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  Comments (2)  
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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.]