30 baseball books for April ’17, Day 23: No more need to dumb it down – there’s Law Smart when it comes to new stats

Once upon a time, a “bat rule” was all a kid needed.

In addition to a Q-and-A with Law as part of Sunday’s media column, we have this review:

The book: “Smart Baseball: The Story Behind the Old Stats That Are Ruining the Game, the New Ones that are Running It, and the Right Way to Think About Baseball”
The author: Keith Law
The vital statistics: William Morrow/Harper Collins, 304 pages, $27.99, scheduled to come out Tuesday, April 25
Find it: At Amazon.com, at Barnes & Noble, at Powells.com, at Vromans.com, at the publishers’ website, or the writers’ website

The pitch: Everyone wants to look and sound smart, or at least smarter, when it comes to baseball knowledge.
So Keith Law waits until Chapter 18, page 261, to drop the hammer.
“If your local writer is still talking about players in terms of pitcher wins, saves or RBI, he’s discussing the role of the homunculus in human reproduction. The battle is over, whether the losers realize it or not.”
Homunculus? My spellcheck just started hyperventilating.
It’s a reference to a very old theory about “a miniature adult” that was once thought to inhabit the germ cell and to produce a mature individual merely by an increase in size.
How mature.
Another translation: An evolutionary process is happening in baseball, so no matter what you want to hang onto for deal life and claim it still matters, you risk being thought of a non-progressive resistance-to-change outcast who needs to get up to speed quickly or get left behind.
That kind of thinking is why you still may have a flip phone, a fax machine and are holding out hope your taxes might be calculated some day in your favor by using a loophole from the 1940s.

Law needed to write this — and Amazon.com already has this listed as a “best seller” in the “Business Facility Management” category, whatever that means.
And if you don’t pick up on the non-so-subtle hint in the book title, it’s not hip to be relying on outdated stats to measure a man’s worth on a diamond. It’s just his way to make it a bit more snarky and erudite at the same time.
The next logical step is then: What is important and more defining, how do we know that it is and how can we learn the new language?
Those who cling to formulas from the past likely do so because of how it’s the easiest comparison to players from the game’s history. They are easy-to-calculate numbers taught to us off the back of a baseball card.
But then open up a new set of Topps 2017. We’ll take our Bryce Harper No. 34 card from Series 1. The “traditional” stats are there but we see 14 categories total, including OPS and WAR. It shows Harper led the league in WAR with 9.5 in 2015 as well as a 1.109 OPS.
If your kid sees this and asks you what it means, don’t have that same face you do when he needs help on his algebra homework.
There is a reason we didn’t continue past high school trig and emerge ourselves in calculus. It got too confusing and didn’t seem practical. And it’s not as if we were going to  Caltech anyway.
This isn’t the first year baseball cards have expanded their information in this way.
Law, a University of Harvard grad (economics and sociology) with an MBA from Carnegie Mellon who writes about player scouting and rankings for ESPN.com after spending time in the Toronto Blue Jays’ front office, admits in the introduction that he also grew up in a “Pleasantville-esque world of baseball statistics” found on the backs of trading cards.
Being good at math gave him a lot of “false confidence” when it came to fantasy baseball leagues, and a drive to be better at the faux games drove him to investigate new measurements of talent, a new perspective, just as the new Bill James’ books were coming out and STATS Inc., was emerging.
Chapter by chapter, Law explains why stats like batting average, pitching victories, RBIs, relief pitcher saves, stolen bases and fielding percentage are as flawed as the long-held beliefs that that someone needs to “protect” another hitter in the line by batting behind him, why the best hitter in the lineup should be hitting third (rather than second), and why there’s a fundamental problem in giving up an out to advance a runner.
Having dumped all over that, he then focuses on why OPS (even with its bad math), wOBA/WRC, WPA and WAR have more capital gains oomph … and ERA might be a “noisy statistic, but that doesn’t mean it’s devoid of value.”
Law is laying down the new-age law: Those with Ph Ds in computer science specialties are in MLB front offices changing the way data is gathered and deciphered. It’s not to say good old-fashion eye test isn’t still in play. No one can measure a players’ heart or desire, injured or healthy, amped up or depressed by whatever else is going on his life. Team chemistry will win more championships. There’s still that “sum of all its parts” math that still must come into play when breaking down individual performances according to the stat sheet that comes out at the end of the day.
Change will come even more after analyzing how the Chicago Cubs did things with manager Joe Maddon. Just look at the front page of the new Tom Verducci book, “The Cubs Way” to see how Maddon color-codes certain numbers that are either hot or cold that go into determining what kind of move he will make on the field at a certain point in a game.
Having written all that, Law tries to apply logic to why some players are inexcusably not in the Hall of Fame (Lou Whitaker, Roger Clemens, Mike Mussina and, ahem, Kevin Brown) and why some shouldn’t be (Catfish Hunter, Bruce Sutter), how new stats apply to today’s scouting,  and how the 2015 introduction of  MLB Statcast has been changing things for the better, including taking things to the next level of injury protection.
This is a cause to pause and recalculate the ways we input our own baseball data. Change isn’t always easy, but since Law is willing to walk some of us through it, we are more apt to accept this new-math relationship and move us along the scale of uncertainty.

More Q&A with Law from today’s column:

Q Sacrifice bunts are now a dying art, according to a headline on the Associated Press story. A chapter of your book has been excerpted recently in ESPN’s magazine that’s all about how “the sac bunt is stupid.” A coincidence?
A: I think more people are realizing that bunting is a poor strategy. Teams are doing more sophisticated analysis and coming up with the same conclusions. If you’re successful, you end up here. If you don’t, you lose this.

Q: Will there be a stat you see coming up in the next five-to-10 years that blows some of this stuff away?
A:
It seems to depend on what Statcast produces, and after speaking to a lot of analysts about what they’re doing with this high-level data, the say they’re just scratching the surface. Some player who could be totally overlooked five to 10 years ago could be found to have a new value, even in their own system. The numbers show how someone has a high spin rate on their curveball, but he barely throws it. You can go to player development and look at his grip and release point and maybe see how to improve that. You can figure out more how someone like Kyle Hendricks is winning the ERA title by throwing 88 miles an hour.
The stats are also being used to anticipate injuries. With data about velocity or spin rate or arm angle, you can take 15 minutes and check him out if something is dropping inexplicably. If that saves someone from continued trips to the disabled list, that be a savings of $1 million in recaptured value.

Q: Do you find yourself like Sheldon in “The Big Bang Theory” with whiteboards all around your house full of calculations that would make most normal people’s heads explode?
A: (Laughing) My house is actually full of board games. My 10 year old daughter isn’t a baseball fan, so you’ll find very little baseball and just a lot of books around. The only baseball evidence is in my office where there are a few Bill James Baseball Abstracts that I bought a few years ago on eBay.

Q: Will there be a player voted into the Hall of Fame in the next five to 10 years that gets in based on a reexamination of stats using new formulas, somewhat in the way Tim Raines or Bert Blyleven finally got in after years of waiting?
A: I think Mike Mussina may be the next cause celebre. He had an amazing career. So did Curt Schilling. Lou Whitaker will be reexamined after he was one-and-done (after his first year of eligibility). Whittaker will become my personal cause. I want him in the Hall. Mussina will get close.

More:
== A book excerpt on ESPN.com

Also:
== “Hot Hands, Draft Hype, and DiMaggio’s Streak: Debunking America’s Favorite Sports Myths,”  by Sheldon Hirsch (released April 4) is not so much a baseball debate book but a book that tries to apply debatable logic to things we hold as truths in all of sports. The chapters that cover baseball are most applicable in this topic as has nearly 40 pages devoted to evaluating baseball stats, reevaluating players form a motdern perspective, and the future of baseball analytics.
Hirsch ultimately quotes Bill James: “It is important for (sabermetricians) not to be trapped by the progression of the argument into thinking that we understand the issues better than we do.”
Hirsch then concludes: “That’s the father of modern baseball analytics stressing its limitations and implying that further progress in understanding the remaining complicated issues may be less than many assume.”
More on this book with a review at RealClearBooks.com.

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