On Sabermetric Transparency

Over at Walkoff Walk, 310toJoba (somebody get this guy a first name), writes about the mega-awesome-super news that Bill Simmons, the internet voice of the Sports Media Industrial Complex has officially embraced sabermetrics. This is a major (if inevitable coup) for the stats-y baseball blogosphere. If no longer the Voice of the American Sports Fan, Simmons remains influential. He is also useful as a bell weather.  As Simmons goes, so goes the sports fan.

Anyway, 310toJoba asks many great questions of the article, and hits Simmons for his navel-gazing and the back-handedness of his compliments. It seems futile to point out that a Simmons column without navel-gazing has yet to be written. And as to the back-handedness, I didn’t really read the article as pejorative. But perhaps that’s because I’m not a numbers guy myself and this is not a numbers blog.

But once again, that’s not what I’m here to write about. 310toJoba says the following of The Sports Guy’s desire to understand what goes into making these statistics:

On the one hand, I appreciate his efforts to attain a better grasp on the stats as a whole; he consistently tries to find out how they’re calculated. Good on him. On the other hand, perhaps Simmons is getting a little too overzealous and missing the point.

And later:

Again, it’s admirable that he wants to go all the way with his newfound obsession, but he comes off as being condescending and too in depth when there’s no need to be.

310toJoba then honorably admits that he has no idea how many of these stats are calculated and questions whether actually understanding the formula would make him a better or better-informed baseball fan. All this amounts to the typical argument “there are smarter, better suited people to do this, I’ll just trust them.” (Not an actual quote).

And here is where I find myself disagreeing with Mr. 310. I think Simmons’ desire to understand the formulas is entirely reasonable. And I don’t see how it is in any way condescending. Here he is admitting to the great wide world that sabermetrics are better than traditional numbers at measuring baseball performance. That’s still a pretty big deal, and for people to embrace that notion, they have to understand why these numbers are better.

There is a tendency among people at the forefront of change and new ideas to assume that the masses will somehow intuit why their proposed changes and new ideas are better. This assumption is why Americans were so vehemently opposed to Health Care Reform – they just saw it as an amorphous blob set forth by people unwilling to explain it in a palatable manner. So when guys like Joe Morgan (or Lindsey Graham), say that these ideas are wrong, or un-American, or will have horrible consequences, the urge is to recoil from them. The remedy to all this is spelling out exactly what these new ideas amount to, and doing so in simple and tangible terms. Just saying “trust us, it will be better,” is not enough.

The baseball stats we grew up with are very easy to calculate. If they aren’t counting stats like runs or runs batted in, they are equations with few inputs requiring basic arithmetic. Walks Plus Hits Divided By Innings Pitched. Okay Simple. We trust those stats because we have a good grasp on what exactly they are telling us. And we know that although not perfect, they are not necessarily bad. Baseball was just fine without sabermetrics. So who are you to tell me that this newfangled stuff can make it better?

I’m not sure it’s enough to just have some smart person tell you “OPS+ is a great metric for offensive performance!” and just believe them on blind faith. I’ve grappled with this myself. I am a pretty sabermetrically literate guy. But I hate relying on statistics I do not fully understand. It often feels like I am arguing on a foundation of quicksand; like somebody could open the curtain and reveal that Bill James is as phony as the Wizard of Oz, and because I don’t fully understand how to calculate UZR, I too will be revealed as a phony.

Obviously, I know this is not the case. I know that smart and well-intentioned people are doing this research to help our understanding of the game. But I know this because I write a baseball blog, and because I’m a curious guy who has tried to learn the formulas. I am not inclined to take it on blind faith that new stats are better stats, and neither are most other baseball fans. It might take, as Simmons says, only ten minutes to be a better informed fan. But it takes more than ten minutes to figure out how VORP is calculated. Does being able to rattle off advanced stats really make one a better informed fan? Or is there some obligation to learn how the gears grind beneath the sheen of the number itself?

3 Responses to “On Sabermetric Transparency”

  • I don’t think it’s important to understand how exactly to calculate these stats. Instead, it’s important to understand these stats conceptually – what they are trying to measure, how they are trying to measure that, and the reasons for the use of the statistic. This is rarely particularly difficult (something like Bill James’ Win Shares is an exception) – unlike some of the calculations.

  • I side with those who feel uneasy about trusting sabermetric ratings whose formulas are not easy for the average fan to compute themselves. I don’t buy the “Just trust us” idea.

    By coincidence I had just finished reading an article about how the financial crisis was caused in part by the marketing of finanicial instruments that were so complicated that even the bankers and brokers who sold them did not have a good understanding of how they worked. I see a parallel in baseball fans relying too heavily on an array of complicated new baseball stats.

    The intent is good. But in the pursuit of developing stats that more accurately represent baseball value we have lost the easy of understanding that makes it possible for casual fans to talk baseball with each other.

    Sometimes less is more.

  • Thanks for the comments.

    Greg, I see what you’re saying but am not quite there yet. To me, in order to fully understand the stats conceptually there must at least some understanding of how they are constructed. It’s a two or three or whatever step process.


    I think it’s important to remember that stats are different in that they don’t have as tangible an impact on the game play. After all, baseball outcomes are still decided by the players on the field, not the staff at Baseball Think Factory.

    But I also think you get to a good point. Not everybody’s goal in baseball fandom is fantasy domination or full critical understanding of what makes team win or lose. There is probably something to be gained by tossing out the trappings and opting for a simplified baseball lifestyle. Then again, some of us are just too zealous for that to be a real option.

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