Back in the days of VCRs and portable CD players, there really was a stats vs. scouts thing. There were smart people on the Internet who were convinced that baseball teams could build a roster using only statistics and be better for it. There were really people who trotted out the “mother’s basement” line when referring to statistically minded folks. Well, there were last week too, but there were a lot more of them at the turn of the century. They weren’t nearly as amusing.
It’s funny to think about now. Every team uses stats. Even that one you’re thinking about right now while giggling. And even the most sabermetric-friendly teams use scouting to some extent, especially when it comes to amateur players. The easiest way to confirm the swing of the pendulum back to the middle is with Grady Fuson. In the movie Moneyball, Fuson is something of a grizzled troglodyte. If the villain in Moneyball was antiquated thinking, Fuson was the personification of that particular evil.
But when the movie came out, Fuson wasn’t living under a bridge, telling an assembled group of pigeons that the 40-yard-dash time is the most meaningful statistic in baseball. He was working for the A’s as a special advisor to baseball operations. His boss was Billy Beane. Again. Because Beane and the A’s were confident that he could still offer something substantial to the organization. Again.
While Moneyball was a great book and a fantastic movie, the eight-year gap between subject and film made it seem like a gripping docudrama about the rise of the Super Nintendo. It was a fantastic achievement back then. The progress never stopped, though. Nothing speaks to this more than the rise of the sabermetrically savvy player. In the newest ESPN: The Magazine, Oakland A’s pitcher Brandon McCarthy relates how he used sabermetrics to turn his career around.
McCarthy also bookmarked sites like Lone Star Ball, a Rangers fan site heavy on sabermetrics, and FanGraphs, an instant favorite. He learned about FIP, or fielding independent pitching, a statistical aggregate that combines what a pitcher can control (homers, walks, strikeouts), ignores what he can’t (luck, defense) and is a truer barometer than ERA. He also learned about BABIP, or batting average on balls in play, a stat that indicates whether a pitcher has been especially lucky (under .300) or unlucky (over .300).
The article makes you realize that stats aren’t just for the fans — it details exactly how sabermetrics can help a player. It’s not about staring into the mirror and screaming, “Raise your WAR, jackass!” It’s about knowing that a ground ball is less likely to hurt a pitcher than a fly ball. Then that pairs up with the scouting or physical side, where a pitcher can learn and perfect a pitch that’s more likely to induce a groundball. That’s just one example.
The omnipotence of PITCHf/x is where a lot of today’s more popular stats come from. When hitters swung at a Brandon McCarthy pitch last year, 32 percent of the time they were swinging at a pitch out of the strike zone. Is that a stat? Or is that a piece of scouting? I honestly have no idea. How is that different from some sort of Jor-El-birthed super-scout, who somehow had the capability to watch every start that McCarthy took last year, dutifully tallying up swinging strikes?
The scouts/stats thing was a false dichotomy. It was never supposed to be one or the other. Within the last decade, most of the baseball-obsessed world has figured that out. It’s not the old school had an aversion to collecting data — otherwise scoreboards wouldn’t have listed RBI totals. The old school was just focusing on the wrong data. And it’s not that the new school had an aversion to using observable evidence — there was just a logistical problem in collecting it all. After the initial butting of heads and some measurable progress, just about everyone agrees that the two fields can continue to learn from each other.
And they can all agree that there is still a hell of a lot to learn.
Sometime in the last decade, Spencer Tracy slapped together a Bill James Baseball Abstract and a road-scarred scouting notebook and left the courtroom. The false dichotomy vanished. The idea of two disparate fields of baseball study died, and it was replaced with just baseball. The fallout from that is that the two fields will blend more and more, and more pitchers like Brandon McCarthy will realize that there’s a way to make it all work for them. McCarthy wasn’t the first player to look into advanced stats, and he certainly isn’t the last. There will be more, and it’s just going to make for better baseball.