Legitimacy

And that’s a shame. Over the past few years, I’ve come to love the sabermetric community and many of the people within it, but situations like this remind me that legitimacy and the struggle for it is like walking a tightrope. It’s a perilous climb to the top where a breeze one way or the next might knock you off (this is where sabermetrics is, and this is the most dangerous part; once you get to the other side, it’s harder to be knocked off), and when you get to the end, it often looks a lot like it did when you started. Sabermetrics is getting to the point where its ideas are becoming legitimized and accepted, and as they gain this new power, certain people seem to be taking liberties with it, including the right to not be challenged.

Tom Tango called out the post and colored his audience’s reading of it before he even gave it a chance.

Rob Neyer came with attacks on Hippeaux, the person, and whether or not you agree with something, you might as well stick to the argument. Once you start focusing on the person, you’re no longer debating the argument.

Listen, I have no problem with either of these men. Tango’s The Book has taught me a myriad of things, and he’s opened my eyes on a lot. Neyer has been a must-read for years now. I only point them out because they are the most visible. People are allowed to make mistakes, and I think these two made a very common and understandable one. They saw the title “Is WAR the new RBI?”, and they assumed it wasn’t a good idea in an almost eerily similar way that people see Moneyball and make assumptions. But what would have been hurt with a little clearer thinking before reacting? Was Hippeaux’s one post going to bring down everything sabermetrics stands for? And if it was, it probably needed a better argument if you wanted to win the support back. Why not, if Hippeaux’s post had created such a stir indicating he had made a point worth discussing, give it full attention before saying anything? Why not think the response all the way through? And why on earth would you attack him?

Sabermetrics’ purpose, unlike some believe, is not advanced metrics. It’s not new statistics. It’s about questioning the ideas used in baseball, and the questions are generally answered by metrics that are well-thought and figured. Questions come first, and numbers come after. That’s the point of it all. Hippeaux asked a question. Now, here comes the big question. Was he right? There are specific problems, sure, and while that doesn’t help his argument, it didn’t defeat it, either. His argument wasn’t about the specifics, though he uses them. It was about the general idea. He asks the basic question, “Is WAR perfect, and should we take its findings without question?” The answer is no, and while Neyer, Tango, and many others know that it isn’t to be taken that way, there are a whole host of new indoctrinees that DON’T KNOW that. Was the title perfect? No, but considering titles are supposed to be more attention-grabbing than informative (that’s what the post is for), it did its job very well, thanks.

While this is one isolated incident that shouldn’t be blown out of proportion, I don’t like what it symbolizes. For a movement based on questions, it got really defensive when it was questioned, again in an eerily similar way as those sabermetricians fight against. Don’t be like that. Be better. If you want legitimacy, you need to be able to answer the questions. You need to expect the questions. You need to welcome the questions. Questions will do one of three things. They will prove you wrong, which will lead us to more truth. It will lead to more questions, which I thought was a good thing. Or it will reinforce your legitimacy, which is what we’re going for.

And if you believe you’re legitimate (I believe that sabermetrics is legitimate), why are you afraid?

39 thoughts on “Legitimacy

  1. It's funny that this article calls out other people for being defensive, as if Hippeaux's article were some David vs. Goliath meeting. I've been a part of many discussions at Beyond the Boxscore and read plenty of articles and comments on The Book Blog that included serious questions about the legitimacy of a particular statistic or belief that did not devolve into defensiveness.

    Did Rob respond poorly to Hippeaux's article? Yes. Does this somehow mean that Rob is defensive about sabermetrics in general? No. There are plenty of legitimate criticisms to have with Hippeaux's article (clarity, grammar, and usage are three big ones that I have, even before we talk about differences in statistical concerns).

    Hiding behind a fake shield of shock-value article titles, and then acting hurt when people respond in kind to poor journalistic methods is disingenuous at best. Writing follow up articles that say, "Oh, I don't actually agree with Hippeaux's article, but rather than start my own discussion about that, I'm going to briefly mention my disagreement as window dressing for an article that contributes to the very level of authoritarian discourse I'm complaining about" is hypocritical at best.

  2. I think the other issue is some folks (and yes I'm using a general strawman) read the article and instantly assumed the title meant "WAR is as useless as RBI as a statistic"

    After reading the article, I took the title to mean…. "are people misusing and drawing conclusions from a statistics without understanding the limitations of that statistic" (much like people have done with RBIs over the years)

    Mark – I think your article hits the nail on the head with "some" folks who treat someone challenging a statistic with someone who is attacking it and trying to belittle it. I think many folks saw the title and assumed the author was equating the value of WAR as a statistic to the value of RBI as a statistic.

  3. "And why on earth would you attack him?"

    You call what I did an "attack" on him? I can make the distinction between attacking his logic and coherence versus attacking him as a person. And I don't mind my logic being attacked either with rational discourse.

    In any case, I look forward to an email discussion with Hippeaux, so we can make the best of this situation.

  4. "Tom Tango called out the post and colored his audience’s reading of it before he even gave it a chance."

    Perhaps that was because the last thing above the fold was the statement "It doesn't work." At the time, that was all Tango could see. If the placement of that particular statement was coincidental, it was extremely unfortunate. If it was deliberate, it was inflammatory (IMO).

    There is nothing wrong with questioning. But if you saw an article titled "Is Obama the New Satan", would you expect to read a well-reasoned article about the possibility that Obama is not that good a President?

    If the title of the article had been "WAR is a good, imperfect, idea" and had avoided a paragraph saying "There’s only one problem. It doesn’t work.", I doubt there would have been nearly as much negative feedback.

  5. What is this, Junior High School? I thought this was a baseball blog. This is more childish than all the attack on Murray Chass.

  6. Sorry, but you guys shouldn't be surprised by the reaction the article received. Here's what it said:

    "There’s only one problem. It doesn’t work."

    The qualifying statement was after the break. So you guys went for hype, and you got the appropriate reaction. This doesn't give you a very high soapbox to stand on.

  7. Can we all agree that THERE IS NO ONE STATISTIC THAT MEASURES PERFORMANCE PERFECTLY. That seems to me to be what the original post's message was, really. Anyone that reads sports news, as opposed to blogs, knows that WAR is very often used as a shorthand to rate players against one another and determine who is "better".

    And because WAR is perceived by many people (who haven't taken the time to understand it's limitations) as the be-all and end-all, it is actually worse as a statistic in some ways then traditional stats, which didn't have one overarching metric that was perceived as THE answer.

  8. Please explain to me where Rob made an Ad Hominem attack? The closest Rob does is by labeling the author as an "iconoclast" and by pointing out that the attack used various "straw man" arguments.

    The sabermetric community has had various debates over the worth of WAR – this is why there are two prominent versions of the stat for instance; there's no agreement on how to do it. This wasn't really a contribution to the debate (though the fly ball rate relation to UZR is something of interest) as much as a mischaracterization of things at times, particularly in regards to ignoring the positional adjustment.

    Long story short, there was a sensationalist title, a bit of misinformation, and it didn't work as much as you thought it would….and your response was to characterize everyone ELSE as defensive. Not so much.

  9. The point of the entire article seemed to be that old schoolers used RBI as the be all and end all of performance indicators (can he hit in the clutch? drive in runs? etc…) that WAR was in danger of becoming the be all and end all of sabermetricians. He wasn't saying it doesn't work as in its not effective, but he meant it doesn't work as a conversation ender. Which really it doesn't. No stat does. You might find it poorly worded but i think that the message, not the delivery, was what is most important. People act as if he's guilty of treason to the saberworld instead of actually reading his whole article (which i have a strange suspicion not everyone did) and realizing hippeaux was just saying WAR is imperfect.