I posted this a week before the NBA season began, and I feel like it's appropriate to repost it, given the Rockets winning their series against Portland....
In an article posted previous to this one, DyingQuail posed the following question in summation of his thoughts on Moneyball and other subjects:
It gets at something that every single organization in baseball should be asking themselves constantly: is there anything else we can be doing?
The quick and dirty answer to that question, at least to me, is: yes, the team could probably do more. After reading this article from ESPN: The Magazine, on Rockets' GM Daryl Morey's usage of statistics, I thought even more about DQ's question.
My thought (surely not original) is this: there is no full proof blueprint to building a baseball team. Teams have struggled to compile a roster of players that can be competitive year and year out for as long as baseball has been played. The fact of the matter is that while basketball and football player performances are somewhat easier to project from collegian to professional, the science behind baseball player forecasting is not as simple.
A college basketball player who is a high percentage 3 point shooter, will most likely end up having a relatively high shooting percentage on 20 ft jumpers while in the pros. Rarely does such a player fail to perform well in this segment of the game. Maybe he can't play defense, rebound, or be able to create shots for himself well enough to play as well as he did in college, but his shooting eye will usually be a constant in the professional ranks, as compared to in college.
Houston's own Shane Battier is a good example of this. In his senior season at Duke, Battier posted this offensive line:
Shane established himself as a great all around player in 2001, on his way to being named College Basketball Player of the Year. Beyond his stellar defense, "grit", and team player-ness (it's a word) was the fact that Shane scored nearly 20 points a game his senior season, on a team that won a National Championship. When the chips were down, he was option A or B in the most important of games. Seems like the kind of player who could turn out to be a nice scorer in the professional ranks. That hasn't come to fruition, and it won't- Battier is what he is. Take those same statistical categories I charted earlier and substitute his pro stats, and the numbers look like this:
The shooting percentages are roughly equivalent to what he was doing at Duke. Take into account the increased athleticism of defenders, fewer plays actually ran specifically to get him a good look at the basket, and the distance of the three point shot in the NBA, and Battier has remained a steady shooter in the pros. That skill set hasn't diminished. His ability to score has, but teams are willing to overlook this. Therein lies a huge difference between basketball and baseball- players can contribute in other ways in basketball, other than pure offensive numbers. If an Astro "role player"- i.e.-not a top players on the team, like Ty Wigginton, hits only 10 home runs next year, he will have a down year. Odds are his slugging percentage will have decreased, and perhaps pitchers will not pitch around him as much, lowering his OBP. Bad news for the Astros.
The Rockets will be ok this season if Battier only scores 8 points as opposed to his career average of 10, as he contributes directly to the final score in other ways. One on one matchups defensively are one such way the value of Battier can be measured in a way that does not translate to baseball. Last season, Kobe Bryant was named NBA MVP, but racked up this offensive line when he played the Rockets and Mr. Battier:
|Date of Game||FG's||
In effect, Battier (who was matched up with Bryant on the vast majority of Laker offensive possessions) forced Kobe into two very poor games, and in those two games the Rockets won. In the second game against Houston, Bryant played like the MVP, and the Lakers earned the victory. The point totals are all outstanding, but don't be fooled. Very few guys in the NBA are given the chance to "shoot out of a slump" in a single game. If Luther Head is 0/5 from the floor in the first half, odds are he won't get the chance to shoot himself out of it in the second. Kobe has earned that right, and managed to put up enough shot attempts to garner respectable point totals in all three games, despite having not played well in two. Analysts pointed to Battier's hounding of Kobe defensively, and it was clear that he played Bryant as well as any defender. The numbers bear that out as well.
Compare the contributions of Shane Battier versus Kobe Bryant, or any leading scoring of an opposing team, to the potential contributions of a baseball player against any opponent, and it's apples to oranges. A team cannot send a single player out to diminish the effect of an opposing hitter every time he comes to bat. Specialty arms out the bullpen, various defense alignments, and the intentional walk can impede a player's success, but not in the same way as a defender in basketball can deny an entry pass or post position.
Going back to something I mentioned earlier, if Michael Bourn is OBP'ing .250, Cecil Cooper can't just keep giving him extra AB's in a given game to help snap out of a slump. The rules of the game don't allow it. A basketball player's FG attempts in an 82 game season can fluctuate a greater amount than a baseball player's ABs in a 162 game season. Lead off hitters typically get the 550 ABs a season, no matter if your name is Michael Bourn or Grady Sizemore.
To sum it up, sports is not science. I love numbers as much as anyone, and wish that the Astros did too. Maybe they do, maybe they don't. Sabermetrics, like Daryl Morey said, is a tool to use when evaluating a player, not the tool. The Oakland A's during the time of Moneyball, certainly had a distinct way of evaluating and drafting talent. Michael Lewis used hyperbole effectively to portray Billy Beane to help him sell his book, and possibly to create a little buzz about the mad scientist in the Eastbay. No team should analyze players strictly on a statistical basis, and by the same token, relying solely on the "old guard" of scouts and subjective inferences is not effective either. I couldn't help but thinking that I'd never heard a better philosophy on constructing a roster, baseball or basketball, than how Morey described it. He was concise, intelligent, humble, cautious, yet confident. He realizes that he his numbers are a piece of the puzzle. I'll finish with this exerpt from the article from ESPN: The Magazine:
He is no robot churning out streams of data, nor is he a slave to his numbers. "There is more than one way to win, more than one way to see things," he says. "Through analysis, we're trying to give ourselves one more way to answer questions. But we combine those answers with what our coaches, players and scouts tell us."
There definitely is more than one way to see things. Sabermetiric-oriented thinkers believed this before their viewpoints were accomodated by the mainstream in baseball.