Besides spring training, one of my favorite events of March has become the Baseball Prospectus book tour. The tour made its annual stop Monday night in Chicago at the Barnes and Noble DePaul center in downtown Chicago. Baseball Prospectus trotted out an all-star cast of authors: Kevin Goldstein, Christina Kahrl, Colin Wyers, Ken Funck and Larry Granillo (whose stuff on BP is very clever, offbeat and witty).
We’ll get to a few of the points they made during a two-and-a-half hour program that featured a nice gathering of fans and some Daily Herald readers.
One of the general points I found most interesting was the whole idea of where information such as what Baseball Prospectus provides is going.
If you’re like me, you read Bill James’ Baseball Abstract every year during the 1980s. James was by no means the first person to delve into sabermetrics, but he certainly gets credit for popularizing it with his Abstracts and for challenging conventional wisdom and widely held perceptions and assumptions about the game. That he also had a clever writing style didn’t hurt, either.
Back then, the whole idea of advanced stats and looking at the game in different ways -- leading to better understanding for all fans -- was pretty much a wide open field. Others besides James were writing newsletters and various other treatises and thus expanding the overall knowledge of the game.
No doubt, there are new breakthroughs to come, but as the panel pointed out last night, much of those breakthroughs will be kept from the public. You see, when James and others started their groundbreaking work, baseball teams were doing very little in the way of sabermetrics or objective analysis. Nowadays, with “Moneyball” and what Theo Epstein did in Boston (with the help of a lot of money) has caught on in the game. As a result, more and more teams have hired people with analytical backgrounds for their front offices to gain competitive advantages. So whatever information they come up with from now on, they are not going to share, lest it fall into enemy hands. That means you and I won’t get to see much of it.
That is one reason Epstein said he was upset with some of the revelations Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane let loose in “Moneyball.”
If teams find something, let’s say with fielding, and it gives them a competitive advantage, they sure as hell ain’t making it public. Epstein has been pretty closed-mouthed about what his new team, the Cubs, is doing in the way of analysis.
So pull for the folks at Baseball Prospectus and Fangraphs and The Hardball Times to keep doing what they’re doing on your behalf before many of them get snapped up by big-league organizations.
Here are some bullet-pointed highlights from the book event in pretty-much random order:
--In talking about “Moneyball,” Colin Wyers and others agreed that the advantage Theo had in Boston was indeed money and what the Athletics did and have done should be called “Lack of Money” Ball. (A few years ago, I did a feature story for the Daily Herald on the idea of stat guys vs. scouts. Then-Cubs scouting guru Gary Hughes said: “What Boston is doing ain’t “Moneyball,” not with a bazillion-dollar payroll.”)
--Kevin Goldstein tweeted out the other day that Jeff Samardzija had about a 16 percent chance of being a success as a starting pitcher. He was sort of kidding. The points Goldstein and Ken Funck made were that Samardzija is a guy the scouts like because of his fastball but that he needs to be more consistent, efficient and know where the fastball is going. Goldstein added that as long as the Cubs aren’t going anywhere this year, they might as well try Samardzija in the rotation.
--The extra wild-card team will create “a funny trade market” this July, with more buyers and sellers, according to the panel. Lots of teams will be looking for that one guy to get them into the playoffs.
--Goldstein noted that the Cubs are rebuilding their scouting staff not only by adding bodies, but they’re also revamping their scouting system. “I generally think the team is in good hands,” he said. He also noted with some humor that Theo has made some moves that former GM Jim Hendry would have made. Only, Theo gets praised because, “He’s Theo.” (I pointed out that the Cubs’ re-signing of old Hendry favorite Reed Johnson is a prime example of that.) “Fans are saying, ‘OK, Theo’s here, where are our World Series shirts?’ I wouldn’t go there just yet,” Goldstein said.
--The Cubs’ bunting tournament looks to have been great fun. Colin Wyers chimed in with: “If you think the bunting contest is going to win one more game, raise your hand.” I was sitting in the front row and couldn’t see if anybody did.
--The consensus was that the restrictive draft-signing rules will hurt baseball and drive athletes to other sports. The panel pointed out that few college baseball players get even half-rides to college, and if they get a football scholarship, they’re going to take that and never come back to baseball. “It’s going to take three years to see how all this goes down,” Goldstein said. “And then maybe again after that if there’s an international draft.” The group pointed out that under the old free-spending draft era, Epstein’s Red Sox would get four to eight first-round talents a year, but those days are over.
--On Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro, Goldstein said he believes Castro is “not genetically designed to be a shortstop for long.” In other words, he sees Castro moving to second base or third base in 2-4 or 3-5 years. He said Castro should be fine defensively there and would compete for batting titles while hitting about 15 or so homers a year. The group’s consensus was that Castro was more of a “bad-looking shortstop” rather than a terrible defensive shortstop. They noted he has decent range and a decent arm and can get to more balls than other shortstop. That can drive up error totals.
--On the subject of errors, the group noted that, “Errors vary from park to park. The error hole is wide enough to drive a truck through, and official scorers are driving that truck.”
--On how various teams would do, Goldstein said he believed that the Washington Nationals would win the most NL East titles over the next 10 years. He said the Angels could be the team that disappoints this year and that the White Sox “might not be as bad as most people think. I think the White Sox can get to .500.” Goldstein added that any theory you wanted to come up with on why Adam Dunn had such a poor season last year is probably valid and that there probably is no right answer, whether it be the appendix operation, changing leagues, different pitchers and parks or whatever.
--The Reds’ Drew Stubbs was generally considered the best center fielder in the game. Interestingly, these sabermetricians put aside the numbers on this one and said all you had to do was watch Stubbs play to know that.
--Speaking of sabermetrics, Bill James urged his followers many years ago to “not eat the bones.” In other words, the numbers tell a large part of the story, but they don’t tell the whole story. Goldstein, who follows the minor leagues as closely as anybody in or around the game, has said that a minor-league prospect can be written off after just one bad year, when that bad year could have been caused by personal problems, illness or any other factor the numbers don’t measure. The group urged the audience not to “get locked up by a single number” and that “there is no one template for 30 teams.” They noted that the Phillies have enjoyed their decade-long run of success largely through scouting and that the Rays have had success due in large part to crunching the numbers. The other little secret known around the game is that Billy Beane relied and relies heavily on his scouts, despite what the movie “Moneyball” may have led you to believe. The old push and pull between old-school and new-school often centers on the stat of RBI. A lot of old-schoolers look at RBI as measure of a productive hitter, when many other factors account for what makes a good hitter. “If sabermetrics become the new RBI, it has lost,” Wyers concluded.
Fun stuff, indeed.