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Jim Allen

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THE HOT CORNER: Translating baseball's languages

by Jim Allen (May 27, 2010)

Baseball is a bilingual game. Regardless of whether a player's native language is English, Spanish, Japanese, Korean or Chinese, baseball is described in one of two ways. Either we speak of skills and the events that result when players' skills interact on the ballfield, or we speak of statistics, of how often the events occur.

An outfielder charges a ground single, scoops it up, gets off a quick throw to the plate. It is slightly off target, but the catcher fields it on a hop and in one motion tags the runner trying to score from second. The umpire makes the out call.

The poetry in the motion could be defined in infinite detail if one were to take into account the runner's jump, the outfielder's positioning, the speed of the ball coming off the bat, et cetera, et cetera.

Or we could say, the batter singled, the outfielder recorded an assist and the catcher a putout. Dry stuff in comparison.

For the most part, baseball clubs are run by ex-players, men intimately familiar with the challenge of developing physical and mental skills needed to compete. Baseball men understand the measures of the game to varying degrees, but it's no surprise that they rely heavily on the language of skills, what a player can do and how well he can do it. After all, a manager has to evaluate talent, look at players and decide whose skill set is the most valuable and who has more growth potential.

The problem lies in that language's subjectivity.

The statistical language, too, has its limitations. A batter hits .300 but it doesn't tell you the quality of the pitches he saw, the defense he faced or his at-bats. How many hits were due to luck, how many to good swings or his ability to adjust. The batting average doesn't tell you.

A batting average simply says a player has the ability to get hits at a certain rate under some set of conditions. But however limited this information is, it represents a tiny amount of objective evidence. Because baseball counts this, that and the other, the game generates a flood of numbers. The amount of objective evidence available for study is staggering.

Over the last three decades, the ability to examine and learn from baseball's objective record has grown in leaps and bounds thanks to a man who had no connection with the baseball world but a passion for the game.

Thirty years ago, Bill James was a baseball outsider. Although it started as a self-published labor of love, his "Baseball Abstract" evolved into a best-seller. James applied the scientific method to baseball's numbers and came up with an endless string of discoveries.

It took time, but some in organized baseball began to catch on to the truth he was preaching. As general manager of the Oakland Athletics for 14 years, Sandy Alderson began applying the study of baseball's numbers to the task of running a small market club with a shrinking budget.

Alderson's successor in Oakland, Billy Beane, continued the club's success and was the subject of Michael Lewis' book "Money Ball."

James, whom Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson once referred to as "a short fat guy who knows nothing about nothing," is now a consultant to the Boston Red Sox, and major league clubs are catching on.

They understand that on-base percentage is a far better indicator of a player's offensive contribution than batting average, and that high school players are high-risk investments on draft day.

In Japan, most teams have trouble understanding what the numbers say.

Last autumn, the Tigers released third baseman Aarom Baldiris despite minor league numbers that suggested he could hit close to .300 with a little power in the Central League.

Balderis, now the starting third baseman for the Orix Buffaloes, is hitting .373 with four homers in 75 at-bats and may be the latest in a long line of Tigers farm hands who went on to star for other clubs. Perhaps Hanshin understood his quality and just figured they simply had no place to play him.

Ideally, teams would rely on both observation and objective evidence. Those that don't understand what the numbers say or who choose to ignore that message do so at their own risk.


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