According to the essayists and numbers-crunchers at Baseball Prospectus, the hardball stathead’s Bible, there are “few irrefutable truths” in the game. But through the revamped statistical models of sabermetrics — devised by Bill James and his Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) in the late ’70s, and built upon exponentially by the BP brainiacs and others with the advent of Internet-database capabilities — this cadre of deep-thinking fans aims to get as close to objective truth in as many of the game’s aspects as possible. The metrics they’ve developed have changed the game immensely.
In the new Baseball Between the Numbers: Why Everything You Know about the Game Is Wrong (Basic), the BP team of experts, using abstruse mathematical formulas and lucid prose, disprove commonly-held beliefs like the importance of batting order, the preferability of a five-man rotation, and the assertion that gaudy salaries have led to today’s high ticket prices. We spoke to BP contributor Steven Goldman, who is also editor of Mind Game: How the Boston Red Sox Got Smart, Won a World Series, and Created a New Blueprint for Winning (Workman Publishing), about David Ortiz’s clutch hitting, the Red Sox’ supposed pitching surplus, and his predictions for the coming season.
MIKE MILIARD: Why are some people, the Joe Morgans of the world, so scared of sabermetrics?
STEVEN GOLDMAN: The numbers that we use are really the old numbers remixed in such a way to make them a little more informative. They’re not meant to be off-putting or confusing. We all grew up with statistics available — mostly what was available on the back of a Topps baseball card: batting average, RBIs, all those. It’s only later that you begin to realize they’re not the most important stats out there. In fact, they’re some of the most misleading. I think when the dinosaurs saw the first primitive mammals running across their toes, they got nervous, too. But Joe Morgan is really an outlier. In official baseball circles, this stuff is accepted as a necessary part of understanding the game and knowing what’s going on. Pretty much every team is doing stuff like this, be it the Red Sox hiring Bill James or other teams having people on a consulting basis — some of whom have graduated from Baseball Prospectus to jobs with major-league organizations. Somebody like Joe Morgan, he’s the baseball equivalent of a Luddite. We fear what we do not understand.
I should point out about the subtitle: It’s kind of interesting that people tend to take these subtitles very personally. We really have had e-mail from people who say, “What do you mean, everything I know about baseball is wrong?” You’re almost tempted to write back, ‘Well, not you, Bob.” We should have had the subtitle be “Why Everything Everybody Except Bob Knows About Baseball is Wrong.”
MM: If you ask most Red Sox fans, is David Ortiz clutch? They’d probably say, is the Pope Catholic? But you guys aren’t so sure.