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Say What? The Saber-Oriented Fan Doesn't Get It?


Before Micheal Lewis wrote Moneyball he penned a book called Liars Poker. In Liars Poker, Lewis describes the battle at Solomon Brothers with exchange trade options where side by side on the trading floor was the kid from Brooklyn with his high school education (who had always traded by the seat of his pants, relying on gut feelings) and next to him was the PhD from MIT (who was using the Black-Scholes Model to find mispricings in the options). Lewis observed that these two characters were not designed to get along, which created a cultural war full of hostility that ended rather quickly...and the geeks won.

Later, Lewis witnessed the same old guard versus new guard battle while writing Moneyball. This time, the battle was between the scouts and Billy Beane and the Harvard graduates he had hired to grind numbers. When Lewis first began writing Moneyball, the front office of the A's was unique in MLB, but as can be witnessed by the structure of most MLB front offices today it can be said the geeks won this battle as well. (See Micheal Lewis discuss this dynamic here)

The battle between the old guard traditional fan and the new guard sabermetrically inclined analyst seems to flare up every time there is a trade involving an established star dealt for prospects or when a big name free agent has been signed to an incredibly lucrative contract. This battle raged last offseason while the Yankees were negotiating Derek Jeter's contract, after the Carl Crawford and Jayson Werth's contracts were announced, and finally after the Angels traded for Vernon Wells.

On the last day of the Winter Meetings the Los Angeles Angels announced that they had reached an agreement with Albert Pujols on a 10-year 260 million dollar contract. A contract signing of this magnitude is certain to stir up the battle between the old guard fan and the new guard fan regarding the length of the contract, the dollar amount, whether the signing was a win for the Angels, or if the Cardinals are better off as an organization allocating the Pujols money elsewhere in order to remain competitive for years to come. There are many angles to take in the Pujols debate but one article I came across touched on a lot of issues that were brought to the surface because of the Pujols signing.

The article is written by Seattle Times write Geoff Baker and is titled Albert Pujols signing by Mariners' rival is a huge wakeup call. Although the article is written in regards to the Seattle Mariners pursuit of Prince Fielder it quickly devolves into an attack on saber-oriented fan. I warn that if you are easily annoyed by the overuse of the "quotes" for emphasis just stick to what follows below as Baker uses "quotes" for emphasis 27 times in his article.

Baker states that he has an appreciation for the role that statistical analysis plays in the game:

I think the onset of the stats industry has been magnificent for the game. So does MLB, by the way, knowing how it's drawn a generation of younger, thinking fans to the sport. Baseball tried for years to cultivate the younger generation and the publication of Moneyball in 2003 did indeed pave the way for this side industry to take hold. I love stats as much as anybody and am continuously impressed by the dedication shown by those who truly care about researching the next frontiers in baseball. About attempting to answer what we don't understand.

The above statement seems genuine but overall the article seems to take the statistical minded fan to task for a number of subjects. He suggests that he doesn't want to have his article viewed as anti-sabermetric but he seems to take every chance he gets to belittle the sabermetric fan.

About the Vernon Wells trade:

He characterizes the opinion of the critics as smug and refers to them as the smart crowd. Did the Vernon Wells trade help or hinder the Angels in 2011?

Angels owner Arte Moreno has spent the past year listening to critics who scoffed at his Vernon Wells trade, predicting with smug certainty the imminent financial collapse of the Halo empire. Well, this morning, in a matter of hours, Moreno treated the smart crowd to the equivalent of a one-finger salute.

The fact that the Angels received an extremely rich television contract certainly helped change the dynamics of the Vernon Wells acquisition more than anything else. As reported in the L.A. Times, Moreno opted out of his 10 year 500 million dollar TV contract last year and worked on a 1-year deal. In February, the Lakers left Fox for Time Warner Cable and Bud Selig rejected a 20 year 3 billion dollar contract between Fox and the Dodgers.

Fox was fearful that the Dodgers and Angels may both bolt to Time Warner and leave Fox with no summer programming; therefore, despite the Angels having the second lowest television ratings of all baseball teams they were rewarded with a contract which reportedly will exceed the 20 year 3 billion offer originally given to the Dodgers. At the time of the Vernon Wells trade, I don't believe Arte Moreno in his wildest dreams envisioned his TV revenue tripling by the following off-season.

Predicting Albert Pujols Contract:

Those predicting the Pujols contract being an albatross in coming years probably aren't fully aware of the revenue streams of the TV contract stated above. The Pujols contract under the current revenue stream should be viewed separate from the Wells contract which was signed under a separate set of circumstances; there is no lesson to be learned from Wells.

Even today, I keep reading comments that predict Albert Pujols will be a contract albatross in coming years who could cripple the Angels financially. Those people doing the predicting have apparently already forgotten the lessons about Wells

About the Sabermetric Fan:

It seems that Baker has an overwhelmingly negative opinion of saber-oriented fans. Is he suggesting that a saber minded fan doesn't understand that baseball evolves in strategy and theory at different levels? Does he really feel that the saber-oriented fan mixes the results of a video game (MLB2K) with what happens on the field? Finally, does he view all saber-oriented fans with disdain because he feels that they view themselves as a smarter or more intelligent fanbase?

But now -- at the risk of inviting criticism from those who will brand this as "anti-sabermetric" or worse -- I have to qualify that end of it. Because I've written here for years that the best use of stats is to blend them within the realities of Major League Baseball. Not college baseball. Not Little League Baseball. Not MLB2K baseball. Real Major League Baseball played in the real world.

And I think that too many fans who come at things from a statistical point of view often miss the bigger picture when it comes to MLB and how it operates. I see too many fans who view themselves -- judging from their written words -- as a "smart" or "intelligent" fanbase, but who then limit their thought process by putting boxes around their ideas rather than thinking outside the box.

About signing Prince Fielder:

Baker seems to confront the saber-oriented fan who may scribe that the Mariners cannot afford to sign a Prince Fielder. Some suggest that it makes no sense to spend the $100 million, $150 million, or $250 million on Prince Fielder because it would cripple the franchise and prevent further development. This argument may fall short in Baker's eyes, but it is probably being made with some understanding of the club's revenue streams and operating parameters and recent transaction history. Baker sites a number of reasons against his logic but seems to be limiting his thought process and putting a box around his view:

So, those making the argument that the team can't "afford" Prince Fielder at $25 million per season, or $30 million, or $40 million per year, are flat-out wrong. And any analysis of how this team should proceed at constructing a roster -- using this flawed analytical idea of being unable to "afford" Free Agent X or Y -- is also dead wrong. No middle ground. They are wrong.

Somehow Baker ties everything back into the smart people being wrong about the Vernon Wells contract:

There were self-proclaimed "smart" people predicting that Angels owner Moreno would have his hands tied for years by the Wells contract. They were wrong. Wait, arguing. They were wrong. Clearly, based on what happened today.

Baker goes back to Moreno and his willingness to spend money:

Is Moreno just "dumb" because he refused to box himself into a limited way of thinking as so many of his detractors did? Nope. Moreno plays in the real world of MLB. He owns a radio station. Knows about the value of TV rights. Knows about spending money to make money in business. Knows that very few owners in MLB ever "lose" money. How can they? The deck is stacked in their favor.

Is it fair to say that Moreno's way of thinking was expanded by tripling his TV revenue? After all, Moreno plays in the real world of MLB, without the new TV deal is Albert Pujols or C.J. Wilson an Angel in 2012? Without the TV contract are the Angels lamenting trading for Vernon Wells? Without the TV contract is the Vernon Wells contract an albatross around the Angels' neck?

On belief that low-budget teams can compete:

Baker suggests that saber-oriented fans believe that low spending teams can contend just as easy as big spending teams. I believe that I can speak for many stat-oriented Rays fans when I say that few of us believe that competing on a low-spending team is easy. It's very difficult, the margin of error is slim, and there is pain that comes with losing our favorite players. When all is said and done the Rays prove that a team can compete as a low-spending team -- not that it is easy. Baker also suggests that too many fans worry about their teams bottom lines than the teams themselves do.

This is why I got on some of the more stats-oriented fans a bit earlier. I just see too many fans nowadays who worry about the bottom lines of their teams more than the teams themselves do,

And I do not think this is healthy for the game. I think that it perpetuates the myth that low-spending teams can contend just as easily as big-spending teams.

They can't.

I don't believe the saber-oriented fan or the traditional fan is worried about the team's bottom line. I think the goal of many in online communities is to play the role of GM and predict a teams moves. To really be accurate in this endeavor, a fan must try to think like a GM and not base decisions on what they would do if they were given unfettered control of the front office.

Today's baseball enthusiast, whether saber-oriented or not, can find out the contract status of any player in the league via Cot's Baseball Contracts and a fairly good knowledge of teams revenue streams can be obtained at Forbes. Attendance figures for a team are available on a number of websites and with fairly good accuracy, a fan can predict their team's opening day payroll. All predictions based on this set of data will be used to evaluate roster decisions. Is it nice to be surprised by a move or increase in payroll? You bet.

Prior to the Winter Meetings in 2010 Andrew Friedman said there wasn't going to be a 7 Million dollar closer on the 2010 Rays. At the meetings, he traded for Rafael Soriano and paid him 7 million dollars. It happens. I doubt Andrew Friedman had the desire to give the smart people the one finger salute because they were wrong.

About Moneyball and the Red Sox:
Baker contends that those who believe that low-revenue teams can compete just as easily as big-spending teams also believe that Theo Epstein and the Red Sox also followed the Moneyball strategy:

It continues the myth that Theo Epstein was a true practicioner of Moneyball the way Billy Beane was.

He wasn't.

If anything, a brilliant Epstein put the "Money" in Moneyball, using hefty payrolls and smarts to field World Series winners and gloss over the mistakes that others could not.

Epstein also believes heavily in team "chemistry" which -- as Red Sox consultant Bill James told me last year -- the Red Sox spent an inordinate amount of time worrying about even if sabermetrics had yet to come up with a way to measure it.

This seems like Baker wants to credit the money part of the equation much heavier than the smarts. I agree that the Red Sox certainly had the money to spend but without the smarts they may of had the same success as the Cubs, Mets, or Dodgers -- yet the Red Sox won 2 World Series.

As far as team chemistry goes, it would be interesting to find out what definition Epstein is a believer in. One definition may be having a bunch of guys who get along in the clubhouse and the other definition may be a team that is unified in beating the opposition regardless of whether or not they like each other. The A's under Dick Williams in the early 70s and the Yankees under Billy Martin in the late 70s only cared about being champions and history shows those clubhouses were extremely fractured.

The Big Hitter:

Sabermetics and the impact bat:

Just like sabermetrics has yet to measure the impact one big hitter can have on a lineup full of popgun guys. Yes, it's true that there has never been any proof that a big hitter directly behind another can "protect" that guy in front of him and cause him to get better pitches to hit.

But those are two different things. And both hitters and pitchers, managers and GMs will tell you one big bat can make a difference throughout the lineup.

There is a big difference between trying to statistically prove the protection theory and understanding the value of a big bat in the middle of a lineup. Your main reason for wanting the big bat in the middle of the lineup may be based on the protection theory, but a saber-oriented fan may have a hole slew of other reasons for wanting the big bat, but the result is the same and that is the middle of an order needs a couple of big bats since scoring runs is a primary function to winning baseball games.

An Unbiased Take:

Baker said he isn't against sabermetrics and that he doesn't have a financial interest in it. No dog in the proverbial hunt is how he puts it.

I'm just giving you my observations. I'm not going to say that I agree with someone or think that an argument is sound when I find evidence to the contrary. I'll let others make nice-nice. I'm just giving you my unbiased take.

If this is an unbiased take than I'd hate to see what your bias is. You've taken every opportunity to explain through each one of your points why the saber-minded fan is wrong. You've suggested that the saber-minded fan is closed minded. You've suggested that they don't live in baseball reality and even threw a video game reference in there.

And right now, what I've seen is too many people pigeonholing themselves into arguments and rooted positions based on things they don't completely grasp about Major League Baseball.

You assume that the saber-oriented fan doesn't believe in team chemistry, the big bat theory, or understand how much a team can afford to pay a player.

Chemistry and big bat impact on lineups are two of them.

And how much teams can really "afford" to pay players are another.

The definition as well as the value of team chemistry and big bat theory go a long way toward whether a saber-oriented fan believes in them.

I've never heard a saber-oriented fan suggest trading a performing player on a wining team at the trade deadline because removing him from the lineup would help with team chemistry and thereby improve the teams chances of making the playoffs. When this happens, I'll be a big believer in team chemistry under the all get along definition.

I've seen a lot of lineup arguments (including off-season/trade deadline deals) that focus on putting a lineup together that doesn't leave the middle of the order hitter naked. I don't believe I've ever heard a saber-oriented fan clamor for a lineup full of popgun hitters.

I'm going to give the saber community a strong vote of confidence that the knowledge of how much a team can actually afford to pay a player is well known. In order to increase the accuracy of predictions, the saber community operates on the willingness to spend theory.

A fan has the right to role play GM. A fan has the right to use statistical evidence to make a logical argument to support a position on a free agent acquisition, a trade, or any other move made by an organization. This statistical evidence may even include a limited knowledge of the team's economic willingness to spend. Telling fans that they are doing themselves a favor by not trying to play banker or PR rep by telling other fans what those squads can avoid is preposterous.

And until fans get the money facts on their respective teams, they'd do themselves a favor by not trying to play banker or PR rep by telling other fans what those squads can "afford".

Teams love it when their own fans make cases for them to be frugal. Helps keep profits up.

Don't make it easy for them to become the Pittsburgh Pirates or Cleveland Indians. Try thinking a little more outside the box. When we see evidence of financial calamity around the game on a massive scale, I'll change my tune.

The author certainly does not have the economic facts of the Seattle Mariners in front of him, but yet he is telling fans that the Mariners have the money to spend on Prince Fielder. Why should he have the only voice when it comes to speculating on a team's finances or roster moves based on them?

I am not above arguing with the stat-oriented community, but I will never attempt to suggest that I don't learn something from each and every argument. I won't attempt to tell a fan what opinions they should be allowed to voice as the author has done. I certainly wouldn't suggest, as the author has, that the fans' acceptance of payroll is a factor in budgeting and helps keep the profits up.

Yes, the article needled me and hit a nerve. I have discussed fans' rights with many in the DRB community and am a big believer in a fan's voice. Will I stop reading the author's writing? No. I must be a glutton for punishment because I was drawn back to his Seattle Times page today and right there is another story that smacks me right in the head. The story is directed at those who pay attention to a teams finances and is titled No "bang for the buck" trophies in baseball.