Baseball: Past and Present

Dear Bill Dwyre,

My name is Graham Womack. You probably don’t remember me, but I attended a sports journalism workshop you helped put on in 2003 as sports editor of the Los Angeles Times. I was one of 30 college students selected from around the country to spend a few days at Hollywood Park horse racing track leading up to the Jim Murray Classic. It’s hard to believe as I look back but that workshop was my first exposure to Murray’s writing; a decade on, the greatest sports columnist ever (and it’s not even close) remains a significant influence for me. I also got to hang out with a bunch of other talented, aspiring journalists and rub elbows with a few working writers. Best of all, I think everything was free.

So it was with disappointment that I read your recent column, Angels’ Jerry Dipoto speaks to the SABR rattlers. I’m not the first person to speak out regarding your rant against sabermetrics. Former LA Times staffer Matt Welch posted a rebuttal on Friday evening that’s worth a read if you haven’t checked it out already. I was alerted to your column after another writer tweeted on Saturday that your piece might be the worst baseball article of 2013. I wouldn’t go that far. You’re certainly not the first journalist I’ve come across with little use for advanced baseball statistics. Heck, I feel like I read this type of column every few months and generally I don’t respond. I’m making an exception this time, in part because the group you bashed, the Society for American Baseball Research, is about so much more than sabermetrics.

I’m in my third year as a SABR member. I don’t speak for SABR or have its demographics onhand, but in my experience, we’re primarily baseball history enthusiasts. Honestly, we’re people who know entirely too much about baseball history: that the 1926 World Series ended because Babe Ruth was thrown out stealing; that Joe DiMaggio barely missed having more homers than strikeouts in his career; that Smoky Joe Wood, Denny McLain and Dwight Gooden all had more wins before their 25th birthdays than after. I’ve been reading about baseball history since I was eight. For much of my life, the knowledge I’ve accumulated has been of little use to those around me, a curiosity mostly. At SABR meetings, I’m around peers, many of whom know more than I do. I feel at home. By the way, SABR predates the term “sabermetrics” by about a decade. There’s no official connection between the two terms. Most SABR members aren’t sabermetricians, I’d venture.

Is some of SABR’s membership zealously into advanced stats? Sure. The event that you got your column from attending, the annual SABR Analytics Conference in Phoenix attracts this cross section. The registration alone for this conference was $495 with a member discount. I contemplated going because a bunch of prominent baseball writers were scheduled to attend and I’d like to be acknowledged for knowing basic sabermetrics. I’d also like to learn more. I decided against going, as I didn’t have the money and I’m no hardcore statistician. Anyhow, I have other things on my baseball bucket list that I might splurge on first. I want to attend the main SABR conference in Philadelphia in July. I’d like to do a research trip to Chicago and catch a game at Wrigley Field while I’m there. I’d also like to make another visit to the Hall of Fame, possibly when 19th century great Deacon White gets inducted this summer. I know I’m not the only member who thinks this way.

So we’re clear, I embrace sabermetrics. I didn’t a few years ago– like you, I once joked about the meaning of VORP– but after I began writing often about baseball, I found that basic advanced stats improved my understanding. The story side of baseball history was and is my primary love. But I like being able to rely on something besides quotes and opinions to tell stories. I’ve read of Casey Stengel bemoaning one of his outfielders driving in a run but letting three more in with shoddy fielding. I like that there’s a way to quantify this with metrics such as Wins Above Replacement that assess a player’s total value, taking all facets of his play into account. I like OPS+ and wRC+ that compare a hitter’s production to league average, normalizing for ballpark and era. For me, so much about baseball research is establishing context. While I don’t think sabermetrics alone can do this, they’re a valuable part of the equation.

That being said, I think the majority of SABR members hold true to traditional stats like batting average, runs batted in and pitcher wins. Jack Morris’s Hall of Fame case is a source of continual derision among many sabermetricians, as Black Jack has underwhelming ratings for various advanced stats; I read somewhere that more than half of SABR members support Morris being enshrined. At a SABR meeting in January, I took in a presentation from a fellow member who talked about flying to libraries around the country to look through old newspaper records to doublecheck long-ago RBI totals. I personally think RBIs are a misleading indicator of player value, since they’re dependent on a number of factors outside a hitter’s control. I rose my hand to ask this fellow why he wasn’t putting all this (commendable) effort into researching another stat. He tersely replied something to the effect of, “Well, you know, runs decide games.” I don’t know if people like this fellow would ever attend SABR Analytics. I suspect not.

I’m sorry you got the wrong idea about SABR, near as I can gather from reading your column. I invite you to give my organization another shot in the future. Perhaps the Allan Roth Chapter in Los Angeles could have you speak at a future meeting. Beat writers, broadcasters and other media members are common fixtures at meetings. I imagine you have loads of great baseball stories that a lot of us would love to hear.

Regardless, I close respectfully.

Graham Womack



1 Comment so far

  1.    Paul Wooten on March 11, 2013 7:30 am      

    When it comes to baseball, I can’t get enough information. I have been reading box scores since I was 7 and the Dodgers came to Los Angeles. My dad was stationed at March AFB in Riverside, and I remember watching the Dodgers play the Braves at the Coliseum, where they played before Dodger Stadium was built. By the time I was 10 I was a walking baseball encyclopedia, having memorized hitters’ career averages, HR totals, stolen bases, and could compute pitchers’ ERA in my head. Over the ensuing 50 years I have enjoyed the advanced stats now available that can compare players of any era, but also validate or repudiate players’ reputations regarding fielding or hitting excellence and clutch performances, as well as factors such as FIP, BABIP and park adjusting factors that give us a better overall view of value. I believe the corner was finally turned regarding acceptance when King Felix won the CY YOUNG with 12 wins a few years back, which never could have happened when I was a kid. I am 61, and probably as old as DWYRE, but I think he is a dinosaur, soon to be extinct. True baseball fans relish information, not shunt it aside like so much trash because it does not fit his mental structure , or disturbs his picture of what baseball should be judged on. It complicates things for him and gives him a headache, so he should stick to writing about other sports…like marbles or tiddlywinks, where his brain won’t be overloaded with ‘gobbledygook stats’

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