Davey Johnson walks into manager Earl Weaver’s office and hands him a document; “How to Optimize the Orioles lineup.” Johnson is the author. The bizarre numbers explain why Johnson should be batting fourth in a line up including Frank Robinson and Boog Powell. He batted clean up only five times in his eight seasons as an Oriole.
Johnson studied math at Trinity College in the 1960’s and dabbled with statistics and probability long before crunching numbers came into vogue. He brought computers to the minor leagues as a manager of the Tidewater Tides in 1983.
Johnson currently manages the Washington Nationals and over 17 years has compiled a winning percentage of .562 (1372-1071) including a World Series triumph with the New York Mets in 1986.
Statistics are no longer the sole domain of math wizards. The pastime has slipped into the mainstream, but it is nothing new. As a matter of fact, it’s been a part of baseball since way back in the 19th century. It simply suffered a slap in the face and like any innovation was forced under ground to toil away in obscurity until the climate was ripe for a revival. There is no revolution, just a return.
Bill James was once a third shift security guard at the Stokely-Van Camps pork and been cannery in his home state of Kansas. The job was a perfect place to crank out his baseball writings that avoided the trappings of baseball as some sacred, primal, mythological pastime. James asked questions and then answered them with numbers. How would Fred Lynn fare outside Fenway Park?
His findings were offered to Baseball Digest subscribers in the 1970’s and a few dozens fans bought the Bill James Baseball abstracts, but he was barely a blip on baseball’s radar. Nowadays, he works for the Boston Red Sox and since he joined in 2003, they’ve won three World Series.
The Bill James bandwagon has no vacancy these days. It’s filled with followers and clones and loud mouth detractors who still insist baseball is more about green grass, blue skies, and the excitement of seeing a triple, but Bill James loves baseball, watches baseball and so do most stat geeks.The calculations, algorithms and comparisons simply add a new perspective or rather revive an old one.
Before Bill James, there was earnest Earnshaw Cook’s “Percentages Baseball” and before Cook there was the founder of baseball’s box score; Henry Chadwick and in between there were dozens of engineers, chemists and the fan next door who moonlighted as number crunchers.
Chadwick championed the walk as a vital measure to a player’s performance. He also questioned errors since a defender reaching hard to reach batted balls makes more of them. The debate of range versus fielding percentage is over 100 years old.
It seems fitting that Dodgers President Branch Rickey would be the first to actually apply statistics to on field decisions. Rickey had already invented the baseball farm system and paved the way for African-Americans. It was on the same field where Jackie Robinson launched his pro career that number crunching gained legitimacy.
Pierre Dupuy high school in Montreal has a soccer field covered in fluorescent green turf. It’s annoying when you consider what was once there.
Delorimier Stadium was home to the Montreal Royals; the AAA affiliate of the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1928-1960. The 20,000 seat stadium experienced a lot of firsts over 32 years; from Gene Mauch to Jackie Robinson, Tommy Lasorda, Roberto Clemente, Duke Snider as well as one who never stepped on the field, but his contributions were just as significant.
Montreal native Allan Roth kept statistics for the Montreal Canadians hockey team. In 1947, he contacted Rickey’s open mind, one that earned him the nickname Mahatma-great soul in Sanskrit. I love imagining the look on Branch Rickey’s face when Roth suggested a manager might benefit from knowing right-handed batters tend to bat better against southpaws.
Rickey hired Roth as baseball’s first full-time statistician. Roth kept pitch counts, a batter’s various splits and he fed reams of numbers to a guy sitting next to him in the press box-Mr. Vin Scully.
Roth moved west with the Dodgers in 1958. He died in 1992. The Los Angeles SABR Chapter is named in his honor.