As I was writing my little anti JP Riccardi piece yesterday, and got to thinking about the root cause of what makes him such a bad GM. Sure there’s the whole believing his opinion is the one true way, but that alone shouldn’t be enough to sink a team. His main problem seems to be acquiring a ton of low cost, mediocre talent that gets praised as “nice little signings” and drafting players in a similar mold. Neil Huntington of the Pirates so far has seemed to be the same way; he’s acquired a lot of talent that might become serviceable players, but no one that would actually lead to a winning team. With Riccardi and Huntington doing things that stereotypical stat guys do, and not producing anything resembling a winning team from it, I have to wonder, is sabermetrics dead?
Am I saying that we should go back to thinking Juan Pierre is a good player and that Bartolo Colon totally deserved that Cy Young award since he lead the league in wins? Of course not. I’m saying that an organization can no longer be primarily stats based and find any kind of success without having a gigantic payroll. I’m saying that there’s very little competitive advantage to be gained from stats based analysis.
The problem is that there’s too much information out there now. 10 years ago if you wanted to find something like expected BABIP you would have to hire and independent stat provider and do all the calculations around it yourself. Now, any jerk with a blog can go to The Hardball Times, plug four numbers into a spreadsheet and get an answer in seconds for free. Want to know the league leader in line drives allowed last year? Give Baseball Prospectus 30 bucks and find out the answer. This has lead to some great things. People out there can take this information, produce new and interesting studies, and give it away all for free. But when you can get all of this for the cost of a Baseball Prospectus subscription and a couple of books, why bother hiring someone to do the same thing?
If you consider someone like me a replacement level stats guy, how many more wins can you get by paying someone several hundred thousand dollars a year to do the same thing? You might have access to better defensive models, or better projection systems, but how much better? How many wins can you get out of being able to rate defense five percent better than anyone else? I don’t know the exact answer, but it’s certainly is a lot less than the advantage you could get back when the other teams didn’t understand that on base percentage leads to run scoring. Investing in statistical research these days just seems like a case of diminishing returns. Sure by hiring the best and the brightest stat guys, you can get something of an edge, but it’s a lot of effort for what won’t result in a huge advantage.
For stat guys to mean more than 100 dollars worth of reading material and an internet cable, they need to change their ways and do more than the average blogger can do. I think the breakthrough will come from finding out someway to quantify scouting data, and how to incorporate that into projection systems. How much does a prospects bat speed really matter? What flaws in pitching mechanics are fixable and what are career enders? Does someone’s time in the 40 in High School mean anything at all? These are questions that you can’t just answer with an internet connection, you need data that only a collection of big league scouts can acquire. The guys that are willing to embrace this kind of analysis are the ones that can thrive, and the ones that think knowing SNLVAR stands for will gives them an advantage over anyone will fall by the wayside.
Until a team can really implement a system like that, scouting really is the new money ball. As free agents classes get weaker and weaker, the only real way to acquire impact talent is through the draft, and the teams whose scouts are simply better are the ones that will thrive. Evaluating amateurs is almost all scouting and knowing that your early round draft picks are much less likely to become a bust is a great way to get ahead.
Sabermetrics became too effective for their own good. Now that everyone is doing it, any big advantages you could have gained from it are gone. If the message a team took away from Moneyball is that “stat based analysis is the one true way” then your team end up becoming just as irrelevant as Billy Beane thought his scouting department was. But that wasn’t the point of Moneyball. The real lesson to be learned was “think different”. The teams that continue to look for new ways to evaluate players are the ones that will continue to thrive in the end.