The Conversion of Baseball from Religion to Science

For the first 100 years or so of baseball’s history, there was a near widely held belief in the keys to winning baseball games.  On the defensive side, it was the starting pitcher who was central to team success; he was credited with the win or loss.  Over time, the starting pitcher increasingly turned the game over to the bullpen and the last pitcher in the game on the winning team was credited with saving the game for his starter.   As starters began exiting games even earlier, a stat was created to credit other relievers with holds.   Pitching was 90% of defense as the old axiom held. 

Over on the offensive side of the equation, the key to victory was scoring runs.  Stats kept track of who scored the run and who batted in the runner.  Common wisdom was that the critical element to the scoring of the run was the action that immediately preceded the run, which was usually a hit which enabled a runner or runners to cross home plate.  The home run was king to the run scoring action as hitter drove himself in.  It didn’t hurt that chicks dug the long ball. 

Given the importance of the act of driving in a run, batting average was the primary rate statistic used to evaluate batter performance.  Taking a walk was akin to doing nothing, as a walk did nothing to drive home a runner (unless the walk was with a runner on base; then the hitter would be credited with a RBI).  Thus the walk was removed from the batting average computation as if it had never occurred. 

The one thing a runner could do to improve his chances of scoring a run was to steal bases.  By getting himself closer to home base, the runner was increasing the chances a teammate would drive him home.  This daring and brave feat was celebrated and coveted.  Lineup cards across the land had speedsters leading off.  Their ability to get around the bases would surely produce runs if they got on base.  If they got on base.   

For many years, the above conventional wisdom was held firm as fact.  Contrarian views that explained run scoring, defense and winning baseball games were quickly dismissed.  Those contrarian explanations could simply not be true because they obviously were not true.   Watch any American League baseball game and witness the three run homer.  Check out the National League to appreciate the beauty of a single, a stolen base, a bunt and a sacrifice fly.   

As is always the case, commonly held beliefs slowly change over time as more information becomes available to explain the world around us.  Bill James was the original philosopher who dared to question conventional wisdom and seek his own answers.  He published his Baseball Abstracts stating in 1977.  Slowly, over time, he found many followers.  Michael Lewis published “Moneyball” in 2003; the book summarized the compelling challenge to the very notion of how runs were scored.  It was not the final act of driving the runner home that was key; it was the first act of getting on base that was the foundation of winning baseball.    

While almost every other team constructed their team from the original scripture, Billy Beane used the new knowledge to build his team another way.  While other teams paid premiums for home run hitters RBI men and speedsters, Beane simply looked for players who could get on base at a high rate.  Fill your lineup with men who get on base and the runs will follow.  The strategy worked, as the Oakland A’s made the playoffs four straight years starting in 2000, despite having one of the lowest payrolls in Major League baseball.  It certainly didn’t hurt that the A’s were stacked with strong starting pitching. 

Over time, new wisdom has emerged on the prevention of runs.  Pitching isn’t actually 90 percent of defense.  Somewhat ironically, it turns out the pitcher has very little control over what happens to balls that are put in play (other than home runs).  A team comprised of superior defenders will save runs and increase wins.  And those who are superior defenders aren’t always who they would appear to be.    

The dimensions of the ballpark significantly impacted run scoring as well.  Outside of Coors Field in Denver, the park effects were generally ignored by conventional wisdom.  Beane’s winning Oakland teams played in the enormous Oakland Coliseum, with its spacious foul space territory and heavy air.  Perhaps their young starting pitching was not quite as good as advertised. 

The Tampa Bay Rays were perhaps the first team to really latch on to the impact of team defense on win totals.  Their budget did not permit chasing the long ball and the importance of getting on base was generally accepted and no longer cheap to acquire.  To compete they needed to heed the primary message of Moneyball, which is that success can be found by exploiting market inefficiencies.  They could add wins more cheaply than their peers by improving their defense.  Their success and other initiatives taken by the Rays are chronicled in Jonah Keri’s excellent book, The Extra 2: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First. 

The efforts of the Oakland A’s and Tampa Bay Rays have led to a sizeable shift in common wisdom amongst many Major League teams.  The Boston Red Sox famously hired the young, statistically inclined, Theo Epstein as their General Manager and employed the ancient philosopher Bill James as a consultant.  Curses were broke and two World Series wins soon followed.   The Seattle Mariners are in the midst of a pitching and defense experiment to test the logic limits of the strategies.   The early returns aren’t good, but it is still interesting to watch. 

For those who have put in the effort to understand new thinking, their view of baseball is more informed and accurate.  The new metrics makes so much sense that is feels like it is the new conventional wisdom, even to those of us who can’t quite follow all the formulas.  But it’s not.  It only feels like conventional wisdom because the statistically minded spend their time talking to and reading from like mind individuals.    

It is still much easier to believe in the power of the win and the power of the RBI, so that is what the majority will choose to embrace.  And while the old guard is ultimately misguided with many of their views, those views still do a decent job to allow the world of baseball make sense to them.   

The good news is that there seems to be a quantum shift upon us, with more and more mainstream media embracing advanced metrics to evaluate the game.  The stat boxes on most telecasts include stats that weren’t there three years ago, even if the commentators still ignore them.   

As these new statistics become easily to digest and widely accepted, the new wisdom will become conventional wisdom.  At least until the next wave of new thinking comes along… 

This post was supposed to be an analysis of MVP votes over the years.  This Joe Posnanski piece had the line, “Well, it astounds me how often American League voters have given this award to Texas players period”.  That got me thinking about home runs and RBIs which turned into the above.  It is a different type of post and style of writing than I typically do; any feedback good or bad is appreciated. 

I did actually look back from 1994 to 2010 at the MVP votes in each league to see how things stacked up.  I used Baseball-Reference to do the look up, which conveniently listed each players WAR (“Wins above Replacement”) for the season.  Joe’s piece linked above speaks a bit to the issues with WAR and the fact that different sites have different computations.   

My goal wasn’t to identify the player with the highest WAR for the season and say, ‘Aha!  That person should have won’; rather it was to look at the bias towards home runs and RBIs over the years.  WAR was a tool to help me differentiate between a two trick HR/ RBI pony and those players who may have had high HR/RBI totals, but also brought other value to the table. 

The most interesting insight I gained from my analysis was that every American League MVP since 1995 has played in the postseason.  Up here in Canada, there is a lot of debate about the merits of Jose Bautista as MVP.  His cooling off in the second half probably dooms him, but history suggests he would be in tough anyways.  It really depends on where we are on the time continuum for the accepting of the new conventional wisdom amongst the MVP voters from the Baseball Writers Association of America.  There are only 28/32 voters in the American/ National League (two from each city) so a change could occur quickly.  Recent Cy Young votes suggest that voters have already accepted new wisdom on the merits of wins and losses. 

In the American League, the common factor amongst the ‘undeserving winners’ are huge HR and RBI numbers, along with a playoff appearance.  To answer Joe’s question, for some reason, AL MVP voters get really excited when the Texas Rangers make the playoffs.  They see the traditional stats and seem to be biased to the best player on the postseason team that has been out of the playoffs for awhile.  Josh Hamilton and Joey Votto are both examples of this in 2010, though both had tremendous years and were worthy winners. 

In the National League, the voting has reflected a different set of priorities.  From 1994 through 2010 there have been two overwhelmingly dominant players: Barry Bonds and Albert Pujols.  If either of them made the playoffs, they won the MVP award.  If not, an attempt was made to find another player to recognize.   

Although the American League is known as the power league, the National League MVP voters dig the long ball more than the chicks.  Ryan Howard, Barry Bonds and Larry Walker all won the MVP in years where they led the league in HRs, but missed the postseason.  When given the choice between two big boppers are near equal performance, they would award it to the individual whose team made the postseason.  The 1998 vote of Sammy Sosa over Mark McGwire is the best example of this; WAR has McGwire slightly higher, but not enough to fuss over.     

The National League MVP historical votes differ from their American League counterparts in that there are not really any ‘undeserving winners’.  You can make a good argument for additional four awards for Bonds and Pujols combined, but the votes still produced a deserving player, albeit the second most deserving player.  

 If I had to guess, I would peg it to the fact that the NL tends to have few outstanding seasons which makes the voting a little easier.  It has also helped that the big power hitters have generally been outstanding all around players.  I don’t think the NL MVP voters have embraced the advanced stats more than their AL MVP voting peers. 

For those that are interested, below are the bits of information I pulled from Baseball-Reference (click on image to open it in a new window and view it without a magnifying glass).  Those players highlighted in yellow qualified for the postseason (1994 highlight represents divison leaders before strike).  Any and all comments on what you glean from the votes are appreciated.  Thanks for reading.

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1 Comment

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One response to “The Conversion of Baseball from Religion to Science

  1. Correction on my AL MVP being in playoffs comment. ARod won with Texas in 2003 when the Rangers were in last place. My apologies.

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