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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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25 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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Sharky

Interesting read, Ken. Here's a thought: fantasy baseball has introduced concepts like WHIP (better than era). So in turn, more casual fans are aware of some sabermetric concepts (if not saberstats). As a result, the way has been softened for the msm.

Jul 15, 2010 04:10 AM
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jtanker33

Today's players are told to focus on specific statistics while coming up through the minors, and those stats are usually thinks like K/BB and FIP. The MSM will just be a generation or two behind - Zach Greinke famously said he follows his FIP. Well, when Zach takes over for Orel Hershiser in the booth, we'll get the new(er) perspective. Of course, by then, there will be a whole new slew of stats to follow...

Jul 15, 2010 05:50 AM
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BP staff member Will Carroll
BP staff

I disagree. I have never, ever heard of an organization asking a player to do anything specific based on a stat. I have heard things like "less walks" or "more grounders", which are components that would lead to better stats, but "lower FIP?" Can't believe it.

Jul 15, 2010 07:32 AM
 
TangoTiger

I seem to remember reading about a team telling its minor-league hitters that they need to walk at least once every 10 PA. (I don't necessarily agree with that kind of hard rule.) I agree, "lower FIP" wouldn't even be said.

Jul 15, 2010 08:32 AM
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jtanker33

I can't find it now, but if memory serves, there was a Prospectus Q&A with a minor league reliever who was asked what stats the coaching staff had them pay attention to. ERA was deemed useless, while K-rates and efficiency (I believe) were most important.

The point is, if a front office values certain advanced metrics over ERA, wins, and BA, players will perform to those preferred metrics in an effort to be promoted. I believe this will eventually make its way further into the MSM since so many announcers make their way to the booth.

Jul 16, 2010 10:09 AM
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ScottyB

IIRC, Grienke says he tracks FIP and it helps him to calm down and stay focused after giving up a bloop hit- he realizes he can only do so much to prevent those, and this is reassuring.

Jul 15, 2010 10:43 AM
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BrownianNotion

Personally, I hope MSM helps educate more casual fans. I went to a party about a year and a half ago where a friend of mine introduced me to some guys she knew that she claimed were "hardcore baseball fans." Within five minutes, they were telling me walks were overrated and batting average was more important than on-base percentage. I was outnumbered four to one and had no chance of swaying any of them. I prefer my baseball conversations to be with people who actually know what they're talking about; MSM accepting more sabermetrics would help increase the size of that population.

Jul 15, 2010 06:33 AM
rating: 2
 
BP staff member Will Carroll
BP staff

This. This this this.

Self-described "hardcore fans" are more likely to be like those other four guys than like you, Jeffrey. That's a broad population. Casual fans are even broader. My guess would be -- and this is based on some old focus groups -- that the breakdown would go higher than a 4/1 ratio. A significant amount of fans care about one team and one team only, barely registering the names of all but the best known rivals on other teams.

So what you're asking is for the ESPN's of the world to market more to the small population than the large population. That's just not going to happen. Places like ESPN *can* do things to market, but the broadest shows - the Sunday Night Baseball, the Baseball Tonights - are going to be marketed to the broadest audience.

Jul 15, 2010 07:38 AM
 
BP staff member Ken Funck
BP staff

And this is exactly the quandary I feel whenever I write about this. I know how much I personally would love to see more in-depth analysis during games. It would enhance my viewing experience; it would expose others to the same sort of things I find interesting and valuable, meaning (as Jeffrey says) there will be more people with whom I can have those types of conversations. But at the same time, I know those are selfish reasons, and I'm way in the minority, so those aren't compelling reasons for Fox or ESPN or your local announcers to include those things in a broadcast.

Better analysis has taken hold in front offices because there's a compelling reason to use it -- you win more ballgames. It's just harder to find that compelling reason for the MSM since they won't see much upside in it, at least until the "hardcare fans" understand, say, the value of OBP. Where's the tipping point, Will? Are we doomed to be Cassandra, at least in our water cooler conversations?

Jul 15, 2010 09:15 AM
 
Patrick M

I would love to see more advanced metrics get play in the MSM, but let's be realistic: part of why batting avg and ERA are so widely accepted is because normal humans can literally calculate them on the back of an envelope. That is simply not possible for most of the advanced metrics.

Now, MSM can take some baby steps in that direction. For example, for all its faults, OPS is still a good quick and dirty hitting assessment, and we have seen OPS mentioned much, much more in MSM over the past few years. That is a Good Thing.

On the other side of the ball, DE should not be a difficult concept to explain, and it passes the "envelope test". For the pitchers, hmm...

Jul 15, 2010 07:18 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Will Carroll
BP staff

I think it's more presentation than calculation. QB rating is an impenetrable calculation that, when analyzed, barely makes sense. Yet in the NFL, people accept it and use it as a basis for comparison in normal conversation.

I think where things get iffy is when it gets past "reality." Park adjustments are real and easily understood, but people get iffy when they're added. Baseball has yet to find it's "compare players" stat equivalent to QBR, whether thats WAR, WARP, or Bloomberg's rating.

Jul 15, 2010 07:44 AM
 
Jack G

I think there are modern stats, or at least more useful stats, that certainly could be presented in a casual context. Maybe not SIERA, but why not ERA+? You wouldn't even need to show it, it's just as useful to say "Player X has an ERA 20% better than league average." K/BB ratio's the same way "So and so strikes out three men for every walk he gives up." "Albert Pujols is driving in 35% of the men on base ahead of him, which leads the league." When you get away from the black box stats and go towards the ones that can be explained in conversational English, it's not even a matter of education, just choosing to be more useful. None of those would need to be explained

Let's be honest, it'll be a moot point in five years when you'll be able to pick your own announcer and custom stats overlay off the digital feed into your iPad 3. Sure no casual fans will get educated, but being able to create your own personalized info cocoon is the future

Jul 15, 2010 08:22 AM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Colin Wyers
BP staff

That's not what ERA+ does, though. The formula for ERA+ (as presented on Baseball Reference - I believe the formula is the same in the Palmer books, but I'm not sure):

(IP/ER)/(lgIP/lgER)

So an ERA+ of 120 means that a player would allow the same number of earned runs as a league average pitcher would in 20% more innings pitched.

And I mean - this is a very common misunderstanding. It's even more common than the idea (also wrong) that an OPS+ of 120 means an OPS 20% greater than average. So I think that there are some stats floating around that are perceived as easier to understand, even though if you look at how they're commonly used, it's fairer to say they're easy to MISunderstand.

Jul 15, 2010 09:23 AM
 
Patrickj

I've seen more attention paid to K/BB ratio on Jays broadcasts - when they numbers come up for a new pitcher, the broadcasters have been good about saying that you want at least a 2:1 ratio to be successful, and saying that pitchers below that will have trouble keeping control of the game, while guys with higher ratios can really dominate.

They don't go much into the specifics of DIPS, but I think the average fan can see how, especially when there's runners on, K/BB matters.

I have no doubt, actually, that plenty of broadcasters have no problem understanding advanced statistics, and could find ways to explain them. I think the problem is that they're very wary of the 'flavor of the week' nature of a lot of advanced metrics, and are afraid they'll be explaining some brand new stat before too long and simply alienate viewers.

Jul 15, 2010 11:00 AM
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R.A.Wagman

Maybe it's due to the presence and work of Mike Wilner. He covers the pre-game and post-game shows (and when the great Jerry Howarth finally hangs 'em up, would be a great replacement) and understands the new stats, or at least, he understands the components that make the new stats. And that's what we need.
We need more radio hosts talking about the things that matter in making the local nine a winner, and not the flash stats. We need more MSM discussion of the components that go into the new stats (so the viewer/listener can get tangible evidence of how it works) and less worrying about the end stat itself.

Jul 15, 2010 15:33 PM
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ScottyB

Some baby steps are being made...

Most televised ballgames I see list the OB% for each batter, along with the triple-crown stats (I'd like to have sluggin and/or OPS, too). When a pitcher enters a game, they usually list w-l, era, innings, hits, k, and walks. When I see this, I quickly calculate a whip in my head.

On the big-screens at ballparks, they often have OB% and SLG listed the first time a player bats. (in SF, I saw the Giants vs. Angels- IIRC, NO ONE on the Giants had an OB% higher than 320, and NO ONE on the Angels had lower than this)

Jul 15, 2010 10:42 AM
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baserip4

I personally really just like the slash line - BA/OBP/SLG. I can see how much of a player's value is power, how much is BA, and how much is walks. People understand these numbers, too.

Jul 15, 2010 11:12 AM
rating: 3
 
baserip4

The thing is, sabermetrics is extremely capable of using just the basic stats (OBP, SLG, K/BB ratio, defensive efficiency) to explain rather easily how baseball really works. It does not require that people understand the inner workings of UZR or DIPS in order to explain that getting on base is good (for hitters), strikeouts are good and walks are bad (for pitchers), and a team that catches lots of the balls put into play is good at defense. Those are the basics, and I think that every baseball fan can agree on those points. We all need to do a better job of framing arguments with the "non-believers" in those terms.

Jul 15, 2010 11:09 AM
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Tommy Bennett

Just wanted to note that you've used one of my all-time favorite Simpsons quotes. Excellently done.

Jul 15, 2010 11:10 AM
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FLeghorn

I had a conversation with a good friend of mine a few months ago, who is a baseball fan but not as much a one as I am, where he lambasted the notion of any value in the sabermetric approach at all. I tried to explain that, well, I don't really understand all of it, but I can see that it's a new and interesting way to look at things. I don't swear by the numbers, or quote them verbatim, but do find them intellectually challenging--which is a good thing, right? He wouldn't hear of it, and I was amazed how heated it got, as he seemed offended that I didn't just nod and say, 'yes, you're right.' We laughed it off, but he's as good an example of the 'regular joes' as any. A fan, but not a curious one.
I would submit, as well, that as long as ESPN, as the mothership of all sports discussions for most people, continues to employ idiots like Cowherd, whose whole value seems to be masturbating to pictures of ten dollar bills, on the air, where he openly ridicules the stat community, until his 'good pal' Keith Law comes on to smirk with him, then you will always lose. There's too many people who could give a damn about the labor pains, they just want to see the baby.

Jul 15, 2010 14:00 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Ken Funck
BP staff

See, to me, that's the biggest problem. I have no issue with fans, or broadcasters, who have no interest in stats, or in trying to quantify true value. If you love baseball, and enjoy the beauty of it, the power of Albert Pujols, the speed of Carl Crawford, the mystery of Jamie Moyer, etc., and don't try to make comparisons between players using stats, bully for you.

But there are lots of people who try to make arguments using stats, but they're the wrong ones and they're used incorrectly. I'm talking about simple things like a .300 hitter not necessarily being a productive hitter, or your team leader in Wins not necessarily being your best starting pitcher (see: Braden Looper, Milwaukee Brewers, 2009). Some fans try to use stats to make points that are just plain wrong, but a lot of the MSM supports them in their beliefs -- where do you think those fans got those ideas in the first place? That's what bothers me--not so much the lack of enlightenment about new ideas, but the perpetuation of old, bad ideas.

Jul 15, 2010 18:09 PM
 
R.A.Wagman

Before attending a game together, I once told a friend who is sports-ambivalent that there are essentially three tiers of baseball "fans". The first tier is the person who can explain what an RBI is. The second tier can tell you who is leading the league in RBIs. The third tier will inform you that (and why) RBIs are pretty useless.

Jul 15, 2010 15:29 PM
rating: 2
 
bravejason

The first step to moving beyond AVG and RBI is to provide me with an way of associating players with their OBP and SLG. I know that Pujols is a great player. And I know that by looking at his HR and RBI totals, flawed as those statistics may be. If you gave me his OBP and SLG, I couldn't tell you if he was a great player because I don't know for what a great player's OBP and SLG should be.

If you showed me a AVG/OBP/SLG line of .330/.300/.400 I might be inclined to say that the player is a good hitter because how can a .330 average hitter be bad? .330 AVG is a wonderful average, maybe even good enough for a batting title. If you showed me a line of .240/.330/.440 I might be inclined to say that this player is a poor hitter due to a batting average that is comfortably below average.

Now, being a BP subscriber, I know that the second player isn't a bad hitter and in fact may superior to the first player, but the issue is that I don't have a feel for how much better the second player's OBP and SLG are compared to the first player. I know that there is no comparison with the AVG, the first player beats the second player so badly it's not even funny.

How do you provide me with an way of associating players with their OBP and SLG or whatever other sabermetric stat you desire? You have to consistently and repeatedly show them or tell them to me. It has to become second nature that when a players stats are provided, OBP and SLG are there. It might even be a good idea to show me how that player compares to other full time position players.

An idea I like is to present a player's slash line of AVG/OBP/SLG along with the player's MLB ranking in each category. So it might look something like:
Pujols .280/.360/.470 100th/ 8th/10th
Pierre .330/.300/.380 1st/180th/240th

Jul 15, 2010 16:09 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Ken Funck
BP staff

Great points. You know that .330 is an excellent batting average because it's a scale you've always been aware of, a scale that the MSM is comfortable with and always uses. You're exactly right that the scale for OBP and SLG would become second nature to fans if they were to see it more and more.

Current leaguewide totals for the AL are .262/.331/.410 (down from last year's .267/.336/.428). An OBP over .390 gets you in the top ten in the league; and OBP over .380 gets you in the top twenty; an OBP over .340 gets you in the top fifty qualifiers.

Jul 15, 2010 18:24 PM
 
peajay11

Sabermetric concepts are making inroads in some unlikely places. I got to the Cubs game last night kind of early, so I was actually glancing through the content of the scorecard I bought, instead of just opening to the actual scorecard page and leaving it there.

I was very pleasantly surprised to see the "Matchups" section, which gives an overview of the various upcoming series for the Cubs, was written by Christina Kahrl, and, in addition to using the slash stats, very matter of factly talked about stats like True Average, Fair RA, FRA, etc.

Maybe the Cubs figure that someone who actually purchases a scorecard is more likely to know about these stats, but it was still surprising, at least to me.

Jul 16, 2010 07:14 AM
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