Traditionalism Versus Analytics: A False Dichotomy

The analytics vs. scouting thing, it’s so tired. It’s so East Coast-West Coast rap. Uncle. Uncle, you know what I mean? — Angels GM Billy Eppler

Baseball tells many stories. There is the history: the players, owners, ballparks, games. Each game weaves its own tale, unfolding pitch by pitch, inning by inning. String together enough games and you’ve got a season. Enough of those, and you’ve got a career, a lifetime, and more.

Moments stay with us. Bobby Thomson’s homer off Ralph Branca, Kirk Gibson’s off Dennis Eckersley, Armando Galarraga’s perfect game ruined by an umpire’s error. They light a path that helps guide our love of and appreciation for baseball and even, if you’ll permit me this indulgence, life itself.

While talking with a former big-league pitcher about sabermetrics, I mentioned that the point of advanced metrics is to help guide our stories. Numbers are never an end in themselves. They are a means to an end, a way to help us paint more accurate pictures of what we see.

He was glad to hear me say this, though his reaction surprised me. I take these truths to be self-evident; not everyone does. There is a problem with perception and communication, which may speak to a larger point about discourse in society these days (too much talking, not enough listening), but that’s a diatribe for some other time and place.

Returning to the current point, baseball has a long and rich history of using statistics to measure events and the players behind them. Unfortunately we haven’t always used the numbers best suited for the job. For example, what does a pitcher “win” actually measure? What does it tell us about the man on the mound credited with leading his team to victory?

Sometimes it tells us he performed well. Other times—such as when Luis Avilan allowed five of the eight batters he faced on April 14, 2014, to score—it tells us he got really lucky. Here’s a better look:

  • Ervin Santana: 6 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 2 BB, 11 K
  • Luis Avilan: 1 IP, 4 H, 5 R, 1 BB, 1 K

The Braves allowed six runs that night. Avilan coughed up five of them and got the win. What kind of story are we trying to tell here?

There are countless other examples, but the point is this: Statistics have shaped and informed the way we think and talk about baseball since the sport’s origin. As long as that remains true, we would do well to use the best available statistics for the job.

Then we can gain proper insights into events and speak with some intelligence about them. This further advances our love of and appreciation for baseball. When we understand what is actually happening–the mechanisms that push individuals and teams toward victory or defeat–we pay even closer attention to pitch selection, defensive shifts, etc., in the hope of finding truth (or where truth is difficult to define or attain, at least we might find something interesting).

So-called traditionalists are already engaging in this exact activity. They’re just doing it with metrics like batting average, RBI, wins, and saves, which sufficed when nothing better was available. Now that statistics have evolved, and continue to evolve, we have more precise tools at our disposal with which to construct better narratives.

One potential obstacle here is the occasional tendency to misapply such tools. For example, WAR is not a hammer. It is not a synonym for “Shut up, I’m right.” And those that would use it in this manner do the metric a disservice while also alienating those that might otherwise find WAR interesting and useful if presented as a springboard for discussion rather than as an end to it.

Returning to the problem of perception, we have stereotypes. In this limited and distorted worldview, sabermetricians use WAR as a hammer and mock old, usually white men for continuing to worship outdated statistics long after they have been replaced by more accurate and descriptive ones. On the flip side, these same men admonish the young whippersnappers to do one or more of the following:

  • Get off my lawn!
  • Get out of your mom’s basement!
  • Get your head out of that spreadsheet and watch the game!

The first is silly old Gooses being cranky, the second is condescending (I own the house, and it doesn’t have a basement), and the third is a non sequitur. It’s every bit as possible to watch a game while referring to a spreadsheet as it is to do so while eating a hot dog. And yet, when is the last time you heard someone yelling, “Stop eating that hot dog and watch the game”? According to the all-knowing and all-powerful Google, this is the first time that sentence has ever been uttered. Because it’s a ridiculous thing to say, just as chastising fans for trying to gather more information about the sport they love while at the same time watching said sport is ridiculous.

Here’s another way of looking at it. Scouts, who are often seen as representing a traditionalist viewpoint, have been using metrics forever. They record how long it takes a runner to go from home to first, or from first to third. They record how long it takes a pitcher to deliver to home plate, and the velocity of his pitches. They record a catcher’s “pop time” on throws to second. The list goes on.

These are all designed to increase understanding of a complex and ever-changing sport. Not everyone wants to know that much about baseball, which is perfectly valid. Many fans are happy just hanging out at the ballpark with friends and downing a few beers. One of the beautiful things about baseball is that there are a multitude of ways to enjoy it, with none being right or wrong.

The problems arise when a) those who claim to eschew statistics then use inferior statistics to “prove” their point, and b) folks at the other end of the spectrum deride them for doing so. What happens then is that fans on both sides (and really, there are no “sides”), who share a common love of baseball, end up at odds with one another over misunderstandings. These could be alleviated by simple conversations that emphasize clarity and inclusiveness over rhetoric and dogma.

This brings us back to discourse in society these days, which paints me as an old, mostly white male who wants you off his lawn. I am that, but I also enjoy a good spreadsheet, a good hot dog, and good conversation about baseball. I’ve been following the sport for nearly 40 years and studying it for much of that time. I’d like to learn as much about it as possible and for others to be able to do the same if they so desire.

It’s baseball, dammit. Don’t hate on each other. Talk, listen, learn. Save your vitriol for something really important, like badminton.

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Geoff Young is a writer and editor whose WAR is higher than yours. You should follow him on Twitter.

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