for lineups.

19 It may have been around for a long time, but it's been rare that an organization put OBP first.

2008-04-01 09:02:20
23.   Chyll Will
18 Let me assure you that was not politically motivated (that would require some serious consideration >;) I find the WSJ useful for certain things and my own purposes, but it was not a slight except to say that they have no comics, and as you say, a weak review of sports. That's all I can tolerate major newspapers for at this point.
2008-04-01 09:03:48
24.   JL25and3
Earl Weaver was a firm believer in many sabermetric principles before they were sabermetric. He believed in walks and home runs; he used complex, mix-and-match platoons; and he hated wasting outs on one-run strategies.
2008-04-01 09:20:31
25.   williamnyy23
22 I am not sure how rare it is. As 24 notes, Weaver valued the walk. That's something that Ken Singleton discusses all the time (and Earl must have loved Kenny). Branch Rickey was also a proponent of the "walk is as good as a hit" think, and Ed Barrow before him also focused on guys who got on base. I just finished a Lou Gehrig biography in which that point was made a couple of times. From Gehrig and Ruth to Williams to Boggs to Bonds, the value of getting on base has been understood by successful baseball men.
2008-04-01 09:21:59
26.   Chyll Will
22 "Hey Mr. Steinbrenner, nobody likes to see a HR more than you and I, but wouldn't that homer look far better with two or three men on base than just jacking one with nobody on? I know you like lots of runs, yes you do. So why not several guys that can get on base in front of our big bats and let them drive 'em all in? I'll bet that would be cool, right? Right? C'mon, let's go out and get four or five Rickey Henderson types... oops! Did I say Rickey? I meant Scott Posednick...oops! Did I say Posednick? I meant Vince Coleman...oops! (etc, etc.) "

Something like that. I would say Ichiro, but I'd just like to mess with him for a while before I escape >;)

2008-04-01 09:23:41
27.   williamnyy23
18 19 25 How many times am I going to begin a post by not being sure about something? I guess I'm not sure about that either!
2008-04-01 09:31:30
28.   mehmattski
Apparently, the answer to my question is no, as Extra Innings will not be carrying tonight's game. Ugh.
2008-04-01 09:59:36
29.   JL25and3
If they were trying to establish a clear divide between statheads and old-line baseball types, Bill James isn't really a great example. He's best known for his statistical work and his role in popularizing sabermetrics, but he's also always had another side as well - a strong bent towards qualitative, descriptive analysis. His book on managers is almost all qualitative, as is the famous Keltner list for evaluating HOF candidates. For that matter, so are half his player writeups.

2 I've never found James to be a Yankee-basher (albeit an unabashed Royals fan). I know in the Historical Abstract he gives very high ratings - and high praise - to Roy White and Bobby Murcer, and there's his exemplary writeup on Don Mattingly: "100% ballplayer. 0% bullshit."

2008-04-01 10:05:17
30.   JL25and3
25 According to a famous old story, Weaver was grumbling one day about Pat Kelly's preaching. "But Earl," Kelly said, "Don't you want me to walk with God?" Weaver shot back, "I'd rather see you walk with the bases loaded."
2008-04-01 10:11:49
31.   JL25and3
Wow. I can't believe I blew that line. "Don't you want to see me walk with God?" How embarrassing.
2008-04-01 10:13:55
32.   RichB
21 Not that he's done a bad job, and it is hard to tell who pushed which buttons, but if you go through the moves made after Watson left in 1998 you can count a lot more high-priced, overvalued free-agents (which stole away draft picks) than in the years preceding. Developing from within went by the wayside until recently. Cashman gets the whole OBP thing, but sometimes it seems like he struggles with other aspects of player evaluation and roster building. Certainly, we have to cut him some slack, given his own personal pair of handcuffs (Steinbrenner and Torre). Hopefully, we're seeing the real Cashman more clearly now.
2008-04-01 10:21:41
33.   Shaun P
28 ARGH!

30 JL, have you ever heard of George Kissell? I was reading a story at ESPN about the end of Al Lang Field as a spring training site, and in it, Jayson Stark said:

"[Kissell] took a minor league infielder named Earl Weaver under his wing and taught him many of the intricacies that made the Earl famous."

I had never heard this, but admittedly, my knowledge of Weaver is limited mostly to his famous book.

In any case, just another example of how far back knowledge of the importance of getting on base goes.

2008-04-01 10:21:54
34.   JL25and3
32 I thought Cashman was supposed to have been Torre's biggest supporter, right down to the end.
2008-04-01 10:30:54
35.   Alex Belth
This from Joel Sherman's blog:

In introducing his Sunday segment on the revolutionary baseball thinker Bill James, 60 Minutes correspondent Morley Safer described a start of the season that would include "obscene salaries" for players. Within the piece, Safer points out that James had demonstrated "many of baseball's hallowed beliefs were ridiculous hokum." Perhaps Safer should have taken that to heart, since saying that players make "obscene salaries" is "ridiculous hokum." Let's get this out at the start of a season. Millions and millions of people all over the planet try to reach the majors and, at one time, no more than 750 people can say they are major leaguers. So to get here and then stay here long enough to make "obscene salaries" is special. This is an industry that will generate about $6.5 billion – that is billion with a "b." The salaries reflect an industry that is thriving and the largest salaries reflect a lust by ultra-rich owners to collect the most special players in the game. After watching Safer take as interesting a subject as James and reduce it to about 15 minutes of TV lacking any true insights, well, my gut tells me that Mr. Safer has an obscene salary.

2008-04-01 11:14:08
36.   Shaun P
28 mehmattski, are you sure? I just checked DirecTV's online guide, and they show Blue Jays at Yanks on channel 733.
2008-04-01 11:21:33
37.   mehmattski
36 I have Time Warner Cable, and currently on the MLB EI channels the schedule does not include Yankees-Jays. None of the channels have Yankees-Jays listed at 7 PM. The schedule screen directs me to this website:

http://www.indemand.com/sports/mlb/schedule/schedule.jsp

Which also does not have the Yankees game. So, I'm not sure whether I'll get to see it tonight.

2008-04-01 11:24:07
38.   mehmattski
Further, the mlb.com schedule doesn't have any listings yet for tonight's game. It's like it doesn't exist:

http://mlb.mlb.com/mediacenter/index.jsp#20080401

2008-04-01 11:34:26
39.   rbj
I've got directv, and it is listed as scheduled, 7pm on channel 733 (Bonus Cam Feed)

I've got no idea what "Bonus Cam Feed" means, plus in Toledo I don't have to worry about a blackout.

2008-04-01 11:36:48
40.   mehmattski
39 Hopefully, the "Bonus Cam" isn't some fan with a camcorder in the left field bleachers...
2008-04-01 11:43:33
41.   Sliced Bread
35 I watched the Bill James piece during lunch (thanks to Posnanski's link), and it sure lacked depth, and insightful analysis.
re: Safer's line about "obscene salaries" in the intro: I think it was a throw away line, and wasn't as put-off by it as Sherman was. "60 Minutes" has always been obsessed with salaries. Whether they're taking down a crooked tycoon, or talking up a celebrity, they often reveal how much their subject makes, or is worth. I'm surprised they didn't dig up, and report a "ballpark" figure on James's Red Sox salary, and compare it to another executive's "value" to the team.
Safer's "obscene money" remark is probably not just from a populist perspective either. I imagine it's personal to some extent at "60 Minutes" these days. I remember reading not long ago that many of the "60 Minutes" correspondents have had to take paycuts in recent years, Safer being one of them. 25% I think it was -- Stahl, and Bradley (before he died) also had their salaries cut if I remember correctly.
Maybe "60 Minutes" got what it paid for from good ol' Morley: something like 25% less than he might have put forth in his prime.
Costas's baseball knowledge was wasted in the segment. Safer and his producers could have had Jimmy Fallon offer similar insights, ("Bill James is a good luck charm") and thrown in a spectacularly unfunny clip from "Fever Pitch" for good measure.
2008-04-01 11:43:44
42.   Chyll Will
I wish I had an obscene salary. Mine is only polarizing at best.

38 I'll bet 134 would know >;)

2008-04-01 11:47:05
43.   JL25and3
33 No, I hadn't heard of Kissell. Thanks for the tip.

I'm too young to remember Stengel with the Yankees, so Earl Weaver was simply the best manager I've ever seen - at least, for more than one season. If you want to win this year, and this year only, and pay a big price for it, then Billy Martin was the best. Otherwise, Weaver by a landslide.

2008-04-01 11:56:22
44.   rbj
43 I wonder what today's sports agents (especially Scott Boras) would make of Billy abusing the starting pitchers' arms.
2008-04-01 12:28:18
45.   Just fair
It is obscenely windy here in upstate. Hopefully it can dry the soggy fields as our High School season is supposed to begin tomorrow.
2008-04-01 12:29:27
46.   YankeeInMichigan
32 I believe that Cashman was forced into panic mode when the next wave of prospects (Johnson, Jiminez, Spencer, Henson) became injured and/or turned out ineffective.
2008-04-01 12:47:48
47.   YankeeInMichigan
The Bronx Block (http://tinyurl.com/yv2e96
) reports that the Yanks have signed a Brett Gardner clone (also a lefty) from Japan and have DFA'd Edwar.
2008-04-01 12:57:42
48.   JL25and3
47 April Fools!

http://www.imdb.com/character/ch0011534/

2008-04-01 13:06:48
49.   Dimelo
29 My big beef with James has been when he talks about Jeter and how he always has an extra special dig when talking about his defense, and the last thing I read from James had to do with Jeter being an inferior base runner to David Ortiz.

I can't remember some of the other things he's said, but he hasn't sung the praise of the more contemporary Yankees.

2008-04-01 13:36:06
50.   Chyll Will
49 "Alas, Bill James, you do me wrong,
To cast me off discourteously.
For I have read you well and long,
And tolerate your company.

Pinstripes was all my joy
Pinstripes was my delight,
Pinstripes was my heart of gold,
And what but my Yankee pinstripes."

Show/Hide Comments 51-100
2008-04-01 13:46:05
51.   Shaun P
49 If there's one thing I've learned about Bill James himself, from reading his work over the years, its that he holds nothing back when he's trying to take down widely-held assumptions that are just wrong because they are not supported by objective evidence - or the evidence is clearly faulty. Jeter's defense is just one example of many. James did the same stuff with hitting stats in the 80s. He tore the Dowd Report to shreds in his "The Baseball Book 1990" - not because he likes Pete Rose (IIRC, he does not), but because he thought Dowd did a shoddy job putting the evidence together.

When it comes to Jeter's defense, I think that how James responds has nothing to do with his opinion of Jeter (which, IIRC, is very high) or the Yanks. I think it is entirely due to how vehemently others defend Jeter's defense as being great, based only on subjective evidence - and/or crappy defensive stats like Fielding Percentage - when all the objective evidence says Jeter is a poor defender.

2008-04-01 14:18:59
52.   JL25and3
51 Actually, almost all the subjective evidence says the same thing, at least if you watch Jeter on anything like a regular basis. I don't think much of any of the individual defensive stats, and it's still clear that Jeter's got no range.

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