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Baseball - The Tenth Inning



Athletics' pitchers at spring training

Athletics' pitchers at spring training Brad Mangin/Sports Illustrated

During the 2000 season, for the first time in the history of major-league baseball, no team won or lost as much as sixty percent of its games. But despite this achievement of unprecedented parity, many small-market clubs still struggled to compete. In order to have a chance, they would be forced into a whole new way of seeing, of reassessing the entire way the game was measured.

Athletics' general manager Billy Beane (seated, center) and his scouts during draft, 2005

Athletics' general manager Billy Beane (seated, center) and his scouts during draft, 2005 Michael Zagaris

For at least one man, it was well past time. In 1977, a prickly U.S. Army veteran, working as a night security guard at a pork-and-beans factory in Lawrence, Kansas, began publishing his contrarian views about what really mattered in baseball. Bill James called his new analysis "sabermetrics," after SABRE, the Society of American Baseball Research, a small group of free-thinkers determined to change the measure of the game. It was the first shot in a revolution.

Sabermetrics challenged the value of hallowed statistics such as batting average, which had stood for decades as the essential worth of a position player in the minds of fans, sportswriters, and general managers alike. How you got on base, argued James, didn't matter compared to whether you got on base at all, and whether you scored. How many games pitchers won wasn't as important as how efficiently they got batters out.

Jon Miller talks about VORP and other stats in baseball

Sabermetricians applied a rigorous analysis to every aspect of the game, enabling them to see ballplayers in a whole new light and to compare them across historical eras, regardless of changes in rules and playing conditions. They seemed to develop a new measure – and a new acronym – every year. Instead of simply earned-run average and batting average there was now WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched) for pitchers, SLOB (slugging average plus on-base percentage) for batters, and VORP (the value of a player compared to the expected, average replacement player at his position) for everyone.

Traditionalists, such as Detroit Tigers manager Sparky Anderson, sneered at the new science. But at least one baseball executive saw a way in which statistics might help his small-market team survive. Billy Beane was once a top Mets prospect, then a journeyman outfielder who was often his own worst enemy. After a long struggle to curb his vitriolic temper, Beane, still just 36, was named general manager of the Oakland Athletics in 1998.

John Thorn talks about risk and randomness in baseball

Dan Okrent discusses inventing Rotisserie baseball.

Andrew Zimbalist talks about baseball as an individual game

The A's were the epitome of a small-market team, playing in a spartan stadium in a small, struggling city overshadowed by neighboring San Francisco. Beane fought back by using the welter of new statistics to acquire players who had been undervalued and overlooked by other teams, a cash-conscious, nickel-stocks approach that came to be called, "moneyball." Tony LaRussa, formerly the A's manager and now with St. Louis, another over performing, small-market team, utilized sabermetrics as well, assigning new roles to relief pitchers and bench players, employing his whole roster to outmaneuver opponents on the field.

Oakland remained one of the best teams in the American League for years under Beane's direction, winning division titles and wild-card slots despite losing its best players as free agents to bigger markets. Despite the A's' success, critics would argue that Beane and LaRussa's brand of ball had become overly specialized, that the emphasis on statistics was draining the human element out of the game.

Yet fans and broadcasters alike were soon addicted to the new statistics. In a game that had always thrived on argument, they became one more thing to argue about.

Many fans took the new stats one step further, playing one variety or another of a game called "Rotisserie Baseball," which writer Daniel Okrent had invented in a rotisserie chicken restaurant in New York City. Various baseball board games based on statistics – such as the famous "Strat-O-Matic" – had been popular since the early 1960s. Writer and Beat saint Jack Kerouac filled pages with the results of his own, elaborate "fantasy" league. But in Okrent's version, participants were concerned not with the past but with the future. They played at being owners who conducted drafts of real players. How those players performed in the year to come then determined how each owner's team finished.

Variations of fantasy baseball quickly became a new obsession, taking up endless hours of playing time in offices and dens throughout America. Newspaper box scores ballooned, as readers searched for every nuance of how "their" players had fared. Most fantasists played for nominal sums of money, and some started their leagues by holding auctions for the players they wanted – thereby shifting their rooting interest to a focus on money and individual performance, the same preoccupations, ironically enough, that many fans had long accused players of harboring.

Excerpt from Baseball: An Illustrated History by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns (with a new chapter by Kevin Baker).

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