By Nick Zazulia
Lonnie Wheeler thinks sabermetrics is just great. The sportswriter and author of nine baseball books is constantly amazed by what advanced statistics can reveal about a player or team. He wants to make that clear, right up front.
That said, they might just be missing something. Doesn’t it seem likely there is at least a little bit of pretty important stuff that all of our WHIPs and WARs and VORPs cannot or do not take into account?
That’s Wheeler’s belief, anyway.
That’s why he wrote “Intangiball: The Subtle Things That Win Baseball Games,” an ode to the mystical 10 percent Wheeler estimates the fancy stats still can’t pin down. The book was released Aug. 11, but seems to have made an impression. At least one major league team, which Wheeler wouldn’t identify, has tried to bring him in to talk to its staff.
In a recent telephone call with Medill News Service, Wheeler explained why he thinks sabermetrics can be overrated, talked about what he’s seen around the game … and did he mention that he really does like sabermetrics?
Question: Obviously, by the nature of what you’re discussing, it’s going to be difficult to provide any concrete proof, but what can you point to, to support the claims you’re making to people who might scoff at the idea of intangibles making a significant difference?
Answer: The area that’s left untreated or lands outside the zone of sabermetric expectation — the trend has been to attribute that to luck. I don’t argue about the existence of luck in baseball, but it’s kind of a cop-out if something doesn’t match up with the sabermetrics (to just say), “Luck was involved.”
A guy like Jonny Gomes, everywhere he goes, they win. It’s easy, anecdotally, to say, “He’s a winner, he knows how to do it, everywhere he goes they win.” Well, of course the other 24 players and the organization makeup will play a role, but I think there’s a study available that can bring some understanding to it and bring some appreciation to (what he does that helps teams win).
(There must be a reason when a team such as San Francisco) succeeds and the players talk about (how) everybody on that team had such a profound effect on each other, and when there was no other plausible explanation for what the Giants accomplished having not been great in the regular season and not having a great lineup.
The Cardinals are another example … When teams like that succeed, whether its mojo or chemistry or some sort of indescribable feeling, players will allude to that. Team after team, manager after manager — the guys who are close to it are seeing it year after year after year. Instead of dismissing it because it’s not scientific, let’s see if we can see what it is. I think you can identify it and explain it a little bit.
(Sabermetrics pioneer) Bill James said something to the effect of, “To think that the dynamics that apply to every other field in life don’t apply to baseball is just absurd,” and that’s what it amounts to.
Q: OK, so, what’s missing from the numbers? What can’t they tell us?
A: The areas that I think remain pretty much untouchable, and I won’t say entirely, are areas in which players influence other players. Sabermetrics guys would say that if anything is meaningful, it will show up in the numbers somewhere, and I don’t disagree with that. Obviously, one number it will always show up in is wins.
But I also think that everything positive, every contribution a player makes no matter in what respect, even if it’s abstract, will show up in the numbers of (some) player, but not necessarily the player who is responsible for it.
When a veteran pitcher (such as Justin Lehr) helps a Homer Bailey learn a split-finger changeup, (that is) Lehr’s contribution. “(Analytics types say) if it’s valuable, it will show up,” and, to some extent, it did. But it showed up in Homer Bailey’s bottom line, not in Lehr’s.
A hitter may suddenly improve his eye and perform more alertly and run the bases better, and he should get credit for that, but maybe there’s somebody on the bench like Scott Rolen who contributed to his aggressiveness and state of mind and the way he runs the bases.
Q: Do you see the trend toward advanced stats having a potentially negative impact on Hall of Fame voting in baseball?
A: A Hall of Fame voter is, of course, going to look at the numbers first. I don’t find fault with that. But maybe the Hall of Fame consideration is missing a little bit … An example of that would be Mike Piazza. (Besides rumors of PED use,) Piazza is criticized for being poor defensively because he didn’t throw out many base runners. As far as that goes, it’s true. But later studies that evaluate a catcher’s influence and how he works with pitchers show that Piazza is more successful in the way he handled pitchers than any catcher of his time. So if you combine that in, he grades out as an excellent defensive catcher in addition to his hitting. (Editor’s note: Wheeler co-authored Piazza’s autobiography.)
Q: What is your take on the way analytics versus intangibles are valued by different managers and clubs around the league?
A: It differs from club to club.
A guy like Joe Maddon is a master of both. He understands the game just so well on so many levels. The advanced metrics do not pass him by, and he will pay attention. Tampa was very clued in to analytics, and he was perfect there. But he also so understands the makeup of a ballclub and the personalities therein, and he’s demonstrated that with the Cubs.
One that surprised me when I was doing the book was Tony La Russa. Back in the day, he was known as the most statistical manager around. (When we talked to him, we opened by acknowledging that the metrics would take you) a long way, maybe 90-95 percent of the way, and he said, “Stop right there. No, I wouldn’t even say they take you a long way, they take you a little bit of the way.” And La Russa was very oriented, to my surprise, to players and personalities and team culture.
Overall, the Reds are an organization that leans toward makeup. The Braves gravitate toward makeup. The Red Sox, having hired Bill James, became a more sabermetrically aligned team, but not exclusively. When they finally broke through and won the World Series, I think they were very much a team of personalities and culture.
Q: Going forward from here, do you see the trend continuing in baseball in terms of moving heavily toward the quantifiable, or do you think the market balances out after what has been an overcorrection?
A: I think the intelligentsia of baseball who does an examination of it will continue to expand on both ends (analytical and intangible). One American League team called and was interested in having me address their staff because it’s an area of study that they’re interested in and think can have an effect. I think there are several teams like that who may even look at intangibles as a market inefficiency because those contributions aren’t valued in salary as much as statistical ones are.
I think more than anything what’s influenced me is about how strongly baseball people (such as Maddon and former MLB first basemen Carlos Peña) thought that intangibles are a huge part of the game. That, and how much (some) sabermetricians were trying to get a handle on how things work that are considered outside their domain.
The best sabermetricians will try to examine everything, included the intangible.