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. Jason W

    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.

    • Mark Smith

      If you read this post to mean that I meant everyone, that wasn't the point. Yes, there are plenty of perfectly cogent people on the internet and at all these sites that are respectful, and even the people I mentioned have been particularly thoughtful throughout their careers.

      To say that this problem, however, isn't present is ridiculous. When posts come out about particular WAR methods, run estimators, and defensive metrics, there's tons of defensive rhetoric used by the new creators and defenders of the old.

      I don't really see how I was hypocritical. I'm asking everyone to consider questions seriously and not respond with attacks and defensive remarks. I used examples from those people, and I also made the comment that I don't find those people to be usually like that. To say that I believe or intended to argue that all people are this way isn't accurate.

      • Jason W

        I did not read this post to mean everyone. I Rob in mind in this specific discussion. I included other sources to say that there are plenty of examples around where people have had the sort of discussions you want, and that a big part of those discussions is the way that the author writes. These sites rarely use hyperbole to make a point, or use leading headlines just to drive up traffic. That is one of my complaints.

        I'm not upset when people ask questions about UZR, wOBA, or any other advanced statistic. I'm not upset when people question these statistics and how they're created. I thought Hippeaux's point about FB% was an incredibly insightful one. However, I thought Hippeaux's criticism of wOBA because it doesn't account for "the scarcity of pitcher-intimidating, strategy-altering cleanup hitters", the RBI analogy, the complaints about supposedly underrated slugging and lineup construction vary between ignorant (or at least poorly communicated) and obnoxious.

        I will concede that there are plenty of defensive people in the sabermetrics world, but — and this is really the point I tried to make above — let's not pretend that writing the way that Hippeax wrote contributes positively to the level of discourse, and that's what I find hypocritical.

        • hugh

          I might well be inadequately equipped intellectually – I have often wondered – but I found Hippeaux's writing to be an entirely positive and considered contribution creating food for thought and in no way hyperbolic or "obnoxious". Like every other view on the planet, I would not dismiss it because it seemed it might not be wholly correct in every particular. Bulk of my response hereafter.

        • Mark Smith

          Was it the best way? No. Did it start a conversation about the statistic as intended? Yes. The post is only part of the discourse. A lot of comments yesterday were very good, and I bet a lot of people learned from them.

          Regardless, a lot of comments were very reflexive to the post's title, and in that, they were not giving him his due. You're allowed to criticize. But criticize what you came to criticize, and there are better ways to do it than what was done. Everyone deserves respect, but trust has to be earned.

    • hugh

      "Is WAR the new RBI?" An interesting headline that made me interested to read the rest of the article, knowing, from reading this blog for some months now, that the article would be reasoned and considered (and might very well answer the question with a "No" at the end). Also from past experience of reading here, I knew I might not find myself siding with everything that was said. I suggest no-one used to coming here would view the headline as a "shock-value" NYPost-type. To characterise it thus rather underscores the point of this post, creating as it does the idea that to even question the value of WAR is an unthinkable heresy that could only be done by someone with no understanding.
      (contd…)

      • hugh

        … On this particular subject I should say I have absolutely no preconceived ideas and very little understanding of the basis for how WAR is measured. I hoped to understand a little more from reading the article and, hopefully, a considered discussion in the comments. I find that describing the author's perspective as "pathetic" and a "half-assed, misguided critique" does not win me over to an alternative point of view. Further, I find on reading some of the critical comments that their criticisms are of positions not taken by Hippeaux in his post.

        Doubtless there are valid criticisms of the ideas in Hippeaux's post. But I enjoyed reading it, and some of the comments. Just as I enjoyed reding this post and, on this occasion, am able to say that I wholly agree with its central proposition. Thank you, Mark

        • Mark Smith

          If the post has inaccuracies, then by all means point them out. I have no problem with saying, "Hey, this isn't right. I've seen this debunked here, etc." That's fine. My problem is when people resort to going "This sucks", "He's just trying to get attention" without giving any evidence of such. Critique and give evidence for what you disagree with. If you think the post has errors, then say so and elaborate. If you think the person is simply trying to make a name for himself, you're allowed to say so, but again, you need evidence to back that up that goes beyond "He's a blogger."

          In all this, name-calling doesn't need to be there, and please read the passage before remarking on it.

        • BrienJackson

          In no way do I mean for this observation to impugn anyone, but it probably says a lot that the regular readers and commeters of this site don't seem to have had issues with the tone or misunderstanding Hippeaux.

          • BrienJackson

            Actually "says a lot" is probably over-stating it, but I think you get the idea.

          • hugh

            I think I do. It's either:

            1. We know Hippeaux, and the site well enough to know that he/ it is not in the habit of chasing hits with vacuous and gratuitously controversial posts, or

            2. The regular readers and commenters of this site are the only ones with the correct insight into all things baseball-related.

            I know it's 2. but if anyone asks, we'd better say it's 1, right? Or they might start posting on our site again. And none of us want that.

      • BrienJackson

        Thank you. More than anything, I resented the implication and accusation that the piece was designed solely to get attention.

        • hugh

          +100.

          I mean, you only have to look at the other posts on the site to see how uninterested you guys are in actually being read.

          • Thanks for that, Hugh. (lol)

          • BrienJackson

            Should of pinch hit you in the 11th, 'cuz you knocked that one out of the park. Well done indeed sir.

        • hugh

          :-)

          • Mark Smith

            Nice. I blame Brien for the glory-hogging that goes on around here.

        • Jason W

          If my comment above implied that, I apologize. I did not intend to accuse Hippeaux of trying to drive up traffic, but to criticize the article's (and title's) writing style.

      • Jason W

        In the saber-world, equating WAR and RBI is tantamount to the NYPost claiming that President Obama is not only an illegal alien, but an actual alien deposited in a Manchurian Candidate scheme by Martians.

        But, you're right, and I should've clarified the context.

        • hugh

          Fair enough, though I think the question mark in the title should have been sufficient for any fair-minded reader to suspend judgement.

  2. Hank

    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.

    • Mark Smith

      Again, I didn't meant to say everyone does it. Actually, we all do it from time to time on certain subjects. I do it. The hubbub it produced, however, demonstrated the clear lines being drawn again, and there were more than a few who jumped to conclusions. Regardless, jumping to conclusions based on the title isn't a good idea.

  3. Tangotiger

    "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.

    • Mark Smith

      Sorry, that comment was meant toward Neyer and others more than you, and those were mainly questions to consider.

  4. HankG

    "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.

    • Mark Smith

      If it was all he could see and he knew there was more, it was irresponsible to make a comment on it.

      And while the title may not have been the best, he asks a question, which you assume he will answer. It is a controversial start, but it's not something you can just judge the piece on.

      All I ask is that you make the attempt to read the argument before making comment.

      • Tangotiger

        If you read my blog post, you would see that I was forecasting, using Bayes, what his arguments could be to "WAR doesn't work".

        And in my blog post I clearly said I was posting it blind because your site is blocked at the office.

        So, stop calling my actions irresponsible. Indeed, why can't you say Hippeaux was irresponsible for writing his piece for not undestanding everything he wrote, when he himself could have just emailed me? I respond to everything.

        This is the point, the bias you see, that basically everyone rallies around their guy. So, play devil's advocate for a minute, and see how Hippeaux arguments were lacking in evidence and lacking in understanding.

        He did a great piece in the fielding part, for which I praised him.

        • Mark Smith

          What I don't understand is why you commented early at all. I've read your site for a while, and I don't see you do that all that often. Even if the chance is slim that the post would have been insightful, why comment in such a way? You're fairly strict (which is fine) when it comes to what you link, and if the link is somewhat exceptional, does it still fit Bayes? Why not just wait until you can read it?

          And I won't say Hippeaux didn't have any inaccuracies. His post, however, was a result of a misunderstanding of his research into the topic. You, admittedly, didn't read before making comment, a comment read by your audience which initially colors the outlook of the post.

          Listen, I'm not calling you irresponsible. That post might have been, but I also said that I have no problem with you and have learned a lot from you. But it just seemed like an out-of-hand dismissal of the idea that it could be critiqued.

          But as you said earlier, let's move past it.

          • Tangotiger

            If I didn't link to it then, I wasn't going to link to it at all. I have some 500 posts in my Reader every day. I go through it once an hour and read/clear things out very fast. That blog post looked like it could be something to comment on. If I didn't link to it then, I would have simply forgotten to link to it at night.

            I put huge conditions in my blog post, saying I was posting it blind, predicting that the "WAR doesn't work" will be an unsupportable thesis, and that I was willing to be embarrassed by my forecast. I offered NO conclusions when I posted that.

            Someone sent me the article a short while later, and I put my comments in the comment section.

            In hindsight, I'd still do it that way.

        • Marty

          It fascinates me that you don't think what you did was irresponsible. I'd like to know more about the world you live in. Please tell.

          • Mark Smith

            Irresponsible is probably a bit too harsh, and I do apologize for saying so. I believe it is indicative of what I was talking about, but irresponsible wasn't a good choice of words. Again, I apologize.

          • Tangotiger

            Thanks, I appreciate it.

            I think if I were playing devil's advocate against myself, I would say… presumptive? Unnecessary? Abrupt? Those are justifiable characterizations I think.

            Similarly, you can make more nuanced cases against various implementations of WAR that are also reasonably justified. The saber community itself brings it up, like with Ricky Nolasco, and comparing the WAR from Fangraphs and BR.com. Or even Cliff Lee last year, how there was little agreement as to how to value his performance.

            These are good points of evidence for discussion, and those cases brings out the limitations of WAR. Basically, the article should have had alot more evidence, and alot less conclusions.

            I look forward to future articles that are more focused, and have specific points of discussion.

            As for me, I do apologize for contributing negatively to the landscape, when I would hope Hippeaux and others deserve encouragement, considering that they did tackle some saber research to begin with.

            Thanks…

  5. Frank S.

    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. studes

    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.

    • Lee

      The most accurate statement made in the last three days.

  7. Tod

    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. garik16

    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.

    • Mark Smith

      "Someone named Hippeaux" has a definite negative connotation and implies that there's something wrong with using a pseudonym. Just saying Hippeaux grants him more respect. And "you dunder-headed fools who aren't as smart as Hippeaux" is calling him one.

      And I didn't call everyone else defensive. I said reflexively reacting to it because of the title was being defensive. And for no one really getting defensive, it sure created quite a stir, and a strong one at that.

      Quite a few posts are written every day about sabermetrics that don't really see the light of day, but when one in the movement speaks out, it's linked and talked about everywhere. I'm not defending everything in the article, but I thought the reaction to it was awfully weird.

  9. Michael

    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.

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