Branch Rickey was a sabermetrics pioneer, too
BY JOHN GROCHOWSKI For Sun-Times Media May 14, 2014 12:33AM
Jackie Robinson (left), Brooklyn Dodgers' second baseman, has a wide smile that almost matches the wide eyes of Dodgers president Branch Rickey as they get together on Jackie's 1950 contract in the Dodgers Brooklyn offices, January 24, 1950. Jackie signd the contract which is estimated to be for a sum between $30,000 and $35,000.
In the late 1960s, then-Cubs manager Leo Durocher used to talk about the days when then-White Sox manager Eddie Stanky was one of his players with the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants.
Using Branch Rickey’s description of Stanky, Durocher would say: ‘‘He can’t hit. He can’t throw. He can’t run. All he can do is beat you.’’
Chances are, Rickey knew exactly what Stanky could do to beat you. Rightly renowned for breaking the major-league color line by bringing Jackie Robinson to the Dodgers and for inventing the minor-league farm system, Rickey also was a pioneer in recognizing value in statistics beyond batting average, home runs and RBI.
A modern analyst would look at Stanky’s record and scoff at the ‘‘can’t hit’’ notion. Stanky’s .268 batting average wasn’t eye-popping, and he hit only 29 homers in an 11-year career. But when it came to getting on-base, he was a star. He led the National League in walks six times and had a career on-base percentage of .410, with a career high of .460 in 1950.
One of the tenets of modern baseball analysis is that getting on base is the most important thing a hitter can do. Rickey got that. He was the first baseball exec to hire a full-time statistician, bringing Alan Roth to the Dodgers in 1946.
In 1954, Rickey wrote a long essay for Life magazine that was headlined, ‘‘Goodby to some old baseball ideas.’’ You can find it at the Baseball Think Factory website, http://www.baseballthinkfactory.org/btf/pages/essays/rickey/goodby_to_old_idea.htm.
Among the ideas is that batting average doesn’t tell enough of the story.
‘‘It neglects a major factor, the base on balls, which is reflected only negatively in the batting average [by not counting it as a time at bat],’’ Rickey wrote. ‘‘Actually, walks are extremely important.’’
Rickey went on to give a formula for a better stat, on-base average: (hits + walks + hit by pitch)/(at-bats + walks + hit by pitch) = OBA. The modern formula for on-base percentage has one tweak: It includes sacrifice flies with at-bats, walks and hit by pitch in the divisor.
It was a different way of thinking about the game 60-plus years ago. Source materials for fans, such as the annual stats compilation Who’s Who in Baseball, didn’t include walks for hitters. There wasn’t yet enough recognition that walks are a two-way street between a pitcher and a patient hitter.
There’s much more from Rickey, including correlation of runs scored and allowed to team standings, rating pitchers and a hitter ranking based on on-base average plus an extra-base percentage — essentially on-base percentage plus isolated power.
It would be a couple of decades before Bill James, Pete Palmer, Craig Wright and others started the heavy lifting that has led to today’s sabermetrics and another couple of decades before the people who run ballclubs began to incorporate results into roster-building and strategy.
But there are roots to any great idea, and the insights of Rickey and Roth from more than six decades ago are well worth a look.