Monday, June 30, 2008

La vida SABR

This is the funniest thing I ever heard Chris Dial say. "I am not a stat geek."

This was back in the late nineties, sometime during the storied Braves-Mets clashes of that era. Maybe opening weekend. Maybe 1999. Sitting in the covered boxes of the Lexus Level at Turner Field, day game, long delay, waiting out the thunderstorms blowing through. Post-Piazza. Pre-Rocker. Right dab in the middle of Rey Ordonez.

What you have to understand about Dial is this. It's all about Rey Ordonez. Ordonez is the Rubicon. Ordonez is the great white whale. Ordonez is his raison d'etre, his existential meaning, the very soundtrack of his life. Without Rey Ordonez, Chris Dial would not exist.

Once, in the storied land of Usenet, there was a geek fight. Or maybe there were lots of different little geek fights, all of them blurring together at the edges until you couldn't tell where one ended and the other began. Who can say for certain? All we can know is this. There were geeks. There were fights. It was Usenet. This was the way of things.

On the one hand you had the SDCNs, the stat drunk computer nerds. A motley group of fools they were. Poorly adjusted and vaguely described. Ill tempered and squinty eyed. Prone to factions and vapours. Feudal lords of a thousand internecine squabbles entrenched along ley lines of baroque doctrinal detail. Kind of like the Catholics before Vatican II, only with spreadsheets.

Wars of flame ignited, blazed, extinguished. Grudges smoldered. Alliances formed and dissolved; reassembled; reconciled. It was a mad and petty land. A vicious and trying land. A terribly entertaining land. Chaos ruled, the barest of commonalities to so much as define the space as place.

1. Killfile Maynard.
2. BA is for commoners.
3. Clutch hitting is a myth.
4. Rey Ordonez sucks.

By these truths were we bound together.

You must understand, of course. These were darker times. Pre-blog. Web 1.0. Dial-up. The world was not privy to the great light of SABR-truthiness as it shines today. Rob and Rany ran a website. Baseball Prospectus did not. It must be era-adjusted.

There was still some debate over the true level of the Ordonez suck. No one was really sure how to best define such suck. We didn't have the tools for such things. The sheer scope of it... There existed even a contingent of sad souls who would whisper heresy aloud; "Rey Ordonez might not suck at all," they would tremble, all bated breath and darting eyes. "We just don't know. He can't hit, but...we just don't know." Some went further. "Rey Ordonez", they demanded, "does not suck at all. In fact, he is one of the most valuable players in basball. He saves a run a game with his glove."

Enter Chris Dial.

Dial loved him some Rey Ordonez. Don't let that faux-shocked "Who, me?!" fool you. Rey Ordonez was the dreamiest player that Busey ever dreamed to dream. Well. Kind of. See, back then, no one really believed defense was important. I mean, no one important. Just, like, scouts and general managers and shit. No one on Usenet. Except Dial. Chris believed. Oh, how Chris believed. He held his hands wide and clapped and clapped and clapped. Certainly it was true. Defense was important damnit, and Rey Ordonez was a defensive god damnit, so therefore everyone was wrong and Chris was right and SHUTUPSHUTPSHUTUPSHUTUP! It was like that in the land, sometimes. But no one would listen to Chris, how ever loudly he clapped. It was like that in the land sometimes, too.

So here's what Dial did. Short version. Dial grabbed everything he could find about defense in major league baseball and he shoved it through about twenty-three different spreadsheets. He rangled. He finagled. He conjoled. He did math. Complicated math. And in the end, he came up with a protean sludge that would eventually evolve into his vaunted defensive methodology.

Turns out Rey Ordonez actually didn't have much value. Turns out even after accounting for his defense he was basically worthless, a flashy showboat with a knack for highlight reel plays but otherwise unspectactular in any aspect of the game. The fact that he couldn't so much as lay down a sac bunt in the most important at bat of his career, effectively eliminating his team from the playoffs singlehandedly? Cake. Turns out Rey Ordonez really did suck.

But this was before all that. This was in process, en route, en flagrante. This was opening weekend of that year and Chris was still working out the details. So we're sitting up there, in the Lexus boxes, broiling in the late Georgian afternoon, waiting for a game that was scheduled for 1:05 but started at 7:05. We're sitting up there, nattering on about baseball and rivalries and how to account for the three unassisted in range studies for first basemen, crunching through an early iteration of Dial on Defense, and he actually says to me, "I am not a stat geek." Seriously. I shit you not. Boy is CREATING A NEW STATISTICAL MEASURE TO PROVE THE DEFENSIVE WORTH OF REY ORDONEZ and says to me, "No, serioulsy, I am not a stat geek. I'm not SABR at all." See, in the delusion de la Dial the fact that he was creating a stat to prove conventional SABR wisdom wrong - which turned out to be wrong itself in the specifics, but enormously right in the generality - proved that he wasn't himself a SABRmetrician. He wasn't a stat geek at all. This is the funniest thing I ever heard Chris Dial say.

Me? I'm not a stat geek at all. I have never, not even once, created a new statistic, for any purpose whatsoever. Yes, just this week I corrected a friend who had mistakenly accused my 2003-ish statement that Mark DeRosa would be "a RH Keith Lockhart" of being off base by noting that he, sad to say, had failed to adjust for age, had failed to remember that Lockhart was jerked around by the Royals until he was 29 and thus DeRosa was just now coming into the years of his career that matched Lockhart's long, tedious (unending, agonizing, Christ will someone please cut this freakin guy) decline phase. Yes, I did so by referencing RC/9 and OPS+. Yes, if pressed I could explain what the AIR column of Forman's masterwork means. But the math would be rough at best, and I'd avoid it at all costs if I could. And dude. I never, ever CREATED MY OWN STAT. Not even once, when I was college experimenting.

Which makes it kind of odd, as many noted during the event, that I attended SABR 38 last weekend. I mean, you'd think that a guy attending the annual convention of the Society for American Baseball Research would at least nominally do some baseball research, right? But then you wouldn't know me at all. Because really, I wasn't attending SABR 38 in the least, though I did attend a few presentations Saturday morning. No, I was just there for the booze. Or the social hours. Or both. Much like pitching and defense, it's hard to tell the one from the other.

I hung out with Dial. We chatted. We reminisced. We drank a lot of gin and vodka. I met Jimmy Furtado for the first time after 10 years of on-again, off-again contribution to his website. I finally got a chance to thank Sean Forman in person. I saw so many people that I "know" but had never met that the mind boggles. Darren and Anthony and Aaron and Joe and Jon and on and on and on. Which is good, because I still identify people by their birth names, I'm afraid. I had a fucking stupendous time.

But I want this on the record, okay? I am not a stat geek. Chris Dial is a stat geek. He's wrong about the whole Bonds thing in the specifics, but like Ordonez, he's right about it in the generality. And yeah, Red is probably smarter than me already, truth be told. But no, I really don't get the math unless you speak slowly and pat me on the head, so seriously. I'm not. But I still owe Vinay a round from the bowling-alley bar so I'm pretty much morally obliged to attend next year to pay that back, right? Because being that I am so not a stat geek, I can't really be thinking about attending SABR 39 this far in advance. Right?

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