Tuesday, December 09, 2003

A Brief History of Sabremetric Thought 

A Brief History of Sabremetric Thought

To the best of my knowledge, an up-to-date history of sabremetric thought does not exist. Thorn and Palmer did discuss the subject in their 1985 classic The Hidden Game of Baseball. However, that seems like eons ago for what is a relatively new field. This year, Michael Lewis devoted a chapter of his best-selling Moneyball to discussing some of the forefathers of the movement. He also covered some more recent developments. Unfortunately, Lewis does not give a complete account of the subject either.

What follows is an attempt to bring this history up to today. I borrow heavily from The Hidden Game and Moneyball and other sources. I also add what I have learned over the close to twenty years that I have followed the field. This is a work in progress and there will be errors. But, hopefully my range factor (or, better yet, UZR) will be closer to Ozzie Smith’s than Derek Jeter’s. I encourage feedback; especially corrections of any mistakes that I may have made.

I. The Beginning
Histories of economic thought usually begin with Adam Smith. In a way, it’s rather fitting. Adam is ancient Hebrew for “first man.” Sabremetrics’ answer to Adam (Smith) was English-born Henry Chadwick. Chadwick produced year-end summaries in the New York Clipper, Beadle’s Dime Base-Ball Player and other publications a century before Bill James published his annual Abstracts. Many stats that we use today (e.g. home runs, total bases, and at bats) were introduced by him. Of course, Chadwick was more than a statistician. He was the first important baseball writer and even introduced some rule changes to the infant game.

In 1858 he helped organize the NABBP, which was established to codify the game’s rules. As a member of the NABBP, he helped institute the infield fly rule and devised the box score. He also started the practice of playing extra innings to settle a tie game. He attended a game in Brooklyn in 1859 that ended with a score of 5-5. The home team walked off the field, happy with the tie score, but the visiting team appealed to Chadwick. He decided that the game should be played until there was a winner, setting the precedent for extra innings.

Among other things that Chadwick is known for was his view that swing for the fences was “unscientific” baseball. For a long time, home runs were viewed as a form of Chadwickedness. This belief persisted for many years and didn’t completely disappear until Babe Ruth came on the scene. (Well, that’s not entirely true. I think I’ve seen some atavistic letters to Baseball Digest that cling to that belief.) While Chadwick may have been wrong on this issue, he refused to accept the Mills Commission (baseball’s answer to the Scopes trial) view that Abner Doubleday invented baseball.

Chadwick was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame by the Centennial Commission in 1938.

The next “figure filbert” that Thorn and Palmer wrote about was Clarence Dow. Dow was a sportswriter for the Boston Globe. He was the first to record batter’s walks and strikeouts for the 1891 American Association. I couldn’t find much more information on Dow’s contribution to sabremetrics, but he was able to achieve the dream of many sportswriters. Dow played a game for the Unions Association’s Boston Reds on September 22, 1884 when they were shorthanded. He had a good day with the bat, going 2 for 6; which gave him a lifetime .333 batting average. (He didn’t walk and both his hits were singles, so his OPS was a devilish .666)

The next protostathead of note was Ernest Lanigan. Lanigan’s mother was a Spink (that is the family that started The Sporting News.) Ernest may have been the model for J. Henry Waugh from The Universal Baseball Association. One of his most famous quotes is, “I really don't care much about baseball, or looking at ball games, major or minor. All my interest in baseball is in its statistics."

He is often credited with inventing the RBI. Actually, he merely revived that statistic; which dates back to 1879. Lanigan also popularized slugging percentage and earned run average as measures. These were far from his most important contributions.

Lanigan was among the first to advocate the formation of the BBWAA, currently a bete-noire in the baseball blogosphere. Lanigan also published The Baseball Cyclopedia in 1922, an early model for today 's The Baseball Encyclopedia and Total Baseball. Through the Cyclopedia, as well as other writings, he was among the first to collect career statistics of players. It was through his efforts that fans learned about Babe Ruth’s home run records and Everett Scott’s consecutive game streak (later eclipsed by Lou Gehrig and Cal Ripken Jr.)

According to Bill James, Lanigan also “…published sporadic stories detailing what players had hit against left-handed and right-handed pitching…when Lanigan (and others) published figures showing that some hitters did in fact hit dramatically better against one type of pitching that made platooning a credible option, which helped to create the first explosion of platooning, from 1914 to 1925.”

Lanigan was an original character. During his career, he served stints as baseball editor for the Cleveland Leader, business manager of several Cardinals farm teams, and press information director for the International League. His frail health was a factor in his frequent job changes. In 1946, he was named curator of the Hall of Fame and later served as its historian. He also served in a number of positions with the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra.

Chadwick, Dow, and Lanigan were three men who built the foundation of what would become sabremetrics. While the field has come a long way since then, it probably would not have made it to where it is today without the efforts of these pioneers; especially Chadwick and Lanigan.

Well, this concludes Part I of “A Brief History of Sabremetric Thought.” It has taken me longer to write than I originally thought, so I thought I’d release the first single before the whole album. In the next segment, I plan to write about the “Middle Ages” of sabremetrics. The work of sabremetricians such as Ted Oliver, Allan Roth, George Lindsey, and Earnshaw Cook will be discussed.I hope that you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

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