Friday, July 18, 2003
Sabermetricians truly color-blind
By Rob Neyer
Item No. 1 ...
Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi along with Oakland's Billy Beane and other new-wavers believe in building offence through patience at the plate and taking no chances on the bases. That's a pre-WWII style of play. Under those criteria, Jackie Robinson could not have played in the majors.
Item No. 2 ...
-- Richard Griffin in The Toronto Star, June 29
It is usually the American-born blacks' records and place that are resented instead of celebrated. For example, it's the stolen base that is denigrated as a weapon by baseball sabermetricians like Bill James, at precisely the time when a Rickey Henderson steals 130 bases in a season. There are sour grapes when a baseball man uses stats to tell you a stolen base isn't important. Any time a baseball manager will give up an out for a base, as with a sac bunt or groundball to the right side, any time a base is so precious, then it goes without saying that the stolen base must be important. Not the CS, the caught stealing, or stats of success rates, but the stolen base itself.
The resistance to sabermetrics takes many forms, but I can't help but think that the resistance manifested above is probably the strangest form we've seen yet. Here's how the line of reasoning seems to run ...
-- Ralph Wiley in ESPN.com's Page 2, July 15
American-born black players seem to be disappearing from the game.
Sabermetrics is becoming a bigger and bigger part of the game.
Ergo, sabermetrics is responsible for the disappearance of American-born black players.
To be fair, neither Richard Griffin nor Ralph Wiley lay all the blame at the doorstep of Bill James (and people like him) or J.P. Ricciardi (and people like him). Rather, Griffin and Wiley have simply cast about for explanations, and Big Bad Sabermetrics just happens to have been one of the suspects that's being held for questioning.
The problem with the argument, though, is that none of the specific examples actually make their case.
Let's start with Bill James, and his supposed disdain for Rickey Henderson's game.
In 1982 -- before Henderson stole 130 bases in a season -- Bill James wrote, "The greatest lead-off man in baseball, Henderson might be on his way to being the greatest lead-off man in baseball history."
In 1983 -- after Henderson stole 130 bases in a season - James wrote, "Henderson ranks as the best lead-off man in the league, which is not news."
In 2001 -- (apparently) near the end of Henderson's career -- James wrote, "Somebody asked me did I think Rickey Henderson was a Hall of Famer. I told them, 'If you could split him in two, you'd have two Hall of Famers.'"
Also in 2001, James wrote about Jackie Robinson, "Never underestimate the power of intelligence, particularly when that intelligence is combined with athletic ability, determination, and a formidable competitive instinct."
Speaking of Jackie Robinson, this morning I asked Keith Law -- Special Assistant to Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi -- about Jackie Robinson. Specifically, if the late-1940s version of Jackie Robinson were available today, would the Jays want him?
"Absolutely. He hit immediately starting in his rookie year. He got on base (.400+ OBP for six straight years), rarely struck out, had good power for a middle infielder (averaged 14 homers a year), and played good defense at a critical position. And obviously his intensity and effort were off the charts. He's everything we want in a baseball player. What's not to like?"
All of which is to say, you can accuse Bill James and sabermetrics of many things, but you cannot accuse them of not appreciating Jackie Robinson and Rickey Henderson. Those two brilliant players -- not to mention Joe Morgan and Willie Mays and Cool Papa Bell and Barry Bonds, and hey let's not forget Henry Aaron and Frank Robinson and Tony Gwynn and Eddie Murray -- could play for any general manager, from Chuck LaMar and Randy Smith to Billy Beane and J.P. Ricciardi.
If you think that sabermetrics doesn't have a place for them, then you don't understand sabermetrics. Because there's not yet been a sabermetrician born who wouldn't drool at the thought of Rickey Henderson and Jackie Robinson at the top of his imaginary lineup.
It's bad for baseball, that American-born blacks apparently aren't playing the game as much as they once did. But sabermetricians are excited by great baseball players, and in my experience sabermetricians are as color-blind as they come. So look somewhere else for your scapegoat.
Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. His new book, "Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Lineups," has just been published by Fireside. For more information about the book, visit Rob's Web site.