Monday, February 15, 2010
Sabermetrics and sexinessPosted by Pat Andriola
If you're confused, see the note at the top of this post for an explanation
In a fresh post at his wonderful blog, John Sickels gives his rather timid two cents on the newest advances in sabermetrics, exemplified here:
I enjoyed the first two years of grad school and performed well, but in the third year (as I approached completion of my MA), I grew disillusioned. The further I got into the process, the less I enjoyed it, and eventually I lost my love for history altogether. The topics of study grew so granular and narrow as to lose all relevance, and studying nineteenth century Belgian weavers was just one egregious example. At some point graduate school became just a series of ticket-punching classes that you had to get through, an intellectual treadmill. I felt like it was sucking the life out of my soul... I now wonder if a similar process is underway in my baseball mind. I still love baseball, and I still love studying, analyzing, and projecting minor league players. It doesn't put a bad taste in my soul the way history did from 1994 through 1997. But when it comes to the most advanced sabermetric stuff regarding major league players. . .that old grad school feeling is returning. The newest stuff is becoming so granular that I'm having problems making sense of it. I'm a humanities guy, and the most advanced math is beyond my ability to completely comprehend. My personal opinion is that the many of the newest metrics (at least in regards to hitting and pitching) are just more complicated ways to say the same basic truths.
John, I can relate. I am a liberal arts school-attending history major with a concentration in European History. I understand what it is like to appreciate words, essays, and soft research. And yet at the same time I am completely enamored by the current sabermetric advancements taking place, literally grinning every time I see a friend from Twitter try to put together something new and exciting.
But I think we need to approach sabermetrics different than we approach history. I study history because I find it fascinating. I get a great deal of utility out of reading history and studying it, and it's fun for me, just like you said it was for you. The difference here is that sabermetrics has never promised to be particularly exciting or sexy. In fact, most of the advancements in pitching and hitting statistics (such as wRC+ and SIERA) are admittedly marginal improvements on already useful statistics. So when you say that they are "more complicated ways to say the same basic truths," you are, to an extent, 100% correct. However, the questions that remain are: 1) how much an improvement are we gaining over the basic truths and 2) how valuable are those marginal improvements? Maybe you find these advances boring and trite, but many others (such as myself) don't. I'm sure there are front offices and analysts that clamor over the newest posts at Fangraphs and The Hardball Times, just like I'm sure you find the latest breakdown of a hot prospect's swing riveting. These are, ultimately, questions of what gives us the most utility (or satisfaction), and are completely subjective.
At one point John says:
Or is advanced sabermetric analysis becoming so specialized that no one but physics and math majors can understand it, leaving us humanities majors behind, let alone the average fan?
I don't think so. Can I keep up with the math Tango has used to break down SIERA? Not much at all. But do I understand the philosophical elements behind wOBA, FIP, tERA, and other advanced metrics? Absolutely. What's the best example of this? Well, I'm going to have to reveal a deep, dark secret. You know that crazy talented guy that writes stuff like this and this? He's an English major. Shocking, but just goes to show you what liberal arts majors can do; advanced degrees are certainly not needed to understand the current trend of advanced statistical analysis.
John eventually says:
why am I reading this? I'm not enjoying it. I want to watch a baseball game.
So don't read it anymore. Close the Excel sheets and turn on a game. Dissect a swing, not a box score. It's all a matter of what makes you happy, and you're free to pursue that. Sabermetrics never made any promises to be sexy (at least to everyone), but there are some people out there that do find beauty in sabermetrics. I'm one of them, and I think it's great.