Runs batted in—RBIs—aren’t always a useful measure of an individual hitter’s skill, because you can only drive runners in when they’re already on base for you. A great player on a bad team might not get as many RBIs as an okay player on a great team.
Did you find that statement almost insulting in its obviousness? You wouldn’t have seven years ago, before Michael Lewis’s Moneyball was released, when such sabermetric notions—“sabermetrics” is the name for the science of studying baseball statistics—were the subject of hot debate around the game, their proponents pilloried as clueless, computer-addled nerds by tobacco-chewing, road-weary baseball lifers. Now it seems silly that anyone ever found those ideas controversial.
But that doesn’t mean that Moneyball no longer has anything to teach us. Moneyball wasn’t ever really about RBIs, or walks, or any other stat; it was a business story about a small firm (the Oakland A’s) finding inefficiencies in the market for baseball players, inefficiencies that could allow it to compete with industry titans like the Yankees and Red Sox. The A’s realized that statistical analysis was underused—but soon, of course, the big firms caught on. Young sabermetric general managers are everywhere now, from 36-year-old Theo Epstein in Boston, who already has two World Series rings, to 32-year-old Jon Daniels in Texas. Yankees G.M. Brian Cashman has said he incorporates stathead insights into his decision-making.
The question of how to study baseball has been settled, although no one has tried to replace scouts with robots—every team now evaluates players with a combination of statistical analysis and firsthand observation. But there is still much to be determined. Can statistical analysis and video breakdown of throwing form help figure out which flamethrowing college pitchers are less likely to get injured after they’re drafted? Can it tell you exactly which players on your team should hit and run in the seventh inning of a one-run game? What proportion of its budget should a mid-market team spend on minor-league coaching relative to high-school scouting in order to maximize profits? There are a million questions to choose from, but right now the most cutting-edge research is in the mysterious, ethereal, and, most maddeningly, subjective world of defense. And that quest to objectify the subjective has opened a new front in the battle between the Yankees and their eternal enemies, the Red Sox.
John Dewan is the former president and CEO of Stats—the company that provides statistical services for every major American sports league, including Major League Baseball—who in 2002 founded Baseball Info Solutions, which “specializes in collecting, interpreting, and disseminating in-depth baseball statistics.” Each season, the company pays fifteen to twenty video scouts whose lone job is to watch every single Major League Baseball game and notate everything that happens. Every. Single. Thing. “Each of our video scouts has a computer screen with a replica of the field and about 50,000 pixels to choose from to determine the exact location of every batted ball,” Dewan says. “We mark the exact location and velocity of everything.”
Dewan’s staff has to do this all by hand, of course; finding ways to statistically measure fielding makes the Moneyball-chronicled process of rethinking hitting-and-pitching statistics look like a real cakewalk. The old batting statistics weren’t perfect, but they were the building blocks of better measures. The only commonly kept fielding stat, by contrast, was “errors,” which should have long ago gone the way of the bull-pen car. Errors are merely a tally of blatantly noticeable mistakes, which are a minuscule part of what happens in the field. A hitter’s job is easy to quantify: He succeeds in getting on base (or hitting the ball out of the park) or he doesn’t. But countless variables can affect whether a fielder even has a chance to make an error: where he’s positioned, how quickly he reacts to the ball off the bat, what route he takes toward it, how quickly he gets the ball out of his glove, how hard he throws the ball to another fielder. It’s still important to catch the ball cleanly once you get to it, of course—but in the skilled world of professional baseball, almost everyone makes the easy play almost all the time. It’s how many of the hard plays they give themselves the chance to make that’s much more important.
But how do you decide whether the left-fielder should have been in better position to catch a shallow, looping fly ball? For almost its entire history, baseball’s simple answer was: You don’t. You mark errors and leave everything else up to individual judgment. But using improved technology (most notably easy-to-access online video) and clever reasoning, Dewan and his analysts have come closer to figuring out defense than ever before.