Saturday, April 4, 2020

Baseball Books: "When Big Data Was Small" & "Unwritten"

Photo by Jason Schott.

As the delay to the baseball season continues, it's a good time to take a look at two books on how the game is studied and played, When Big Data Was Small, by Richard D. Cramer; and Unwritten: Bat Flips, The Fun Police, and Baseball's New Future, by Danny Knobler.

When Big Data Was Small: My Life In Baseball Abalytics and Drug Design
By Richard D. Cramer; foreword by John Thorn
Nebraska; hardcover, 264 pages; $28.95

Richard D. Cramer started analyzing baseball statistics in the mid-1960s, after graduating from Harvard and MIT. He is the co-founder of STATS Inc. and has done important work with both the Society of American Baseball Researrch (SABR) and Retrosheet. John Thorn is the official historian for Major League Baseball, and the author of Baseball in the Garden of Eden.

Cramer started his work before the term "sabermetrics" existed, and in 1969, he discovered (or reinvented) the metric now known as OPS. While he was a research scientist for SmithKline, he used his spare time to use the work computer to test his theories about baseball statistics. One of his earliest discoveries was that clutch hitting, which was one of the most sacred pieces of received wisdom in the game, really didn't exist. 

In 1971, Cramer learned about SABR and began working with Pete Palmer, whose statistical work is credited with providing the foundation on which SABR is built. Cramer went on be the cofounder of STATS Inc. and began working with the Yankees, Houston Astros, Oakland A's, and Chicago White Sox, with the help of the new Apple II computer.

Baseball was always a side interest for Cramer, though it was an intense one for the past forty years. His main occupation, which involved other "big data" activities, was that of a chemist who pioneered the use of specialized analytics, often known as computer-aided drug discovery, to help guide the development of pharmaceutical drugs. After a decade-long hiatus from baseball analytics, Cramer returned to it in 2004 and has done important work with Retrosheet since then.

Cramer writes of the basis of his work, "The term big data vaguely summarizes the immense collections of organized past experiences made possible by the latest information technologies. These collections are foundations for our expectations of personalized medicine or self-driving cars, and already, by empowering Facebook or Google, they quietly but significantly impact our lives. Within big data, searching for predictive patterns requires specialized and increasingly complex statistical methodologies, for which analytics has become something of a buzzword. 
Even more of a big data buzzword is 'moneyball,' originally the title of an acclaimed book and movie that recounts how the Oakland Athletics baseball team succeeded, despite financial weakness, by embracing novel performance statistics as well as scouts' judgments when making player decisions. Perhaps because of the dramatic tension between the cultures of statistical analysis and athletic competition, moneyball then became a general label for an emphasis on measurable quantities over subjective opinions when making organizational decisions. At least in baseball, where hundreds of millions of dollars can depend on the performance of one individual, the teams that most rapidly and effectively blended those two disparate cultures have indeed experienced the better records.
The success of moneyball is also my reason for deciding to write this memoir. For, as Moneyball and another noteworthy book, The Numbers Game, relate, I was heavily involved in the birth of baseball analytics also called sabermetrics. During the 1970s, before fantasy games, personal computers,and Bill James's incandescent writing triggered an explosion of interest in baseball analytics, almost its entire literature was letters and manuscripts I exchanged with Pete Palmer. One study, in particular, on clutch hitting, became something of an enduring classic, among others summarized in John Thorn's The Hidden Game of Baseball. These experiences primed me for a remarkable opportunity, to create and develop probably the first in-depth, pitch-by-pitch baseball information system while cofounding and then refounding STATS Inc., which today as STATS LLC is the worldwide leading provider of sports statistics, its little red logo appearing in the credits at the ends of many televised sporting events."

When Big Data Was Small is one of the most consequential books on baseball history and the evolution of thinking on the game.

Unwritten: Bat Flips, The Fun Police, and Baseball's New Future
By Danny Knobler
Triumph Books; hardcover; $26.95

Danny Knobler has covered Major League Baseball for more than 30 years for Booth Newspapers,, and, and currently is a national lead MLB writer for Bleacher Report.

In the compelling book Unwritten, Knobler dives deep beyond the brushbacks and brawls to examine the shifting attitudes toward MLB's once-sacred player codes. What emerges is a much larger story, one of a more youthful, more exuberant, more diverse game in the midst of a fascinating culture clash.

Knobler writes of where baseball is unique among sports in this regard, "This isn't the NFL, where the rulebook determines how and where you can celebrate, and what you can use as a prop. In baseball, the players decide that. Cross the line, and your teammates will let you know. Cross the line by too much and the opponent will let you know, with a 99 mph fastball to the ribs.
The unwritten rules tell you how the game really should be played, both at the major-league level and while you're coming up through the minor leagues. Everyone who wants to play the game right has to learn them. Every fan who wants to watch the game and fully understand it should know them.
The only problem is the unwritten rules change over time. The written rules change, too, but Major League Baseball publishes a new version of the rulebook every year with changes noted.
The unwritten rules change more gradually. They change as society changes. They change as the players change. They become the reason some guys get called 'old school' and some don't.
There was a time when playing for one run made perfect sense, so teams used the sacrifice bunt with regularity. Definitely not true anymore.
There was a time when as soon as the leadoff man in an inning reached first base, you'd wonder if the manager would put on a hit-and-run play. Now, the hit-and-run is so rare that when I asked major-league scouts how often they'd seen it done in a full season, most said they could count the number on one hand."

The men who live by the rules tell Knobler about what the unwritten rules in baseball truly are, what value they have, what damage they do, what's changing, what needs to change, and what never should. There are interviews with current and former players and managers, including Jose Bautista, Adrian Beltre, Kris Bryant, Terry Francona, Kirk Gibson, Kenta Maeda, Yasiel Puig, and Max Scherzer.

One unwritten rule is how much or how little hitters should celebrate a big hit, and which players can get away with it, as Knobler writes, "David Ortiz could stand and stare when he hit a big home run. So could Barry Bonds or Ken Griffey Jr.
It's the guy who hits five home runs a year and wants to flip a bat. That's what gets to pitchers. It's the guy who flips his bat after a single.
'I don't think Aaron Judge is going to stand there and watch, which is ultimately why I love him,' Astros pitcher Gerrit Cole said. (Note: this book was published in 2019). 'But one of the most iconic [scenes] is Manny [Ramirez] standing there with his hands over his head. There are guys that have been around for a long time. When you have 600 home runs and you want to stop and look at it, I sure as hell am not going to tell you otherwise. That's your own deal.
'But there are only a few guys who have that many home runs, and you might not know that by watching [the games].'
Cole is right about Judge, who hit a major-league rookie record 52 home runs in 2017 with the Yankees. He didn't flip his bat after any of them, and didn't take his time running around the bases, either.
Judge told Kevin Kernan of the New York Post that he'll never stop and watch, because one time when he was a senior in high school, he stood and watched a ball that hit the top of the fence.
'I didn't even make it to second base,' Judge said. 'After that moment I said it would be the last time I don't hustle.'
Plenty of players come to the major leagues without learning the same lesson. When Jose Ramirez was a young player with the Indians in 2015, the Twins got upset when he took too long to round the bases after a home run against them - taking nearly eight seconds just to get to first base. And that was after he flipped his bat. The Twins let him know they didn't approve, and even Ramirez's own manager said something.
'Good swing, poor judgment,' Terry Francona told reporters that day. 'He'll learn. Hopefully not the hard way, but he'll learn.'
It seems that he did. In the years since 2015, Ramirez has become one of baseball's big stars, the type of guy who might get away with admiring his home runs. But of the 29 homers he hit in the 2017 season, he never took even 24 seconds to circle the bases."

Unwritten is a revealing, of-the-moment portrait of a sport dealing with the loaded question of how to play the game "the right way" as the national pastime evolves into a new modern era. 

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