It’s a Numbers Game


As long as baseball has been played there have always been numbers guys who can intellectualize the game, finding patterns that allow for better play. Portrayed most famously by Oglivie in the Bad News Bears, these men have been some of the most influential minds of the game. As geek has become chic, what was once a hobby for most has become a viable career path for a select few. We’re taking a look at some of the games most influential statisticians and talking to a modern day numbers man hoping to leave his own mark on the diamond.

It was Wesley “Branch” Rickey who, as president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers throughout the 40s, hired the very first full time MLB statistician Allan Roth. With Roth on board, Rickey championed the idea that on-base percentages were more important than batting averages.

Roth was the son of immigrants from the Ukraine and Poland. Always a math lover, the Canadian followed the stats of hockey and baseball. He kept a watchful eye on the Dodgers specifically because he believed Rickey was an innovator in the game and the man most likely to be open to the use of statistical analysis. In his initial presentation to Rickey, Roth contended that stats, including where the ball was hit and on which count, which had not previously been compiled, could reveal tendencies that helped win ballgames.

Accepted as the standard today performance breakdowns including batting success rates against lefties or righties, situations with runners in scoring position, night v. day game performances and success based on ballpark were all Roth’s doing. Where the two men agreed most was on runs batted in. Roth contended, and Rickey agreed, that the information was useless unless compiled in comparison to the player’s chance to drive the run in. Roth was hired and, on opening day 1947 the MLB’s first full time statistician began his 18-year career with the team at a starting salary of $5,000/year ($53,813.23 today).

In the days before computers Roth was compiling a minimum average of 5 hours worth of data/day on top of the game time each day. In the off-season, he would further analyze the data he’d compiled throughout the year, eliminating outliers and refining the process. Roth once said, “I know perfectly well that baseball cannot be played one hundred percent according to figures, and that the human element is even more important.”

Roth’s contributions to the game included spray charts, which show the location of each ball by a specific batter. After Rickey left the Dodgers the new GM moved Roth from behind home plate to the press box and eventually, in 1954, to the radio booth. Some would call that a lucky break for the listening audience. Roth feed stats to the Dodger announcers and quickly struck up a strong friendship with Vin Scully, the team’s most famous personality. “If you had some question that came to you in the middle of a game, he would reach down into the bag, and next thing you knew you’d have your answer. It was marvelous,” said Scully. In later years, a direct line between Roth and the press box PA was created to provide interesting factoids to live reporters.

In a 1954 Life Magazine article Rickey wrote about Roth’s work featuring the equation he called, “the most disconcerting, and at the same time the most constructive, thing to come into baseball in my memory.” Today, its is known simply as on base percentage. This was the idea that had sparked Roth’s hiring nearly a decade earlier. Inspired by his work, other statistical researchers, including Nathan McFadgen, Charles Mercurio, Paul Simpson and Tony Johncola, sought Roth’s advice as they self-published their own findings. The article also created a shift in Roth’s position on the Dodgers. His work would now be shared with the coaching staff. Through the years Roth would add saves to his ever-growing list of innovations. Of Roth Bill James said, “He was the guy who began it all.”

Illustration: Paul Hoppe

James is a statistical innovator in his own right. In 1977, Bill James began publishing Baseball Abstract annually. The father of sabermetrics coined the phrase himself in 1980. His statistical creations include Win Shares and Runs Created. He was, perhaps most famously, the Senior Advisor to Baseball Operations for the Boston Red Sox during their historical winning streak in the early 2000s where the team won three World Series Championships.

Made famous by Michael Lewis’ Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, A’s manager Billy Beane helped bring James’ work into the spotlight. Some of the most well-known sabermetric statistics include:

wOBA = Weighted On Base Average

A player's overall offensive contributions per plate appearance based on linear weights.

UZR = Ultimate Zone Rating

A fielding measure comparing the event that actually happen (hit/out/error) to data on similarly hit balls in the past to determine how much better or worse the fielder did in relation to the "average".

WHIP = walks and hits per inning pitched

The measurement of the number of base runners a pitcher has allowed per inning pitched.

WAR = wins above replacement

The WAR of a position player is calculated using six components: batting runs, base running runs, runs added or lost due to grounding into double plays in double play situations, fielding runs, positional adjustment runs and replacement level runs (based on playing time).

BABIP = batting average on balls in play

Looks at how many balls in play against a pitcher go for hits, excluding home runs.

FIP = fielding-independent pitching

Reviews the effectiveness of a pitcher in causing strikeouts while preventing HR, BB, HBP.

James’s work has revolutionized the modern front office. Today every team in the MLB has at least one coveted spot for a stats team member. That might not seem like a huge progression but baseball is a slow changing game and traditions die hard. On the flip side though, sabermetrics, along with the advancements in technology, seem to be perhaps overly embraced by some teams. Many have nearly chucked away their old data analysis all together while some teams continue with only the data of yesteryear. The best teams however know it takes both systems, and innovative new formulas, to keep a team moving ahead of their competition. Enter, the new kid on the block, Guy Stevens.

Kansas City Royals Baseball Analytics Analyst Guy Stevens is better known to most Europeans as the right-handed pitcher from the Israel National Team. The son of an Israeli native, born in California, Stevens attended university there as well. At Pomona College, he and a stats-head coach decided to take a look at minor league batters to determine if there was a better way to gage likely success rates at hitting in the bigs. A double major in mathematics and economics, and a pitcher, you couldn’t get someone more interested in this particular set of numbers.

Together they co-authored and published a paper which appeared in the Journal of Quantitative Analysis in Sports which concluded that, strikeouts on the lowest level or rookie ball were a good indicator of difficulties ahead for a player. As players moved up through the classes, strikeouts have less of a parallel to success.

While still in university Stevens wrote a blog called DormRoomGM. “I’d do a lot of hypothetical, ‘Could Team X improve their roster by trading Player A for Player B?’” Stevens recalls. “That was mostly for fun because those trades are so unlikely to happen.” As unlikely as they may have been, those online trades led Stevens down the path of front office internships and, eventually to his name on the door. In 2015, he added a World Series title to the ever-growing list of credentials.

In addition to his duties with the Royals, Stevens is also part of Team Israel once again. This year, he’s traded his jersey for a shirt and tie. As part of the front office team for the 2017 World Baseball Classic Guy will be handling Scouting/Analytics. Stevens told baseballEBM, “The entire Team Israel staff has been doing extensive research on two fronts. First and foremost, we had to find as many players as possible who were eligible to play and would be interested. After that, it’s about putting together the strongest possible roster from that group. It’s still a work in progress, but we’re really excited about how the roster is coming together.”

We asked Stevens about his preferences in terms of statistical data and analysis tools. “There is no “best” statistic or approach for all players. Each player has his own unique challenges to evaluate. You have to be adaptable and able to take in all the information available at any given time.” He went on to say that, “The goal is to paint as complete a picture as possible of the player being evaluated. That means using all the best tools at your disposal, including analytics, scouts, medical reports, etc.”

While pitching with the team Stevens traveled to Prague Baseball Week and played for team Israel in the European Championship Qualifier hosted by the Motherland. Asked what his favorite experience has been to date he replied, “Seeing Team Israel celebrate on the field in Brooklyn last September was a great moment for me. I’m passionate about baseball and would love to see the game grow in Israel. Qualifying for the WBC should go a long way towards pushing it forward.”

Following the release of his research, Steven’s work was the topic of many discussions about the future of baseball statistics. For now Steven’s concentrates on the immediate future but, if we’ve learned anything from history it is that a person with a mathematician’s brain is always looking for the best way to source the information available to them.

If you too love numbers, you might want to start testing out some of your own ideas, just like Stevens did in University. Using the site Retrosheet as his data pool, Guy said, “Sites like this make it possible for people outside front offices to do analytics”. As we all know the more you practice any skill, the more refined your process becomes. Until the 2017 season gives you new numbers to play with, why not travel through history and see if you too can find a future. Who knows, some day it may be your own findings being compared to the works of these men.