If you watch ESPN's SportsCenter or listen to most baseball broadcasters, you would think that the New York Yankees' Derek Jeter is one of the premier defensive shortstops in baseball. You only have to watch the highlight reels to see Jeter, as he is sometimes displayed, ranging far back in the hole to make a strong, leaping throw to first, astoundingly throwing out the runner. Great fielder, right? Yankee broadcaster Michael Kay and ESPN and analyst Joe Morgan gush in their praise of Jeter. Last year, ESPN the Magazine ran a cover photo of Jeter with the headline "Killer D," and The New York Times' Tyler Kepner wrote an article suggesting Jeter's defense was becoming Gold-Glove caliber.
But Mike Emeigh would beg to differ, and Mike Emeigh knows a lot more about baseball than anyone you're likely to meet. Emeigh, who lives in Raleigh, is part of a growing movement dedicated to scientific analysis of America's national pastime. These analysts have challenged the traditional wisdom of baseball experts and have helped revolutionize the way baseball is understood. When Emeigh looks at Derek Jeter's performance, he is not influenced by selected images of the shortstop making spectacular plays. He tries to evaluate his overall performance through statistics.
Stat analysts do not concentrate on the occasional errors that occur when a player fields a ball--a statistic most conventional analysts regard as important. Instead, they concentrate on how many balls a player is able to reach in the first place--their range. Think of it this way: Who would you rather have, a player who has good range but makes some errors, or a player who has poor range but does not make many errors? Clearly the former. This is the type of evidence baseball statisticians evaluate on websites like Baseball Primer (www.baseballprimer.com) and Baseball Prospectus (www.baseballprospectus.com).
At 47, Emeigh, who contributes to Baseball Primer, is one of the statistical community's old-timers. "I started out as a hardcore stathead," he admits. "I've mellowed a bit as I've gotten older."
One might not realize this from looking at Emeigh's recent work. Last year, he completed an exhaustive study of Jeter's defense in an eight-part series of articles on Baseball Primer. Emeigh says that he picked Jeter for his study because there was such a large gap between conventional analysts who see Jeter as a great defensive player, and stat people who see him as such a poor defender. What did Emeigh discover? Jeter is not as good as conventional analysts would like to believe and not as bad as many statisticians believe. Part of Emeigh's conclusion was drawn from the extraordinarily few number of attempts Jeter has had a chance to make on balls throughout his career. According to Emeigh, when statisticians look at data that reveal Jeter has not made many plays, it often helps to convince them that he has poor range. However, Emeigh found that it is not always that Jeter is not getting to balls, but that sometimes balls are not getting to him. He is not sure why this is the case, but suggests that perhaps the Yankees realize Jeter is not a very good fielder and set their defense to minimize his number of attempts.
Emeigh, who works for a pharmaceutical company, grew up in Pittsburgh. He played Little League as a kid but says, "I wasn't good enough to get beyond that." He did, however, show a love for baseball stats at an early age. Although he is too young to recall, Emeigh's mother claims he was reading baseball statistics from the newspaper by the age of 3. As a kid, Emeigh played baseball board games like Stratomatic Baseball and was a baseball card collector through the early '70s. No longer a card collector, today Emeigh is a season ticket holder of the Carolina Mudcats. Emeigh isn't sure where his love for baseball came from. "I just sort of fell into it, I guess," he says.
Emeigh says that he became interested in analyzing defense after reading statistician and baseball historian Bill James' 1982 Baseball Abstract and realizing how many great defensive players had been overlooked for the Hall of Fame. Bill James is the most revered baseball statistician ever, and arguably one of the most important figures in baseball history. What James did was simple yet revolutionary: He tested many of the claims made by conventional baseball people through analysis and mathematical calculations. While most of the time James found conventional wisdom to be true, there were sometimes many things that did not compute. For instance, James found that hard-throwing pitchers actually tend to have longer careers than soft-tossers, there is no such thing as "clutch hitting," and a position player's prime is actually around age 27, not his early 30s as many believed.
While James has often been ridiculed and mocked by traditional baseball people, his influence in baseball is becoming increasingly evident. Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane is adamant about his penchant for statistical analysis in player evaluation. Last year, Beane was the subject of Michael Lewis' best-selling book, Moneyball, which chronicled his rise to arguably the best general manager in baseball. Beane's former assistant, J.P. Ricciardi, who shares his statistical mind, is now general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays, one of the fastest rising teams in baseball. When Ricciardi took over the team, it was burdened with albatross contracts and a core of veteran players. Now the team is younger and has a vastly improved farm system. Even the storied Red Sox franchise has made it clear they will not be afraid to experiment with statistical analysis. After trying to lure Beane and Ricciardi last year with no luck, the Sox owners turned to then 28-year-old Theo Epstein, who is adept at using statistical analysis.
Chris Dial, 40, of Cary, also works for a pharmaceutical company. He, too, writes for Baseball Primer and shares Emeigh's love for defensive analysis. Dial, a diehard New York Mets fan, says he wanted to analyze defense in part to prove that former Mets shortstop Rey Ordonez "is a quality baseball player." Dial became infatuated with statistical analysis back in his days of playing Little League. Since he, like Emeigh, was not a very good baseball player, Dial kept track of his team's statistics and advised his coaches on whom they should play. Dial's stat-keeping was extremely detailed, even down to inane statistics like "tackles." It was a regular joke at sporting banquets that he was an assistant coach. Dial's interest in baseball statistics continued and in the early '90s he began writing a baseball news column called "Baseball: One Guy's Opinion," which he would mail to friends and family every two to three weeks. Soon he was mailing the column to roughly 100 people. Around the same time, Dial began chatting with other baseball stat fans on a computer network posting-board called rec.sport.baseball, a place where Dial and his colleagues exchanged ideas. In 2001, some of those involved in the rec.sport.baseball boards began the website, Baseball Primer, which now has roughly a million hits a month.
David Cameron, 22, a cost accountant from Winston-Salem, is part of the young blood often seen as typical of the statistical community; yet he is not a numbers-cruncher like most of his colleagues. Instead, Cameron evaluates minor-league prospects, which he began doing while working for a website in Seattle before getting the call from Baseball Prospectus. Last year, Cameron moved to North Carolina to help start the Morningstar Fellowship Church.
"I'm probably the only church-goer-slash-baseball analyst," he jokes. Cameron, who says he values statistical analysis when scouting players, represents a bridge between two arguably diverging arenas of scouting, on the one hand, and statistical analysis, on the other.
Cameron, Emeigh, and Dial all agree that scouting is an important part of baseball. Emeigh says that the smartest front offices will recognize the value of both scouting and statistics. He sees statistical analysis as becoming a more important part of baseball front offices but not to the detriment of scouting. "The use will grow more for statistical analysis," he said, "but traditional scouting will not go away."