Baseball prospectus

In olden and golden days baseball fans boned up for the new season on a healthy menu of tomes that included Street & Smith’s hefty Annual and the little red book called “Who’s Who in Baseball,” and that indispensable weekly, “The Sporting News,” also known as ‘‘The Bible of Baseball.” Sophisticates who could afford to waste another five bucks would add the “Official Baseball Guide” to the mix.

Digest the whole lot of them and you were deemed a walking encyclopaedia of the grand old game. And those of us who did, thought we were.

But a half-century later it is clear we were kidding ourselves. The game we thought we knew cold we apparently didn’t even begin to understand. The stuff available today for the study and analysis of baseball and the performance of its players is like advanced calculus compared with the simple arithmetic of our youth. If it isn’t supposed to be rocket science, it might as well be in terms of the demands it makes of the over-burdened intellect of the average baseball fan.

The point was borne home emphatically with the arrival of “Baseball Prospectus 2007” sent to me by that eminent sabermetrician and estimable fellow, Jonny Miller of WBZ Radio. Actually, I’ve been avoiding the “Prospectus” for about a decade on the grounds that it amounts to a fine madness of wretched overstatement, layered with gobbledygook and espoused by blowhards, with the original guru of the calling, Bill James, being only exhibit A.

But my old buddy, Professor Miller, has forced me to deal with it at long last and my suspicions have been pretty much confirmed. Binding up the performance of a baseball player in a statistical labyrinth that might have confounded Pythagoras himself is pretty wacky. And yet there is also -- I’m loath to admit -- a certain genius to this business.

The “Baseball Prospectus” is only the first, foremost and weightiest of the statistical studies that now flood the market. There’s a glut of such stuff tied to the wildly popular “Fantasy Baseball” gimmick.

With its veneer of solemn gravitas, “Prospectus” commands the most serious following and enjoys the devotions of several of the pretentious pseudo-intellectuals who have become the young Turks of major league baseball. We’re talking the likes of Billy Beane of the Oakland A’s, Josh Byrnes of the Arizona Diamondbacks, and the young, oh-so-very smart, Yalie who is in charge of our own Town Team. Increasingly, “Prospectus” staff people are worming their way into big league offices. Some say the game’s future belongs to them. A band of fiercely committed zealots, you could say they are the “Neo-Cons” of baseball.

This year’s version of their annual opus looks, feels and hefts like the Manhattan phone directory. It is 608 pages of fractions, averages, obscurus, obscuratio, percentages, decimals, and data. Some 1,800 players -- every cat listed on a MLB 40-man roster plus a few dozen fringe wannabes -- are dissected. Rank has no privileges. Everyone is treated equally. Barry Bonds commands no more space than his utterly irrelevant teammates, Eliezer Alfonzo and Emmanuel Burriss. The very same set of facts and figures that define Derek Jeter are applied to Eric Duncan.

The editors are a cheeky lot. “It seems we think we know everything,” they declare in their foreword. “Let’s not play coy. We do know a lot about baseball (but) we also recognize that as much as any of us know, there is always more that we could know and what we think we know can always be revised, reinterpreted or even invalidated by new information.” Cheeky to be sure but I rather like it, I confess. They modestly go on to assert that their editorial staff features, “some of the best young minds in the field of performance analysis.” And they top it with the declaration: “If this be arrogance, let us make the most of it!” Cheeky? No question!

But they do manage to back up their extravagant claims with a battery of number crunching that is novel and clever as well as esoteric. You realize these are the boys that have already given us “OBP” (on base percentage) which is all the rage of the new breed statisticians.

To that they add “SPEED” which they define as “a composite metric that accounts for a player’s baseball (as opposed to ‘raw’) speed” and which factors in the ability to avoid double plays and take the extra base alongside the conventional base-stealing stuff. There is also “MLVR” (marginal lineup value rate) which attempts to measure how much more the given subject adds (or detracts) to an average lineup. There is “VORP” (value over replacement player) estimating how much you lose in performance if your boy goes down. And there is a whole battery of categories they call “EqBA” and “EqOBP” and “EqSLG” which purport to more precisely quantify traditional statistics (batting averages, slugging percentages, etc) by factoring opposition, quality of pitching, ball-park dimensions, the moons, the tides and the weather. Lord knows it gets more than a little arcane.

Good writing and refreshing candor help redeem it. There is a capsule accompanying the statistical evaluation of every player profiled and the comments are often zesty. They don’t pull punches.

The Orioles’ trade for Kris Benson remains “dumb.” Of the estimable Jason Varitek, resident sacred cow, they write: “The Sox must reckon with owning a 35-year-old catcher whose body is no longer under warranty.” On the fact that the Yankees still owe Jason Giambi $47 million, they remark; “That’s a lot of moolah for a player who will spend the next two years praying that his bat doesn’t slow as much as his body already has.” On the large and awkward left-fielder of the World Champion Cardinals: “Is Chris Duncan the single worst defensive outfielder in modern memory? One usually needs to go to the stockyards to witness his brand of advanced butchery.”

They don’t mind stepping on toes. Of the barren performance of the Red Sox front office last summer, they observe: “Boston’s pennywise pound-foolishness at the (trade) deadline helped create a $142 bust of a ball club -- the most expensive team ever to miss the playoffs.” Moves the Red Sox did make were scorned as well. Baltimore catcher Javy Lopez, imported in desperation, is said to have been “DOA.” More heavily disparaged was the Bronson Arroyo deal which they termed ‘‘the real clunker’’ and which they ascribed to Theo’s “sheer hubris.” An arch disciple of the Prospectus movement, Theo may not enjoy being laughed at.

And there are fresh warnings that our Wunderkind might be well advised to note. Of the Rockies’ Todd Helton, whom he’s alleged to covet, they write: “It’s difficult to disentangle Helton’s ailments from (his) natural skill erosion.” In other words, “Buyer beware, Theo.” But they play no favorites. Joe Torre, Mr. Untouchable himself, gets curtly dismissed with the testy jibe, “He’s a weak in-game tactician, especially when it comes to handling the bullpen.”

How much all of this adds to our comprehension of this wonderfully deep and complex game is debatable. While finding the “Prospectus” more breezy, readable, and amusing than expected, I must say my long-held suspicion that it overstates the importance of numbers while undervaluing the importance of intangibles -- including attitude, spirit, sheer character and courage -- remains firm.

There is also a certain pomposity about their thing and the way they go about it. Know-it-alls have trouble being convincing even when they do indeed, ‘‘know it all.’’ Architects of this work are a bevy of wise guys. More likeable than expected, but no less “wise guys.” I’d still take the recommendation of a grizzled old baseball lifer like a Don Zimmer over the lofty deductions of these Ivy League whiz kids any day of the week.

On the other hand, the “kids” are unquestionably riding the wave of the future. Will the day come when “MLVR” and “VORP” have as much clout and meaning in the game's fabled lexicon as RBI and ERA?

It may already be here.