DIL: The Voros McCracken Story

Based on this story by Yahoo’s fine Jeff Passan, Voros McCracken leads a Defense Independent Life.

Like much writing on the internet, this story is probably twice as long as it should be, and because of repetition suffers from a sentimentality that makes me less sympathetic than I might be. But it is a good and sad story, and helps explain that whole Voros thing that always gets folks worked up, and puts a human face on it, too.

I do think that it isn’t reasonable to expect to make a living from thinking about baseball, or, for instance, inventing a game like Rotisserie. It could happen, but more than likely won’t. Them’s the breaks.

UPDATE: A story in Slate today looks at efforts to discover Moneyball-like efficiencies in soccer stats. Curiously, these efforts are led by Billy Beane, and the story ends noting that Voros is working on soccer these days. But the real insight is that while efforts to decode baseball are largely open source, the push into soccer (which has no meaningful collective “sabermetrics”) are being led by proprietary interests, just as Voros’ revolutionary insight was made in public, and his work life these days for a European soccer club is private.

Loving Bill James

David Lederer has done a lot of work indexing the information that is in Bill James’s Baseball Abstracts.

You should read all of David’s summaries of the Abstracts, and you should read all of Bill James, from the Abstracts to after.

I hope you knew that, but if you didn’t, now you do.

David’s summary of Bill James’s last Baseball Abstract is most excellent. A place to start if you don’t know all this stuff, and a place to collect your thoughts if you already do.

BTW, I have probably written about this post multiple times before. Nuff said.

Ps. One of the greatest insights in this piece is Bill James’s notice of how great an influence defense has on pitchers. We’ve all been noticing this the last few years, and major league teams have been acting on this idea, but Bill James pointed it out 22 years ago. Plus, he could write.

Forecaster and Handbook are out!

I got my copy of the Baseball Forecaster about 10 days ago, but closing the magazine meant not cracking it, even though I’ve got a short bit in it (which happened to run here first, about WHIP v. WH/9), until now.

Ron’s lead essay is very smart. It’s about how wrong we are about players, year after year, and he wonders why we pursue exacting but nearly always wrong projections. Then he comes up with something new, called the Mayberry Method.

There’s a lot to like about the way the MM summarizes a player’s skills in a descriptive way. Yet despite it’s simplicity, I’m not convinced it is going to catch on. New stuff often doesn’t, even when it has real merit. On the other hand, the benchmarks MM describes so succinctly are becoming increasingly entrenched as leading indicators, making me wonder why–if we’re getting better at defining leading indicators–we’re not getting better predicting breakouts.

As Ron says in the piece, we may be smarter now than we were 20 years ago, but that may not be such a good thing.

Steve Moyer always gives us so-called experts a copy of the hot-off-the-press Bill James Handbook at First Pitch Arizona, for which I am very grateful. Not that I wouldn’t buy it, I have many times, but this way it ends up in my hands even sooner.

The book continues to grow, with increased focus on the defense awards and rankings, focus on baserunning skills, and the ever useful park factors. I’m a great fan of baseball-reference.com and fangraphs.com, both of which I use all day long, but I sit and read the Bill James Handbook, poring over its pages as if it were a ripping good yarn, which in many ways it is.

I’m glad for both these books and recommend them highly.

Game Simulations Answer Baseball’s What-Ifs

Alan Schwarz – NYTimes.com

I think the most integral bit of sabermetric revelation is Bill James’s Pythagorean Theorum, which converts team runs scored and team runs allowed into estimated won loss records. From this single metric one can seemingly assess how much success in the game is tactical and how much is brute force.

But it turns out that this inspired bit of arithmetic may conceal all the interesting parts of the game. The Theorum describes the average results of all the players, and how they convert to a won loss record. It’s all a little mechanical, even though the math is pretty irrefutable.

The interesting part arrives in somewhat recent James backtracking about Clutch hitting, and what Tom Tippett says in this story about baseball simulations. It’s possible for the numbers to add up to no effect, but that doesn’t mean there is no effect.

After a bad beat at the poker table, I used to go home and run a million iterations of the hand in Turbo Texas Hold ‘Em. What I found out, was that I usually had table stakes, but I no longer had the money.

For individual players, performance matters. It’s impossible for me not to imagine that some players are more clutch, some might be less so. But I once directed a commercial video that starred Michael Jordan, and the point he made was the clutch players made the big plays because they were the best players. They got more chances, and their successes were remembered.

I’ve always used that as the example of how a clutch player denigrates clutch performance, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that.

For managers, the sacrifice bunt, the stolen base, the batting order (as Schwarz explores here) are their tools. Do they matter? Absolutely, sometimes. Sometimes, not.

So, while it’s possible to flatten the landscape using the historical data, for someone like Tony LaRussa, who is in the game, the job is all about getting his players into a winning frame of mind, to make sure the pitcher bats eighth, and to suggest that the game is all human. For him, it’s all about the individuals, because we know the best team, as defined by the numbers, doesn’t always win.

The biggest point about Schwarz’s story is that Game Simulations Don’t Answer Baseball’s What-Ifs.

Bill James shares his method to determine when a college basketball game is out of reach.

Slate Magazine

A week or two ago I posted at pattonandco.com (Barry Bonds) that Bill James’ recent work seemed shoddy. The ideas weren’t fully thought through, and the execution was haphazard. But that was about his baseball work.

This story is good fun, even if Bill reveals himself as a Huckabee supporter, and has a bit of fun with figuring out who is going to win basketball games (which on a practical level might save someone wasted hours, depending on how many basketball games they watch).

The most excellent thing about this is that it doesn’t matter if the method works or not. Here is Bill James having some fun, and that’s fun for us. Bravo.

The Bill James Handbook

Baseball Info Solutions

Every year I get a package from my friend Steve Moyer. Sometimes it comes when we’re together in the beginning of November at Ron Shandler and Rick Wilton’s First Pitch Arizona conference (which is a blast, a chance to see many of the next year’s rookies up close, and did I mention it was fun?) and sometimes it comes in the mail at home. What I know is that if it’s the first week of November it’s the Bill James Handbook.

What I remember, back in the day, was the Red Book from Stats, which also had Bill James’ name attached and which, for a while, Steve worked on, too. But Stats was sold to Fox and niceties like really useful baseball reference books became too small scale for them.

Steve has made a business off of the opportunities Fox threw away when it bought Stats, which isn’t to say that Fox was wrong, just that as a baseball fan I really much prefer what comes from Steve’s company, Baseball Info Solutions.

The Bill James Handbook, under the BIS aegis, has become a comprehensive statistical review of the previous baseball season, and it comes out less than 30 days after the season is over. It now has fielding rankings, managerial tendencies, home-road splits, batter and pitcher splits, projections for hitters and pitchers, and an assortment of other really interesting baseball data.

You can support this site by buying the Bill James Handbook from Amazon through the link below, or you can buy it somewhere else. My point is that there isn’t another baseball book that is more useful all season long.

An interview with Jim Brosnan

SoCal Sports Observed

Jim Brosnan’s Long Season is a great baseball book, highly recommended to everyone who has an interest in the game. This gentle interview with Brosnan has a grace and good will about it that is awfully appealing, without being soft or nostalgic. My favorite part is when Brosnan names Willie Mays his toughest out, then recalls a game he struck him out three times. Retrosheet jocks should be able to retrieve the date. I like the memory. (Thanks to Bruce.)

Various A’s Minutaie

Athletics Nation

I didn’t know about the Player to be Named Later rule, which is good reason to credit this story. At least we don’t have to worry about Brad Halsey being the guy named. Whew.

But I’m not being cranky about that. It’s funny that it’s Halsey, but it’s good to learn new things.

I’m not so sure about the notion of riding the hot hand between the major and minor leagues. While there has to be an advantage to roster flexibility, if only to rotate in the healthiest players you have, I have a hard time believing that anyone can predict that a hot minor league hitter should be promoted because he’s hot.

Hot streaks occur, I think it’s safe to say, generally because in small sample sizes players can get an inordinate number of favorable matchups. Or because in a small sample a player gets lucky. I believe Bill James showed early on that a player’s recent past results had no bearing on his immediate future results. Unless the next at bat, like the last two, is coming against Jae Seo or Jeff Weaver.

I still spend a lot of time in bars arguing this one, so there is money to be won and superstition to be debunked. Sure, there are hot streaks, but by the time you recognize one it’s probably over.

Time for Heads to Roll?

Baseball Musings

When I started reading this David Pinto post I started getting irked by his blunt attack on Ricciardi, accompanied by some good but not-climactic quotes.

But the real point here is his extension of Bill James’s idea of Families of Managers, from James’ excellent book “Baseball Managers” (who came up with that title?), and a rather potent idea that Joe Torre (the 2nd act) is the father of a Third Way of managing.

There has been much to criticize Torre for the last few years, but his approach has been direct and consistent, which is what gives Pinto’s idea legs. History will tell us more about Willie Randolph and Joe Girardi as managers than we know now, but their success this year makes Pinto’s thesis well worth discussing.