The Nerd Within…

For as long as I can remember, I have always been a nerd. For over 47 years, I have dibbled and dabbled in everything nerdy. It is something I pride myself in. If one were to look at all the nerd things in American culture the past 50 years, you would see me staring right back at you.

It all began in the 1960s…
Growing up as a child in the 1960s meant confusion. One one hand, you had the wonderful world of black and white TV and then, “POOF!”, It goes to color. Shows went from Adam-12, Ed Sullivan, and Red Skelton to Batman, Star Trek, and Dark Shadows. For me, Star Trek was where it was at and still is through today. I bought books, models, and action figures. As a young bachelor, I would have a poster of the Enterprise on my wall. Growing up in the late 60s also meant paying attention to the space program. It is hard to conceive of now, but astronauts were actually heroes. Neil Armstrong, John Glenn, and Buzz Aldrin were amazing. I remember my older brother having different models of the Saturn V rocket, the lunar module, and the Eagle on a shelf above the dresser. The 60s were also the golden age of comic books for me. The original X-Men, Fantastic Four, Thor, Captain America, and Nick Fury were my favorites.

The Early 1970s
As the 60s faded away, the 1970s brought a new set of nerdness to my world. As I got older, I began playing sports and baseball was something I could do all day long in the summer. It is not like today. In the 1970s, we played outside all day long. We did not have a choice. Parents kicked us out by 8 a.m. and wouldn’t let us back in except to eat. As a result, we had to make our own fun. With baseball being a priority in checking the box scores each day before I left the house,  baseball cards too became a priority as they were only a nickel when the decade began. You got a ten pack of cards with a piece of gum. The smell of the gum permeated everything about the cards. It not only left a smell but a residue – like a stamp of authenticity. I continued to collect cards even when the price doubled to a dime. In the winter it was all about hot wheels and electric car racing. There is still nothing like the smell of electric slot cars doing a burnout.

The Late 70s/Early 1980s
As junior high school arrived, so did other things. In 1977, Star Wars came out. I cannot tell you how many times I saw it at the theater in Dixon. But it was substantial and it was air-conditioned. In 8th grade, I read “The Hobbit”. This book changed everything for the next ten years. Between reading cool stuff like “Lord of the Rings”, the 70s and 80s started to blend together. Video game technology in the form of Atari, Dungeons and Dragons, and Strat-O-Matic all came along in the late 70s and early 80s. In addition, cable tv made sure I would never leave the house much during college years. My memories of those years are filled with all night sessions of D&D, Risk, cigars, and Milwaukee’s Best all the while listening to Rush, Yes, Genesis, and Pink Floyd. The 1980s also saw the insertion of the “Dune” universe into my nerd universe.My last two years of college saw me reading Frank Herbert books all the time.

After 1986, I don’t remember much of the next seven years as I was working 55 hours a week. I think I continued my nerdness by reading Star Trek books, taping every single episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation on VHS and trying to find the video game TRON wherever I could.

1990s and 2000s…
When I came to my senses and got out of the lifestyle I was in, it was 1993. I settled into a 8-4 job and my nerdness returned in spades. With the Internet on computers (Obscure Homer Simpson reference), The X-Files, Risk on CD-ROM, fantasy baseball replaced strat-o-matic, my nerd level went to new heights. The information age was made of, by, and for, nerds. I even fell in love and got married. I even found ways to get back some of my nerdness (New Dune books, new Star Wars and Star Trek movies) and invent new ways of being a nerd (this blog).

As the age of 50 starts to zero in on me in the next two and half years, I have no qualms of being a nerd at 50. I embrace the things that have made me a nerd. They are part of me and I am part of them.

Moneyball: Changing the Game

Last week I heard that Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis is being made into a movie starring Brad Pitt. As for how they were going to do this, I have no clue. But the book itself revolutionized how the majority of baseball people, fans, and the casual fan look at the statistics of baseball. The book centers around Oakland A’s manager Billy Beane and the 2002 Major League Baseball Draft.

For years, there were few statistics in baseball that were examined closely by general managers and managers. These were Home Runs, Runs Batted In, Stolen Bases, and Batting Average for hitters. For pitchers, Wins, Losses, Strikeouts, and Earned Run Average were the major categories. Moneyball changed all that. New categories like WHIP, AVG K/9 IP, VORP, OBP, OPS, and many more flooded the lexicon of the game. My friend, Brien Martin, would tell you that these categories had been around a while, but only a few people knew of them.

The first people to truly get a hold of statistics and truly begin to analyze the statistics of baseball were the people behind the game, Strat-O-Matic Baseball. The game was developed in the early 1960s and became popular as a game based on statistics and tendencies of baseball players. For every kid who loved baseball in the 1960s and 1970s, you couldn’t wait until the ad appeared in the classified section of Sports Illustrated or the Sporting News so one could order their new set of cards.

Strat-O-Matic Card

In the 1980s, things began to change with regards to baseball statistics. Bill James began publishing Baseball Abstract. These books analyzed statistics like no other. For example, in 1988, James writes:

Bill James

1. Minor league batting statistics will predict major league batting performance with essentially the same reliability as previous major league statistics.
2. Talent in baseball is not normally distributed. It is a pyramid. For every player who is 10 percent above the average player, there are probably twenty players who are 10 pecent below average.
3. What a player hits in one ballpark may be radically different from what he would hit in another.
4. Ballplayers, as a group, reach their peak value much earlier and decline much more rapidly than people believe.
5. Players taken in the June draft coming out of college (or with at least two years of college) perform dramatically better than players drafted out of high school.
6. The chance of getting a good player with a high draft pick is substantial enough that it is clearly a disastrous strategy to give up a first round draft choice to sign a mediocre free agent. (see note #1)
7. A power pitcher has a dramatically higher expectation for future wins than does a finesse picther of the same age and ability.
8. Single season won-lost records have almost no value as an indicator of a pitcher’s contribution to a team.
9. The largest variable determining how many runs a team will score is how many times they get their leadoff man on base.
10. A great deal of what is perceived as being pitching is in fact defense.
11. True shortage of talent almost never occurs at the left end of the defensive spectrum. (see note #2)
12. Rightward shifts along the defensive spectrum almost never work. (see note #2)
13. Our idea of what makes a team good on artificial turf is not supported by any research.
14. When a team improves sharply one season they will almost always decline in the next.
15. The platoon differential is real and virtually universal

Striking in their simplicity, these statements would find many followers over the next decade.

Among those would be Billy Beane, a former reserve outfielder for the A’s, Mets, Tigers, and Twins in the 1980s. In his last stop, Beane began to work as an advance scout in 1990 for the Oakland A’s under General Manager Sandy Alderson. By 1994, Beane had advanced to Assistant General Manager. When Alderson left the A’s in 1998 to go work for Major League Baseball, Beane stepped in as G.M. and has been there since. For Beane, it was Alderson who taught Beane about sabermetrics not because of want, but rather need. In the 1990s, A’s ownership changed and the new owners, Schott and Hofman, weren’t willing to spend the money as freely as the previous owner, the late Walter Haas.

Michael Lewis followed Beane around in the weeks prior to the 2002 Draft. What had picqued Lewis’ interest in Beane was how the A’s could field a winning team with such a small payroll. From 2000 to 2006, the A’s made the playoffs five of the seven years with a payroll hovering around $40 million. How did Beane do it? The book revealed Beane and his staff were sabermetric lovers. The key statistics used to evaluate players were On Base Percentage (OBP) and Slugging Percentage (SP). Beane even went to call future Red Sox Star Kevin Youkolis “The Greek God of Walks” for his penchant drawing base on balls.

Why the focus on these two statistics? They are individual statistics not reliant on other players getting on base. The more players you get on base, the better chance of scoring runs. Also, the ability to take pitches and draw walks drives up the opposing pitcher’s pitch counts. As the game wears on, the starter will tire creating opportunity in two ways: One – the pitcher makes a mistake such as a hanging curveball or Two – the pitcher is replaced by someone from the bull pen who is not as good. Beane also focused more on college players, as Bill James had mentioned previously, as being more efficient to develop into major league players.

After the release of the book, everything changed about baseball. From scouting to signing players to evaluating players in trades, new statistics combined with state of the art software, computers, and the Internet, baseball is no longer the same game in the front office or the fantasy field. By 2007, the A’s players Beane had selected and used at affordable prices began to leave (Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, Barry Zito, and Jason Giambi) and everyone else was doing what Beane had been doing. James was even now a consultant for the Boston Red Sox during their fantastic World Series runs. Colleges have even begun offering classes on Sabermetrics in their statistics and Math Departments. Everything has changed.

Bill Simmons of ESPN recently wrote a nice little article about finally jumping on the sabermetrics bandwagon. Simmons, who is about the same age as me, is a devoted Red Sox fan. As a young boy, Simmons loved Fred Lynn. Simmons, writes about how Sabermetrics has changed his view of Lynn:

I can rattle off his 1975 stats from the back of that card without looking: 145 games, 528 at-bats, 103 runs, 175 hits, 47 doubles, 7 triples, 21 homers, 105 RBIs, .331 batting average. In 1975, that was all you really needed to know … and not to sound like Grumpy Old Man, but that was the way we liked it!

Thirty-five years later, those numbers don’t tell us nearly enough. What was his OPS? (.401 OBP + .566 slugging = .967 OPS, good for first in the American League). What was his OPS-plus? (161, good for second.) How was his defense? (Won a Gold Glove.) Did he swipe bases? (10 steals, 5 caught.) How many win shares? (33, led the AL.) How ’bout his VORP? (63.2, fifth in the AL.) Or his Wins Above Replacement? (7.1 … very good, not otherworldly.) Intangibles included a riveting World Series and the simple fact that no baseball player was cooler than Freddie Lynn in 1975. He had the best swing, the best end-of-the-inning jog, the best throw, the best diving catches, the best everything.

Simmons goes on to detail seven sabermetric categories in his irreverant style.

In the end, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game changed how people inside and outside the game look at baseball. It’s as if everyone now has their own Strat-O-Matic set of cards. Combined with the end of the steroid era, the game now embraces statistics like never before. If only Chicks dig the sabermetrician…

Here’s another interesting take on it all…