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July 9, 2012

Baseball Therapy

Hire Joe Morgan

by Russell A. Carleton

Russell A. Carleton wrote for Baseball Prospectus from 2009 to 2010, and prior to that (2007-2009) wrote at Statistically Speaking. He served as a consultant to a team in Major League Baseball for two years. Beginning today, his work will once again be appearing at BP on a regular basis.
 

Dear Mr. Morgan,

I owe you an apology. No, not a snarky, sarcastic, "Haha this will get a lot of pageviews and I'll smack him down at the end—Big laughs all around!" sort of apology. A real one.

I'm sorry.

Mr. Morgan, I'm a sabermetrician. I'm one of those new-wave guys who like to look at baseball through the numbers. I never did really play the game, unless you count seventh-grade community center summer softball. Instead of that major-league career I dreamed about when I was a kid, I got an advanced degree and a background in statistical analysis. But when I should have been working on my dissertation, I was reading in Moneyball and Baseball Between the Numbers about other guys with advanced degrees and backgrounds in statistics who were working in the game, and saying to myself, "Hey, I know how to do stuff like that!" I figured that if I wasn't any good at actually playing the game, I could at least do the nerdy next-best thing. I could study it.

About five years ago, I started publishing my own research as a little hobby, and I found out some interesting things about baseball. It was fun, not only in a nerdy way, but in the sense that I really felt like I was contributing to a better understanding of the game.

Had it stopped there, I wouldn't be writing this letter of apology. But it didn't. Something happened to me over time. I'm not sure when it happened, but gradually the work became less about having fun by talking about the game of baseball and more about proving that I knew more than anyone else. I somehow convinced myself that the sabermetric way was the only true way to understand the game... and I laughed at those who said otherwise, including you, Mr. Morgan.

A couple years ago, I had an opportunity that not too many people get. I had a chance to work as a consultant to a real, live team in Major League Baseball. In addition to the tingly feeling that comes with saying “I’m a major leaguer (sorta)!” there was another benefit that I didn’t appreciate at first, but came to treasure. My employers asked me politely to refrain from publishing anything while I worked for them (for obvious reasons), and so I had to say goodbye to BP. While I did miss BP, my departure meant that I didn’t have to have something new ready every Sunday night, which meant that I could go deeper into topics than I had ever gone before. It was the equivalent of entering a sabermetric monastery to contemplate some of the deeper mysteries of baseball.

In my reflections (and uh, Gregorian number-crunching) I came to some rather interesting conclusions. I can’t get into specifics (so please don't ask) but I will say this: there are things that are generally publicly held as sabermetric doctrine—in some cases, crucial underlying assumptions—that are demonstrably false. Statistical models are wonderful things, but they are only as good as the data that power them and the understanding of the programmer who defines them. When I wrote for BP, and before that for Statistically Speaking, in my rush to get something ready, I often went with a very simple statistical model of whatever topic I was studying. There's something to be said for one of my favorite lines, "direction before precision," but ultimately, a simple model assumes a simple reality, and baseball, as I found, is not a simple game.

In other words, I discovered that I was capable of being... wrr… wrrro... wrrrrr... incorrect.

Mr. Morgan, when you said that you weren’t a fan of sabermetric theories, I dismissed you as a stubborn and foolish man who wouldn’t listen to a reasonable argument. I rushed to point out that the "old school" way of doing things—the old “eye test”—was prone to all sorts of biases. People often see patterns where none exist, they can be influenced by a number of outside factors, and they are predisposed to fall back on old folklore and moralistic explanations for behavior. All of those are actually still true, but that's not the point.

My problem was that I didn’t look in the mirror and examine my own methods for the flaws inherent in them. The variables that I chose and the statistical techniques I used reflected my own biases and preconceived notions about what I thought was important, and my own assumptions about reality. When others suggested looking at an issue from another angle, I acted like a stubborn and foolish man who wouldn't listen to a reasonable argument.

In justifying my own views, I talked about how numerical models could take vast pools of data into account (entire decades of games!) and how my models could give unbiased estimates of how important various factors really were. And they can... if the models are good reflections of reality.  That's a major point in the sabermetric method’s favor, and to this day, I believe it to be its primary strength.

But had I been a more charitable man, I could have pointed out that the eye test has its benefits too. There are a lot of baseball lifers who have been around the game so long they instinctively— sometimes subconsciously—know to look for things that I don’t even know exist. Not all of their theories and beliefs are going to be right, but I acted as though, by dint of their non-outsider, non-Ph.D-having status, anyone who wasn’t quoting the latest sabermetric research was automatically wrong.

My goal in writing this letter isn't to say that you were right all along about sabermetrics. In fact, Mr. Morgan, I still disagree with you on plenty of issues, most notably in that I believe sabermetrics can offer a lot to the game of baseball. I’ve come to the conclusion that sabermetrics is a young, toolsy prospect. There’s a lot of potential there to be a game-changer, but maybe, just maybe, there’s something to be gained by sitting down and listening to a wise man who’s been around for a while.

Mr. Morgan, I was arrogant and believed that I had the power to answer all questions. I indulged in the idea that someone who didn't speak about baseball in the same language that I did was somehow beneath me. I delighted in pointing out your flaws while ignoring my own. And yes, I laughed along with that website when it made fun of you.

For this, Mr. Morgan, I am sorry, and I humbly request your forgiveness.

peace, love, happiness, banana pudding,
Russell A. Carleton

Russell A. Carleton is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Russell's other articles. You can contact Russell by clicking here

Related Content:  Scouting,  Sabermetrics,  Stats,  Joe Morgan,  Consulting

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