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post #1 of 23
Thread Starter 
(sans George Will)
_________________

New York Times

August 28, 2005

To Play Is the Thing

By DAVID LEONHARDT

BASEBALL has always been the most literary of sports, but it never managed to produce an intellectual fight worthy of the term. For most of its existence, writings on the game tended toward the poetic, like John Updike's "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu," a farewell to Ted Williams, or toward statistical minutiae.

This summer, however, the sport has found itself in the equivalent of a theological dispute about whether baseball is a game of mystery or of data, of statistics and analysis or of intuition and human instinct.

Like any good intellectual spat, this one involves high-brow questions and low-brow insults - in this case, dumb, narrow-minded and even unloving. It also has attracted interest from fields as far from the dugout as medicine, Hollywood and Wall Street, which find themselves grappling with the same question as baseball managers: When information can be gathered more cheaply and quickly than ever before, should people rely less on their hunches and more on numbers?

"I've been sat down and told they can give me a better way to do everything," Tony La Russa, manager of the St. Louis Cardinals and the hero of a new book celebrating the hunch, said last week, describing the statistics crowd. "They really are convinced that they can sit there and crunch out a formula that negates my power of observation."

"It's been a little irritating," La Russa added, "because there's a certain arrogance with that whole group."

It began two years ago, with the publication of "Moneyball," the Michael Lewis best seller about the Oakland A's, whose general manager, Billy Beane, used quantitative tools to keep his team near the top of its division every year, despite having less to spend than many competitors.

All the while, Beane marveled at the inanity of baseball's old ways, like judging prospects by body type instead of performance. Beane's success, and that of Lewis's book, brought even more number-crunchers into front offices, often at the suggestion of a team owner who had read "Moneyball."

Last year's World Series victory by the statistics-centric Boston Red Sox set baseball's old guard even farther back on its heels. The lessons of their championship will be enumerated next month with the publication of "Mind Game: How the Boston Red Sox Got Smart and Finally Won a World Series," written by the staff of Baseball Prospectus, a Web site that is to baseball's reformation what The Public Interest was to the rise of conservatism.

The traditionalists, who still dominate the scouting ranks, many front offices and the baseball media, have mounted a counterreformation this year with two books of their own. The first, "Three Nights in August," by Buzz Bissinger portrays La Russa as a master at tinkering with players' psyches.

He tries to bring out the best from an underachieving player, and he decides which pitchers should be briefed about the opposing lineup before a start, and which should simply go out and throw.

The second traditionalist text, "Scout's Honor," by Bill Shanks celebrates the scouts of Atlanta Braves, a profession that often serves as Beane's foil in "Moneyball." The Braves have won 13 straight division titles, Shanks writes, by letting their scouts find the players with the best "makeup," a baseball catch-all for hustle, attitude and heart.

Shanks is openly contemptuous of the Lewis book, writing, "the brash disregard for scouting in its truest sense as portrayed in 'Moneyball' was just as insulting to me as it was to so many scouts around the game."

Academic research, however, is pretty much on the side of statistics. Whether diagnosing patients or evaluating job candidates, human beings vastly overestimate their ability to make judgments, research shows. Numbers and analysis almost always make people better.

"There have been hundreds of papers on subjects from picking students for a school to predicting the survival of cancer patients," said Richard Thaler, a University of Chicago economist who uses sports examples in his class on decision-making. When a computer model is given the same information as an expert, the model almost always comes out on top, Thaler said.

Baseball's new analysts say that teams rely too much on instinct and received wisdom, which leads to things like the overuse of the sacrifice bunt and the drafting of high-school players.

In a speech to a group of investment bankers shortly after "Moneyball" appeared, Paul DePodesta, then Beane's deputy, called baseball a game where you were supposed to sit on your behind, "spit tobacco and nod at stupid things," borrowing a remark from a retired pitcher named Bill Lee.

"It became clear to us that the inefficiency in decision making in baseball was vast," said DePodesta, who played baseball at Harvard and led the Los Angeles Dodgers to the playoffs last year, his first season as their general manager.

The early record suggests that the reformers have found a real edge, if not a fool-proof method. The small-budget teams that depend most on analysis - Oakland, Toronto, Cleveland - are among the only ones in the playoff picture this year.

But their record is hardly spotless, the old guard happily notes. Beane has never won a playoff series, and DePodesta's Dodgers are struggling this year. The Braves are in first place again, despite Baseball Prospectus's many predictions of their imminent demise. So are La Russa's Cardinals

The most entertaining part of the battle is the charges and countercharges. Bissinger, for example, writes that the number crunchers do not truly love the game because they do not appreciate its lore or its human ingredient, a claim Lewis called absurd.

Indeed, what makes this fight truly comparable to those that periodically roil the worlds of art history or foreign policy is that the differences between the sides aren't as great as the sniping between them suggests.

La Russa spends much of his time jotting down information on index cards and studying statistics in his office, while members of the new guard often say the future belongs to teams that combine number crunching with scouting and injury prevention.

"The 'Moneyball' kind of stuff has its place, but so does the human," La Russa said by telephone from Pittsburgh. "Really, the combination is the answer."

But reaching that happy medium is likely to prove more difficult, and more interesting, than talking about it. The Cardinals, after all, created a statistical analysis department in the last two years, but La Russa said it had "almost zero effect" on his strategy. He wishes the team had instead spent the money on new video equipment.

________________________________________

and MORE, including Joe Morgan's arrogance, if you're more interested than you probably should be:

http://www.sfweekly.com/issues/2005-07-06/news/feature.html
post #2 of 23
Interesting debate, and one that's been growing for the last several years in sports and not just in baseball.

From my standpoint stats are great and have their place, but there are too many intangibles involved to rely solely on statistical analysis when making decisions. I agree with La Russa in that the best of both worlds is the answer. With the infinite number of decisions that a manager has to make in both building a team and performing on game day, it would seem short sighted not to employ every resource available, IMO.
post #3 of 23
The Braves are also, with perhaps the exception of the Marv Levy Bills, the greatest underachievers in team sports. Despite having lots of hitting and a staff with at least two hall of fame starters for many years (Glavine and Maddux), along with Smoltz, and in the day, Steve Avery, they've managed only one Series win.
post #4 of 23
Thread Starter 

arguable but

in my opinion that sole series win saves them from being in the same category as the bills. i mean, they got one. to have gotten skunked over that decade-plus of division dominance would have sealed their fate as underachievers. and you have to give credit to an organization that has built from within, then added the occassional free agent to get it done. (well, sorta.)

i view their '95 series win as the hole-in-one that salvages what would have been just another so-so round of, say 68. good, and over the long haul a heck of an average score; but when the guys in front of you keep showing up and dropping 66's on you, well, good thing you got that ace on tape, 'cause you're gonna wanna keep playing it back to remind you, "well, there was that."

the bills are in their own league.

(ever see buffalo 66?)
post #5 of 23
In recent interviews, Jane Fonda blamed the Braves' inability to convert more World Series on the Tomahawk Chop. She may be on to something...
post #6 of 23
Quote:
Originally Posted by jamesdeluxe
In recent interviews, Jane Fonda blamed the Braves' inability to convert more World Series on the Tomahawk Chop. She may be on to something...
heh

She didn't seem to mind it when she was sitting in the owner's box.
post #7 of 23
The Braves problem was they were staffed with consistant, solid, level players. Unfortunately for them the extended play-off system doesn't reward consistancy. World Series are now won by inconsistant teams that are peaking well above their level at the end of the season.
post #8 of 23
Thread Starter 

not so sure about that

given the length of a season, and adding playoffs, i don't think it's completely fair to dismiss teams that get hot late and continue the run through the playoffs. i disagree with the notion that these teams are inherently inferior talent-wise but fortunate with timing. baseball is about attrition; the long season allows a team to "find itself" late and carry momentum.

if you're going to reward great records, then the season a few years ago when the mariners won over 110 games or so (give or take; i'm guessing) would've had the trophy going to them, forget the playoffs (when you don't get to see the royals or devil rays, etc.).

the playoffs change dynamics considerably, especially where starting pitching is concerned. a staff like atlanta's, with maybe four solid starters loses that long-term advantage when they play a team with maybe "only" two aces who, because of the playoff structure, may start four of five games or four or five of seven.

speaking of the braves, they are 1-5, i think, against the padres, leaders of the national league west, with a very mediocre record. sometimes it's all about matchups. the devil rays have kicked yankee ass this year; should they go as the "better" team?

in this context, you can have the consistent teams that win 6.7 out of every ten games they play; i'll take the hot and cold team that puts it together when it counts and wins the big games.

consistency wins divisions.
being ready (and healthy doesn't hurt) takes it to the next level.
post #9 of 23
Quote:
given the length of a season, and adding playoffs, i don't think it's completely fair to dismiss teams that get hot late and continue the run through the playoffs.
You mean like the Red Sox last year?
post #10 of 23
Thread Starter 

obvious example, yes

but there've been several: angels 2002, marlins twice, '93 blue jays caught fire late. others.

EVERY team has streaks, whether at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of the season. EVERY team in EVERY sport wants to get it together, so to speak, late, "when it matters," as they say.

in trying to remember a team that smoked wire to wire to take it all, the detroit tigers of '84 got off to a blazing start, didn't slow down much, and kept it up all the way to the trophy.
post #11 of 23
I don't think there's any question that a team getting hot at the end is a big plus. It certainly plays a role in the NHL, NBA, and NCAA tournament where everybody and their brother make the playoffs. That said, it's much less likely to affect the World Series, based on the simple fact that the teams have to be pretty consistent just to make the play-offs after a 162 game schedule.

When I look back at the Braves, I think 2 factors play a big role in their demise. One-It's much easier to win a divisional championship than it is a World Series simply due to the strength ( or lack thereof) of the Division they play in, and two-the Braves starting pitching has historically pitched deeper into a 9 inning game than the rest of the teams across the board throughout the regular season. I think this plays a role in their ability to perform at the same level at the end of a long season during playoff time. There's only so much "gas" in any one arm.
post #12 of 23
Hey, the 2002 Giants were 9 outs away from going wire to wire.
post #13 of 23
Thread Starter 

tell that...

...to a cubs fan.

then duck.
post #14 of 23
Quote:
Originally Posted by ryan
the bills are in their own league.

(ever see buffalo 66?)
The Vikings are pretty f'ing close.
post #15 of 23
Quote:
Originally Posted by irul&ublo
The Vikings are pretty f'ing close.
Without a doubt!!

I bet Levy's biggest fan is Bud Grant.
post #16 of 23
Thread Starter 
LA Rams (yes, there was once upon a time an NFL team in Los Angeles) always won the NFC West back in the "Ground" Chuck Knox days, only to get spanked by the Cowboys or Vikings when it came championship time. (They did get in one year, with Pat Haden QB'ing, against the Steelers, but lost.)

Some great teams with tons of talent but...
post #17 of 23
How did LA lose the Rams and why hasn't the franchise been replaced?
post #18 of 23
Thread Starter 
i don't give much of one and so haven't followed it all that much but what i do hear involves the need for a new stadium ("nobody will go to the coliseum"), who'll pay for it, where it will be, etc.
post #19 of 23
So, this is how I see the current play-off system for baseball. For traditionalists, it is bad because it doesn't really reward teams that compete all 162 games each year. For people that only pay attention to baseball at the end of the season and during the play-offs it is good since it adds more pennant races to watch plus the competition for the wild card slot. It also adds more play-off games.

During years like last year it is good because a team like the Red Sox could get in and take the World Series. This year it could be very bad because the Yankees are peaking late and might get in as the wild card and take it all.
post #20 of 23
Thread Starter 
"...based on the simple fact that the teams have to be pretty consistent just to make the play-offs after a 162 game schedule."


i'm with coach13 on this one. it's a plenty long enough season to separate wheat from chaff. of course, if you had one division in each league, like pre-1969, then you may get a better sense of who the better teams are, though not necessarily. it can be said fairly, i think, that after such a long season, two (or more) teams separated by only one, two, maybe three or even four games are pretty comparable.

on the other hand (back to traditionalism), pitchers should hit.
post #21 of 23
Quote:
Originally Posted by ryan
LA Rams (yes, there was once upon a time an NFL team in Los Angeles) always won the NFC West back in the "Ground" Chuck Knox days, only to get spanked by the Cowboys or Vikings when it came championship time. (They did get in one year, with Pat Haden QB'ing, against the Steelers, but lost.)

Some great teams with tons of talent but...
Vince Ferragamo
post #22 of 23
Thread Starter 

true dat

i stand corrected. haden, who's law office is a couple floors above me, got injured and, well, you're right.
post #23 of 23
I can still see in my mind the fingertip reception by John Stallworth (a much underrated player) that just killed the Rams.

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