No longer wonky, Baseball Prospectus way cool these days
The second Christmas of winter came a week or so back.
That's when my copy of the 2013 Baseball Prospectus arrived in the mail.
As an amateur sabermetrician, I've devoured these types of books since I started reading Bill James' Baseball Abstracts back in the 1980s.
They've never disappointed, and neither does the 2013 Baseball Prospectus.
In fact, this might be a watershed year for baseball analytics for a couple of reasons. First, I think we can forever kiss goodbye the whole scouts-vs.-stats divide. That was so 2005.
The new Baseball Prospectus, which is nearly 600 pages, begins with a foreword by Houston Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow, who had the audacity to hire BP veterans Kevin Goldstein and Mike Fast. Goldstein, who was the face of BP for some time, is now -- hold on to your slide rule -- coordinator of pro scouting for the Astros.
"All teams have experienced scouts and coaches who use their best judgment to evaluate players and situations," Luhnow writes. "All teams have at least one person -- and in most cases several people -- dedicated to crunching numbers and providing analysis."
The second reason this is a big year is that sabermetrics are now cool.
If you paid attention to the presidential election of 2012, whether you liked the result or not, you no doubt heard the name of Nate Silver, who used sabermetrics-like analysis to predict correctly the outcome of all 50 states.
Silver was a former Baseball Prospectus author and the driving force behind the PECOTA forecasting system that makes up the heart of the book.
Now he's a rock star.
"Well, it's hard to make sabermetrics any more cool than it already is -- after all, millions of American teenagers use a picture of Bill James in Terminator shades as their smartphone wallpaper -- but I think Nate may have managed it," Ken Funck, a current BP author, related to me in an email interview. "I think his success, and the attention it received, went a long way towards demonstrating the validity of using statistical methods to forecast results.
"Baseball results are harder to forecast than election results -- which is, of course, a large part of its appeal -- so I hope no one expects me to predict every team exactly right this year."
Projection vs. prediction:
Once upon a time, there was a journeyman baseball player named Bill Pecota.
He had a rather journeyman batting line of .249/.323/.354, representing his batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage.
Pecota -- who played for the Royals, Mets and Braves -- isn't immortalized for anything he did on the baseball field, but he's the inspiration for what Baseball Prospectus does with its projections.
The publication uses its PECOTA (player empirical comparison and optimization test algorithm) to project results for teams and players.
Notice I said "projections" and not "predictions."
"To me, a 'projection' is something that is produced by a system like PECOTA that uses data to forecast what may happen in the future," Funck said. "You feed data in, and a projection comes out. A 'prediction' is made by a person, who uses information from many sources (possibly including a projection system) to forecast what they think will happen in the future. In my opinion, smart analysts and informed baseball fans can make predictions that are more accurate than a simple projection."
People seem to take Baseball Prospectus' projections very personally.
For example, both the Cubs and White Sox are projected to have 2013 records of 77-85. For the Cubs, that would be an improvement of 16 victories. For the White Sox, it represents a falling back of 8 victories.
White Sox fans love to revel in the fact that the 2005 world champions were projected to win 80 games. They wound up winning 99 and breezing through the postseason. The Sox let it be known that BP projected them to win 78 last year, when they finished with 85 wins.
"Any baseball fan who pays attention to something like a PECOTA projection is most likely quite passionate about the game, and one of the great things about baseball is its ability to spawn discussion and disagreement," Funck said. "We've all sat on bleachers, couches or barstools arguing with our friends over whether the White Sox can compete with the Tigers this year, or how good Anthony Rizzo will be.
"PECOTA also has an 'opinion' on those topics, but unlike our friends, PECOTA is impersonal and dispassionate. Merely reading a PECOTA projection, especially one that you don't agree with, doesn't make you feel like you're having a conversation. Instead, you can feel like you're being lectured by some know-it-all blowhard, especially if you buy into the stereotype of baseball analysts as math geeks with spreadsheets who've never played and rarely watch the game.
"... That's why I try to make the point in most conversations I have about PECOTA, or about baseball metrics in general, that they are not the end of the discussion. They're really the beginning of the discussion."
For the record, PECOTA (which does undergo tweaks over the winter) projects Rizzo at .255/.322/.465 with 28 homers and 90 RBI over 631 plate appearances. Last year in 368 big-league plate appearances, Rizzo had a line of .285/.342/.463 with 15 homers and 48 RBI.
Good writing, too:
One of the misconceptions about sabermetricians is that they're humorless nerds who don't get out and see baseball games. Actually, that's two misconceptions.
As for the second, I can attest to having seen Baseball Prospectus authors and other sabermetricians at baseball games.
As to the first, one of the joys of reading Baseball Prospectus is for some of the sharp, biting and humorous writing in the book.
In evaluating outfielder Tony Campana, whom the Cubs recently traded to Arizona, BP writes: "... Cubs fans have a somewhat irrational devotion to Campana on account of his actually being fast, although the idea that his speed compared to phenom speedster Billy Hamilton (of the Reds) is one that should occur only after about three-too-many Old Styles. The trouble with Campana is that he hits for the emptiest .260 batting average in creation, which means that no matter how fast he can run, he's nothing like an asset."
Good thing that line wasn't read aloud at January's Cubs convention, where Campana was king.
"Our authors and editors do their best each year to make the Annual not just an invaluable reference, but an entertaining read," Funck said. "Can that help debunk the propeller-head stereotype? Sure it can, and I think it does for most people that read our books or our website, or who meet us in person. No one who listened to the "Up and In" podcast would have ever confused Kevin Goldstein and Jason Parks for humorless stat-heads. I'd be shocked if anyone that met me described me that way."
Nor is it fair to label the Baseball Prospectus authors as rigid ideologues. Former Cubs manager and current Reds skipper Dusty Baker ("walks can clog the bases") has never been a favorite of the sabermetrics set. However, the authors manage to pay Dusty his due.
"Baker sometimes needs saving from his own curious strategic moves, but he must be doing something right, the authors write. "His players swear by him, and he has a .525 winning percentage and five first-place finishes in his 19 years as a manager."
Knowing how much Dusty loves books, he might even pick up this one.