Devil's Advocate: How Much Do Sabermetrics Matter?
'I'm just trying to be smart.' … 'No, Doc - you're trying to be CLEVER.'


I'm a sabermetrician.  That's point A.  Don't get your underwear in an uproar there, LrKrBoi29.  ;- )


Point B:  Do you think maybe saber matters less than we imagine it does?

This from Hey Bill at Bill James Online, only $3 per month which is, what, about 10% of Dr. D is scheming to go for on his new Arsenal shtick ... :: bwheheheh ::


Hey Bill, Does the Royals success this year simply reflect the fact that they have more money now to sign better players since they still aren't using modern metrics?
Asked by: aagcobb
Answered: 11/3/2013
Well. .. I don't know for sure that they still haven't joined the 21st century.    I haven't heard that they ARE using modern metrics, but at least they haven't made any statements in the last year or so denouncing the whole concept.   
They've had some good drafts, and they've had some disciplined training and advancement procedures in the last few years that have increased the talent base.   That, and the changing economics of baseball.

OK, hold it right there, full stop.

Some other blog would just smile wryly and say, "The Royals are idiots," and move on to the next subject.  Dr. D does not find total spiritual creaminess by avoiding the question.  The Royals have smart people in their org, and those people have the considered opinion that sabermetrics don't matter.  Or don't matter much.  Or, actually hurt you.

Supposing they had a case.  What would be the case?

:: taps chin ::


2013-14 Royals

Sure, the Royals lose, but ... in 2011, their payroll was $38 million.  How badly are they doing relative to other teams of that payroll?

:: shrug :: okay, maybe they're doing badly even relative to their payroll.  They probably are.  But as it stands now, they're interesting, going forward:

  • Team ERA+ = 120 last year
  • James Shields
  • Ervin Santana (6.9 k, 2.2 bb, 1.0 hr last year)
  • CRAZY GREAT BULLPEN with Hochevar, Holland, Herrera (probably > 2001 M's bullpen)
  • Four very fine young position players (Gordon, Butler, Hosmer, C Perez)


Talent Base

Bill made the remark that ... although the Royals don't use sabermetrics ... they've drafted well, and coached in the minors well, and they've built up the lower base of their talent pyramid.

Well, great.  Don't all small-market teams rely on the draft?  Did Tampa Bay get good, because they picked free agents with excellent WAR/$ ratio ... or did Tampa Bay pretty much just get good because they drafted well?

And, let's be honest here, sabermetrics has precious little to do with drafting.  David Price and Evan Longoria aren't Rays because of sabermetrics.

Now Dr. D's wheels were really turning.


Six o' One, Half a Dozen o' the Other

The other thing that we get here ... how often, really, does a non-sabermetric team make a choice that is any different from what some other team does?

Fangraphs, if I recall, blasted the Wil Myers for James Shields trade as anti-sabermetric.  It wasn't.  James Shields is as sabermetric a pitcher as you could imagine.

Some particular authors consider it anti-sabermetric to EVER trade a good prospect for a fairly-paid ML star.  We went through all this with Adam Jones and Erik Bedard.  These particular authors count up the "net value" on a club-controls youngster, and compare it to the (lack of) net value on a fairly-paid star, whose net value is zero.  And they call any deal of an ML star for a talented kid --- > THE sabermetric decision.

Not in Dr. D's book.  And not in the books of any GM who ever deals away talent for ML production.

Or, you could say that the Royals shouldn't be trying to win now -- they should be trying to "rebuild right."  What makes that paradigm sabermetric?  What sabermetric formula tells us to punt a season? None.  Bill James, for example, carefully refrains from criticizing bottom-end teams who try to win.  Is Bill James not a sabermetrician?


You get to thinking about it ... the Royals selected Ervin Santana.  What made Santana a non-sabermetric choice?

Nothing.  Santana has a nice-looking sabermetric line.

What makes Alex Gordon a non-sabermetric player?


Pretty much, all 30 MLB teams chase after the same players any more.  It's like the NFL combine.  The differences in choices are almost imperceptible at times.


Dr's Diagnosis

So the draft has almost nothing to do with sabermetrics.

Choosing which player to develop?  That has less to do with sabermetrics than we think it does; the cream rises to the top in any case.  Granted, with some teams, it takes longer to identify the cream...

Where sabermetrics really comes to bear, is in the free agent market, then.  Fine.  But which non-sabermetric team doesn't want Jacoby Ellsbury?  C'mon.  These teams all want the same players.


I'm playing devil's advocate here.  But this is a chewier question than it looks like, at first blush.

Suppose that you, I, and Jeff Sullivan were putting together a team using algebra.  Suppose that Roger Jongewaard* and Pat Gillick were doing it, using nothing other than their own eyes.  How much better do you suppose our team would be?


Refer back to point A.  This is the 21st century.  You don't want to be without information, obviously.  But it can be fun to muse on whether you're worth as much as you think you are...





As a stats guy myself, one of the things I accepted a long time ago is this ...
*MOST* of the time, SABRMetrics simply confirms what general observation concludes.
That said ... I am not sure WHAT SABRMetrics actually says about Ellsbury.
From 2009 to present, his WAR totals are:
He missed most of two seasons with injuries. Stats don't really tell you the "proper" way to factor in impact of injuries on production.
Excluding the injury years, he's still: 2.7 -- 8.1 -- 5.8
Okay, the 8.1 spike was an obvious abberation where pretty much every metric was WAAAAY off his norms. Do we ignore it complete? Use it as a ceiling (that he's unlikely to ever sniff again)?
I remember the exchange between Beane and Brand about Damon. He described Damon ... "The guy's got a great glove. He's a decent leadoff hitter. He can steal bases. But is he worht the seven and half million dollars a year that the Red Sox are paying him? No."
I see Ellsbury in much the same way. Because of the one monster year, (which SABR agrees was a monster year), Ellsbury is perceived as a "star".
Then again, how much of Ellsbury is Fenway induced? He's got almost a 90 point OPS edge at home for his career.
You look at ONLY his career road line: .288/.343/.407 (.749) - and he's Michael Brantley. A good player and a definite asset in most lineups ... but nothing to get all worked up about.
And here's where I think SABR is valuable, (and often mis-applied) ... it's "nuance". SABR stats are a tool that can potentially clarify not only "is Ellsbury better than Michael Saunders?" But, also can potentially point to how much better.
The problem I see is that too often the numbers are wielded as if they are a sledge hammer, when in reality they are more like Andy Dufresne's rock hammer.
Is the Ellsbury profile really THAT far off from the Mike Morse profile? One monster season - and a lot of time lost to injury?
Depends on which numbers you pay most attention to.
My take on KC's growth - (and especially with James' comments), is that KC has done a nice job of working WITH the players selected. In Seattle, I still have a sense of the organization too often working "against" players. The high walk guys, (Ackley and Smoak -- and previously Carp - or even earlier -- Figgins) have all kinds of struggles that NOBODY expected. SABR says guys that walk 100 times a year are going to have massive value. Yet, the guys with the traits where they could be walking a hundred times a year aren't coming close. That, to me, screams of mishandling.
Moneyball showed exactly how easy it is for baseball people to mishandle a SABR assembled team. Remember that Beane ultimately had to trade away Art Howe's options in order to force him along the SABR path. And, if the Hollywood version is to be beleived, it was Beane engaging guys like Justice and Hatteberg that eventually paid off - *overcoming* the negative pull from Howe.


Sabermeterics might have saved us from Carlos Silva (and by extension Milton Bradley whose roster spot and money could have been used on someone else).


Because you and I would have thought of Carlos Silva (and Batista and Washburn, same era) as perfect examples of the downside of non-saber orientation.
Thing is, though?  Bedard and Silva were the offseason recommendations of Mat Olkin, one of baseball's leading saber guys at the time.  LOL.  The Mariners have been paying large coin ($10K plus) each offseason, for a lot of years, to get an offseason plan submitted that way.  With Silva they followed it to the letter.
PERFECT example of how any one blog, such as mine, might yell and scream that a move is non-sabermetric --- > because --- > WE see it as non-saber.  Like a GI doctor looking at some other GI doctor's diagnosis, and assuming that only a chiropractor could have come up with it.  But put those two GI doctors in the same room, and you might get quite an argument...
Good stuff Dr. G :- )


Could you or Sandy or you and Sandy answer how much better Ellsbury is than Saunders? This is one of the key questions of the off season.


My bottom line ...
I'd probably peg Ellsbury as just a smidge ahead of Saunders in total value, (most of that coming from glove).
Offensively, I think Saunders v Ellsbury is a practical tie in terms of OPS ... but Ellsbury is more valuable because of a superior OBP.
Mind you, I think Boston to Seattle is about as high risk as one can get in terms of potential for a complete crash and burn.
Saunders claws back OPS in the ISO category ... but the double dip loss of Boston Monster assistance compared to Safeco suppression is the kind of double whammy that not only holds the potential to significantly change the raw totals --- but it's the kind of change that can cause players to wilt psychologically.
I'm a little surprised at times after reading very astute articles in regards to the psychological impact of Safeco on hitters that have been here awhile - and then listen to the salivating masses as they discuss the next potential FA acquisition "as if" they will be immune from both the real and psychological impacts of the "Safe".
Some of my rationale on Saunders is based on the stellar research on post-should-injury from this very site. Saunders' second half .251/.350/.440 (.790) is precisely the kind of line that one would HOPE from Ellsbury, (except push the BA up 25 points without changing the the OBP or Slugging.
I suppose in some years I would argue against Ellsbury - he's reaching age tipping point (30) - his stature is inflated a bit by one monster year - and he's played his whole career in a park that carries its own baggage on analysis.
But, I see the #1 problem with Seattle as OBP.
For all the talk of Moneyball changing the landscape and the relative importance of SABR ... I find myself viewing much of todays discussions (on this and other boards) putting more and more weight on what (IMHO) are smaller and smaller areas of importance.
The MAJOR revelation from James' research was that OBP is significantly more important than slugging. Yet, the sense I get today is sort of like - "well, we already agree on that - so that's a given" ... but when Seattle finishes 13th in OBP and 9th in slugging, (and 2nd in HRs), the chant continues to be "if we only had a REAL MOTO hitter!"
I think many Seattle fans are concerned about replacing Ibanez' great season. Me? I think someone like Ellsbury would CRUSH the actual value that Ibanez brought to the team. Ibanez only had a .306 OBP and had a glove soooo bad that his final WAR tally for the year was +0.4, (per bbref). Hitting 29 HRs to reach 0.4 WAR is a Dave Kingman kind of season.
Paradoxically, it is the fact Ellsubury's OBP isn't as dependent on walks that makes me less nervous. Based on previous results, that strikes me as Jacoby having a profile "less likely" for Seattle coaching to ruin.
If you could get Ellsbury for 3 years, I'd be fine with that. My concern is that the money (and more importantly the YEARS) that Ellsbury is going to demand on the open market is going to make him a significant hindrance to "maintaining" a competitive team after 2016.
Me? If I have to "waste" money on a declining product, I would rather be spending that money "late" on somebody who actually ALREADY produced *FOR ME*. Having the money to retain and extend Seager would be my priority when computing FUTURE payrolls.
You see, I believe there is hidden value in actually spending the money to retain home grown talent. Atlanta spent big to keep Chipper around for his entire career. They kept the big 3 around for a long time - but eventually left both Glavine and Maddux leave. While they were willing to spend money on imports like Sheffield, they never made an outside every day player "the man". The heart of the daily lineup was ALWAYS a home grown talent.
Even when they were losing - it was Aaron - then Murphy and Horner - then Chipper and Andruw -- and today McCann and Heyward and Freeman. Even the Yankees, the kind of all that is evil in regards to mercenary minded sports franchises --- the heart and soul of the Yankees for the last two decades was Jeter and Rivera.
This is, IMHO, precisely why it is so important the club NOT abandon the focus on developing talent internally. The ENTIRE run of good years in Seattle - Edgar was there. Sure, Griffey and AROD were there early. But Edgar began and ended his career as a Seattle Mariner. He - way more than Griffey and AROD - was the real touchstone of the franchise in all of the good years.
No objection to Ellsbury. I just don't want him to end up costing the organization producing their first franchise player since Edgar.


Hear you loud and clear about Ellsbury not causing deep excitement.  Still, replacing Raul in left with Saunders, and replacing Saunders in CF with Ellsbury should make the Mariners outfield of Saunders/Ellsbury/Almonte with Ackley spotting them very good if not very redundant and left handed.  Each of those guys are center fielders in their own right.  Saunders throws like a laser guided smart bomb.  Almonte's throwing arm was broken a few years back, and then re-made by God into a cannon.  Ellsbury is the perfect guy to teach Saunders, Ackley and Almonte how to rock the small ball.
My MOTO plan, after the OF and SP sitch's are taken care of, is to sign Morales for DH, and then sign Napoli for first base, and then trade Smoak and Montero somewhere as Plan A.  Since Napoli didn't return any of the Mariner's calls last off season, this is a little bit farfetched.  Plan B would be to sign Morales, then have a platoon of Smoak/Montero for 1B.  On lefty day, Smoak would sit, Montero would DH, and Morales would play 1B.  On occasions when Smoak is tired, Montero would play.  Montero would pinch hit nearly every day.  This assumes that Montero is off the restricted list, and his mind is right for some beisbol.  


on some hare brained scheme to get competitve quick. I think we were very fortunate, for all the talk about how the Mariners squandered his early years, that we didn't make an even bigger mistake and toss him in a trade because we already had a third baseman (two in fact, if you include Darnell Coles) and needed a #4 starter or an outfield bat (having already tossed away Calderon and Tartabull to improve the clubhouse, or something).
This is why I get hearburn when I hear folks toss a Nick Franklin or a James Paxton (or both) casually in a trade for some perceived need. Yeah, develop your home grown talent, and then lock it up if you can. If the Mariner brain trust isn't very very clear on who will emerge from this youthful core, they'd better be careful with their moves to shore up immediate needs.

RockiesJeff's picture

Rick, I have wondered how many would say that even if Edgar was tearing up AAA, his age made him no longer a legit prospect. So, as you said, he would be declared expendable. I hate to see legit talent raised up and so that we can trade for a legit talent? Sometimes the best trade is no trade. Forced trades will bankrupt you in the stock market.

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