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April 15, 2014

Baseball Therapy

Why Sabermetrics Needs Translational Research

by Russell A. Carleton


My father is fond of saying that a thousand “attaboys” is worth one “aw crap.” You can do a thousand things right, but if you get one wrong, all of the goodwill you built up over those thousand successes is now gone. It’s completely irrational, but no one ever said that human beings made any sense.

I’d argue that sabermetrics has a similar problem. One of the most common complaints that I hear expressed (to use a gentle term) is that while most teams proclaim that they have fully embraced the analytics movement, they still do things like bunt and put horrible hitters in the second spot in the lineup. We’re still waiting on optimal bullpen usage to become common and for managers (and general managers) to stop over-reacting to small sample sizes. In fairness, it’s not that the research has gotten things terribly wrong. There are strategic issues where, when you do the #GoryMath, it’s clear that things are being done inefficiently now, and where teams could benefit from changing things around. So… why don’t they?

I mean, we did the math.

Consider for a moment how many people out there do things that we know are horrible for them to do. People overeat, put off preventative medical care, drive too fast, and sleep too little. All of these are demonstrably bad ideas. If it were as easy as showing someone 10 different studies by 10 respected experts at 10 different medical schools, we’d have a country of health nuts. We don’t. Come to think of it, I’ve been guilty of all of the things I’ve listed—and my day job is in public health!

There’s a branch of research in public health known as “translational research.” Once we know that something is bad, how do we actually get that message out there in a way that actually makes people change their behavior? It’s easy to say that you know what’s wrong but so much harder to make it right. I think it’s about time that sabermetrics got its own translational research wing.

The Broccoli Problem
If I may frame the problem in a slightly different way: Suppose that someone asked you to do something differently in your life—perhaps increase your intake of fruits and vegetables to five servings per day, because the scientists all say that “five will keep you alive.” Right now, you maybe get two per day, but there aren’t that many fruits and vegetables that you like (he begins a series of questions with “but have you tried…”) and you don’t know a lot of recipes that contain vegetables (he hands you a cookbook).

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Related Content:  Sabermetrics,  Translational Research

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