The search for intelligent life


THIS OCTOBER, THE statistically savvy Boston Red Sox will celebrate the 10th anniversary of their 2004 World Series championship. The occasion was as close as statheads have come to a man-on-the-moon moment, one where the advances became clear for all to see: One small step for David Ortiz, one giant leap for Bill James.

The Red Sox have since won two more World Series. But the real sign of progress for sports analysts is the increasingly ambitious questions they are asking. From studies on pitch framing to attempts to measure clubhouse chemistry, topics once thought to be beyond the realm of analytics -- the Dark Matter referred to throughout this issue -- now seem within reach.

That's how the party line goes, anyway. But before we celebrate the emergence of Analytics 2.0, it's worth reviewing how much influence the previous generation of analysts has had on America's three largest professional sports: baseball, basketball and football. Two of these sports show a clear commitment to analytics. The third reminds us that all the data in the world is for naught if it's not accompanied by a culture that empowers players, coaches and general managers to make better decisions.

The Red Sox, like Billy Beane's A's, were famous for emphasizing on-base percentage. They have been, in some sense, too successful for their own good. OBP is now the best predictor of free agent salaries (see: Shin-Soo Choo, seven years, $130 million), which means that while an appreciation for the statistic may be essential to building a championship contender, it is no longer a way to do so on the cheap.

Nor is number of walks an especially telling indicator of how much analytic progress baseball has made as a whole. Since a walk prevented is just as valuable as a walk drawn, teams have changed how they evaluate pitchers as well as hitters. In fact, the number of walks fell to 3.01 per team per game in 2013, the lowest since 1968, baseball's offense-starved equivalent of the Little Ice Age.

A clearer demonstration of how much analytics has changed the game comes from teams' elective choices -- options that opponents have little or no chance of preventing. Baseball analysts, for instance, have long decried the use of small-ball tactics -- the sacrifice, the intentional walk and the stolen base attempt -- which forfeit too much chance of a multirun inning to be worthwhile under most circumstances. Indeed, the number of stolen base attempts per team per game fell by 30 percent from 1993 to 2013, the number of sacrifice hits also by 30 percent (to their lowest per-game total since the statistic was first measured in 1894) and the number of intentional walks by 36 percent (also to an all-time low). All of this has come despite the recent renaissance of pitching and the revival of a lower-scoring environment, which would ordinarily be friendlier to one-run tactics. At least with respect to the sac hit and the stolen base, theory and practice are now fairly well-aligned.

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