Death to sabermetrics

Almost 40 years ago, Washington Daily News reporter Andrew Beyer did it to horse racing. He took an elegant sport filled with a rich and romantic history, and turned it into an actuarial table that reduces the contestants to statistics on a piece of newspaper. Then, about 30 years ago, Bill James did it to baseball.

Mr. Beyer came up with a “speed” figure that supposedly uses information at different racetracks all over the country to compare race horses, without ever actually laying eyes on them. Through a labyrinthine method, Mr. Beyer claims he can tell you with 100 percent certainty which horse will win each race. All you have to do is pick the one with the highest of his “speed figures.”

Likewise, Mr. James sparked a movement that similarly claims its adherents can predict outcomes of baseball games by using data containing complicated terms like “park factors” and the like. In their zeal to predict every outcome, each man has ruined his respective sport. Since this is a baseball site, we’ll focus our attention on the Mr. James’ sabermetric movement and how it affects the National Pastime. Let it be known that today we call for the abolition of sabermetrics.

I used to be one of the misguided souls who tried to attach a mathematical formula to every aspect of the game, even though I was never in the inner circle. Those positions are reserved for people who flaunt their degrees in statistics by overanalyzing a game. No, a simple baseball fan with a passion for reading and writing, I fell for the slick talk from the leadership and became an avid follower, then a zealous proselytizer. Many others, including some very intelligent and successful people, have fallen prey to these people. Their victims range from Sports Illustrated columnists to Hollywood writers. And, unless something is done, more will fall under their spell, which would ruin the game.

Sabermetric cult leaders use a lot of acronyms and mathematical terms to brainwash and convince their servile followers that they are infallible. They prey on the simple desires of some baseball fans to find meaning in the grand, yet wonderfully mysterious game. In baseball, there are things that don’t always make sense. Just last year, Jose Bautista came out of nowhere and hit 54 home runs. Oddly, this drives some fans to ignore the wonder and majesty of Bautista’s season and instead focus on how it happened, and obsess over whether it will happen again. Reading acronyms apparently eases the troubled minds of some fans. For instance, it may reassure people to believe that one of these stat wizards can explain why Adam Dunn keeps getting big contracts despite lacking the ability to catch a fly ball while striking out 200 times a year.

Once they draw your interest, they urge you to join their various online think-tanks. At first they welcome you- provided you are willing to take everything they say at face value. But, the frequent visitor will find that they despise any research that runs counter to their own, and immediately shout it down. Interestingly, rival “saberists,” as they insist on being called, rarely come to a consensus. That’s probably why you can get WAR numbers in differing values from two different online think-tanks. For instance, last year, using data from the same season, Detroit Tiger pitcher Justin Verlander had a 4.2 WAR at Baseball-Reference, and had a 6.3 WAR on Fangraphs.

WAR, what is it good for? Indeed.

They teach new converts the doctrine that all of the world’s problems come down to one thing: “small ball.” They write about “small ball” in the same manner evolutionists write about the Young Earth theory. They label those who disagree with them as uneducated followers of mythology. They deride “small ball” managers like Ozzie Guillen and Tony LaRussa. But, those two men know far more about baseball than any “saberist.” Those two men hold World Series trophies while the “saberists” hold their Strat-O-Matic games.

As the “saberists’” popularity has grown, a great debate has emerged between sabermetrics and traditional scouting. You cannot remain in the “saberists’” good standing if you place any value in anything a scout has ever said.

Disagreements in subjects outside of baseball, such as religion and politics, often yield healthy discussions that further our understanding of both sides. But, the arguing and derision in baseball coming from the new age computer whiz kids with their binders of statistics is often vitriolic and condescending. They would have you believe that all traditional baseball scouts are grizzled old fools with tobacco stains on their shirts.

Long time sportswriters and seasoned baseball men sometimes try to point out that reducing every occurance to a statistical model may take away from the beauty and grandeur of the game. They sometimes respectfully point out there is a remote possibility that some of the new statistics may be flawed. For their hesitance to unquestioningly take every new age stat as gospel, sportswriters and scouts are met with smart-aleck comments that the sabermetric crowd proudly calls “snark.” The argument as a whole is tiring. Therefore, we should stop using sabermetrics.

Some of these whiz-kid computer nerds, from the comfort of their mom’s basement, would have you believe something like clutch hitting is non-existent. It seems they wouldn’t know Reggie Jackson if he walked up and took a mighty swing at their head with a 35- inch, 35-ounce Louisville Slugger model J93. And that is too bad, as anyone who claims to care about baseball should know the man who earned the nickname “Mr. October” from his clutch hitting in the playoffs. It’s also too bad because such a blow would likely put the offending “saberists” out of their misery.

While the “saberists” say that given enough at-bats (or a big enough “sample-size”—the ace up their sleeve they use to disprove anything that doesn’t fit their model), a player’s hitting in close games will match his career numbers. So, how do they explain Bobby Thomson‘s “Shot Heard Round the World”? They can’t explain it. They also have never shown definitive proof that clutch hitting does not exist. Therefore, we should stop using sabermetrics.

The hero of the book Moneyball, was Oakland A’s wunderkind Billy Beane. He thought players who preferred to walk instead of hit were the best to choose in the major league draft. However, the “saberists” hung their hopes on a general manager who would get his way and fail miserably. In one year, Beane drafted a bunch of fat college players who would rather walk than hit. None of Beane’s pet players every amounted to anything, but that does nothing to diminish the amount of admiration “sabertists” have for him.

The “saberists” have never explained why the A’s lost in the playoffs every year—playoffs they only made because they had Tim Hudson, Barry Zito and Mark Mulder. When pushed, the “sabersists” go back to their trump card and cite the “sample size.” They call the playoffs, games that have produced legendary moments in the sport, a “crap shoot.” Tell that to sabermetric whipping boy Derek Jeter (his career UZR is too low). Jeter not only leads his team to the playoffs every year, but also closes the deal and wins championships. Ask Jeremy Giambi about Jeter’s UZR rating the next time you see him. Since the A’s never won a championship, we should stop using sabermetrics.

I once talked to a man who had the pleasure of meeting Joe McCarthy in 1936. The New York manager had just guided the Yankees to the first of what would be four straight World Series titles. McCarthy had told him in a private moment that he believed “You will never become a .300 hitter unless you take the bat off your shoulder.” It’s clear with this evidence that Joe would have hated sabermetrics and the love of fat college players who try to walk every time. How many fat college players were on the 1930s Yankees? None. Since one of the greatest managers of all time thought hitting the baseball was the key to the game—and not the “art” of taking walks—we should stop using sabermetrics.

The “saberists” say Detroit Tigers center fielder Austin Jackson will regress because of BABIP. BABIP is another one of their pet acronyms, one they turn to when they want to discredit someone who actually hits the ball to get on base. That’s why players with all the traditional tools, like Ichiro Suzuki, fare poorly in their projections. They don’t care if a player is fast, because they can’t enter a players’ speed into their VORPy calculator. Since they are unable to respect great players like Jackson and Suzuki, we should stop using Sabermetrics.

The Hardball Times offered me a position after I made a brief, yet spectacular career out of regurgitating sabermetric principles. But, I can no longer use my writing skills to propagandize for the “saberists.” In addition to freeing myself of this unholy obligation, I also call on my cohorts at The Hardball Times to turn away from the dark arts of sabermetrics. I ask them instead to celebrate the noble sacrifice of the first-inning bunt. I call on them to destroy their xWHIP calculators, of which there are rival formulas in our own family, by the way. I call on them to destroy their Oliver projection systems that don’t factor a player’s heart. I call on them to give up their quixotic search for expected BABIP, expected OBA, expected ERA, expected FIP, etc. Instead, we should be proud of someone who makes a projection with his heart, and not the heartless PECOTA engine.

For all these reasons, and many more, we should stop using Sabermetrics as of this date, April 1, 2011.

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Comments

  1. Matt Mitchell said...

    I’m a statistician by day, and will say that intuition can only take organizations so far. Sometimes you need to temper that intuition with cold, hard facts. Any organization where there are numerical measures, such as dollars or units sold, can use these measures to help provide that view which can then be weighed against intuition.
    I believe much of the misunderstanding of sabermetrics comes more so from the fact that many of these ideas have originated on blogs. Blog readers (and maybe just American society in general) seem to desire hard stances that they can either vehemently agree with or vice versa.
    A true “saberist” will start with a question, reason his or her way to an answer, and hopefully have enough writing skill to take the reader on that journey through his or her mind. It is this last skill that is most difficult to attain, and yet is also the most important for conveying ideas. Don’t let that dissuade you from any form of statistical analysis, because the numbers often times can speak for themselves better than the writers can speak for them.

  2. JohnT said...

    LOL. I was thinking, wow, Hardball Times really let the opposing view put an editorial on their site. Thanks for making me really LOL

  3. MikeS said...

    I know this is April 1 but like all good satire, you are making some good points about the shortcomings of sabermetrics.

  4. JC said...

    I have to say, probably around 40-50% of your readers would actually be behind a lot of this type of thinking.  The world of sabermetrics is filled with stuffy, holier than thou douche bags spouting off statistics they don’t full grasp themselves.

  5. Bill B said...

    While I see what you did here, the sad part is your “indictment” of saberists is in some ways spot on.  There is little enjoyment to be found in the alphabet soup of numbers and stats when those become your sole concern (that’s a personal opinion, I guess).  I love and accept a lot of sabermetric principles, but I do have concerns about the de-humanization of baseball because of them.  I also don’t like the “above-it-all” mentality that so many carry with them because one time they read about xFIP.  At any rate, good work, and way to honor the day.

  6. Mat Kovach said...

    Yes, we should all go to the Ty Webb Player Evaluation Program … compare all players by height.

  7. LionoftheSenate said...

    Good stuff.  I respect sabermetrics but I’d rather watch the game with an old grizzled scout that has seen more baseball than all of the nerds put together. 

    Scouting is about what’s possible.
    Sabermetrics is about what happened. 

    Life is more enjoyable if we look ahead.

  8. Tim said...

    Whether I’m speaking as an evolutionist or a “saberist,” I will refer to this quote by Douglass Adams: 

    “I’d take the awe of understanding over the awe of ignorance any day.”

    I’ve always been bad at Math, but I do follow certain SABRmetric principles closely.  I do take joy in knowing what works more efficiently than something else.  I would much rather talk with people about baseball that know a thing or two about it than not (like I would rather talk about baseball on this website or Baseball Prospectus opposed to ESPN or CBSsports).  I won’t put people down for not being “saberists,” but that’s the way I feel.  Does this make me an elitist?  I will again refer you to the quote above.

  9. Asher Brooks Chancey said...

    In my very first English college course, we were forced to read A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift.  None of us got that it was satire until the teacher explained it to us. 

    Because the cat was out of the bag before I started reading, I will have to wonder how long I would have read before I knew it was a satire.  I’d like to think I would have been on to it right away, but I probably would not have.

    Anyway, here is something that bothers me:  people who think that appreciation of advanced statistics and appreciation of the “natural beauty” of baseball are mutually exclusive.  This point has been made at least twice by commenters here.

    This argument has been made on here twice, and in response to it I would say: 99% of the people who enjoy following advanced statistics also enjoys watching baseball.  Otherwise, they would not bother.

    Has it ever occurred to people who make this argument that advanced statistics help us enjoy the game even more?  Frankly, I feel as though advanced stats help me appreciate what I am seeing in front of me.  Good and bad defense, the value of a well-times walk, situational analysis of what the batter is likely to get with a 3-1 pitch as opposed to a 1-2 pitch.

  10. Derek Ambrosino said...

    ABC,

    The Douglas Adams quote is so on point in regards to your comments. At the risk of sounding elitist (and being indifferent to whether I do), I don’t understand what makes people so adamant in the belief that it is more enjoyable to watch something when you don’t really understand what is going on.

    I’m not nearly as hardcore as saberist as many of my fellow THT-writers, but that’s a distinction that just defined my practice (and limitations), not of my philosophy. And, I absolutely love baseball and am endlessly fascinated by it. …Why would I spend to much time trying to understand something I didn’t love. (This same argument applies to fantasy baseball – why would I care so much for the derivative if I wasn’t initially in love with the original?)

    It is quite sad that in many respects, baseball remains a bastion of ignorance in a worl evermore capable of uncovering deeper understanding. The entrenched and the Luddites double down on their own ignorance and cower even more deeply in their bunkers. Acutely aware of their own impending obsolescence, they resort to the most debased tactics of ad hominems.

    At the end of the day, I still chalk this all up to the jock/nerd dichotomy. The jocks are the big men on campus in the myopic and very temporary world of the high school cafeteria, and deep down they know that for most of their future they will at the mercy of the nerds. So, they carve out the alpha-male behaviors and hold them so highly. Then, when the nerds come to gently tap the jocks on the shoulder to say, um, excuse me, but baseball – um yeah, that’s really just another thing we actually understand a lot better than you guys do, the jocks’ heads explode, and all they want to do is shove the nerds in the lockers.

    Joe Morgan doesn’t actually want to have a debate about the merits of his way vs. ours. He’s defensive because he knows he’s wrong and that when it comes to having an intelligent discussion about what is and is not actually effective on a baseball field, he knows he’s as out of his league debating that with us, and we are with him when it comes to executing those things on a major league level.

  11. JoeC said...

    @Derek: That is the most elitist, out-of-touch, malarkey that I’ve ever read. You have no idea what people are thinking and I HIGHLY DOUBT that everyone but you “secretly knows that they’re wrong and you’re right”.

    That’s just a stupid and childish way of thinking that shows that you have absolutely no understanding of your fellow human beings.

    Grow up, man. It’s not high school anymore. You need to move on.

  12. Someanalyst said...

    Derek – right on, except that some of us are jocks AND nerds…

    The dichotomy is in personality dimensia; in the field of consumer behaviour they call the dimension you are discussing “need for cognition”. It is a persistent trait that changes little over an individual’s adulthood and acts as a major cross-cultural predictor of lots and lots of behaviour.

    Individuals at opposite ends of the “need for cognition” spectrum have no “need for conversation” unless it is arguing pointlessly that they enjoy. Joe Morgan doesn’t want to talk because he understands that it will always be a waste of time.

  13. Andrew said...

    This collision of subjectivity and objectivity, the organic and the mechanical, the poetry of the body and the poetry of the numbers is the best game.  There are stories in the numbers and in the game itself.  There’s a terrible divisiveness between the “conventional old men” and sabermetrics that isn’t actually there when you look at the game, who really gives a ####?  This game is science, a physical activity, and an art.  I love pitching, I love watching people pitch, I love looking at numbers about people pitching, and I love thinking about what the game means.  Why this divide?

    The fact that everything is documented by two means, on paper in the numbers, and in our hearts, in the ethereal or the spirit (of us or of america), is what’s so great about this game.  Neither is worth more, without the other the game loses something.

  14. D Hunter said...

    It’s been a while since I read Moneyball but I actually thought that Beane professed On Base Percentage not Walk rate.  Also and this is truly a minor point but wasn’t the prototypical player in Moneyball, Kevin Youkalis who has a career batting average of almost 300, and has even won a golden glove?

  15. Paul E said...

    “Disagreements in subjects outside of baseball, such as religion and politics, often yield healthy discussions that further our understanding of both sides.” 

    THAT’S WHEN I KNEW YOU HAD TO BE JOKING

  16. Ralph C. said...

    I don’t think I know any saberists (isn’t that someone who’s an expert at light-sabering, Dave?), but I know what I like—I like to sing, I like to dance, I like Nabisco Wheat Thins a lot (hehehe)!

    There are those on each side of the baseball evaluation WAR, the classicists and the staticists,  that won’t concede anything to the other side, which reminds one of Republicans and Democrats, or Pepsi and Coca-Cola consumerists.

    Bill James saw the muddling that was on the horizon in his 1988 Baseball Abstract and broke the wand. Apparently, he found another wand to weave his spells (all the way to Boston and a website, it seems).

    What I’m trying to say is this: Bill James and his books made me enjoy baseball more, not less.

    Another thing I want to ask—is the writer of this article really David Wade…. or was it, in fact, written by Travis Walsh and Thomas McFall????

    Oh, one more thing….

    DEATH TO SABERMETRICS!!!! Then DEATH TO SMOOCHY!!!!

  17. J Larick said...

    I realize this is parody, but some people really advance and believe the arguments presented above.

    Just a few minor flaws in the logic:

    1)”…anyone who claims to care about baseball should know the man who earned the nickname “Mr. October” from his clutch hitting in the playoffs.”

    Just one problem with that – Reggie earned his rep from his hitting in the World Series, not the playoffs.  His career #s in ALCS: .227 BA, .298 OBA, 0.380 SLG. Yecch!  The year he coined himself as “Mr. October” – 1977 – he went 2 for 16 (no extra base hits) in the ALCS before his WS heroics against the Dodgers.  The Yanks made the WS in spite of Reggie, not because of him. But nobody believes this because of the Orwellian hype.

    2)1938 Yanks under Joe McCarthy – only 2 teams had lower team batting averages than NY. Yet they led the AL in scoring by a wide margin.  How did that happen?  Perhaps because they also led the league in Walks and HRs by wide margins, too? McCarthy’s teams were 3 True Outcome teams all the way.  Oh wait, it must have been because they led the league in SBs.

    3) The real issue here is that the two sides presented aren’t really about “intuition” vs. “formula-driven” viewpoints. It really is the “religion” vs. “science” battle all over again.  Murray Chass & friends keep spouting “baseball bible beliefs” garbage that simply isn’t true! Fundamentally, they really believe that 2+2=5…

  18. Ralph C. said...

    Actually, the Murray Chass & his followers believe that 2+2= intestinal fortitude in the face of great adversity and strength of character, which can’t be quantified in a number so how dare you put it at “5”. 

    (giggle giggle)

  19. jevgz said...

    sabermetrics is kind of a fresh stream, so time must pass until people might actually concider it viable. Also it’s difficult to see a way in wich sabermetrics depart the game of any fun. Furthermore, it’s followers at least try to explain the outcomes of some obvious, still hardly explainable events, so quite oppositely, it adds some new charm to the game, wich should be seen as an enrichment.
      Though it’s not fair to blame some old school writers for bashing sabermetricians sometimes. These folks were used to traditional ways of evaluating everyday plays and they did so for decades, so any other new way of measuring what they believe is already perfectly clear, especialy computer calculations based, seems too intricate and utterly useless from their point of view.
      Anyway, if sabermetrics prove themselves worthless, they’ll die with time without any help from articles like this.

  20. Paul E said...

    @ J Larick:

      You can’t imagine how many 45 – 55 year old “Clutch Believer” types I have pissed-off with the Reggie ALCS versus WS performance argument as proof of the non-existence of “clutch”. That, coupled with the Derek Jeter 500 post-season PA’s that reflect exactly HIS average regular season performance, tends to really infuriate the general public who generally want to believe every TV announcer who feels compelled to have a coronary after each extra base hit with runners aboard…….

  21. gbewing said...

    Yes the joke is played but there is some truth in that joke and as JC said HT may be out thinking yourselves again -fanaticism plays both ways

  22. Matt Swartz said...

    Great stuff!

    I caught the joke at the beginning, but read it all the way through and loved it. It really works as both a satire of saberhaters, and as an April Fool’s joke. Well played all around grin

  23. Lee Panas said...

    Very well done Mr. Wade.  I knew it was an April Fools Joke, but still read it.  You hit all the main points that saber skeptics always bring up, but didn’t over do it.  if this were another site I would have fallen for it.

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