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« The Scottish Enlightenment | Main | Staring Into the Light »

October 20, 2004

Moneyball in the Bronx

Francis Morrone writes:

Dear Blowhards,

I realize that not every Blowhards reader is a baseball fan, and that even those who are may not care less about the Yankees and Red Sox.

But for those who do care, tonight's game is what it's all about. This has been an amazing series. I have been so busy lately that I missed seeing any of the Yankees' three wins to open this American League Championship Series. But I've been privileged to see the last three games, all won by the Red Sox, two of the wins in extra-inning classics that have left me sleep-deprived.

Notwithstanding the Cardinals' win total, the Yankees and the Red Sox are the two best teams in baseball. They have beautifully composed lineups, put together by two of the three best general managers in baseball. Both teams are run-producing machines of a sort that is actually fairly rare in the history of baseball.

The series includes delightful subplots. The most obvious is the intense Yankees-Red Sox rivalry over the years. There's also such a difference in demeanor. The Yankees, in a kind of throwback to the 1950s, require their players to be clean-cut. The Red Sox don't, and in fact seem to do the opposite, given some of their players' interesting hairdos and facial hair. Then there is the saga of Curt Schilling, the brilliant Red Sox pitcher who won 21 games in the regular season. He started game one for the Sox, but got shelled. He had a severe right ankle injury that not only caused his ineffective game one performance and his early exit from that game, but that also seemed to doom him for the remainder of the ALCS--a crushing blow to the Red Sox, whose pitching staff was relatively thin to begin with. But Schilling started game six, and pitched magnificently--seven innings, four hits, one run, no walks, four strikeouts. In other words, a sterling performance, made all the more amazing as it came from a pitcher enduring intense pain. In sports, we call this "heroic," which seems a stupid word to use when the nation is at war. Let's just call it remarkable.

I'm not a particular fan of either of these teams. I grew up in Chicago, so I'm one of those hapless, diehard Cubs fans. (Yes, last year sent me into a month-long depression.) But I've lived in New York for more than twenty years, and have enjoyed following the Yankees, and even rooting for them. I'm a bit tired of Yankees haters. True, this year's team is stocked with pricey acquisitions (Rodriguez, Matsui, Sheffield, the woebegone Giambi). But in recent years, the Yankees succeeded with home-grown talent. Jeter, Williams, Posada, Rivera, and Pettitte formed a home-grown nucleus that no other team matched. For several years, George Steinbrenner used his seemingly endless financial resources not to loot other teams' stars, but to retain his own. The Yankees' recent pennant-winners weren't bought. They were, rather, the product of baseball smarts. And there's nothing that gets my juices flowing more than baseball smarts.

That's why I'm rooting for the Red Sox tonight. The boy-wonder G.M. of the Red Sox, Theo Epstein, is a disciple of Bill James, who works as a consultant to the team. How to describe James? He's a former English grad student who some years ago began doing statistically based baseball analysis on the side. He saw that standard statistics, together with a lot of the idées fixes of crusty old baseball men, were logically and empirically untrue. His methods to determine what does and does not contribute to winning baseball games first appeared in his independently published (actually, mimeographed) Baseball Abstract in 1977. The first five annual Abstracts weren't available in bookstores, and I received my copies by mail order. One of James's enthusiasts was a New York writer named Dan Okrent (yep, the same one who is the Times ombudsman and the author of a magisterial history of Rockefeller Center), who arranged for James to get a New York publisher so the Abstract could get wider notice. The first mass-published Abstract appeared in 1982. A lot of old baseball guys scoffed at Jamesian analysis. So did a lot of writers and fans. They scoffed because they did not understand. James wasn't just spouting opinions. He was engaged in a pursuit of great intellectual honesty, with the goal of ascertaining truths about baseball. But Neanderthal jerks like Chris Russo (a.k.a. "Mad Dog" as in "Mike and the Mad Dog") on New York's sports radio station WFAN still get apoplectic at the mere mention of James's name. What an idiot.

It took a few years, but a new generation of general managers has taken Jamesian analysis to heart. Foremost among the new breed is Oakland's Billy Beane, who, using Jamesian analysis, has been able to put together consistently winning teams on a shoestring budget. Beane's exploits are detailed in the fabulous book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, by Michael Lewis. This is one of the essential baseball books. Lewis's title has given rise to the phrase "moneyball general managers" to describe the Jamesians. One of them is Theo Epstein. Another, to a large extent, is the Yankees' brilliant Brian Cashman. But the Red Sox now have Bill James himself.

I don't want to take this space to go into details of the Jamesian approach, other than to say that but for it you would not now be seeing such baseball stats in the newspaper as on-base percentage, or walks totals, or OPS (on-base plus slugging) percentage (a simple but remarkably accurate gauge of hitting). These are now regarded as very basic stats that sophisticated fans discuss.

Here is a site called "The Works of Bill James." Here is a fairly recent interview with James. A very good baseball writer in the Jamesian tradition is Rob Neyer at ESPN.com. If you're in New York, you can read the Sun, which has the best sports pages in America, including the excellent Tim Marchman on baseball. (And the equally great John Hollinger on basketball.)

Sportswriters often count among literate people's favorite writers. Think Roger Angell. But because of Bill James, I can say that a baseball analyst ranks among my intellectual heroes.

That's why I have to root for the Red Sox.

Best,

Francis

posted by Francis at October 20, 2004




Comments

I hear you re use of the word "heroic," yet still that is what comes to mind. Can a person only be heroic in the martial sense? If seeing Schilling work through his pain and honor his bargain with the fans do to everything humanly possible to try to bring a WS to Boston not an act that we should try to emulate in our own lives? I think it is. And I define heroic in those terms.

Of course, Schilling himself would be the first to say no way, he's not a hero at all. (Heroes are like that, aren't they?)

Glad you're rooting for the Red Sox!

Posted by: Edward Cossette on October 20, 2004 04:02 PM



Wellll.... how 'bout them Astros? A great world series would be the Sox and the Astros, with the Astros becoming the World Champs, of course! Now, mind you, I have a soft spot for the Cards, my late grandfather's team forever. I bet he has homeplate seats today.

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on October 20, 2004 04:05 PM



Tim Marchman also writes on baseball (and other things) for the New Partisan:

http://www.newpartisan.com/display/ShowJournal?moduleId=4763&creatorId=729

Cordially,

Dave Lull

Posted by: Dave Lull on October 20, 2004 05:48 PM



Franics,

Great Blowhardian piece on Moneyball, and the tip of the Red Sox/Yankees rivalry. After the stunt Alex Rodriguez tried to pull in the 8th inning last night, I can't see why anyone would feel good about rooting for the Yankees. As a great friend of mine (and Yankee fan) put it, it's like being a German citizen in 1938: there's a "we have to go along with this?" mentality among the more objective Yankee fans.

Of course, I can't fault the morons among the bunch either--although I live in Brooklyn Heights, I'm a native Bostonian and will carry my love of the 'Sox to the grave. And I'll hate the goddamn Yankees for that long, too.

GO SOX!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Posted by: Dick on October 20, 2004 06:54 PM



I've been a huge Bill James fan since 1986. Indeed, I try to bring a kind of Jamesian (Bill, not Henry) approach -- using lots of statistics -- to thinking about social issues.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on October 20, 2004 08:01 PM



Edward, Schilling was awesome indeed. Since as a Chicagoan (by birth) I am also a Bulls fan, I can say I haven't seen a performance like that since the Michael Jordan stomach flu classic against the Sonics.

Pattie, I'd like to see that matchup, too. I've been a big Bagwell/Biggio fan for years and would like to see them on the big stage at the ends of their careers.

Thanks, Dave, for pointing that out. Marchman's a hell of a writer.

Dick, Brooklyn Heights was settled by New Englanders in the 19th century. (That's why it had the two most famous Congregationalist ministers in the country for several decades.) You're part of a long tradition.

Steve, I'm so glad to hear you say that. I think there are a lot of us who have brought Jamesian values (for me, I might add, Henry as well as Bill) to what we do.

Posted by: Francis Morrone on October 20, 2004 08:47 PM



If "Moneyball" is the art of putting together "consistently winning teams on a shoestring budget", it's hard to see what it has to do with either the Yankees or the Red Sox. Take a look at their payrolls. The Cardinals make do with about a third of what the Yankees spend.

Posted by: Notary on October 20, 2004 10:59 PM



Moneyball isn't "consistently winning teams on a shoestring budget", it's figuring out what skills are undervalued and obtaining players with those skills. In fact, Moneyball is really just good business sense applied to baseball, a business in which good sense has usually not been present.

Posted by: ben on October 21, 2004 08:11 AM



Well, however you define Moneyball, the Red Sox are going to be playing it this winter. 13 of the 25 players on their roster can elect to become free agents at the end of the season. They don't have the money to sign them all, so Theo Epstein better be adept at finding Jamesian-type bargains. In fact, I'd go so far as to say they'd better win the Series this year because, come this winter, they're basically in rebuilding mode.

Posted by: Frank on October 21, 2004 08:39 AM



Ben is right. The Red Sox are a combination of high-priced talent, like Manny Ramirez, who nonetheless are great players by the moneyball standard, and classic overlooked moneyball types, like David Ortiz, Mark Bellhorn, and Bill Mueller. Free agents notwithstanding, I wouldn't bet against Epstein/James in the years to come. Which is not to say that this year isn't their best chance--and I believe they'll do it.

That said, I found myself last night rooting for the Yankees to make a game of it!

Posted by: Francis Morrone on October 21, 2004 10:22 AM



Completely insignificant point but is anyone else out there bothered by the way so many of the players nowadays wear their pants legs pulled all the way down? The old knickers look was much more "right" somehow. This is especially true with those great red sox of the Red Sox.

And no, I'm not gay.

Posted by: ricpic on October 21, 2004 10:32 AM



Good point about the socks, ric.

Obviously, the only guys the Sox are really concnerned about are Varitek and Martinez (with the possible exception of Derek Lowe, who may have pitched himself into a contract last night). I think Orlando Cabrera will sign the first offer they give him (which is great). The thing that makes me just a little optimistic is that none of these guys really want to leave. And who honestly believes that Pedro wants to play in the Bronx and leave his family and friends (I'm speaking literally here) in Boston where he's laid down roots?

Obviously, Steinbrenner is a dick and would love to sign Pedro just to spite John Henry. But the Yanks are going to go after more marquee offensive players (Beltran, Beltre) who will command huge deals after the seasons they've just had. And they've got to be interested in Carl Pavano, though word is that he'd like to return to Boston.

So, big question: where will Pedro pitch next year? I say Boston.

Posted by: Dick on October 21, 2004 11:30 AM



Fuhgettaboudit!! I live in Saint Louis---watch what you say about the Cards!! I think that "best team in baseball" comment is highly subjective. One choker (BoSox) beat another (yanks, at least this year) last night.

OK...now I'm ducking.

Posted by: annette on October 21, 2004 05:02 PM



OK, Annette--I am a CUBS fan. Do you know what that means? It means that I am cannot possibly wish the Cardinals well. That said, Jim Edmonds is one of my all-time favorite players. So I won't be devastated if the Cards make it.

But the Astros-Sox subplots are good. Texas (Bush) v. Massachusetts (Kerry)? Or Clemens returning to Fenway in the World Series? Hey, that's good stuff!

Posted by: Francis Morrone on October 21, 2004 05:23 PM



Quoting from myself: "Yes, I thought the Yankees would prevail, but the Red Sox won. Anyone who saw Curt Schilling speak after his win saw one reason why. Schilling was explicit: in the first game he acted purely on ego, and lost, while in the second game he pitched for the team and simply asked to be able to do his best. The important Yankees like Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams and Mariano Rivera have always had this attitude.

I think the Red Sox as a whole had the same maturation during the series as Schilling, which is why they went from a 19 to 8 loss to winning 4 straight games against all odds. The way they spoke about their respect for the Yankees, rather than their hatred, suggests this. If they want to win their first World Series since 1918, they should remember this."

Last but not least. James would probably disagree with what I said. He thinks statistics prevail, and that there is no such thing as a clutch player. Ortiz is a clutch player who prevented the Sox from losing games 4 and 5.

Posted by: john massengale on October 23, 2004 12:30 AM



PS: The Nation should take a lesson from Schilling and get over this obsessive neurosis with the Yanks.

Winning the ALCS was NOT winning the Series. If the Sox don't win the Series, fans around the country will still chant "1918" when the Sox come to town.

Posted by: john massengale on October 23, 2004 12:32 AM



John, it's odd that you should use Ortiz as your counter-James example, given that he would never have been in the position he was in to deliver his "clutch" hits but for James and Epstein recognizing--as no one else was prepared to do--that Ortiz was the sort of hitter you would want to have in a position like that.

A further point that needs to be made about James is that he is the furthest thing from some soulless technocrat of the game. He is also one of the best impressionistic writers on baseball. And he is not statistics-crazed. He believes they are our best means for measuring certain things in addition to which there are countless intangibles. What makes James's use of statistics enthralling is his sheer intellectual honesty. He is not an advocate for statistics, which can be used to distort (such as batting average), but for the honest use of statistics.

And the proof is in the pudding. As the moneyball teams succeed or fail, we will see whether James's approach is the right one.

Posted by: Francis Morrone on October 23, 2004 11:30 AM






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