Numbers Game: Red Sox Win, Kerry Whiffs

Books

By Ami Eden

Published November 26, 2004, issue of November 26, 2004.
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George W. Bush played a hunch in the late winter of 2003.

Against the advice of many intelligence, military and diplomatic experts, the president ordered the invasion of Iraq, convinced that the United States would uncover weapons of mass destruction, be welcomed by the native population and transform the country into a democracy.

Seven months later, Grady Little, then the manager of the Boston Red Sox, also went with his gut in a moment of crisis. Ignoring statistical analysis supplied by the team’s front-office executives, Little stuck with ace pitcher Pedro Martinez for the eighth inning of the deciding Game 7 of the American League Championship Series, convinced that his superstar hurler had enough arm strength left to nail down a victory against the hated New York Yankees.

To some critics, Bush’s intuition proved unreliable on several fronts, but everyone agrees that Little miscalculated: Martinez blew a three-run eighth-inning lead, the Yankees ended up winning the game and the Red Sox were sent home without a World Series trophy for the 75th year in a row.

In an effort to topple each of these by-the-gut decision-makers, two would-be white knights emerged from Massachusetts, promising a more complex, integrated reliance on statistical measures and dependable intelligence. Senator John Kerry fell short on Election Day. But Theo Epstein, the 30-year-old general manager of the Red Sox, helped give Boston Democrats something to cheer about: This fall, almost one year after firing Little, the team won its first championship since 1918.

Plenty of recent books seek to explain how Bush, the son of a famously prudent and internationalist president, ended up taking such a huge gamble on the global stage. Yet only one new work — “The Numbers Game: Baseball’s Lifelong Fascination With Statistics” (St. Martin’s Press) by Alan Schwarz — chronicles the century-and-a-half back story to the hunches versus numbers clash that cost Little his job and the Red Sox a trip to the World Series in 2003.

Epstein, a Jewish whiz kid who became the youngest G.M. in baseball history when he was tapped for the job two years ago, follows a long tradition of baseball enthusiasts who have viewed statistics — more than a top pair of scouting eyes — as the best tool for measuring a player’s abilities and predicting his future performance. The key difference is that most of these numbers devotees were fans, with few exceptions, far from the dugouts and front offices where baseball teams are assembled and strategies crafted.

“In general, the people over the past 150 years who have been most interested in statistics and most successful at learning things about the game through them have been outsiders who were not good enough to actually play,” Schwarz told the Forward in a recent interview. “They played with numbers like other people do LEGOS and Tinker Toys. It is a connection to the game through the mind, not the body.”

For almost a century, Jewish statistical junkies have been among the most important pioneers of what those in the know now refer to as “sabermetrics.” (Schwarz explains: a term marrying “the acronym for the Society for American Baseball Research and the Latin suffix for measurement.”) In truth, however, to portray the development and evolution of baseball statistics as primarily a story of Jewish outsiders would be to ignore the role of many key contributors (as it turns out, gentile kids also spend too much time memorizing the numbers on the backs of their trading cards). More importantly, such an ethnocentric approach would produce a distorted picture of what is better understood as a Universalist saga, with deeply progressive underpinnings.

The true father of baseball statistics was Henry Chadwick, an English immigrant born in 1824 who arrived in the United States with his family when he was 12. Chadwick came, according to Schwarz, “from a long line of social reformers,” including a grandfather who one historian says dedicated his days to promoting “measures for the improvement of the condition of the population” and a half-brother, Edwin, who was knighted for his statistics-aided work in drafting Britain’s “public health and poor laws.”

In 1947, almost a century after Chadwick was bitten by the baseball bug, Branch Rickey, the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, would make Jackie Robinson the first black man to play in the Major Leagues. By then, Rickey already had broken new baseball ground when he hired a Jewish man named Allan Roth, making the Dodgers the first team to employ a full-time statistician.

“Certainly Branch Rickey was known for his openness and his willingness to try other things people didn’t want to try,” Schwarz said. “Whether it was… hiring a statistics person or hiring a black man — it all sprang from the same iconoclasm.”

Throughout society, but especially within the sports world, blacks have had to fight against the racist notion that they somehow lack the strength of character to perform under pressure. Yet Roth and Rickey saw something in their secret numbers that made them impervious to such negative stereotypes and inspired them to look beyond Robinson’s perceived limitations as a batsman.

In 1948, Robinson recorded a respectable, but not spectacular, .296 batting average and hit a measly 12 home runs. But the Dodgers, Schwarz writes, decided to place the lightening-quick Robinson in the number-four cleanup spot of the batting order, a position usually filled by power hitters. The move raised eyebrows, even though Robinson actually had been a much better hitter with runners on base, having batted an All Star-caliber .350 in such high-pressure situations.

Of course, Schwarz notes, only the Dodgers knew this, because Roth was the only one in baseball who kept records allowing batting averages to be broken down in such a specialized way. The next season, Robinson was named the most valuable player of the National League, after hitting .342 and driving in a slugger-like 124 runs.

These days, Epstein and the other members of the Red Sox management are being hailed as the new vanguard in baseball statistics. But in the media’s rush to lionize Epstein, the son of a literature professor and the grandson of the co-author of the screenplay of “Casablanca,” reporters have presented an oversimplified view of the current statistical landscape in baseball, Schwarz argues.

Epstein “isn’t necessarily more devoted to statistics, he is just devoted to better statistics,” Schwarz said. “He knows a lot on his own, and he hires the right people. He makes the best use of statistics. But saying he relies more on them than anybody else does is completely false.”

In addition, Schwarz said, it is wrong — no, downright silly — to think that Red Sox executives simply make judgments based on statistical spreadsheets. The team still employs a stable of conventional scouts and takes the time to evaluate questions that the number-crunchers haven’t figured out how to answer, like whether a new addition will impact adversely the sense of camaraderie among the current players. After all, no stat exists — at least not yet — to predict whether a player has the mental and physical wherewithal to deliver masterful playoff performances while pitching with blood oozing from his ankle and a set of staples holding his tendons in place (see Red Sox star pitcher Curt Schilling).

The current Red Sox lineup, like Robinson more than half a century ago, is a testament to the democratizing force of numbers in baseball. Boston always has been viewed as a city plagued by racial fault lines where the fans prefer their players white. But this year’s team won the city’s undying support with a rainbow roster that boasted a healthy mix of white, black and Latino players.

Sports, however, is not always a mirror of society. This was the year of the Red Sox, but Americans chose to re-elect a president who has derided government “bean counters” and frequently dismissed inconvenient findings. So while Boston smiles, there is no joy in the rest of Blue America, for Bill Clinton cannot run again and the heighty Kerry has struck out.






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