Sixteen people started the Society of Baseball Research in 1971. It has grown to more than 6,000 members and spawned the type of statistical and analytical research that has changed the way baseball numbers are viewed.
Featured on the sabr.org website is this quote from the late Ernie Harwell, the legendary broadcaster for the Detroit Tigers: "SABR is the Phi Beta Kappa of baseball, providing scholarship which the sport has long needed."
There are thousands of local chapters across the nation, including the Minnesota-based Halsey Hall Chapter that began in 1985.
I talked with Stew Thornley, the first president of the Halsey Hall Chapter and a SABR member since 1979. Thornley also has been an official scorer for the Twins since 2007.
Bob Sansevere: Do you have to be a stat freak to be a member of SABR?
Stew Thornley: No, because I'm not one myself. I know a lot of them. I was a stat freak growing up and going into the box scores and all that. My interest is history, ballparks, minor leagues. A big part of our membership is people into statistical analysis.
BS: So I'm guessing you can't tell me how many runners Babe Ruth left in scoring position during the 1924 season?
ST: I'm not sure anybody can. That brings up something that might have that information.Retrosheet.org started in the 1990s by trying to factor play-by-play information for games (where that information didn't readily exist). They started going through newspapers that might have complete play-by-play. They are getting information so that maybe you can know how many runners Babe Ruth left in scoring position during 1924.
BS: That would be interesting.
ST: You always hear, if the leadoff runner walks, he has a better chance to score than if he got a hit. Dave Smith, who started Retrosheet and is a professor at the University of Delaware, has done analysis going back to the '50s and found it doesn't matter if you get on via a single or a walk or a hit batter. Dave loves taking these things you hear and that announcers say and testing them out. He knows how to take this database and really crunch it.
It's a good example where history and research come together. I'm flabbergasted by what these guys have done. The more Dave Smith can get -- 10 years or 50 years -- the more stuff you have. He'll also go over trends over time. For instance, does a team carrying a one-run, two-run, three-run lead into the ninth inning have a better chance of winning since the advent of a closer? He takes every possible situation.
BS: What drew you to SABR?
ST: I saw an article in Sports Illustrated (in the 1970s). I think it had a few hundred members. I was so interested in baseball that I thought this organization would be great to be a part of. It wasn't for statistics. Bill James (and) sabermetrics ... changed how the organization was viewed. It's been a great thing for the organization, but it fostered the thought that it is analytical and statistical-based. That's a big part of it, but there are 25 to 30 committees where analytics and statistics are not the primary focus. It's for people who have more than a passing interest in baseball.
BS: What is your favorite statistic?
ST: I can tell you some of my least favorite. Batting average is one of my least favorite. If there's going to be one number used to show a player's offensive performance, that's going to be it, (but) it is limited. If we would do on-base percentage rather than batting average, that would tell us a lot more. In 1887, walks were counted as hits. I think it's better to include them than ignore them. The "Moneyball" book showed how undervalued the walk and on-base percentage is.
BS: How many times have you seen the movie "Moneyball"?
ST: I've only seen the movie once, but I've got the book. After "Moneyball" came out, I went back and re-read the book.
BS: What do you consider the most telling statistic for a position player? Is it on-base percentage?
ST: What I like for determining a player's offensive value is on-base percentage and slugging percentage. I'm at the point I don't even look at batting average anymore.
BS: How about for a pitcher?
ST: I still like earned-run average. I know a lot of people will rip at that, but your whole thing is winning a game and preventing runs.
BS: Some people discover new planets. Is there a new statistic you would like to see?
ST: I think it'd be good -- and they're working on it -- to be able to rate a player's defensive value. More and more, they're getting into that. What we had growing up was fielding percentage. Now they're getting into range factor. How much is defense worth to have a defensive center fielder who doesn't hit much? I think it will be great when they define how to show defensive value.