A "Brief" History of Sabermetrics

Baseball has been the best example of sports resisting change throughout it's history. Baseball's detractors cite this as the cause of its slowly decreasing viewership. There have been spikes in interest such as the 'Steroid-Era' when long ball hitters like Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Barry Bonds drew hundreds of thousands of fans a year to watch seemingly impossible amounts of home runs. But sadly, in terms of TV ratings, the league cracked down on PED's and things began trending down once again. The MLB needed a big, new way to revamp how the game is played. Most people would consider this decline to be the beginning of advanced statistics in baseball. What most people don't realize, is that this movement started nearly fifty years ago, but nobody paid it any attention.

In 1952 Topps first added baseball statistics to the back of their cards. The majority of these were very basic statistics, often called the counting stats because no calculations have to made to produce them. The most advanced statistics at the time were the percentage stats like Batting Average and later they added Slugging Percentage. For the majority of major league teams, however, these were just numbers. Teams wanted lots of the good stats and little of the bad ones, and no further thought went into them. The prime example of this is RBI. They seem simple enough, you get credit when you are at-bat and somebody scores. The problem that was overlooked is how this oversimplified things. Players could get 100 RBI in a season without playing particularly well. Batting order, the on base percentage of teammates, and opposing pitching had almost as big of an effect on RBI as the player himself. In order to move the league forward, people like Bill James took the simplest of ideas in baseball and looked at them closer than anybody had ever done before. He wasn't asked to ponder these things or to ask the questions he did, he just did it because he was interested. As it turns out, the ruling elite in the baseball world weren't nearly as interested. James came up numerous discoveries and realizations about the game of baseball that people in power didn't immediately accept. He was laughed at and ridiculed for his findings. Baseball was just too traditional for such radical thinking.

Fast forward. Billy Beane was the General Manager of the rebuilding Oakland Athletics. He needed a spark, a new and radical way of thinking to return to the success he had in the past. You all know the story I'm referring to: Moneyball. The breakthrough blockbuster that introduced the concepts of Sabermetrics in a watered down formate for the casual fan. Moneyball may have been the most influential thing to happen for the growth of Sabermetrics in it's entire history, but before Brad Pitt made millions off the movie there was the real thing. One of the biggest players in the real-life A's magical run to twenty consecutive wins, wasn't even in the movie. Well, sort of. In reality there was no Peter Brand (Jonah Hill). The real mathematical mind behind Oakland's success was a 29 year old named Paul DePodesta. Paul was a Harvard grad who went on to become an advance scout with the Cleveland Indians, which is where we meet him in the film adaptation. Paul is really the one who was most influential in the case of the A's. Not to discredit the persuasiveness of Billy Beane, but DePodesta is the one who brought the innovative way of looking at things to the team.

It has always been a push to convince people in power to buy into new statistics. Just like Paul DePodesta had to do as an advance scout for the Cleveland Indians, the key to proving the statistics work is to well, prove that they result in more wins. This can be hard to do because often times the first iteration of a statistic needs some fine tuning, and once a stat is accurate enough it needs to prove its accuracy for several years before General Managers have no choice but to buy in. For this reason, one of the hardest parts of getting a statistic into the mainstream is the time it takes. Stats like WAR have been around long enough to fall into the category of widely used stats. The majority of new stats have been created in the past ten to fifteen years and haven't reached this level. In order to speed this process along it is necessary to make information about the topic more widely available.

We asked MLB on Fox reporter Ken Rosenthal a few questions relating to Sabermetrics.

MN SSA - How effective do you think current advanced metrics, such as WAR, are in measuring true value in players?
KEN ROSENTHAL - I think the current metrics give us a more complete portrayal than anything that preceded them. However, they are still not perfect, and probably never will be. There is just too much that goes into measuring a player’s true value, and some of it cannot be quantified.

MN - In your opinion, what should the ultimate goal of baseball statistics be?
KR - The ultimate goal of statistics should be to ACCURATELY measure value. People are attempting to make that happen. It’s just not easy to do.

MN - How much more room for growth do you see in Statistics?
KR - There is always room for growth. Though I do think we are pretty far along, pretty granular at this point. But as StatCast, in particular, shows, bigger things might still be ahead.

The best way to convince somebody to give the stats a chance is to give those who make the big decisions an inside look into the process and the history. This is what we here at Minnesota Sports Statistics Analysis are striving for in the end. An open look into what goes into making and developing advanced metrics, a look behind the curtain at the process.

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