An Anti-Stat Argument Murray Chass Would Be Embarrased Of

We have entered sports’ industrial revolution. Statistics are making sports homogenized, faster and efficient. For those standing in the hallway or blocking up the hall, it will only get worse.

We’re three sentences in, and I have no idea what the heck is going on. This is always a promising sign.

Seriously though, I don’t know how statistics are making sports faster or more homogenized. Given the various debates that rage more or less constantly over the use of various statistics, the validity of certain ones, etc., I really have no idea how stats have made sports more homogenized. As they say, that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.

Sports consciousness is in for a sea change and ESPN plans to be at the forefront.The WWL has hired engineer and former NBA consultant Dean Oliver as “director of production analytics.” Wielding ESPN’s power, he will infuse new stats into the marketplace to weed out the common, misplaced understanding.

Oh no, the television production of a baseball game may adapt to include more of things fans and teams are using when they talk about and analyze the game!

Soon, every young sports fan in America will be dropping acronyms and formulas like they are distilled rap terminology.

You hear that America? Formulas! You ever read any of these stat-friendly blogs? You can barely even find the words in the middle of all those formulas they’re constantly feeding you, because every single time they reference these “statistics” they have to tell you the entire formula they use to get the number.

So I guess that settles it then, we’ll just stick to non-formulaic statistics like batting average and ERA from now on. And RBI, because we can’t have acronyms either.

I like statistics. I cringe when baseball analysts make sweeping claims based on “wins” and “RBI.” They should be used as a tool, to help us grasp sports more intelligently.

Ok, so what we’ve got here is someone who isn’t at all familiar with the arguments they’re describing. Since the arguments against pitcher wins and RBI are totally different things, I’ll take them seperately.

I actually think the case against RBI is a bit overstated. RBI are fine from a numerical sense; somebody drives in a run with a hit, walk, or sacrifice fly they get credit for one. As a statistic, they record what happened in a game and over a season. If they’re used in that manner, there’s no reason to have any problem with them at all. The problem comes when you try to use RBI to evaluate individual player performance, since there’s a large effect from factors out of the individual’s control at the margins of RBI.

Pitcher wins, on the other hand, are an inherently arbitrary, stupid, and worthless “statistic” in basically every way, right down to the concept of trying to credit a team’s victory to one position in all cases. It has no value whatsoever, and I really wish more saber-friendly writers would stop referencing it altogether. But that’s a discussion for another day.

Stats don’t worry me, but their ferocious inertia does. The refrain isn’t “we can” understand sports better, it is “we have to.” We’re on WAR footing and we never ask why.

In all truthfulness, I’m still trying to comprehend how someone could even write a sentence like this. It’s just really bizarre isn’t it. If “we can do better,” then why in the heck wouldn’t we? This would make sense if the author had said we can do things differently, and maybe that’s really what he meant to say, but if you accept the idea that there’s a better way to do something, then why on Earth wouldn’t you want to do something better?

Sports are an escape. It’s no coincidence organized, professional leagues developed alongside urbanization. Industrialism created an alien culture. Sports offered an outlet to reconnect with the pastoral world, to create a sense of community and to provide drama and purpose to an otherwise soulless world. Sports should be a departure from modern life, not a reflection of it.

Here’s some friendly advice from me to everyone else who ever writes about baseball; if you find yourself considering channeling your inner George Will, don’t. Ever. I mean that; never, ever, do it. Aside from being pretentious and annoying, you just look like you don’t have anything other than vague generalities and barely relevant histrionics to offer. And in context, this paragraph does indeed look an awful lot like filler. (For what it’s worth, I was going to respond to this by noting that the professionalization of baseball re-enforced existing class differences by making it basically impossible for the poor or working class to see a professional game, or note that non-whites weren’t welcome to play with whites, even in the North, but I decided to be nice).

A baseball GM could construct the ideal statistical team. Tremendous athletes would blanket the field. Dispassionate hitters top to bottom would work pitch counts and be excruciating outs. It would be successful and efficient. It would be awful to watch. Every game would take five hours with minimal scoring. The game needs to entertain.

This should, I guess, be the crux of the argument, and boy is it a doozy. I’m honestly and truly not even sure how to begin to untangle this jumbled mass of nonsense, so bear with me while we try to sort through the problems here.

First of all, every batter should try to be an “excruciating out.” The point of hitting is to get on base, after all, so whatever the best way to get to that aim is, everyone should be trying to do it in most scenarios. I’m not even sure what the alternative is; a game in which a batter intentionally makes an out just to speed the game up? (And again I’m left to point out how stupid these length-of-game arguments are. Baseball doesn’t have a clock involved, it progresses by getting outs. Sometimes that means some games are longer than others. Some are really long affairs. If you prefer your sports timed, go watch football already. I don’t want to seem nasty about it, but this is a fundamental aspect of the game itself. Leave it alone already!!!!)

Secondly, the notion that of “statistically ideal teams” is so ridiculous on its face I’m starting to wonder if this wasn’t really a satirical piece. To wit, sports are a zero-sum, competitive event. Baseball involves three core aspects; hitting, pitching, and fielding. Any time one of these does something positive, another one necessarily did something negative. If a batter gets a hit on a ball through the infield, the defense’s stats take a hit. If the batter hits a HR, it impacts the pitcher’s home run rate. If the pitcher strikes the batter out, or the defense converts an out on a ball in play, it adversely impacts the batter’s stats. I can’t believe I actually have to say this, but a hypothetical league in which none of the pitchers allow runners to get on base yet all of the batters have high on base percentages simply isn’t possible.

And it’s almost incidental at this point, but the “tremendous athletes blanket[ing] the field” thing is, again, obvious nonsense. There are only so many people out there talented enough to play Major League Baseball, and among that subset even fewer are good-to-elite. The implication that every team will have a Josh Hamilton at every position and 12 Tim Lincecums on their pitching staff is, again, completely absurd.

Sports are beautiful. Seeing Lionel Messi dribble through three defenders or Larry Fitzgerald make a leaping catch in the end zone exhilarates us. We need to know the mechanisms behind those feats as much as we need to know the composition of Van Gogh’s paints or a diagram of Shakespeare’s sentence structure. We understand because we experience greatness organically. We don’t need to double check the spreadsheet.

Then don’t! I swear, I am so fed up with this strawman I can barely stand it anymore. There are millions and millions of people who turn on a game in July, watch all or part of it, then turn the game off and give it barely any more thought than that. And that’s fine! There are countless sports fans out there who don’t read blogs, or internet sports coverage/columns, and just basically barely digest any more than the games themselves. That’s how they enjoy the game, and that’s fine. There are others of us who like to write about, analyze, dissect, and obsess over the sport, or read someone else do that. The existence of one type does not negate the validity of the other in any way, shape, or form. This trope really needs to go away for good.

And even if you take this literally, you could just as easily apply it to batting average or RBI or earned run average. If you just want to watch the game and don’t care about statistics in general, you shouldn’t care about those things either. But no one ever suggests you should excise those things from the common vernacular of the sport, because they aren’t really arguing for that. They want you to keep your new stuff off of their yard.

Also, spreadsheets!

Statistical progress is wonderful – I love my adjusted OPS just as I love my iPod – but if we progress for the sake of progress itself we risk ruining the things we love about sports.

Again, Duffy’s trying far too hard to concern troll, and he winds up embarrassing himself with his own phrasing. “Progress” is generally considered a good thing, so why you would ever want to not “progress” is a mystery to me. I believe the word Duffy wants to use is “change.” That would at least make sense.

About Brien Jackson

Born in Southwestern Ohio and currently residing on the Chesapeake Bay, Brien is a former editor-in-chief of IIATMS who now spends most of his time sitting on his deck watching his tomatoes ripen and consuming far more MLB Network programming than is safe for one's health or sanity.

7 thoughts on “An Anti-Stat Argument Murray Chass Would Be Embarrased Of

  1. I love the anti-stat argument because it's so ridiculous. Information/data isn't bad–it's vital. Without it, we're all just guessing. Furthermore, I find it amusing that Duffy realizes the traditional metrics are limited, but chooses to criticize newer metrics for the purpose of nostalgia. Apparently new, more accurate evaluative techniques are bad. If we all lived in his world, we'd all probably still be listening to the radio while using rotary phones.

    Essentially what Duffy is doing is in his piece is promoting anti-intellectualism, which is reprehensible at best. While not everyone needs (or desires to understand) advanced statistics to enjoy the game, it certainly does help to have a grasp on them, if one wants to discuss the game intelligently. Baseball is changing, and Duffy seems like the kind of guy that fears the statistical revolution is causing the game to pass him by. That's absolutely untrue. There's plenty of room on the baseball bandwagon for everyone. Instead of accepting or embracing the changes, he's using fear in hopes of scaring others into agreeing with his point of view. He's promoting the "dumbing down" of sports, just like so many politicians try to "dumb down" politics by being "folksy" and "down to earth", while slamming others that have degrees from Ivy League universities. I'm here to tell you that we don't need mainstream sports to be any dumber. It's already about as dumb as you can get. Don't believe me? Look no further than John Kruk at ESPN. You can't get any dumber than him unless your name is Joe Morgan. But Morgan's not at ESPN anymore, so forget that I said that. The point is that there will always be a place for the anti-stat crowd that just wants to escape and watch the game without numbers.

    One last thing…Considering the state of our education system, especially in the areas of math and writing, isn't the influx of newer metrics into the game a good thing? If there's one thing most kids (in particular boys) like, it's sports. Couldn't we possibly introduce these techniques into math classes early on to stimulate (and/or trick) them into being interested in math? Furthermore, couldn't advanced statistics also be used to stimulate interest in writing? It certainly did in my case, and I'm guessing it had something to do with Brien's as well. Just a thought.

  2. Just one thing – obviously everyone can't have a statistically ideal team; but it would be fun (or at least, I would like it) to see either 1.) an All-Star Game where each team is chose to satisfy sabermetric ideals, instead of being a popularity contest. (and it wouldn't be "totally robotic" or not fun, since you there'd still be plenty of room to argue and discuss which criterion should be used, and how heavily weighted.) Or – 2.) have an All-Star Game, with one team being the statistical ideal, and the other one consisting of players who are good, based on "gut feelings." I would much prefer to see this – but the obvious problem here is that the sabermetric warriors would for the most part be the same guys that just "feel or seem" better. ;) (what a surprise – the suggestion that there could be a correlation between statistics and how good a player is.)

    Maybe someone (ESPN?) could game it out on MLB, just to see how it played out. I'd be curious.

    • Love the idea. Only problem with option 2 is that one game is a really small sample size. Even a team of replacement level players would win a game against sabermetric warriors every so often.

      • True (the SSS) – didn't say it would prove anything. But it would be fun – which is the point. You have to figure, everyone would be talking about it for weeks before the game, and then dissecting the results to advance their own agendas afterwards. It would be aggravating and entertaining at the same time. I know I'd be a lot more likely to watch and care about the results than I am with the current Exhibition Game.

        • Exhibition game? Wait! I thought "This time it counts," was the motto! ;-)

          I agree with you. It would be really interesting to see how it all unfolded.

  3. Brien, you're missing the point. I can't blame you for that, because I read Duffy piece three times. The first time I didn't get his point and the second time I couldn't find a point. Ah, but the third reading I found his point and it's quite simple and profound. Duffy's point is that "we experience greatness organically." I was so bowled over by the power of this idea that I decided to consult the dictionary. "Organically" is "of, relating to, derived from, or characteristic of living plants and animals." He's right! I do experience greatness in a manner characteristic of living plants and animals.

    Mostly I think I experience greatness in a manner characteristic of animals. But I think my appreciation of Jerry Jones and Las Vegas is more characteristic of a house plant. This is something I need to ponder.

    I for one will focus much harder on trying to appreciate greatness organically. My new motto is "Appreciating Greatness Organically Since 2011". I think that appreciating greatness organically beats the holy hell out of having to appreciate it inorganically.