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Special No More

Publication Date: February 17, 2004

There Goes the Neighborhood

A couple of things happened in the last week or so that, if I were a more possessive type, would have left me feeling kind of melancholy. As it is, though, I'm just curious about the future effects of what's going on. I finally got around to reading Moneyball on a flight home from San Diego, and Paul DePodesta was named as the new general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers (don't worry, I'll get back to college baseball somewhere around the 800-word mark). For the second time in my life, I feel as though I've caught the latter part of a secret priesthood that then went and stripped away the veil from the high places, giving away all its secrets.

My development into a full-fledged computer geek started in 1982 with a course in Basic programming at a summer camp followed quickly with the purchase of a Vic 20 (hey, hold the snickering down back there). I was in college during the PC revolution and then went to work as a software developer and then system administrator. I've been on Usenet since 1988 and was one of the first users, relatively speaking, of the Web, and still remember the first day I saw an early copy of Mosaic, which was the moment it was clear that this was the long-awaited "killer app" that would make the Internet what it could be (I'm still waiting, but things aren't too bad even now). I wasn't there for the days when real men could put code into bare metal with their teeth, but I was definitely a part of the priesthood for a while in there.

I was the guy that friends and family would call to ask if they should think about buying a computer, and I was the only guy most of them knew who knew how to make the things do what we wanted, either at the small home level or the larger professional level. Those like me had skills and were able to use those skills (and, at times, a stunning lack of corresponding communication skills) to maintain the illusion that we were masters of an impossible task. And we gave all that away. PC's became ubiquitous (if anyone has a question for me from the friends and family set these days, it's not, "What could I do with a computer," it's, "What's the best machine to pick up these days, and where can I pick up a cheap copy of Office?"), and every teenager has email pen pals in Antarctica (I'm beginning to wonder how the scientists down there are getting any work done in between answering mail from students). Programming skills still aren't commonplace, but that's because we've built a world where they don't have to be, and they're not hard to pick up when they're needed.

Likewise, I wasn't there for the beginnings of statistical analysis in baseball, but I came to it earlier than most folks. By the late '80's, I was reading everything I could find online about baseball (I would have read everything I could find about college baseball, but there was absolutely nothing there then) and began to notice that there was a distinct flavor to a subset of it -- the notion that the game could be analyzed from its fundamentals, and that there wasn't some magic inner understanding to be gained from thirty years of driving around with a radar gun. Visual observation was fundamentally flawed as a primary form of analysis. This struck a chord with me, and I followed the discussions on the newsgroup with great interest, along with reading any printed material I could find. As discussions started for college baseball, I tried to make that my niche and contribute where I could. I watched some of the best of the go off and write a book called the Baseball Prospectus that contained some of the best material around. It wasn't a closed community, but there was a feeling that we certainly knew something that the rest of the world didn't.

At this point, though, I'd say the secret is out. Within the professional game, the change has come with startling quickness. There are currently four (you could argue for the Yankees as well, but they're kind of a special case) teams run by those who rely heavily on statistical analysis. Percentagewise, that's still fairly low, but then you realize that three of those have been hired in the last two years. Essentially, every general manager hiring of the last two years by a team that was actually trying went to an analytical guy.

Moneyball, the story of Oakland's Billy Beane, who was the first GM since Branch Rickey to look at the game this way, was a New York Times bestseller. The author, Michael Lewis, is well-regarded for his overall work in writing about the business community, and he did a great job on the book, telling a great story and, just as importantly, getting the underlying facts right without cutting too deep -- the only factual error I noticed is that Central Hinds Academy isn't in Byram but close to nearby Raymond, and when you get to that level you know you've hit things pretty close to perfect. It's not a work of great depth, but that's kind of the point; it's a popular work on "our" subject.

Even in organizations not run by statheads, the role of the statistical analyst has moved from the oddball in the basement role it used to have to a key part of the braintrust for most teams. The messages of OBP, slugging, and pitcher management have filtered down to the colleges and high schools. From here on out, there's really not going to be much competitive advantage to be gained just from knowing about these things; you're going to have to know about them just to have a chance, and the race from there will be about who does them best. Earl Weaver has won.

As it turns out, though, I'm not that possessive about turf in general, and these two openings have turned out to be wonderful things. The PC explosion and the Internet have created an enormous number of communication channels that wouldn't have been possible a generation ago, like, well, this one. Bill James' first annual sold 75 copies. I'm giving it away here, but I'm also not half the writer he is (my entire output so far, frankly, is probably worth less on a literary basis than the description of Don Mossi in the first historical abstract), and I had something like 5,000 readers my first week. There are more opportunities for people who do the sorts of things that I do or have done for a real job than there ever were in the "secret priesthood" days of computer knowledge.

Likewise, one of the wonderful things about the analytical explosion is that I'm getting to watch better baseball than ever before. Watching the Oakland A's outsmart and outplay all comers over the last three years has been an absolute joy, but that's a specific case. What I'm really enjoying is watching the way the game is changing for the better at all levels. More and more batters are working counts, while the pitchers are getting smarter and more efficient. Meanwhile, nobody's gotten less physically talented, so we're seeing better players than ever.

The Future Looks Much Like Today, Only More So

So, what does this mean in the long run? After all, self-examination is all well and good, but what you want to know about, at least in the context of this discussion, is what the resulting changes in the game are going to look like, so I'll take some short guesses. I've written a couple of times about related issues -- a call for more attention to OBP and scholarship distribution, but I want to try to think through the whole picture.

First of all, one of the most wonderful things that could have happened to the college game is that college players are now being seen as more valuable commodities by the pros at draft time. The argument is simple and compelling -- you know much more about a 21-year-old who's played a higher level of competition for the last three years with no commitment on your part than you do about an 18-year-old. The A's, who have to be regarded as the bellwether in this and many other regards, have all but abandoned the practice of drafting high schoolers, and the other clubs are following. This obviously greatly improves the talent pool heading for campus. This change will be short-term; current trends point toward high school picks being extremely rare within about three years. This may also open some interesting possibilities for international players looking to come to college in the U. S. as an avenue to the pros.

The second piece that will change is going to a much more pervasive understanding of simple analytical principles like plate discipline and pitcher workload. There have always been coaches who got it, and my mailbox indicates that their are more who are working on getting it, but in the end the biggest change will come from the players themselves, as the understanding of what the pros are looking for percolates down to every level. Baseball players often operate by instinct as much as anything, but those instincts will come to include the notion that a good batting eye is the most valuable place to start. This I see happening in the five-to-seven year range, although it will be staggered and gradual.

Finally, the third piece that I see becoming more valuable is an understanding of the uniqueness of each team. As the competitive advantage to be gained by understanding general principles comes to be lost because it will be needed just to keep up, finding ways to take advantage of the built-in advantages that every program has will become crucial. Billy Beane and Theo Epstein (general managers of the A's and Red Sox, respectively) are using the same general principles of baseball to build their clubs, but their playing with vastly different levels of available resources. As it turns out, those differing levels show no signs so far of actually being better or worse in any particular direction; they're just part of what contributes to the available pool of resources for a given team. The same thing is much more true at the college level, where the factors that make up a program -- not just resources, but park factors, weather patterns, regional character, school reputation -- vary much more greatly than they do at the pro level. This one won't be crucial until the second step is complete, so it'll be ten years before it's an absolute necessity for success (and major changes like schedule calendar changes could alter the timeline), but it can start paying off now.

A Milestone

I don't usually do news, and it's more of a statistical oddity than a great achievement (ASU's had a streak because they've been a great team, not the other way around), but Arizona State's scoring streak had reached the point of being so unlikely that it's worth mentioning that it ended last week when Oklahoma beat them 6-0, their first shutout after 506 games dating back to April 7, 1995, breaking the old record by more than three years' worth of games.

Pitch Count Watch

Rather than keep returning to the subject of pitch counts and pitcher usage in general too often for my main theme, I'm just going to run a standard feature down here where I point out potential problems; feel free to stop reading above this if the subject doesn't interest you. This will just be a quick listing of questionable starts that have caught my eye -- the general threshold for listing is 120 actual pitches or 130 estimated, although short rest will also get a pitcher listed if I catch it. Don't blame me; I'm just the messenger.

Date   Team   Pitcher   Opponent   IP   H   R   ER   BB   SO   AB   BF   Pitches
Feb 13 Campbell Josh Blades North Carolina State 9.0 8 3 3 3 5 32 36 138
Feb 13 Arizona Koley Kolberg Cal State Fullerton 6.0 8 8 5 4 5 25 32 124
Feb 15 Texas A&M-Corpus Christi Trey Hearne Texas A&M 7.1 12 10 9 5 3 33 38 142(*)
Feb 18 Savannah State Carlos Markyna Georgia Tech 8.0 14 13 11 3 5 37 44 158
Feb 19 San Jose State Matt Durkin Brigham Young 9.0 3 3 3 2 11 28 30 121

(*) Pitch count is estimated.

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Boyd's World-> Breadcrumbs Back to Omaha-> Special No More About the author, Boyd Nation