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The book for saber-haters: Bill Ripken’s “State Of Play”

In which an author closer to my age than I am to yours argues that what’s newest isn’t always best.

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USA World Baseball Classic team v Philadelphia Phillies
Sunglasses: because some old-school things never go out of style.
Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

Unless you’ve worked at a perfect career your whole life (and, if you have, I hate you), you’ve probably experienced something like this:

A new boss/district manager/ownership group takes over at your job. They call a mandatory meeting. “Some things need to be changed around here,” they say, and silently, you agree — maybe you’ve said the same for years, and nobody would listen. Then the new Head Poobah(s) explain their plans to fix it all.

Best-case scenario? You’re open-minded, willing to try it. Turns out that not only are the new ideas extremely helpful, but there’s great communication between Poobah and the best employees; everybody benefits. (Something I’ve heard rumors of happening, somewhere, although it’s never happened to me.)

Worst-case scenario? Whether or not you go along with the plans, the objective was to axe you all along. As part of the old regime, your years of experience are considered outdated.

This has been happening in baseball, argues Bill Ripken in his recent book, State Of Play. Too many front offices, baseball writers, and broadcasters are devoted to a new way of analyzing the game, trusting “numbers and formulas” which are “weighted, created, or adjusted.” Sabermetrics, in other words, a currently-fashionable fad “used now by watered-down voices that are then repeated by other watered-down voices.”

Ripken is a 12-year MLB veteran. He’s played with brother Cal Jr., and was managed by father Cal Sr. (Also has one of baseball’s most hilarious photo-F-bomb baseball cards.) He’s won a Sports Emmy for his work as studio analyst on Baseball Network, spent years in youth player instruction, published books on that subject, and been spokesperson for a management consulting firm.

I believe that much of what’s best in State Of Play is a result of these various experiences/influences. And also much of what’s frustrating in the book.

The best segments are where Ripken writes about what he learned from his father, who not only spent years as a manager/teacher/coach in the minor leagues — Cal Sr. sometimes even drove the team bus. And how Ripken uses those teaching lessons in his youth instructional work: “Telling someone to do something is not teaching; it is simply telling. Explaining why someone should do something is teaching.” (Good advice, in more fields than baseball instruction.)

It seems clear that Ripken feels new analytical methods are the baseball equivalent of telling, not teaching. Let’s look at his reasons for believing so.

New stats are largely imprecise, arbitrary, confusing & unhelpful. This is what State Of Play spends the most time on. Ripken essentially distrusts any statistic invented after OPS (which, he writes, “first came to notoriety” in 1984’s The Hidden Game Of Baseball.) The 1984 date, Ripken says, “is why I like it, or at least tolerate it.”

This is Ripken’s veteran player / studio analyst side coming out. He notes, correctly, that many traditional player-valuation stats are largely ignored today (RBIs, pitcher wins), while the newer stats are constantly being replaced/revised, often with semi-secret formulas which can vary from site to site. Bloggers and broadcasters sometimes cite the newest stats as if they were Holy Writ.

I think Ripken completely misunderstands where new statistical measurements came from, and what most fans use them for. (Not saying he doesn’t understand the newer stats; he does. He just doesn’t like them.)

The first wave of “sabermetric” stats didn’t come from baseball-indifferent eggheads crunching numbers for their own sake. They came from diehard baseball fans, who loved nothing better than poring over “boxscores...and prior matchups” (which is what Ripken admiringly describes the “old-school baseball guy” doing). The most famous example, of course, Bill James, would add up these numbers during his horribly dull graveyeard-shift job. Eventually, what these researchers found seemed so interesting that their work was often discussed at conferences and publications put together by SABR, the Society of American Baseball Research. Hence the name. They were by and for baseball obsessives, who loved learning anything and everything they could about the game & and its history.

When teams started employing those newer stats, it wasn’t because they thought players with 150 RBIs or 20 wins were insignificant. It’s because lower-budget teams (such as Billy Beane’s Oakland) couldn’t afford those players. Newer stats were a way of trying to determine which cheaper players might be easier to get than the classic-numbers guys. In short, newer stats weren’t a means of dismissing traditionally-valued players; they were used to see who else out there might actually be pretty good.

Some of Ripken’s criticisms seem valid, and he backs them up with often convincing numbers. He cites examples of modern All-Star sluggers whose home run totals went up when their “launch angle” went down, or pitchers whose “spin rate” didn’t seem to affect their performance at all.

I agree, but here’s the deal — many fans of advanced stats do, too. We have (mostly) pleasant discussions about such things, all the time! That’s why new stats get revised/replaced, to try and better reflect what happens on the field. He think modern defensive statistics could stand a great deal of improvement. Everybody does. He doesn’t think on-base percentage is more important than getting hits. Nobody does.

To his credit, Ripken does admit that there may some value in the newer statistics he dislikes, particularly for comparing players at similar positions. He doesn’t care for modern statistical methods being used to compare players from vastly different eras, which might be a good point, but I don’t think the Golden Age of baseball players mind too much — the afterlife has its own concerns (or not). And Ripken has a particularly interesting take on “spin rate” despite loathing it in general; it could be used to determine if a pitcher is nursing an injury or not fully recovered from one. I hadn’t heard that before.

Are some very recently-invented stats considered infallible by certain broadcasters / writers, despite their staying power being unproven? Sure, but that’s just bad writing / broadcasting (not a new phenomenon). What I find worse is when a writer or broadcaster uses a stat most people are unfamiliar with and doesn’t explain what it means. A FanGraphs article using newer metrics to asses players will almost always include a definition of that stat or a link to one; FiveThirtyEight, not as often.

New stats/analysis have led to “by the numbers” in-game strategy which isn’t always an improvement on classic Managing 101. This is Ripken’s son of a manager side saying its say. Basically, are current managerial trends dumb? Are defensive shifts, platoons, daily lineups, and relief pitchers being used correctly? Has the new analysis ruined them, too?

Ripken’s primary beef is with the shift, and he makes both a weak and excellent use of numbers for his argument. The weak one claims that, according to Inside Edge, overshifts only “work” 1 percent of the time. Hmm, I dunno. The excellent one shows how Joe Maddon, nearly the league’s most frequent defensive shifter in Tampa Bay, suddenly became one of baseball’s least shifty managers with the Cubs. To me, this indicates that a good manager will adjust to the players, data, and game situations he has to work with.

While Ripken still thinks New Things Are Bad, here, he’s far less downbeat about it. Probably because most of these strategic moves have been used to one degree or another in baseball for a very long time. If some of them are becoming more pronounced now, they’ll only be used until opponents figure out how to exploit them.

Ripken laments that the game looks less fundamentally solid to him now. He believes he’s seeing more batters making useless outs on the basepaths, for example. (While he’s no fan of “fancy acronyms and abbreviations”, I’m sure he’d love the word TOOTBLAN.) Some of that might be perceptual confirmation bias on his part (if you look to see something, you will see it), but let’s assume it’s true. I doubt it’d be true because teams whose judgment is clouded by newfangled data are failing to teach baseball fundamentals; more likely, it’d be because teams are increasingly valuing younger, rawer players over older ones. Which brings us to...

Some analytics-focused GMs are dismissive of old-school baseball wisdom, believing they know everything better. This is where Ripken, as an ex-player and manager’s son, is on very solid ground. And where, as someone who’s worked with management consultants, he’s walking in waxed bowling shoes on an icy sidewalk.

“Lesser paid, less experienced managers in some teams’ dugouts are replacing the higher paid, more experienced managers of the past.” This is certainly true, and certainly happening with scouting staffs as well. Perhaps justified in some cases (such as irreconcilable personality clashes). Yet it wouldn’t surprise me if some GMs are simply clearing house to clear house, and the reason why is something I don’t think Ripken can get.

Ripken is the spokesperson for Blue Coast Savings, a company that calls themselves “savings consultants.” Basically, they are hired by other companies to find cost-cutting measures. (Usually, this means slashing payroll first.) It appears, from what I can find, that most of the people finding these savings are “running their own business,” which sounds a lot like “independent contractor” to me. For the low, low, one-time-only fee of $21,900, you too can buy Blue Coast’s “value-priced Savings Consultant Package,” which gives you all the skills you need to “learn how to get past gate-keepers” and be the job-killer you always dreamed of.

If that doesn’t just warm your capitalist heart, check out this sales pitch video Bill Ripken does on Blue Coast’s website home page. Enjoy the 3:05 mark, where it’s cheerfully explained how “running his own company” Bob, with the assistance of a “Blue Coast National Account Manager,” helps client Sandy save money at her company by assisting with “workers comp recovery.” Cool, making sure injured people get squat!

Most of the newer, analytics-minded baseball front offices are full of prestigious business-school grads, people who were originally educated to be in finance. That’s not the sort of soul who blinks twice at firing anyone they think they can do without, and if you were hired by previous management, you’re probably someone the new B-school grads believe they can do without. It’s on you to justify your paycheck, and one wrong word can make you seem like the “wrong sort” that doesn’t belong. (Maybe using this Office Space method could work.)

When you’re spokesperson for a corporation specializing in similar behavior, you’re not going to identify it as running, essentially, the same game. So Ripken doesn’t see that what he really dislikes about arrogant new-school front offices isn’t caused by their devotion to sabermetrics; it’s caused by their devotion to money.

Is State Of Play worth reading? Depends. If you absolutely hate newer baseball stats and strategic trends, definitely. If you don’t, it’s still an entertaining read in a listening-to-Dan-Gladden-way; one man’s honest, yet not mean-spirited, dislike of modernity. (If Gladden doesn’t mention the book at some point this season, I’ll be surprised.)

$24.99 seems steep to me for any current-opinion book, since even the opinion books I completely agree with are dated in five years. Better once it goes to paperback — best if you get it from the library.

Finally, the question I hoped Ripken would answer in this book but didn’t: did Cal Jr. actually make it up the old Metrodome stairwell from dugout to clubhouse, 44 steps, in just three jumps? That’s what they used to say on TwinsFest tours. Maybe Bill Ripken will put that in his next book; I’ll bet he could write some great memoirs.