I was born a ramblin’ manby John Brattain
June 25, 2008
Probably the most satisfying type of feedback I get occurs when I get one e-mail telling me (in effect) to get my head out of a spreadsheet and watch a game, while in another e-mail I'm scolded for veering from sabermetric orthodoxy on what is supposed to be a “sabermetric website." And it's the same article.
Some inform me that I know just enough about stats to be dangerous.
I have stated that statistical analysis is not my strong suit, which is why I rarely do it except when writing about the Toronto Blue Jays. The reason for that is simple: I don’t believe in doing in-season analysis unless I have a great deal of firsthand observation to supplement the numbers I am using in the column. To me, that’s huge—you cannot analyze something in baseball unless you’ve physically witnessed what you’re studying.
It’s like saying that because of your studies, you’re an expert, and indeed the final authority on aboriginal culture even though you have never spent a day living among or observing them.
I often draw a lot of fire for my conclusions by folks who only have the numbers to go by (read: non-Blue Jays fans) and haven’t watched the team on the field. I get a lot of sentiments that can be summed up thusly: “Who are you going to believe? The numbers or your own lying eyes?” Truth is, neither fully—I will give both their say and draw my conclusions from that as well as any other relevant data points I have at my disposal. I’m aware that I may not fully comprehend what I am witnessing, plus I don’t think the numbers are capable of accurately describing what has transpired in a given situation.
But I digress.
Anyway, Geoff Young wrote a column on June 12 entitled "It tastes bad and I’m still hungry" that resonated with me, and I thought I’d chime in my own thoughts on the subject.
My biggest problem with sabermetrics is the same as any ideology that causes some adherents of it to think they have in their possession the Holy Grail of knowledge. The attitude of many who study it is that baseball is a part of sabermetrics rather than sabermetrics being part of baseball, ergo everything that happens within the game can be explained within a sabermetric context and that which cannot be is a fluke of sample size, random variation and “luck.” Those who look outside the holy city to see what may account for the sample size issue—variation and luck—are scorned since some of these issues are the ultimate blasphemy to this group: the intangible.
Such ones feel that they have reached the summit of knowledge and all who think otherwise are dismissed as ignorant. Oh sure, there are always new things to learn within the sabermetric context itself, but make no mistake—beyond it there is nothing but intellectual darkness. If it doesn’t fit within the sabermetric framework it is little more than the gobbledygook of the weak-minded.
Here are some personal highlights of floggings I have received and the weapon of choice:
Last year on MSN I suggested that the players at the bottom of the lineup were defacto out machines, and that the odd bunt might not be a bad idea with men on and none out. I was flayed for suggesting using the productive out. When I mentioned this year that GiDP was killing the Jays, I was criticized for making too big a deal of it.
O.K. giving up one out is evil, but double plays—twice as many outs—aren’t a big problem? Yes, this year a lot of teams have had double-play issues, but when you compare their on-base and power numbers to the Jays it is apples and oranges. Double plays may not be a big issue when you hit well with RISP and have a lot of power in the lineup, but when you struggle to score runs and have all the power of a neutered Pee Wee Herman (which might have saved his career had it been done early enough) and wet the bed whenever a runner reaches second base—then yeah, the wanton destruction of base runners might be a major problem.
Another helpful critique on the evils on bunting came from somebody who informed me that over 10,000 (or some other ridiculous number) season simulations teams that eschewed the bunt had a better record in like 80+ percent of the seasons played.
While it’s nice to know that 10,000 years from now my team will have a winning record at least 8,000 of those years if they do not bunt, but ignorant savage that I am, I cannot see how helpful that is a data point in the eighth inning of a one-run game when my team puts the first two men on, bringing up the currently slumping number nine hitter, and I need to know whether he should bunt or take his hacks. I cannot see how putting on the bunt sign is negatively going to affect the Jays' chances at a pennant in the year 9008 A.D., nor do I much care.
Its utility as a data point is effectively nil.
The most frustrating thing is the supposition by some that I have to tangibly plead fidelity to the dispensation of the Stathedrin (the radical fundamentalists of the sabermetric group) before I am deemed worthy to expound on a baseball subject or I will be derided as ignorant. To write a certain way to please a certain group so I can be included in their pantheon of writers and members of the holy cognoscenti even when I do not endorse their creeds is a type of cowardice that should disqualify any scribe from his profession.
Bottom line: the new boss is too much like the old boss. When sabermetrics grew in popularity, the old guard—who felt they were the holders of the Holy Grail—derided the new guys as ignorant since their heads were always stuck in a spreadsheet and they never watched a game. Now the new guys are the old guys who call out the ignorance of those who use observation as part of the basis for reaching conclusions when that conclusion doesn't fit neatly into the foreordained sabermetric framework.
Am I ignorant? Damn straight I am and after reading, studying and learning about the game for the next 10 years I hope to remain equally ignorant. You see, acknowledging my ignorance compels me to keep learning, refining what I know and adding to my personal database. Were I an insightful, intelligent writer then there exists the temptation to stop looking since I already know what I need when covering any and all subjects.
In a sense, sabermetrics has jumped the shark since it has gone from being a verb (the first part of the word is from Society for American Baseball Research) to becoming a noun. It has become an ideology, an end; when you embrace sabermetrics you have reached enlightenment in all things baseball and all that is left is a crusade to convert the ignorant masses to the new light.
Many of Bill James later acolytes have gone the same way as Jesus Christ’s post-apostolic-era “followers.” They have gone from being the persecuted to being the persecutors. Instead of being the ones executed as apostates, they have become the ones executing apostates. They have gone from being students and teachers to conquerors and crusaders.
This is why I have never fully embraced the ideology.
Getting back to Geoff’s article, he wrote: “If our patterns of thinking grow stale, then so does the quality of insight those patterns may produce.” I think sabermetrics has fallen into this very trap and it has begun to hinder understanding the game, since the conclusions have been foreordained before research has begun. If the evidence is overwhelming that the conclusion cannot fit within the sabermetric model, it is simply dismissed as a fluke of sample size, luck or random variation rather than considering the possibility that it might be due to human foible or the dreaded “intangible.”
Everyone here knows the power of sample size. The larger the sample size the more reliable your statistics.
However, there are potholes than cannot be ignored.
The problem with any sample is that it is based upon the assumption that for any sample that is drawn from events across time, the thing that is being measured (in this case ability) remains unchanged over the period being considered.
Often, this assumption turns out to be valid. The difficulty is that there is no way of knowing, on the basis of numbers alone, whether this assumption is valid. Put another way, statistics are not self-grounding, ergo we would want to ground those statistics in meaningful firsthand observations.
There are many instances where knowing beyond the shadow of a doubt that a player’s ability/skill set has changed. For example:
1) When a player is young and developing his skills
2) When a player is old and losing skills
3) When a player is injured
4) When a player’s mechanics change either deliberately or due to injury or body change (i.e.: bulking up, slimming down)
In all of these cases the assumption that underlies statistical analysis is illogical. An alteration of circumstances has occurred and disrupted the sample size that gives statistics its power.
This is why I don’t analyze absent firsthand observation nor am I beholden to the numbers or what I am told the numbers are supposed to mean.
I value good quality, constructive criticism. It’s why I’m such a big fan guys like Tom Tango, Lee Sinins, Mike Green (late of Batters Box and many thoughtful, though dissenting e-mails) and of Jon Hale’s blog The Mockingbird. We have our points of disagreement, and as I mentioned in last week’s Pujols Awards, Hale has panned my work on a number of occasions. However, Jon, Lee, Tom and Mike give me something to sink my teeth into and don’t simply chide me for running afoul of the holy canon—it’s guys like them who give hope that sabermetrics will again become more of a journey than a conclusion, more of a field of study and not indoctrination by force of ridicule.
We need more like them.
However, probably the dumbest form of criticism I receive are from those who feel I shouldn’t write for THT because I do not subscribe to the sabermetric orthodoxy. THT is not a hive-minded collective. Our strength is in our diversity and willingness to examine the game from as many angles as possible—even if those angles are looked down upon by some. Our motto is Baseball. Insight. Daily. and not Sabermetric. Devotional. Services. Daily.
It has always been thus; THT has had a lot of writers come and go and only founding father Dave Studeman has been privileged to hit the submit button more often than yours truly, and they've known about my sabermetric apostasy the whole time and have yet to cast a single stone in my direction. (The editors ... well, that's another story altogether *OW!!*).
We do our homework, we reach conclusions, and we often disagree with one another and discuss those disagreements among ourselves. It’s a wonderful learning aid and creates a site that appeals to a wide audience. The only guiding philosophy we have is a love of baseball and writing about it. If you surf onto THT looking to find affirmation that your point of view is gospel truth then you will be sorely disappointed. Chances are good that what we write about today is not what we will be writing about come 2018 because we view ourselves not as holders or dispensers of truth, but rather as searchers and pursuers of it.
From Alexander Cartwright to Branch Rickey through Bill James the search for understanding this great game will continue as long as three strikes mean you’re out.
Our good friend, and THT stalwart, John Brattain passed away on March 24, 2009. John was a prolific writer, whose work can also be read at Sympatico/MSN Sports and Baseball Digest Daily. John's work was also featured at USA Today, MLBtalk, ESPN Insider, Baseball Prospectus, The Baseball Analysts and The Baseball Journals. Never afraid to express himself in any medium, he was also a frequent radio speaker.