Revenge Of The Nerds

November 19

When my kids were still in school and tried to poke fun at a “nerd,” I reminded them that nerds are taking over the world. That was a decade ago, at the height of the dot-com revolution, and little has happened since to change my mind. Nerds rule.

Baseball is the latest example. The Sabermetricians are winning the war for the hearts and minds of baseball fans. Bill James is their George Washington, and they have entered the mainstream of our fine republic with terms such as OPS and WHIP.

I’ve been aware of Bill James for about 25 years, through his “Baseball Abstract” and later publications. James and his fellow “nerds” have revolutionized the way we look at baseball. James was hired by the Red Sox in 2003, and played no small role in breaking the “Curse,” not through a magic spell but rather with hard statistical analysis.

For 16 years, I resided on the outskirts of Nerd City through my participation in a computer-simulated baseball league based on a program known as Diamond Mind Baseball. We had players from all over California ( If you must know — and thanks for asking — I won one championship led by Greg Maddux, Ozzie Smith and Bernie Williams, lost a championship series, and made five playoff appearances before an outbreak of Scarlet Fever depleted my ranks. ).

DMB provided a data bank that allowed for a much deeper statistical measure of players than has ever been available. It’s the graduate program, while Rotisserie is the sand box. It was designed by Tom Tippett, who was hired by the Boston Red Sox as director of baseball information services, a few years after James was hired.

Last year was a watershed moment for Sabermetricians — if I may continue to use the Revolutionary War analogy, it was tantamount to Cornwallis surrendering at Yorktown. Tim Lincecum and Zach Greinke, 15 and 16-game winners, won the NL and AL Cy Young Awards, respectively. The trend continued Thursday as Felix Hernandez of the Mariners, with a 13-12 record, won the AL honor.

Wins have become less and less important in judging a pitcher’s performance over the course of a season. The Phillies’ Roy Halladay, the NL Cy recipient, had 21 wins — but he won as much for his “peripheral” stats as he did victories.

Wins might indicate something about a pitcher over a longer period of time — say, five or ten years. Over that period of time, the cream usually rises to the top, although much still depends on whether a pitcher is on a strong team. In 2010, however, there was no question that Hernandez at 13-12 had a better season than David Price at 19-6. Even Price said voters got it right.

Walks and hits per nine innings (WHIP), opponents’ batting average, strikeouts per nine innings, earned run average ( 2.27, best in the majors ), earned run average against winning teams ( 2.26) … just a sampler platter of the numbers that gave the plaque to King Felix. It’s also why last year, when Hernandez was 19-5, he finished second to Greinke.

Think about it: somebody boots a ball in one of the many close games in which Felix pitched, he finishes 12-13 — and he’s still a Cy Young favorite. Seattle barely scored over three runs a game and won just 61 games. It’s a wonder Hernandez even finished over .500.

His 12th and final loss of the season was a perfect example: he threw a complete game two-hitter against the Blue Jays, giving up a solo home run to Jose Bautista, number 50 of the season for Bautista. Hernandez lost 1-0.

Here’s the payoff: in the next few years, a starting pitcher with a losing record could win the Cy Young. It’s happened to a reliever, Eric Gagne at 2-3, but when a sub-.500 starter wins, the takeover will be complete: baseball nerds will sign their own version of the Treaty of Paris.

Here’s a very simple stat to consider: Hernandez is just 24. There’s still room to grow. He has a crazy-sick assortment of pitches that includes a high-90’s fastball, a sinking two-seam fastball, curve, changeup and slider. He has supreme confidence that his opponents are in for a long night of ground balls and strikeouts.

There are certain things sabermetricians can’t measure: a pitcher’s heart, and what’s going on between the ears. That’s evident when you compare pitchers such as the Giants’ Madison Bumgarner and Jonathan Sanchez in the postseason: both with excellent stuff, but much different results.

It’s also true that some of the brightest pitchers of our times had the best peripheral numbers, combining great stuff and control with the ability to out-smart hitters, reduce their own pitch count, and remain calm in tense moments. Halladay is in that category, and may be on his way to the Hall of Fame. Maddux and Randy Johnson are well ahead of him on the way to Cooperstown, and when you consider the era in which they pitched, they might be the greatest ever.

One would have to assume that if a pitcher is a Cy Young finalist, he has pretty good physical and mental attributes. Felix Hernandez appears to have the tools to win another Cy Young or two before he’s done. The King may reign for quite a while. Now, let’s see how long he reigns in Seattle.

One Response to “Revenge Of The Nerds”

  1. Mike Dillon Says:

    Well shit, that was a whole lot of words for something I have no idea about. Nice job! Do enjoy when you sub for anyone on KNBR. You have a great sense of humor and humility. Please keep up the good work.

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