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Mainstream journalism needs to embrace advanced statistics

Most teams and more fans embrace baseball analytics -- why are so many journalists still so dismissive?

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James Loney and Jose Molina, two players valued by the Rays and under-appreciated at large
James Loney and Jose Molina, two players valued by the Rays and under-appreciated at large
Scott Iskowitz/Getty Images

Baseball fans are accustomed to many rituals.  Spring training camps filled with guys "in the best shape of my career." The pageantry of opening day. Never ending debates about inter-league play and the DH.

And, of course, there's the chorus of old school reporters and broadcasters deriding the use of statistical analysis.

To be clear, I am in no way a "stats guy."  Aside from not being a guy at all, I also hyperventilated my way through my one semester of statistics, getting by thanks to a very patient professor and an understanding TA. But even I understand the value of leveraging advanced statistics and to produce a more informed perspective.

Alas, the "stats wars," while not at quite the fever pitch of an earlier decade, are still with us. They pop up each year when projections come out.

One flashy computer program is picking the Rays to win the division. Plenty of smart baseball people see the Rays bringing up the rear.

Tom Jones, Tampa Bay Times.

Meanwhile, the sabermetricians WARn that Mike Ilitch has been wasting his money in the convincing Jordan Zimmermann and Justin Upton to frolic now in the Olde English D. A better investment might have been a time machine for Justin Verlander.

Jerry Green, Detroit News (in all honesty I have no idea what Mr. Green is trying to say but he clearly doesn't like PECOTA).

They sigh over the use of statistics in determining annual award winners:

And now these numbers crunchers gloat. Trout has won at last after two years of watching the backside of Miguel Cabrera.

Jerry Green, Detroit News (no, he's still not making sense)

Announce that the new, numbers-driven analysis has no soul:

And yet, Byrd is not seen as a valuable player, because the SABR rattlers have not yet devised a number that measures professionalism. (Give them time, brothers and sisters.)

Paul Daugherty, CIncinnatti Enquirer

Most of those people are quite taken with what is known in the trade as "analytics." Or "metrics." They crunch numbers, and that’s it.

Bob Ryan, Boston Globe

To some, baseball can only be enjoyed with an empty yet tranquil mind, with knowledge of any kind destroying the zen-like experience:

When it comes to watching a matchup of, say, the Mets pitcher Matt Harvey and Giancarlo Stanton of the Miami Marlins, statistical analysis is about as helpful in deepening an appreciation of the human drama unfolding before us as it would be for a Pavarotti aria.

Steve Kettmann, New York Times

My plea to journalists who are tempted to throw in a few dismissive lines about computer programs or put scare quotes around "metrics" is this: Please stop!

The "stats wars" are the testosterone-fueled version of the "mommy wars." Both are media, click-bait driven controversies that are convenient fall backs for journalists and commentators out of new ideas.

The instigators are like to portray themselves as bravely speaking truth to power -- e.g. "This may not be very PC of me, but I don't think you can measure grit" (or, to continue the analogy, "babies need their mommies"). In real life, of course, these battles are over.  Participants have long since realized there are no "sides" but rather nuanced ways to arrive at workable decisions (some moms go to work but some don’t; baseball makes use of statistical analysis but they still do traditional scouting).

Why, then, do these journalists insist on foisting false dichotomies on us? Is baseball about analysis or instinct?  Do we really have to choose between studying the numbers or appreciating the human element?  Does appreciating statistics really mean that you can't recognize grit/hard work/knowing how to win/playing baseball the right way?

Given my math-phobia, maybe the statistically minded won't even be pleased that I'm coming to their defense (for those who want to see the real stats guys defending themselves, here is the 538 crew’s response to the Times op-ed linked above).

I’m putting my thoughts on paper because I think my outsider status gives me some grounding to explain why even the "go with my gut" crowd needs to be open to statistical analysis, and I most definitely think our baseball media needs to take a leadership role in helping fans better understand these perspectives.

To that end, I'm presenting my personal list of anti-stats myths that need to be busted:

Photo credit: Darren McCollester/Getty Images

Myth 1: These statistics are some new-fangled thing that like all new-fangled things probably makes life worse.

Bill James did not invent the baseball statistic. Baseball has always been about numbers, probabilities and projections. Of course we've always looked at batting average and ERA which, last I checked are statistics. But that’s not all.

When I started to watch baseball in the late 1960s and early 1970s, my team had platoons at some positions; managers would warm up both lefty and righty relievers so they could ensure the best match up; and outfielders moved up, back, left or right depending on the tendencies of the batter. Presumably these decisions were based on systematic observation, and not just on a grizzled baseball lifer’s "gut."

Thanks to computers we’ve been able to make these analyses much more fine-tuned (more sophisticated but at the same time more complex and potentially off putting).Teams rightfully take advantage these more robust metrics, why wouldn’t fans want to understand them too?

Myth 2: Delving into analytics kills your enjoyment of the best elements of the game.

I’m really puzzled about the idea that more knowledge leads to less enjoyment.  Steve Kettmann’s contention, quoted above, that the uninformed listener will better enjoy Pavarotti has, to me, little validity.

Would an art historian get less out a museum visit than I do, because her great understanding of a painting’s historical context and technique kills the beauty of the art work? In most things, more and deeper knowledge enhances our appreciation.

I don’t see how my growing understanding of Pitch FX data makes me less in awe of a sinker that drops a foot as it crosses the plate.  Understanding statistics doesn’t make the mad dash to third on a legged out triple any less exciting, it doesn’t make Kevin Kiermaier’s eyes less blue or his diving catches less breathtaking.

Myth 3: Using analytics to evaluate players leads us to undervalue the "intangibles."

Sure, there are things that we haven’t figured out how to measure (and maybe things we’ll never measure) statistically, but I would argue that advanced stats are more helpful than hurtful to players who do the little things really well.  A statistic like WAR give us a means of assessing someone’s contribution to the game as a whole, and allows us to compare apples to apples without big market or other biases.

We in the Tampa Bay area ought to understand that: when Ben Zobrist emerged after the 2012 season as the player who had accumulated the most WAR over a four season stretch, this revelation  produced a host of WAR critics because surely the best player in baseball had to have the sorts of shiny accomplishments that pass that "eye test." 

For these reasons, stats can be an especially great thing for fans of small market teams. It's inevitable that players in big markets, who are seen by more fans, covered by more media, and whose games are eternally shown on national networks, will tend to be the most valued when our main measure is the "eye test".

Advanced stats provide an objective (if imperfect) yard stick that allows our best players to earn their due respect.

Without advanced metrics our players don’t get recognized – Kiermaier’s huge lead in defensive metrics over all other center fielders landed him two awards this winter.  This helps the Rays develop homegrown stars they can market to fans, and also ensures that their players are properly valued on the trade market.

Myth 4:Stats are really hard to understand (aka TL;DR)

A page of numbers makes my eyes swim, so I can appreciate that fans and perhaps lazy journalists just don’t want to put in the time to fully master these new statistical concepts.  But here’s the good news: many key metrics are easy to understand at a broad level, even if you can't, or don't want to get down in the mathematical weeds.

I don't know how to calculate the different sorts of WAR, but I do know that WAR is a handy way to compare players that accounts for many dimensions of the game. I know that ISO tells me something about a hitter’s power, and FIP and BABIP are good reality checks if I want to figure out whether a pitcher is terrible or unlucky (and let me apologize for the nasty things I said about 2010 James Shields before understanding about a pitcher’s peripherals).

Even if I don't understand every intricacy, I can understand nuance, and seeing these statistics as related to a mean or against other players paints a clear enough picture for a proper understanding.

I’m grateful to those who have true expertise at calculating and disseminating these metrics, but I don’t need to emulate them to participate in this conversation.

Concluding Thoughts

In baseball, as in all of life, statistical analysis is great at telling us certain things and terrible at telling us other things. Doctors can tell us that 75% of the people who have our disease will survive at least five years, but can’t tell us whether we are in that 75% (which is pretty much all we care about).

I haven’t read anything written by analytically driven baseball people who suggest their analysis can account for everything that shapes the game  (indeed for a wonderful defense of traditional scouting, read the baseball chapter of Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise, poignantly titled, "Can’t we all get along?").

And yet, there is still that tendency of sports broadcasters and journalists to construct that strawman "numbers cruncher" who doesn’t look beyond his spreadsheet and who, by the way, is ruining the game.

Can't we finally acknowledge that "grit" and "OBP" aren’t mutually exclusive and use all the tools at our disposal to appreciate this great game?