Thursday, April 28, 2005
Alderson true father of the on-base revolution
By Alan Schwarz
Special to ESPN.com
OK, so they aren't Larry Page and Sergey Brin, two Stanford grads who Googled their way into billions of dollars and national business celebrity. In fact, their names are long forgotten. But 24 years ago, a pair of Stanfordites approached Sandy Alderson with an idea that would ultimately change the course of baseball history.
"We have a computer project to do, and we want to do an analysis of baseball players," the two business-school students said. "Is there anything we can tackle for you?"
Alderson, a young former attorney just one year into his tenure with the Oakland A's, thought about it for a moment and realized that, in fact, there was.
"Here are some statistics," he said, handing over piles of old Elias Sports Bureau data. "Run a regression analysis on them, and tell me which ones correlate best with team run production."
Some time later, the students came back with the result. The most beneficial statistic was not batting average, which in 1982 was still the gold standard of player evaluation. It was not stolen bases, which Rickey Henderson was then piling up for the A's to great fanfare.
It was on-base percentage, and to a lesser extent, slugging percentage. Alderson smiled because at heart he was an Earl Weaver man disdaining the out, worshipping the home run and had suspected that OBP would stand above the others. This confirmed it.
Thus began the on-base revolution.
We hesitate to call it moneyball, because "Moneyball" is a book, not a philosophy namely, the one that essentially began that day in Sandy Alderson's office, while Billy Beane was in Double-A. Alderson constructed his Oakland clubs in large part around on-base percentage getting high ones from hitters and low ones from pitchers and did it well enough to build the game's most successful franchise during 1988-92. His dedication to logic over emotion influenced a staggering number of future executives whom he mentored, including Walt Jocketty, Ron Schueler, J.P. Ricciardi and, of course, Beane.
Alderson left the A's in 1998 for Major League Baseball's central office, and for the past seven years has been the primary force behind ending umpire anarchy, enforcing the proper strike zone, cutting out in-game dead time and many other areas that have improved the game fans see on the field. But none of these things, as Alderson leaves MLB to return to the club side as CEO of the Padres, compares to the seismic shift he began back in 1982, when OBP might as well have stood for Obstinate Baseball Personnel.
Of course, walks had been valued by various folks over the years Ted Williams, Branch Rickey, Weaver but what Alderson did was incorporate them into a larger philosophy of team construction. He recognized that the ability to get on base (or keep opposing batters off base) was not only undervalued in terms of winning games, but also undervalued in the talent marketplace players who helped you win actually cost you less. So he fixed his eyes on players who could avoid outs (by getting hits or walking) while hitting for power; speed and batting average were merely secondary elements.
Alderson was a newcomer to baseball he had argued a few arbitration cases for the A's as an attorney, but had no other industry experience. (He was hired full-time by team president Roy Eisenhardt simply for his pure intelligence, which, thanks to Alderson's future success, has gone from blasphemous to commonplace.)
Alderson had read Bill James' then-obscure Abstract and was encouraged by the rationality they contained. A former Marine infantry officer who served in Vietnam he had such a steely look that a recruitment poster with his picture asked for a few good men like him Alderson was drawn to the dispassionate logic with which baseball could be analyzed.
"I'm sitting there, an outsider to baseball, and I have to develop a philosophy, a basis for decision making," Alderson said. "I was searching around for ideas. I was ripe for these kinds of things."
James intrigued him, but no statistical mind influenced Alderson more than that of Eric Walker. A former aerospace engineer then working for National Public Radio in the Bay Area, Walker also dabbled in baseball analysis and even wrote a small book on the subject. In the summer of 1982 he approached Alderson with ideas that corroborated those of the Stanford Business School students specifically those regarding the walk and home run as primary offensive weapons. Alderson hired Walker as a consultant, and kept him on for the rest of his Oakland tenure.
"Sandy had a lot of guts hiring me," said Walker, who now lives in eastern Washington. "He was someone who wanted to have reasons for doing things. They had to make sense. It was pretty rare for baseball then."
Most of Oakland's moves in the mid-to-late 1980s were made with OBP in mind. The A's drafted pure slugger Mark McGwire over two speedier and more complete players, Shane Mack and Oddibe McDowell; they dumped free-swinging shortstop Alfredo Griffin for pitcher Bob Welch; they acquired Reggie Jackson, Dave Henderson, Rickey Henderson and Ken Phelps, all of whom fit the walk-and-homer profile. The result? Four division titles and three pennants from 1988 through '92.
Baseball watched this. Yankees executive Gene Michael recognized the impact of on-base percentage and upon becoming GM in New York, began making moves accordingly (trading for Paul O'Neill, etc.), sowing the seeds of that club's late-'90s dynasty. Alderson proteges such as Jocketty, Ricciardi and many others moved on to other clubs, spread the more cerebral approach, and hired smart non-baseball people for front offices. And of course, no one bought into the overall philosophy like Beane.
An undisciplined player himself, Beane had the on-base message driven home forever while literally sitting in the stands with Alderson watching the 1993 Phillies. Darren Daulton, Lenny Dykstra and John Kruk, despite their Cheez Wiz Kids, renegade persona, won the pennant in large part by killing opponents with walks.
"Even Mariano Duncan took walks that year," Beane said. "I remember sitting with Sandy, just tangibly watching the impact that lineup would have, and ultimately on runs scored and pitch counts." After Alderson left for MLB in 1998 and handed the reins to Beane, the Kruk Phillies in many ways were reborn as the Giambi A's.
In part because of the "Moneyball" hysteria spawned by Michael Lewis' 2003 bestseller, on-base percentage has become so popular that such bargains are difficult to find. The secret long out, we now see GMs like Beane who operates with payrolls considerably smaller (relative to his competition) than Alderson ever had forced to move more toward undervalued defensive contributors. In some ways we have arrived at the opposite bookend of the on-base revolution, across the shelf from that day in 1982 when Alderson sat down with those Stanford Business School students.
"I was looking to be persuaded," Alderson recalled. In time, we all were.
Alan Schwarz is the senior writer at Baseball America and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His book, "The Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination With Statistics," is published by St. Martin's Press and can be ordered on Alan's Web site.