News From Terre Haute, Indiana

August 22, 2011

TODD GOLDEN: Sabermetrics has changed love of baseball

Todd Golden
The Tribune-Star

---- — I turned 40 this summer. No problem. I had more trouble with the thought of turning 40 when I was 39 than I do actually being 40. Once you get there, why worry about it?

Besides, age has been the least of my worries through a tumultuous summer. Between ridiculous political bickering, financial bad news for nearly everyone and the increasingly stressful pressures these factors and others impose on our daily lives, I doubt very many are going to look back on the summer of 2011 fondly.

Fortunately, I’ve been lucky. My solace through an angst-filled summer has been baseball.

As the nation has dove-tailed into uncertainty from July into August, the team I follow — my hometown Milwaukee Brewers — has surged out of the pack to take control of the NL Central.

As of this writing, the Brewers have matched the largest divisional lead they’ve had in club history. The Brewers have an 8 1⁄2-game edge over the St. Louis Cardinals. As recently as Aug. 2, the edge was just 2 1⁄2 games. The Brewers are 15-3 in August thus far.

I’d like to “act like I’ve ever been there before,” but I have literally never been here before.

The 1982 Brewers — the AL pennant-winners are the historic standard-bearer for the club — peaked with a 6 1⁄2-game edge. The Baltimore Orioles steadily chipped it away to force a showdown for the AL East title on the last day of that season.

One week after the Brewers survived that game in Baltimore, I watched the Brewers clinch the AL pennant in person at County Stadium. It is the biggest sports thrill of my life by a wide margin.

I was 11 in 1982. The calendar has turned 29 times since then, and though I continually tell myself that the NL Central isn’t over (remembering the Brewers’ near-fade in 1982), I’m beginning to get that 11-year-old feeling again.

There’s absolutely nothing like having your favorite team in a pennant race to make you feel young, especially when your favorite team’s presence in the race is a rarity. But a lot has changed as far as the actual enjoyment of baseball since I was 11.

In 1982, Brewers starting pitcher Pete Vuckovich was revered for his 18-6 record and 3.34 ERA. He won the AL Cy Young Award that season. Now? Vuckovich is considered one of the worst Cy Young Award winners in baseball history.

Why? Take a look at his WHIP, a pedestrian 1.502. Or his ERA+, which was better than average at 114, but hardly Cy Young-worthy.

If these stats mean nothing to you, than the world of baseball sabermetrics has probably not collided with yours. Whether that’s a good or a bad thing is in the eye of the beholder.

Sabermetrics, for the uninitiated, is the study of statistical categories for baseball that go beyond the traditional stats we all grew up with on the back of our baseball cards.

There are endless esoteric saber-statistics and even more esoteric statistics that were born out of those esoteric statistics that morph baseball into less of a game than a formula on a spreadsheet.  That sounded more critical than I meant it to be. When used properly, sabermetrics enhances one’s knowledge of the game and, by proxy, one’s enjoyment of players or lack thereof. When used improperly, of course, the endless torrent of saber-stats can become paralysis-by-analysis.

No matter how one feels about the individual saber-stats themselves, there’s no doubting saber-influence over the last quarter-century. Among many other things, saber-stats are almost solely responsible for raising the level of importance of walks and defensive range among both baseball cognoscenti and fans alike — neither of which, I must painfully admit, Brewers starting shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt can draw or has worth a darn.

But that’s just it. Twenty-nine years ago, you’d have looked at Betancourt’s traditional statistics — he is currently hitting .261 with 10 home runs and 54 RBIs — and said to yourself that he’s not bad, especially for a middle infielder.

But Betancourt’s ugly 4.03 range factor (league SS average is 4.46) and meager 0.1 Wins Above Replacement score (a measurement created to illustrate how many wins a player means to his team at his position compared to the league average) place him prominently among the worst everyday position players in baseball.

So getting back to that 11-year-old feeling, do sabermetrics make my enjoyment of the pennant race any better or worse? Was I dumb in 1982 for holding Vuckovich in reverence? Am I overdoing it in 2011 by holding Betancourt in contempt?

In the end, I think sabermetrics have changed one’s love of the game, but they still just provide the window dressing. The undeniable truth is that for the countless sabermetric stats there are, there’s still only one statistic that matters — the W in the win column.

And as long as those Ws keep coming, this 40-year-old will continue to feel like he’s 11 again.

Todd Golden is the sports editor of the Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 231-4272 or todd.golden@tribstar.com. Check Golden out on Twitter @TribStarTodd.