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Barkley, La Russa and Analytics

Here it is 2015, and yet there are still some who cannot or will not accept the value of analytics in the business of sports.

One of the most unbelievable volleys on the subject was fired off the other day by Charles Barkley. Once one of the NBA’s elite players, Sir Charles is now an often-entertaining hoops analyst for TNT. Being bombastic is a major reason why.

“Analytics don’t work at all,” asserted Barkley. “It’s just some crap some people who are really smart made up to try to get in the game because they had no talent.”

As if the prior quote was not enough to underline the point, let’s remember that just because Barkley knows a lot about playing basketball and is entertaining to listen to, it does not mean he knows anything about how to effectively run a sports franchise.

One of baseball’s long-time skeptics on the subject of analytics, Tony La Russa, is essentially doing just that in his role as Chief Baseball Officer of the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Coincidentally, around the same time as Barkley’s outburst, La Russa was asked about the topic during a Phoenix radio interview. Based on his prior comments, those of his hand-picked general manager Dave Stewart and others in the organization, the D-backs are generally considered to be as “old school” as any organization in the game.

La Russa does acknowledge that analytics, like scouting reports and observations, have a role in preparation, but that is the extent of it. Once the game begins, they have no place. La Russa chose an extreme to try to make his point.

“But once the analytics intrude into the competition — by that I mean if your manager or your head coach somehow has his hands tied because the organization believes that strikeouts don’t matter, the manufacturing game, hit-and-run, sacrifice, you don’t want to lose outs — those thoughts, you want to handle the bullpen according to some organized printout, then you actually — I wish all teams were like that, they’d be easier to beat,” La Russa said.

Of course, it seems likely that no one has ever suggested that a manager turn into the kind of push-button machine characterized by La Russa. Balance is the key, as well as the challenge.

“What’s happening now is that the analytics, it’s really getting a lot of attention and I never begrudge the analytical guys because they love the game and they want to be a part of it,” La Russa said. “So they’re trying to elbow, ‘I want more, more, more.’

“But it’s really an important preparation tool. If you let it interfere with the decision making of your manager and coaches, you’re going to be easier to beat,” La Russa concluded.

Interestingly enough, perhaps because of La Russa’s office’s proximity to the site, or perhaps because they are open-minded to criticism, SABR, the Society of American Baseball Research, has secured the services of the Hall of Famer (as well as Stewart) to speak at its upcoming Analytics Conference. The annual event will be held in Phoenix on March 12-14.

Step back and let that soak in for a moment.

If only the Cardinals were training in Arizona this spring. I am sure I would enjoy those presentations and will definitely be looking forward to the recap.

In fact, I wonder if SABR could still add Sir Charles to their agenda, too! I mean, they already have John Kruk

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Brian Walton

Brian Walton runs The Cardinal Nation and The Cardinal Nation Blog, covering the St. Louis Cardinals and minor league system.
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7 Responses to “Barkley, La Russa and Analytics”

  1. crdswmn says:

    Jason Isringhausen responded to a tweet from the VEB account about a new post with a response that ended with #sabercrap

    It is quite common for folks who don’t understand something (and don’t attempt to understand) to denigrate it instead.

    I initially had many issues with sabermetrics, I thought it would take the humanity out of the game. But I decided to learn it instead of trash it. I was surprised to find out how accurate it really was. Sabermetrics gets to the nitty gritty of how and why a player performs the way he does. The old stats obscure rather than enlighten. Like the stat of ERA, which projects a good or bad defense onto the pitcher and obscures his actual skills. Or like Batting Average, which only counts hits, but does not enlighten as to quality of hits.

    So these types of attitudes are annoying. I see nothing negative about trying to learn more about how baseball works instead of remaining ignorant. Sabermetrics isn’t used alone but in concert with more traditional methods to enhance rather than diminish.

  2. Brian Walton says:

    Looks like Clint Hurdle and the Pirates get it.

  3. Brian Walton says:

    Interesting first-hand account from one of the types Barkley looks down upon.

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