Tuesday, July 16, 2013

A Moneyball Primer For David Wells

By Brad Oremland

Invariably, people who aren't interested in sabermetrics misunderstand sabermetrics. It makes sense in a way: if you aren't interested in advanced statistics (or new ways of looking at old statistics), why would you read Bill James or Moneyball or FanGraphs or The Book? The unfortunate downside is that when these people try to explain why they don't like sabermetrics, they usually don't know what they're talking about.

On Friday morning, three-time all-star pitcher David Wells, now an analyst for TBS, appeared on ESPN Radio's Mike and Mike show. About six minutes into the segment, Mike Golic asked Wells for his opinion on pitch counts and innings limits for young pitchers.

GOLIC: Let's go to your position as a pitcher, David, and last year we saw it, it was, made big news with Stephen Strasburg being basically a healthy scratch in the postseason for the Nationals, and your thought about the innings limits on these young pitchers.

WELLS: Well, I'm old-school. You know that. I think — I think it's absurd. You know, now it's all this, since Moneyball came out, it's all these number crunchers. You know, these computers don't have heartbeats, they don't have, uh, they don't have feelings, they don't have all that. It's a shame that these guys have to be subject to that. But you know, when you go out there, and you're in a tight game, and all of a sudden the manager comes to get you 'cause you got 100 pitches, that just doesn't sit well. You gotta — you're gonna have to pry the ball out of my hand cause I don't wanna come out. There's no scientific evidence of when your arm's gonna blow out. You know, some guys have higher stress on their arm than others, but you know, it's just, it's become, the game has changed a lot. You know, it's more about the relievers now instead of the starters, and yeah, it's great to see those guys get their opportunity, but those opportunities are gonna come. But now you got guys pitching 80, 90 games a year. You know, and you're wearing out bullpens sometimes. Let the starters go longer.

Moneyball, as I'm sure you all know, and as even Wells probably knows, is about the 2002 Oakland Athletics, and the efforts of General Manager Billy Beane to identify and acquire players with undervalued skills, like batters who draw a lot of walks. It is not about restricting action for pitchers, young or otherwise, and in fact the Athletics at that time were successful largely because of their "Big Three" young pitchers: Tim Hudson (26), Mark Mulder (24), and Barry Zito (24). All pitched over 200 innings, and none missed starts when they were healthy.

Below are the top 20 rookies in innings pitched, since 1998 (when Beane became Oakland's GM).

Chart

The A's have more names on the list than any other team, including one in the top five and three in the top 16, plus three other rookies with over 175 innings. Furthermore, since '98, A's pitchers have thrown 114 complete games, 5th-most in the majors (the average is 93.6). If Moneyball was encouraging teams to limit their pitchers' workloads, Billy Beane sure missed the message. But you know, computers don't have heartbeats and feelings. How do you think we got Enron?

Here's a tip for Wells, and all other analysts: let the phrase "there's no scientific evidence" serve as a guide for what sabermetricians don't support. Statistically-minded fans debated extensively last season about whether or not the Nationals were making a mistake in shutting down Strasburg.

Perhaps more than anything, sabermetrics is about asking questions, and questioning conventional wisdom in particular. People who study baseball statistics look at pitchers from decades past and ask why there are so few complete games today. Has something fundamental changed that justifies pitch counts and limited workload, or are those limits an overreaction to isolated cases of burnout like Sandy Koufax and Mark Prior? Why are pitchers today — with weight-lifting routines, sophisticated training regimens, and advanced sports medicine — unable to do what their predecessors could 50 years ago? There's not an obvious answer to those questions yet, but Wells doesn't seem to realize that the Moneyball guys are largely on his side.

That extends to the argument about relievers. Sabermetric studies have usually concluded that relief pitchers are overvalued and misused. Bill James concluded a decade ago that teams could get more value from their best relievers by using them approximately 69 games and 113 innings a year, and prioritizing high-leverage situations like ties over three-run ninth-inning leads (which hold up about 97% of the time already, because no major league pitcher allows three runs in an inning with any regularity).

David Wells is not Joe Morgan, belligerent and gleefully ignorant toward advanced statistics and those who used them. But why bring up a book like Moneyball in discussing an unrelated subject? It wasn't a computer that told the Nationals to shut down Stephen Strasburg. If you're going to blame a problem on sabermetrics, it should at least be something actually associated with sabermetrics.

Contents copyright © Sports Central 1998-2009