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Saturday, February 05, 2005

Monarchs SABR Chapter Meeting

As is the case each year the local Monarchs chapter of SABR here in Kansas City held its mid-winter meeting this afternoon at the Johnson County Library with around 25 in attendance including my brother and I. After brief introductions that included good baseball books that members had recently read John Wathan gave a talk followed by some questions.

Wathan was of course a catcher for the Royals from 1976 through 1985 and then managed the Royals from 1987 through the start of the 1991 season. He also briefly managed the Angels in May of 1992 in an interim capacity when Buck Rodgers was hospitalized after the team bus had an accident on the New Jersey turnpike. He is currently a member of the Royals Player Development department with the title Special Assignments for Scouting and Player Development. In addition to his scouting duties he works with minor leaguers on base running and will be uniform in spring training heading the baserunning work in Surprise.

I found Wathan a very entertaining speaker and was appreciative of his praise for the baseball intelligence and passion of the members of SABR. In his remarks he related the high points of his career and knowing his audience, talked a bit about scouting reports and how managers use statistics. For example, he talked about how when he was managing they began to create defensive charts that track where opposing hitters hit the ball against Royals pitchers. Each hitter would have his own chart and hits were drawn onto the charts in different color pencils representing the different Royals pitchers – blue for Mark Gubicza, red for Brett Saberhagen etc. Interestingly, Wathan then noted that he thought their primitive system was better than modern computerized systems from STATS, Inc. and others since it reflected what the opposing hitters had done against Royals pitchers rather than against the league as a whole. He also seemed not to trust the folks who do the data entry in such cases. I’m not sure I buy that reasoning since his charts must have reflected a relatively small sample size. I would think more data would be better although I can see his point.

And while Wathan was not a manager who was deep into statistics he mentioned that most managers are pretty aware of lefty/righty breakdowns and matchups before the game starts and noted that matchup data often suffers from small sample sizes. In fact, he told an interesting story of how a national reporter once saw him and another coach inputting some of the defensive data into a computer and wrote a column saying that Wathan would never be a good manager since he relied too much on the computer.

Inevitably, in the question and answer period that followed the question of Moneyball and scouting came up and Wathan was quick to point out how friends of his had been fired because of the impact of the book. He specifically mentioned the Cardinals organization and the questioner mentioned the Blue Jays. Clearly, he was passionate on the subject and showed his disdain for Moneyball kind of thinking to the exclusion of traditional scouting. He was pretty critical of ballclubs hiring people from Harvard that think they have it all figured out without having been “in the trenches”. There were two points in this exchange that were interesting.

First, he reflected the attitude of other baseball insiders, as I’ve written about before here and here, that statistics reflect only past performance while scouting and baseball knowledge is what enables predictions about the future to be made. In other words, statistics have their uses but those with an insider’s perspective know better. What interested me about this was that several minutes before when discussing scouting reports he noted how the scouting reports on himself were woefully inadequate. While still in the minors he badgered a front office guy for a look at them after he was told he wouldn’t make it to the majors. The reports noted that he had a bad arm. When Wathan asked how many games the scout had seen him the answer was three and for two of those games Wathan had played first base. In addition, one of those in attendance was once a scout for the Padres and told Wathan during the question and answer period that he wrote several reports that said Wathan would never be a big leaguer. To me this illustrates the inherent weakness of scouting in baseball – beyond a certain base level of ability the difference between poor and average and average and stellar performers can only be measured over a period of months and years. Wathan did emphasize what I think only a scout can do – try to measure the desire and determination of players before they are signed. As my brother said as we were leaving, both statistics and scouting are effective tools if you understand their proper use.

The second interesting aspect of the conversation was that Wathan mentioned that the Red Sox had hired a guy and unbeknownst to Wathan that guy, Bill James who lives in Lawrence, was in the audience. After James was pointed out Wathan asked him a few questions about working of the Red Sox and then mentioned that he was impressed by Red Sox GM Theo Epstein who he had sat with at a ball game recently.

In the question and answer time Wathan talked at length about the famous pine tar game (he was sitting next to George Brett in the dugout and was trying to convince Brett that he was going to be called out), his frustrations as a manger, and how catchers call games. He also gave his opinion on the new MLB steroid policy – not stringent enough – and his view that the MLB Player’s Association made a mockery of drug policy with its defense of seven-time loser Steve Howe.

Interestingly, he also made the argument that the current financial situation in baseball is becoming untenable and seemed to support revenue sharing much like in the NFL. In addition to the negative effect on small market teams like the Royals he made the point that journeyman players like himself are getting squeezed out of the game as teams will now bring up young players with minimum salaries in order to devote more resources to super stars. I’ve noted this perspective before but I hadn’t tried to document it. Using the Lahman database I did some quick calculations on salaries shown below.

Avg Median StdDev Min Max M/Avg Std/Avg
2004 $2,491,776 $775,000 $3,543,036.61 $300,000 $22,500,000 3.22 1.42
2003 $2,573,473 $788,000 $3,479,837.67 $300,000 $22,000,000 3.27 1.35
2002 $2,392,527 $900,000 $3,068,571.97 $200,000 $22,000,000 2.66 1.28
2001 $2,279,841 $925,000 $2,906,019.23 $200,000 $22,000,000 2.46 1.27
2000 $1,995,371 $750,000 $2,516,418.97 $200,000 $15,714,286 2.66 1.26
1999 $1,504,762 $450,000 $2,060,941.15 $200,000 $11,949,794 3.34 1.37
1998 $1,300,389 $355,000 $1,830,101.03 $170,000 $14,936,667 3.66 1.41
1997 $1,233,235 $360,875 $1,728,851.70 $150,000 $10,000,000 3.42 1.40
1996 $1,040,275 $270,000 $1,554,216.38 $109,000 $9,237,500 3.85 1.49
1995 $981,909 $225,000 $1,541,064.27 $109,000 $9,237,500 4.36 1.57
1994 $1,057,966 $350,000 $1,356,082.16 $109,000 $6,300,000 3.02 1.28
1993 $987,667 $300,000 $1,288,636.02 $109,000 $6,200,000 3.29 1.30
1992 $1,052,998 $450,000 $1,181,160.47 $109,000 $6,100,000 2.34 1.12

Using this data I thought that if Wathan’s argument were true you would see a growing disparity between the median player’s salary and the average and a greater standard deviation as compared to the average. The data shows that there is a bit of trend in this direction since 2000 but before then the data appears to be fairly inconclusive.

After Wathan spoke a Kansas City Star reporter named Jeff Spivak talked about his soon to be released book on the 1985 World Champion Royals which provoked much discussion among the members, many of whom attended some or all of the games.

All in all, it was an afternoon well spent.

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