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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

Related Content:  The Who

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

BP Comment Quick Links

Greg Pizzo

Amen, Colin. I stopped reading that article, but I went back and finished it after I saw this post. Amen, brother.

Jun 28, 2011 10:48 AM
rating: 6
 
bumphadley

Great article, Colin. I've had distracting pangs of irritation with Lehrer's article since I read it this morning. Now your cogent take down allows me to let it go.

Jun 28, 2011 10:54 AM
rating: 2
 
iddscoper

Good work, Colin. I thought we had mostly moved past this nonsense, but I guess some people insist on keeping their heads buried in the sand.

An article like this really makes me wish FJM was still active. Their trademark line by line dissection and ridicule would really brighten my day.

Jun 28, 2011 11:16 AM
rating: 3
 
thsaladboy

Sad/ironic/whatever that the brain behind FJM, Michael Scher (also the brains behind the great Parks and Recreation) is now a staff writer at...Grantland.

Jun 28, 2011 21:17 PM
rating: 3
 
robstol
(194)

It seems like the Grantland house style is a Gladwell/Klosterman/Simmons shine on the same old crummy sportswriting. Some of it has been absolutely cringeworthy.

Jun 28, 2011 11:18 AM
rating: 3
 
marshaja

I'll forgive Barnwell a bit as he does support sabermatics and as seen on FO sometimes speaks/writes before he really thinks, but the article today was just total bs.

I'll agree that basketball and football require a little more chemistry to fit players together, but I'm sure as you pointed out, Cuban's guys have a way of analyzing whether for example a shoot first, poor rebounding SF will fit into the current team set up or not with reasoning a lot more sound than "He's a good glue guy"

Jun 28, 2011 11:23 AM
rating: 4
 
Cory Schwartz

Thank you.

Jun 28, 2011 11:40 AM
rating: 6
 
beanpj
(600)

Grantland is proving to be a bunch of ego-obsessed authors writing mostly about... themselves. And how clever/insightful/cool/ironic/etc *they* are. Ironic that they're poking sabermetricians with a stick.

Absolutely pathetic. Good article, Colin.

@PB_at_BON

Jun 28, 2011 11:53 AM
rating: 1
 
kingofstyyle

Agreed - Grantland is, for the most part, a collection of authors who are thoroughly convinced their ideas are correct because of the simple fact that they type them. It's disappointing that this passes for thoughtful analysis in broader media channels. If I wrote a Gladwell piece for a professor in college, I would have received an incomplete for lack of research and a poorly structured argument. That it's respected as some sort of thought leadership is a poor remark on popular culture.

Jun 28, 2011 12:21 PM
rating: 2
 
Matthew Avery

Who goes to Grantland for thoughtful analysis?!

It's pop culture meets sports. It's pure entertainment and nothing more. It's in no way serious and rarely provokes any thoughts. Are there people who expect different?

(And I say this as someone who has enjoyed most of what I've read there.)

Jun 28, 2011 13:15 PM
rating: 5
 
jalee121

It's really no different than anything else on ESPN these days. I'm tired of the boo-yah network. I want the highlights and actual analysis. Not top 10, not a 6 pack of "questions."

Jun 28, 2011 19:26 PM
rating: 2
 
chaneyhey

That was F'ing AWESOME!!!

Jun 28, 2011 11:54 AM
rating: 1
 
Tim Lowell

Agreed. The post is mainly trying to make the point that baseball sabermetrics arose from the study of discrete batter/pitcher interactions, and that football and basketball, which have almost no discrete interactions, are not as amenable to that kind of study. But then it veers off into the "love of the game" garbage that so often infects any criticism of sabermetrics. Of course, even the main point is useless, since those who engage in statistical analysis of basketball and football have developed completely different ways of making the numbers relevant than what baseball sabermetricians use. So, yes, Jonah, some people misuse statistics, but no, that doesn't mean that statistics aren't useful when analyzed properly, and no, they don't make you love the game any less.

Jun 28, 2011 11:59 AM
rating: 3
 
toanstrom

Holy Cow that's an awful article. I think that there's one sentence that perfectly captures why Lehrer shouldn't be writing about sabermetrics:

If the Giants had trusted the numbers, for instance, they wouldn't be saddled with Aaron Rowand's five-year, $60 million contract. (He batted .230 last year.)

If you're judging Aaron Rowand's value (or any player) on batting average it's safe to say you're the one looking at the baseball equivalent of horse power.

Oh and I love the part about how JJ Barrea is quickly being turned into the roundball equivalent of David Eckstein who is all about intangibles. His tangibles were pretty impressive in college when he averaged 21pts and 9 assists his senior year.

Jun 28, 2011 12:00 PM
rating: 1
 
Mike W
(830)

Self-congratulation not only works as the basis for a writing style (see Grantland), but it works wonders as a viable means to analyze just about anything. If you don't like those newfangled statistics, why, then, that's the only right and proper way to approach baseball, or any other sport. If you kind of understand some of them, but are not personally able to integrate them into your 'love of the game,' then neither should anyone else, or they're, well, inferior.

Jun 28, 2011 12:53 PM
rating: 1
 
fieldofdreams

Yikes...closes with argument that relying on statistics will lead to poor acquisitions, yet only example he has is Rowand and he admits that SABR types would never give him that contract.

Jun 28, 2011 13:18 PM
rating: 0
 
craigburley

"Self-congratulation not only works as the basis for a writing style... it works wonders as a viable means to analyze just about anything."

It is, and actually a lot of what Colin does in his writing is apply that principle (the danger of self-congratulation) to our common field, sabermetrics. (We're prone to it too.) And so it's doubly good to see him apply it to people who unreasonably hate us.

Thanks, Colin.

Jun 28, 2011 13:26 PM
rating: 2
 
escapingNihilism

we're winning the war. even the most optimistic among us would have 5 years ago had problems believing that WAR would go semi-mainstream and ESPN would poach Christina Kahrl. there will for much longer be reactionaries that cling to the old comfortable order but they are not worth the time of day, no matter how reviling they may be.

Jun 28, 2011 13:48 PM
rating: 1
 
jhardman

It's funny reading these types of articles. I think they do a good job of polarizing readers, which is what the media has become in the past 15 years. BP is better than Grantland because they know sabermetrics and Grantland is folderol! Christina crossed to the dark side when she went to ESPN! Blah blah blah.

Personally, I like having more sports content as a whole to read, and I'll make my mind up. The key to me as far as BP is concerned is whether I renew my subscription. Otherwise, if they cared so much about me as a reader then there would have been a pizza feed at the Durham Bulls ballpark. C'mon - that will never happen because it isn't in BP's best interest any more than ESPN's dive into deep sabermetrics is in their best interest. ESPN gets subscribers because they are ESPN. I'll bet 75% of us here read articles there before they read them here. And ESPN gets writers because they can pay them more, and everyone wants to make more money if they can. That's why most baseball fans hate the Yankees but don't hate their players.

The article was a fun read. Grantland has some interesting articles. Fortunately for me, I read here first and keep sending my checks in. Keep up the good articles, and remember that the way to beat your competition is still to be better than they are.

Jun 28, 2011 14:19 PM
rating: 0
 
CRP13

what?

Jun 28, 2011 17:40 PM
rating: 5
 
eighteen

I think he's trying out for Grantland.

Jul 01, 2011 17:37 PM
rating: 2
 
ScottyB

Simmons and Klosterman are sufficiently respectful of the sabremetric approach. The fact that this other writer isn't doesn't damn all of Grantland.

Jun 28, 2011 16:19 PM
rating: 4
 
robstol
(194)

Klosterman's articles do a good job of it. The 5-on-3 basketball game article bought into the same sort of unmerited hyperbole that most bad sportswriting exhibits. Never mind the article on musician VORP. The Strokes? Who? What?

Jun 28, 2011 16:48 PM
rating: 1
 
evo34

I agree. This an angry, angry young man -- I mean, article. For very little impact. I personally would prefer to see the 10-year PECOTA projections arrive sooner than a random rant against a fairly innocuous opponent. Four months and counting.

Jun 29, 2011 01:04 AM
rating: -1
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

Not sure how long they've been up or why their release wasn't trumpeted but 10-year PECOTAs are on the player cards.

Jun 29, 2011 07:43 AM
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

I stand corrected, as the 10-years are in a staff-only vetting stage and not yet visible to our subscribers. Apology for the confusion.

Jun 29, 2011 10:38 AM
 
fgreenagel2

This was a good take-down. We have to force others to be better through factual criticism.

Jun 28, 2011 16:34 PM
rating: 0
 
BurrRutledge

You lost them at syllogism.

Jun 28, 2011 17:07 PM
rating: 2
 
Ctmnt08

I never cease to be amazed at the anti-sabermetrics witch hunt. Does looking at new things (or, in this case things that we can now measure but couldn't before) mean that we are wrong?

I'm aware change, especially in a tradition-bound sport such as baseball, is scary to people. But the three pointer didn't ruin basketball, the forward pass didn't ruin football, and the advent of the live-ball era didn't ruin baseball. If those radical on-field changes to games didn't hurt them, how on earth are off-field metrics going to harm a game? If someone dislikes a metric, then they can ignore it!

To conclude, I'd venture to say that sabermetricians and traditionalists agree on about 90% (conservative estimate) of the players out there when it comes to who's good and who's bad. Yet, for reasons unknown, people choose to focus on the Ecksteins and Pierres of the world. Wonders never cease.

Jun 28, 2011 22:16 PM
rating: 0
 
Mike White

This is my early choice for Best of BP 2011.

Jun 28, 2011 22:44 PM
rating: 0
 
Brandon R. Warne

Absolutely scintillating piece of journalism, Colin.

Jun 28, 2011 23:30 PM
rating: 0
 
mwlsld

Great piece. I wrote about this ridiculous article too, here -- http://bit.ly/lp23ar -- but Colin did a much more thorough job.

I know this kind of vitriolic reaction to anti-sabermetrics pieces rubs some people the wrong way, but I'm all for it. It's a guilty pleasure -- like watching a great political attack ad when you know the ad is in the right.

Jun 29, 2011 06:30 AM
rating: 0
 
wunderhof

What about BP's own stats? Will they ever be completely available and correct?

Jun 29, 2011 07:37 AM
rating: 1
 
evo34

Shhhh. Be quiet. You're not allowed to mention that the site is falling apart when BP's leaders are too busy picking internet fights.

Jul 25, 2012 01:33 AM
rating: -1
 
touchstone033

"In many respects, sabermetrics has dramatically improved personnel decisions. By relying on unusual measurements of performance, such as base runs and plus-minus ratings, teams have been able to identify neglected talent, whom they can sign on the cheap."

"base runs"? "plus-minus ratings"? Have I missed a branch of baseball statistics, or did the guy make up these terms?

Jun 29, 2011 15:14 PM
rating: 0
 
Jason Wojciechowski

They're real. In particular as to Base Runs, though, I seriously doubt Lehrer knows what they are and is just throwing stuff out there.

http://www.tangotiger.net/wiki/index.php?title=Base_Runs

And plus-minus, or +/-, as I've more often seen it styled, assuming he's still talking about baseball, is what John Dewan's defensive system is called.

Jun 30, 2011 00:22 AM
rating: 0
 
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