Rickey was original stat freak

By Kenneth Broder
Los Angeles Herald Examiner
September 18, 1988

A few years ago, baseball stat guru Bill James was hunting for a formula that would gauge the power of a hitter more accurately than the traditional Slugging Percentage. He came up with Power Percentage, a formula that subtracts a player's Batting Average from his Slugging Percentage.

It was an ingenious idea, removing puny base hits from what should be a pure power formula. But, as James was to find out later, the same formula was championed 30 years earlier -- under the name Isolated Power -- by perhaps the greatest innovator of baseball statistics ever, Branch Rickey.

Yes, that Branch Rickey -- the former Dodger general manager best known for breaking the color barrier in baseball by putting Jackie Robinson in a Brooklyn uniform and creating the modern day prototype of a minor league system. But with all that behind him, including his stint with the Dodgers, Branch Rickey undertook an effort in the early '50s to re-educate America about its national pastime.

In August 1954, Rickey, then GM for the Pittsburgh Pirates, wrote a classic article for Life magazine with the considerable help of statistician Allan Roth entitled, "Goodby to Some Old Baseball Ideas." In it he "reveals some new and startling information about the nature of the game."

And startling it was. Pitching was not 70 percent of the game, as many thought; it was closer to 35 percent. Fielding averages were "utterly worthless ... not only misleading, but deceiving." The value of strikeouts to a pitcher was overrated, as were Runs Batted In for hitters. "Even Battling Average must be re-examined," he wrote.

Rickey was certain there was a better way to gauge the value of a hitter than scanning a hodge-podge of numbers like Batting Average and Homers, and he set out to find the formula. After a few detours that gave him insights into team offensive production, he settled on a formula that was beautiful in its simplicity and clarity of thought.

Hitting, he theorized, was made up of two components: getting on base and power. Find a formula that measures those two elements, Rickey said, and you can measure a player's offense. So he added a player's On-Base Average (Hits plus Walks divided by Atbats plus Walks) to his Isolated Power (Total Bases minus Singles divided by Atbats) and came up with the Rickey Rating.

In "The Hidden Game of Baseball," John Thorn and Pete Palmer analyzed the Rickey Rating, along with 18 other hitting formulas, in terms of how well they "predicted" how many runs a team would score. The Rickey Rating didn't win. In fact, it finished 15th behind a slew of formulas created long after Rickey's ruminations.

But the formula did vastly outdistance Batting Average, the primary rating tool then in use. And, most importantly, it shifted the focus of baseball analysis from a narrow glorification of individual accomplishment (i.e. high Batting Average or Home Run total) to a broad appreciation for what it takes to score runs.

Once Rickey had his formula, he did what every fledgling stat freak does: He went in search of baseball's greatest hitter ever. To no one's surprise Babe Ruth was the runaway winner, followed by Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig, Jimmy Foxx and Rogers Hornsby. Though his list only included the years 1920-'54, Rickey recognized his formula would have given short shrift to base-stealers from an earlier era like Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker. But he correctly concluded that the influence of base stealing in the modern game had been greatly reduced by the proliferation of the long ball.

When Rickey looked over his list he was shocked. He couldn't account for why old ballplayers rated so high. "I found it difficult to believe that only one American Leaguer among the Top 25, Ted Williams, was still active. I found it equally difficult to believe that the National League still has four going strong, Kiner, Campanella, Musial and Robinson. Admittedly, there were discrepancies in the ratings, partly due to park dimensions."

More kudos to Rickey for seeing what most baseball fans -- and general managers -- today overlook: A player's home park can warp his numbers to the point of incomprehensibility. But he missed the real reason why older players dominate the list.

Rickey's rating does not take into account the changing nature of the game. Almost all aspects of offensive production, for one reason or another, were inflated in the '20s and '30s. If everyone is a .300 hitter, to hit .300 is to be an average hitter. For instance, Rod Carew's .331 lifetime Batting Average is comparable to Rogers Hornsby's .358 because players hit .258 in the Carew era compared to .284 in the Hornsby era.

Ultimately, Rickey gets down to the essential reason for crunching all these numbers. What does it take to win? Is the secret good offense or sparkling defense? "Through the years I have felt, along with the rest of baseball's old guard, that defense was infinitely more important than offense," Rickey wrote. "Once again I was faced by facts and forced to reverse my way of thinking."

Rickey found that in the early years, pennant winners tended to surrender far fewer runs than the league average, though their offense was often nothing special. But in recent years, pennant winners frequently won by burying the opposition in runs. He figured that in the preceding decade, offense had become 54 percent of the game and defense 46 percent (30 percent pitching, 16 percent fielding.)

Rickey saw an inexorable tipping of the scales to offense since 1920, traceable to Babe Ruth, souped up baseballs and smaller ballparks. And he was right.

It makes you wonder what he would have thought of this year's Dodger team that as of last Monday was slightly below the league average in scoring, but had yielded 11 percent fewer runs.

American LeagueNational League

CansecoOak8.18.643Clark W.SF7.26.610
GreenwellBos8.42.638Davis E.Cin6.34.597

GaettiMin5.43.610Van SlykePit6.45.574
Hernderson D.Oak5.64.605DanielsCin6.06.569

Davis A.Sea4.98.584Davis G.Hou5.09.552
Clark J.NY3.11.576DawsonChi6.30.538
Evans Dw.Bos5.92.564BrunanskyStL3.24.522

* Wins is the number of victories a player's hitting theoretically contributed to his team after subtracting the theoretical losses his outs contributed. Wins is derived from a series of formulas, the base of which is Runs Created, a formula that surveys AtBats, Hits, Extra-base Hits, Walks, SB and CS. The Wins formula, one favored by this writer, is provided as a contrast to Rickey's method.
* The Rickey rating is Isolated Power (Total Bases minus Singles divided by AtBats) plus On-Base Average (Hits plus Walks divided by AtBats plus Walks).