I became familiar with the sabermetrics movement in baseball the way a lot of people in my generation did—through the writing of Bill James, which I read in the late 1980s and early 1990s as a college student (usually while consuming massive amounts of beer by myself, but that’s another story entirely).
I was a big proponent of what James was doing, bringing fresh statistics to the fore and seeking to better measure players and teams. I supported him and his acolytes against the old-school types. Today that’s come full circle, and it’s time to call an end to the sabermetrics revolution.
For those that aren’t familiar with sabermetrics, the term, practically speaking, applies to the movement to throw out traditional baseball stats and replace them with new ones. I understand that’s a simple definition, but for a blog post it will have to suffice.
To me, the strengths sabermetrics brought were basic. Batting average and home runs were clearly insufficient to measure offensive contributions. What about walks? What about doubles and triples? There was no way to quantify these under traditional baseball measurements, and the advent of on-base percentage and slugging percentage were the result. Baseball is the better for it.
Circa the late 1980s, I also felt RBI producers got too much credit at the expense of those who scored the runs. After all, how do you drive in a runner who doesn’t exist? Yet only the man who got the RBI was getting his due in the classic Triple Crown categories.
There was also the age-old debate about how to measure starting pitchers. Sabermetrics doesn’t like wins as a tool. I tended to agree then, and still tend to agree now. It was more appropriate when pitchers routinely went the distance or at least up to the eighth inning or so.
This is just a snapshot of the work James and those that followed him did, and I sympathized with their efforts to get their voices heard. They were dismissed by the old guard types, the ones who said mere number-crunchers couldn’t possibly have anything to contribute to the discussion. The old guard was wrong and they were arrogant in their being wrong.
Now that’s come full circle and this revolution has gone places I never wanted to go. For instance…
*In reducing the importance of RBIs, it was never my intent to discount them altogether. How many times does a manager, after a loss, lament the lack of a key hit with men in scoring position? I just wanted credit given to the complete package that produced the run, not just the hitter with the RBI.
*The arrogance has now shifted. Now it’s old-guard types who are routinely dismissed—with one high-profile notable exception in Anaheim recently—while the stat geeks carry themselves with a pomposity that says to disagree with them is to challenge the very basis of science itself.
*Thinking that wins are an inadequate measurement of a starting pitcher doesn’t mean I think the concept of pitching differently with a lead, or having the moxie to simply be better on a night when you have to be was irrelevant. I do think ERA and innings pitched are still the most important parts of being a starting pitcher, but wins can’t be dismissed.
*The sabermetrics movement has also moved to dismiss the quality of finesse pitchers who don’t get strikeouts. The mindset behind stats like BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) and other advanced stats is that once a ball is in play, the pitcher is at the mercy of luck. And therefore, the pitchers that are truly good are the ones that get strikeouts.
This is not a view I ever held and one I would immediately separate myself from. There’s a considerable difference between a ball that’s hit with authority and one that’s hit on either a bad portion of the bat or off-balance. And to suggest that a starting pitcher, through location and changing speeds can’t impact these things is just not true.
Yes, a ball hit poorly can find a hole at a bad time, whereas a strikeout cannot. But luck still plays a role for the hard-throwing strike-out pitcher. What about a ball that’s fouled straight back, indicating that the batter was “thisclose” to being right on the meat of the bat and just got a hair under it? Isn’t the pitcher with velocity lucky the hitter didn’t get a hold of it clean? The same goes with long foul balls that are very close to the pole.
Why isn’t on-base percentage and slugging percentage sufficient for offense and, along with ERA and innings pitched for starting pitchers, with maybe a modest adjustment for wins or some other stat that pertains to pitching within the given game situation?
I often emphasize park effects as well, although I’m skeptical of the ability to precisely quantify that. Pitchers factor the dimensions into how often they challenge hitters, so I’m not certain that you can come up with a stat that perfectly equalizes everything.
And that’s really at the heart of all this. The most extreme practitioners of sabermetrics seem to think you can precisely measure everything and that anything you can’t isn’t worth talking about. But sports is much art as science, with a certain level of subjective appreciation and understanding mixed in with hard data.
That’s just one thing the statheads don’t seem to want to understand, it’s why they’ve become so unbearable and it’s why they’ll no doubt continue to hurl a flurry of stats at us trying to establish definitive proof about something that, at its deepest level, was simply meant to be appreciated. It’s time for this revolution to come to an end.