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Melvin: Sabermetrics a bit misleading

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Brewers general manager Doug Melvin follows sabermetric statistics a bit, but he also knows they can be deceiving at times. (Jeff Hanisch/US Presswire)


Mark Concannon
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Mark Concannon joined FOX Sports Wisconsin in June 2010 as a sideline reporter, Milwaukee Bucks and Milwaukee Brewers studio host and website writer. Concannon was hired by WITI-TV as a weekend sports anchor in 1987 and has been a prominent face in the Milwaukee market since.

Sep 15, 2011
As baseball's regular season winds down, the rumors about perceived, imminent vacancies in upper management for struggling clubs heat up.

Many of the top candidates mentioned as potential general managers are firm advocates of advanced statistical analysis, or metrics: looking at a player's past numbers and projecting future performance.

The movie "Money Ball," set to open soon, stars Brad Pitt portraying Oakland A's G.M. Billy Beane, whose utter devotion to metrics was first celebrated in Michael Lewis' best-selling book and created a new baseball religion among some MLB front offices.

In this fantasy league world where new statistical categories are created virtually every day, with no one less than Brad Pitt now serving as the big screen poster-boy for baseball being a game played strictly by the numbers, does success in the sport really come down to who can best do the math?

"It depends on how you use it," Brewers general manager Doug Melvin said. "I do use certain statistical guidelines in making decisions."

"But I think there's a point where people are looking to find the new stat. It's like going into a science lab and looking for the new experiment. I don't think there's any perfect model that you can find based on strictly statistics."

Melvin says looking at a column of figures and trying to compare players' performances can be misleading.

"Because the conditions are never the same in the games," he said. "The fields are never the same, ballpark effects, injuries. There are certain things I look at as far as statistics, but there's a number of them where I don't think there's enough proof yet that they're rock-solid and this is the way to go."

"Money Ball" sang the praises of on-base percentage, one of Beane's basic mantras for analyzing talent.

"When you're talking on base percentage, .280 to .320 sounds like a huge difference," Melvin said. "28 percent to 32 percent. That's four times more on base per 100 at-bats.

"So you get a guy who goes up there looking for walks. He might get four more walks than the guy who swings the bat four times. He gets twice as many doubles as the guy who's looking for walks. He puts himself in scoring position, moves runners over. Makes contact, creating a chances a defender could make an error.

"Only four times more over 100 at bats? You gotta be real careful looking at what else the guy is doing."

Melvin said his staff regularly provides him with detailed statistical information, data that was critical when he engineered several offseason moves designed to improve the team.

With the additions of Zack Greinke, Shaun Marcum, Nyjer Morgan, Mark Kotsay and Takashi Saito, Melvin appears to have analyzed the data correctly for his now first-place club.

"I do use certain metrics," Melvin said. "It's a part of my decision-making, and I don't want to divulge which ones I use, but there are so many out there that I know there were a few decisions this year that if I had made off of metrics we wouldn't be where we are today."

Melvin says evaluating a player from a previous season's achievements and predicting his future requires the experience to examine "everything that's on the table," including statistics, scouting reports and a certain feel for the situation. He gave a couple of examples of the potential pitfalls of judging a player based solely on stats.

"You're trying to determine what they'll do this year based on what they did last year," he said. "Who is going to be the best pinch hitter? Last year, Joe Inglett had the most pinch hits in baseball. He's not even in the game now.

"Two years ago, Jorge Cantu had the most hits (60) with runners in scoring position. He's playing in the minor leagues now and had a big drop-off, and that was only two years ago. So if you say ‘I'm gonna go get Jorge Cantu because he led the majors hitting with runners in scoring position,' you might have made a mistake."

Melvin says it is particularly tricky looking at a minor league player's numbers and projecting how he'll do at the next level.

"The minor leagues are the development process. You have to know when a player's statistics are the result of him working on something."

"A guy might not be getting as many strikeouts in the minors because he's working on his changeup," he said. "He's working on throwing the breaking ball and may not be getting ahead in the count. Same thing with hitters working on their swing. You have to develop patience."

Melvin says the increase in baseball minutia is great for the fans, especially fantasy league players, who Melvin says often don't understand that he is not running a fantasy team.

"It's not like the stock market. You can't replace a guy because he's having a bad month. Next month he might be good. We've experienced that this season with (Yuniesky) Betancourt and (Casey) McGehee."

The Brewers G.M. said he'd love to see a televised baseball debate "with the numbers people on one side and the scouting people on the other side."

"I'm not saying I'm totally against it (metrics)," he said. "I'm just saying before you totally accept it, you better understand it. It still comes down to players, physical skills. The more talent you have, the more chances you have of having good luck."