Brian Kenny, Bill Simmons, And Bridging The Gap: Contextualizing Sabermetrics
Origianally posted to isportstimes.com on August 29, 2013
I recently wrote a column on the coexistence of sabermetrics and traditional statistics. But let’s be honest, my opinions in this tiny little corner of the Internet are barely a drop in the bucket that is the battle of sabermetrics versus traditional statistics. Over the past decade, sabermetrics has had a meteoric rise from being known as the stuff people practice in their moms’ basements to being considered the only lens through which to intelligently understand baseball. Now, everything is coming to a head in the battle of sabermetrics versus traditional statistics.
But I for one am tired of the endless back-and-forth between those who favor sabermetrics and those who favor traditional statistics. At this point, the arguments between the two sides are totally ridiculous. Just take a moment to look at this twitter conversation. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Arguments like that one between Brian Kenny and Bill Simmons are beyond silly. It would be different if this were a one-time thing. But these types of arguments are happening every day, and it’s strangling baseball discourse. When baseball talk devolves into Mom’s Basement Brigade versus The Old Boys Network, nothing is being gained. Rather than have intelligent discussions about the game we all love, the discourse is being lowered to arguing about how wins are stupid. Anyone with half a brain realizes that pitcher wins depend in part on how many runs a pitcher’s team scores. If someone is too obtuse to understand that a pitcher doesn’t have complete control over whether he gets a win, then that person should not be included in the discussion. Lowering the discourse to such a remedial level hurts people on both sides. Fans are not becoming more educated, at least not in a way that matters, when the #killthewin dead horse is being beaten.
The sad part is the two sides are not far apart. The narrative has been framed as my-statistics-versus-your-statistics, and there can only be one winner. This is simply not true. The argument doesn’t have to be about statistics. Not every baseball discussion has to be an idealistic duel of trying to convert sabermetric non-believers into statheads. We’re losing the forest for the trees, and it’s time for that to change.
In light of all this, I am making it my mission to bridge the gap between Mom’s Basement Brigade and The Old Boys Network. I love sabermetrics. They are an invaluable part in how I understand the game. At the same time, I don’t like having to parse through an excel formula every time I want to have a discussion about who should win the Cy Young. I understand that statistics are intimidating. I understand why a baseball fan may look at the formula for wOBA and be immediately turned off by sabermetrics. It is my goal contextualize the ideas championed by sabermetrics in a way that can allow fans to become more enlightened without intimidating them with thoughts of excel spreadsheets.
To achieve this goal, I am excited to announce a (hopefully) reoccurring feature I am tentatively calling Bridging the Gap. The idea is to take a couple different sabermetric ideas or statistics and reposition them in a way that any baseball fan can understand. It is my belief that it is not the statistics that are important, but rather the ideas and concepts behind them that matter. Hopefully, after enough of these, I will have done at least a little bit to ease the tension between Sabermetricians and Traditionalists. Here’s an example of what this feature may look like:
Trout versus Cabrera
Last season, the debate between Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout for MVP raged throughout baseball, and, based on WAR puns alone, we were all losers. The same thing is happening again this season, and it’s time to reframe the discussion without using sabermetrics. The fact is the case for Mike Trout can be made without using a single advanced stat. That argument would go a little something like this:
Miguel Cabrera is the best hitter in baseball. He is putting up dominant numbers and strikes fear into opposing pitchers and fans whenever he steps to the plate. At the same time, Mike Trout has been nearly as good at the plate, although he is not on the level of Cabrera. If we were deciding who was the best hitter, it would be Cabrera.
But baseball is more than just hitting; there is also fielding and base running to consider. And it should be clear to anyone that watches baseball that Mike Trout is far superior to Miguel Cabrera when it comes to fielding and running. Trout is possibly the best base runner in all of baseball, not just when it comes to stealing bases, but getting good reads on batted balls, going from first to third, scoring from second on a single, etc. Trout is also a fantastic outfielder that saves his pitchers from giving up runs on a consistent basis. Cabrera does none of those things. If you’ve watched him lately you can see that he can barely limp around the bases. Kudos to him for playing through injury, but his poor base running undoubtedly hurts his team. Cabrera is also considered a below-average third baseman that does not save his pitchers many base hits like Trout does. As long as we consider all facets of the game, Trout should be considered MVP over Cabrera.
See how that works? The same ideas I just laid out are the same ideas that are captured in a statistic like WAR. The same arguments put forth by advance stats can also be made in baseball terms that any fan can understand. Whether or not they agree, at least the discourse has shifted away from WAR and is back to be focused on, you know, baseball.
Hopefully as I do more of these, I can help at least a few fans see the game in a new way without trying to force-feed them advanced stats. It’s time we end this WAR (see how annoying that is?) and go back to talking about baseball in a way where everyone can gain something.