Friday Deep- Sabermetrics

Posted on June 18, 2010

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“What do a mama bear on the pill and the World Series have in common?  No Cubs.” — Harry Caray

Growing up as a Cubs fan is like attending a master class in the art of how to lose at baseball.  Each summer when I was a kid, WGN-TV beamed 120+ games into homes all over the country, 100,000 watts of day baseball sadness.  Without fail, year after year, the Cubs covered every possible angle of mediocrity- they omni-sucked.  They paid enormous rolls of cash to free agents that other teams wouldn’t even sign to be a mascot. They hired managers barely qualified to play a Lizzie McGuire drinking game.  Periodically they let Steve Trachsel pitch.

If there was a way to lose, the Cubs found it, and if there wasn’t, they would toss Harry Caray another Budweiser and invent something new.  Cubs baseball was like gamma radiation exposure: it created mutant fans with special powers.  Now the entire city of Chicago can spot a loser baseball team from as far away as the month of January.  And I’m one of them.

This history with losing means that I also don’t have much experience with winning.  My sports experiences just haven’t taught me how that works. Sure, the Cubs managed a few good years in my life, but even those felt random, less like mathematics and more like a rain dance.  Winning was the product of mysterious forces beyond anyone’s understanding or control.  And to make matters worse, I never knew when it was coming.  Like a rugby hit, winning was sudden, unpredictable, and I usually blacked out.

The Cubs weren’t unique in this.  For many years this was, more or less, the way all baseball teams went about winning.  Nobody quite knew what they were doing.  Everyone knew what the very BEST baseball players looked like- they were fast, powerful, home run machines- but nobody could pinpoint what a GOOD player looked like.  Some were fast and stole bases, some hit for high average, some had great defensive skills, and some could chew 17 pieces of Bazooka Joe gum at once.  And every year, teams trotted out their 9 best players, except that each manager had a different definition of what “best” was.  So winning had no pattern- it mostly happened when somebody had a career year, or when someone mis-evaluated a player who turned into an All-Star.  The critical question was still out there, waiting to be answered:  “How do you win baseball games?”

“Do we need to have 280 brands of breakfast cereal?  No, probably not. But we have them for a reason — because some people like them. It’s the same with baseball statistics.”  — Bill James

The sacrifice bunt, except when used with the weakest hitters, does not produce positive offensive results.– Sabermetric proverb.

As Sir Isaac Newton once said after a Victorian Age swirly, for every jock, there is an equal and opposite nerd.  Some of these nerds loved sports even more than the jocks, and unleashed their powerful synapses and spreadsheets on the sport of baseball.  Uninterested in minor questions like “What is more likely to catch a foul ball if the game is on national TV, a 3 year old toddler or your crotch?”, they formed a group committed to the statistical study of baseball, called the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), and set out to answer the granddaddy of them all:  how do you win baseball games?

The advent of crunching raw data to look for patterns of success annihilated some of baseball’s conventional wisdom.  Sophisticated baseball analysis brought new ideas to the table for fans to examine.  ‘Steals are overrated.’  ‘Platoons aren’t always bad.’  ‘Strike one is a pitcher’s most important pitch.’  Statistics yanked away the nun mask on baseball to reveal the drunken spring breaker underneath.  That peek-a-boo gave rise a new school of thought about how to win, one that gradually got a name:  Saber(SABR)metrics.

Commit to the LORD whatever you do, and your plans will succeed.— Proverbs 16:3

The Bible has its own version of sabermetrics: the book of Proverbs.  Much like baseball, life is also preoccupied with this question of winning.  How do I do it well?  What are some strategies to live excellently?  How can I avoid failure?  People are greedy for the answer to these questions.  Just go to the self-help section of your local bookstore for proof.  We all want that guidance to ignore foolish, un-winning approaches to life.  Proverbs is God’s goodness to us in doing for life what sabermetrics did for baseball.  We get a behind-scenes tour where the magician reveals the tricks behind a few illusions.  We learn how to work the angles like a champion pool hustler.  A read through Proverbs equips us to walk this way.  And that knowledge that gives rise to smarter paths through life, is called wisdom.  Or sabermetrics.

The twist on sabermetrics is this:  Last year the Oakland A’s finished dead last in the AL West.  This year they are in second-to-last place.   The Seattle Mariners, the darling of sabermetricians in the offseason, are in last place this year as well.  Even though sabermetrics is objective knowledge about baseball, following sabermetrics doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll have the best team.  Even if a GM follows all the rules, accounts for all the metrics, and assembles the best team that a TI-83 can compile, it guarantees nothing.  All the science in the world built the space shuttle, but it still had to make it to the moon.

The twist on Proverbs is the same.  Following Proverbs to the letter doesn’t guarantee a good life any more than following sabermetrics guarantees a World Series.  It’s easy to look at life like a casino, and Proverbs like counting cards.  I don’t want to admit that there are no guarantees to life, that I’m not in control, so I try to beat the game.  I say, “If I just do all this stuff, Proverbs says I’ll get wealth and never fail and my kids will all stay on the right path and my marriage will never be hard.”  I treat wisdom like a scam to guarantee that God will pay off.

Proverbs is grace to us in the form of a map.  We worship a God who is good to leave us a trail through life, not wanting us to waste time searching for unmarked paths or falter in dead-end canyons.  But the map just shows the way- it makes no promises about the journey.  While we pump obedience nickels into the God slot machine, hoping for the jackpot life, God ignores it and gives us something else:  Jesus, the ultimate proverb.  Jesus, the Way.  Jesus, the Life.  While Proverbs shows us how to live a smart life, Jesus shows us how to have life- life with God, but with no guarantees about the travel home.  And no explanation about how to win at baseball.

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