Baseball, more than any other sport, is a sport of statistics. Sure, football, hockey and basketball have stats, but no other sport thrives off of statistics as much as baseball. Part of the reason is the complex nature of how you judge whether or not a player is “good.” In hockey you’re good if you score goals, save goals and check hard. Football, if you can rush for a 1,000 yards or throw 300 yards a game. Basketball, if you score points. But, baseball is far more complex.
You have hitters that are also fielders and each of those halves of a player are judged completely differently and independently of one another. A player who hits 50 home runs and 150 RBI’s a year can absolutely suck on the field. A reliever can dominate against left-handed hitters, but righty’s can hit .400 off of him and he’ll still be considered valuable. Starting pitchers can dominate with strikeouts, or induce a ton of ground balls, and some even have the job of eating innings and minimizing damage, and you can find all 3 types on the same team and praised equally. This is why for as long as I’ve been alive, and longer than that, players’ statistics take center stage on TV, in the newspaper box scores, and in fantasy baseball. People constantly debate and argue whether a player is worth signing or trading for based on stats. “Why did we trade for him? He strikes out more than any other player! “ “Sure, but when he connects, he’ll hit it out of the park, plus he’s a constant Gold Glove First Baseman!”
This is part of the joy and fun of being a baseball fan, but a number of years ago some people started realizing that the basic statistics that had judged the worth and value of a baseball player were limited in scope. Almost all fielders were judged on offense, which is why you would constantly see things like Batting Average, Home Runs, RBI’s and, if the guy was fast, Stolen Bases. Pitchers were boiled down to Win/Loss record, Strikeouts, ERA and, if a closer, Saves and Save Opportunities. Over time though, scouts and people a lot smarter than I am started to realize how limiting these stats were. Sure RBI’s meant something, but what if you were a great hitter on a team with players who never got on base? What if you were such a great power hitter that you were always getting walked? What if your name was Matt Cain and the Giants of years past REFUSED to score runs when you pitched, and so you had an atrocious Win/Loss record? Could you still be considered a good player?
According to sabermetrics, yes you can be. The super short and condensed version is that sabermetrics is a whole variety of new (within the last 20 years, and really coming to the forefront the last 5-10 years) statistical analysis that evaluates a TON of different aspects of a player’s game, factoring in things like fielding range to how good a player is based on what stadiums they play in over the course of the season. So that’s a good thing right? How could you hate an even more statistical breakdown of baseball players?
Because it sucks. Most of the time.
“I just hated the finality of it, the concept that numbers could trump anything I was watching with my own two eyes. If numbers always prevailed, what was the point of watching baseball or having arguments about it? I longed for the old days when you could say things like, “I hate watching J.D. Drew — when is that contract going to end?” and there wasn’t some dude lurking behind me with Drew’s stellar OPS, VORP and WAR numbers saying, ‘Well, actually …'” Bill Simmons in a 2010 Baseball column on ESPN.com.
I’m a baseball traditionalist. I love viewing baseball through what may now be considered old fashion lenses. Maybe it’s because I hate change in general, but when I first heard the concept of sabermetrics and words like VORP, WAR, UZR, I blew it off, figuring it to be a stupid fad like Blu-Ray and American Idol.
Now baseball teams have people on their scouting staffs who sole job is to determine things like a players OPS and ERA + and figuring out how valuable that player will be to the organization. Like it or not, sabermetrics has changed how baseball players are viewed, how they are matched up with other players and how valuable a team finds them. So why don’t I like it? Beyond the fact that so many of the formulas seem so overly complicated that they makes no sense to me, I have two other issues with sabermetrics.
First, there are a number of categories that don’t matter. Take ERA + for instance. It’s essentially a way to judge a pitcher based on what ballpark he’s pitching in. This seems ridiculous as a pitcher can’t control where he pitches during a season, and in regards to his home stadium, how does it actually matter? If a pitcher is pitching badly in his home stadium, tough luck, if he’s only pitching well in your home stadium, not much you can do about that since he’ll have to pitch on the road. It’s a statistic for the sake of having a statistic. Win Expectancy is another one. The whole point of this stat is to say how likely it is your team will win based on what inning and what the score it. Do we really need a statistical formula to tell us that if the Giants are winning 9-0 in the 8th inning it’s 95% likely they will win? It’s another stat for the sake of having a stat and a lot of sabermetrics feel this way.
The other reason I don’t like sabermetrics is that, to me, they take the enjoyment out of baseball. Gone are the days that an informed fan can go to the game and say “I like that John Bowker. I think he’ll make a good outfielder” without someone saying “Why do you like him? Have you seen his WAR? His VORP is terrible!” I enjoy making decisions about a player based on what I see, based on what I feel he adds to the team, and it’s that value that there is no sabermetric to graph. The value of fan intuition, of fan judgement. Is it scientific? Not even close. Is it accurate? Not usually, but part of the fun of baseball is finding new favorite players, players who may add nothing to a team statistically, but for some reason you just can’t stop cheering for them. I don’t hate everything about sabermetrics, and there are some stats that I do enjoy, but the debates that rage around them have boiled baseball down to a game of ONLY statistics and nothing else. For as big of a role that stats play, baseball is far more than that. Stats are great, but never will they replace the joy I get just by watching someone like John Bowker and saying “I like that kid, stats be darned.”
Editor’s Note: The views expressed in this article are not held by all the Monks. But, we believe in free speech and love debate, so comments and feedback are welcomed…just keep it civil!