For Goldstein and Parks, the podcast was always a labor of love and we were fortunate to be able to share it with them. Parks will still be writing on baseball and, who knows, may start another podcast in the future. For now, however, followers of Up and In should take a moment to raise a glass, actually two glasses, one of a blueberry wheat beer and one of the beeriest beer we can find, to thank Jason and Kevin and wish them both well in both their future endeavors.
James’ transition from iconoclastic and groundbreaking baseball analyst to whatever he is now has not been smooth. The set of skills he had that made him so good in that role and so influential to so many people have not served James as well now that the movement he has started has now become part of the mainstream of baseball analysis. Questioning everything, and not believing any conventional wisdom was a great way to reinvent statistical understanding of baseball 30 years ago, but that approach has failed James badly now.
The movie version of Moneyball, probably due to the necessity of building some kind of dramatic story, pays more attention to Beane and the tension between him and his scouts, rather than to the concepts which underlay Beane’s approach. The problem with this approach is that the movie suggests that Beane’s strategy won out over that of the scouts, thus allowing the A’s to succeed in 2003.
Making it more difficult to rely on often empty platitudes about clutch performance, chemistry or character as a way to explain outcomes in baseball has been one of the major impacts of the quantitative movement of recent years, but to some extent that has been the easy part. The harder work begins with revisiting some of these ideas, which are so influential in so many other areas of life, and seeking to gain a clearer, measurable and data based understanding of their import.
Wilker has written an extraordinarily honest book about growing up and forging adult lives and adult relationships which, while not really about baseball, still made me feel like I was back at an almost empty Candlestick Park watching the Giants lose, playing ball in the Presidio, reading yet another baseball magazine or book and, yes, buying a pack of baseball cards and giving the gum to my brother.
James is, to some extent, a victim of his own success. He changed the way we write about and understand baseball which led to many imitators who have become competitors. Similarly, James was too smart and too influential to be overlooked by the generation of general managers who have been influence by him. In this respect, Theo Epstein deserves credit for acting more quickly than his competitors in securing James’ services. James’ journey from fringe figure to wise old man of the game has been impressive and rewarding for both him and his longtime fans. However, his recent writings have been a disappointment. It would be great to see James regain the edge he had a quarter century ago, but perhaps that is not a realistic expectation and we should just be grateful for the contributions he has made.
The defensive spectrum, however, particularly the notion that middle infielders and catchers are not expected to hit as much as other players, has not been entirely constant over time. The basic framework has applied for over a century, but the extent to which it has been accurate has varied. At first glance it would seem like currently there are more middle infielders who contribute offensively, and fewer who are in the lineups exclusively for their gloves, than a generation ago, but this alone does not represent strong evidence.
George Brett, Willie McCovey and Eddie Murray were three of the game’s all-time greats. Bill James ranked Brett as the 30th greatest player ever, followed by Murray as the 61st and McCovey in the 68th spot. James awards Murray 437 career win shares, followed by Brett at 432 and McCovey at 408. James’ ranking makes sense and recognizes Brett’s additional value as a third baseman, rather than a first baseman like the other two. If, however, we just focus on offensive production, the debate raises some interesting questions not only about peak versus career figures, but about how valuable different kinds of peaks are.
If Derek Jeter had split his career between say the Chicago White Sox and Houston Astros, and only appeared in the post-season a few times while racking up his offensive statistics every season, he would almost certainly be a darling of the SABRmetric crowd and a target of derision from the Joe Morgans of the baseball world because of his inadequate defense and un-shortstop like stature. Of course, that is not what Jeter’s career has looked like. Instead, he has been the iconic player on one of baseball’s most famous teams, playing in an intense media climate. This has framed perceptions of Jeter a great deal, but when one gets past the nonsense written about Jeter in the local New York media, it is worth taking a second look at what kind of player he has been, and continues to be.
It is tempting to attribute this dramatic increase in offense all to steroid use, or worse yet to demonize a few players such as Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez or Mark McGuire and hold them responsible. However, the spike in power numbers is part of a bigger story, or evolution, of baseball, one that is reflects somewhat more positively on the state of the game. The increase in home runs was not monocausal. To suggest that it was is to ignore a number of other obvious causes. The most prominent of these is that during the 1990s a number of teams built new stadiums, many of which were far better hitter’s parks. So, the Astros moving from the Astrodome to Enron/Tropicana field or the Giants moving from Candlestick to PacBell/AT&T/SBC Park, also contributed to increased homerun, and other hitting numbers by the Giants, Astros and their visitors. Other causes of increased offensive production which cannot be ignored include the increased use of protective equipment by hitters and the stricter rules against brushing hitters back.