SportsProf

(Hopefully) good sports essays and observations for good sports by a guy who tries (and can sometimes fail) to be a good sport.

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Thursday, May 27, 2004

"Moneyball" and the Joys of Tabletop Baseball Games

SportsProf loved the book "Moneyball" and, like most baseball fans, had read for years about the statistical analyses that some general managers have used to evaluate players. Those analyses are at the other end of the continuum from the metrics that traditional scouts have used. I believe it was in "Dollar Sign on the Muscle" where I read that many scouts use as their final criteria whether a prospect "has got the good face." I suppose that means whether they could imagine him as a major league ballplayer. Not very scientific, but to a degree even the numbers crunchers would have to admit that scouting is part science, part art. After all, a guy who didn't crunch numbers was the Phillies' legendary scout, the late Tony Lucadello, who signed 50 players who went on to Major League careers, including Mike Schmidt. In short, there are various ways to pick out prospects.

That said, SportsProf is amazed that teams didn't use statistical analyses before the 21st century. Reader J.W. spoke of his ABPA league, and SportsProf played Strat-o-Matic as a kid. Strat-o-Matic is a great game, and it tries, in basic and advanced formats (where pitchers and hitters are broken down as to how they would fare against righties and lefties), to replicate what happened during the regular season. (I believe there is a superadvanced version too that might take into account the effect of the ballpark in which a game is played, but I haven't played the game in years).

Here's the point: when we played, we drafted players, and my first year in the league I came in dead last because I drafted purely on the usual numbers that fans read (ERA, batting average). Wayne Garland won a bunch of games in say 1975 or so, so I drafted him, only to learn that his on-base percentages yielded were far worse than pitchers with worse records. When I chose Garland, I thought I had a steal, but I recall how the league veterans were bemused by the pick. They were savvy, and they took the time to figure out which players had good on-base percentages and which pitchers yielded the fewest runners. Sure, it was easy to take Mike Schmidt and Joe Morgan with the first two picks, as their overall numbers were outstanding (Schmidt's OBP was always great), but players like Darrell Evans, the slugging third baseman (and first baseman) for the Atlanta Braves, rose to higher rounds because they got on base a lot. Evans might have hit .240, but he walked a lot, and his power numbers were terrific. The Strat-o-Matic kids loved him -- he was a hidden gem.

Naturally, we thought that everyone in the majors relied on these stats and formed their teams accordingly. Today, Darrell Evans would make huge bucks, but then they probably held his batting average against him and didn't fully reward his on-base percentage. Who knows, had we written up something on what we knew to be true, we could have front-run Billy Beane and his proteges by two decades. Which means that we might have had totally different day jobs.

And I think I read somewhere that Billy Beane played Strat-o-Matic as a kid, and, around the same time as the six of us who played in our league, might have figured out the same thing.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sports Illustrated baseball was another great table top game played with dice -- one black and two white, if memory serves. It was around in the early 1970s, and had annual statistics for MLB by team by player, and also came in an All Star format by team -- you could be the Philles and have Richie (a.k.a. Dick) Allen and Del Ennis on your team.

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