Bill Dwyre was sports editor of the L.A. Times for a quarter century, between 1981 and 2006. If you enjoyed the trajectory of the Sports section during his tenure, you can thank Dwyre. If you did not, then he owes at least part of the blame.
Today I am blaming Bill Dwyre for writing one of the most inexcusably inaccurate, willfully ignorant, petulantly anti-journalistic columns I have ever read about the game of baseball. Though trivial in the scheme of things, the piece is so excrutiating it's worth talking about in some detail. I want to live in a world where no journalist, let alone "Journalist Bill" from my hometown paper (and former employer), thinks it's OK to approach and execute such an exercise in self-satisfied know-nothingism.
The witlessness is advertised in the headline -- "Angels' Jerry Dipoto speaks to the SABR rattlers: Analytics can break player performance down to statistical categories, but the general manager still champions the the human aspect of the game."
Look past the bad pun in the main hed, and imagine a sports-journalism mindset that comes up with the phrase "Analytics can break player performance down to statistical categories." Wait -- you're telling me that baseball has statistics? In categories? What ever will those wacky pencil-pushers think up next!
The column is about Dwyre's visit to a baseball analytics conference at which Angels GM Jerry DiPoto spoke. The first half of paragraph two reveals the basic spirit of the thing:
SABR stands for Society for American Baseball Research. It is basically an organization that turns a child's game into calculus.
SABR has been around longer than the designated hitter. As indicated by, I dunno, its name, the organization was founded and continues to be populated by people who are interested in research, i.e., history. Dig as deep as SABR's "About" page and you'll see a prominent testimonial by noted non-mathematician Ernie Harwell. Go as far as its Wikpedia page and you'll see the sentence, "Only a minority of members pursue 'number crunching' research."
To introduce a well-known, 6,000-member organization of baseball researchers to readers as if it was an alien life form is an advertisement for your own (and your sports section's) ignorance. To say that it "basically...turns a child's game into calculus" is a gross factual error delivered with an unearned smirk.
Dwyre is just getting warmed up:
SABR is the organization that has, among other things, brought us these measurements:
OPS: On-base percentage plus slugging percentage.
VORP: Value over replacement player.
And my personal favorite:
BABIP: Batting average on balls in play.
SABR, as an organization, brought the world none of those measurements. OPS (as you can read on its Wikipedia page) was popularized in the 1984 book The Hidden Game of Baseball by analyst Pete Palmer and John Thorn (who is not a calculus professor, but the official historian of Major League Baseball). VORP (Wikipedia page) was introduced by Baseball Prospectus's Keith Woolner in 2001. BABIP's Wikipedia page tells us less about its origin, but it's a safe bet that it sprung directly from Voros McCracken's 1999 insight that pitchers have much less control over balls in play than was previously believed. I don't know if all of these gentlemen were or are members of SABR, but I know for a fact that SABR itself wasn't the original outlet for any of the measurements that they coined and popularized.
In this group, things such as runs, hits, RBIs and batting average are blase.
I didn't go to the conference in question, but having known what "SABR" stands for since Bill Dwyre first took over what was once the best Sports section in America, I can state with pretty good confidence that "runs" are one of the basic building-block concerns of the baseball analysts Dwyre thinks he's arguing with. Bill James's first groundbreaking formula was called Runs Created. Wins Above Replacement, in whatever form, always gets back to the number of runs above or below replacement (or average) that a player has produced or prevented in hitting, fielding, pitching, baserunning, and so on. In some sense, the basic two questions of modern baseball analysis are "What creates or saves runs?" and "How do those runs translate to wins?"
If a player scores a lot of runs, does he do it in early innings or late? Has he come home more on 2-1 pitches or 2-2? On close plays at the plate, does he hook slide left or right?
Inquiring minds want to know. At least these inquiring minds.
I have never heard a sabermetric type ever express any interest in any question that looked anything like those during my three decades of paying attention to the field. Also, very few baserunners execute hook slides anymore, and you are taught even in Little League not to make hook slides into home plate, for a variety of reasons that'll come to you if spend even 30 seconds thinking about it.
This section trades snark for self-regard:
I came to hear the main speaker, Angels General Manager Jerry Dipoto. I had wanted to hear him speak in an interview situation, as in, I ask and he answers. But he's a busy man and I understood that much better after Thursday night, seeing those graphs and charts he apparently deals with every day.
I didn't have much to ask. Just the basic journalism on subjects readers who buy tickets and watch the Angels on TV seem interested in. Maybe a sentence or two on why Torii Hunter had to go when there was obviously plenty of money in the signing pot (Exhibit A: Josh Hamilton); or worry among fans that Mike Trout will be a less-than-happy player at minimum wage; or about how he and Manager Mike Scioscia get along.
Bolding mine, to draw your attention to the self-important bullshit. First is the BS that what Dwyre is doing in this column is "basic journalism." No, basic journalism involves, at minimum, the ability to know or learn a little bit about your subject matter, and avoid basic errors of fact. Second is that Angels fans have a pressing need to understand "why Torii Hunter had to go when there was obviously plenty of money in the signing pot," a question that is not only old and rehashed, but also dumb: You don't pay Hamilton-grade money for Torii Hunter, and the Angels' shopping needs and budget expectations were much different at the time of Hunter's signing than that of Hamilton's.
Then there is the heavy intimation that real fans don't care about stuff like analytics, projections, graphs, and charts, a statement so willfully blind to stone-obvious developments in modern baseball that it might qualify as performance art.
Look, Bill James was writing for Baseball Digest in the 1970s. He was subject of a long and glowing Sports Illustrated profile (by the respected writer Daniel Okrent) in 1981. He was a bestselling author by 1982. The man has been around for a while, and not quietly.
Moneyball (which Dwyre mocks as "a pretty good movie") appeared on bookshelves a decade ago. The "stats vs. scouts" debate has been beaten into the ground year after year since then, as young analytical general managers have found success in Tampa and Boston (which hired -- shudder -- Bill James), while faring less well in Los Angeles (where Dwyre's newspaper chose to mock the overmatched ex-Billy Beane deputy Paul DePodesta as -- I'm not making this up -- "Google Boy").
As for evidence of what real fans are into, just look around you. This site and community, which I've been a part of since before the SB Nation days, is the largest and most concentrated gathering of serious Angels fans online. It is hardly a SABRtastic outlet -- traditional whipping boys have included Rob Neyer and Baseball Prospectus, among others -- but over the years it has reflected and participated in the exponential growth of interest in baseball analysis nationwide. And almost none of these grade-A consumers of journalism about Angels baseball gives a flying fig about the Los Angeles Times.