He’s absolutely right. And in our minds, baseball is about warm memories, great plays, and numbers. Always, numbers. I learned how to do straight division by figuring out batting averages, for example. Working out ERA was a complex equation, but it was easy once you got the knack of it.
So, I love to play with baseball numbers. So does Kenny, but not the kind “traditional” baseball fans are familiar with. Kenny is the face of sabermetrics on sports television, and his “Clubhouse Confidential” show is a sabermetrics smorgasbord. Kenny is playing with a different set of numbers, and in his book, Ahead of the Curve: Inside the Baseball Revolution (Simon & Schuster; hardback; $28; 353 pages), he provides a cerebral, absorbing and thought-provoking look to baseball’s new algebra.
Say the word sabermetrics around old school baseball fans, and they trot out the garlic, mirrors and sharpened sticks to ward off the evil spirits. True story: I was listening to sports talk radio this morning in Tampa, and one of the announcers said how much he hated sabermetrics. And then he decided to come up with his own formula.
“I know how to figure WAR (wins above replacement),” he said. “Take a guy’s batting average and divide by his address. That’s WAR.”
“Yeah, what is it good for?” his sidekick asked.
While I appreciate the reference to Edwin Starr’s song “War” that hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts in late August 1970 — and I am sure that reference went over the heads of more than half of the listening audience — it was a gratuitous slap and shows that even passionate baseball fans keep sticking their heads in the sand.
The value of WAR, Kenny writes, is that “it forces you to confront the totality of the player’s contribution.”
Kenny is the kind of media guy that doesn’t follow the herd, as he calls it. He’s always looking for a fresh angle, questioning, thinking, weighing different scenarios. And that’s what shines through in Ahead of the Curve. Kenny notes that the three most influential thinkers in baseball history are Henry Chadwick (who invented the boxscore and created batting average and ERA in his role as a baseball statistician), Branch Rickey and Bill James. Rickey was the first baseball man to hire a full-time statistician and to realize that on-base average was important, that RBIs were a misleading statistic and that fielding statistics were “utterly useless.” I don’t know what was written about Chadwick, but I know that both Rickey and James received plenty of negative press for thinking outside the box.
Statistics are a funny thing. We can rattle them off — and so can players — but sometimes old school managers don’t want to hear about them. Pitcher-turned-author Jim Bouton wrote that in 1969, he told Joe Schultz, his manager in Seattle, that he’d only walked two batters in his last nine innings of relief.
“Aww, I don’t want to hear any statistics,” Schultz said with a dismissive wave. “I can see what’s going on with my own eyes.”
The best chapter in the Ahead of the Curve is called “bullpenning.” Kenny argues that it is not good baseball to leave the starting pitcher in as long as possible; rather, wheeling out a fresh arm every one or two innings is a much more effective use of a pitching staff. More pitchers throwing fewer innings can be productive, he says.
“An optimal pitching staff would be made up of roughly the same number of pitchers, but with the workload divvied up,” Kenny writes.
Kenny recalls how the Oakland Athletics of the 1970s did not hesitate to bring out their “closer” in the fifth or sixth inning. It was not unusual to see Rollie Fingers for the A’s, or Sparky Lyle (Yankees) and Mike Marshall (Dodgers) entering the game in the sixth inning to snuff out a rally. To take it back even further, Casey Stengel won 10 American League pennants from 1949 to 1960 and did not hesitate to change pitchers early and often. Perhaps that’s the reason the “Ol’ Perfessor” winked an awful lot; he’d stumbled onto to something valuable.
The game is always on the line, as Kenny writes. Why wait?
Kenny also uses new numbers to argue for some retired players that didn’t get close to the Hall of Fame — but in Kenny’s analysis, should have. For example, Tim Raines compares favorably to Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn in terms of on-base percentage, slugging percentage and WAR. Gwynn has a big lead in batting average, and there is the argument: batting average over OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage). Isn’t a player who gets on base via a walk and enhances his chances to score by stealing bases (like Raines did), just as valuable as a man who has a gaudy batting average?
Kenny thinks so. And that’s no knock on Gwynn, either. But Raines helped produce runs, too, and runs help win ballgames.
He also makes the argument for Keith Hernandez based on his fielding ability and his talent for leading his league in assists — not a flip to the pitcher, but throws to second and third base to cut down the lead runner.
It’s fun to argue numbers. And Kenny jumps into another numerical debate when he argues that Mike Trout, and not Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera, should have been the A.L.’s most valuable player in 2012. As Kenny points out, in figuring out batting average, a single can be just as valuable as a home run. That’s not always the case in real action, but you get the idea. If I collect 265 hits and all of them are singles and I bat .412, is that more valuable than a guy who hits .290 but hits 45 homers and drives in 150 runs? Interesting question.
And about those homers and RBIs. Are they meaningful? That is to say, do the homers come when the game is on the line, or are they solo shots late in the game when the outcome already has been decided?
Back to Trout vs. Cabrera. The argument for Miggy “flouted the basic set of principles of the old school’s beef with SABR members” — you can’t judge everything by the numbers.
And yet, Kenny writes, the voters for the MVP award handed the honor to Cabrera based on three hitting numbers.
The arguments will continue to rage, and as Kenny writes, “it’s about to get wonky.”
Other issues Kenny writes about include the wisdom of bunting, who should bat second in the lineup, and downplaying the glamour of a pitcher getting a win.
This is an entertaining book. You can still be old school and enjoy it. All Kenny is asking is to look for the difference between what seems obvious and what is actually going on.
“Ask a question, get your answer, and ask the next question,” he writes. “Think critically and independently.
“Avail yourself of bright people and new ideas.”
That way, no matter how you prefer to crunch the numbers, baseball will remain a beautiful game on the field — and in our minds.