You have nothing to fear but fear itself

Baseball fans my age or older tend to quake when you tell them such things as that the traditional batting average is an incomplete statistic. It still has isolated, situational value to a certain extent, such as how a batter does with men on base or in various leverage situations. But as a cumulative view it’s really a false picture.

Why? Think of its basic formula: it divides hits by at-bats. That’s all. It doesn’t account for the actual hits and their actual worth. “That batting average turns a blind eye to so many outcomes,” writes columnist Anthony Castrovince, “is not even the greatest flaw in its role as a batter barometer. No, the greatest flaw is the implied insistence that all hits are created equal.”

For better or worse, I’ve phrased it a little more snarkily in past writings: if you really think a single’s as valuable as a double, a double’s as valuable as a triple, a triple’s as valuable as a home run, a single’s as valuable as all the above, you shouldn’t hang a shingle as a baseball observer or analyst any time soon. Castrovince discusses that and numerous other statistical advances, depths, and challenges, in A Fan’s Guide to Baseball Analytics, in language that’s snarky where appropriate but sensitive, smart, and nuanced all at once.

His book should be required reading for any baseball fan who thinks statistics—the life blood of the thinking person’s sport—should conform to prejudice instead of offering the bigger and deeper picture. Sacred cows be damned to steak.

One of the issues with too many articles and books about baseball analytics is that they can be and too often are, well, too analytical. To the average baseball fan they’re the alphabet soup and you can’t even see the soup. Castrovince gives the alphabet—well, the numbers—the places they deserve without letting the soup disappear. He writes a lot more entertainingly about his statistical beliefs than I could hope to write, and he makes plain that he has no intention of burying baseball fans or dismissing them as dumb.

“I’m here to build you up, not break you down,” he writes in his introduction. “While there is plenty of math in this book . . . I’m presenting it as casually as I can. Plus, when things get super-duper complicated, I’ll give you a brief lay of the land instead of wandering too deep into the woods and weeds.”

He explains the newer, deeper numbers in language plain enough that even Yapper McFlapper in the nosebleed seats, who only thinks that he could out-play million-dollar Swinger Swofford or out-think manager Brainy Boner with one arm in a cast and half his cerebrum in formaldehyde, can get it. Yapper might be pleasantly surprised and entertained at once over how he doesn’t have to matriculate back to college to get it.

Castrovince knows it should be child’s play to debunk the traditional batting average and a passel of other old stats that have more flaws than a glass onion. “Stats such as batting average, RBIs, errors, wins, and saves are all baseball backbones,” he writes in the on-deck circle. ” . . . But not acknowledging their faults and trusting them as the be-all and end-all is a mistake.”

Then, he checks in at the plate. “There have been .400 hitters who weren’t even the most productive players in their league in a given season, and there have been .300 hitters whose performance, at large, did not rate as positively as players whose averages had a ‘2’ right after the decimal.”

I can make that just as simple. Let me give you two players. They both had two decades-plus major league careers. Their lifetime batting averages are within a single point of each other. Knowing going in that the old-schooler is going to say the wrong player was more valuable at the plate, here are the batting averages:

By one batting average point, Yapper McFlapper pronounces Player A the better hitter. Let’s give Yapper a cookie and admit Player A has more lifetime hits than Player B, and Player B has over 3,000 of those. Time to go a little deeper. Player B has a higher on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and OPS, not to mention that Player B also walked more unintentionally and intentionally and hit twelve more sacrifice flies—all in almost four thousand fewer trips to the plate.

If Yapper McFlapper sees from that that Player A wasn’t half the real presence at the plate than Player B, why can’t anyone else? And I didn’t even think about measuring them according to my own Real Batting Average (RBA) measure—total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances. Oh, what the hell:

If Yapper looks at that and still clings to the prejudice that a .303 lifetime traditional batting average makes Player A the slightly better player than Player B, then Yapper’s got some splainin’ to do. That’s without showing Yapper Player A’s three “batting titles” against Player B’s one, by the way.

Castrovince lists the ten ways any trip to the plate ends: hit, walk, out, sacrifice bunt, sacrifice fly, hit by a pitch, reaching base on a fielder’s choice, reaching base on an error, a dropped third strike on which you reach first safely, and defensive interference. You know that five of them don’t count as “at-bats.” (If you don’t . . . )

The so-called “batting title” goes to the hitter from each league who has the highest batting average, yet you need 502 plate appearances . . . to even qualify for the title. So the five outcomes that, for whatever reason, don’t matter when tabulating batting average suddenly matter when assessing who has the best batting average.

It’s enough to drive you batty.

(Why didn’t I include sacrifice bunts in my RBA metric? Sorry, but those are outs made deliberately. You shouldn’t get credit when you make an out on purpose. But you should get credit for the sacrifice fly because it sends home a run and you weren’t trying to hit one right into Leather Sackorocks’s glove.)

That’s not the only thing that drives Castrovince batty. Like me, he thinks runs batted in don’t say as much as Yapper McFlapper and Frostie Fingerflipper think they say about a player’s run productivity and clutch ability. Peel yourselves from the ceiling, Yapper and Flappie.

You can’t drive in the runs if nobody else reaches base ahead of you, unless you hit one out. You can’t look at the RBI total alone and conclude a player’s clutch. Good luck, by the way, scoring runs without a little help from your friends—unless you can steal every base including home every time you reach first. (Well, maybe Rickey Henderson could have, if he wanted to . . . )

Some people accuse the Angels’ all-universe Mike Trout of being a little less than clutch because he isn’t knocking 100+ runs in every full season he plays. “The only thing Mike Trout lacked,” Castrovince writes, with the virtue of truth on his side, “was . . . Mike Trout batting in front of him.” Trout at this writing has a .418 lifetime on-base percentage. Would indeed that he’d had a couple of Mike Trouts batting in front of him.

Here’s one instance where the old batting average does make sense: hitting with men on base. Trout through this writing has hit .306 with men on base and .318 with runners in scoring position. His OPS for the former: 1.082. For the latter: 1.013. (Oh, the futility of the “RISP” stat, because it counts guys on second base or better only. Technically, you’re in scoring position the minute you reach base at all, even just first. If you’re a home run hitter, you’re in scoring position the moment you step into the batter’s box.)

Aside from OBP, SLG, and OPS, Castrovince believes the best way to measure a batter’s value is with runs created, isolated power, weighted OBP, weighted runs created and OPS+, and baserunning. He’ll give you the mathematical formulae and conjugate it in language so simple a schoolboy or schoolgirl can comprehend it a lot more readily than they might algebra or calculus. He’ll tell you why they really matter.

Runs created, whose formula factors the same things my RBA does with a little more complexity: “the central job of a hitter is to help his team score runs.” Isolated power: “batting average does not tell you how often a player’s hits go for extra bases, and slugging percentage does not discriminate between singles and extra-base hits.”

Weighted on-base average: “not all methods of reaching base are equal. OBP goes only so far in measuring offensive value, whereas wOBA assigns the proper value to each event in terms of its impact on scoring runs.” Weighted runs created: “while runs created and OPS were both huge steps forward from more antiquated offensive metrics, neither one is adjusted for the context of a given season or a player’s home park.”

Baserunning (BsR): “with stolen base attempts on a continual decline—and the art of baserunning extending beyond stolen bases—it’s better to look at a context-driven and all-encompassing stat.” Sub-stat: ultimate baserunning, crediting a runner “for advancement on the bases relative to the frequency with which the league average runner advances in the same situation.”

In 2020, the major league average for extra bases taken on followup hits was 42 percent. Think about that. Damn near half the time men reached base they were advancing more than the expected minimum when the next guys swung the bat. (The aforementioned Rickey Henderson did it 55 percent of the time he was on base when the next guy[s] swing the bat[s].) Today’s players are smarter than you think when they reach base.

Castrovince doesn’t let the traditional pitching stats off the hook, either. He thinks pitching wins are baseball’s most deceptive pitching stat and should have been put in their grave when Jacob deGrom won the 2018 National League Cy Young Award. (He won the award with ten wins and nine losses.) “Jacob deGrom’s issue,” Castrovince writes, “wasn’t that he ‘didn’t know how to win.’ It was that he didn’t know how not to be on the 2018 New York Mets.”

DeGrom “won” as many games as the White Sox’s Lucas Giolito in 2018. He posted a 1.70 ERA to Giolito’s 6.13. He also posted a 1.99 fielding-independent pitching rate to Giolito’s 5.56. Trained strictly on what a pitcher actually does control (strikeouts, unintentional walks, hit batsmen, home runs), FIP “is a better tool than ERA—which is influenced by the whims of a pitcher’s defense or the rulings of an official scorer—in evaluating a pitcher’s effectiveness. A pitcher has little control over what happens once the ball is put in play.”

Castrovince even exhumes that only six pitchers in the live-ball era qualified for the ERA title while posting ERAs and FIPs below 2.00 in the qualifying season: Hal Newhouser (1946), Sandy Koufax (1963), Bob Gibson (1968), Tom Seaver (1971), Clayton Kershaw (2014), and Jacob deGrom (2018). The Cy Young Award wasn’t invented when Newhouser pitched, but only one of the other pitchers didn’t win the Cy Young Award in his such season: Seaver, who “won” four fewer than winner Ferguson Jenkins who also “lost” four more. How does a guy who lost four more beat the guy who lost four less?

Want to lean on pitching wins that badly, Yapper and Frostie? Show me the pitcher who strikes 27 straight batters out. (Not even Nolan Ryan ever did that.) Uh oh, Flinger Flounder’s team got shut out, too, not by 27 up and 27 struck out, they’re going to extra innings, and Flinger’s 27 straight punchouts left him an arm and shoulder begging for their lives after nine full. Guess who’s going to get credit for the “win” if he happens to be on the mound when the winning run scores even if it’s only in the tenth inning when it scores?

The author also loves walks/hits per inning pitched, WHIP for short, as I do: “Because, as is the case on your morning commute, traffic is bad. WHIP tells us how well a pitcher has performed the very fundamental role of not letting the traffic pile up—obviously an important element in run prevention.” Pitchers and fielders have the opposite job of batters: their job is to keep the other guys from putting more runs on the board than their guys do.

Castrovince gives fielders their propers, too, meaning you can throw away every defensive stat you grew up with, really, including errors, and focus on defensive runs saved in hand with the ultimate zone rating:

[E]rror counts doled out by scorekeepers in the press box barely tell us anything about what makes a successful defender. DRS and UZR are better approximating of defensive value, as they include elements such as range, efficiency on double play chances, and first-step quickness.

The error, he argues, is “the most capricious and arbitrarily (and often unfairly) applied statistic in all of professional sports. The error, which of course generated fielding percentage, tells us not what happened but what an observer of the game felt should have happened. And its uselessness is matched only by its unreliability, because, on a given day, a play ruled an error in one ballpark could very well be ruled a hit in another.”

Would you consider Bill Buckner’s in Game Six of the 1986 World Series the most infamous “error” in baseball history? Do you remember Mookie Wilson’s slow-rolling ground ball up the line taking a wicked skid on the Shea Stadium grass through Buckner’s feet beneath his mitt instead of the tiny hop up into the mitt, leaving Buckner helpless on the play? Do you remember that Wilson would have beaten the play at first base if the ball did get into Buckner’s mitt, because he was about a step ahead of Red Sox pitcher Bob Stanley ambling over to cover first?

It doesn’t let Red Sox manager John McNamara off the hook for failing to do what he normally did, replacing Buckner at first with Dave Stapleton for that should-have-been final inning. (It doesn’t let the Red Sox bullpen off the hook for surrendering the two-out hits that re-tied the game, either.) But it should have made Red Sox Nation and just about all of baseball nation think twice, thrice, and quadruple, before deciding Billy Buck was Beelze Bub incarnate.

Yapper McFlapper and Frostie Fingerflipper haven’t come to terms with wins above replacement, or WAR. Castrovince saves WAR for last in his book, just as I have for this review. Maybe Yapper can’t stop singing the ancient Edwin Starr hit: “War/what is it good for/absolutely nothing.” Maybe Frostie thinks it means baseball during World War II. What the hell is WAR, really?

“A measure,” Castrovince writes, “of a player’s value in all facets of the game by determining how many more wins he is worth than a readily-available replacement at the same position.”

For position players, it’s the number of runs above average Swinger Swofford’s worth through a combination of batting, running, and fielding, adjusted for his field position (some of which are tougher work than others), the league averages thereof, and the number of runs the mere replacement might be worth. For pitchers, it’s either runs allowed per nine innings (earned and unearned) or FIP adjusted to the league averages and the ballparks, relative to Slinger O’Slick’s innings pitched.

Castrovince admits WAR isn’t the final, most perfect measurement, but he knows its best use may be in showing you that there was more than met your eyes when you watched a particular player during a given season. A player with 8 WAR or better is MVP level. A player with 6-8 WAR is a mere superstar. A player with 4-6 WAR is an All-Star level player. A player with 2-4 WAR is a good, dependable regular. A player with 1-2 WAR is a role player. A player with 0-1 WAR is a pine rider. A player under 0 shouldn’t even ride the major league pine.

But WAR has its uses for measuring a player’s career, too. If they measured WAR during Lou Whitaker’s career, that longtime Detroit second base bellwether might have been in the Hall of Fame two decades ago, instead of one-and-done on the writers’ ballot and waiting for an Eras Committee to reconsider him yet again. Whitaker finished his career with 75.1 career WAR. The average Hall of Fame second baseman’s career WAR is 69.5. Whitaker’s entry into Cooperstown would hike the average a tick or three. Still think WAR’s good for absolutely nothing?

What the old-schooler fears, perhaps, is being left for dead in the woods and weeds with the sabermetric advance. The old-schooler may fear that everything he or she ever learned on baseball cards or in those ancient annual pocket-size volumes of Who’s Who in Baseball turned out to be like an old gag about condensing Romeo and Juliet: a couple of moony teenagers ran off together and died.

You might care to note that was the first time I deployed the S-word here. By design. I, too, have no wish to leave you for dead in the woods and the weeds when I talk or write sabermetrically or analytically. Fellow old-timer, I too grew up with Who’s Who in Baseball as my pocket Bible.

But I also collided happily with The Elias Baseball Analyst most years of the 1980s and Total Baseball pre-Internet. Who’s Who in Baseball was rendered irrelevant by and Retrosheet, where the basic stats go deeper than the baseball card, and one or two clicks sends you to the kind of advanced stats for which Total Baseball cost you an arm (and maybe a wrist, if you weren’t careful with a book as heavy as a foundation block), a leg, and the annual updated supplement.

My God, the Internet’s made statistical diving simpler than all that. What’s to be afraid of? Castrovince is the Franklin D. Roosevelt of baseball analytics: you have nothing to fear but fear itself. I was the world’s worst math student in my school days. My teachers then would flip to see me now diving into the deep stats the way oceanic explorers dive for subterranean discoveries. If I can do it, anybody can.

So why should you do it? I was afraid you’d ask. Very well, I surrender—no matter how much of a baseball nut you are, no matter how many subscriptions to ESPN or MLB Network you have and use, you can’t see every last baseball game played when baseball is in season, and you’ve got no other way—not even YouTube clips—to know what the players you couldn’t watch really did above and beyond their surface stats. The box score won’t tell you the whole game story.

You don’t “need” stats to, you know, watch and enjoy the game? Well, you watched and enjoyed the games growing up and couldn’t wait to compare what you saw with what was on those guys’ limited baseball cards or in Who’s Who in Baseball—when you weren’t busy flipping the cards in the schoolyard or on the corner, or clipping them to your bicycle to clatter and fart against the turning spokes.

Pick up A Fan’s Guide to Baseball Analytics without fear, with a wide open and fearless mind, and relax with the idea that you’re actually going to get what you wished for, back when you were bound (and gagged?) once upon a time to slog through high school mathematics. The formulae simplified, the concepts making sense, your game eyes not playing tricks on you, and the entertainment as immense and joyous as watching the merry-go-round go ’round on the bases.

Oh. By the way. Refer back to Player A and Player B. Player A is Pete Rose. Player B is Willie Mays. You are now free to ask yourself whom between nine Charlie Hustlers and nine Say Hey Kids will create more runs and hang them on the scoreboard.

Rickey don’t lose those numbers

2019-08-26 RickeyRoth

Hiring Allan Roth (right) as MLB’s first full-time (and then some) team statistician in 1947 may remain Branch Rickey’s least appreciated baseball innovation.

The good news: I looked forward to appearing on a Sunday podcast for which the subject was to be Branch Rickey. The bad news: I didn’t get a chance to discuss the one thing about Rickey that nobody, seemingly, thinks about whenever his name arises in most baseball discourse. The mere mention of it inspires a sub-topic change faster than you’d try to elude a visible virus; the nostalgist wishes merely to hasten back to reminiscence, the troglodyte contingent wishes you quartered without drawing first.

Understood: Say “Branch Rickey” and the usual first response is “Jackie Robinson,” and that’s exactly the way it should be. After decades of hoping to do so, but lacking the opportunity so long as Kenesaw Mountain Landis dictated baseball, Rickey ended a wrong with an irrevocable right and chose the absolute right player to do it. If “Jackie Robinson” isn’t your first response to “Branch Rickey,” the lacking is yours, not theirs.

Understood further: If “the farm system” isn’t your second response to “Branch Rickey,” take a remedial crash course in elementary baseball history. Even the most free agency-conscious teams in baseball today still believe in their farm systems, even if not all of them operate them as acutely or with foresight as they should. Both the rich talent pool mined since Robinson plus the farm system’s continued if oft-compromised operation are Rickey legacies not to be dismissed.

If “sabermetrics” or “analytics” isn’t your third response . . . Aw, jeez, not that you-know-what again! I hear you shuddering. Hear me out.

Like it or not, however shallow or deep anyone looks, statistics are the life blood of baseball. Long before anyone spoke of sabermetrics, baseball fans obsessed over baseball numbers as much as over Hall of Fame prospects. Simple (and often misleading or short on vision) though they were, baseball cards did not live by handsome face pictures alone.

For better or worse, Rickey was as obsessed with numbers and their meanings as with anything else about the game he loved and changed. And, like almost anything upon which he cast his bushy-browed eyes, Rickey dove right into the deep end of the pool, when a Canadian-born, thirty-year-old number cruncher with a passion for tabulating sports statistics, baseball in particular, convinced the Mahatma (only one of Rickey’s nicknames) to hire him.

The hire was Allan Roth, who’d grown up loving baseball, hockey, and figuring out stats for both, before he was forced to forget his college plans when family issues compelled him to hire as a salesman. After trying but failing to get then-Dodgers president Larry MacPhail to hire him, Roth met then-National Hockey League president Frank Calder and got a job with that league. Enter World War II and a stint in Canada’s Army to interrupt Roth’s statistical career.

The Canadian Army leaned on his statistical analyses before discharging him in 1944, upon his diagnosis of epilepsy. Roth cast his eye upon the Dodgers again, with MacPhail long gone and Rickey running the Bums since. When a first meeting between the two went like “a disaster,” according to Tom Cronin of  Statliners, Roth managed to tell Rickey he wanted “only ten minutes of your undivided attention.”

Told to give Rickey’s assistant a detailed paper, Roth obeyed. As Roth’s Society for American Baseball Research biographer Andy McCue wrote, “Some of these were standard, but others, such as where the ball was hit and the count it was hit on, hadn’t been compiled regularly.”

Roth also proposed to break the statistics down into various categories that would reveal tendencies which the front office and the manager could use to win ballgames. Breakdowns such as performance against left-handers and right-handers, in day games versus night games, in the various ballparks, in situations with runners in scoring position, are all mundane to us now. But in Roth’s time, they were rarely compiled or used, and never part of the public discussion. The letter was intriguing enough to get a meeting with a still-skeptical Rickey.

It got Roth a second direct shot with the Mahatma: “The second meeting was the opposite of the first. Roth later stated that Rickey was intrigued with some of his ideas during the meeting, especially on how RBI’s are overrated.” This time, Rickey was more than intrigued. Once Roth solved his visa problems, and on the same day Jackie Robinson premiered with the Dodgers, Rickey finally hired Roth to be the Dodgers’ statistician, the first full-time such man in major league baseball.

Roth would do the job for eighteen years, recording every pitch the Dodgers threw, every swing they took, every base they reached or advanced, every ball they fielded. He was once somewhat renowned (and often mocked) for tabulating those on copious sheets of graph paper, apparently his favourite charting device.

Taking as long as five hours after each game to break down the game and the players, Roth also spent copious off-season time digging deeper into what we know long since as matchups, best- and worst-count performances, at home and on the road. He also developed a fine sense of humor about it; The Boys of Summer author Roger Kahn once credited Roth with inventing the game Silly Records. Except that some of those silly records weren’t as silly or meaningless as they probably sounded then.

Until he was pressured into selling his percentage of the Dodgers to Walter O’Malley in 1950, Rickey paid close enough attention to Roth’s charts and graphs to draw plenty of conclusions of his own in addition to what Roth himself enunciated. And in 1954, as if hiring Roth at all hadn’t been heresy enough, Rickey wrote and Life published “Goodbye to Some Old Baseball Ideas,” much of which was mulcted from Roth’s work. Including:

Batting average is only a partial means of determining a man’s effectiveness on offense.

The ability to get on base, or On-Base Average, is both vital and measurable.

The correlation shows that OBA went hand in glove with runs scored.

The next measurable quantity is Extra base power . . . My own formula computing power . . . is called isolated power, is the number of extra bases over and above singles in relation to total number of hits.

Runs batted in? A misleading statistic.

Fielding averages? Useless as a yard stick.

As Brian Kenny wrote, in Ahead of the Curve: Inside the Baseball Revolution, Rickey “didn’t just say, ‘Hey, ever wonder why the Dodgers have been kicking your ass for the last eight years? Would you like to know the best way of quantifying talent and production? Oh, shoot, here ya go!'” Today’s sabermetricians were children when Rickey (and Roth) wrote the Life piece; baseball’s lords and princelings were all too ready to take it with a pillar of salt when not laughing hysterically over the Mahatma’s impudence.

The Dodgers kicked the National League’s ass for most of the rest of their Brooklyn life (the Boys of Summer were, after all, Rickey teams), and the Pirates finished in 1960 what Rickey began from 1951-55. (The nucleus of that world champion was Rickey’s nucleus: Vernon Law, Elroy Face, Bill Mazeroski, Dick Groat, and a talented minor leaguer he drafted from the Dodgers in the Rule 5 minor league draft: Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente.)

Which was rather splendid for a number cruncher who didn’t consider himself a pure numbers man. Roth “didn’t do his own taxes. He couldn’t remember his phone number,” McCue wrote. “What he would do is record the numbers in myriad detail and then use his true talent, recognizing what the numbers meant, to provide value to his employers. He summed up his philosophy: ‘Baseball is a game of percentages—I try to find the actual percentage, which is constantly shifting, and apply it to the situation where it will do the most good’.”

(Was Casey Stengel eavesdropping a little on Rickey and Roth near the beginning? Baseball, the Ol’ Perfesser told anyone within earshot, is percentage plus execution. You thought the Dodgers kicked the National League’s ass? Stengel’s Yankees only had ten pennants and seven World Series rings in twelve seasons to show for his willingness to put old thinking, even old “traditional” Yankee thinking aside.)

Though such crustily visceral managers as Leo Durocher and Charlie Dressen spurned Roth’s analyses, Walter Alston accepted them. It took Alston one full season to get his sea legs managing the Dodgers after he was hired to succeed Dressen for 1954, and there were a few growing pains as he asserted his authority and learned his players, but in Alston’s second season? Dem Bums finally won the World Series.

Walter O’Malley could challenge you until you and he were the proverbial blue in the face, but the core of the Dodgers who finally made next year this year were still Rickey’s boys: Hall of Famers Robinson, Roy Campanella, and Duke Snider, Carl Furillo, Gil Hodges, Don Newcombe, Carl Erskine, and Clem Labine. We won’t suggest what we now know as analytics put World Series rings on the 1955 Dodgers’ fingers, but it didn’t hurt them to have the data, either.

Then they almost won the ’56 Series while they were at it. It wasn’t Alston’s fault that the Dodgers began showing their age in their final Brooklyn season. (The average age of the regular lineup: 32.) And even their 1959 pennant winner was still a team transitioning from the further-aging Brooklyn veterans.

During the Dodgers’ first serious pennant race in Los Angeles, facing a critical late-season doubleheader against the Giants, Roth convinced Alston, based on his tabulations, that Hall of Famer Don Drysdale pitched far better at night than during the day, while another Dodger righthander, Roger Craig, was almost the same pitcher day or night. Alston switched his planned doubleheader rotation, starting Craig in the day game and Drysdale for the night game.

The result? The Dodgers swept the Giants, helping them force the three-game playoff against the Braves that meant the pennant. By then even Dodger players received regularly updated Roth tabulations on their own performances and worked accordingly.

Seriously? You really thought that started in this century? Anyone who knew the Dodgers well in those years knew Allan Roth’s role with the team, and that it wasn’t just rehashing or writing out their baseball cards. They could have told you the Dodgers had a lot more going for them than balls and strikes, runs and hits, and Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax’s latest beyond-belief performance, right up to the day the Dodgers let Roth go in 1964.

And they really had Branch Rickey to thank.

“Rickey and Roth’s fundamental contribution to the advancement of baseball statistics,” wrote John Thorn and Pete Palmer in The Hidden Game of Baseball, “comes from their conceptual revisionism, their willingness to strip the game down to its basic unit, the run, and reconstruct its statistics accordingly.”

A man who evaluated character in hand with performance but wasn’t always the most astute judge of the former when all was said and done, Rickey died a year after the Dodgers lost Roth. He was foresighted and devious, compassionate and penurious, all at once. He was maybe baseball’s deepest thinker and one of its most pompous. “A man of strange complexities,” the New York Times‘s John Drebinger once wrote, “not to mention downright contradictions.”

For every one who canonises Rickey for elevating and supporting Jackie Robinson as a player and a man, appropriately, there’s another who broils him just as appropriately for the shifty penury that prompted his Hall of Fame Pirate Ralph Kiner to credit him with doing the most to seed the Major League Baseball Players’ Association.

“Rickey believes in economy in everything,” the New York Daily Mirror‘s Dan Daniel once wrote, “except his own salary.”

Roth’s Dodger days ended, McCue wrote, after O’Malley discovered his statistician, whose marriage was collapsing, had a romantic relationship with a black woman at a time when too many Americans, O’Malley included, yet quaked over the very idea of such interracial romance, never mind the scandal quotient still attached to it. That romance ended in a shouting match and Roth’s marriage itself ended, but so did his Dodger career.

He returned to free-lance work until ABC, then NBC, hired him to give announcers (including two former players he’d once analysed, Koufax and Pee Wee Reese) the same deeper analyses he’d previously provided the Dodgers and Scully, until his health failed in the 1980s. (He died in 1992.)

“Roth was a firm believer that you do not have to be an expert mathematician to record baseball stats,” Cronin wrote. “You just had to be an innovative thinker and have a passion for the game. He also realized that human element of baseball and numbers could only help aid the game, not run it.”

So did Branch Rickey. Sabermetricians aren’t the only ones who should thank him for his patronage of and further education from Roth, no matter how dearly baseball’s paleozoics would like to spank him for it.