Weenies at the Ballgame: Gene Weingarten looks at baseball statisticians

Below the Beltway
(Eric Shansby)
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By Gene Weingarten
Sunday, August 23, 2009

Here I am at the annual convention of the Society for American Baseball Research, or SABR, an acronym the group wisely chose over SWORD, for Statistics-Worshiping White Old Retired Dudes. This room is definitely pale and male and pretty long in the tooth, but I have to admit that what it lacks in youth, hipness and diversity, it more than makes up for in potbellies.

I like these guys. They're smart and funny and share my love of baseball. Where we diverge is in their obsession with numbers. This is the organization that has popularized all those annoying, modern baseball computer metrics like WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched), VORP (value over replacement player) and NOOSGART (no-out, one-strike grounders that advance the runner to third). Actually, I made that last one up, but I bet there are hundreds of SABR guys who have just read this and are right now trying to create some sort of NOOSGART-related algorithm, in case it gives them a competitive edge.

Like theologians who search for signs of God in a hostile universe or physicists who seek a unifying theory of matter and energy, the SABR guys are looking for the perfect "universal metric," one that will finally erase the variable of time and allow the human race to determine, once and for all, whether Sammy Sosa or Babe Ruth would have hit more home runs batting against Sandy Koufax in Fenway Park.

The SABR guys are sensitive about their image as statistics weenies, and one of the group's honchos was spending a long time trying to convince me that they're more into the lore and emotion and personalities of the sport than its numbers. Nearby, a crowd was gathering to inspect a wall-size chart mathematically comparing the year-by-year productivity of pinch runners. I had to cut short my conversation because I was late for a seminar -- which would be attended by 150 people -- about players age 32 and older who managed to increase their on-base percentages by as many as 57 points in a single season.

I know a lot about baseball, but I learned a lot more during my day at the convention. I learned, for example, that there were once big-leaguers named Earache Meyer, Wimpy Quinn, Snitz Applegate and Suds Fodge. I learned that there was once a big-league team named the Brooklyn Bridegrooms and another named the Chicago Orphans. I learned that on Aug. 4, 1911, a Washington Senators player named Germany Schaefer stole first base; he'd already stolen second but on the next pitch darted back to first, so he could try to steal second again. No one had any idea what to do -- the rules didn't seem to prohibit it.

All of that was gravy, though. I had come to the convention on a more important mission of discovery. There is one thing that has always puzzled me about baseball, a question to which I'd never gotten a satisfactory answer: Why are there no left-handed catchers? I once put this question to Brian Schneider, a major-league catcher, who nodded knowingly, looked meaningfully out into the distance, decided it was probably because a lefty's throw to second would tail away from the fielder, and then conceded he had no idea.

I figured if anyone would know, it would be the SABR guys. So I walked around asking the question, and everywhere I asked it, vigorous debates ensued. Theories were propounded and shot down. For every explanation (it would be harder for a lefty to throw a runner out at third base), a valid counter-argument arose (it would be easier for a lefty to pounce on a bunt and throw to first). Theories ranged from the aesthetic (pitchers would get rattled seeing the glove on the unaccustomed side of the plate) to the tautological (no one becomes a lefty catcher because everyone knows there are no lefty catchers). To demonstrate the rightness of their theories, old men were squatting in a catcher's crouch, trying to simulate young men squatting in a catcher's crouch. It wasn't pretty to watch. It was like watching donkeys try to imitate Seabiscuit.

I left the convention sadder, but no wiser. Then I had an idea. I phoned around and finally reached the greatest catcher in the history of the game.

Why are there no left-handed catchers, Yogi?

"That's just the way it is," he said, "cause that's the way it's been."

So now we know.

Gene Weingarten can be reached at weingarten@washpost.com.

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