Why Sabermetrics is not going to save the Rangers

I had the pleasure of attending a wonderful baseball game this afternoon between the Texas Rangers and the Kansas City Royals.  It was about 80 degrees with a nice breeze.  There were only about 5,000 fans in the park (Texas has done little to draw fans so far this year).  However, on this day, the Rangers and the Royals got involved in a pitching duel.  Both pitchers went eight innings (very rare in any game much less one involving these two teams), and there were no errors in the game (just as rare if the Rangers take the field).  In the end, Texas won 2-1 on two home runs in a game that took only 2:10 to play.  Games like this make baseball more enjoyable.

Getting home earlier than I intended, I began to think about the problems with the Rangers as a team.  There is some anticipation around the Dallas area regarding the eminent demise of Ranger manager Ron Washington.  If this happens, I would like to see Buddy Bell given another opportunity to succeed as a manager. Getting rid of Ron would be a nice first step, but much more needs to be done.

General Manager John Daniels claims to subscribe to the ‘Billy Ball’ theory otherwise known as Sabermetrics.  I am not here to denigrate the Sabermetric theory.  It works or it has worked in the past.  Just look at Oakland making their yearly attempt to rise to the top of the AL West with another group of pseudo-stars.  Boston, of course, is the biggest example of how Sabermetrics can work for a team.  They believe in the idea so much, they have retained Bill James, the father of Sabermetrics, as a consultant for the team.

The Sabermetrics method assumes that all teams must function within a given budget, and therefore to maximize your potential to win, you must sign players that give you the biggest bang for the buck.  It really just makes sense, but Sabermetrics uses a set of expanded criteria that are used to determine a player’s ‘worth’ to a team.  In the end, the method tends to focus not on the elite players of the game as much, because they cost too much money to pack a roster full of them (unless you are the Yankees), but rather it focuses on very good, difference makers that are salary friendly.  By dropping out of the bidding for players such as A-Rod who may cost a team upwards of $25,000,000 a year, a team can focus on players who are very good, but not elite.  After applying the Sabermetrics methods to the players that may be available in free agency or for trade, a team can concentrate on packing its roster with these types of players and using them to complement a couple of truly elite players it may also have on its roster.  It is argued that by adding these players who ‘statistically’ make a difference to your team, you make your team better than other teams. Simple.

As I said before, this idea has definitely led to success for several teams in the past few years.  The problem I see is this, Sabermetrics, by being successful has given itself a definite lifespan.  For a number of reasons, Sabermetrics will have, and has already begun to deliver diminishing returns.

As more teams use these criteria for evaluating talent, the group of players that Sabermetrics has identified as ‘budget-friendly difference makers’ will be artificially inflated.  When there were only a couple of teams going for these players, those teams could focus on the ones at the very top of their Sabermetric statistics.  Now, many teams (including my Texas Rangers) have adopted this philosophy, and all teams know about it.  As a result, there is a lot more competition for these types of players.  Teams that do not even necessarily admit to using the Sabermetrics philosophy will make an extra effort to keep the players already on their roster that fit the Sabermetrics profile because their value will be more apparent.  This will further dilute the pool of players that fit the profile.

Another problem with Sabermetrics is that it does not effectively take into account the players that surround a particular player, and as a result, teams that are already pretty good tend to benefit more from its philosophy.  A player in the middle of a line-up with four other good hitters around him may look better that he actually is because he gets more at bats in that line-up, he is driven in more in that line-up, pitchers are forced to pitch to him in more situations, and he has more opportunities to drive in runs in that line up.  Put him on a team with a worse line-up, where he has to carry a lot more of the load, and his stats go way down as his opportunities decrease.  However, take the third best batter from say, the Marlins and plug him into a Red Sox line-up that is already filled with good hitters and he suddenly he is a much better player.

Coming to these ideas a part of a team philosophy as the Rangers have done will eventually be proven to be a losing endeavor.  Due to scarcity, these teams will reach for less talented players in an attempt to find players who fit these newly adopted philosophies.  It also will instill the catastrophic idea that championships can be won on the cheap if you only use this method.  This will sound great to owners who will think that they may be able to spend less, not hire superstars, and still have a contending team.

As far as salaries go, the Sabermetrics philosophy will end up driving them up.  The scarcity of players that fit the sabermetrics mold will drive their prices up.  And as teams attempt to do a better job of holding onto this talent, more teams will reach for talent that is not quite as good, and the salaries for those players will rise as well.  Trades for these types of players will cost more prospects, depleting a team’s farm system.  And don’t think that statisticians and GMs are the only ones paying attention to all of this.  Player agents and the players themselves have already started crunching these numbers, and when the numbers come up saying that they are more valuable, they are going to expect to be compensated accordingly.

As far as I can see, the Ranges have made every misstep possible in their attempt to adopt Billy Ball.  They spent the last few years building up their farm system, and recently have traded a lot of the talent that was almost ready for the major leagues for a group of guys who may not have been as good as they looked statistically.