This story is about the passionate embrace of numbers. So here are a few: 671, the number of baseball geeks gathered in Philadelphia this week; 43, the number of this convention for their group, the Society for American Baseball Research; 6,000, the number of card-carrying SABR members.
If you follow baseball, you’ve likely heard of sabermetrics. It’s the school of thought popularized in the book, then movie, Moneyball.
SABR, the group meeting this week at a Center City hotel, is part of the origin story of sabermetrics, which is the mining of baseball data for hidden information or trends that can win you a bet at the local taproom — or even earn your major league ballclub a few more wins.
“The changes that have occurred in the availability and the interest in baseball information is extraordinary,” said Dick Cramer.
He famously wrote there’s no such thing as a clutch hitter. He’s also a founder of STATS, Inc.
“I’m a more of a scientist, geek kind of a guy in real life,” Cramer said.
Decades ago, he and a fellow hobbyist invented a stat called OPS (for on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) that’s now recognized as a far more reliable measure of a baseball hitter’s worth than traditional, simple statistics such as batting average or runs batted in.
Once regarded as a complicated novelty, OPS is one of several sabermetric innovations that has gone from fringe to mainstream. It’s now routinely cited by play-by-play broadcasters and old-guard sportswriters.
“When I first saw it on a scoreboard it was almost like, I’m not given to tears, but it was just, ‘I can’t believe that this has actually happened,'” Cramer said. “It’s an amazing world sometimes.”
Cramer is a Phillies a fan (maybe that explains why he got obsessed with aspects of the game that go deeper than wins and losses). He got into advanced baseball statistics way back in the early ’70s, in part, he says, because his day job at the company that became GlaxoSmithKline gave him access to a computer.
He helped organize the last SABR conference to be held in Philadelphia. That was in 1974.
An icon in Mt. Airy
If Cramer is the old school of proud baseball nerd-dom, then Sean Forman is the next wave.
“Mostly I’m here to have fun and talk to people who are like-minded and have an unhealthy interest in baseball like I do,” Forman said.
Forman, who lives in the Mount Airy neighborhood of Philadelphia, is the creator of baseball-reference.com. It’s the go-to source for baseball obsessives, with a record of every player and every team in major league history — all the way back to 1871.
While other sports are catching up, baseball has been first and foremost as the object of deep statistical analysis. Forman thinks he knows why:
“In baseball you can quantify what happens on the field to a degree far greater than any other sport,” he said. “And the ability to compare across eras as well. Nobody’s really arguing between 1960s wide receivers and today’s wide receivers, but people argue everyday about Willie Mays versus Mike Trout and discussions like that.”
Not just numbers
But for many in the predominantly male crowd, SABR isn’t only about stats.
Current president Vince Gennaro says the organization is just as much about the history of the game.
“Because of our name, SABR, a lot of people think we’re all about, and only about, sabermetrics,” Gennaro said. “There’s a much bigger part of SABR than just that.”
Case in point: a recent book about the 100 best games of the 1800s. “Think about that research that had to go into that,” Gennaro said. “That’s what our members are about, things like that.”
In recent years SABR is also about building bridges into the front offices of current big league clubs. In a sign of MLB’s growing embrace, Phillies president and CEO David Montgomery even fielded questions from SABR die-hards.
“For many years SABR has been a highly productive research organization, but in many ways a bit off in its own little corner,” Gennaro said.
That has changed in recent years.
More than one team, looking at the relative success of the small-market Oakland A’s team featured in Moneyball, has hired SABR members as consultants or staffers. Gennaro himself consults with big league clubs.
For any who doubt that peace is at hand between the geeks and the suspicious old guard of baseball lifers, know this:
Former Phillies player and current broadcaster Gary “Sarge” Matthews, a vocal stats skeptic, showed up at the convention Thursday to take part in a panel.
Sarge: “You guys are stats people, so don’t take me wrong… I don’t look at the stats to see what a guy has done. I look at the heart.”
— Colin Wyers (@cwyers) August 1, 2013
Still, good-natured geekery definitely kept top billing.
A serious baseball trivia contest goes down on Saturday and the local Connie Mack Chapter is performing a variety show that night as well.