Baseball men: Raw numbers play second fiddle to wisdom

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Sparky Anderson relied on his knowledge accrued by managing in four decades opposed to statistical analysis.

Lakeland, Fla. — Kirk Gibson remembers a time when sabermetrics weren’t sabermetrics.

They were baseball wisdom, crafted not by algorithms, explained not by acronyms, but imparted by way of baseball experience, as in the case of his old manager Sparky Anderson.

Anderson didn’t believe in trying to throw out at home a runner sprinting from second base on a single. Not through a game’s first six innings, anyway.

No, the man who helped steer Gibson and his teammates to a Tigers world championship in 1984 wanted that outfield relay pegged to second base, keeping the hitter planted at first base in a bid to keep a run-scoring inning from becoming a runs-scoring inning.

Gibson was recalling this snippet of baseball history outside the Joker Marchant Stadium clubhouse Sunday as a current baseball flap was discussed: Hall of Fame reliever Goose Gossage’s charge last week that baseball was now in the hands of “nerds” who were ruining the game with their mathematical appraisals.

Gibson returned to his story about Anderson.

“What happens,” the Tigers outfielder asked his skipper that day 30-plus years ago, “if it’s a one-hop single that I’m fielding on the charge?”

Anderson never wavered.

“Then you walk that ball into second base,” Sparky said.

Gibson later learned, by way of numbers the sabermetrics brains favor, that Anderson’s strategy was correct. Empirically so. The percentage of times a runner at second is thrown out at home on a single is in the low single-digit range.

But there’s a caveat that virtually every big-league baseball player or former player cites when these mathematical nuggets are dissected. Numbers are wonderful. But they do not, in the players’ estimation, reveal anything close to a complete story.

It takes scouts, managers, coaches, and definitely players, to decide who can cut it at a particular moment.

Justin Verlander, Tigers rotation ace: “I feel like they (baseball’s intelligentsia) have probably overvalued the stats a little and undervalued the player. It has a place, obviously, but you can’t just go on numbers.”

Jordan Zimmermann, former Nationals star now sitting in tandem with Verlander as the Tigers’ 1-2 starting pitching punch: “Numbers are important, but the bottom line is guys have got to perform. It still comes down to who can get the job done, and who can’t."

Anthony Gose, Tigers center fielder who last month said defensive analytics were “a scam” and who found Gossage’s remarks humorous in their unvarnished candor: “He definitely ticked off a lot of people in the game. He definitely gave his opinion. I’m not gonna disagree with all of it (sabermetrics), but I don’t think you can build a whole team around it.”

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Tigers manager Brad Ausmus has his views, nuanced and expansive, which he shared at unusual length during a Monday conversation in his Tigertown office.

“The majority of players think statistics are overvalued,” said Ausmus, who played 18 seasons as a big-league catcher. “Unless you’ve stood in the box with the game on the line in the bottom of the ninth inning, you don’t know what that feels like.

“That’s not to sound arrogant — it’s just you don’t. It’s a human being standing in the box, and human beings have emotions, and atmosphere creates different emotions. You can try and put any numbers you want on it, but unless you’ve done it, the feeling of most players is: You can’t explain it.”

The baseball men were not finished.

Gibson, a businessman who once schooled himself in aeronautics as he worked toward a pilot’s license, is accustomed to numbers-crunching. His late father, Bob, was a mathematics teacher.

Kirk Gibson

Gibson likes what cold, hard, incontrovertible math research can reveal. He knows what weighted on-base average can tell him about a hitter. Likewise, he understands when traditional match-ups and percentages don’t always mesh. A left-handed pitcher against a right-handed batter may in fact be a terrific match-up if the lefty throws heat and the hitter can’t handle a high fastball.

“The important thing for me is how to filter metrics,” said Gibson, who managed the Diamondbacks for three seasons and now is a Tigers broadcaster and coaching consultant. “I want to see what’s applicable and what’s not.

“It’s interesting. But I want to understand why a formula is what it is.”

Ausmus wants also to be sure the numbers he’s sharing or incorporating pay a true dividend. As in winning a game. To turn a baseball clubhouse into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology might sound great but perhaps isn’t the best idea.

“I don’t need to be throwing spread sheets at players,” he said. “I think that’s counter-productive.”

A separate issue, which last week triggered Gossage’s sabermetrics spiel, has to do with players and the occasional celebration that some opponents and fans consider to be nothing short of in-your-face showboating.

In other words, Jose Bautista’s bat flip after he slammed a mammoth, game-clinching home run in last October’s playoffs against the Rangers at Toronto.

Gossage appeared to have been still simmering over a five-month-old antic when he chose to take off on Bautista as well as analytics in a long, profanity-rich harangue with ESPN.

“He’s embarrassing to all the Latin players who ever played before him,” Gossage fumed, calling the Jays outfielder a “disgrace,” even if Bautista has six times made the All-Star team, and four times finished in the top eight in Most Valuable Player voting.

“Throwing his bat and acting like a fool,” Gossage said before turning his sights on another sometimes-flamboyant slugger who a year ago was playing for the Tigers. “Yoenis Cespedes, same thing.”

Somewhat surprisingly, Tigers pitchers were fine with Bautista’s playoff spontaneity. That they weren’t on the mound that day in Toronto might, of course, be a consideration.

Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander gave up three earned runs on six hits in five innings against the Nationals on Sunday.

“I think a little celebration is fine,” Verlander said. “People say other sports have more celebration, that Cam Newton (NFL, Panthers) does it on a touchdown, or Steph Curry (NBA, Warriors) if he hits a big shot.

“Well, baseball is more individual. It’s more isolated than the other sports, which is why there’s these supposed unwritten rules.

“I can tell you I don’t have a problem with that kind of stuff. Bautista’s home run was a huge moment. They had just clinched the series and the city was going nuts. It was a pretty cool moment. “

Verlander concedes if he had been on the mound, rather than reliever Sam Dyson, he might have been less forgiving.

“I’d have been (ticked),” Verlander said. “But, still, I understand it.”

So did Tigers reliever Mark Lowe, who then was pitching for the Jays. Bautista’s theatrics were part of a team and town’s triumph, said Lowe, who had come to know Bautista as a “good teammate” and gentleman.

“If I was on that side (Texas), probably not,” he said when asked if he could appreciate Bautista’s dramatics, which saw him pause after launching his blast, then with his left hand throw away the bat with a “take that” flourish.

“But I have a lot of respect for Jose. It was spur of the moment. You’ve worked your whole life to get to a moment like that, then you square up a ball.

“Who’s to say I wouldn’t have done the same thing?”

All pitchers interviewed said there were, of course, lines not to be crossed. A hitter stares at a pitcher after a home run? There likely will soon be a fastball to his, or a teammate’s, ribs.

A pitcher gets overly giddy after a big strikeout? That’s not good for relations, either, with all kinds of fallout possible.

It’s a little like sabermetrics, to hear the players and managers talk. Somewhere out there is a definitive line. They’re just not sure where it is.

“You want to be on top,” said Gibson, returning to the analytics debate. “The filter is the key. They help you decide what’s useful and what isn’t. Don’t take 'em from the book as Bible.”