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July 15, 2010

Changing Speeds

Business Casual

by Ken Funck

Let’s say you’re at the water cooler at work, or some other casual environment surrounded by acquaintances, and the conversation turns to baseball. Someone states that Jimmy Sticks is the best pitcher in the league since he has the best record; others back Jamar Pickett, who has the lowest earned run average. You happen to know that Sticks has gotten the most run support of any starter in the league, while Pickett pitches in front of a great defense in the most pitcher-friendly home park in the league, and neither player is in the top 10 in Support Neutral Win Percentage. What do you say?

At moments like that, I’m reminded of a scene in The Simpsons where Apu, the Indian convenience store owner, is taking his citizenship test:

Proctor: All right, here’s your last question. What was the cause of the Civil War?

Apu: Actually, there were numerous causes. Aside from the obvious schism between the abolitionists and the anti-abolitionists, there were economic factors, both domestic and international …

Proctor: Wait, wait… just say slavery.

Apu: Slavery it is, sir!

If the above conversation was about valuing starting pitchers rather than the Civil War, Apu might well have been interrupted while describing the merits of SNLVAR, SIERA, xFIP, and RA and prompted to “just say Earned Run Average.” While ERA certainly has its flaws, it’s at least more descriptive than, say, wins, and most fans understand and accept it. Those of us who are interested in advanced performance metrics are aware that many other fans don’t understand them and, in some cases, have been conditioned to view them negatively. If folks at the water cooler start talking about various pitchers’ win totals and ERA, I often hesitate to go all nerd-Christmas* on them and talk about park factors, defensive efficiency, inherited runners and DIPS theory. Who wants to be looked at like Cliff Clavin, right or wrong?

*Hat-tip to Jeff Pease

I was reminded of this while reading Will Carroll’s recently posted Q&A session with Jeff Ma. Will and Jeff talked about the desire to further the acceptance of advanced performance analysis in front offices and amongst the mainstream media (MSM), and I couldn’t agree more. However, it seems to me there’s a big difference between the level of acceptance currently found in baseball organizations themselves and in the media that covers them, with the MSM well behind the curve.

To varying degrees, every club now employs statistical analysts and assays to integrate their work with scouting information to inform the decision-making process. These efforts have been (and always will be) imperfect and uneven, but by and large the number of head-scratching decisions made by major-league organizations seems to be dwindling. Teams that make smarter, often statistically-informed, decisions see the payoff in their bottom line; front offices that don’t make smart decisions are eventually held accountable and replaced by those who do.

On the other hand, the MSM seems to be more resistant to new ideas and new approaches. There are exceptions, of course: online versions of media outlets like ESPN are likely to have more varied perspectives, and there are a few voices on television, radio, or in print that tend to use a more analytical approach or quote advanced metrics in their work. That’s progress, but as Will and Jeff point out, some of the most dominant voices in broadcast booths, studios, and press boxes tend to be more “old school” and, if not necessarily hostile to more advanced performance analysis, at least ambivalent to it. Unlike the clubs themselves, success for broadcasters isn’t so closely tied to accurately identifying and weighting the components of baseball success, so there’s far less incentive for them to do so. If Tim McCarver were to think that, say, a high on-base percentage isn’t particularly important for a slugger, Fox’s ratings aren’t likely to suffer much for that opinion; if Theo Epstein were to think that, the Red Sox might just win fewer games and lose revenue. Since casual fans often get the majority of their baseball fix from mainstream sources, a large number are either unaware or skeptical of analysis beyond things like wins, ERA, and RBI—metrics that have meaning, but can easily be taken out of context.

Is this a major problem? After all, baseball can appeal to fans on many levels, from the aesthetic appreciation of a well-turned double play to the intellectual challenge of building a winning team on a limited budget. Those that want to gain a better understanding of the game through statistical analysis don’t need to rely on the MSM for their baseball fix—they have plenty of opportunities to do so at sites like Baseball Prospectus. Those that don’t can tune into the MSM and get everything they want. Sure, they may wind up overvaluing things like wins and RBI, but so what? As long as the people actually running teams know how to more appropriately value players, what’s the harm in the media, and by extension fans, lagging behind?

I don’t claim to know the answer, but this is what I worry about: fans and media that not only overvalue things like wins and RBI, but do so loudly, might affect a team’s decisions. Baseball clubs are in the entertainment business, and as such are very sensitive to public opinion. The best way to ensure good PR is to win, which means employing the best players available within the budget—but building a winner takes time and fans can lose patience. If fans overvalue, say, RBI, then a team may be loath to replace last year’s RBI leader with a somewhat better player for fear of a fan backlash. GMs have to weigh a lot of factors in every personnel decision they make, and if greater understanding in the media and by fans of what truly helps teams win makes those decisions easier, I’m all for that.

I’ve written in the past that it’s in the best interest of broadcasters to introduce their viewers to a few more sabermetric principles, since that can spark a deeper interest in the game and turn casual fans into fanatics. Perhaps it might also be in the best interest of the game itself.

Questions of the Day (hat tip to Tommy Bennett)

 Is the mainstream media growing more accepting of advanced performance analysis? Is it important for them to do so, or just a selfish hope on my part to make water cooler conversations more interesting?  

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

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