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Monday, November 01, 2004

Baseball from the Outside

Rich Lardner over at Rich's Weekend Baseball BEAT had a great post today about Bill James' 1984 Baseball Abstract. In particular Lardner talks about the essay "Inside-Out Perspective" where James discusses the trend toward "inside stuff" in sportswriting. While that topic seems a bit dated, the most interesting aspect of the essay is his description of what he is doing in the abstracts:

"This is outside baseball. This is a book about what baseball looks like if you step back from it and study it immensely and minutely, but from a distance."

He then goes on to say:

"But perspective can be gained only when details are lost. A sense of the size of everything and the relationships between everything--this can never be put together from details. For the most essential fact of a forest is this: The forest itself is immensely larger than anything inside of it. That is why, of course, you can't see the forest for the trees; each detail, in proportion to its size and your proximity to it, obscures a thousand or a million other details."

I've read that book and essay several times over the years but it wasn't until attending almost three dozen Royals games this season and being immersed in the detail of each play while scoring for that the essay brought home to me a new meaning.

I had assumed that viewing the game from that perspective would lead to insights that I hadn't previously been privy to. And indeed I did learn more about pitching patterns and, for example, the importance of establishing the strike zone early in the game. However, overall what I realized from personal experience was that it was very difficult to be immersed in the details of each game and yet maintain perspective on the bigger picture - a picture that looked at season and career trends as well as strategies. By the end of the season I found it quite difficult to separate in my mind events that happened in different games and found that I was thinking about players and had made judgments in terms of just a handful of the plays or situations I remembered clearly. And I only attended less than half the Royals home games.

I think this goes a long way towards explaining why sportswriters and those inside baseball have long resisted sabermetric analysis. They are simply too close to the game. There are too many discrete events in the course of a baseball season and too much randomness thrown in for human minds to sort it all out. Paradoxically, those who have witnessed every inning of every game think they must know more about the game since they've seen more. In actuality, the limitation of our brains makes us susceptible to forming invalid conclusions based on the limited number of events we remember and the emphasis we place on them. In some ways those who are closer actually know less. And so of course, when analysis from an outside perspective calls into question the existing paradigm, there will be fierce resistance. This problem only grows worse when you also consider the personality and relationship issues that are a part of any human endeavor and that go into decision making within a ballclub.

To me this means that a baseball analyst, in order to be effective, must purposefully take a step back from the trees in order to see the forest and work from the proper perspective. The kinds of questions that an analyst can help answer then are by nature big picture questions: Is it generally a good idea to bunt in a particular situation? Is developing a closer useful? Does drafting high-school pitchers pay off? Does guarding the lines help or hurt in the late innings? At what age do players generally start declining in productivity? These are the kinds of conclusions Paul DePodesta talked about with his "Be the House" mantra - general strategies that only pay off over the long haul.

This is precisely the kind of role it appears James now has with the Red Sox. He is not involved in the day to day operations of the team and instead creates studies from an outsider's perspective that GM Theo Epstein and the management team can use in their decision making process.

This also means that if news organizations and other teams want to benefit from that kind of analysis they would do well to hire someone from the outside and then keep that person at arm's length.

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