February 17, 2004

"Baseball people generally are allergic to new ideas"

As this blog has grown in popularity, I have gradually written fewer and fewer entries devoted to criticizing the work of others. The reason, I think, is that while it remains interesting to tear apart the writing of members of the mainstream sports media, it loses a little something when your audience is substantial enough to have your own work torn apart at times.

Plus really, if you're a writer (and I pretend to be one, at least), you want people to be reading your thoughts on a subject, not your thoughts on how dumb someone else's thoughts on a subject are.

With all that said, once in a great while there comes an article that is simply begging to be torn apart. It's almost like a sign from the Journalistic Gods. I call these the "Wow that's a piece of crap" articles.

I stumbled across one of these beauties yesterday afternoon. It appeared in the Los Angeles Times and was written by columnist Bill Plaschke.

With Luck, the Dodgers Won't Crash (by Bill Plaschke)

The article was of particular interest to me, because it dealt with the Dodgers hiring Oakland assistant GM Paul DePodesta as their new GM, a subject I discussed on Friday.

Let's just start right from the top...

The Dodgers have a new face, and it is dabbed in Clearasil.

The Dodgers have a new voice, and it speaks in megabytes.

Before we go any further, let me just say that I have seen Bill Plaschke and I have heard Bill Plaschke speak. If there is anyone in this world who is unqualified to mock other people for their appearance or for their way of speaking, it is Bill Plaschke.

I wouldn't normally say something like that and I won't go into more details, but I think it is acceptable here, in response to what Plaschke wrote (even with it obviously being a joke).

Meet General Manager.Com, otherwise known as Paul DePodesta, a 31-year-old computer nerd who was hired Monday to rid the Dodgers of their, um, virus.

Well, let's see...we are three sentences into the column and Plaschke has already talked about DePodesta needing Clearasil and speaking in megabytes, and now he is just flat-out saying the new Dodgers GM is a "computer nerd."

By the way, in case you're curious, here's a picture of this 31-year-old, Clearasil wearing, megabyte speaking computer nerd.

DePodesta played both football and baseball at Harvard University, where he graduated with honors. I certainly could be wrong, but I suspect that means DePodesta played two more collegiate sports than Plaschke did.

Of course, DePodesta is incredibly smart and utilizes a computer in his work, which apparently makes him a "computer nerd" to someone like Plaschke.

"I'll admit, there's some boldness to this," said owner Frank McCourt. "But that's exactly what we need to do to change things around here."

Change it they have, from Branch Rickey to Little Rickey, from Buzzie Bavasi to Bill Gates, from wise old men who trusted effort to a kid who relies on ... equations?

The idea here is obviously that, by hiring DePodesta, the Dodgers are going from a history of "wise old men" like Branch Rickey to an equation-trusting computer nerd.

I'd like to tell you all something that Bill Plaschke obviously never knew and didn't bother to research, which is that Branch Rickey was one of the very first baseball men to incorporate baseball statistics into his job on a regular basis. I've even seen him called a "pioneer of baseball statistics" more than a few times.

In fact, Branch Rickey wrote an article for LIFE Magazine in 1954 entitled "Goodbye To Some Old Baseball Ideas."

The subtitle of the article could very well have been describing something written by Paul DePodesta himself: "The 'Brain' of the game unveils formula that statistically disproves cherished myths and demonstrates what really wins."

Here's how Rickey began his LIFE Magazine article:

Baseball people generally are allergic to new ideas. We are slow to change. For 51 years I have judged baseball by personal observation, by considered opinion and by accepted statistical methods. But recently I have come upon a device for measuring baseball which has compelled me to put different values on some of my oldest and most cherished theories.

Oh yeah Plaschke, this Branch Rickey guy would have hated to see the Dodgers hire someone like Paul DePodesta.

Here are a few other interesting tidbits from Branch Rickey's article:

Batting average is only a partial means of determining a man's effectiveness on offense. It neglects a major factor, the base on balls, which is reflected only negatively in the batting average (by not counting it as a time at bat). Actually walks are extremely important.


As a statistic, RBIs were not only misleading but dishonest. They depended on managerial control, a hitter's position in the batting order, park dimensions and the success of his teammates in getting on base ahead of him. That left two measurable factors - on base average and power - by which to gauge the over-all offensive worth of an individual.


Fielding averages? Utterly worthless as a yardstick. They are not only misleading, but deceiving. Take Zeke Bonura, the old White Sox first baseman, generally regarded as a poor fielder. The fielding averages showed that he led American League in fielding for three years. Why? Zeke had "good hands"! Anything he reached, he held. Result: an absence of errors. But he was also slow moving and did not cover much territory. Balls that a quicker man may have fielded went for base hits, but the fielding averages do not reflect this.

In those three snippets from an article written 50 years ago, Branch Rickey discusses why:

1) Batting average is overrated and walks and on-base percentage are important.

2) RBIs are a misleading statistic, dependent on several other factors beyond a player's control.

3) Errors are a useless stat and something that judges a player's range in the field is far more valuable.

Those are all things that are still being debated and studied today. They are staples of what is now called sabermetrics. Still, I would guess that the majority of baseball fans today would disagree with Rickey regarding all three things.

Try telling the average fan that he shouldn't judge a hitter by batting average and RBIs. Try telling someone that the best defensive team in the league isn't always the one that made the fewest errors. It is, at best, an uphill battle.

Yet Branch Rickey had those ideas (and many more) 50 years ago. He was Billy Beane and Paul DePodesta before there was a Billy Beane or Paul DePodesta. Branch Rickey was smart, he used statistics, he thought outside the box and he went against baseball's established ideas and rules. If he was around today, I'm sure Bill Plaschke would make some joke about his skin or his use of equations.

For Plaschke to compare Branch Rickey to Paul DePodesta in attempt to show how different they are, how nerdy DePodesta is compared to a great baseball man like Rickey, is absolutely ridiculous. The only thing it really shows is that Bill Plaschke is as clueless about baseball's history as he is about baseball's present.

As GM of the Dodgers, Rickey hired a statistician named Allan Roth to be his assistant.

As ESPN.com's Rob Neyer wrote last November:

It was likely Roth who convinced Rickey that on-base percentage was more important than batting average. It was likely Roth who invented "isolated power," hailed by Rickey as a better measure than slugging percentage of power (which, of course, it is). It was likely Roth who arrived at the inescapable conclusion that there's a clear relationship between a team's run differential and its record.

In that same LIFE Magazine article from 1954, Rickey says about Roth:

To help assemble data that would lead to facts I brought in Allan Roth, who prepares and refines statistics for the Brooklyn Dodgers and who, in my opinion, is the top statistical specialist in baseball.

Of course, none of this is of any importance to Bill Plaschke. He'd rather just make jokes about nerds and pimply faces and such. Still, the fact remains that Branch Rickey was very likely the first "baseball man" to involve himself in what is now referred to as sabermetrics, defined decades later by Bill James as "the search for objective knowledge about baseball."

If anything, Branch Rickey and Paul DePodesta are cut from the same cloth. DePodesta is essentially continuing something that was started by Rickey, with the benefit of about 50 years worth of technology and advancements in the field.

But okay, enough about Branch Rickey. Bill Plaschke still has plenty left to say...

I've eaten Dodger Dogs that were older than this kid.

He watched the last Dodger playoff victories from boarding school.

I think perhaps this says more about Bill Plaschke's eating habits and the Dodgers' lack of success lately than it does about Paul DePodesta's age. The Dodgers, by the way, haven't won a single playoff game in 15 years. That alone might suggest a need for change, or at least it does to me.

[Oakland's] method, which cost scouts jobs and lowered the A's payroll, resulted in a .606 winning percentage during that time, tied for the best in baseball.

But lacking Kirk Gibson-type leadership - Gibson's unconventional numbers probably wouldn't have fit the A's system - they went 0-7 in potential playoff-clinching games.

On one hand, Plaschke is giving DePodesta credit for the A's team that tied for the best record in baseball during the time he is discussing. Then he uses the A's lack of playoff success as a mark against DePodesta's method of doing things.

Meanwhile, the Dodgers haven't even been to the post-season since 1996. DePodesta's A's made the playoffs in each of the past four seasons, winning a total of eight playoff games. And they did that with about half the payroll the Dodgers had. The Dodgers, once again, haven't won a single playoff game in 15 years.

The thing about Kirk Gibson is simply stupid. Gibson is used by Plaschke as some sort of an example of the type of player DePodesta doesn't value. There are any number of things wrong with this assumption, chief among them the fact that Gibson was drafted out of Michigan State University by the Tigers in 1978.

DePodesta and the A's, as detailed in Moneyball, lean heavily toward drafting college players. This alone would have made Gibson, who dominated college baseball as a junior, someone DePodesta would have targeted, even before he played a single inning in the major leagues.

Plaschke says that "Gibson's unconventional numbers probably wouldn't have fit the A's system." I wonder exactly which unconventional numbers he is talking about?

Kirk Gibson had both power and plate discipline, two things the A's have always been after. Despite a career batting average of just .268 (only 2% better than the adjusted league-average), Gibson's career on-base percentage of .352 was 7% better than the league average.

Gibson often saw his seasons cut short due to injuries and played a total of just six seasons in which he accumulated at least 500 plate appearances. He still managed to rank among the top-10 in both slugging percentage and OPS (on-base % + slugging %) four times, while also making it into the top-10 for OPS+ in four seasons.

The year the Dodgers won their last World Series (and their last playoff game, period) was 1988. Kirk Gibson was the MVP of the National League that year, and hit .290/.377/.483 with 25 homers, 28 doubles and 73 walks.

Despite playing in Dodger Stadium, a major pitcher's ballpark, he ranked fourth in the NL in on-base percentage, fourth in OPS and ninth in slugging percentage. He also ranked third in OPS+, which adjusts for home ballparks, and second in Win Shares.

If there is something "unconventional" about those numbers that would make the A's not want him, I certainly don't see it.

Kirk Gibson was one hell of a baseball player. To reduce him to someone whose impact on the field stemmed from unconventional numbers and "leadership" is silly. The idea that Kirk Gibson is the type of player who Paul DePodesta would ignore is simply ridiculous, which, unfortunately, fits in very well with the general theme of ridiculousness that dominates Plaschke's column.

Despite writing an incredibly bad column in which he displays an embarrassing lack of knowledge about Branch Rickey, Bill Plaschke did inspire me to do something I have never done before, which is take advantage of my status as a University of Minnesota student to use an online publication search called "ProQuest."

Not having read much of Plaschke in the past, I wanted to at least get a feel for the type of stuff he usually writes. So, I searched for articles he had written about baseball within the last couple years. I found one entitled "Challenging Bonds Isn't Worth Risk" from September 18, 2002, and figured it was right up my alley.

It is essentially a column devoted to the greatness of Barry Bonds and Plaschke humorously writes "WALK HIM!" between just about every paragraph. Near the end of the column, I found a particularly interesting portion:

So even if it doesn't seem sporting to give a guy first base, if it helps your team, you swallow your pride and you do it.

Last season, one study showed that Bonds reached base 1.1 times per plate appearance. Meaning, if you played by the book, you would walk him every time.

"Last season, one study showed that Bonds reached base 1.1 times per plate appearance."

This is perhaps my favorite sentence ever written by a sports columnist. There are so many levels of fun wrapped up in that one little sentence.

For one thing, Bill Plaschke needed a "study" to tell him how many times per plate appearance Barry Bonds reached base in 2001. This is something that can be figured out in about 30 seconds at Baseball-Reference.com (or ESPN.com or wherever you want to get your baseball stats).

Beyond that is the fact that, if you walked Barry Bonds 1,000 times in 1,000 plate appearances, he would have reached base exactly 1.0 times per plate appearance. Thus, any "study" that shows he reached base 1.1 times per plate appearance is not only wrong, but physically impossible.

You might think that a long-time sports columnist who has written hundreds of articles on baseball during his career would realize that one can only reach base once per plate appearance, but apparently not. Perhaps that sort of math is something Plaschke should work on before the season starts, along with possibly doing some reading up on the life of Branch Rickey.

On second thought, better leave the equations to guys like Branch Rickey, Paul DePodesta and all nerds who speak in megabyte and wear Clearasil. I wouldn't want Mr. Plaschke to hurt himself.

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