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About Jon
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1) using profanity or any euphemisms for profanity
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5) discussing politics
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Opposable Thumbs
2008-04-24 08:28
by Jon Weisman
Note: The Dodger Thoughts blog has moved to the Los Angeles Times.

Moneyball was never about choosing statistical analysis over scouting, contrary to how some people interpreted it (whether or not they read it). It was about pursuing competitive advantages, often in the face of conventional wisdom, and certain kinds of statistical analysis were simply examples of this at the time.

At True Blue L.A., Andrew Grant makes an interesting argument that game stats are reaching their limit as a weapon for general managers, who will need to find other ways to make themselves useful.

Am I saying that we should go back to thinking Juan Pierre is a good player and that Bartolo Colon totally deserved that Cy Young award since he lead the league in wins? Of course not. I'm saying that an organization can no longer be primarily stats based and find any kind of success without having a gigantic payroll. I'm saying that there's very little competitive advantage to be gained from stats based analysis.

The problem is that there's too much information out there now. Ten years ago if you wanted to find something like expected BABIP you would have to hire and independent stat provider and do all the calculations around it yourself. Now, any jerk with a blog can go to The Hardball Times, plug four numbers into a spreadsheet and get an answer in seconds for free. Want to know the league leader in line drives allowed last year? Give Baseball Prospectus 30 bucks and find out the answer. This has lead to some great things. People out there can take this information, produce new and interesting studies, and give it away all for free. But when you can get all of this for the cost of a Baseball Prospectus subscription and a couple of books, why bother hiring someone to do the same thing?

Grant suggests that the pendulum has swung back in favor of scouting - while wondering about how well the two sides, which aren't meant to operate in exclusion of each other, can be further united.

For stat guys to mean more than 100 dollars worth of reading material and an internet cable, they need to change their ways and do more than the average blogger can do. I think the breakthrough will come from finding out someway to quantify scouting data, and how to incorporate that into projection systems. How much does a prospect's bat speed really matter? What flaws in pitching mechanics are fixable and what are career enders? Does someone's time in the 40 in high school mean anything at all? These are questions that you can't just answer with an internet connection, you need data that only a collection of big league scouts can acquire. The guys that are willing to embrace this kind of analysis are the ones that can thrive, and the ones that think knowing what SNLVAR stands for will gives them an advantage over anyone will fall by the wayside.

Major-league teams already explore this to some extent, obviously, but I suspect there's room for growth. And as a mediocre statistican and a beyond-terrible scout, I can see the sense of this.

Take Andruw Jones, for example. I have preached that based on his statistical record, in the context of what we know about major-league players, it's more likely that he's been in a slump that can be corrected through adjustments, rather on some career-ending bender. Not that he'll regain his peak, but that he can still be valuable. But if someone were able to make the same kind of objective evaluation of how he looks, if someone could remove some of the guessing and hope out the equation before deciding how much to pay or play him, that could be very relevant and persuasive.

In other words, instead of merely saying "Jones looks terrible at the plate," you actually have a measurement on a scale, or a placement on a graph, to show what his mechanical ailment is and how likely it is to be cured. You'd diagnose his swing like you diagnose an injury or illness.

Not that there isn't some mystery in treating health ... which leads to my own additional point. Another destiny still being manifested in baseball is the medical frontier. There remains a great deal of guesswork when it comes to how likely a player is going to be hurt and how long his recovery times will be. Medicine may always be a combination of art with science, but it's another area that may offer more opportunities for competitive advantage than things like on-base percentage do. The risk-reward ratio is still there for the tinkering.

Of course, this all presumes that you are paying to things like on-base percentage in the first place.

As I reread this post, I feel my writing is pretty muddled. But I just thought there were some issues here worth pondering.

Comments
2008-04-24 09:16:54
1.   Bob Timmermann
People are too stunned to say anything I guess.
2008-04-24 09:18:59
2.   madmac
1 I was just waiting for you.
2008-04-24 09:26:31
3.   dkminnick
0 - "Moneyball was never about choosing statistical analysis over scouting,"

Thank you, Jon. That's they way I read it, too. It's kinda funny to me the way some folks treat statistical analysis as pseudo-religious dogma. Stats are a tool. So is scouting. Pretty simple, really.

2008-04-24 09:27:36
4.   Daniel Zappala
Does this mean the head of scouting will be paid as much as the GM?
2008-04-24 09:29:35
5.   Kevin Lewis
Daniel,

I liked the photo of the bike. Would that be difficult to ride solo?

2008-04-24 09:32:10
6.   Tom Meagher
Ugh. Sorry Jon and Andrew, but I just don't see what you're arguing. Anybody following sabermetrics at all knows that it's rapidly been incorporating new forms of data. Just because "sabermetrics" started with trying to understand how best to use the official statistics to evaluate players does not mean that this is its definition. Sabermetricians have always been about using whatever data is available to them to determine the underlying realities.

Baseball teams are measured by numbers. The two most salient, from an ownership point of view, are wins and dollars. The aggregation of wins (itself an aggregation of runs, which are an aggregation of hits, walks, outs, etc.) cannot be studied without using numbers. Hence, any baseball study must bear some relation to numeracy.

If the "replacement-level sabermetricians" Andrew talks about improve dramatically, then they can indeed tell us most of what we want to know about established major league players. But the same RLS should know that in most cases a team is unlikely to screw up their purely-narratively-based evaluations of vets to such an extent that it will cost them more than a few wins in any season. The value of a non-RL sabermetrician to a major league team has to do with dense research where many variables have to be holistically considered. Sabermetricians are present to provide researched answers to questions of significance. In running a major league team, it is unlikely that you would want to ask your stat guy to research Andruw Jones, straight up, starting from scratch. You would instead ask your stat guy for how the system that they use and constantly update and revise values Jones, and secondarily you may ask for some research on questions relating to Jones - i.e., is there a cliff that older players fall off, how can we see it coming, and so forth.

Andrew's argument is similar (NOT the same) as an argument that greatly improved high schools would make universities irrelevant. While there would be many arguments as to the magnitude of such a change, and while there are of course thousands of social issues that a policy-maker would have to assess alongside such claims, it should be obvious that researchers can provide much new insight in any setting where they are given considerably greater access to research materials, data, and institutional support. I do not claim that this is always the result, but I just don't know what you two are saying.

2008-04-24 09:32:13
7.   Will Carroll
There are less good analysts than teams, which means there's teams out there that don't have the right guy or worse, aren't listening to their guy. It's not the stats (or the scouts), it's how they're used to make decisions and how that decision is made. If you don't think Keith Woolner is an advantage for the Indians or Ben Baumer for the Mets, you really need to go watch football.
2008-04-24 09:32:42
8.   bryanf
I enjoyed Andrew's article and enjoy your thoughts on it as well Jon. I wonder if the scout and the sabermetrician can really be friends.

On a completely unrelated note, I was at the game last night and I just had to post this minor piece of self-promotion: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vxbPGY2kSxw. My first foray into the YouTube world! My fiancee messed up our usual harmony at the end, but I'm sporting my Dodger Thoughts t-shirt! Woohoo!

2008-04-24 09:34:36
9.   GoBears
Excellent points by Andrew and Jon. But also, I think, much easier said than done. There are some aspects of player evaluation that will always be art (e.g., assessing a player's "makeup" or "teachability"). I also wonder if another problem might be the personalities of scouts. What I mean is this: There are some people who are willing (eager?) to spend their lives traipsing around to high school baseball games in cornfields. There are others who are willing to push the frontiers of scientific analysis (breaking down swings with cameras and computers, building models of the physical parameters of baseball talent). Either the new uber-scouts would have to somehow be in the teeny tiny overlap of those two groups, or else the groups would have to find a way to work together, with the field scouts collecting data, and the geek scouts analyzing it. That seems like a pretty serious downgrade of the field scout's job, pretty much to the level of research assistant.

Then, add in the consideration that the data that the field guys are collecting could be obsolete in a week. Young players are probably very inconsistent in their performance (not just in terms of results, but in terms of simple repetition of the same swing, the same release point, etc.). Nowadays, I imagine that a scout's job is to extrapolate from a very limited set of observations. What the geek scouts back home would need, just like the game-stats analysts, is lots and lots of time-series data. For that, we'd need thousands and thousand of new scouts, to collect data from (nearly) every game. Either that or cameras and computers everywhere that could calculate parameters of performance (sort of like the new GameDay pitch data) for every player and play.

I'm not saying it couldn't happen - just that there'd be a lot of resistance, that there'd be need for serious technological advances, and that, even then, it would be hugely labor intensive.

2008-04-24 09:35:08
10.   LogikReader
This reminds me: Fire Joe Morgan is anything but a non-partisan web site. It's partisan all right, but partisan in favor of statistical analysis.
2008-04-24 09:41:24
11.   Jon Weisman
6 - Thanks, Tom. I won't speak for Andrew at all. I feel that what I'm saying is only that sabermetric principles should also be applied to areas that most of us aren't aware they're applied to.

7 - As my second-to-last paragraph implied, obviously my argument is predicated on people having made fundamental use of the resources already out there. I'm not sure that there aren't 30 good analysts in the world - whether or not they're employed or listened to is another matter.

However few great sabermetric statisticians there are out there, I'd have guessed there are fewer great sabermetric medical analysts.

2008-04-24 09:41:28
12.   wronghanded
Jon, I totally agree with your analysis. The "new school" stats out there are great and beneficial to the game but scouting and advanced scouting remains just as viable in my opinion. Pitching and hitting mechanics are what seperate good from great players and injury-prone vs. healthy players as well. Andruw Jones will continue to produce like his '07 and '08 (so far) self until he implements change in his mechanics. This change may effect his power output but I doubt it. Some guys get by on raw athleticism but could greatly improve if they just refined their approaches. If a pitcher is throwing a wicked sinker but his elbow is below his shoulder during the delivery, that pitcher is a ticking time bomb for TJ surgery regardless of his current effectiveness. Stats don't see these things and scouts do. This game is about consistency and players that have the most consistent/competent approach are usually the one's with the most success.
2008-04-24 09:41:54
13.   GoBears
I was at the game last night and I just had to post this minor piece of self-promotion.

Just had to, huh?

Ach, who'm I kiddin'? It made me smile.

2008-04-24 09:42:30
14.   Jon Weisman
10 - Are you talking about the sidebar? That just refers to whether they're preoccupied with a specific team or not.
2008-04-24 09:43:47
15.   Jon Weisman
My post today isn't about some revelation that scouting still matters. Scouting never stopped mattering.

My post is asking whether or not the same principles that guide statistical analysis can or already are applied to scouting.

2008-04-24 09:52:01
16.   bryanf
13 Hey if I can't share my insanity here with a bunch of strangers on the Internet, who can I share it with?

I'm glad you liked it. :)

2008-04-24 09:52:14
17.   LogikReader
14

I was just poking fun... I should work on my smileys :)

2008-04-24 09:59:20
18.   bhsportsguy
Just to add to the discussion.

http://tinyurl.com/6q3too

Its a freebie from Baseball Prospectus and it probably was talked about last year.

2008-04-24 10:05:06
19.   Branch Rickey
15. This post is absolutely thought provoking. Especially the last part. Throughout the whole steroid issue, I couldn't help but think "what about surgery-isn't that altering your body to gain an advantage?". What about metal plates in your arm? What about robotic arms? Where is the line drawn? These issues are going to be more and more meaningful in the very near future. What about gene therapy? Nanotechnology? Bionics?
And as for scouting... I don't doubt at all that a computer could eventually break down a swing or a pitching motion and statistically analyze the likelihood of success or injury. Perhaps it's scoutings turn to reemerge to gain an advantage beyond stats... until computers re-emerge to do a better job of analyzing how a player "looks".
2008-04-24 10:11:28
20.   Bob Timmermann
19
I believe Blake DeWitt has artificially enhanced gumption.
2008-04-24 10:13:44
21.   Branch Rickey
20. Probably got it from LoDuca.
2008-04-24 10:18:31
22.   JJ42
Any thoughts on the new stadium improvements? I just watched the video. Seems pretty nice, especially the part about a Dodgers "experience" museum and potential access to all levels. There will be a lot of construction over the next 4 offseasons. One thing that struck me was the creation of 2 new "terraced" parking structures and underground parking. I'd like to see how long it would take to get out of those after a game. I also think sometime down the line, apartments and condos will be incorporated into the property somewhere.
2008-04-24 10:23:09
23.   FirstMohican
19 - I believe motion capture technology is already used for analyzing golf swings, so it could be or is used for baseball swings.

I suppose you could set something up for players during batting practice and take a number of samples per year and categorize them by type of pitch. That should give you enough information to "correct" swings based on mechanics during successful periods.

2008-04-24 10:24:17
24.   Bob Timmermann
22
If the McCourts wants to build apartments and condos on the property, they will need approval from several different City agencies. The area is not zoned for residential and the deed to the property prohibits housing and the conditional use permit for the property prohibits housing.
2008-04-24 10:24:54
25.   Jon Weisman
22 - New post soon to come.
2008-04-24 10:28:48
26.   evenatriple
Well, among many thought-provoking items this post raises is the likelihood that the Dodgers do not have anyone on staff (to our knowledge) who is capable of finding "something like the expected BABIP." My understanding is that there is no one associated with the team paid to do statistical analysis. Wasn't that what Colletti wrote when he was asked this question on one of those on-line Q&A sessions? Perhaps DT favorites Ng and White are using non-traditional stats in their analysis, but my sense is that we don't really have any indication of that. I get the impression from the excerpt of the True Blue column that Jon reprinted that most other teams are employing statistical analysts in their front offices. Is this in fact the case?
2008-04-24 10:31:52
27.   Eric Enders
There are a few people on the staff who worked for DePodesta, Kim Ng among them. I have to think there's somebody around who can find something like BABIP, or at least knows what it is.
2008-04-24 10:32:45
28.   JJ42
24 There goes my dream of living on the grounds (of course, after a pre-requisite dream of winning the lottery). One thing I do expect over the next few seasons is greater increases in ticket prices. We'll all be paying for this "experience."
2008-04-24 10:33:24
29.   BALCO Lab Rats
Very interesting post indeed. To add my two cents...

What I notice right now in baseball (and in other sports, and also in many organizations in various sectors, public or private) is that there's lots of research being done, lots of interesting avenues investigated, lots of new data acquired/created, but so much seems to be going to waste.

In a competitive environment like baseball (a microcosm of society in so many ways), some organizations do seem to work with a long-term plan. Others also seem to have a plan, but they can be very quick to dismiss it (and the people behind it) if the results are not there very quickly. Others seem to work without a plan (even though they might have one).

It seems to me that many organizations are wary of investing too much in a direction or another, and might prefer to be more cautious, waiting to see if something really works before investing themselves into it. And once they decide to invest themselves into an approach or another, it is really difficult for the organization to keep at it for a long time (or at least long enough for the results to really show), while that's what would be needed to reap the rewards. Most of the time, the organizations decide to go in another way really quickly if it doesn't work the way they wanted right here, right now.

Also, for some, 'too much information' seems to really have a paralyzing effect: instead of using information to support decision-making, information seems to support not making any decision at all...

2008-04-24 10:45:29
30.   Tom Meagher
.26. I am unaware of anybody working for the Dodgers whose job is sabermetric research. However, it is highly likely that there are some staffers with intermediate or advanced familiarity with sabermetric techniques, given DePodesta's reign. It would be folly, I think, to assume that no one of significance in the organization understands sabermetric insight, and I bet there are people who could easily give you "something like expected BABIP."

That having been said, the Dodgers are clearly not incorporating any such insights to a significant extent in many of their major league personnel decisions. However, even on teams with obstinate GMs who will continue to make bad choices about major personnel decisions, there is still an enormous amount to be gained from sabermetrics in the amateur draft, international signings, and player development, not to mention other areas like coaching and advance scouting.

2008-04-24 10:49:47
31.   Tom Meagher
.29. "Also, for some, 'too much information' seems to really have a paralyzing effect: instead of using information to support decision-making, information seems to support not making any decision at all... "

Just curious, is this a general observation, or are there examples you have in mind?

2008-04-24 11:00:55
32.   tomjedrz
When this stat madness started (the A's and Moneyball I think) it provided competitive advantage. Now EVERYONE has access to the numbers, so the competitive advantage is reduced.

The table has turned however .. there are now so many numbers available that the skill (and possible competitive advantage) are in figuring out which numbers matter for which player and in making sense out of the ocean of numbers. I don't think anyone is doing either of those well yet, which is why the "scouting" intangible is increasing in importance again.

I see this pendulum swinging back and forth for quite a while, providing lots of internet discussion fodder it does!

2008-04-24 11:04:23
33.   El Lay Dave
26 30 This is what was posted on Josh Rawitch's ItD blog:

Question for Ned Colletti:

A notable trend in MLB front offices today is to have at least one full-time statistical analyst (typically a person with a math degree) on staff. The World Champion Red Sox hired Bill James as a special assistant in 2003; they've given him two World Series rings since. The Padres, who seem to contend [more] often than their talent might indicate, employ Chris Long as "Senior Quantitative Analyst". Do the Dodgers have or have plans for a statistical analyst on staff?

By old_fogey_la@yahoo.com

A couple of our baseball operations staff members spend time doing statistical analysis. We believe that statistical analysis plays a role in decisions on players, but like reviewing their character, work habits, leadership abilities, injury history, it is part of the equation and not always the entire answer.

I doubt one should read too much into this, but is "a couple ... members spend[ing] time" equivalent to having a Chris Long, Ben Baumer, et al. on staff? It sure doesn't seem like LA makes it one person's full-time job. In any case, the claim is clear that the Dodgers do perform and weigh in statistical analysis; unsaid is how well and how much.

2008-04-24 11:07:36
34.   StolenMonkey86
33 - Ned Colletti has yet to discover an error in their work.
2008-04-24 11:08:55
35.   BALCO Lab Rats
31 It was a general observation: since there's so much information available, and not everything is going in the same way, it can be difficult to decide if we should go one way or the other, or simply continue without doing anything, hoping that it will be clearer at some point. Sometimes it works and additional info helps, but sometimes it gets worse because of inaction.

That's where analysts can have input: helping decision-makers use data in the correct way (like Will said in 7 about using the scouts and the statheads).

I can think of a former boss of mine who focuses on stats that really aren't meaningful (small sample size, answers to loaded questions, etc.) to justify inaction, while doing something would have been needed.

Like Homer Simpson said: "Oh, people can come up with statistics to prove anything, Kent. 14% of people know that."

2008-04-24 11:09:32
36.   El Lay Dave
32 I have seen interviews were DePodesta and James, separately, talk about "proprietary" statistics, measurements and analysis. If they think they've gained a competitive advantage and been paid by the team for the research, they are not going to be sharing that information publicly. We're left to guess what they're looking at beyond the easily available. (Rate of fouled-off non-fastballs from like-handed pitchers? Things far more esoteric?)
2008-04-24 11:11:10
37.   Tom Meagher
On an unrelated note, Appelman has a list of clutch and unclutch pitchers over at Baseball Analysts. Most clutch? Brad Penny. Least clutch? Odalis Perez, with Jeff Weaver #2.

http://tinyurl.com/5m44tg

I don't know that I agree with the method, but it's not bad.

2008-04-24 11:13:18
38.   El Lay Dave
35 I wouldn't be surprised if "paralysis by analysis" is rampant; I see a lot of it in my industry. One of the main issues is that the decision makers became ultra-business oriented and lack the insight to understand the core "product" at hand and cut quickly to the meaningful information or to discern correctly the true experts from the charlatans. I've seen many a manager fooled by a pseudo-experts shiny powerpoint charts.
2008-04-24 11:17:50
39.   BALCO Lab Rats
38 I like how you coined it, 'paralysis by analysis'. But please don't get me started with PowerPoint... Argh!
2008-04-24 11:28:40
40.   Kevin Lewis
Well, can't we just plug it into Powerpoint and have it tell us what to do?
2008-04-24 11:39:31
41.   Bluebleeder87
Great great post Jon.
2008-04-24 12:05:25
42.   Tom Meagher
OK, so a "paralysis by analysis" (PBA) effect exists. But isn't the answer to this effect to have more and better analysts whose job is to SYNTHESIZE the information? PBA stems more from having a lot of data that is not being holistically accounted for. The purpose of sabermetrics is, more or less, to holistically account for as much available data as possible. The error that teams make - leading to PBA - is looking far and wide for different data streams without doing the work to understand all of that data in its context and develop the algorithms (or at least algorithmically-derived principles) to synthesize it into a decision-making framework?

If the choice is between having one scout who you know is excellent and having an infinite supply of data you don't know how to handle, you choose the scout because of the phenomenon deemed PBA. But the more obvious choice, costs permitting, is to hire a staff to analyze the data.

The bigger issue for teams is that they continue to hire/promote baseball people who have no apparent ability to find analytic talent. That is, people who may know much about baseball but do not have a sufficient level of familiarity, expertise, etc. to hire the right analysts/sabermetricians. For such executives, it is valid to make the PBA point, since they will likely not do a good job of getting the right people in baseball operations. However, that only begs the question of why major league teams are willing to hire front offices that do not know how to use statistical analysis and do not know how to staff to make up for it. This is likely related to the so-called Picasso effect - many baseball owners are involved in baseball because they want to be, not because they have an exquisite plan to make money or win the World Series and the ability to carry it out. As such, they're willing to run their franchise on misguided principles, just like people who get into the restaurant business because they like eating.

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