SABR

SABRanalytics: Retrospective Look at Baseball Analysis

Here are some highlights from the Retrospective Look at Baseball Analysis panel on Friday, March 16 at the SABR Analytics Conference, which featured John Thorn, Official Historian of Major League Baseball; Gary Gillette, SABR board member and editor of The Emerald Guide to Baseball and The ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia; and Dick Cramer, co-founder of SABR's Statistical Analysis Committee, with moderator Sean Forman of Baseball-Reference.com:


Audio: Listen to the Retrospective Look at Baseball Analysis panel in its entirety here
(The MP3 file is large, about 53 MB, so it may take a minute to load. If you have trouble downloading, click here.)


From left: John Thorn, Gary Gillette, Dick Cramer, Sean FormanFrom left: John Thorn, Gary Gillette, Dick Cramer, Sean FormanOn the beginning of sabermetrics

  • Thorn: "I think Bill James, who invented the term, would agree with me sabermetrics is not a new thing but rather it's a path of mind. It's an approach to the game, where you are not going to accept (common knowledge) … you are going to do your own work and you are going to be wary of what others say. Everything is worthy of investigation … on a primary basis. Do the work yourself, verify the findings. I think the sabermetric approach works as well for practical history as it does for statistics."
  • Gillette: "I think it does go back to the 19th century. … And what really happened is that sometime in the early 20th century, sabermetrics — which was just called baseball statistics back then — went dormant, excerpt for a handful of people like Branch Rickey, it just wasn't used. And therefore it needed to be reborn in the 1970s and '80s with pioneers like Dick Cramer and Pete Palmer and Bill James."
  • Cramer: "I'll put it with the personal computer. For example, the reason Pete (Palmer) and I were fortunate enough to be a part of the start of it were because we had access to specialized computers (in the 1970s) to do our research. Once the personal computer came out … and then gave the ability to do this kind of stuff to anybody who cared about it at all … I think that's the event that made this all possible."

On seeing sabermetrics become more mainstream

  • Cramer: "When Pete (Palmer) and I were doing this back in the 1970s … I got (SABR founder) Bob Davids to grudgingly agree that we could do one sabermetrics article in the Baseball Research Journal every two years. And that's reality. So you can just imagine the transformation. … You have these sort of wild-life fantasies. I thought maybe OPS might appear on the scoreboard someday. And at the SABR meeting in Boston (2002 national convention), it was on the scoreboard! And to me, that was the moment of truth that this stuff had hung on. It was a special feeling that we had actually accomplished something."
  • Thorn: "I never imagined that I would be around long enough to see 20-year-old college students participating in case studies analyzing this stuff that was barely after-dinner conversation at SABR meetings back then."

On the role of Pete Palmer in revolutionizing statistical analysis

  • Gillette: "I work with Pete daily now (on The Emerald Guide to Baseball.) When you hear someone say that someone is a rocket scientist, well, Pete actually was. He programmed missile defense radar for Raytheon. … When you talk about The Hidden Game of Baseball and Total Baseball, Pete has a far-reaching influence and … he created some of the real (sabermetric) benchmarks of the modern era."
  • Cramer: "I'll give Pete public credit for one of the first great discoveries (of sabermetrics.) Many of us have come up with batting numbers. But what Pete came up with first was identifying the relationship between run differential and wins and losses (later expanded by Bill James). … I think the thing that always strikes me about Pete is how gracious a man he is, how ardent he is about bringing everyone together, not taking the credit for himself, trying to be open and inclusive in all his activities."
  • Thorn: "I don't say this about many people … but Pete is a genius. He is different from the rest of us. He's not just a clever fellow, he's not just a smart figure. He is a different species, unlike the rest of us. You're having a conversation with him on the couch, and all of a sudden you realize that he has mentally run up the street and around the corner and you have no idea where he is. And you have to run faster just to catch sight of him, not just keep up with him."

On who deserves more credit for sabermetric advancements

  • Cramer: "I'd certainly mention (Retrosheet founder) Dave Smith. Retrosheet is something out of a fairy tale. It's miraculous. … To actually get out there and find essentially complete play-by-play records for the last 50 years and going back further; to me, that's the most incredible thing that can be done, that is being done, and that's all I spend my baseball time on these days. It's an extraordinary achievement."
  • Thorn: "I would offer F.C. Lane, who wrote articles for the Baseball Magazine in the 1910s and '20s, that had sabermetric principles. He was irked by the inadequacies of batting average, by the inadequacies of other measures of individual performance within the team construct. … One name that came up in Alan Schwarz's wonderful book, The Numbers Game, is George Lindsey. His marvelous articles for obscure academic journals really laid the groundwork for some of the best work that sabermetricians did in the 1980s. If you look him up, you will be stunned at the sophistication of the analysis he did. … And the last one I'll throw in there is Earnshaw Cook, who was dismissed as a crazy person at the time and remains thus cast, because he suggested that managers never allow pitchers to bat. He suggested that every time a pitcher was due up to bat, you pinch-hit for him and replace him with another pitcher. Well, I think that's about where we're at today."

For more coverage of the SABR Analytics Conference, visit SABR.org/analytics.

This page was last updated March 26, 2012 at 12:19 pm MST.

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