Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Did Branch Rickey Subscribe To The Same S**t As Billy Beane And Bill James?

I am reposting this entry from April 2010 since the Moneyball movie just came out.

Some sportswriters still like to make fun of the statheads or sabermetricians who never played the game and still live in their mom's basement. But to those writers I say "read the 1954 LIFE magazine article where Branch Rickey discusses some very modern looking formulas." This article is online and was called GOODBY TO SOME OLD BASEBALL IDEAS: The 'Brain' of the game unveils formula that statistically disproves cherished myths and demonstrates what really wins. Some of the new stats he proposed were "on-base average" and "isolated power." The article even shows many formulas, some of which are complex.

Rickey is in the Hall of Fame for his work as an executive. But he also played and managed. I think if you ridicule statheads, you would probably ridicule Rickey. Here is the introductory paragraph:

"Baseball people generally are allergic to new ideas. We are slow to change. For 51 years I have judged baseball by personal observation, by considered opinion and by accepted statistical methods. But recently I have come upon a device for measuring baseball which has compelled me to put different values on some of my oldest and most cherished theories. It reveals some new and startling truths about the nature of the game. It is a means of gauging with a high degree of accuracy important factors which contribute to winning and losing baseball games. It is most disconcerting and at the same time the most constructive thing to come into baseball in my memory."
That is followed by a fairly complex formula. Then Rickey asks "Can this bizarre mathematical device be put to any practical use?" And his answer? "It can indeed! It can be applied to any major league club for any season or part of a season to diagnose points of weakness and strength."

So Rickey, perhaps one of the most influential men ever invovled in baseball, saw the need for new and complex ways of analyzing the game. How can some writers, and some GMs, not see this today?

But what about intangibles? Rickey says:

"But somehow baseball's intangibles balance out. They reflect themselves in other ways. Over an entire season, or many seasons, individuals and teams build an accumulation of mathematical constants. A man can work with them. He can measure results and establish values. He can then construct a formula which expresses something tangible, and that is why this formula was devised."
After compiling many stats and data, what did Rickey do? "We took the figures to mathematicians at a famous research institute. Did they know baseball? No, but that was not essential."

Did RBIs' figure in Rickey's formula? No. "As a statistic, RBIs were not only misleading but dishonest."

There is much more to read in this article that is of interest. Near the end of the article he mentions getting his scouts involved in finding players with power, guys who will improve the ability of his team (the Pirates) to bring runners home. But that is based on the formula. Imagine that. Rickey was going to tell his scouts what to look for based on a formula.

If you have never read the article, I think you are in for a treat since it is so well written and it was written so long ago.

No comments: