Why Oral Baseball History Tells a Better Story Than Sabermetrics

Editor’s note: Joe Guzzardi wrote this article, but I agree wholeheartedly. At least for me, the magic of baseball is in its history. Statistics tell only a part of the story.

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I consider myself a middling baseball fan. Outside of the three teams I root for, the San Francisco Giants, the Oakland Athletics and my hometown Pittsburgh Pirates I really couldn’t tell you much about the 27 others. A possible exception would be the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox with which ESPN has a fawning, almost nauseating addiction to.

When pressed, I like to call myself a baseball historian who is much more engrossed in the sport’s rich past and its vital role in American culture than I am in the dry, day to day statistics. I never warmed up to Sabermetrics, and while acknowledging that it has a place, I candidly confess that I never made the slightest attempt to fathom it.

Accordingly, I was encouraged when baseball’s new official historian John Thorn recently admitted that he too finds the stories more compelling than the stats.

Think of it this way. If you and I are visiting on my front porch, which is more entertaining—a debate about linear weights as a measure of batting performance (I’m still not totally sure what that means) or my recounting the time I saw Mickey Mantle hit a 400 foot single? In a game against the Washington Senators, Mantle hit a ball off Chuck Stobbs so hard to center field that it hit the wall like a rocket that Whitey Herzog played it on the bounce before firing the ball to second baseman Pete Runnels.

This is not intended to disparage the creative and important analysis that many of my SABR colleagues have done and continue to do. But my interests lie elsewhere.

I’ll offer two reasons why I haven’t jumped on the Sabermetric bandwagon. First, my head doesn’t work that way. All those stats remind me of my college economics classes—you know, the Dismal Science.

But more importantly, for more than six decades I’ve watched a lot of baseball. I’ve seen teams that are long gone like those in the old Pacific Coast League or the Puerto Rican Winter League. And I’ve seen hundreds of Hall of Fame players who have passed.

You may not have seen them or possibly never heard of them. I like to think that my oral history may spark an interest in you to put the stats aside, at least for a while, to dig into the past.

I can imagine retelling my grandchildren my Mantle story. But I can’t for the life of me picture us sitting around the old hot stove while I reminisce about 2010,  the year Felix Hernandez won the Cy Young Award because he had the American League’s best Sabermetrics.

0 thoughts on “Why Oral Baseball History Tells a Better Story Than Sabermetrics”

  1. I understand your stance toward Sabermetrics. Today what I see are stat-geeks dissecting the game and making judgements of players based on stats. Most of these stat-geeks, haven’t played the game since little league, or never played the game yet think they are qualified to criticise players based on some stat. You can’t measure a players heart, if you could Pete Rose would be the King of that also.

  2. Well… I’m a huge fan of stories and sabermetrics so I agree somewhat. Stats without stories is very boring. Stories without stats can be entertaining, although they may not be informative (but certainly can be). Anyway, I prefer a world of both…

    As for comment #1… frankly, I don’t see why I would need to have played baseball to be able to state that someone hitting .220 with no power is not as good a hitter as someone blasting away at .320 with power. Who couldn’t make that judgement? Those are stats and I don’t think I need to have played baseball since little league to be able to say that.

  3. There is a difference between making a judgement and making harsh criticisms of players based on stats alone. From what I have seen of the “stat-geeks”, they make statements based solely on stats. There are several points of the game that can not be measured in stats alone. If you play the game beyond the little league level you start to understand the game inside of the game as only a mature mind can. Most of the “stat-geeks” I have spoke with simply do not know the game enough to be commenting on it. Maybe I should not have made a blanket statement concerning “stat-geeks” in general, just my personnal observations.

  4. Having had baseball as a part of my life as a player and spectator for over 50 years, I agree with you Joe that sabremetrics have a place for managers and owners when deciding on whether to acquire a player for their team, but to me the magic of baseball has always been the sights and smells of a day at the park.I can still remember watching Marichal with that high leg kick and hearing Tony Bennett sing God Bless America during a game with my son at Dodger Stadium on the night they honored Jackie Robinson with his wife Rachel and the late Duke Snider in attendance. The peanut man making a perfect throw at Safeco or Ernie Banks hitting one out of Candlestick park in the 60’s with the left fielder not even moving after the ball left his bat. I still root for my beloved Pirates even though they have not made it easy lately. Seeing the new Mazeroski statue outside of PNC park this past fall gave me chills as that magic home run that I heard in class on the radio when 10 years old was brought vividly to my minds eye. Let the “baseball accountants” crunch their numbers but to me the only things that I will ever care about are the sensory magic that this great game has brought me for over 50 years. As Joe Schmidt would say ” Throw him some low smoke and lets go pack back some Bud”. I enjoy all your musings on this great game, so thanks Joe and keep em coming

  5. I am so surprised by the anti stat geek stuff. You would think that we were ruining baseball. Yet when you watch games on TV or watch ESPN, there is very little sabermetrics being pushed. The people who like stories are still front and center. They dominate the media.

    Complaining about the stat geeks is like complaining about all the medical technology we have. Remember when doctors just used their intuition and didn’t bother with things like X-rays, MRIs, etc? It is jut no fun going to the doctor anymore now that they don’t put leeches on me.

    Ignoring stats leads to people saying things like Candlestick park cost Willie Mays 100 HRs. I have disproven this (and even had a letter about it in the NY Times Book Review). Yet a few months later, another baseball book was reviewed in this publication (by the chief editor himself) where this falsehood about Mays was again stated. Boy, my sabermetrics sure made a difference. Start complaining about all of the people like me when ESPN stops showing highlights and giving a podium to ex-players like John Kruk that millions of fans watch and instead just has a stat geek go over the box score of the game. The vast majority of baseball reporting and coverage is still the old fashioned kind that you guys like.

    And a guy who did play the game and believed in stats (and “new fangled” stats) was Branch Rickey himself. See

    See

    http://cybermetric.blogspot.com/2010/04/scouts-vs-statheads-what-might-branch.html

  6. Oh, by the way, when Branch Rickey said in the 1954 LIFE article

    “We took the figures to mathematicians at a famous research institute. Did they know baseball? No, but that was not essential.”

    Not essential. That comes from Hall of Famer Rickey who played big league ball.

    1. Cyril, thanks for speaking up. I value your input here and want this site to always be a place where people can feel comfortable expressing all views, so long as they’re constructive.

      To anyone who’d like to read Cyril’s New York Times letter, go here.

  7. To put things in perspective. One young guy I know that lives off his stats for fantasy baseball made the comment that before Cal Ripken, most shortstops were poor hitters. He went on to ask me “what was the big deal with Qzzie Smith since he only hit .300 once?” And continue on with “how did guys like Dal Maxvill and Mark Belanger play so many games when they couldn’t hit?” My reply was simple, they did things to help their teams that do not always show up in the box score. As I remember, Rico Petrocelli and Gary Templeton were both good hitters for a few years. Things like stealing signs, hit and run, stealing a base off of the pitcher, and defensive alingment don’t show in the bos score. What I just don’t like is somebody judging players solely on some stat. I believe the players worked hard to get where they are at and I just want people to respect that.

  8. I don’t think intangibles are very important.

    Somehow baseball’s intangibles balance out. They reflect themselves in other ways. Over an entire season, or many seasons, individuals and teams build an accumulation of mathematical constants. A man can work with them. He can measure results and establish values. He can then construct a formula which expresses something tangible.

  9. @douglas heeren: Well, I certainly agree that there are parts of the game that can’t be measured in stats alone! Any self respecting “stat-geek” (in my opinion) would have to acknowledge that. I’m sure, however, that there is a large disagreement as to how much of the game doesn’t show up in stats… And I am a stat geek but love stories and the history of the game (as most stat geeks do that I have come across in person or online). As for the statements about shortstops the person you know has made… that just sounds like an ignorant stat-geek.

    To me, stats (and their continued development) can help one understand and enjoy the game of baseball. For enjoyment they are certainly not necessary, but I think they really do lead to an increased understanding of the game (when used “appropriately”).

    Also, agreed about the players working hard to get where they’re at! Any “lousy” major league player is obviously very good at baseball!!!

    Anyway, I agree with Cyril Morong in that I don’t think (most of the time) intangibles make much of a difference.

  10. Felix had the lowest ERA, pitched the most innings and was second in K’s (by one), sadly while pitching for the team with the worst offensive output in baseball. In 2010 the Mariners clubhouse imploded, their manager was fired midseason, and he was on his 6 or 7th pitching coach in his time in Seattle, and he still dominated almost every team he faced. In his three starts against the Yankees, he gave up ONE earned run in 26 innings. Other than Ichiro’s 200+ hits, Felix was the only reason fans bothered to pay any attention to the M’s.
    To use your own argument, screw the stats and watch his pitching performances, and it’s easy why he won the award. He dominated.

  11. What I want to know is, if you can’t measure intangibles, then how can you say they balance themselves out? If a guy learns how to throw a good sinker, he throws to contact. If his walks go down and the number of chances for the infielders go up when he is pitching, then we can assume that the sinker must be working to some degree. We can measure that. But what you don’t see is the groundskeeper letting the infield grass be a little taller on the days he pitches to slow the ball down. The infielders getting the signs from the catcher for location and if the pitch isn’t a sinker, so they can get a jump on the ball. What I am saying is you can have all the stats you want but the game inside the game will never be reflected on the stat sheet and that’s where the stories come in, the ones that keep the game ingrained in your memory for years. I listen to alot of baseball on the radio, less hype.

  12. Doug: I admire the passion with which you (and Joe in the original post) are putting forward the case that much of what makes baseball so special is beyond the reach of sabermetrics. While I mostly agree, I am also someone with a fondness for statistical analysis, both professionally as a researcher and recreationally as an amateur sabermetrician. I feel compelled to push your groundskeeper example to its logical end.

    If I were a manager and I wanted to instruct the groundskeeper to keep the grass longer on days when our sinkerballer is pitching, I might be well advised to bring a statistician in on the discussion. Letting the grass grow longer is well intentioned; it should take base hits away from the opposition (ground balls that would otherwise get through to the outfield), but what about the possible unintended consequences? First, the long grass might take hits away from our team as well. Hopefully, the effect on our team would be smaller, since the expectation is that the maximal effect on our team would probably require the opponent’s pitcher to be throwing sinkers, too. But how would I know? Second, the longer grass might also promote infield hits (on slowly hit balls that infielders would have had time to field if the grass were cut shorter). As with the previous example, the longer grass would affect both teams, but what assurance is there that my strategy is not foolishly handing some advantage to the opponent?

    How would I know? Only through statistical analysis. It might take a large sampling of longer-grass games for the true patterns to emerge (stats are like that), but if I am hurting my team by not cutting the grass, I want my stat geek to be able to tell me, so that I can stop doing it.

  13. The 1966 White Sox had three starters that were throwing sinkers, Joe Horlen, Tommy John and Gary Peters. And just for fun had two knuckle ballers in the pen, Hoyt Wilhelm and Eddie Fisher. They had little offense that year yet still finished above .500. Your comment about “require the other teams pitcher to throw sinkers, too”, is very short sighted. If he didn’t already have a sinker, he couldn’t just come up with one. A good hard sinker takes years to learn to throw, that’s why there are so few in the majors, Tim Hudson, Kevin Brown, Tommy John, Randy Jones, made careers out of the hard, late breaking, drop right off the table sinker. There is a difference between a two seam fastball that has sinking action and a hard pronated sinker. Also, the Chicago groundskeeper used to use quite a bit of sand mixed in the dirt right in front of home plate to take the hop out of the ball before it hit the grass. There were no “stat-geeks” in 1966. The team did what they thought they had to do to win. What I write isn’t about passion, it’s about knowing. Your comment about the opposing pitcher being required to also throw sinkers, shows that you lack knowledge of pitching. While you were patting yourself on the back trying to make a point to belittle my example, you shot yourself in the foot. Back to my original point, guys that haven’t played the game since little league just don’t understand the game. And I am not going to find some obscure Branch Rickey quote to further my case. “nuff said.

  14. @douglas heeren: Actually I think you have misread what Brendan had written. He didn’t MEAN that other teams pitchers would be required to throw sinker, too; the entire sentence: “Hopefully the effect from our team would be smaller, since the expectation is that the maximal effect on our team would probably require the opponent’s pitchers to be throwing sinkers, too”. [Hopefully I typed that right!] If you read this in its entirety I think it’s quite clear that Brendan was NOT stating that the other teams pitchers would start throwing sinkers. Anyway, it appears to me that you have a preconceived notion that ‘stat-geeks’ are ignorant of baseball and it has led you to mis-reading what was written and running with it. Also, I don’t think his example was an attempt to “belittle my example”; I think it was an attempt to disagree with you. Which brings me back to one of my points, that just because one hasn’t played baseball since little league (or ever) really doesn’t mean that they “don’t understand the game”. Anyway, i think Brendan’s point of using statistical analysis is a valid one…

  15. @bob: thanks for the support and for being faster to the keyboard than I was. Indeed, the word “require” might have been a bad choice. For greater clarity, perhaps I should have said something like, “the maximal effect on our team would probably come about only when the opponent’s pitcher happens to be a sinkerballer, too.” I definitely did not mean to imply that a fastball-slider pitcher who walks out to the mound and notices that the grass is a bit long is going to say, “Whoa, I’d better throw a lot of sinkers tonight.” I would never recommend that a pitcher play away from his strengths based on the length of the grass in the infield.

    @doug: For the most part, you and I are on the same page. I’m fully on board with the strategy of growing the grass longer when my pitcher is going to be throwing sinkers. However, I’m going to have my statistician track the results and hopefully lend some assurance that the strategy is helping, and not inadvertently hurting, my team. Why rely on assumptions when you can collect data and test hypotheses?

    On a personal note, it was not my intention to belittle your point. I’m sorry if you took offense. I never played the game at high level. In fact my playing days ended in little league, only a few years after the time of that White Sox team that you refer to. I remember those Sox teams well; I was particularly fond of Walt “No Neck” Williams. My baseball knowledge (or lack thereof) comes only from an intensive, lifelong interest in the game, gained mostly from couch, occasionally from the bleachers, and more and more from in front of a computer screen.

  16. There of course is, and has to be a place for both stats and stories. It just seems to some of us “old-timers” that stats has almost exclusively replaced the standards of excellence for players much more so than in prior generations. This is especially the case when comparing players of one time to another.

    I do think too that there are intangibles that can’t be measured. Jackie Robinson is a very good example. Graham does a great job of clarifying this in his follow up posts on his 25 greatest players list.
    “http://baseballpastandpresent.com/2010/06/28/book-review-the-25-greatest-baseball-players-of-all-time/”
    But there are other intangibles that you could cite with Robinson as a player. One was the impact he would have on pitchers and fielders just by getting on base and didn’t always need his teammates to move him over in order to score. A wild pitch to second, a run-down where Jackie made it to third and then a steal of home or any type of combo and all without the heavy hitters that followed Jackie to the plate. The bottom line was that this threat was always there. How do you measure that intangible? How do you measure how much it helped the likes of Hodges, Snider, Campenella, etc to get better pitches while the opposition was stymied by and focused on Jackie?

    How do you measure the threat that the younger Mickey Mantle posed who was capable in the same at bat of bunting for a hit or hitting it out of the park?

    How do you measure the threat of cannon arms like Kaline and Clemente who could throw a runner out at first on a base-hit? There have been attempts to measure how many runs they may have saved, but while the new stats sure do compare in some ways to technology, technology/science which is based on logic, can never really measure the isolated human factor that can more often than not override logic.

    Just as doctors still more often than not can not explain, why one patient may survive a medical trauma and another in the same situation with the same health issues dies, or how a ill, elderly person recently recovered in the rubble of an earthquake can survive without food or water for a week when they should not. You might say that these are exceptions to the rule that statistics and thousands of cases in science determine. That to me is what many great athletes display, their ability to be the exception and in that way go beyond the measurable.

    I see too often that stats today are compared with stats of old and they just don’t work. We really can’t know what Honus Wagner or Babe Ruth or Sam Crawford would have done if they played today or in the 60’s, etc. We can have fun with the baseball-reference adjustments, but there is no way to compare and really know if a modern Honus would have compared to Albert Puljos as a hitter.

    Stats provide a profound indicator of what a can did and may be able to do. But also eye witness reports of teammates and opponents who played the game, experienced writers who followed players day after day for years and saw it all, also have a place. To me stats are the skeleton, the scaffolding that a player can be measured on and the stories are the flesh, blood and spirit.

    Cyril, could you please provide a link for your article on why Mays never lost 100 homers in Candlestick? I’m really interested. It will be illuminating as I’d often heard this story and have read quotes by teammates and reporters in the past, who followed Willie say much the opposite. I do know that Mays had to adjust his home style of hitting at a certain point to go to right.

  17. Graham provided the link (it was a letter to the editor). But here it is. The bottom line is that Mays home performance relative to his road performance was better than usual. We know on average that players do better at home. But Mays exceeded the normal home advantage (at least in hitting HRs)

    “I certainly enjoyed reading Pete Hamill’s review. But I disagree with him that Candlestick Park and its strong winds cost Mays 100 home runs. Using the Retrosheet data, I found that from 1960 to 1971, his home home-run percentage was 6.72. In road games, it was 5.8 percent. He played only part of 1972 with the Giants. His home home-run percentage was 15.8 percent better than the road home-run percentage (since 6.72 divided by 5.8 equals 1.158). For the average National League player in this period, the home home-run percentage was 2.34, while on the road it was 2.25. The home home-run percentage is 4 percent higher than the road home-run percentage (since 2.34 divided by 2.25 equals 1.04). Mays seems to have gotten more out of his home park than most players. If we give him 100 more home runs at home (he actually hit 202), his home home-run percentage rises to 10.04. That is about 50 percent better than what it really was.”

  18. Thanks alot Cyril, for taking the time to post your considerable research. It certainly puts in serious question Pete Hamill pov about Mays losing 100 homers at Candlestick. Although undeniably the awful left field winds at Candlestick had to have cost Mays some significant amount of homers in 12+ years there. Even if it were half that amount or one quarter it would be a great deal. But still your stats are a real issue to reckon with and make a great point.

    I wish I could recall the SF sports writer of the long ago story where he cited seeing all of Mays’ games in ’65, when he hit 52 homers, that he’d hit about 18 balls into the left-field winds that would have gone out were there no winds or in any other park. Are there any old SF fans out there who recall this? Without me recalling whom it was, we don’t know how credible that source was.

    One other thing I’ve wondered at times too is that good pitchers might also take advantage of such a situation and maybe give a right-handed batter like Willie a shot at hitting a fly-ball to left on a real windy day, expecting more likely than not that it would not go out. I recall again a similar story where when Warren Spahn pitched at the old Polo Grounds, he could often throw a pitch that he knew would be hit to dead centerfield. With a length of 480 feet to the centerfield fence he knew it would get caught. I don’t know, maybe this is an apochryphal tale, but may apply to Mays and other righty hitters who saw their homer blown down in the winds.

    Thanks again Cyril.

  19. I would use stats to get an edge. To see if their was a pattern on how to pitch a guy, or on what count does a guy like to steal a bag. I may be the only guy who actually saw the 1966 White Sox play and I can tell you what the guy above wrote about the tall grass and the soft area in front of the plate are indeed true. The point about throwing sinkers is a good one to bring up.
    The mound was 5 inches higher until 1969 so what you saw were guys throwing high fastballs(Koufax, Maloney, ect.) and low breaking pitches. The pitchers with the good curves and sliders just killed the league since they were throwing nearly straight down anyway. Since the league didn’t actually measure the mounds, some parks like Cleveland, had mounds close to 18 inches high.
    The 1966 White Sox had three very good sinker ballers and two of them were left-handed. Their offense was built more around speed and just couldn’t generate enough runs to compete with Baltimore and the others that year.
    To the point of “stat-geeks”, the term is a new one on me and I’ve been around the game about 65 years. But I can tell you that I have meet several people in the last few years that think because of their knowledge of baseball stats that they are more intelligent than the people that actually run the major league game. I played on an amatuer team until I was 60 throwing a knuckler and a forkball most of the time the last ten years after a serious arm injury. We didn’t have pitch counts or WHIP or WAR. We(I) played because I loved it! If the stats help you love the game more, I’m happy for you. It’s a great game. Just remember, there’s more to the game than some numbers on a piece of paper.

  20. I was reading the above post by Mr. Heeren again and I believe I understand the intended meaning of the message. Unless you sit in the dugout or have played at a rather high level(college, minor league, amatuer league, senior league), things happen that many aren’t aware of.
    One of the tatics we always used in amatuer ball was if a runner was on second with one out or less we used to have the batter square to bunt. The batter is reading the 3rd baseman. If he charges, the batters takes the pitch. The runner is reading both the 3rd baseman and SS. If the 3rd baseman charges and the SS doesn’t go to cover third, the batter gets the bag without a throw, or better yet, the catcher throws the ball into LF and the runner scores. So, you have a runner now on third with one out or less.
    What I believe he is trying to say is that the game played inside of the game can not be measured in a reliable way. Not everyone is an athlete and can play the game. I urge everyone that is fit enough to even find a slow pitch softball rec league and get involved. Or better yet, find a hard ball league. Play Ball!!

  21. Alvy

    You are very welcome. One thing that made that Mays analysis easy is Retrosheet. The home/road data for both individual players and the entire league is very easy to access and it is just a matter of getting it into a spread sheet. Retrosheet has done so much for research. If you want to find out Mays’ stats vs. Koufax or any other pitcher, it is just a few clicks away. Or how did Mays hit in the clutch? No problem finding that either.

    Cyril

  22. Thanks Cyril. I’ve seen some of those stats. I assume by clutch it refers to how he did with men on base? TEven if it were to include every game where Mays came up with the game on the line, he details of those kind of stats are impressive, but still there are “un-measurables” like I had cited earlier. Stats have a value, but the knowledge of the playing of the game, insights of peers tell a tale that stats can’t complete. Branch Rickey was right, but both together tell a better, nore complete story than one alone.

    Mays, the on-field manager, positioning his team; the magician on the basepaths like Jackie creating runs out of nothing; giving up extra bases to keep opposing pitchers from walking McCovey; knowing by the sound of the crack of the bat where the ball was going. I could go on and with each of the great players can cite intangibles that can’t be fully tracked by numbers.

  23. The clutch stats they have at Retrosheet are with runners on base, with runners in scoring position and close and late stats.

    Baserunning can be measured. Some people know how to use Retrosheet’s play-by-play files and could compile how many times a guy took an extra base on a single, double, etc.

    Knowing where the ball is going leads to more putouts, a stat.

    As for not taking a base so they would pitch to McCovey, this is not necessarily a good move. See

    http://www.insidethebook.com/ee/index.php/site/comments/is_this_true_and_if_yes_is_it_smart/

  24. Willie Mays was one of the greatest baseball minds in the game that is a fact based on feedback from those who played the game and saw the man year after year. No offense meant to you specifically Cyril, but I would take Mays point of view over most anyone else’s about baseball regardless of what anyone else would have to say about it. Mays was considered by his peers to also be the smartest and best baserunner of his time. I’d take their point of view as well. And in those instances where Willie may have held back, I’m sure it was a good move. He was no fool. This is another good example of where the numbers really cannot tell the full story.

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