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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More on Sabermetrics in 1983 (With a Focus on Steve Boros)

A few months ago I used a 1983 Newsweek feature on sabermetrics to put together a post on “Sabermetrics in 1983.” Here’s a follow-up, taken from a few different sources. In late April 1983, Jim Henneman of the Baltimore Evening Sun reported:

These days in the Oakland Coliseum, where the Athletics do their thing, the phrase is “Computer Ball” [not “BillyBall,”] as programmed by Martin’s successor, Steve Boros.
It probably isn’t very comforting to Baltimore pitching coach Ray Miller, one of the finalists for Martin’s position, but there is some evidence to suggest Boros’ infatuation with video statistics was a factor in his getting the job.
“Will I have access to a computer?” was the first question Boros reportedly asked Oakland co-owner Roy Eisenhardt during his job interview.
Eisenhardt not only had a computer, he was trying to find a way for the Athletics to use it.
Boros, along with Chicago manager Tony LaRussa and Seattle’s Rene Lachemann, has taken Earl Weaver’s statistical cards to the “nth” degree, creating a baseball version of “Pac-Man.”
The A’s, who were 9-8 going into last night’s game, have had a respectable start under their new manager, but just how much is attributed to the computer is unknown. There is a suspicion that sounder arms on the pitching staff are primarily responsible.

Not quite a month later, Gerald Eskenazi of the New York Times, picking up from the Sun’s story, reported that “Boros Manages A’s With Aid of Science.” He wrote:

Steve Boros keeps a computer upstairs, good books on the shelf and a mitt on his desk. He has been able to keep the three in motion – although sometimes they collide – while he serves as rookie manager of the Oakland A’s, the team he inherited from Billy Martin.
The contrast between managing styles and personalities has never been more startling than when Martin returned and took over center stage for the Yankees’ weekend series here. . . .
But Boros, who is 46 years old and quietly content with his job, sits in his office before a game and unfolds a computer printout. Many people in sports and business are following his career. He was selected after a search in which the A’s president, Roy Eisenhardt – a former law professor and rowing coach at Berkeley – devised a list of standards for the job. They included patience and the ability to work within the community.

”See here, this is interesting,” Boros says, looking at the line on a 25-year-old right-handed rookie pitcher. ”Chris Codiroli. Six games against lefties, they’re hitting .340. Against righties he’s .127. It tells you that pitchers are not working against certain hitters, and maybe they better get another pitch in those situations.”
Boros, whose team took the field today at three games over .500, has made the computer a part of the locker room, although he never takes his printouts into the dugout. He can tell you what every one of his pitchers is likely to throw as his first pitch, with the count 0-2 or when he is behind.
He is trying to get his computer to show him graphically where the ball is pitched, what kind of pitch it was, and where his hitters hit it.
”With the modern ballplayer,” he says, ”it helps to show them.” . . .
Martin, a Civil War buff, reacted as if wounded when asked if he would consider using a computer. ”I have advance-scouting reports. That’s my computer,” snapped Martin.

Also, in 1985, the Boston Globe talked about the A’s use of computers in the early ’80s. Newsweek had described the subject in its article, and looking backwards, the Globe added:

More than four years ago [that is, sometime in 1981], Don Leopold of Lexington [Mass.] helped bring what he claims was the first use of a computer in baseball to the Oakland A’s. Working for the Pacific Select Corp., he and Dick Cramer were hired to help the A’s upgrade their television broadcasts. “They wanted their broadcasters – Bill King and Lon Simmons – to have better information, to have deeper statistics about performance,” Leopold said.

Leopold, who now runs Game Plan Inc., a marketing firm, was the interface between the technical side and the client side. He encouraged the A’s to buy a computer and hire someone to chart every pitch thrown in every game – what direction it went when hit, what kind of pitch it was, what happened to the defensive alignment when the batter swung.

“Billy Martin (who was then the manager) didn’t give a rat’s rear end about it,” Leopold said, “but Steve Boros (a later manager) was quite interested and used the information constantly.”

In line with the notion that good statistics don’t always make good management, Boros was fired as soon as Oakland went into a slump [early in 1984]. And Frank Robinson, who labored over information from his IBM 34, was similarly released as manager of the San Francisco Giants [later in 1984].

With the recent news of Steve Boros’s death as we bid goodbye to 2010, I thought it was worth looking for a few more details of his integration of computers and advanced statistics into the work of managing. Boros seems to be getting memorialized in baseball largely as someone who helped the Dodgers and Kirk Gibson look out for the 3-2 backdoor slider from Dennis Eckersley in 1988, but that was just a natural outgrowth of his earlier preoccupation with detailed preparation. At the start of the 1986 season, The San Diego Union noted that

At Oakland, Boros used computers extensively, studying percentages and tendencies to guide his strategic decisions, but at heart, he is a humanist. He would rather read a good baseball novel than a complex statistical analysis of the game.

“I found that players are very suspicious of computers, much like the general public,” he said. “They fear them as cold and impersonal and inhuman. I couldn’t make them understand that I was still going to make my own decisions, I wasn’t going to let the computer make them for me. I’m going to use some data and stats here, but we won’t have a computer and a programmer in the clubhouse like we did in Oakland.

“When you have an overpowering relief pitcher like a Gossage in the bullpen, you don’t worry so much about percentages.”

A month later, in May 1986, the Union’s Barry Lorge added this, with some details about how much harder it was to use computers in baseball in the mid-’80s:

COMPUTERS SHOULD be as natural to the national pastime as bubblegum cards, because it is a game of statistics. Kids grow up studying box scores and lists of leaders and the figures on the back of baseball cards. Stats are the currency of comparison between players, across years and generations. They plot the curve of careers and dictate decisions, just as they did before the microchip.

Boros gets information from the computers of Elias Sports Bureau, major-league baseball’s official statisticians, and from charts he and his coaches keep in the dugout.

“I’ve got the matchups of each of my hitters against every opposing pitcher and each of my pitchers against every opposing hitter — lifetime and year-by-year — to see if there’s any change in the trend,” said Boros.

“Harry Dunlop charts where every opposing batter hits the ball, so we have an idea how to defense them. Deacon Jones keeps a chart showing where each of our batters hits the ball, and every pitch thrown by the opposition. That way we see how their pitchers are working our hitters.”

BOROS STUDIES STATS on how effective hitters are getting men in from scoring position, moving runners, hitting with two outs, getting on base to lead off an inning, executing sacrifice and squeeze bunts, making contact on hit-and-run plays, and other categories. These guide substitutions and strategic decisions.

He also keeps play-by-play notes of every game on his lineup card in much greater detail than a conventional scorecard. He notes which balls are hit hard and charts everything from how a player ran the bases to how often he takes a called third strike.

“I used John Kruk as our leadoff hitter against Mike Krukow of the Giants one game last month. People wondered why,” Boros offered an example. “My charts told me the last time we faced him, Kruk was 1-for-3, but the two outs he made were on a one-hop shot that the third baseman turned into a double play and a sharp line drive to left-center that was caught. That’s why I batted him leadoff. He doubled and scored in the first inning and reached on an error later and was on base when Tony Gwynn put a ball up in the seats.”

A man wise to the numbers game once said that statistics don’t lie, but they don’t always tell all the truth. Boros wants to know the percentages, but he sometimes goes against them.

“My first year in Oakland, Dave Beard got hurt and I put Steve McCatty in the bullpen as our short relief man,” he recalled. “I told him, ‘You’re my stopper, the guy I’m going to go to.’ We got in a situation in the late innings of a one-run game where we had men on first and third, one out, and Chet Lemon coming up against McCatty. My readout told me Lemon was 7-for-12 against him.

“Now do I suddenly say, ‘Look at those stats! I can’t let McCatty pitch to him’? No. I’ve got to be willing to lose that game to let McCatty know that he’s my man. I stuck with him. So what happened? Lemon hit a pea that Davey Lopes speared and turned into a double play. That one worked out well, but the point is that the psychology was more important than what the computer told me were the percentages involved.”

IN A GAME last weekend, Boros brought in Lance McCullers to relieve Craig Lefferts because his printout showed that R.J. Reynolds of Pittsburgh was 4-for-5 against Lefferts. McCullers walked Reynolds, and Joe Orsulak followed with a two-run single, but Boros accepted that stoically.

“If I left Lefferts in and Reynolds got a hit that beat us, I wouldn’t sleep for three days,” said the manager. “We lost, 5-2, but I slept better knowing I had based my decision on a solid piece of information.”

Boros is sure that in another generation, when all big-leaguers have grown up accustomed to computers playing a part in everything from arranging their school schedules to calculating the bill at the supermarket, data processing equipment will be as commonplace in the clubhouse as batting helmets.

“It’s slow coming, but there was resistance to weight training, stretching exercises, aerobics, martial arts training, all these new things that are coming into the game and slowly being accepted,” he said. “There’s just so much information that’s useful, and it is a time-consuming job to keep track of it by hand. We put a lot of hours into gathering all the data and putting it into a form where we can analyze it quickly.”

Published in: on November 30, 2009 at 10:09 pm  Leave a Comment  
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