By traditional baseball standards, Scott Hatteberg’s big league days were numbered.
He had been a Cougar standout, team captain, Most Valuable Player, and catcher for future All-Star Aaron Sele, with whom he went to the Red Sox in 1991. But in his fifth year in the majors he ruptured a nerve in his elbow. An operation left him unable to hold a baseball. In the words of Michael Lewis, author of Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, he was “a second string, washed up catcher.”
“I couldn’t throw as hard,” Hatteberg x’91 recalls. “My accuracy had gone. As a catcher, you lose that part of your game and you’re really limited.”
As it was, Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane had been eyeing Hatteberg for several years, seeing a statistical diamond in the rough that was being overlooked by the rest of baseball. Most judges of baseball talent concentrated on running, throwing, fielding, hitting, and hitting with power. Typical of catchers, Hatteberg didn’t run well and his fielding was graceless—“I didn’t field ground balls, I tackled them.” His Red Sox batting average was a very average .267. He hit only a few home runs a season. And now he couldn’t throw.
But Beane measured Hatteberg with a different yardstick. It was based less on casual observation and limited, antiquated statistics and more on objective analysis linking a player’s performance to what really mattered: winning games. Baseball fans know this as sabermetrics, from SABR, or the Society for American Baseball Research.
Beane surmised that a player’s greatest contribution came through not making an out, be it by hitting, getting hit, or walking. A cardboard cutout could serve as a player, says Hatteberg, as long as it could get on base.
Hatteberg himself was a better-than- average student of the game, a thinking man’s hitter. He had studied Yankee great Don Mattingly’s approach, which emphasized reducing strikeouts and maximizing walks. He knew the most powerful part of his swing was in a small area of the strike zone, low and in the middle. Patience and an eye for pitches in that spot had him going deep into the count, drawing walks and wearing out pitchers in the process.
“I never analyzed my numbers,” he says. “I really wanted to hit for average, obviously, and I hated striking out. It felt like the ultimate failure in the game. Now, looking back, according to the A’s and the sabermetrics thing, it was the ultimate failure.”
Beane and Paul DePodesta, assistant manager and holder of a Harvard University degree in economics, did analyze the numbers and concluded that getting on base was three times more important than slugging. They had also seen that Hatteberg’s on-base percentage was about 25 points higher than the league average. He walked far more often than he struck out. With some coaching, he could be moved to first base. And because the traditional metrics of baseball devalued Hatteberg’s skills, his salary was light on the A’s modest pocketbook.
“To the Oakland A’s front office, Hatteberg was a deeply satisfying scientific discovery,” Lewis writes in Moneyball. “The things he did so peculiarly well at the plate were the things only science—or, at any rate, closer than normal scrutiny—could turn up.”
Readers of Moneyball and viewers of the new feature film it inspired know how the A’s thinking paid off. At the end of the season, DePodesta figured that if the A’s had nine Hattebergs in its lineup, it in effect would have had the best offense in baseball.
Not bad for a broken-down catcher.
That was 2002. The next year, the Boston Red Sox hired the dean of sabermetrics, Bill James, and went on to win the World Series in 2004 and 2007.
But there are corners of the game in which sabermetrics do not appear to be reaching. For his senior honors thesis, Bryce Bircher ’11 looked for a correlation between the salaries of top players and key sabermetrics statistics. The link, he says, is “erratic at best.”
“I just don’t think contracts that are being given out today are based primarily on sabermetric statistics,” he says. “I think that there’s something to be said for marquee value, if you will… The big name players, whether or not they’re getting top ranks in their sabermetric stats, are still getting paid because they are the big name players.”
Craig Parks—WSU psychology professor, lifelong fan, statistician, and advisor on Bircher’s thesis—says James and his fellow sabermetricians are trying to “move the evaluation of baseball talent away from the intuitive and towards the quantitative. And there’s a good basis for that.”
But the field has its limits, he says. Among other things, it does not measure a player’s mindset, which changes in different situations. It can also make cold, calculated suggestions out of line with the sentiments of fans. So while it might be time for the Mariners to move Ichiro from the leadoff batting spot, or for the Yankees to have Derek Jeter pinch hit, managers know they make such moves at their political and vocational peril.
“The bottom line is that baseball first and foremost is in the entertainment business,” says Parks. “They need people to come to the games and they need people to tune in on television. A strict sabermetrics approach isn’t going to accommodate that.”