Sabermetricians slowly being added to the inner circle

From Bill James to Keith Law, sabermetricians are finally being brought aboard by teams to give their expertise.

Originally Published: November 6, 2002
By Rob Neyer | ESPN.com

The general complacency of baseball people -- even those of undoubted intelligence -- toward mathematical examination of what they regard properly and strictly as their own dish of tea is not too astonishing. I would be willing to go as far as pretending to understand why none of four competent and successful executives of second-division ball clubs were most reluctant to employ probabalistic methods of any description ... but they did not even want to hear about them!
    -- Earnshaw Cook in his foreword to Percentage Baseball, 1964

Indeed, Earnshaw Cook never did find a ballclub that wanted to hear about his findings. He did, however, help inspire a generation of baseball analysts (not to mention novelist Philip Roth, who based a character in The Great American Novel on Cook).

It should be said that even if Cook had been hired by a major-league team, he wouldn't have been the first of his kind. In 1947, Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey promoted statistician Allan Roth from the Dodgers' Montreal farm club to Brooklyn. And Roth was more than just a statistician; in addition to compiling statistics, Roth also analyzed them (which makes him a sabermetrician).

The sabermetricians
It's worth noting that at least a few major-league teams have employees who, while perhaps not full-fledged sabermetricians (whatever that means), do have an affinity for statistical analysis.

Typically, these men have a traditional baseball background: they might have played baseball in college, and they can talk about tools until the cows come home. But they're also open to discussions of objective knowledge, and they probably spend a few minutes every day trolling for useful information at sites like Baseball Prospectus and BaseballPrimer.

Examples include Cincinnati's Brad Kullman, Cleveland's Chris Antonetti, Colorado's Thad Levine, Detroit's Mike Smith and Oakland's David Forst. And while men like Keith Law, Eddie Epstein, and Bill James are facilitating a revolution as "outsiders," the "insiders" are playing a part, too.
-- Rob Neyer

It was likely Roth who convinced Rickey that on-base percentage was more important than batting average. It was likely Roth who invented "isolated power," hailed by Rickey as a better measure than slugging percentage of power (which, of course, it is). It was likely Roth who arrived at the inescapable conclusion that there's a clear relationship between a team's run differential and its record.

These notions were all presented in an article authored by Rickey for Life magazine in 1954. As Rickey wrote in the article (titled "Goodbye to Some Old Baseball Ideas"), "To help assemble data that would lead to facts I brought in Allan Roth, who prepares and refines statistics for the Brooklyn Dodgers and who, in my opinion, is the top statistical specialist in baseball."

According to The New Biographical Encyclopedia of Baseball, Dodgers managers Burt Shotton and Charlie Dressen ignored Roth's newfangled figures, but "Walter Alston pored over the statistical information before every game." Roth remained with the Dodgers until 1964, after which he spent many years working on NBC's Game of the Week, and he later worked briefly with the San Francisco Giants.

Eventually, a young man named Eric Walker met the aging Roth, who impressed Walker as "a walking file cabinet of statistical data."

As it happened, Walker himself worked briefly for the Giants. After years away from the game, in the mid-1970s Walker rediscovered baseball, and began tinkering with his own statistical methods. Looking for help, he went to the library and discovered Earnshaw Cook's Percentage Baseball.

He was hooked. As Walker says, "I became a very amateur broadcast journalist for a trivially small FM station in the Bay Area, and meanwhile expanded my understanding of baseball, working from Cook's ideas and adding in my own. My oh my ... the yellow legal pads I covered with minute and tedious calculations, before I got my first computer, an old Kaypro."

Walker became acquainted with some folks in the Giants' front office, and eventually he talked GM Tom Haller into giving him a job the early '80s. Less than two years later, that relationship ended, but he went across the Bay to Oakland and spent about a decade working for the Athletics, with most of his contribution coming in the form of an annual state-of-the-organization report.

"When Sandy Alderson brought Billy Beane on board," Walker recalls, "Alderson asked me to prepare something that would explain to Billy what I do and, in the larger sense, what the organizational approach was. And years later, when Billy became GM himself, he told me that he had had copies of that report printed up and distributed throughout the organization. Under Billy, I also had some hand in picking likely six-year minor-league free agents. For example, I like to believe that the acquisitions of Billy Taylor and Matt Stairs were at least in some part my work."

Walker left California in 1996, at which point he left the Athletics, too.

Craig Wright worked in baseball for nearly two decades, beginning in the early 1980s, and at one time or another he worked for more than half the teams in the major leagues. Wright also held various titles, but for years his Texas Rangers business card simply said, "Sabermetrician."

In 1989, Simon & Schuster published The Diamond Appraised, co-written by Wright and Rangers pitching coach Tom House. More than a dozen years later the book continues to influence aspiring sabermetricians (and successful ones, too). How much impact did Wright have on the teams that hired him? He's a circumspect sort of fellow, and he ain't talking.

Eddie Epstein, on the other hand, isn't quite so shy. Epstein first began working for the Baltimore Orioles in 1986. An economist by training, Epstein was working in radio and writing for official Orioles publications when Bob Flanagan, the Orioles' treasurer, hired him as a consultant.

"I did some reports for the ballclub," Epstein says, "and one of them was a study of the 40-man roster. Within 12 or 18 months, everything that I had said would happen, had happened. So they decided it was cheaper to bring me on full-time than keep paying me as a consultant."

Epstein spent six years with the Orioles, and he says his first two years were great. He'd grown up in Baltimore, a passionate Orioles fan, so this was a dream come true. Things began to sour later, though.

"After the 1990 season, I told (general manager) Roland Hemond and (assistant GM) Doug Melvin that I would trade Ben McDonald for Frank Thomas right then, and they all thought I was crazy. So the middle two years were just fair, and the last two years were disheartening," Epstein remembers. "Most of these people in the game have a traditional scouting background, or they played. And they're of the mind-set that you can't know anything about the game unless you played. They think the game isn't measurable. Instead, it's about attitude: who can come through when the chips are down. In baseball, all the trees think they know what the forest looks like."

Epstein left the Orioles in 1994, consulted for a year or so, then joined the Padres in May of 1995. There, he says, "I had input in pretty much everything we did except amateur scouting. I was in all the meetings, and I had a fair amount of influence in most of the moves we made. I was there for only three full seasons, and in two of those seasons we were in the playoffs."

Still, being an outsider in an insider's game remained frustrating, and Epstein left the Padres in May of 1999.

Where are they now?
  • Eric Walker lives in rural Washington state, runs a small business, and still can't quite get baseball out of his blood. He maintains High Boskage House, a Web site devoted to baseball analysis, and he's in "very preliminary" talks with a major-league organization about returning to the game in some capacity.

  • Craig Wright is enjoying his retirement in one of the most beautiful places on the planet.

  • Eddie Epstein currently works as a consultant with several major-league teams.

  • Mike Gimbel still works for the city of New York and lives in Pennsylania (and commutes 110 miles each way). He would love to get another shot with a major-league club.

  • Keith Law enjoyed his first season with the Blue Jays, and by all accounts the Blue Jays enjoyed him; he'll be back in 2003 ... and trying to beat Bill James at his own game.
    -- Rob Neyer
  • During Epstein's decade-plus with the Orioles and then the Padres, at least one other sabermetrician began working for a major-league club.

    In 1991, Mike Gimbel was reading Baseball America, and noticed that Dave Dombrowski was about to leave the Montreal Expos to run the brand-new Florida Marlins. What's more, it looked like Dan Duquette would replace Dombrowski as the Expos' general manager. Duquette had purchased the first two editions of Gimbel's book, and so Gimbel got in touch with Duquette, who did get the job and hired Gimbel as a statistical consultant.

    They made some beautiful music together, first with the Expos and later with the Red Sox. After six seasons, however, Duquette and Gimbel parted ways, due at least a little bit to some unfortunate statements that Gimbel made within earshot of the voracious journalists who cover the Red Sox.

    Gimbel's unfortunate and public end may have soured the chances for outsiders to break into baseball. But last winter, it happened again.

    In the Toronto Blue Jays' 2002 media guide, Keith Law is listed as "Consultant to Baseball Operations." That's just a title, though. "Baseball Operations" is generally considered a catch-all, used in lieu of something more specific (and potentially restrictive). The Blue Jays hired Law because he's an intelligent young man who's got more than a passing familiarity with sabermetrics (and a Master's degree in Industrial Administration form Carnegie Mellon), having been a key member of the team that publishes Baseball Prospectus.

    J.P. Ricciardi signed on as the Blue Jay's new general manager a year ago. Given that franchise's current financial limitations, Ricciardi knew he needed an edge. And as a long-time Athletics employee and one of Billy Beane's best friends, Ricciardi knew he could find an edge with sabermetrics. Law hooked up with Ricciardi at the winter meetings, and was so impressive that Ricciardi wound up offering Law a job.

    And now there's Bill James, who just might up the ante. James is certainly the most famous sabermetrician ever hired by a major-league club, and if the Red Sox are successful he's likely to get at least some of the credit. Which should mean more opportunities for sabermetricians young and old.

    Sixty years ago, very few teams employed a pitching coach. Forty years ago, virtually every team employed a pitching coach. And perhaps the same thing will happen with sabermetricians. Ten years from now, the teams that do not employ someone devoted to objective analysis might be the exception.

    Senior writer Rob Neyer, whose Big Book of Baseball Lineups will be published next spring by Scribner's, will be appearing here regularly and irregularly during the offseason. His e-mail address is rob.neyer@dig.com.

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