Corrections and Additions to “The Numbers Game,” by Alan Schwarz
“The Numbers Game” is sort of a history of the use of statistical analysis in professional baseball. I don’t see my work that way, but it certainly is a common perception, and Mr. Schwarz certainly believed it despite my efforts to get him to see it in a different light. Unlike Michael Lewis in writing “Moneyball,” Alan did an impeccable job in honoring my conditions for our interviews, including the key section:
I want to read before publication the sections that relate to our interview and point out to you any sections I think are inaccurate or misunderstood. I'm not seeking editorial approval. Whether you make any changes is up to you. It's your name on it, not mine.
He did let me review what he wrote based on his interviews with me. He considered my comments and even made a few changes, though he declined probably 90% of my suggestions. And that was fine; it was his book. Here are some of the changes that I suggested and which were not adopted.
1) Mr. Schwarz uses as an example of my early work for the Rangers the study I did that indicated knuckleballers like Charlie Hough were better suited to a starting role than relief work and then has the Rangers moving him into the rotation where he became a very successful starting pitcher. I objected to that passage because it gave the impression that my report was somehow central in that move and did not give sufficient credit to the GM Eddie Robinson and the manager Don Zimmer. I suggested the following text which was not used.
When Eddie Robinson and Don Zimmer showed interest in making career reliever Charlie Hough a starting pitcher, Wright strongly endorsed the move with a study that concluded that knuckleballers, especially those with high walk rates, were better suited to a starting role where the extended innings and consistent rest pattern tended to improve their control of the knuckleball. Hough went into the rotation where he stayed for the next seven seasons, averaging 16 wins a year with a walk rate 25% lower than his prior career.
We were allied on that change in Hough’s role. If it were just what I wanted to do, it would never have happened. I think all the accounts of the evolution of this type of work in baseball could use more emphasis on the cooperation and integration of viewpoints. My value in that move was being one of those who supported it and being able to articulate sound logic and research of prior knuckleballers to give us confidence that it was the right decision. And I think that helped get us through some initial rough patches. When Charlie became a regular starter in 1982 he had a miserable April and did not make it past the fourth inning in his last three starts. Overall, his ERA in his five starts was 5.79 ERA. But we stayed with him and that radically changed his career for the better. I surely contributed to that, but just as surely I did not make it happen by myself.
2) I wanted Mr. Schwarz to include another example how when things happened it was often a case of working together. When he mentions how Scouting Director Sandy Johnson liked my work, I wanted Mr. Schwarz to use this particular case which was literally the first player Sandy and I ever discussed:
Johnson’s respect for Wright began with a “sleeper”
pitcher, a small 29-year-old right-hander who had never spent a full year in
the majors, but Wright felt his 1984 season suggested that he had developed a
much needed “out pitch” and that he was in the process of developing better
command of the pitch. Wright felt this would make the difference between his
being a borderline big leaguer and being able to contribute in the majors on
a regular basis. And best of all he could be acquired for next to nothing. As
it turned out the pitcher had been dealt to
General Manager Tom Grieve took Wright in to see
Johnson [literally this was the first time
3) Mr. Schwarz does mention one of my “sleeper” players who went on to become a really big name, Orel Hershiser, but notes how the Rangers didn’t get him, which leaves the reader wondering if he were really an available sleeper. I would have preferred to see it brought out that the Rangers literally had a deal in place where we would have acquired Hershiser largely as a throw-in in a large 5-player deal. I gave Mr. Schwarz more detail on the particulars, which he decided not to include. He could have gone with:
The Rangers just missed nabbing one of Wright’s sleepers in what would have been the greatest steal in Rangers’ history. Prior to 1982 Wright had recommended to GM Eddie Robinson an unheralded AA pitcher in the Dodger farm system named Orel Hershiser. The next year the Rangers were working on a deal with the Dodgers who badly wanted catcher Jim Sundberg and were offering pitchers Burt Hooton, Dave Stewart, and possibly a couple minor prospects. Wright’s sleeper had made some progress in his 1982 season, and some of the scouts had also developed an interest in him. Wright again endorsed the pitcher and Hershiser ended up being part of the deal.
The trade was finalized with all the names being announced to the media, but it was contingent upon the Dodgers being able to negotiate a contract extension with Sundberg. Fourteen hours later the deal was killed when Sundberg’s agent rejected the Dodgers’ final offer. When the media discussed the merits of the trade, the focus was all on Sundberg for Hooton and Stewart with little attention going to the two so-so prospects, Hershiser and reserve outfielder Mark Bradley. But the player who would have made the deal such an amazing steal was Hershiser. In the next 6 seasons that the Rangers could have had contractual control over Hershiser, he was one of the game’s most durable pitchers while posting the second best ERA in all of baseball (2.69).
As something that would have radically altered the future of several pennant races, this near trade is surprisingly forgotten today. If you still find it hard believe, go into The Sporting News archive and look at page 47 of the Dec-12-82 issue. There you will see an article on the contingent trade and names the players.
I suspect it is hard in retrospect to imagine Hershiser was considered so lightly at that time. Let me put it in context for you. Hershiser was a 17th round draft pick who had spent four years in the minors. In his three years above A-ball he was a .500 pitcher (21-21) with an ERA near 4.00. He had never thrown more than 124 innings in a season, and a lot of folks saw his future as no more than a middle reliever. He wasn’t a complete non-prospect, but for most he was an expendable Class C or D prospect, a “nobody” at that point. Shoot, next to Orel, himself, I might have been the only one who really cared that much that he was in the deal.
Again, I want to emphasize that this was done in a collaborative fashion. It would be wrong to say I got Hershiser put in that deal. If I truly had that kind of influence then we would have gone after him a year earlier when I first expressed interest in him. I was a part of that decision, but it never would have happened without some dove-tailing with the visual scouts in evaluating his tools.
4) Out of deference to Tom Grieve, I sought this next correction. Whenever anything is written about my decision to leave the Texas Rangers and to start working as an independent consultant, the focus is always on my wanting to avoid getting pigeon-holed as a salary arbitration specialist and wanting to exercise more control in shaping my career. That’s true enough as far as it goes, but there were also strong personal reasons involved, and that is invariably left out. Tom was the GM at that time, and he once let me know that the common perception bothered him, that he didn’t like the impression it left that he and the Rangers did not value me enough. Tom, I’ve never forgotten that, and when I saw Mr. Schwarz decided not to reference the personal angle, I tried to at least get him to include the simple phrase, “combined with a need for greater flexibility in his personal life.” He didn’t, and so, here’s the whole story as I shared it in my written response to Mr. Schwarz.
The Rangers had never won an arbitration case until I started working on them and then we won three in a row. I think the credit for that really belongs to the whole arbitration team, but that success did shift things where I was being valued more for my arbitration work and in providing analysis used in other contract negotiations. Yes, I was not happy with that shift; I did not think it was the most valuable use of my work, and there were aspects of the arbitration work that bothered me. I had trained my whole life to reveal the truth, and at times there was pressure in these cases to do the opposite, to conceal the truth. I did envision changing to a consultant as a way to escape the possibility of this type of work dominating my future use.
But a huge, huge factor in my decision is that I was deeply
depressed over something that had happened in my personal life, and I saw
breaking away from working for a single team as a way to keep it from
happening again. When I took the job with the Rangers, I was engaged to a
woman whose career required her to be in
As it turned out, this was change in my career was critical to my future marriage to my wife Cathy. She had a situation that firmly required our living in Northern California. By then I was established in my career as a major league consultant and as my own boss I was able to make the move from Texas to California without any disruption of that career.
For the record, Tom Grieve and the Rangers were incredibly supportive in that transition period and immediately signed up as my first client (doing mostly arbitration work but it still made things much easier). I also want to specifically acknowledge club President Mike Stone who, along with Tom, made sure it was known that the Rangers had not fired me, that they were happy with my work and I had come to them with the need to make this change. I naively had not realized the importance of that being clear, and there they were, already taking care of it.
5) Mr. Schwarz ended up writing very little about the last 75% of my career, and gives a mistaken impression about my degree of involvement with STATS Inc. in that period. As it reads, it sounds like I stopped working with the teams at some point to go work with STATS. That’s totally wrong. After seeing his draft I clarified in writing for Mr. Schwarz the actual nature of that relationship. STATS was a client of my consulting service. I never was their employee, and I never stopped working for the teams which was always the focus of my business. I always did far, far more work for my year-round clients than I ever did for STATS. Every year at least 70% of my income came directly from my consulting work with the teams. I made several suggestions to Mr. Schwarz for how he could better cover that part of my career and still be brief. Near as I can tell, he didn’t use any. I suggested these three paragraphs to round it out both better and more accurately.
Wright continued to work with the Rangers as a year-round consultant. He added other clubs as the years went by, though always limiting himself to one year-round client in each league. Each year he would also do piece work projects for several other teams. A popular service in the 1989-96 period was his supplemental advance scout report for post-season play which was used by four World Championship clubs. He also fulfilled a personal goal of assisting in the birth of a franchise when he consulted for two years with the Arizona Diamondbacks in preparing for their expansion draft.
The longest client of Wright’s year-round consulting service
There were two exceptions to Wright’s stable of clients being
major league teams. In the last few years of his career he added the Hanshin
This next part is in a
section that was not related to our interview, so I never got to review it or
comment on it, but on page 242 Mr. Schwarz is writing about Bill James’
involvement with the teams before
As for working for a team directly, [James] did a little part-time consulting for his beloved Kansas City Royals, but it appeared as if the door he had opened for the Craig Wrights and Eddie Epsteins was closed to him.
This perpetuates a myth that one would hope “The Numbers Game” as a historical account would have set right.
I've no problem with opinions that Bill and I have a similar approach to the game. I share that opinion and said in The Diamond Appraised that I felt his work was far closer to my science and synthesis approach than the work of others who focused more on statistical analysis. I made that same point in my foreword to his 1985 Abstract. And I've no problem with people who would identify Bill and I as friends who while following separate careers influence each other. However, it does bother me when folks screw up the time line and have me following in Bill’s footsteps, giving him credit for making my career possible; that they claim - as Mr. Schwarz does here - that Bill somehow opened the door for me.
This incidentally is not a view shared by Bill James who knows it is ass-backwards. In an email in 2004 he mentioned his appreciation of my pioneering efforts, “… you had your job with the Rangers long ago, before anybody had broken any barriers for you. You actually helped break barriers for me …”
The first time I ever heard of Bill was when I read his 1980 Abstract. By then I had already been developing and using my scientific approach to the game for over a dozen years, and had already been pitching the idea to the ML clubs. Indeed, I had already begun my correspondence with Eddie Robinson that eventually led to my being hired by the Rangers after the 1981 strike ended.
I had already completed my trial period with the Rangers and had already established my career in baseball when James had his first Baseball Abstract that wasn’t self-published. Shortly thereafter we had our first communication and began our friendship.
Bill had no more opportunity than his next door neighbor to be my mentor or inspiration. He had no role in the approach I had settled on for understanding the game. He had no role in my decision to try to pioneer a new type of career based on bringing a scientific perspective to front office decisions. I know folks love a good story and simplification of history, but anyone who can read a calendar can see Bill had no role in opening the door that I went through - none, zip, nada.
I have great respect and fondness for Bill. I do believe his fabulous job in popularizing sabermetrics made my career easier in its second half. But he did not get me started; he did not clear the way for me, and to be honest, the early years of our association were hardly a career asset. He was a lightning rod, and as Mr. Schwarz notes in his book he was rubbing a lot of professional baseball people the wrong way. I took heat for my support of what he was doing. There were people in baseball that I needed to work with who looked at me with added suspicion because I made no secret of my appreciation for Bill and his work. I never regretted it or had doubts about it. It was the right choice simply because it was right, and just. But the actual benefits of that as far as my career went, that did not come until several years down the road.