Even in the Moneyball Era, Baseball’s Pundits Won’t Go Away

This past season Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers won baseball’s triple crown – he led the American League in home runs, runs batted in, and batting average. No one had done this since 1967, so Cabrera was the near-universal pick as the league’s most valuable player, winning 22 of 28 first place votes. This is a bit odd, since he was only the second most valuable player in the league.

Such was the conclusion reached by virtually all those who dive most deeply into the data to understand the game of baseball. These geeks, who often call themselves SABRmetricians (after the Society for American Baseball Research, the Mecca of baseball statistical analysis), were certainly impressed by Cabrera’s performance, but they were even more impressed by Mike Trout, a rookie outfielder for the Angels.

How could this be, when all three of Trout’s Triple Crown statistics were inferior? Two reasons. First, the stats that make up the Triple Crown are a mixture of the good, the bad, and the inferior. Tracking home runs is a good idea, but RBIs are a terrible measure, since they capture how good your teammates are at getting on base at least as well as they capture how well you hit. And while batting average isn’t meaningless it’s inferior to on-base percentage, or better still OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage), as a way to measure a player’s overall contribution on offense. Even more modern stats take into account the effects of a player’s home stadium, and Trout outperformed Cabrera on many of these measures.

The second reason that Trout was a more valuable player is the simple fact that he was better in 2012 at both fielding and baserunning, the two other things baseball players do in addition to hitting. We know this because it’s now possible to quantify these two dimensions of the game to an extent never before possible. The legendary baseball savant and pioneer Branch Rickey (who signed Jackie Robinson, the first African-American major leaguer) wrote in 1954 that “There is nothing on earth anybody can do with fielding” because it was so hard to measure accurately. Now it’s easy; high speed digital cameras record the precise trajectory of every ball put into play, and there are systems to determine which players get to the hard ones, and which don’t even get to the easy ones. As SABRmetrician and overall geek hero Nate Silver puts it, “One of these systems, Ultimate Zone Rating, estimates that Trout saved the Angels 11 runs with his defense in the outfield. Cabrera, a clumsy defender at third base who is more naturally suited to play first base, cost the Tigers 10 runs with his.” The two players were similarly differentiated in baserunning.

What does all this have to do with the business world? A lot. In the current era of big data our ability to measure important things ranging from customer attitudes to supply chain health to the fit between a job and a job candidate has taken a quantum leap forward. Companies that come up with new and improved measures and use them to guide their work will over time pull away from those that stick to the old stats or, even worse, use gut feeling rather than numbers as guidance.

The game of baseball has changed very little in a century, but the art of assembling a winning team has been transformed in recent years. This transformation has been led by SABRmetricians working with ever-faster computers and ever-richer data sources, and by front office executives like Billy Beane who listen to them and follow their quantitatively-grounded guidance. At many teams, in short, the suits have started listening to the geeks.

As the 2012 MVP contest shows, however, many of baseball’s pundits have not yet followed suit. The MVP is determined by a vote of the members of the Baseball Writer’s Association of America. Most of them have been around the game for a long time, and few of them have much affection for the newfangled statistical approaches. They think that the old ways and the old numbers work just fine, and don’t like the way that geeks have inserted themselves into analysis and discussion of the national pastime.

The feud between the old guard of baseball writers and Young Turks leads to hilarious writing like this takedown of Mitch Albom by Drew Magary at the sports site Deadspin, and it’s also instructive. It shows us that when new data and new modes of analysis become available in a domain, observers of that domain split pretty cleanly into two camps: geeks who take us into new territory and better understanding, and pundits who want to stay anchored in the present, if not the past.

Listen to the geeks and you’ll be a more valuable player. Punditry, in contrast, is really bush league.