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Sabermetric Mea Culpa



By Mike Silva ~ October 31st, 2010. Filed under: Mike Silva, Sabermetrics.

Anyone who knows me understands two things:

First, I am very stubborn in trying to prove my point, sometimes going to great length. Perhaps it’s ego, but more likely the rush of competition, any competition, brings that out in me. Second, when I believe I am wrong, I have no problem setting the record straight and admitting culpability. That is why I have been taking a harder look at the sabermetric revolution over the last calendar year and believe I was hasty in deriding the kind of information available today.

Why am I writing this now? Because Brian Cashman gave me the idea a couple of weeks ago in his interview with Mike Francesa on WFAN. Cashman has discussed at length how sabermetrics was a driving factor in obtaining Nick Swisher after the 2008 season. If not for numbers such as line drive rates, Swisher very well would never be a Yankee, something that clearly would have hurt the offense the last two years. When you factor in what they gave up (Wilson Betemit,Jeff Marquez, Jhonny Nunez) this might go down as one of the all time steals in Yankees history. The point is Cashman talked about how statistical analysis is one tool in the toolbox and can’t be ignored. As he pointed out, every industry needs to evolve and sports are currently using the age of information to learn more about itself.

As a fan, radio host, and independent writer I need to evolve. When I started the radio show in March of 2007 I had no idea what OPS was, even though it was often cited in the games of Strat-O-Matic that I played. I evaluated players through batting average, home runs, and RBI’s. With pitchers it was wins and ERA. Now I still believe those stats have value, but I have learned so much through reading sites like Inside the Book, Fangraphs, and individuals like Bill James and Rob Neyer. Of course, there are others that I could name, but I, like Cashman, had to incorporate this information into my tool box. Of course, that doesn’t mean I won’t throw away common sense, nor listen to the opinions of long time scouts and baseball writers who have a totally different perspective on the game. I have learned more by talking to Jed Weisberger of MILB, someone who has covered baseball since the “We Are Family” Pittsburgh Pirates. Everyone and everything has something to give in this great game.

The issue I have with sabermetrics is not the tool, but how it’s positioned by some as a “revolution,” one that will take over baseball journalism and the front office as time goes on. As if the game of baseball is so simplistic that “if then statements” could manage situations better than anyone else. I still stand by my assertion that no team will ever win a championship using 100% “moneyball” principles. Even the Red Sox haven’t gone that route. It is, as Cashman stated, a tool in the toolbox. One that needs to be part of the evaluation process, but not something to which we should be enslaved.

I wish the common fan would recognize how learning the basics of advanced metrics will help them understand the game. Perhaps it will take away some of their enjoyment, as I wrote earlier this season, but I believe information will in the long run improve the experience of being a sports fan. So how does this information reach the masses?

Bill James said a couple of weeks ago that academic jargon is rude, lazy, elitist, and counter-productive. It diminishes the influence of the academic world; it diminishes the influence of thinking people on the general debate. If you want people to accept your ideas, you have to speak in language that others can understand. This is common sense, and it is common courtesy.” I agree with this statement one hundred percent. One of my pet peeves is when a company I am working for tries to make a simple concept as sales and marketing complex with Ivy League ideology. Perhaps the end result is complicated, but the masses don’t need to know the gory details. Keep things simple, as I believe any idea can be summarized in one page or less, or a blog post of about 500 or so words. Many have done this with basic sabermetric dictionaries on the web. Rather than promote one that I use, I suggest you Google it, or if someone is kind enough to leave one in the comments section it would be appreciated.

The second aspect of mainstreaming sabermetrics is dropping the proverbial sword. This isn’t a “revolution.” Sabermetrics is a tool, nothing more, and shouldn’t be the crux of a shift in baseball journalism. Take this quote by Bill Baer from a May 25th article at Baseball Daily Digest:

Simply put, traditional baseball thought — obvious by virtue of the name — is dying out. The number of people who buy into traditional baseball thought continues to dwindle while the number of people who buy into Sabermetrics is increasing. This is because Sabermetrics is the progressive ideology and is better at, for lack of a better word, recruiting new members.

This is exactly why I wrote “wRC+=Follow the Money Trail” last year, basically accusing new wave sabermetric writers of attempting to change the landscape in exchange for profit. Again, nothing wrong with profit, but it’s basically the reason why you will have different Wins Above Replacement Formula (WAR), and other inconsistencies in an area that claims scientific logic. Why can’t sabermetrics have its own corner of journalism in the media landscape? Why must someone “win” and another “lose?”

If others are going to appreciate the information provided by advanced metrics, and some of the thoughtful analysis by individuals like Baer, they need to mainstream their writing a bit more, stop judging others on education (I have degrees, but of course my school/degrees aren’t rubber stamped by the intellectual elite), and become a piece of the party instead of trying to change the party to an exclusive club.

If anything, a Mike Silva might be the best spokesperson for advanced metrics as an example of “the every man” who can live on both sides of the aisle. So if you don’t want to listen to me, then listen to the godfather and speak the language the masses understand. That’s when you will convert individuals like me.

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Mike Silva has hosted sports shows on 107.1 FM Champions ESPN Radio Long Island ,1240 AM WGBB , Blog Talk Radio and live from Mickey Mantle’s Restaurant. He’s also built and maintained two popular social media hubs: New York Baseball Digest and Sports Media Watchdog. Mike has broken national and local stories, as well as been mentioned on the YES Network, SNY.tv, WFAN, Sports Illustrated, ESPN, NY Daily News, New York Magazine, Journal News and the NY Post. Contact Mike professionally at mikesilvamedia.com

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4 Responses to Sabermetric Mea Culpa

  1. Shamik

    “Scouting” and Sabrmetrics just cannot exist without the other. The stats can tell you if a player is good or bad but it cannot tell you WHY. Only a seasoned scout can say if it is because the player’s mechanics are off, if they are just having a bad day, and how you can improve. At the same time, by relying solely on scouting, you’ll never be able to quantify player development and compare one player to another.

  2. Shamik

    Also, I’ve always suggested that when citing the stats jargon, to make it similar to actual scientific reporting. Tell me what an average player’s numbers are when citing a specific player. What is the standard deviation so I can gauge how good/bad a player’s stats are. Finally, there should be a way to determine statistical significance of the numbers if any.

    These are all characteristics of how stats are presented in the scientific literature. They are based on convention which helps all scientists immediately understand the stats on a single glance. The stats in baseball may be just as valid, however, they certainly aren’t presented in a proper accessible way, in my opinion, which is why there is such disconnect between the sabrmetrics crowd and many other fans. Who wants to go look at a reference just to understand and respond to a single post on a blog?

  3. Shamik

    Let me give a completely random example. If I say: Player X is awesome, his OBP is .340!
    What does this mean? I now have to go look at a host of references to figure out a) what OBP is b) what an average player’s OBP is, and try to figure out if being above that average OBP means anything.

    Now, let me present it differently: “Player X is awesome, his OBP is .340 (M=0.250, SD = 0.05)! Now, I can easily see that an average player’s (the mean [M]) OBP is almost 2 standard deviations below player X, thus player X is clearly far superior. No arguments. This is a much more accessible way of presenting the same info, and makes everyone’s lives easier.

  4. MarkW

    I’m pretty astonished that someone who presents himself as an expert would say that he didn’t understand OPS as of 2007 — despite having been exposed to it. That suggests a lack of — for want of a better term — intellectual curiosity about the game. We’re not talking about an esoteric adjusted/context-dependent stat; that’s pretty mainstream. And Bill James has been around for 30 years.

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