Sabermetrics is about more than just statistics. At least I think it is. To me, it’s a philosophy. Sabermetrics is a way of thinking about baseball that challenges the way things “have always been done.” A central tenet of that philosophy, and one that has caught the attention of Mets fans due to our new GM’s espousal of said philosophy, is that the manager is “middle management.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, this has proved controversial. But it really isn’t.
To illustrate, imagine you own a struggling computer company, let’s call it Mets Inc. After years of suffering, you somehow convince Steve Jobs to leave Apple and join your company. It’s well known that Jobs knows how to build products that consumers want.
Jobs’ first task at the company is to hire a new head of product engineering. This person will be responsible for overseeing your company’s 25 engineers on a daily basis. The engineers themselves are ultimately the people who design the products people buy, and largely determine the success of the company.
Even though Jobs will not be the head of engineering, it’s his vision that you as an owner of Mets Inc. were seeking when you hired Jobs. And Jobs is also the person who will hire the actual engineers. However, he can’t supervise them daily–that’s the head of engineering’s responsibility.
In such a scenario, no one would argue that Jobs should hire someone who is opposed to his philosophy of engineering, right? Of course they wouldn’t. The head of engineering is important, but he or she has to fit, and more importantly implement, the overall philosophy laid out by Jobs.
It’s no different in baseball. Sandy Alderson believes that many of the things in the so-called baseball “book” are simply not borne out by probability. For example, it makes little sense if you get a runner on first with nobody out to bunt that runner over to second (unless the pitcher’s at bat). The probability of scoring with a runner on first and no one out is about 41% in a given inning. A runner on second with one out? The probability drops to only 38%. (h/t Teaching Statistics Using Baseball by Jim Albert). Sound insignificant? Look at the below chart, which shows the number of runs you’re likely to score in an inning based on particular situations:
|No one on||Runner on 1st||Runner on 2nd||Runner on 3rd||Runners on 1st and 2nd||Runners on 1st and 3rd||Runners on 2nd and 3rd||Bases loaded|
The bunt in the situation described decreases the probable number of runs scored in an inning. But it’s worse than that. The best case scenario if you bunt–success–leaves you likely scoring 0.65 runs. If you fail, you’re at 0.5 runs (or you may bunt into a double play, dropping it all the way down 0.26 runs). If you swing away, the worst-case scenario is the same. But, the best case scenario is much, much greater. Even if there’s just a single and the runner doesn’t make it to third, you’re looking at an average of 1.38 runs in the inning (or more than double with a successful bunt). If you can get a double and put runners on 2nd and 3rd, your probability goes up to nearly two runs scored. Note that we can also see that bunting with runners on 1st and 2nd and no one out also isn’t a great play (if you want or need to score more than a run).
All of this is to say that there are things we know about baseball. Sandy Alderson has been successful in part because he’s put these concepts to use. It is hardly unreasonable to want a manager who will run the team accordingly. Does that mean the manager needs to be a dull robot? It does not. In fact, I would argue that recognizing that the appropriate role of the manager with respect to strategic direction places a premium on other important characteristics–such as the ability to relate to players, dealing with the media, and yes, having an identifiable personality. What we don’t want is a manager who when given the design for the ipod, goes ahead and builds a Zune.