Dr. Andy

Reflections on medicine and biology among other things

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Why the Pirates stink

The Pirates are terrible. Pittsburgh is a small market, so the payroll is small. As I've blogged before it is suspiciously small, less than the revenue the Pirates get from revenue sharing and national TV, but they will never compete with the Dodgers or Yankees monetarily.

But it is more than that. In effect, the Pirates have given up. 25 years ago, in high school, I started reading Bill James, the founder of sabremetrics (which is, roughly, the study of baseball statistics). From the very beginning he emphasized how important, and underrated, the walk was. As I went off to college and on with life, I paid increasingly less attention to baseball, but I assumed professional baseball, as it became more and more a busines, would incorporate these and other insights.

In fact that was not that case. As detailed in Moneyball, published in 2003, Oakland A general manager Billy Beane brillantly exploited the reluctance of more traditional baseball men to take advantage of sabremetrics. He built the A's into a consistent winner despite a modest payroll.

I loved the book and highly recommend it, even if you aren't a baseball fan. One thing I always wondered was why Beane agreed to cooperate with the book. He had an incredible competitive advantage, using statistical insights that are largely in the public domain, but ignored by other teams. Now I know the answer. He knew teams like the Pirates were too stupid and/or stubborn to learn.

10 million people have read Moneyball. Even the ones who knew nothing about baseball now know that walks are a key offensive statistic and batting average is overrated. The Pirates remain clueless. From the Post Gazette:

Most troublesome to many who follow the team closely, the Pirates have shown precious little patience at the plate in Perry's tenure. Last year, they ranked last in the majors with 415 walks. This year, they rank 23rd out of the 30 teams with 95.

Although there is greater value being placed on walks and on-base percentage in the baseball community, Perry is adamant that coaching players to seek a free pass is unwise.

"I don't want my hitters to be defensive," he said. "I think you have to go out there to swing the bat. You have to have a zone and try to stay within that zone, but I don't want anybody getting into that box and thinking, 'Oh, man, I need to get a walk.'"
There you have it. Bill James has been preaching walks for 25 years; Moneyball has been out two years, detailing how a small money team can compete with the big boys, and the Pirates have a hitting coach who wants them up there swinging. No wonder they've had so many losing seasons in a row.


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