Thrill of Victory

Territory war: Baseball's "old school" and its attack on the statistically-minded

“Hey stathead, you’re a moron. You couldn’t tell the difference between a baseball and a circus monkey.”

Okay, so that’s not exactly the message someone recently sent me on Twitter while I was covering a college baseball game, but it matches the general sentiment. The actual message may have been even more insulting.

The subject of my tweet that set this person off was the performance of a particular player that day. The attack in return was so jarring that I asked a few people around me if maybe I’d missed something. The more I asked, the more everyone backed me up.

The tension between me and some in my Twitter audience had actually been building for a few weeks. I am in the “new-school” camp that takes a stat-heavy approach to analyzing performance, an approach that seems to be gaining more credence within the professional ranks with each passing year.

But there are still some that eschew it completely. Even where it’s been embraced, there’s still a reluctance to completely to buy in, as you will soon see.

This week, I was reading Peter Keating’s excellent article in ESPN The Magazine on Eric Van this week. (You’ll need an ESPN Insider subscription to read it). Van was a Boston Red Sox fan whose independent statistical analysis got him not only noticed by the Red Sox, but also hired by that organization.

Van was paid only $1,500 per month to be a consultant, and anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that his analysis helped the Red Sox make some good decisions. It was at a time when the Sox greatly valued the statistical point of view, even hiring the guru of all stats gurus, baseball author Bill James, as a consultant about a year before bringing Van on.

However, when the financial markets crashed in 2009, management cut costs, and Van was one of the first to go.

Before his hire, Van told the Red Sox that they were spending about $4 million per win, or about $400,000 per run. Van told the Red Sox he was confident he could at least make a one-run difference. If correct, assuming the Sox paid him during only the six months of the baseball season, his investment was worth it 44.4 times over at a minimum.

Empirically, getting rid of Van seems astronomically stupid. But if you dig deeper into the story and factor in human nature, you can at least hypothesize why Van might have been pushed out.

Our first nature is almost always to protect ourselves. Climbing baseball’s ladder to become an executive takes long hours and horrible pay, but once you get there, you’re easily making six figures. The more we have invested, the more we have to protect. How do you think guys like Epstein, who was making $1.5 million a year, might have felt about a $9,000-per-year consultant making some discoveries that had eluded him?

As it happens, a book entitled Francona: The Red Sox years – a book about Sox manager Terry Francona – records Epstein’s thoughts about Van. Ironically, Epstein was a baseball outsider himself – he went to Yale and never played – but still looked down on Van. He cracked jokes about Van working out of a basement on a computer, and when Francona said he wanted to meet Van, Epstein replied, “No you don’t.”

If you want to know when you’ve on to something that threatens someone else, it’s when people dodge the subject and instead throw cheap shots. The more vicious and out of the blue the attack against you is, the greater the likelihood that you’re on to something.

Multiply the value of Van’s discoveries by the difference between his salary and that of Boston’s decision-makers, and suddenly Van is expendable as a “cost-saving move” even though the Sox saved virtually nothing by letting him go.

The irony is, the new school has great respect for the old school. It knows that baseball’s a complicated game, and numbers can’t explain everything. James was never shy about admitting this. The new school has made great headway in quantifying a lot of things in baseball, but sometimes that research leads to bigger questions that can’t always be answered in numbers – in which case the old school is the one best-equipped to answer.

But no matter how well we know our subjects, we can all have our blind spots. Have you ever dated or married someone who everyone knew was wrong for you, but you insisted you knew that person better than everyone else… and then been the only person surprised when things didn’t end well?

Most of the time, the only harm in having an Eric Van around is that we’re afraid he’ll tell us what we’re most afraid might be true. Which is probably why he doesn’t have a job.

When Van lost his meager job, he fell apart – his relationships, his bank account, everything. I’m glad to hear he got some help, but he’s never worked in baseball again.

Guess who else’s world went downhill? The Sox hired Van in 2005, and let him go in 2009 – about the time that James had also lost influence with the Sox. In those four years with Van, Boston averaged 93 wins.

In the three full seasons without him, that number was 82.7. Last season’s 69-win mark was the club’s worst season since 1965.

More than anything, this sad tale shows how much both worlds need each other. The good news is that the Red Sox (now without Epstein) evidently realized they’d made a mistake, and James is evidently re-gaining his influence. I hope that guys like Eric Van eventually do as well.