Forgive me while, in the shameless but time-honored tradition of columnists, I give myself a plug. McFarland & Company has just put out a book, coauthored by myself and my brother Sheldon, The Beauty of Short Hops: How Chance and Circumstance Confound the Moneyball Approach to Baseball. The subtitle is perhaps too modest. The book doesn’t merely “confound” the Moneyball approach (which sees baseball wholly in statistical terms), but aims to mount a counterrevolution.
A few decades ago, Bill James was just a numbers-loving baseball nut whose annual “book”, a mimeographed collection of his eclectic thoughts, attracted roughly 75 buyers. Today, the movement James pioneered (called “sabermetrics”) is taking over baseball. Believers in sabermetrics permeate the media and, increasingly, the front offices of major league teams. The catalyst was Moneyball, Michael Lewis’ best-selling book that describes how, in the early 2000s, the Oakland A’s thrived because their General Manager, Billy Beane, employed insights culled from sabermetrics.
As we show at length in The Beauty of Short Hops, the basic premise of Moneyball is fallacious. Oakland, which crashed and burned shortly after publication of Moneyball, succeeded primarily because Beane was fortunate enough to land three terrific starting pitchers. When those three departed, he apparently became a lot less smart.
Just as Moneyball’s central conceit collapses upon scrutiny, ditto many of its specific claims, ranging from the best ways to scout players to the proper statistics for evaluating pitchers. These and many other sabermetric “insights” are demonstrably silly.
More importantly, the saber-obsession with numbers occludes a major aspect of baseball’s beauty – its narrative richness and relentless capacity to surprise. Baseball, thank goodness, transcends and often defies quantitative analysis. Games are decided by bad hops and bad calls, broken bats, sun and wind, pigeons in the outfield, and fans who obstruct players, among other unforeseeable contingencies That may seem obvious (apart from the pigeons), but not to the folks who increasingly run the show. Rather than celebrating baseball’s delightfully spontaneous quality, sabermetricians deny it or rebel against it.
Take Billy Beane, whose perspective Moneyball describes as follows: “the game can be reduced to a social science. . . . it is simply a matter of figuring out the odds, and exploiting the laws of probability” because “baseball players follow strikingly predictable patterns.” Sadly, this distorted perspective has spread to other sports. The NBA’s Houston Rockets employ Sam Hinkie as “head of basketball analytics.” In an article in the New York Times Magazine lauding Hinkie and the Rockets, Michael Lewis quotes Mr. Analytic as follows: “I care a lot more about what ought to have happened than what actually happens.” This staggering statement captures the impoverished perspective of sabermetrics: Sports as a plaything for social scientists, a laboratory to manipulate probabilities and chart results in order to assist the next simulation. The game itself conveys no beauty or meaning.
Lewis reports how Hinkie flipped out because the Lakers’ Trevor Ariza hit an off-balance three-point shot. “That Ariza shot, that is really painful,” Hinke said, “because it’s a near-random event.” Every basketball fan understands the frustration when good defense is thwarted by bad luck, but surely such “near-random events” are phenomena to be embraced, not wished away. Hinkie doesn’t see it that way. To him, a wild shot is the sort of thing that happens but ought not, and thus undermines rather than enhances the sport.
I look at it very differently. You can dismiss the desperation three-point heave as unfair and somehow beside the point, or you can celebrate it as a wondrous event lying at the heart of sports. If you worry that baseball and other sports are drowning in statistics, at the expense of a richer understanding and appreciation, check out Short Hops.