Through a series of events totally unrelated to the current movie, I've recently begun reading some classic Sherlock Holmes stories. They're quick reads and really enjoyable, but (and I don't know what this says about me) I can't help but think that Holmes would make an excellent sabremetrician. Ignoring the obvious problems with this presumption - Holmes is neither alive or real, he was English, and he "lived" during the late 1800s - you can take many of his quotes and apply them directly to baseball stats. Am I crazy for doing so? Possibly, but here are a couple examples:
"There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact."
"It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts."
"Problems may be solved in the study which have baffled all those who have sought a solution by the aid of their senses. To carry the art, however, to its highest pitch, it is necessary that the reasoner should be able to utilize all the facts which have come to his knowledge; and this in itself implies, as you will readily see, a possession of all knowledge, which, even in these days of free education and encyclopaedias, is a somewhat rare accomplishment."
If only we could get mainstream sports writers to read Sherlock Holmes, huh? Obviously Holmes wasn't talking about baseball in these quotes, but the logic behind all of them holds true regardless. And that's because sabremetrics, in its most plain and simplified form, can be defined as the question, "Why?" It's long been an "obvious fact" that ERA and BA were good measures of talent....but why? Why do some players have big breakouts only to be followed by off years? Why does ERA fluctuate so much? You say that Jeter is the most valuable player in baseball...but why?
While Holmes is intent on solving a case, he's asking himself the exact same questions. Why did this event happen? What was the person's motive? Does it fit with all the data that I've collected so far? People can go wrong when trying to answer the question "why", though, and that's part of the reason there are so many faulty arguments made in the media and by fans concerning baseball. Someone can want to write an article about why Jeter is the best player in baseball, and then find the statistics to base up that assumption afterward. Someone may try to explain why a player hit 70 homeruns one year, but not have all the possible data before them.
Can we really blame people, though, for not knowing all there is to know about baseball? Holmes had an impressive mind and intellect but he still needed to look things up to help solve his cases. We can't expect the casual baseball fan (or even the casual baseball journalist) to understand baseball in as much detail as Dave Cameron or Tom Tango, and as a result, there are a lot of faulty arguments and false assumptions running around wild out there. All we can ask for, really, is for people to listen.
This brings me to another Holmes quote. While reading The Man with the Twisted Lip, Holmes runs across a woman who is certain her husband hasn't been murdered, while the facts of the case seem to point otherwise; however, Holmes very graciously notes, "I have seen too much not to know that the impression of a woman may be more valuable than the conclusion of an analytical reasoner" (pg. 126). No, I'm not trying to say that women are intuitively smarter than experienced sabremetricians like RJ. Well...maybe I am. Either way, though, the quote reminded me of a story.
A couple days before the Hall of Fame voting was released this season, I was debating with my dad and brother who should get in. My dad couldn't understand why Tim Raines deserved to get in (he didn't pass his "feel" test), so my brother and I were attempting to explain things like on-base percentage, stolen base efficiency, and historical context to him. He was slowly coming around and admitting that we might have a point, when my mom walked through the room (who, I should add, doesn't follow sports too closely), listened in for a couple of minutes, and said, "I can't understand how you can compare stats between players anyway - all the fields are different sizes!"
Could you ask for a better set up line for an introduction to sabremetrics than that? I had to restrain myself from violently hugging my mom and yelling, "Yes Yes YES! That's exactly it!!" Yes, fields are different sizes and so obviously, a homerun hit at Fenway is different than one hit in PETCO. I tried to remain calm and to not get carried away, although I soon found myself digressing to park effects and DIPS theory and BABIP and fielding statistics and and and...I finally caught myself about 10 minutes later.
My mom was very receptive to the whole discussion and thankfully, I didn't seem to overwhelm her that much. Our conversation got me wondering, though: if my mother, a casual baseball fan, could realize that park size matters when evaluating stats, why can't we get more people to understand and to listen? Why are journalists, sportscasters, players, and some fans so against thinking about things critically? That's a huge question and I certainly don't intend to answer it in this article; it's part history and tradition, part ease of explanation...part of a million and one different reasons that are too numerous to get into. We can, though, keep starting the discussions and trying to help more people understand that there are other ways to think about things than the old "obvious facts".
If you want to get someone thinking, the next time you hear someone using RBIs or BA as an evaluative tool, simply ask them why. Wait...why does having 100 RBIs make you a good player? Why is a .300 BA good? Isn't the point of the game not to make outs, regardless of how that's done? See what they say and try educating them; it might be fun. And be sure to quote Sherlock Holmes - it'll make you sound cool and hip.
One final Holmes quote, discussing the power of good scouts:
"'I could not help laughing at the ease with which he explained his process of deduction. ‘When I hear you give your reasons,' I [Watson] remarked, ‘the thing always appears to me so ridiculously simple that I could easily do it myself, though at each successive instance of your reasoning I am baffled until you explain your process. And yet I believe that my eyes are as good as yours.'
‘Quite so,' he [Holmes] answered, lighting a cigarette, and throwing himself down into an armchair. ‘You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear. For example, you have frequently seen the steps which lead up from the hall to this room.'
‘Well, some hundreds of times.'
‘Then how many are there?'
‘How many? I don't know.'
‘Quite so! You have not observed. And yet you have seen. That is just my point. Now, I know that there are seventeen steps, because I have both seen and observed.'"
*All quotes taken from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes".