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Archive for March 28th, 2011

(In addition to appearing at The Captain’s Blog, this post is also being syndicated at TheYankeeAnalysts.)

Branch Rickey was always considered to be a man well ahead of his time. The former GM of the Cardinals, Dodgers and Pirates is best known for being an instrumental figure in breaking baseball’s color barrier, but he is also credited with such innovations as developing the minor league farm system and pioneering advancements in equipment. And now, perhaps to the consternation of modern day purists, it appears as if he was also the father of sabermetrics.

Over the weekend, The Good Phight, a Phillies blog on the SB*Nation network, featured intriguing excerpts from a LIFE magazine article about Rickey’s statistical proclivities (“Goodby to Some Old Baseball Ideas”, published on August 2, 1954). The Good Phight does an excellent job juxtaposing some modern examples of reactionary baseball thinking against the lucid, progressive thoughts of Rickey that were uttered over 50 years ago. Apparently, the same resistance to change that existed in Rickey’s era continues to this day. I guess the more things change, they really do stay the same.

President Branch Rickey is quietly patting himself on the back because of a new Rickey idea: that of sending a statistician along with the club on its final western road trip to tabulate every pitch made for and against the Bums.” – Frank Eck, Associated Press, September 23, 1947

That Rickey was involved in advanced statistical analysis isn’t surprising. As the LIFE article mentions, he was widely regarded as “the first executive to see the value of using baseball statistics in putting together and running his teams”. While GM of the Brooklyn Dodgers, this realization inspired Rickey to hire a full-time statistician named Allan Roth in 1947. Only 26 years old at the time, the Montreal-born Roth was charged with recording every conceivable piece of data pertaining to the team and then synthesizing it into relevant strategy.

Roth is the figure filbert brought in by Branch Rickey to record every possible statistic on Dodger players almost down to the total drops of perspiration per nine inning game”. – Steve Snider, United Press, December 28, 1950

Rickey hired Allan Roth as a fulltime statistician in 1947 (Photo: Life).

Based on Roth’s findings, Rickey began to espouse ideas that were revolutionary in baseball circles. The most profound was probably the notion that a player’s performance was impacted by (left hand and right hand) splits, but Rickey was also one of the first of his era to vocally suggest that metrics such as batting average and fielding percentage were highly overrated, and in some instances, meaningless. Such statements cause resentment even today, so just imagine how Rickey’s contemporaries must have felt?

Interestingly, Rickey’s statistical revolution not only impacted his own industry, but it left a mark on the publishing realm as well. Just in time for the 1949 season, a newspaper called the Daily Baseball Form was launched. Much like today’s fantasy baseball-inspired websites, such as Baseball Prospectus and Fangraphs, the new publication was geared toward those inclined to place a wager, but it’s volume of statistics eventually made it a universal resource.

Daily Baseball Form records are as complete as Branch Rickey’s statistics…For instance, if Joe Panhandle is going today, and the Braves got to him in the seventh and eighth innings of his last two starts, it is suggested that a good manager will have the boys wait him out in the early innings.” – Harry Grayson, NEA Sports Editor, April 29, 1949

We’ve gone off the beaten path a bit, but let’s jump back to the LIFE article. As we’ve established, there really is nothing surprising about the idea that Rickey was an early day sabermetrician. In fact, the most astounding thing is how little so many associated with the game have evolved. Having said that, the level of sophistication revealed in the article is certainly eye opening.

Branch Rickey explains his formula (Photo: Life).

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