Every day, the Earth rotates 360 degrees on its axis and somewhere online another battle in the Great Sabermetric War is waged. Nuance is often lost in the discussion. You are either with the purists who think that any statistic popularized after the 1970s is valueless, or you are an unrepentant numbers geek who has never actually watched a baseball game.
For all of the shouting, in many ways, the war has already been won by the analytics crowd. Just because the Oakland Athletics haven't won a World Series doesn't mean that Moneyball is a wash. More teams have dedicated personnel going deep into the game of baseball than ever before. They are trying to understand things that have not previously been understood, because if you know something that nobody else knows, that's an advantage for your team.
On Monday, ESPN published what they billed as The Great Analytics Rankings, a look at the 122 teams in the four major sports - baseball, basketball, football, and hockey - to see where they stand on the question of analytics. Teams were broken down into five categories: All-In, Believers, One Foot In, Skeptics, and Nonbelievers.
Among baseball teams, more than half, including the Orioles, fall under either the All-In or Believers categories. Get on board or get left behind. As much as some writers want to deride anything that seems like a "sabermetric stat" or hold up as a beacon anything that couldn't possibly be measured by a stat, the argument is mostly settled. If you include the One Foot In category, that's 22 out of 30 MLB teams who have at least in part embraced the new wave. It's already happened.
Why is there such a disconnect between the way these things are discussed versus how they are viewed by teams? With there not being much question that teams have embraced these ways of thinking, you would think there'd be less debate about all of it in the media sphere.
You have probably seen your share of these arguments, often centered around gaps between a given pitcher's ERA and his FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) or xFIP (FIP with a normalized home run rate). A lot of these kinds of things pop into the Orioles' sphere because Chris Tillman, Miguel Gonzalez, and Bud Norris all had ERA out-performing their FIP by a fair amount last season.
There are occasionally people who seem to take these numbers as gospel for a given pitcher's quality without delving any deeper into why they are what they are. For them, if your FIP or xFIP are bad, you are bad, even if your ERA was good. That kind of thinking from a writer will tend to raise the hackles of fans who want to see the success of their favorite team respected.
It's not like there's some pocket protector-wearing geek sitting in a team's front office making these kinds of proclamations about player quality. They probably don't even care.
In the ESPN article, one of the teams that is considered All-In is, unsurprisingly, the Astros. They have positions in their front office with titles like director of decision sciences, medical risk manager, and mathematical modeler.
Perhaps a given pitcher's xFIP could be an interesting data point, but one imagines the director of decision sciences is more interested in the question of why? For every player, there is an answer. The savvy teams want to find it. The savviest teams will succeed in finding it. The answer is not going to be found in a newspaper column or even on Baseball Prospectus. The answer is probably found within terabytes worth of data of video and statistics, things that only teams who invest in that infrastructure will have a chance of combing through and finding.
A common denominator of the teams rated by ESPN as analytics-friendly is that they have worked to build databases for these sorts of things. The Pittsburgh Pirates, for instance, are described as having "three baseball operations staffers with strong backgrounds in computer science and statistics with additional support from two dedicated IT people and two interns." That sounds like a fair few people to build and maintain something. It must be important.
The concept of analytics does not necessarily need to involve statistics at all. The Orioles get rated as believers, in part thanks to Dan Duquette, Buck Showalter, and director of pitching development Rick Peterson being "respected for their analytical thinking." What does that even mean? None of them are exactly going to step up to a podium and tell us. That would be giving away the advantage.
It could be something small that almost seems inconsequential. One thing we do know the Orioles employ that not every team does is the way that they count their bullpen usage. If a bullpen pitcher warms up in a game two times without coming into the game, he's counted, for purposes of proper rest, as having entered the game. This seems to have helped preserve their arms in recent years. That is not a stat, but they probably arrived on that method after a lot of analysis of player use compared to injury rates.
Another way could even be found in the way the Orioles consider the physical exam of prospective free agents. They were ridiculed for not signing Grant Balfour last offseason after having a deal in place. They did not like what was in the physical. The Rays team doctor popped off to the media that Balfour was healthy and, lo and behold, he later signed with the Rays. Balfour sucked. Maybe he was hurt after all. The O's physical could have been what helped them to dodge a 4.91 ERA-sized $15 million bullet.
Going back to the Astros, they generated some negative press after the draft last year when their physical of top pick Brady Aiken revealed an abnormality in his elbow and they instead tried to sign him for less money. This was viewed in the media through a cynical lens, in much the same way as many viewed the Orioles' decision not to sign Balfour, as if it was a sign that a cheap franchise was trying to jerk around a player and use its leverage to save a little bit of cash.
In what I am guessing was not a coincidence, the amount that the Astros were trying to reduce Aiken's signing bonus was the same amount that they needed to sign fifth round pick Jacob Nix and 21st round pick Mac Marshall. They ended up getting none of Aiken, Nix, or Marshall, although they had to pay Nix an undisclosed amount of money after a grievance hearing.
Perhaps not all of it was cynical, though, and the medical risk manager had legitimate concerns about Aiken's elbow. There was never a situation quite like that before.
Not much of any of that had to do with stats, advanced or otherwise. Sabermetric stats? Who cares? Teams riding the new wave are working on things beyond what you're going to find on Fangraphs, and whatever they know, they're going to try to keep to themselves, so you or I won't know about it.
The Orioles' big-spending division rivals, the Yankees and Red Sox, are both counted in the All-In category on analytics, while the carpet-dwelling Rays and Blue Jays are All-In and Believers, respectively. The O's will need to keep finding these little edges where they can if they want to keep up with the competition.
Fortunately for Orioles fans, whether you personally are a stats believer or not, the tenure of Dan Duquette here has given us every reason to believe that the Orioles should be able to compete in this new baseball world. Here's hoping that the 2015 season is one where they remain near the top of the game.