Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The secret stats

When Bill James started his pioneering work some three decades ago, he was consistently denied access to the scorecards. The Elias Bureau, baseball's official statisticians, had them, and they wouldn't share the information with an outsider for love or money.

That attitude ultimately led James and others to start Project Scoresheet, which led to the creation of STATS Inc. and Baseball Info Systems, and, along other tangents, to Retrosheet and Baseball Reference. If you want play-by-play info from games gone by — what James sought to buy from Elias in the 1980s — it's on the web, and it's free.

For a good while, there was more sophisticated baseball information available to the fans than the teams, or at least a good many of them, themselves took advantage of. That's past now.

Let somebody start doing some innovative Pitch fx analysis and start posting the results on a website, and pretty soon a tech-savvy organization will call, offer the analyst a job — and order the site shut down. You work for us now. James himself works for the Red Sox, and he is limited in what he can share with the public as a result — and he was, after the struggle with Elias, outspoken about his desire for openness in baseball research.

This came to mind while reading this Thomas Boswell column from the weekend about the Washington Nationals offseason. This is Nats GM Mike Rizzo talking about the trade for Doug Fister:

The Nats statistical analysts consider Fister (14-9) a virtual duplicate of [Jordan] Zimmermann right down to “average velocity off the bat.”
“They do it differently, Zimmermann with velocity, Fister with movement. But they get the same results,” Rizzo said.

Average velocity off the bat.  Boswell cites Fister's won-lost record out of habit, but that's not what gets Rizzo revved up. It's how hard batters hit the ball off Fister — and Rizzo has actual data to back it up.

And it's not information available to the masses.

Most — maybe all — teams have their own statistical systems to evaluate defense. We outsiders have access to such metrics as ultimate zone rating and plus-minus; the teams have that access too, plus their own analysis.

We're back where we were when I started following baseball, when the people running the teams truly knew more than even the most sophisticated fans did. For a good part of my adult life, that hasn't necessarily been the case.

As a Twins fan, I just hope this development isn't leaving my team behind. I have, truly, no idea if Terry Ryan and the people advising him know what the average velocity off the bat is for Ricky Nolasco, or even for Sam Deduno. I do know they'd be better off with the knowledge than without.

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