Sabermetrics in 1983

I recently put together a post on signs of Bill James emerging into the mainstream in 1982. As a complement to that post, here are some excerpts from a Newsweek article on May 23, 1983, entitled “The Computers of Summer”:

The Chicago White Sox manager speaks fondly of his data base. His counterpart in Oakland spouts terms such as “printout” and “information retrieval” in lieu of the usual tobacco juice. Clearly Tony La Russa and Steve Boros are pleased to be pioneers in baseball’s computer age. But if the White Sox and A’s enjoy an advantage because of their Apple II Pluses, they had better exploit it quickly. The New York Yankees are coming on line in June, several other managers have expressed a serious interest in computers and even the more conservative clubs have begun scribbling statistics with unprecedented fervor. “I don’t know if you could call what’s happening a revolution,” says Craig White, a superstatistician who works full time for the Texas Rangers. “But baseball people are definitely seeking out new and more meaningful ways to scientifically analyze the game.”

The A’s inadvertently ushered in the computer era when they bought a system called Edge 1,000 for their broadcast team two years ago. The brainchild of Richard D. Cramer, a Philadelphian who designs pharmaceuticals by computer for a living, the Edge was used to determine mundane things like batting averages and runs batted in and to keep track of how certain hitters and pitchers matched up.

A digression here: Cramer went on to found STATS, Inc., and is Science VP for Tripos International, which “helps pharmaceutical companies and research facilities around the world successfully accelerate the identification and optimization of new compounds that have the potential to become drug products.” Read more about Cramer’s scientific career here. Back to the article:

At that time Billy Martin, who was then manager, wanted no part of the newfangled gizmo, so it fell to the White Sox, Edge’s only other subscriber, to adapt the system for managerial use. Today both teams employ computer operators who, by dint of some furious keyboard tapping, manage to record a highly nuanced, pitch-by-pitch account of each game. (“If the ball hits an outfielder on the peak of his cap and he gets charged with a four-base error,” says Chicago programmer Dan Evans, “we’re ready for that.”) The ballpark computers are connected via telephone hookup to a Philadelphia-based mainframe that stores the information and/or combines it with massive doses of leaguewide data to produce detailed player evaluations. . . .

The Society for American Baseball Research, a group of avowed figure filberts, now claims more than 3,200 “sabermetricians” who spend countless hours analyzing the game from odd angles. SABR member Craig Wright was hired by the Rangers after he produced hard evidence that players who grew up in warm climates performed better in steamy Arlington Stadium than those who did not. Although he’s made some suggestions to manager Doug Rader about which pitcher-catcher combinations seem to work best, Wright views his brand of sabermetrics as “mostly a front-office tool” that will be used to point up each player’s limitations at contract-negotiation time. The players realize that, and some have hired Bill James, author of the annual “Baseball Abstract,” as a consultant. Now when a management representative informs a player that he ranked a miserable 107th in the league in early-inning triples, agents can respond by noting that Billy Joe also was among the top 10 in bat-day bunts.

On the other hand, all the hoopla about “sabermetrics” was undercut a little by two quotes in the article, one from La Russa: “There’s not a heck of a lot of time to punch some buttons, wait for a machine to grind away and then learn that if we bunt we’ve got an 83 percent chance of doing this or that. The day the computers do the managing, machines will be playing the game.”

And another one from Craig Wright: “Every good manager is a sabermetrician at heart. I’m constantly amazed that when a manager is presented with a supposedly new fact, he already has it.”

[I’ve added a sequel to this post called More on Sabermetrics in 1983.]


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