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Beyond The Boxscore: Parallel Universes


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In this opening, Corbett appeals to both authority and flattery, though not necessarily fallaciously. He does so for this payoff: "Sabermetrics provided essentially no help in making me a better baseball player." This is perhaps the boldest claim I have ever read. To say this is quite the meta-analysis of one's upbringing. He would not only have to understand an upbringing in which sabermetrics was not involved, but also know beyond any doubt that he would have been at least as good at baseball in that parallel universe. This point is raised because Corbett believes the playing of baseball is "at heart an intuitive [task]." Anybody who refutes this remark would have to possess a near-impossible amount of evidence. However, the ideas of sabermetrics come directly from intuition. It was Bill James' intuition that suggested on-base percentage could actually win more baseball games than previously thought. A baseball player (Joey Votto for instance) can benefit from knowing that fact. It was Voros McCracken's intuition that suggested not allowing home runs or walks is the key to a pitcher's success. A baseball player (Zack Greinke for instance) can benefit from knowing that fact.

Sabermetrics wasn't originally conceived to make players play better. It was a product of fans trying to understand the game. It gets implemented at the front office and management levels because that is where it is most easily applied at the moment. In Michael Lewis' Moneyball, there is even a chapter describing the Oakland Athletics management telling its farm teams to start taking more walks. That means coaches were being forced to understand the value of on-base percentage, not just general managers. However, what this created was discourse on approaches at the plate. Only players stand at the plate.

In addition to the on-base example above, which led to players being more selective at the plate and has caught fire since Moneyball, the rise of the defensive shift is another example. Opposing teams used to shift against just David Ortiz. The Pirates, after bringing aboard Dan Fox, a Baseball Prospectus alum, integrated the defensive shift into their entire minor league training program. While it took some time for players (both fielders and pitchers) to buy in, the introduction of sabermetrics into fielding created discourse that helped improve play on the field. Players can think more deeply about plate appearances: "Based on the count, the hitter and his tendencies, and what my pitcher is trying to do, I have a good idea of where to stand to cover the space where the ball will most likely go." Players have undoubtedly thought about that for as long as they have been playing, but players (and coaches) now have the available data to refute or prove those thoughts. Scientific experiments usually try to generalize findings to a larger population, but there is a lot of baseball analysis where N=1. Russell Carleton at Baseball Prospectus has written about this before. The goal of any examination where N=1, the examination of one player, is to improve play on the field. The example of shifting for one player in a specific way is N=1 type stuff, but the methodology can apply widely.

General managers and coaches are not a dichotomy; they work in symbiosis. Furthermore, Billy Beane is a former player. This isn't a player vs. management discussion anymore. It's a player and management discussion.

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Here’s the honest truth: Sabermetrics provided essentially no help in making me a better baseball player.

If a sabermetrician (or saber-partisan) wonders why the larger baseball world has not discarded Medieval Superstition for Enlightened Science, foregoing the burning of witches to instead guillotine the likes of Hawk Harrelson, he should think about all that is implied by the above.

Sabermetrics has immeasurably improved the management of baseball, but has done comparatively little to improve the playing of baseball. The management of baseball (meant generically to encompass front office as well as in-game management) is primarily an analytical task, but the playing of baseball is at heart an intuitive one. Getting better at managing involves mastering and applying abstract concepts. Getting better at playing involves countless mechanical repetitions with the goal of honing one’s neurology to the point at which certain tasks no longer require conscious attention to perform.

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