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Sunday, March 30, 2003

Numbers game

By John Tomase
Staff Writer

Derek Lowe winced, shook his head, and ran his fingers through his hair.

"Whoa, whoa, whoa," he said. "Start over. Start over."

He had just been asked his opinion on a piece of statistical research by Red Sox consultant Voros McCracken, who posits that a pitcher's ability has no effect on whether a ball put in play becomes a hit.

"(Bleep) him," Lowe said. "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard."

According to McCracken's research, Pedro Martinez allowed one of the highest averages on balls in play in baseball in 1999, followed by one of the lowest ever in 2000. He led the league in ERA both years.

The idea is that defense and ballpark play more of a role in determining whether balls will be hits than the pitchers who throw them. Coors Field adds hits. Dodger Stadium takes them away.

The difference between great pitchers and bad ones is the great ones don't walk anyone, record a large number of strikeouts, and limit their home runs.

"I don't believe in that theory for even half a second," Lowe said. "So a guy who throws it right down the middle and a guy who can consistently throw it down and away and get a 12-hopper to second are the same? When you see this Voros guy, point him out to me. I want to talk to him."

Many fans and executives may share Lowe's skepticism, but the Red Sox are on the leading edge of a movement to augment traditional scouting with intellectual analysis.

General manager Theo Epstein, the poster boy for baseball's new executive, divided his staff between old-time baseball men like Bill Lajoie, Lee Thomas and Mike Port and non-traditional thinkers like Bill James, McCracken and assistant general manager Josh Byrnes.

The result is a Red Sox team retooled around a series of statistical principles. A trio of them fly in the face of general baseball practice, and will play a large role in determining the team's success:

The first eschews a traditional closer in favor of a bullpen that uses the best pitcher in the toughest situation, regardless of inning.

The second emphasizes on base percentage and slugging percentage over batting average.

The third favors aggressive platooning to take advantage of lefty-righty or power pitcher/junk baller matchups.

It will still come down to what the players do on the field, but the Red Sox feel knowing the numbers will give them an advantage.

"We look at players through two lenses," Epstein said. "We value tremendously traditional, subjective baseball scouting. We also look through another lens of objective analysis. We hired Bill James, who might be the best in the world at his craft. We let the truth about a player come to us through both lenses."

The highest profile hire, by far, is James. The father of modern baseball research, he revolutionized the field with his famed "Abstracts" in the mid-1980s. He coined the term "sabermetrics," derived from SABR, the Society for American Baseball Research, to describe the study of baseball statistics.

Unlike a decade ago, when general manager Dan Duquette was pilloried for adding egomaniacal statistician Mike Gimbel to the payroll, the addition of James was a truly seismic event, akin to a biomedical firm hiring Crick and Watson to study DNA.

James' extensive research has yielded, among many other things, the misuse of closers, the importance of on base percentage, and the utter uselessness of the stolen base.

Once merely a cult figure, James now has all of baseball's attention. Many of the old guard, who believe the gut is a better judge of talent than numbers, are waiting for his ideas to fail.

"Well, I'm 53 years old," James said. "I've been up and down a few times, and I know better than to evaluate myself by what other people say about me. I don't mean that I ignore what people say about me, but I start by asking 'Is that true?' I've never paid a lot of attention to generalizations based on falsehood, and I don't plan to start."

The skeptics begin in his own clubhouse.

"You know what stats do? They give you an out every single time," Lowe said. "I'm not talking about our team, but baseball in general. If the stats show a lefty hits .150 leading off an inning and he homers, the manager can just say he went with the numbers. It's a crutch."

For an example of how James' thinking diverges from common baseball wisdom, consider his thoughts on platooning.

Most managers who platoon do so only out of necessity. Most prefer set lineups, which foster continuity and support the idea of putting your best nine on the field each game.

But James vehemently disagrees. Many hitters excel against right-handers and struggle against lefties. Or pound power pitchers while screwing themselves into the ground against finesse pitchers. Or hit ground ball pitchers better than fly ball pitchers. James thinks teams should take advantage.

"If, in your office, you had an electrician programming computers and a computer programmer drawing political cartoons, there would be a certain inefficiency in this," he said. "Platooning is simply a way of asking each player to do more of what he does best."

On the Red Sox, that could mean more at-bats for Doug Mirabelli, Kevin Millar and Bill Mueller against lefties, and fewer for Jason Varitek, Trot Nixon and Todd Walker.

James' influence could be felt on the Red Sox off-season moves. Previous regimes may have spent $20 million to keep Ugueth Urbina, Cliff Floyd and Brian Daubach, but James' research has shown marginal players should not be overpaid.

James also puts a premium on strikeout rate for pitchers. The fewer balls put in play, the better. That's a large reason the team refused to include Casey Fossum in a deal for Bartolo Colon this winter. Colon's strikeout rate has plummeted from 10.15 in 2000 to 8.14 in 2001 to 5.75 last year. Fossum, meanwhile, struck out 8.52 batters per nine innings last year.

Then there's the idea of streaks. James believes they're random. Players don't get hot or cold; it's just a trick of perception.

"If you take a Strat-O-Matic card for Todd Walker and play it through 162 games, he'll have 20-game hot streaks where he hits .400, and 20-game cold streaks where he hits .150," James said. "It's not surprising that the same thing happens in real life."

Critics say the Red Sox are attempting to build an All-Star Strat-O-Matic or rotisserie team. But Epstein doesn't see it that way.

"I want to stress that we're not reinventing the wheel," Epstein said. "We don't think we're smarter than anyone else. But if you're going to spend $100 million on your team, you'd be doing yourself a disservice not to look for every competitive advantage.

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