I’ve spent a lot of time recently, much more than I care to admit, discussing the end-of-season awards with casual fans. I don’t know why, but it’s something I do. I think that baseball fans becoming generally more informed is a good thing for all concerned. I have no illusions that my ranting and raving actually accomplishes that, but I keep chasing that carrot (often in blatantly unproductive ways). Anyway, something good came out of it, because I’ve had an idea about how to improve this sort of discourse, from our sabermetrically-inclined end. It’s not an entirely new idea—Bill James, for one, has talked about things like this quite a bit over the years—but it’s one I think it’s worth calling back to mind now and then, and I hope I might have a slightly different way of framing it.

You know what the big debate going on right now is—and, no worries, this post won’t actually touch on that whole thing at all—and you can imagine that certain issues are coming up a lot. Things like the value of RBI and batting average. Elsewhere—in discussing David Price vs. Justin Verlander for the Cy Young Award, for instance—pitcher wins come up quite a bit.

The most common words statheads use when those types of statistics come up all end in “less”: meaningless, useless, worthless. I’ve used them. It’s easy. And in a way, I think it’s totally right.

It’s also terribly confusing to the uninitiated, though, and seems to create an extra barrier that really doesn’t need to be there. The natural response to that sort of language, of course, is defensive and incredulous: “You’re telling me a guy who drove in 120 runs didn’t have a great season? Scoring runs is the whole point!” “When’s the last time a bad pitcher won 20 games?” And that’s understandable. It’s not as though these stats don’t tell you anything; if you see that a hitter has 100 RBI, odds are he’s probably pretty good. The same is true for a pitcher with 17 or 18 wins. Besides, no one wants to hear that the things they’ve grown up paying attention to and caring about are “meaningless.” The average fan, hearing that language, shuts down. Wants to fight back. I would, too, probably. 

Yet, in a very real sense, those numbers (just to take the two most obvious examples) are totally meaningless. A VCR in good condition will still allow you to watch a tape; a floppy disk will presumably still keep copies of your Word documents or other small files (if you can find a device to read it). These things technically have a use, but are more or less worthless now. We’ve got other things that do their jobs better, and do more besides.

It’s the same way with RBI and wins (and the like); these are “meaningless” and/or “worthless” only because we have other tools that do their jobs better, and more. A hundred-plus RBI might tell you that the hitter was probably good that year (not always), but also gives you a bunch of other information—opportunities with runners on, most obviously—and it’s impossible to separate the two. It’s like static or tracking problems on a VHS tape (to stretch that analogy to its very limits). We have many other ways of tracking things hitters do that lead to producing runs—ISO, TAv, and so forth—that also keep track of the good things, but that weed most of that other junk out. The same is true with wins; a lot of wins probably means a good pitcher, but also probably means a good team (or at least a good offense). Other stats do that better. None of them is perfect, of course, but better.

So it’s not that RBI and wins are literally “useless,” in the sense of having no actual utility. It’s just that, in a world with so many tools that have the same use but are much better at providing it, the old stats are of no practical use to us. Citing those stats in the context of a value discussion has no meaning, as long as we have more advanced and nuanced information available.

So while it can be true in some ways to call them “meaningless,” nobody wants to hear that, and the better and less confrontational point is that they’re imprecise; 120 RBI, without more, tell you a hitter likely had a very strong season, but it won’t tell you how strong, and it certainly won’t tell you whether it was better or worse than another player with 100, or 140, or 75 RBI. A pitcher who has gone 21-5 has probably had an excellent season, but there’s no way, without much more, to reliably compare him to another pitcher who went 16-10 or 14-13 (or in one case, 8-16). Our newer surrogates can tell us not only that a player was good or bad, but can go a much longer way toward telling us that Great Player A was even greater, or less great, than Great Player B. Wins and RBI can be interesting, but really can’t do that at all.

It’s not discarding useless stats for useful ones, it’s putting aside the somewhat telling but imprecise old stats for the much more reliable and accurate new ones. It’s about a certain (imperfect, but greater) degree of precision, not “usefulness” or “meaning.” Sweeping away the noise, getting right down to the good stuff. It’s that simple!

Is phrasing things this way likely to convert the masses? Of course not. There are legions out there who will immediately discard anything they didn’t see on the back of a baseball card when they were 10 years old, no matter how it’s presented. But it’s a more palatable, more easily relatable (and probably a bit more accurate) way of framing the way we tend to look at things, and might get more people listening eventually, especially as they’re increasingly inundated with slightly more advanced statistics in mainstream articles and TV broadcasts.

I believe that a world with more knowledgeable baseball fans is a good thing, and that thoughtful discussions are better than screaming past each other. It might help quite a bit on both fronts if we started talking about sabermetrics as an attempt not merely to stamp out but to improve upon the precision of those old measuring sticks—which it is—and stopped treating the old stats as entirely useless or meaningless.

Even if they kind of are that, too.

Thank you for reading

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Nice piece - and good points. I tend to think of the "classic" stats as being more narrative-related, but kind of in a good way. Pitcher wins and RBI don't tell you that much about the quality of pitcher or hitter, but they tell you more about what happened in the game than advanced stats do. And when it comes down to it, baseball is entertainment, so the narrative is part of the enjoyment for fans - and that's why I'm fine with using it to vote for postseason awards and the HOF, if one so chooses. By the same token, I'm fine with people choosing to ignore the "narrative" stats when it comes to those things. I sure as hell don't want my team's GM relying on RBI and Ws, but am fine with them - and the narrative in general - playing a role in the ephemera of the games awards and honors.
I think we sometimes forget that not every fan actually cares about the "real" answer the way a more sabermetrically inclined person is obsessed with getting to the "truth". That is to say, for some people, the old school stats have value in and of themselves. It's not just that the new stats are unfamiliar and that you're asking them to give up something they understand. It's that you implicitly invalidating all of the fun they've had over the years following wins and RBI.

Those stats have taken on a life of their own. Fans get significant enjoyment not from the link between wins or RBI and true value, but for the historical context they provide -- regardless of their accuracy. To those fans, there is real value, real currency in those statistics. That other stats do their "job" better is to misinterpret the real "job" of those stats for some subset of fans/writers. To discard their entirely knowledge base and the source of their enjoyment for a marginal upgrade in accuracy that is more difficult to understand is to simply ask too much.

Fans who are truly committed to finding out the "real" answer based in scientific principles are likely already converted at this point. For those who aren't, to think it's a question of logic and reasoning is to misunderstand the dynamic.
It would really help if most sabermetric folks understood the difference between describing past events and predicting future events.

Here's an example of what I'm trying to get at:

Two batters in a season have 500 at bats, 150 hits (all singles for this example). Batter A has a BABIP of .400 and batter B has a BABIP of .200 for the season. Assume everything else is the same.

Which batter was better for the season?

A number of sabermetric folks would say batter B in my experience. The reasoning would be something like batter A has been "lucky" while batter B has been "unlucky".

But those people are wrong. Batter A and B have had identical seasons. Barring poor scorer decisions, a hit is a hit. The only thing that BABIP is telling you is what you can reasonably expect from each player in the future based upon the past.

The real argument to be made is consistency from non-sabermetric folks. Most sabermetric folks are pretty consistent in what they use, although it does change over time as new research is added to the knowledge base. A number of "mainstream media" folks seem to have different criteria for each case they want to present, depending upon the story they want to tell. You cannot change the opinion of someone who is unwilling to pin down a set of criteria for their views.
This article and the intelligent comments that followed are the reason I enjoy BP so much.
Yea, i finished reading and was all excited to add a comment and say something new and interesting, then I read all the comments and realized everything I wanted to say had already been said, only in better ways.
I guess being old I'm somewhat old school - I hate the DH but that's another discussion. There are lots of good points in this article but Joe Fan's eyes glaze over with talk of regression and advanced statistical formula. Somehow this has to be simplified so it can be understood. At the same time those who were born with a slide rule . . .calculator in their hand need to understand that a difference of .004 points isn't significant over 600 at bats. Those folks - the radical fringes of stat heads if you will - ignore what their eyes could tell them if they just watched the game.
The average fan's misunderstanding of stats is made worse when the TV talking head stat experts seated alongside a real nameless stat expert throws out a calculated stat like it's an absolute. The most commonly abused is UZR but others are frequent tossed around incorrectly and even if they are corrected the next day it's too late.
The current ... discussion, flame war. blood letting. . is all about the stats guys I've seen saying Trout is the best player because of his remarkable rookie year while the old school writers have decided this is a chance to discredit stats completely.
The problem with the stat-heads side is that the MVP is - at least in theory - not awarded to the best player but to the player who was most valuable to his team compared to the value of other players to their team. Usually voters relate that value to how well the team achieved its goal for the season.
The problem with the stats must die side is that they are s0 resistant to change they have amassed only a passing understanding of stats instead of understanding the predictive and descriptive data provided. If they did they would use them to formulate their counter arguments instead on ranting about the triple crown - which is a significant achievement even if they are counting stats.
Both sides have sunken to name calling that's sad, and does a disservice to all involved. When people run out of facts they start calling names so it appears many of the folks in this battle were unarmed from day one.
Until the folks on MLB Network and ESPN -when they bother to talk baseball in any depth- start using the stats correctly and explaining in simple terms without complex formula or jargon what the stats are and what they mean, the old easy to understand stuff like RBI and Wins will still monopolize these discussions.