The Sabermetrics Revolution
Will Leitch at New York magazine has a piece on the Cardinals’ hacking scandal that includes some very strange, to my thinking, notions about how the sabermetrics revolution affects, or should affect, our enjoyment of the game:
Over the past 30 years, the Moneyball revolution and the dominance of statistics and analytic thought have altered the way we watch baseball to the point that you have to sort of remind yourself to have a good time at a regular-season game. If advanced baseball theory has taught us anything, it is that one game absolutely does not matter. Every game, every inning, every out, every pitch, falls into what the world of baseball considers “small sample size” — just another bit of data thrown into the yawning pit of Analysis. Performances that used to play as heroic are now dismissed as freak accidents. And those peanuts, the Cracker Jacks, the seventh-inning stretch, all that crap you used to do with your dad, they’re just quaint accoutrements to a data set, the result of this one game merely a deviation destined to regress to the norm over time.
I find this attitude mysterious. What is new about modern advanced statistics? Leitch seems to be arguing that the concept of small sample size is new. This is ridiculous. It’s not as if Bill James was the first person to realize that a few games are not necessarily representative of, well, anything. In the 1860s they called this the “glorious uncertainty” of the game. The catchphrase was used so often that it was subsequently abandoned as clichéd.
The Moneyball revolution isn’t that we now use statistics to analyze baseball. We have been doing that since before the Civil War. The revolution is a realization about the traditional statistics–the ones printed on the back of the bubblegum cards we stuck in the spokes of our bicycles as we rode past the white picket fences in Hometown, USA. It is the realization that they suck. The point of advanced stats is to replace the old, sucky stats with better, more meaningful stats.
Batting Average and On Base Percentage are both fractions. The discussion is over that the numerator and the denominator should be. This is true even of more exotic modern stats such as BABIP. This ought induce an existential crisis in no one. There are some new concepts, but seriously: you can’t enjoy a summer afternoon at the ballpark because of this? Really?
Of course Leitch is far from the first person to claim this. Something is going on. I don’t disagree with that. I just think that Leitch et al. are far off the mark on identifying what it is. I think there are two changes, one permanent and one temporary.
The permanent change is that stats are now available in real time. When I was a kid, the scoreboard showed a player’s batting average as of that morning. Now it shows the batting average as of that at bat. We used to turn to the Sunday paper to find the averages of everyone on the local team, plus the league leaders. Nowadays I can go online and find a huge range of stats for every player, updated daily. I can see how it would be easy for someone to be overwhelmed, convinced that reality is found in these stats, not on the field.
The temporary change is that these new stats are, well, new. They won’t be to the next generation. This too is nothing new. We are in a transitional period, but it will stabilize, with a new set of standard stats. People of my generation have this notion that the traditional stats– Batting Average and Earned Run Average and Runs Batted In–are timeless and obvious. Neither is true. They aren’t timeless. They are the product of a process of discernment that occurred in history and spanned decades. They only seem timeless because these decades were long ago: the half century or so beginning about 1860. They aren’t obvious. They only seem that way because they were on the back of those bubble gum cards we were putting in our bike spokes. Run them by someone who doesn’t follow baseball, and you will get blank stares. Or take a look at traditional cricket stats, which are even older than baseball stats. They will be utter gibberish to the typical baseball fan.
Here is my prediction. The next generation will grow up with better mental filters, and won’t find the availability of all this information so overwhelming. And they will find OPS and WAR, or perhaps the successors to OPS and WAR, perfectly familiar and obvious.
In the meantime, take a ten year old kid to the ballpark. If you don’t have one of your own, I’m sure you can borrow one. Enjoy the game. Ignore the scoreboard. Sing Take Me Out to the Ballgame. It’s fun.