Sabermetrics And MoneyBall; A Tale Of Baseball Evolution

We’ve all heard the term sabermetrics, but…do we even know how the term was coined and where it came from? Have you ever seen the movie MoneyBall? And what do those two questions have in common? It all stems from SABR — The Society for American Baseball Research.

SABR is a “Membership organization dedicated to fostering the research and dissemination of the history, record and culture of baseball.” In addition, they are concerned with the preservation of research materials associated with the sport. Might sound a little nerdy but what Darwin was to evolution, SABR (Sabermetrics) is to baseball! 

Humble Beginnings

The organization was established in Cooperstown, NY in 1971, at a meeting in the Baseball Hall of Fame library called by sports writer Bob Davids. The original 17 members saw steady growth leading to their incorporation as a charitable organization in 1974. At present there are over 6500 members, chapters in almost every major city where a professional baseball franchise is located and representation in Tokyo, London and even Australia. 

sabermetrics; SABR members at the game in Philadelphia in 2013

SABR members at the game in Philadelphia in 2013

Every summer since their origin, SABR members have gathered for an annual convention. This year they will be in Houston from July 29 – Aug 3, and most of the 500 attendees will go together to a ballgame. Before the game they will spend hours with top Astro executives and front office staff in several panel discussions.

Everyone Is Welcome

While talking to local long-time member F. X.  Flinn, who serves on the board of directors, I learned that there’s no test to become a SABR member, no age or gender restrictions and there’s even a junior subchapter of SABR located in Burlington, Vt. The annual fee starts at $45; everyone is welcome and membership contributes a substantial amount to their financial make up.

Sabermetrics and MoneyBall

SABR has evolved into much more than their original mission statement reflects. The use of mathematical and statistical analysis of records has indeed changed the way professional baseball operates their very business model.


SABR members get a backstage tour of the Minnesota Twins archives at Target Field in Minneapolis in 2012

In the early 80’s, Bill James published a series of books on baseball analytics titled ‘The Baseball Abstracts‘ which he called sabermetrics in honor of SABR. By the late 1980s, Billy Beane of the Oakland Athletics incorporated sabermetrics in building World Series contenders. The subsequent film MoneyBall is the story of his implementation of sabermetrics to acquire and utilise undervalued players in a baseball world dominated by totally different ‘Metrics’.

Sabermetrics, or statistical analysis dates back to the work of Allan Roth for the Brooklyn Dodgers, a 1964 book by Earnshaw Cook called Percentage Baseball, and the groundbreaking Hidden Game of Baseball by John Thorn. 

But sabermetrics is more than just statistical and mathematical analysis. It is more the statistics as they relate to other players and statistics. Terms like VORP (value over replacement player), Runs Created, Similarity Score and Pythagorean Expectation supplement the simple counting of RBIs, or the basic rate calculations of Batting Average.

Rawlings Incorporates SABR Defensive Index Into Gold Glove Voting In 2013; More Sabermetrics

Another classic example of how this has affected baseball is the process of determining the annual Gold Glove Award winner, a tradition created by Rawlings in 1957. The coveted award is given to one player of each of the nine positions in both the AL and the NL. The managers of each team vote for the players but there has been substantial controversy over the years with the results. Some critics claimed that players won because of past reputation, offensive statistics or even just plain popularity, and not by defensive capability. Rawlings decided to seek SABR’s help and last year began making a sabermetric measure, the SABR Defensive Index, count for 25% of the decision process.

As we looked to marry ‘The Art of Fielding with the Science of Baseball™,’ the composition of the SABR Defensive Index is exactly what we were hoping to achieve,” said Mike Thompson, senior vice president of marketing for St. Louis-based Rawlings. “Since its inception in 1957, the Rawlings Gold Glove Award has relied on the major-league managers and coaches’ invaluable insights and keen understanding of the art of fielding to reward the best defensive players in the game. The new sabermetric component in the selection process is just another example of how the iconic Award has evolved throughout history as the industry standard honoring defensive excellence at the highest level of baseball.”

Big Papi, Sabermetrics And The Defensive Shift

While sometimes it isn’t a good idea to over analyze a situation, take a look at ‘Big Papi’, David Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox and the defense used by opponents when he bats — yet another perfect example of how more sophisticated data collection process is reshaping the thinking in MLB.

“That’s what happens when you have people who say, ‘I wonder what we would learn if we started collecting data about where each ball was hit from every pitch that was thrown, and to go one step further, where each player was on the field when that pitch was thrown'”. Flinn continued, “Now you have teams that are paying people to watch the games and collect that data…AND…those teams are putting it to use internally and hence the defensive shift.”

SABR Moves Into A New Era
The Annual Analytics Conference, ‘A New Baseball Standard’

According to Flinn, in the early 2000’s, the board of directors wanted to do some ‘radical surgery’ on their batting order. Instead of simply producing two journals, a book and an annual convention, SABR added a web-based membership system and began moving resources online.

“During the first decade of the 2000’s, we worked very hard to turn our data assets into data bases that were well organized and tightly integrated so that people who were looking to commercially exploit that data could come to SABR and we could license the use of it…. a change from the old SABR that perhaps focused too much on what happened on the 1920’s and 30’s baseball history”.

In 2010, headquarters moved from Cleveland to Phoenix. “Phoenix is one of those 365 days a year baseball places,” he said, “offering many more opportunities to create ties with the baseball industry.” They also reconfigured their staff so they had someone dedicated to being a full time web producer giving the organization additional credibility and visibility.

But the biggest new addition to the SABR lineup is the Annual Analytics Conference held in Phoenix, the 2nd weekend in March during spring training. Flinn notes, “…it has become a very important industry conference for baseball. The attendees, by and large, are people who work for MLB teams in the analytics area or they’re executives with teams who are coming to hear and share in the latest trends. That’s been a huge success for us and running that conference is like adding another thousand members.”


SABR Annual Analytics Conference

Focusing On Youth

When asked about SABR’s initiative to recruit younger members, Flinn jokingly mused, “We’re trying to get our member’s average age under 50!” Although humorous, there’s a lot of truth said in jest. “We have our arms open to the younger generation and we welcome initiatives like the youth chapter in Burlington. We are absolutely committed to continuing the Jack Kavanaugh award, an annual contest which is presented by SABR for the best essay or research paper on a topic related to baseball.” (There are middle school, high school and college divisions)

“I would also like to find youth baseball sites across the country to give kids access to what SABR is all about.”

The Future For SABR

“I believe that over the next decade, SABR is going to become markedly more present-oriented. That in turn will bring in everyone who has this level of interest in the game into the fold which will serve the whole baseball research community well.” The incorporation of sabermetrics into management decisions is more prominent than ever.

One last thought Flinn added to the conversation was about the Bio Project which has been in the works for the last ten years. SABR is writing a full length, 1500 word biography of every player that ever played Major League Baseball! That encompasses about 18,000 players! In addition you can find information about Ball Parks, Executives, Spouses, Managers, Umpires, Games, Scouts and Broadcasters.  click here

This is not just your father’s SABR. It’s truly an organization that serves the entire baseball community, both young and old, player or fan. They’re embracing both the past and the future and they embody the notion that you don’t have to be a player to be in professional baseball. 

Let your love of the sport be infectious and make the game a better place for having been there.


Sabermetrics and Moneyball; A Tale of Baseball Evolution

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