Can Slide Rules Overcome Slugging?

added 1/9/2012 by Bob Hulsey

"Don't think; it can only hurt the ball club." - Crash Davis from the movie "Bull Durham".

Jim Crane began the post-McLane era by hiring a Penn grad as his new General Manager. On the field, all he's done is swapped a closer for a shortstop but, off the field, Jeff Luhnow is a busy man.

He's hired a Director of Decision Sciences. His name is Sig Mejdal. He might be the first Sig in baseball since Sig Jakucki. His job is to organize data so, as Luhnow summarizes, "to make better baseball decisions".

I suppose this replaces the Ouija Board that told Ed Wade to sign Bill Hall.

Mejdal is a smart man, as Astros.com recently proclaimed:

"Mejdal earned two engineering degrees at the University of California at Davis and later completed advanced degrees in operations research and cognitive psychology/human factors. He has also worked at Lockheed Martin in California and for NASA."

Luhnow (which rhymes with "you know") then added a Coordinator of Amateur Scouting. Stephanie Wilka has never been a baseball scout but she does have a degree from Harvard and a law degree from Pepperdine.

So, the next time MLB decides to have an IQ challenge, the Astros are going to kill the competition. Ignore the fact that they're losing 100 games a year, they'll have the smartest front office in baseball history.

I'd love to be optimistic about this but there is something of this too-smart-by-half Ivy League motiff that makes me think of the Ivy League economists in Washington who told us all that the only way out of the recession was with massive deficit spending. These are the same minds telling us today that the only way to get job producers to offer more jobs is by raising their taxes.

It feels a bit like the cheers heard at Duke and Northwestern. As their gridiron representatives are getting their teeth kicked in by football powers like Ohio State and Florida State, the brain school students chant: "That's alright! That's okay! You're going to work for us some day!"

It's the concept that if you can so muddy the argument with numbers and terms nobody can actually pin down while sneering that anyone who isn't as smart as you doesn't deserve to be heard that you can win any argument and survive any crisis.

Sports don't work that way. There are won-loss records. There are championships determined. You can't hide behind b.s. very long when there's a 100-megaton scoreboard rising up over the outfield stands.

Another beauty of sports is that the improbable actually does happen. A well-placed 200-foot bloop can do more damage than a warning track blast. A 60 MPH changeup can sometimes do to a hitter what a 90 MPH fastball cannot. A scorcher can quickly turn into a rally-killing double play. Play around with numbers all you want but you'll never change that.

I memorized stats like any young baseball fan and was slow to embrace some of the new stats used to evaluate talent. I've come to accept and adopt some of them, like OPS and WAR, but only for what they are - generalized representations of a player's talent or worth, not as tablets from on-high.

OPS approximates the value of anyone's offensive prowess but it fudges some in order to condense the value to one figure. In OPS, a walk is as good as a single. In real baseball, that isn't always true. WAR is an approximation of a player's overall worth in comparison to all other players. The beauty of all these new stats is that YOU can decide what they actually mean. "Old" numbers like wins, home runs and strikeouts were too finite.

Amateur and professional statistical baseball analysts swear (sometimes arrogantly so) to the wisdom of their data. They see Billy Beane and "Moneyball" as "the way it should be done" in every front office. But how many worlds championships have the Oakland A's won since Beane arrived? None.

Scoreboard.

That's not to say that new methods are unwelcome in Astroland. When you're this far down, any idea shouldn't be easily dismissed including witch doctors and faith healers. But I'd love to see more money spent on the sport's best hitting and pitching coaches instead of the ones with the best SAT scores. You can be a Rhodes Scholar and still not know how to lay off the low-and-away slider.

I'd rather see the Astros find one player who hits a quantity of home runs than 20 who can explain quantum physics.