Bryan Johnson and the Alfredo Griffin vs. Tony Fernandez Debate in Toronto

Here are a few columns from the Toronto Globe and Mail on this debate over who the Blue Jays’ starting shortstop should have been in 1983 and 1984. They’re meant as an accompaniment to this item I did on The Daily Something about Bryan Johnson’s memory of this debate, which could be the first full-fledged controversy about personnel decisions by an MLB team that involved sabermetrics. First, Johnson’s column on June 30, 1983, with the headline “Hard-nosed opinion: bring up Fernandez”:

You can’t be a baseball fan in Toronto these days without getting drawn into the Alfredo Griffin debate. Supporters of the Blue Jay shortstop have laid virtual siege to radio talk-shows, endlessly repeating their arguments against trading him. Rumored deals are a staple of the sporting press. And Exhibition Stadium has become an open forum during Jay games, its concession stands buzzing with Griffin swap talk.

At this point, of course, the discussion is no longer really about baseball. Club vice-president Pat Gillick declared months ago that he didn’t want to “break Griff’s heart.” Newspaper commentators have begun wondering how the Jays could replace Griffin off the field. His offence and defence have given way to catchwords such as team leader and enthusiasm – (plus my favorite: “intangibles”) – as the key factors to consider.

The debate has reached such a touchy-feely level, in fact, that teammate Garth Iorg can blurt out an obvious absurdity such as “everything Alfredo Griffin hits is gravy,” and have it quoted as serious comment.

I have developed my own attachment to Griffin over the years, so I’m not trying to ridicule those kinds of sentiments. Anyone who has watched the guy play for long has to admire his tremendous guts and determination. He’s a battler, what ballplayers call a “gamer,” and it would be foolish to ignore that.

The hard truth, however, is that baseball is not a fairytale in which the most deserving guys win. There is a wonderful dugout bravado in dismissing his hitting as “gravy,” but only until you take the field and discover the other team’s shortstop is creaming the ball. Suddenly, the opposition is scoring the runs and the good guys are left with a fistful of “intangibles.”

The Blue Jays must allow talent to decide their shortstop – and, for that matter, their second baseman. Does anyone doubt that Fernandez is more valuable on the roster than Mickey Klutts? Wouldn’t Fernandez and Griffin have made a fine infield duo when Damaso Garcia was injured? Then let’s bring the kid up and let him play his way into, or out of, the lineup. At the very least, he would be a fine pinch runner and late-inning defensive specialist.

His Willie McGee-style of line-drive hitting is suited ideally to the Exhibition Stadium turf, and he seemed to be an excellent bunter in spring training. That, combined with his speed, would be a tremendous asset in one-run games. Even if he helped Toronto win only two games all year, that might very well decide the American League East pennant.

I am not saying the Jays should hand Griffin’s job to Fernandez – only that his valuable tools, his game-winning tools, are wasted in Syracuse. It is time to cut the sentimental nonsense and send the team’s best talent in hot pursuit of the pennant. It is time for Tony Fernandez.

Late in May 1984, with Alfredo still at shortstop, Johnson elaborated on the case against him:

The truth is that no one knows how many games Griffin wins in the clubhouse. But the best analysts can figure how many he must win there to balance his work on the field. The total is 2.6 games – the number of wins his over-all play cost Toronto last season. That number is supplied by Pete Palmer, an official American League statistician and the inventor of the “Linear Weights” rating system.

Palmer has simulated thousands of ballgames on a computer to discover what each element (error, single, stolen base, etc.) contributes to victory. Then he rates every player’s performance, carefully adjusting to reflect the average play at his position.

The results? Wade Boggs created 5.8 more wins in 1983 than a standard third baseman. Stated another way, the mythical “average” team (with its 81-81 record) would win about 87 games with Boggs in the lineup. Cal Ripken Jr. ranked second, with 5.7 extra wins, while Robin Yount gained 4.4 and Alan Trammell 2.8. Even Scott Fletcher, the lightly regarded shortstop of Chicago White Sox, was worth one extra victory.

Griffin? He cost the Jays 2.6 wins, putting him in the ’83 class with Ron Washington (minus 2.7), Bucky Dent (minus 2.5), and Glenn Hoffman (minus 1.1). Obviously, Griffin’s defenders will merely add these ratings to the pile of “irrelevant” statistics that conspire to downgrade their MVP.

Yet Palmer’s detailed stats measure some of the very “intangibles” Griffin is alleged to contribute. Fielding range, for instance, has more importance than errors among the Linear Weights. But that is no particular help to Griffin because – yet another heresy – there is nothing remarkable about his plays-per-game ratio. If he really is getting to balls the others don’t attempt, there must be a league conspiracy to hide the fact.

Griffin made 4.41 plays a game last season, albeit on a very slick turf. Ripken made 4.99, and Yount 4.86. So, even if we adjust for the fast surface, there is little evidence of his superiority afield.

Perhaps Alfredo really is worth three extra games in the clubhouse. My point is: he’d sure better be.

Range Factor: the State of the Art in 1983 for Fielding Statistics

In a column headlined “The Range Factor can make sense of fielding stats,” Bryan Johnson, writing in the Toronto Globe & Mail on February 10, 1983, made a case for Range Factor, a stat developed by Bill James, being the definitive way to determine how well a fielder played his position:

Defence ranks right beside pitching and power as a key ingredient for a winning baseball team. It is no coincidence that the world champion St. Louis Cardinals led the National League in fielding percentage last year, or that Baltimore was once again the American League’s top defensive team.
Cardinal manager Whitey Herzog was probably understating things last fall when he estimated that his shortstop Ozzie (Wiz) Smith had “saved us a hundred runs this year.” Still, hardly anyone pays much attention to the mind-numbing fielding stats that hold, and hide, the secrets of the glove world. And who can blame them? Even the most dedicated fans are bound to be confused and bored by numbers that are so often misleading, contradictory, incomprehensible – or even outright meaningless. — Wayne Krenchicki best at third? — How, for example, can you relate outfield assists to a throwing arm, when a well-known cannon like New York’s David Winfield gets exactly one assist in 1981, and follows up with 17 in 1982? And what are you supposed to do with a fielding percentage that shows Wayne Krenchicki as a better third baseman than Mike Schmidt? . . .

Huh? Obviously, those ratings are absurd. But the problem is less with the statistics themselves than with idiots who cannot read or interpret them. All of baseball’s crucial numbers must be massaged a bit before they make much sense. And the right hands can transform those fielding charts from near nonsense into a gold mine of new information.
Just a little work with a calculator, for instance, reveals the real trio of top AL outfielders from left to right: Willie Wilson, Dwayne Murphy and Tony Armas. Supporters of Rickey Henderson and Dwight Evans would certainly argue those choices. But a deep analysis of the fielding stats can stitch four or five years of records together to show that Wilson and Armas consistently reach more balls than their nearest rivals.
The same calculation restores Mike Schmidt to prominence, placing him neck-and-neck with Ken Oberkfell as the NL’s best third baseman. But both are dwarfed by the magic mitt of Buddy Bell, current undisputed heir to Brooks Robinson as grand master of baseball’s hot corner.
If Smith means 100 runs a year to the Cardinals, Bell probably saves 70 to 80 for the woeful Texas Rangers. He fields about 94 balls a year that even a good third baseman wouldn’t reach; and he grabs at least 160 more per season than Toby Harrah, the man he replaced in Texas.
That sort of precise measurement is made possible by something called the Range Factor, an invention of statistician Bill James and his renowned Baseball Abstract. James simply sets aside a player’s errors, and adds up the number of successful plays (putouts and assists) he makes per game. Errors are considered in their own context. But they don’t begin to measure a fielder’s real value – especially if he is making one play per game that his opponent is not. . . .

Consider the 1982 results. California Angels and Minnesota Twins seemed to have an almost identical defensive record, with each team making 108 errors and the Angels just nudging ahead on fielding percentage, .983 to .982. But the division-winning California team made 517 more putouts and assists than the last-place Twins – a huge margin of 3.20 per game. And by no coincidence at all, the Angels gave up 149 fewer runs.
Those are the kind of hidden numbers that separate a superb defensive team from an awful one. But most fans find a far more powerful argument for the RF in the individual statistics of players such as Bell and Harrah.  When that pair swapped uniforms after the 1978 season, they silenced everyone who felt the Range Factor was more a measure of opportunity than ability. Bell was making 3.45 plays a game in Cleveland, Harrah only 2.43 in Texas. But the usual cant about field conditions and pitching were trotted out to explain the vast discrepancy.
What happened after the trade? Bell just packed up his spectacular RF and took it to Texas, posting 3.24, 3.38, 3.61 and 3.63 averages between 1979 and ’82. Harrah, meanwhile, has spent four years watching the ball whistle into left field at Cleveland. His totals there are 1.98, 2.80, 2.40 and 2.55.

The next week, Johnson presented this list of range factors for A.L. second basemen and shortstops who played from 1978 through 1982, listed backwards (as I found it in the archives, at least), from ’82 back to ’78:

Shortstops: ’82 ’81 ’80 ’79 ’78
Smalley 3.96, 3.81, 5.25, 5.39, 5.18
Trammell 4.57, 5.03, 4.42, 4.46, 4.75
Yount 4.82, 5.71, 5.22, 5.26, 5.59

Second basemen: ’82 ’81 ’80 ’79 ’78
Dauer 4.23, 4.78, 5.02, 4.59, 4.97
Gantner 5.38, 5.64, 4.86, 5.73, 4.57
Grich 5.51, 5.79, 5.40, 5.08, 5.17
Randolph 5.15, 5.09, 5.52, 5.44, 5.19
Remy 4.69, 4.99, 4.97, 4.6,3 5.47
Whitaker 5.38, 5.38, 5.37, 5.15, 5.54
White 5.21, 5.26, 5.51, 5.15, 5.07

Published in: on December 9, 2009 at 9:33 am  Comments (1)  
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Criticizing Sabermetrics in the Early ’80s

The following are two excerpts from journalism on sabermetrics in the early 1980s. I reprint them here because they display two of the major themes that have apparently come up in criticisms of sabermetrics from the very beginning on up to today. This letter to the Toronto Globe and Mail, titled “Slippery Swami” and appearing on Thursday, May 24, 1984, said of the paper’s Bryan Johnson:

Your Swami of Sabermetrics, Bryan Johnson, is proving himself to be a very slippery and resilient swami. His method is like that of a salesman who, having forced his way into your home and set up his demonstration before you can protest, finally has to be physically ejected from the premises.

And what is he selling? Q: (to sabermetrician) Were Baltimore Orioles the best team in baseball last year? A: It’s too early to say. They did win the World Series, but that was only because they were able to score more runs more often than their opponents. However, if we look at this in terms of ballpark distortion, and if we take into account other erroneous and misguided perceptions of reality . . . Would you buy a used World Series from a guy in an orange Rabbit? Terry Finn Toronto

And, in Daniel Okrent’s profile of Bill James in Sports Illustrated in 1981, Okrent didn’t really criticize James, but he did describe James’s absentmindness and his disengagement from the physical world sport takes place in:

Driving home one night with a friend from a Royals game in Kansas City, James stopped for a lonesome red light while delivering a brilliant soliloquy on the statistical evidence of Shortstop Freddie Patek’s decay as an effective player. The traffic light changed to green, and then it changed back to red. It changed to green again, back to red and back to green again before James’ disquisition ran its course and he returned to earth. “Oh, the light’s changed,” he said, and proceeded calmly down the road. . . .

His father, George, 74, who still lives in Mayetta, Kans. (pop. 246), where Bill was raised, says of his son’s boyhood, “Mostly, Bill had his nose in books, but he was a baseball nut, too, like a lot of other people. He was just nuttier than most.” And a lot smarter, too. Unfortunately, a statistician’s mythology is not like that of a fastball pitcher; we have no mental picture of young Bill hurling stats at the side of a barn, sharpening his nominal curve.

James also made the point that baseball is a dream for sports-minded statisticians and mathematicians because it so thoroughly tracks the movements of the players during a game: “A baseball field is so covered with statistics that nothing can happen there without leaving its tracks in the records. There may well be no other facet of American life, the activities of laboratory rats excepted, which is so extensively categorized, counted and recorded.”

Published in: on November 12, 2009 at 5:59 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The 1982 Bill James Baseball Abstract

Bryan Johnson, a Toronto Globe and Mail writer who had, apparently, been the paper’s drama expert in the late ’70s, reviewed this book in this way:

Until this year, there were two distinct classes of baseball fans: the great huddled masses, and the tiny tribe of zealots who followed the gospel according to Bill James. The common herd watched the NBC Game of the Week, swallowed newspaper box scores, and did idiotic things such as making Willie Stargell the 1979 MVP. Shrouded in darkness, they seemed forever doomed to a life of mere batting averages, RBIs and ERAs. The Bill James devotees could only gaze down from a great height and forgive their lesser brothers. What, after all, could be expected from people who didn’t know a Runs Created formula from an Isolated Power stat? . . .

If you could find his pamphlet in Canada, which only a few of us ever did, it cost an outrageous $20. But what an investment! In return, Bill James revealed the game you were watching but had never seen. In an odd way, the Kansas stats fanatic actually hated most baseball statistics, because they so often hid the game’s truth. . . .

Alas, there is a sad ending to the Bill James story. Sports Illustrated discovered him last year, and ran an ecstatic profile. A publishing company offered a nice contract, turning the Abstract into a real book with a glossy cover and typography that doesn’t look like a high school essay. The price is now reasonable, the distribution excellent.

So there’s no longer the slightest cachet in being a Bill James devotee. Now any damn fool can be a ball fan.

Published in: on November 12, 2009 at 5:29 pm  Comments (1)  
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