The Sabermetric Revolution’s Andrew Zimbalist talks to Redbird Rants

Dr. Andrew Zimbalist, who co-wrote The Sabermetric Revolution: Assessing the Growth of Analytics in Baseball with Dr. Ben Baumer, spoke with Redbird Rants on June 16th.
Image Credit: Penn Press
Daniel Solzman: Thanks for joining Redbird Rants today. How are things treating you?

Andrew Zimbalist: I’m doing fine, thanks.

Daniel Solzman: You and Ben Baumer did a great job in the book when it comes to evaluating performance of sabermetricians in this era. For all that Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game did, I feel that The Sabermetric Revolution will be the new must-read book for baseball fans.

Andrew Zimbalist: That would be great. Basically what we tried to do is take a ten-year retrospective on where sabermetrics came from, where it’s been, and where it’s likely to go because it had been ten years since the Moneyball book came out, just to try to give a general assessment, at the same time, recognizing that a lot of the readers would not have been exposed to the details of sabermetric analysis so we tried to provide some background on that as well.

Daniel Solzman: What do you feel is the biggest misinterpretation when it comes to sabermetrics?

Andrew Zimbalist: I think one of the things that is problematic is that media, or members of the media, announcers, are using terms that come out of sabermetrics without really understanding what the terms mean. I applaud them for trying to update their veracular and trying to update their analysis—that’s great. They should spend a little more time trying to look at the substance of some of the terms. So, for instance, the metric of WAR gets tossed around a lot if you listen to sports talk radio or even if you listen to some television or radio announcers. They use it a lot and they tend to use it in the same way as they use batting average, on-base percentage or home runs—as if it’s a real hard number but it’s not that. It’s a system that puts together a player’s worth to the team based upon a lot of variables that have to be estimated. Some of those estimates are not done with a careful or rigorous methodology involved.

We have an example in our book about David Wright and we compare the WAR evaluations for David Wright by Baseball Prospectus, Baseball Reference, and Fangraphs. What we show is that they have very different valuations of his base running, fielding, and other attributes. A lot of these measurements that are being thrown together to create variables like WAR are very loosely done. Most statistics, to be statistically meaningful, should have confidence interval and they don’t. I think there’s still a long way for sabermetricians to go and appropriate metrics that are used and an even longer way for members of the media to make a concerted intellectual effort to understand what these terms are and not just throw them around.

Daniel Solzman: When it comes to sabermetrics, what do you feel will be the biggest change over the next decade to come?

Andrew Zimbalist: I think that a couple interesting things are happening. One of them—a lot of work is being done on defensive metrics. As I’m sure you know that MLBAM has come out with a tracking system that is very sophisticated and very interesting. That system has to be tested and proved and make sure it’s accurate. Once those things happen, we have to develop some metrics off of those so that we can have a metric that basically tells us this is how good a fielder is. What we have right now is all sorts of information about the different elements of fielding. I think what we want to be able do eventually is put that together into one or two metrics; the same way we have batting average and OBP. Or FIP for pitchers or ERA, whatever it is you want to use for pitchers. We want to develop one metric that is meaningfully used. ER is not meaningfully used in that way. It’s much too variable.

I think another area is psychological profiling and emotional makeup of players. A lot of work is being done there. It’s an important aspect of playing on a team and motivating a team so I think there’s going to be considerable improvement there.

Another area is training for optimum performance and maintaining players’ health on the field. I would say those are the three big areas where I’ll be looking for ongoing improvements.

Daniel Solzman: For all the amount of front offices that have hired sabermetricians, do you feel that there are some managers out there that would rather go with their gut instinct rather than what a computer says when it comes to lineup construction?

Andrew Zimbalist: I think that managers are all over the place. Some of them are more old school and gut instinct. Some of them have gone overboard on sabermetrics without recognizing the subject developments and all. It’s also interesting and, I think, important to understand that sometimes managers use gut instincts rather than sophisticated analysis but their gut instincts are basically using the metrics being espoused by sabermetricians.

Somebody like Earl Weaver, who didn’t read any of the books that were around at the time and wasn’t a sophisticated person in terms of analysis—he, just based on his own experiences in the minor leagues, knew that platooning was important. He would have people come down from the front office. One of them was Charles Steinberg, now with the Red Sox. When Charles Steinberg was a teenager, he would run 3×5 cards from the front office down to the dugout to Weaver which batters were good against which pitchers and vice versa and Weaver would adjust his lineup like that. It wasn’t because Weaver had read Earnshaw Cook or Bill James or somebody else. It was just gut instinct.

It’s important when you say gut instinct not to disparage it because sometimes gut instinct is very important. Another example is with the Atlanta Braves. The Braves in the 1990s were the most like team in terms of identifying what was important for players’ performance. Even though they didn’t have names for it, particular metrics for it, they were looking at things that sabermetricians were looking for, five to ten years later. It’s a little bit like glasses. Glasses help many of us see very clearly. That’s what sabermetrics does. But some people do see well without glasses and I think that’s what the Braves were doing in the 90s and Weaver was doing in the 70s.

Daniel Solzman: When Moneyball came out, walks were undervalued. Even though I’m a Cardinals guy, I know too many Cincinnati Reds fans that are always complaining whenever Joey Votto draws a walk. He’s led the NL the last three seasons in both Walks and OBP. At the same time, it still isn’t an out. Are Reds fans being too hard on Votto by complaining about that?

Andrew Zimbalist: They don’t want him to get walks?

Daniel Solzman: That’s what I see all the time on Twitter and Facebook whenever he draws a walk.

Andrew Zimbalist: Maybe their complaining about the pitcher rather than complaing about Votto. That doesn’t make a great deal of sense to me. If you can get a walk every time up, you’d be the greatest player in Major League Baseball and have an OBP of 1.000. The average OBP in baseball is .333. If you’re above that, you’re doing a good job. If you can get a walk every time you are due up, even if you’re Babe Ruth, I would take that. If you look at either econometric analysis or incremental play analysis or use weighted OBP or some other metric, if you can get a walk every time you’re up, you’re going to be more valuable than Barry Bonds during the heydey of steroids. I would tell Reds fans if I had the opportunity and they were complaining that Votto was walking too much, I’d say you’re wrong. Statistical evidence says it’s great that he can do that.

Daniel Solzman: Going back to platooning. St. Louis traded for Peter Bourjos over the offseason. Of course, they already had a center fielder in Jon Jay. This season, at least from my following the Cardinals, it felt like Matheny wasn’t giving Bourjos a chance to get those at bats, to find a rhythm. Is that an area where platooning hurts?

Andrew Zimbalist: Yes, of course. Managers have to be careful about that with the right-handed batters in a platoon who don’t get many at bats. It’s something a manager has to know about the individual player and how long a player takes to get their rhythm and how often they need to be used to maintain their rhythm. I think that, absolutely, you need to pay attention to that. Platoons—like many other things with the metrics used by sabermetricians or analytics; they have to be used flexibly. You have to understand that each individual is a little bit different and the situations were different. There are metrics out there that were saying that you should never sacrifice bunt or you should never steal. It turns out those things are wrong. There are circumstances where you should bunt and there are plenty of circumstances where you should steal. So you have to use these metrics intelligently. You can’t use them like a simple formula and think that they’re going to work.

Daniel Solzman: Thanks again for joining us.

Andrew Zimbalist: Alright, Daniel. Thanks for talking with me.