Friday, September 14, 2018

When Spock Met Casey and Leo: The Birth of Baseball Analytics

While Moneyball and the Sabermetric revolution have swept baseball in recent years, I have discovered that the origins can be traced to a unique meeting of minds that took place decades earlier. A recently released classified document, previously stored at a government facility in Roswell, New Mexico, shed light on this.

It seems that the 22nd-century Starship Enterprise, in an effort to study primitive culture, used a warp-slingshot maneuver around the Sun to travel back in time and landed in mid-1950s New York City, where one member of the crew encountered and became enamored with the American game of baseball.

The scene opens as men are standing around a batting cage before an exhibition game between the Yankees and Giants:

Spock (talking to a funny-looking catcher wearing pinstripes): . . . and so, it is not logical for anything to be completed until it is, indeed, over.

Yogi: Yeah, I never thought about it like that. But that makes sense.

(Leo Durocher and Casey Stengel walk up.)

Leo: Hey, who's the elf? Get a load of those ears.

Yogi: Meet my new friend, Mr. Spock.

Spock (addressing the group): I have to say that I find myself strangely drawn to your game of baseball. It induces a curious emotion of enjoyment. We do not have anything similar on Vulcan.

Casey: Say, is that where you got those ears? I remember a feller on my team in Brooklyn back in '13 had ears like that. Couldn't hit worth a damn.

Spock: I've spent the last hour analyzing your scorebooks from the previous ten years and I believe I can help improve the efficiency of your decision making. Most importantly, I find that your reliance on human emotions, intuition and so-called tradition does not allow you to make the most logical of choices. I have compiled some facts which should help you. As you know, without facts you cannot decide with logic.

Casey: All that analysis is well and good, but what I need right now is a left-handed batter who can hit the ball over the shortstop's head.

Leo: I'm all for anything that will give me an edge. What do ya got?

Spock: First, the selection of players for your roster is most illogical. That can be improved immediately by proper statistical analysis to allow you to identify the most efficient players.

Leo: I don't need no numbers to tell me nothing like that. I know a ballplayer when I see one. And I also know the ones that ain't got the guts to play when things are tough.

Spock: Regrettably, history suggests that you do not. Not only that, but you  are guilty of using a double negative. It does not make sense to play the same players in the same spots in the batting order every day, making no allowance for the pitcher or other variables.

Leo: That's a pile of crock. I know ball players. I can tell a winner from a loser just by looking at him. And I know how to make out a line up card. I play the hot hand, see. I got 30 years of experience to tell my gut what to do. Give me some scratching, diving, hungry players who come to kill ya. That's what I want.

Spock: Your experience actually prohibits you from making a rational decision as it reinforces mistaken assumptions based on anecdotal evidence. The human brain possessed an infinite capacity for making it believe what it wants to believe. An example is your erroneous preoccupation with diminutive second basemen. Though the newspapers call them fiery sparkplugs, I fail to realize how an elevated basal temperature can help win games. You would be much better served by playing a larger man with an elevated launch angle in his swing at that position.

Leo: I don't want any of those big, slow guys--they can't help you win even if they do hit one outta the park every now and then.

Spock: Take your former man Stanky, for example. He could not hit, he could not run, he could not field . . .

Leo: Yeah, all the little sonovabitch could do was beat ya.

Spock: The little, to borrow your colorful metaphor, sonovabitch, could do one thing however: get on base. In 1950 he walked 144 times. That allowed him to reach first base in 46 % of his at bats. This, more than any nebulous intrinsic factor or annoying antics, was responsible for his value to winning games. This leads me to the next point: simply dividing the number of hits by the number of at bats is a poor evaluation of a batter's efficiency. I would submit that the percentage of times a batter reaches base, by either a hit or a walk, termed the on-base percentage, represents the highest good. 
Leo: So you're saying that a walk is as good as any kind of hit?
Spock: Obviously not. This is where the OPS, or On-Base Plus Slugging Percentage comes in. A hitter is rewarded for extra-base hits.

Leo: Aw, you're just throwing out an alphabet soup. Give me a good pair of binoculars in the centerfield clubhouse, a bunch of scrappers and I'll win ya a damn pennant. I want guys who hustle, bunt, hit and run and steal. That's the type of club that wins.

Spock: I fail to understand your fascination with the so-called hit and run. First, it is an obvious misnomer as the runner runs, then the hitter hits. It should be called the run and hit. Second, according to my analysis, the risks far outweigh the benefits. I can find no plausible reason to employ this tactic.

As far as the bunt is concerned, I find it to be a most inefficient maneuver. While logic dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the individual, which would seem to favor the sacrifice, my research shows that a man on first with no outs has a 32.0381 % chance of scoring, whereas a man on second with one out has only a 27.57286 % chance.

Leo: But you're not taking into account who's at the plate and who's coming up behind him. Or whether the man on the hill is tired or can't field bunts. And what the crowd is doing. There's a lot more going on that your stats can't tell.

Spock: Also, it can be shown that unless you can be certain that a runner will be safe 72.95398 % of the time or more, it is illogical to attempt a steal. The advantage of gaining the extra base is simply outweighed by the risk of losing the all-important out.

Leo: But stealing unsettles the pitcher, moves the fielders and gets your team into the game. Not to mention the fans. Once they all get on their feet, everybody starts playing better. We get momentum.

Spock: I find your insistence on the archaic notion of rallies and momentum to be quaint, if not misguided. These concepts simply do not exist in nature.

Leo: You're full of it. Why, I've seen games won merely because the boys in the dugout got on the pitcher and he lost his edge. I've seen great hitters go into a slump after a pitcher sticks one in his ear. I've seen an entire Series lost by a rally that started with only a ground ball hitting a pebble. How do you and your numbers account for that?

Spock: The question is irrelevant. The facts are the truth merely because they are. No amount of arguing can change that. Once we eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, is indeed the truth.

Another erroneous assumption is that of the so-called clutch hitter. Logic dictates that a .300 hitter will be successful in 30 of 100 clutch situations, while a .250 hitter will be successful 25 times. The result is pure math. Human emotion and collective euphoria provide the impression that some men are better in tight situations than others, but in reality, they are not. Also, the RBI is perhaps the most flawed of your statistics. RBIs are merely the result of a man coming to bat with many men on base, nothing more.

Leo: Don't tell me that bull. I know in my heart that some guys are better when the chips are down. Take a nice guy. He won't win you as many games because he doesn't want it as much.

Spock: If you continue to rely on emotion, sir, you will forever be incapable of making a rational decision. You must accept the fact that many of your tactics are simply not supported by logic.

Leo: I'm getting tired of this guy. He ain't said nothing that makes any sense yet.

Spock: Sir, your disregard for simple grammatical rules is becoming alarming. As far as pitching, your insistence on keeping the statistic of Wins is not logical. A Win for a pitcher is a most ineffective measure of his success as it is dependent on far too many variables of which he can not control. Alternatively, I would suggest Walks Plus Hits Per Innings Pitched or WHIP.

Leo: I'll whip you, you pointy-eared freak. I've heard just about enough of your . . .

Spock: Also I would like to suggest a new measure of effectiveness for all players: Wins Against Replacement, or WAR. I would not expect someone with your primitive math skills to understand how it is calculated. You should just accept the efficiency of it.

Leo: Okay Tinkerbell, that's it. (Leo lunges for Spock and takes a swing. Spock side-steps the punch, places his hand on Leo's shoulder and squeezes. Leo slumps quietly to the ground).

Casey: (looking at Leo's prone body) There's a lot of guys in this game that have been trying to do that for years. You know young feller, a lot of what you're saying makes sense and then some of it is pretty darn sound. I've always said that sometimes it's better to understand things than it is to figure them out. Why, as far as what you said about lineups, I've been doing that for years. Now, take my guy over there. There's a chance he'll hit off this guy pitching for them today and he probably will. But take this other guy. He'll probably hit him better because he always has and what's more, he's a lefty.

And another thing, they say that some of my players drink whiskey, but I've found that them that drink milkshakes don't win many ballgames. You could look it up.

Now look at this feller over here. He's twenty and in ten years he's got a chance to be a real superstar. Now that feller over there, he's twenty and in ten years he's got a chance to be thirty.

Spock: Fascinating. You have a most remarkable ability to speak at length and yet say virtually nothing. Also, your ability to completely destroy the English language is unsurpassed. But somehow, there is a certain perverse logic to your speech and your recent history of success in the postseason is undeniable.

Casey: Now there's them that will tell ya they knew me before I wuz a genius and they probably did. And also they'll tell ya that them things can't be done, but sometimes that don't always work. Now I've always thought that good pitching beats good hitting and vice a versa .  .

Spock: I must return to my ship now. Live long and prosper Old Perfessor.