Advanced Statistics and Watching Baseball


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Home Runs, Batting Average, and RBIs. ERA, Wins, and Strikeouts. There are whole generations who based their understanding of baseball off of those old stats. There are also fans today who think most of these are only part of the story, or not a part at all. They would love to see RBIs and Wins for a pitcher not even kept anymore. For some of them, they watch baseball and are concerned about a players WAR, or a pitcher’s xFIP, more so than the old numbers. They are more concerned about their iso-power than their actual home run numbers. They are quite literally watching the game differently than some of the old fans. They eschew things like “clutch” hitting, or really any of the old “truisms” of the baseball business. They don’t like a lot of the old commentators, or their understanding of the game.

And then there’s everything in between.

I have to admit that for me, it took a long time to accept the “advanced statistics” community and their ideas at all, and i’ve come to some sort of middle ground- using advanced metrics that seemed grounded in reality, while rejecting some others. I’m both intrigued and enthused by some of the ideology they’ve introduced to the game, and also absolutely driven nuts by their thinking they’ve re-figured out baseball. I have a love/hate with the advanced metrics crowd, in no small part because they’re humans. Sometimes their biases and faults show in how they interpret their numbers. That’s fine. It doesn’t mean they’re wrong. I’ve come to accept their way of watching baseball has a lot of use. New lines of thinking about anything can give you a much better understanding of what you just saw, and how to interpret it. The “sabermetrics” community has done that for baseball.

In the case of the fight over Buster Olney and his lack of use of “advanced metrics” last week, I was surprised at the tone of the attacks on Olney. Olney said he felt Josh Donaldson of the Blue Jays should be considered for the MVP award, and in that he cited his RBI numbers, which sent the metrics crowd crazy. They pointed out that RBIs do depend on other players being on base (they do), so they aren’t useful (you play baseball as a team, so I guess I find that silly, but whatever). They wanted Olney to use his platform to explain WAR, wOBA, and every other sabermetric under the sun. I guess to weigh in here, RBIs do not make a player an MVP candidate for me, but I tend to agree with Olney that speaking of a set of stats that 90% of the public doesn’t use is pointless. I think my thoughts were summed up much better though by another writer, Mike Bates of MLB Daily Dish:

Wins Above Replacement is a tool. Sure, it’s a more precise tool than RBI, but a tool nonetheless. While it’s one of the better ones we have available to us, it is in no way the be-all end-all of any argument about value or team building. It’s a fun starting point for an argument, but it’s just an approximation. There are also at least three different calculations of the metric, and those calculations often as misused as runs batted in themselves. Indeed, WAR does not have a monopoly on the truth even with itself, as evidenced by the fact that bWAR, fWAR, and WARP can’t resolve their differences. It has barely any greater claim to some kind of capital-T truth than RBI do. And, in that regard, screaming at every reporter that they have to use WAR or WAA (wins above average) or WPA (wins probability added) or wRC+ (weighted runs created, adjusted) is not just counterproductive, but silly. It suggests a level of certainty in the metric(s) that no one should have. Ultimately, I want to believe that most of us understand this.

And pretending we have the objectively right answer is the same as demanding everyone think about baseball the way that we do. And that’s not fair. WAR is not the Pope, and visiting dignitaries should not have to kiss its ring to talk about the game. It’s not our place to look down on people who want to talk about RBI any more than it is the place of Jeff Lunhow to look down on people who are using WAR to talk about his Astros while he uses the pre-cog computers from The Minority Report to plot out Houston’s continued rise to dominance over the American League. And it’s not fair to demand that Buster Olney and his colleagues constantly “educate” the masses when we don’t even know what the right lesson plan is.

Bingo.

We all watch sports at whatever level of sophistication we individually can and choose to. Fans all see what they see, individually, and not some sort of collective “truth” about baseball. I believe in a lot of the advanced statistics of recent years, to varying degrees, while there are some I don’t use at all (namely just about all defensive sabermetrics). However, how I apply them to what I see is a lot different probably than some other baseball fans and bloggers do. For instance, while I like to check a player’s BABIP regularly throughout the season, I don’t “downgrade” a player’s season at the end because they had a higher BABIP and so it “shouldn’t” have happened. What happened on the field happened. I use that BABIP (be it from a pitcher or a hitter) to try and forecast their future. Same with stats like xFIP and wOBA. That’s just how I use those stats. Someone else may actually be using them to judge the season that passed. That’s fine. There is no “right” way to do this, or “wrong” way to do this. Honestly, probably 9,000 of the fans at the IronPigs game with me yesterday don’t know what wOBA or xFIP is. I’m sure they can explain what they saw, and they probably had a great time watching.

There is an attitude amongst some fans that other fans “watch the game wrong.” That is ridiculous. Teams don’t even use WAR, and none of these internet “experts” probably can explain the advanced stats the teams are now using. Even amongst the teams across the league, there are different ideas of what is valuable and what isn’t. The Cardinals and the Royals weren’t built the same way, using the same thoughts on what was good and what wasn’t, but they’re both pretty damn good right now, right? So who’s to say what’s right and what’s wrong? Billy Beane has a movie and a book about how he changed front offices, and old-school Pat Gillick (who i’m sure has his own numbers of use) has none of those, but three World Series rings. There’s more than one right answer, amazingly. Even the most unsophisticated, non-statistical baseball fan can probably throw something insightful into a baseball discussion, if you’re smart enough to at least give them a listen.

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One Response to “Advanced Statistics and Watching Baseball”

  1. Yeah, for me too, I try to walk the narrow between “old fuddy duddy” and “advanced metrics” with a heavy dose of “what I saw with my own two eyes because I’m at every game.”

    The other thing for me is, lots of the “advanced” guys (or gals) almost never watch the game at all–it’s all about numbers to them and they forget about the human factors and all that. I think they also under-estimate the power of the sample size, often rushing to throw out metrics based on samples which may seem large for some sports–but aren’t really large enough to achieve what they should.

    Then, they try to make it predictive. Every time I buy stocks it’s all about “past performance is not guarantee of future success” and that can hold true in baseball as well. Every time the expected doesn’t happen based on the Saber numbers, they’re all “you can’t predict baseball.” For me, I’ll just start with that, and go from there.

    Good stuff, Rich.

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