Two words which should rarely, if ever, be used consecutively.
by Bob Cannon
Regular Contributor, Entertainment Weekly
Editor's Note: It's that time of year again when our thoughts turn to measuring what really counts. Yep: Baseball. Special thanks to our guest contributor Bob Cannon, see his bio below.
Since we're all about measurement here, let's turn our attention to a seriously big business that measures its investments and ROI in several convoluted ways.
I'm talking about professional sports.
Some organizations like the NFL are all about scientific measurement -- height, weight, arm strength, bench press, 40-yard-dash times. For the NBA it's vertical leap, 3-point average, number of outstanding paternity suits.
But it's baseball season again. Now, the National Pastime (a non-measurable, but doubtlessly inaccurate appellation) loves its traditional stats: home runs, strikeouts, walks, RBI, etc. In the last couple of decades, thanks to Bill James and the generations of sabermetricians who followed in his wake, the Grand Old Game measures its performers better and more accurately than ever.
However, baseball is still the major sport most beholden to tradition. There's an equal and opposite reaction to sabermetrics in the form of "baseball wisdom" -- two words which should rarely, if ever, be used consecutively.
Baseball wisdom has been handed down since the beginning of the game, and it's a baffling, hit-and-miss way to measure results. It's the wisdom that idolizes fireballing young pitchers and slugging high schoolers, and ignores those kids with subtler gifts. In other words, if your kid can't throw in the high 80s in high school or bash a hanging curve into the next county, you can forget about scouts coming around.
Sure, power in pitchers and hitters is easily quantifiable, but for how long? (Or, if you like, how long is the data valid?) Baseball is full of flamethrowing youngsters who blow out their arms after throwing heat for a few years. They've made Tommy John surgery as common as teeth cleaning. But rarely does one hear about a crafty youngster who throws medium speed and craftily nibbles around the plate to make hitters look foolish. The question is, would you rather have the next Randy Johnson or Roger Clemens for just three years? Or would you grab hold of another Greg Maddux or Jamie Moyer, both of whom soft-tossed an tantalizing assortment of speeds and locations well into their 40s, and won 355 and 246 games, respectively?
It's not just that scouts tend to choose power over finesse. I've heard baseball veterans actually say, "He's got a good baseball face." Huh? What the hell -- does the kid have white skin and red stitches? Or, "We can teach him how to play the field." Really... Tell that to Jason Giambi or Manny Ramirez, who can both hit it out of every park but Yellowstone, but are in danger of being sued by Rawlings every time either puts on a glove.
The point is that there's a split in the guiding philosophies. One side (the modern sabermetricians) believes in empirical data to evaluate players. Like Oakland GM Billy Beane, hero of Michael Lewis' "Moneyball." The other still clings to traditional criteria and going with their gut.
Of course, measurement also depends on using a consistent yardstick. Unfortunately, steroids have skewed baseball stats of the last 20 years; there are millions of purist fans who maintain that Roger Maris and Hank Aaron are the real home run record holders, since Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Barry Bonds have all been tried and convicted of juicing in the court of public opinion.
Then again, some teams just hire a guy because they expect to suck this year, and this over-the-hill guy will put fannies in the seats because he's beloved by fans. "Ladies and gentlemen, returning to your 2009 Seattle Mariners for one last hurrah... Ken Griffey Jr.!"
Hmm, public opinion -- it's not always measurable, but it still carries a lot of weight. And may be every bit as valid as the conclusions of the most obsessive stat geek. Guess the public has a good baseball face.
Bob Cannon was Editor-in-Chief of the late lamented New Country magazine. He says, "Despite my currently living in the heart of Yankee country, I've been a diehard Red Sox fan since the Impossible Dream of 1967. And here's a photo of me to prove it, batting at Red Sox fantasy camp in 2005."