With the Dodgers, whose GM Farhan Zaidi has degrees from MIT and Cal, and the Astros led by GM Jeff Luhnow (Penn and Northwestern), advancing to the World Series, the SABR movement clearly has moved to the top of the food chain in baseball.
Dinosaurs like Tony LaRussa, Dave Duncan, Joe Torre and Whitey Herzog aren’t of much use today, let alone scouts. But it’s interesting to look back to see how far we’ve really come.
Before there ever was a SABR movement, when Bill James was nearly a lone voice in the baseball/math movement, teams found ways to win in baseball. How did they do it?
Here in St. Louis, the 1985 Cardinals, who played and succeeded well before the advent of analytics, won 101 games and advanced to the World Series just like this year’s Dodgers have.
The Cardinals were deep, had good pitching, and a dominant, front of the rotation lefthander, and were managed by a steady hand in Herzog.
According to the Baseball Reference WAR calculation, the Dodgers’ top three batters were Justin Turner with a 5.7, Corey Seager with a 5.6 and Chris Taylor with a 4.8. The ’85 Cardinals were led by Willie McGee’s 8.1, Ozzie Smith’s 6.4 and Tom Herr’s 5.6. The Cardinals had ten position players with a WAR of 1.0 or better, as did the Dodgers.
On the pitching side, the Cardinals were led by John Tudor’s 8.1 WAR, followed by Danny Cox at 3.2 and Jeff Lahti and 2.3. After Clayton Kershaw’s 4.6 for L.A., the Dodgers had Alex Wood at 3.3 and Kenley Jansen at 2.9. Of course, the Cardinals had lost Bruce Sutter after the 1984 season and didn’t have a single closer until the last month and a half of the season, after they called up Todd Worrell. The Dodgers had four starters that were one or more WAR, and the Cardinals had three.
Across the board, when looking at OPS, WAR, OPS+ (which is important because it takes the old Busch Stadium, circa 1985, into account), those Cardinals, without the benefit of advanced metrics, stacked up well to this year’s Dodgers. And since we didn’t have the scrutiny for defensive numbers then, I’d have to believe that a defense that included Ozzie, Terry Pendleton, Herr, McGee and Andy Van Slyke would stack up to the 2017 Dodgers fielders.
While it’s cool that we have the numbers to better define what a good player and a good team is, people like Herzog could identify a good player without having those numbers.
He scouted, paid attention, charted his players and ANALYZED their PERFORMANCE. At the end of the day, most good baseball people could recognize the value of players like McGee, Herr, Pendleton and Van Slyke in addition to the obvious stars like Smith, Clark and Tudor.
A revolution in baseball has reached the Fall Classic. We’ve reached the point where math is as important in baseball as the ability to recognize a good player on sight. With every GM in baseball being educated east of the Mississippi, and most in the Ivy league, that math trend isn’t going anywhere.
With all due respect to those guys and their success, I would still take my chances with a guy like Herzog. He was part of the analytics movement, he just didn’t know it.