The sign says otherwise. It still feels more like the corner of Vada and Votto to me. Or the intersection of Yesterday and Tomorrow, if you will. Putting aside a fairly meaningless Spring Training record, the signposts are almost all pointing in the right direction for the Reds, as we wait for the gun to go off April 1st, signifying the start of the marathon—another Big 162, as Scott Rolen calls it.
I have a confession to make. As the seasons have crept up and overtaken me, my receding hairline has revealed more of the seamhead I have begun to turn into. I’ve come to it a bit later in life than some, but nevertheless, the Sabermetric movement has penetrated my thick head and taken root. If you are a disciple of advanced metrics, you know Mr. Red and his bosses aren’t exactly on the vanguard of the analytic movement. In fact, I’m more than a little surprised the powers that be haven’t banned the seams in Mr. Red’s noggin the way they once banned facial hair on the Big Red Machine.
Yeah, the Reds aren’t the Tampa Bay Rays and it’s wishful thinking to expect their front office to turn into them overnight. I’d personally settle for an undergraduate degree in Forward Thinking. And at times, it certainly seems the Reds are heading in the direction of their more enlightened brethren, however tentatively. Upon close examination, it really is one step forward followed by another step back. For instance, this spring we’ve discovered that the Reds have a highly-valued analytics guy on staff named Sam Grossman—but, then we also heard our slugger [Bruce] obsess with yesterday’s measure of hitting—in the shape of his ongoing quest to hit .300. We’re told the erudite Joey Votto is currently reading a book lamenting our reliance on too much human judgment, in favor of a careful evaluation of situations over periods of time that yield better decision-making—but then we read Dusty Baker is itching to practice his OBP-adverse voodoo on Billy Hamilton. One day, the front office announces they are no longer buying into the Myth of the Closer and plan to move He Who Must Not Be Named out of that overrated role—only to see them appear to waffle as manager Baker, his ox gored by the decision, takes his case to the media in a divisive fight that looks to go nine full innings, if not to the Supreme Court.
It’s discouraging to me. Yet, I remind myself I can feel the ocean liner turning, however slowly.
And yet, too often it feels as if the Reds are falling back into old ways, modes of thinking about the game that are being seen by the advance guard of Baseball as faulty and obsolete. In truth, the move to a greater reliance on advanced metrics is one that takes years to achieve. You cannot merely head down to Best Buy, set yourself up with the latest Dell, then start cranking out cutting edge player evaluations. You have to know what data is valuable and what to toss. You have to know how to use it. You have to wait. You often have to accumulate years of data before drawing meaningful conclusions. Metrics can help adjust the things your lyin eyes will tell you, but it won’t ever replace traditional forms of scouting. It’s a tool. Some organizations treat that tool as a hammer, good for one task and one task only. Other organizations see it as a swiss army knife, getting much more out of their analytic investment.
The war over Sabermetrics exists primarily on blogs these days. No matter how you feel on the subject, the inescapable truth is that almost all teams are using analytics to one degree or another. And for the ones who’ve stepped to the forefront of the wave, the payoffs have been measurable. The real question these days is not whether to use it, but how.
GMs lead the way in embracing advanced metrics, but they don’t always have managers who feel the same way. Whatever Walt Jocketty’s feelings are about analytics, modest as they may be, it’s hard not to believe he’s still a chapter or two ahead of his manager, who sometimes seems as if he’s still managing the Cubs—Tinker, Evers and Chance, that is.
To complicate things, it’s not just managers, but players too, who seem resistant to this new era. David Ortiz has an opinion:
“You know, I think the computer is [expletive] up this game a lot,” Ortiz says.
Big Papi seems to have forgotten that it was a Boston computer that told management his career might not be over when his previous team, the Twins thought otherwise.
Many sportswriters—whose job it is to know better—cannot find their inner Tom Tango when called upon to offer an opinion. Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan recently wrote a scathing and schizophrenic attack on analytics, labeling WAR complete nonsense. It was a sad little piece that revealed a timeless meme: man’s fear of new information and non-traditional ideas.
“This “replacement player” who constitutes the very linchpin of the entire premise is mythical. There is nothing measurable or precise about his existence. Yet supposedly intelligent people have signed off on this utterly bogus piece of baseball idiocy.”
It’s no wonder fans are slow to buy in. It’s been said that when that audacious and revolutionary stat, the RBI, began showing up for the first time in a local newspaper, readership was so angry the sports editor was forced to remove all mention of it. Still, 100 years later, we are still listening to the likes of Ken Rosenthal comparing the Sabermetric community to the Tea Party.
The Reds are doing so much right. Their owner is spending as the spigot opens and new revenue streams pour forth. They hired a widely respected GM with a proven track record. They’ve rebuilt their scouting from the bombed-out shell it was once reduced to by Marge Schott. Their worldwide reach now allows Jim Stoeckel, the Reds’ director of global scouting, to find players like Donald Lutz in of all places, Germany. Chris Buckley continues to do his thing—to great results.
And yet I fear that’s not enough. In order to vouchsafe the Reds’ future, the front office is going to have to do more than lag behind the teams who continue to exploit new data and new methods of seeing the game. At the very least, they are going to have to part ways with inefficient baseball methods. They can begin by making sure that the next generation of Reds hitters—Meseraco, Hamilton, Rodriguez, Winker—are taught to value plate discipline, not an old, stale, 1960s slugging philosophy born in the outfields of Atlanta or Chavez Ravine. That would be a start.
Aroldis Chapman is our canary in the coal mine. The upcoming decision on his future will be a clue to us—and all of Baseball—whether the Reds are forward thinking enough to begin closing the gap with those teams who’ve blazed the Sabermetric trail, or if we are content to be followers and let others lead the way.