Commentary

Eyeballing the sabermetics game

A numbers-wary editor finally saw for herself what the stats geeks are preaching

Updated: March 6, 2012, 9:28 PM ET
By Janet Simmons | ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON, Mass. -- It was the sixth annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference featuring an incredible list of speakers, some of the brightest sports minds in the world. People like Bill James, Brian Burke, Jeff Van Gundy, Bill Simmons, Mark Cuban, Scott Boras, Jackie MacMullan and so many more would be sharing their genius on the state of professional sports and how the acceptance of modern analytics has changed everything.

[+] EnlargeBill Simmons and Dad
AP Photo/Winslow TownsonBill Simmons celebrates sabermetrics almost as much as his beloved Bruins (shown here with his father after Rich Peverley scored in Game 4 of the 2011 Stanley Cup finals.

For a sports fan who for 40 years has been relying on her eyes and athletic instincts to enjoy and analyze any and all sports, it was exhilarating, eye-opening, overwhelming ... and ridiculously intimidating.

An admission: I'm not a stats girl. I probably should be, seeing as my personal and professional lives basically revolve around the numbers that are collected and recorded on the playing field of the moment. But I stink at math, so I avoid it. You understand.

However, Friday at the conference, when Bill James and Bill Simmons were discussing Fred Lynn's stats from 1975 and how the numbers on the back of his beat-up baseball card didn't nearly capture his talent and potential with the Red Sox, my ears perked up.

Before the sabermetrics movement, Simmons admitted, all he knew about Lynn, his all-time favorite Red Sox player, were these 1975 stats: 145 games, 528 at-bats, 103 runs, 175 hits, 47 doubles, 7 triples, 21 homers, 105 RBIs, .331 batting average. And he made it clear he liked it that way.

[+] EnlargeTBD
AP Photo/Charles KrupaBill James used his genius to reinvent the way we analyze baseball. Isn't that worth something?

But today, no scout, GM, manager or even future sports columnist would evaluate a player based only on those numbers. Today it's all about OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage), Adjusted OPS (don't ask), UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating), VORP (Value Over Replacement Player), WAR (Wins Above Replacement) and other dumb-sounding stats that are frankly too complicated to explain here. But the point is, Fred Lynn passed the sabermetric test -- .401 OBP to lead AL; 161 OPS-plus, second in AL; 63.2 VORP, fifth in AL; 7.1 Wins Above Replacement, a decent number -- along with easily passing the eye test with his beautifully smooth swing, his on-the-money defense highlighted by spectacular diving catches, and efficient baserunning and overall baseball smarts.

Other Red Sox players whose sabermetrics and intangibles have been thankfully in line include Dustin Pedroia, Clay Buchholz, Jacoby Ellsbury and Jonathan Papelbon. John Henry & Co., Ben Cherington and Bobby Valentine are hoping to add many others, especially Daniel Bard, to that list.

Of course, there have been plenty of Sox players whose sabermetric numbers (and crazy-stupid contracts based on their overvalue) didn't quite translate consistently to the field. J.D. Drew, Edgar Renteria, Wily Mo Pena, Matt Clement, Julio Lugo, Daisuke Matsuzaka and John Lackey unfortunately come to mind.

(Head shaking violently to reset brain ... )

Phew. Let's move on.

Which leads us to one of the big questions of the 2012 Red Sox season: Carl Crawford.

[+] EnlargeDaniel Bard
AP Photo/David GoldmanOnly time will tell whether the numbers are looking up or down for Daniel Bard, who made his spring debut as a starter Tuesday.

Crawford's seven-year, $ 142 million contract obviously wasn't a good value for the Red Sox in 2011 by any sabermetric stretch. Crawford hit .255-.289-.405 with 11 HRs, 56 RBI, 65 runs and 18 stolen bases in 130 games in 2011 (his .289 on-base percentage was the third-lowest ever for a regular Red Sox outfielder). In fact, that contract probably couldn't be justified (sabermetrically or otherwise) to Red Sox Nation if Crawford threw in a Caribbean vacation for each fan, a season of free Fenway franks and his firstborn son. Keep in mind, Crawford was signed after posting a career-high .851 OPS in 2010. So there's hope for the next six years.

But what can we expect from Crawford, who turned 30 in August, this season, especially now with an injured wrist? In general, the sabermetrics say he should bounce back and that 2011 was an aberration -- he was unlucky, overwhelmed, injured, whatever. Bill James has predicted this line for Crawford in 2012: .293-.333-.441 with 15 HRs, 73 RBI, 93 runs and 34 stolen bases. Of course, nervous Red Sox fans will believe it when they see it.

Even James admits that there are always unknowns when it comes to sabermetrics -- and maybe even more so when it comes to the Red Sox. At the MIT conference, he pointed out that Boston's acquisition of one David Ortiz in January 2003 was as much about luck as it was about scouting. James, who was a fairly new consultant for Boston back then, had submitted a report suggesting Ortiz and Brad Fullmer were sabermetrically identical, and that neither would be a better pick than the other.

"If you look at him back before 2003, Brad Fullmer and David Ortiz look a lot the same," James said. "And the reason we signed David Ortiz rather than Brad Fullmer is Minnesota released David Ortiz at the right time for us. We could just as easily signed Brad Fullmer. A lot of it was luck."

There's the rub: These new-fangled sabermetrics work, but maybe just to an extent. Good, old-fashioned luck will always be a key variable.

"There's a million things that we don't know," James said. He used Daniel Bard as an example. Will Bard successfully transition from the bullpen to the starting rotation?

"We don't know," he said. "We hope he can ... but we don't actually know. There are always going to be a million things you don't know for everything you affirmatively know."

Ugg. This is a time when I wanted the guru of sabermetrics to assure me that the numbers don't lie. That Bard's 3.33 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 74 SO, 24 BB in73 innings pitched means he'll be a lights-out No. 4 starter for the Boston Red Sox in 2012. All I got was: "We don't know."

I guess we'll just have to trust our eyeballs on this one.

Janet Simmons is an editor for ESPNBoston.com.

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