So this sort of blew up on Tuesday, although I didn't catch wind of it until late in the evening: New Arizona Diamondbacks general manager Dave Stewart kind of put his foot in his mouth, telling Nick Piecoro of the Arizona Republic in regard to the team's pursuit of free agent James Shields,
"I think James is a throwback guy by the way he goes about his business and the innings he pitches. I think the fact that Tony (La Russa) is here and that we have more baseball people -- he probably sees us as a true baseball team vs. some of the other teams out here that are geared more toward analytics and those type of things."
Those type of things. Famous last words or, like Dayton Moore's "The Process" in Kansas City, will the general manager eventually get the last laugh?
Stewart's public disdain for analytics certainly opened him up to criticism. As Keith Law tweeted:
I mean, the team IN YOUR DIVISION with three World Series titles in five years makes heavy use of analytics, so maybe don't mock it.
— keithlaw (@keithlaw) January 13, 2015
Dave Stewart makes me chuckle.
— Dodgers Nation (@DodgersNation) January 13, 2015
— Sean McNally (@SeanMMcNally) January 13, 2015
OK, so the nerds and the statheads had a field day. Considering front offices are filled with nerds and statheads, Stewart's comments are silly in 2015. As Joe Sheehan wrote in his newsletter:
I've been doing this now for close to 20 years, and Bill James and Craig Wright were doing it for 20 before that. Before then, you had Allan Roth and Earnshaw Cook. Yet 60 years on, there are still people -- people being paid seven figures and given enormous amounts of control over baseball teams -- who think collecting data about the game of baseball and using that data in the pursuit of wins is a moral failing. It is astounding to me that there are still people in power who believe that there's some gap between a "true baseball team" and ones "geared more towards analytics" that would reflect positively on the former.
This war is over. Not in a "declare victory and get out" sense, but in a real, tangible way. Every team has some kind of analytics department, though not all give that department a voice. Bill James has three World Series rings. Kids who got their start as Prospectus interns, back when Prospectus was the center of the stathead world, are closing in on AGM and even GM jobs. Teams hire former players and make them scouts, sending them on the road to evaluate talent. Teams hire statheads and send them on the road with the team to help them win baseball games. Principles that had their birth in databases -- OBP, shifting, pitch framing -- drive the decisions successful front offices make. Dave Stewart is wrong if he thinks being a less analytical organization makes his Diamondbacks more likely to win, and more wrong to brag about the idea.
I saw some people suggesting we shouldn't overreact to Stewart's comments -- that Stewart didn't exactly say the Diamondbacks aren't using analytics -- but I find it hard to interpret his words as anything other than I know the game. That's what's dangerous, at least if you're a Diamondbacks fan. Knowing the game -- and there's no doubt Stewart knows the game and maybe will prove to have a sixth sense in discovering talent or knowing which minor leaguers will turn into good major leaguers -- is not the same as analyzing the game. This is the same mindset that leads a lot of broadcasters -- especially some former players -- to say things we know are wrong.
Times have changed. You can't dismiss analytics and expect to compete on the same playing field as the Giants or Dodgers or Cardinals or Pirates. They're going to know things you don't. You can't expect James Shields to want to play for your team and take less money because the D-backs are a "true baseball team." Really, as Craig Calcaterra wrote at Hardball Talk, this isn't so different than the previous regime's emphasis on "grit." We saw how well that worked out the past few years.
None of this means Stewart can't be a good general manager or that he and Tony La Russa can't build a winning organization. The knowledge to be gained from analytic approaches can be overcome with enough talent. Maybe Stewart and La Russa will be right and Yasmany Tomas can play third base and Mark Trumbo can play left field and those two and Paul Goldschmidt will each hit 35 home runs and the D-backs will score a ton of runs and win the National League West.
But I wouldn't bet on that.