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June 28, 2011

Manufactured Runs

Followed Him Up to the Gates of Grantland

by Colin Wyers

Grantland, Bill Simmons’s vanity project, has taken some space since its launch to discuss sabermetrics. My takeaway so far is that nobody involved with Grantland knows a thing about the subject.

A few weeks ago, Grantland published Bill Barnwell’s guide to the new Moneyball, which was mostly a rehash of the old Moneyball alongside some factual errors. (For instance, Barnwell claims the sort of data required to do defensive metrics like UZR and Plus/Minus “didn’t really exist” when Moneyball was written. This requires ignoring that both of those metrics predate the publication of Moneyball. It also requires ignoring the fact that STATS, Inc. was collecting this data as far back as the 1980s. It also requires ignoring the fact that Moneyball talks about how STATS, Inc. was collecting this data in the 1980s, and the fact that Moneyball also talks at length about how the A’s first bought and then built such defensive metrics for their own use. After having this pointed out to him on Twitter, Barnwell allowed that he could have “phrased it better,” which makes it seem like being totally wrong about the facts is the same thing as being misunderstood.)

So that was the low point for the discussion of sabermetrics on Grantland, right? Right? I mean, it couldn’t get any wor…

Oh. It got worse.

Here’s how Jonah Lehrer starts off:

Buying a car is a hard decision. There are just so many variables to think about. We've got to inspect the interior and analyze the engine, and research the reliability of the brand. And then, once we've amassed all these facts, we've got to compare different models.

How do we sift through this excess of information? When consumers are debating car alternatives, studies show that they tend to focus on variables they can quantify, such as horsepower and fuel economy. … Unfortunately, this obsession with horsepower and fuel economy turns out to be a big mistake. The explanation is simple: The variables don't matter nearly as much as we think. Just look at horsepower: When a team of economists analyzed the features that are closely related to lifetime car satisfaction, the power of the engine was near the bottom of the list.

Wait. Wait wait wait wait wait. You’re saying that sometimes people focus on misleading numbers instead of ones that tell us things about the problem? That’s a pretty good way to start off talking about sabermetrics, I suppose—Bill James spent a lot of time talking about how people focused on numbers for the wrong reasons, and…

Oh. You’re saying that this is an argument against sabermetrics?

The syllogism at work here seems to be:

  • Some people misuse numbers related to baseball.
  • Sabermetricians are people who use numbers related to baseball.
  • Therefore, sabermetricians are people who misuse numbers related to baseball.

I mean, it makes sense if you think that people who say Ryan Howard is the MVP because he has the most RBIs or the broadcasters who rattle off a guy’s batting average against  a certain pitcher or the reams of old Elias “batting average during a full moon against pitchers whose last names start with a vowel” splits are all sabermetrics.

In other words, if you think that sabermetrics means the exact opposite of what it means, you have an argument here.

Lehrer then goes on to talk about the Mavs beating the Heat in the NBA Finals as a point of evidence. Now, I will be the first to admit that the things I know about basketball can be reduced down to:

  • There is a ball.
  • It’s round and orange, with black stripes on it.
  • It goes in the hoop a lot.
  • Whoever gets the ball in the hoop the most wins.

So I don’t really know what’s on the cutting edge of basketball statistics. But you know who does? The Dallas Mavericks. They’ve hired guys like Roland Beech as consultants. They’ve also been using things like Jeff Sagarin and Wayne Winston’s WINVAL system for over a decade. Using the Mavericks as an example of how using stats is ruining sports is like using the Yankees as an example of a successful small-market team. It’s appallingly ignorant.

“Oh, sure,” you might be thinking. “So the article is based on a false premise and has flimsy support at best. Is that worth getting riled up over?”

And you know what? It isn’t. This is:

I'm thinking here of a Philip Roth metaphor. When asked by David Remnick, in a 2000 New Yorker profile, how he felt about a cramped literary interpretation of one of his novels, Roth busted out a sports analogy. He imagined going to a baseball game with a little boy for the very first time. The kid doesn't understand what's happening on the field, and so his dad tells him to watch the scoreboard, to keep track of all the changing numbers. When the boy gets home someone asks him if he had fun at the game:

"It was great!" he says. "The scoreboard changed thirty-two times and Daddy said last game it changed only fourteen times and the home team last time changed more times than the other team. It was really great! We had hot dogs and we stood up at one point to stretch and we went home."

If that little kid were around today, he'd be obsessed with sabermetrics. He'd almost certainly win his fantasy league, but he'd miss the point of the game.

Lehrer dresses his argument up in a Malcolm Gladwell-like pop sociology motif, but it’s the same argument that curmudgeony old sportswriters have been using since the dawn of time: these geeks aren’t really sports fans. Not like the rest of us. If only they could get their heads out of their spreadsheets now and then, they could learn to live life a little, enjoy themselves a bit.

Well, guys, I appreciate your concern, I really do. But do me a favor, would you? Just shut up. I know which end of the bottle the beer comes out of, I really do. I’ve watched ballgames outside, in actual sunlight—no, really. If knowing that a pitcher's BABIP against rate in a small sample is largely unpredictive of his rate in a larger sample makes it harder for you to enjoy watching a game, I’m sorry. But if knowing more about baseball makes it harder for you to enjoy the game, then I’m really not seeing your case that you’re the better fan than someone like me.

I know those things and I still love baseball. Love love love it. And you can have whatever opinion you want to of people like me and the work we do. But stop, please, just stop questioning whether or not we love baseball. It’s demeaning, it’s insulting, and it’s been a hoary old cliché for longer than I’ve been alive. Let it rest in peace.

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

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