12 February 2014

Reviewing the Sabermetric Revolution: Assessing the Growth of Analytics in Baseball

Ben Baumer and Andrew Zimbalist's The Sabermetric Revolution is a solid and succinct summary of how meaningful statistical analyses become more popular while also taking down common misconceptions as to how the growth of the field occurred.  It may be somewhat difficult to access due to a prerequisite need for some familiarity with baseball statistics and management processes in the game, but it is certainly worth it to wade through the information.

The book opens up with a rather comprehensive and succinct take down of the movie Moneyball and a few swipes at its original source material.  To write a book on sabermetrics, its rise, and its influence in baseball, it is necessary to immediately defenestrate Moneyball.  Michael Lewis is an amazing writer and I certainly love his work.  On the spectrum of fiction and non-fiction, he loosely holds onto that non-fiction title.  Lewis' aim appears to be more for the good of the story than any attachment to reality.  This has been brought up by several writers and perhaps most audibly by Keith Law who noted that he asked Michael Lewis to make revisions about an anecdote about him that Law claims was fabricated between hard cover and paperback versions (Lewis declined).  Anyway, the movie and book bring to the mainstream thought that baseball was stuck in tradition and only Billy Beane could break through to take advantage of that.  Mind you, much of Moneyball's argument is not exactly defended by the actual facts, but it was a good story and it vaguely reflected the real story.

The real story being that sabermetrics may have been coined in the late 1970s, but it has been a field that has been practiced since the original metrician, Henry Chadwick in the mid 1800s.  An interesting aside is the Chadwick himself strongly disliked the measure of fielding percentage as it only took into consideration how well a player cleanly fielded a ball as opposed to the actual ability of a player to even be able to get into position to make a play.  Modern defensive metrics like UZR and DRS are simply the recent manifestation of applied effort that Chadwick initially displayed.  Platoon advantages were noted in the late 1800s.  F.C. Lane deplored batting average at the time of World War I.  As much as we tend to enjoy going after the Great Man Theory of Everything, reality largely adheres to movements of many people making many contributions.  The above is simply a cherry picking, the books provides more examples and places them in better context.

Once the authors establish this concept of a gradual upswelling of statistics-based decision making, they move on to discussing the current upswing in utilization of statistics in baseball.  To what degree simple analyses with statistics can explain what happens on the field and what will happens.  Note some disagreement within the field about what is possible.  They also explore how statistics are being utilized in football, basketball, and soccer.  The Sabermetric Revolution truly is an engaging and succinct illumination of where the field is and how it got here.

After finishing the book, I am not exactly certain who the audience is.  If someone is a sabermetric neophyte, this work would be quite confusing as the statistics are briefly explained without examples.  For the statistically inclined baseball neophyte, I think it would be hard to see exactly how this science fits into the big picture.  Lee Panas' Beyond Batting Average would be a useful primer to help you work through The Sabermetric Revolution.  Moneyball would help get an idea as to how these statistics might come into play inside of an organization as well as reflect some of the anti-sabermetric sentiment that was much more intense at that time.  In other words, Moneyball's depiction was one that was seen through a fun house mirror, but there was an original truth behind that image.  It certainly has its own use as long as you do not worship at the Lewis altar.

So who is The Sabermetric Revolution written for?  Perhaps, the authors had two audiences in mind.  First, the well versed armchair sabermetrician who might be a tad bit misguided.  This is an individually who might be fundamentalist in his or her belief about statistics being the end all in baseball evaluation.  I have come across many of those individuals whose ideas range from sheer adherence to value metrics at Fangraphs or some who believe that relatively soon the draft will become rather perfunctory with all teams having the same ranking of talent.  Second, I could also see this as a book that would fit in well for a one week assignment at a college level sports decision making course.  In fact, one the authors, Ben Baumer, is currently a visiting professor at Smith College (he received his doctorate in 2012, the same year he ended his nine year relationship with the New York Mets).  That said, he appears to be teaching first year statistics and I find it difficult to believe that this book is part of his curriculum.  It may be that Baumer's experiences explain the tone of this work, but not the intention of this work.

The Sabermetric Revolution may be a little difficult to access, but it is well worth the read.  The book is ideal for a reader who wishes to tie together the importance of everything they have digested from sites like Fangraphs, Baseball Prospectus, Hardball Times, Beyond the Box Score, and, even, yes, Camden Depot.  Too often we writers use shorthand and assume a general knowledge of concepts like uncertainty.  This book is the 240 page thesis putting what we try to do in better context.

The Sabermetric Revolution | University of Pennsylvania Press, 240 pages, $26.50 Hardcover

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