Since the Dodgers have seemingly managed to go nearly 24 full hours without signing anyone (though not without filing yet another lawsuit!), let’s do something different. Let’s talk about sabermetrics, which I understand is a dirty word for some. Or “advanced statistics”, or “Moneyball”, or “new school philosophy”, or whatever you want to call it. Though some teams rely on this kind of evaluation more than others, it’s a myth that there are teams who are completely “Moneyball” and teams who aren’t. Every single team uses some combination of scouting and statistics to make decisions; despite what you might have heard, Oakland’s baseball operations department is not entirely Billy Beane and a bunch of computers. The A’s still use scouts, and teams seen as “behind the curve” still use statistics. This is a good thing, because any organization who doesn’t take advantage of all of the information available is cheating themselves.
Still, facts rarely get in the way of a good story, and with the recent hiring of Alex Tamin as the Dodgers’ new “Director of Baseball Contracts, Research, and Operations,” there’s suddenly this belief among some that the club has “gone sabermetric”; hell, SI‘s Tom Verducci outright said as much:
The Dodgers and general manager Ned Colletti, with his three decades in baseball, have gone sabermetric. In September the Dodgers hired Alex Tamin, a graduate of Johns Hopkins and UCLA School of Law, as Director of Baseball Contracts, Research and Operations. That was a confirmation that Los Angeles is joining the “new school” franchises with a strong belief — not just an obligatory nod — that quantitative analysis plays an important role in building a winning team.
Tamin’s addition is welcome, particularly since his legal background and baseball experience make him an ideal replacement for Kim Ng when it comes to negotiations and arbitration hearings. He’s represented the Dodgers and other clubs as an outside counsel in arbitration hearings before, and he most recently maintained a legal practice specializing in commercial litigation. If he brings a touch of outside thinking that might differ from a baseball lifer like Colletti, all the better, though that hardly seems to qualify as “going sabermetric”, particularly when half the point of Colletti being hired in the first place is that he was about as far removed from Paul DePodesta as you can possibly be. So kudos to the Dodgers for what seems to be a worthy hire.
This, however, is not sabermetrics (also from Verducci’s article):
So Colletti will have to apply his increased sabermetric vision to improving this team around the edges. For example, Colletti re-signed righthanded hitter Juan Rivera ($4.5 million) because his quantitative analysis showed the Dodgers’ lefthanded hitters posted a .566 OPS against lefthanded pitching. Only the Padres, Pirates and Nationals were worse in the NL. Rivera, who can play first base or the outfield, gives manager Don Mattingly an option against lefthanded pitching in place of either Loney (.561 OPS vs. lefties) or Ethier (.563), who ranked 215 and 217 out of the 226 players who were given at least 100 plate appearances against lefties.
I’m pretty sure you don’t need an advanced degree in astrophysics from an Ivy League school to spend 30 seconds on baseball-reference to see platoon splits for James Loney and Andre Ethier – issues, by the way, I’ve been calling out here for years. A true “quantitative analysis” might have shown that the narrative around “Juan Rivera, Savior of 2011″ was massively overblown, particularly when he was DFA’d by one of the most well-respected front offices in baseball (Toronto), and that as he heads into his age-34 season, he was awful for five of the six months on the baseball calendar last season, redeemed only slightly by a decent-ish August that just so happened to be some of his first weeks as a Dodger.
Colletti said the team chose Mark Ellis for defense first, with analysis by new front-office number cruncher Alex Tamin. Ellis leads all active MLB second basemen in “zone rating,” a calculation based on ground-ball chances in a defined zone by position.
Similarly, the idea that Ellis is a quality defensive second baseman hardly required a team of NASA scientists – it’s the main reason Ellis has had a career, and it’s backed up by both the eye test and defensive metrics, nearly all of which rate him as above-average. If you needed to hire a dedicated statistician to tell you that Mark Ellis is a good fielder, you might be doing it wrong. Sabermetrics isn’t about confirming the obvious, or at least it shouldn’t be; it should be about looking deeper than the usual surface stats to find undervalued assets who are likely to improve, hopefully allowing you to acquire them for a discount, and buying older, declining players like Rivera and Ellis – even if they fill a hole, which each arguably does – at a premium doesn’t really qualify.
I know it sounds like I’m ragging on the Dodgers here, and I’m really not. The point here is not that Tamin isn’t a valuable addition (even though he’s apparently gone from “arbitration lawyer” to “Bill James disciple” in six weeks) or that the Dodgers shouldn’t start using more advanced statistical methods (it is still 2003, right?), or even that I have enough knowledge of the inner workings of the front office to know exactly what Tamin is spending his time on. Hey, maybe he really is helping to build some new advanced player evaluation system, like so many other teams already have – I have no idea. It’d just be nice if the media would cool it on this “Dodgers have gone sabermetric” business by pointing out examples that really don’t support that theory at all. If anything, the moves the Dodgers have made so far this offseason are the exact opposite of what a supposed “sabermetric” team would do.