Creating a Truce to End the Sabermetrics vs. Traditional Stats War in MLB

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Creating a Truce to End the Sabermetrics vs. Traditional Stats War in MLB

Of all the things that are worth fighting for, numbers aren't a very good one. 

But Major League Baseball fans are fighting over numbers anyway. One army is fighting to advance complicated numbers calculated for geeks by geeks, and the other army is fighting to defend the less complicated numbers handed down by the founding fathers of baseball statistics.

The fight blew up like never before in 2012 thanks to the American League MVP race between Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout. Cabrera's supporters stuck by the traditional numbers. Trout's supporters stuck to sabermetrics. Arguments were presented. Things were said. Mothers were insulted.

It was...Well, it was just plain ugly, wasn't it?

It sure was, but don't think the war is over. The traditionalists celebrated a grand victory when Cabrera won the MVP over Trout in a landslide vote, but the traditionalists have probably noticed that neither the sabermetricians nor the sabermetrics fanboys have surrendered. They lost the battle, but they refuse to concede that the war has been lost.

Neither side can actually win the war, mind you. Both the traditionalist camp and the sabermetrics camp would love a total victory, but the best possible outcome that can be achieved is a truce.

Here's how such a truce can be achieved.

 

We Are Not Enemies, But Friends

There always has to be a starting point in situations such as these. Something to get both sides to the table and talking civilly.

In this case, it's something that both traditionalists and sabermetricians can agree on. That would be that baseball is freakin' awesome.

Whenever traditionalists and sabermetricians argue with one another, they tend to sound like Star Trek and Star Wars geeks arguing about which is the better ship: the U.S.S. Enterprise or the Millennium Falcon. Either that or who's the wiser main character: Spock or Obi-Wan Kenobi.

But baseball fans are different. They're not arguing about two unique science-fiction franchises. They're arguing about the same goshdarn sport. The passion is the same. It's just the perspective that's different. It's easy to lose sight of that.

It doesn't help that the perception of the war between traditionalists and sabermetricians is that it's a war between the fun-loving and the fun-hating. Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press summed up this perception in his troll-y and LOL-y AL MVP postmortem by writing that there's a "divide between those who like to watch the game of baseball and those who want to reduce it to binary code."

Albom is right about the first part. For many, there's no reason for the game of baseball to be viewed through such a complicated lens. It should just be viewed, period, and the experience should be augmented in the ways it's always been augmented.

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
Yes, Cracker Jack for everyone!

That means a box of Cracker Jack in one hand and a scorecard or a stack of baseball cards in the other. The numbers on that scorecard and on the back of those baseball cards do a fine job of summarizing the statistical side of the game. Always have, as a matter of fact.

But I take issue with the second part of Albom's sentiment. Sabermetrics does reduce the game to a "binary code" in a way, but the implication is that those doing the work and that those who enjoy the fruits of the work don't actually like baseball.

And that's not true. Sabermetrics has grown into an industry, but the field itself has always had a labor-of-love vibe to it. If the people crunching the numbers didn't like baseball, methinks they'd be putting their mathematical genius to use in other ways.

As for sabermetrics fanboys, they don't love the game any less than the next baseball fan. I'll speak for myself and say that all the crazy numbers have only made my love for the game more intense. They've mainly changed the way I think about baseball, but they've also made watching baseball more fun. 

For example, when I see a guy go first to third on a single and score on a sac-fly, I don't just see a guy benefiting his team with a hustle play. I see a guy benefiting his team with a hustle play and helping his own cause. Plays like that are good for the baserunning metrics (UBR, BRR, etc.).

This is not to suggest that sabermetricians and sabermetrics fanboys have more fun watching baseball and thinking about baseball than the average fan. The point is that we all want the same thing, and that's to enjoy the game of baseball. 'Tis the best sport in the world, after all.

There's the starting point. Getting from there to the truce will require effort on both sides of the fence.

 

How the Traditionalist Camp Must Compromise

As much as many traditionalists would love to see sabermetrics abolished, that's not going to happen. Sabermetrics has a firm place in the baseball world, and not just among the geeks who watch and analyze the game because they can.

Sabermetrics has infiltrated front offices, including—despite what Bruce Jenkins of the San Francisco Chronicle wanted everyone to believe—the front office of the San Francisco Giants (Colin Wyers of Baseball Prospectus made sure to point that out).

Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports
Behind those eyes are many numbers. Also, a brain.

There are a handful of players out there who know their sabermetrics as well, most notably Arizona Diamondbacks right-hander Brandon McCarthy (Eddie Matz wrote a great story on him for ESPN The Magazine).

It's not a fad. Baseball is a complex game. It deserves complex analysis, and that's what sabermetrics does. The traditionalists have to accept this, and that means giving sabermetrics a chance.

The simplest thing traditionalists can do is to take it on faith that all the crazy numbers are indeed a more accurate measure of what's happening on the field than the old-timey numbers. For example, Sam Miller of Baseball Prospectus recently wrote in a piece for ESPN The Magazine that taking a leap of faith is part of accepting WAR (or Wins Above Replacement if you're just joining us):

WAR is a crisscrossed mess of routes leading toward something that, basically, I have to take on faith.

And faith is irrational and anti-intellectual, right? Faith is for rain dances and sun gods, for spirituality but not science. Actually, no. Faith is how we organize a complicated modern world. Faith is what you have when your doctor walks in with a syringe filled with something that could be anything and tells you that it'll keep you from getting the measles. Unless you're a doctor or a medical scientist, you don't really understand vaccines, and you certainly can't brew one up at home. You have outsourced the intellectual side of your health to people who, your faith reassures you, are smarter than you...if you can accept that you can walk into a tube built out of 100 tons of aluminum, fly seven miles off the ground and land safely thousands of miles away, you can accept WAR.

Miller was writing about WAR, but this same sentiment can be applied to all sabermetric stats. One can take a leap of faith and accept wOBA as a better measure of a hitter than batting average, FIP as a better measure of a pitcher than ERA, and so on and so forth.

It's either this or the other option for accepting sabermetrics. That involves actually putting time and effort into learning about the crazy numbers.

It sounds like a big favor to ask, but it's really a smaller favor to ask than the leap-of-faith idea. Instead of asking traditionalists not to ask how the sausage was made, this is inviting traditionalists to tour the factory and to see for themselves how it was made.

Each of the three major baseball-stats websites—Baseball-Reference.com, FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus—have glossaries where the stats are all spelled out in plain English. Take a half-hour or an hour to go digging around in any one of them, and you can learn a lot. At the very least, one will come to learn there's quite a bit of method to the apparent madness.

One doesn't need to master the specifics of each and every formula in order to come away convinced. A general idea of what each statistic is for and how it's calculated is good enough. The idea is to go from uninformed to informed, not from uninformed to expert.

If you're a traditionalist who's reading all this and wondering why your side of the fence is the one that has to do all the hard work in order to reach a truce, don't worry. Sabermetricians have their work cut out for them as well.

 

How the Sabermetrics Camp Must Compromise

Whether the traditionalists take sabermetrics on faith or put in the effort to understand how they work, the sabermetrics community needs to do one thing:

Make it easier.

For the sabermetrics fanboys, that means actually approaching skeptics with explanations rather than going off on pretentious rants (which, admittedly, is something I need to work on). 

But the real responsibility belongs to the number-crunchers themselves. They don't need to simplify the math, which is probably a fool's errand. What they need to do is consolidate their efforts.

One of the common complaints about WAR goes a little something like this: "Why should we believe in it when the experts can't even agree on it?!"

This is a fair gripe, as Baseball-Reference.com, FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus all have different calculations for WAR. But really, this is not just an issue in regard to WAR. There's some consistency, but the three primary statistical sites use and prioritize different statistics.

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
A brief summary of all Miguel Cabrera's stats: Dude can hit.

Case in point, Baseball-Reference.com puts OPS front and center when you look up a hitter's profile (Miguel Cabrera, for example). Look up that same hitter on FanGraphs, and OPS is buried halfway down the page. Look him up on Baseball Prospectus, and there's no mention of OPS. The latter two sites would rather tell you about his wOBA and his TAv. Those stats, of course, are better.

As far as these three sites are concerned, they're all selling the same thing, but different flavors of it. It's like one site is selling Coca Cola, the other is selling Pepsi and the other is selling Dr. Pepper. Exactly which one you gravitate toward depends on the initial sales pitch and, ultimately, your taste.

But I can sympathize with how it appears to the traditionalists, who must see three different snake-oil salesmen selling three different snake oils. That's understandable, and even I find the disagreements over this and that to be frustrating.

In an ideal world, what would happen is that all the key sabermetrics gurus would get together and figure it out. They'd determine which should be the go-to stats for hitting, pitching and fielding. Most important of all, they'd come up with one definitive formula for Wins Above Replacement. There really doesn't need to be any more than one.

This way, those looking to get into sabermetrics wouldn't have to learn so many different statistics and which site prefers which and why they prefer what they prefer. That would make sabermetrics a lot easier for the open-minded ones, as well as much more inviting for the not-so-open-minded ones.

This is another big favor to ask, as proprietary statistics and different priorities help the three big sites differentiate themselves from one another. Consolidation wouldn't necessarily be good for business.

But each site has its own charms that wouldn't be stripped away by consolidation. Baseball-Reference.com has the Play Index and other odds and ends that appeal to all sorts of baseball fans.

FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus, meanwhile, have something in common with Playboy: You can go there for the articles. That's where the really good stuff is. The numbers are just good to look at.

 

Final Thoughts

So then...Can everyone get along?

Absolutely. It's going to require hard work and some significant compromises on both sides of the aisle, but a wise guy once said that where there's a will, there's a way. He also said, "Hey, here's this cliche. Take it lay by the bay and play with some clay."

And there should be a will on both sides of the fence to reach a truce because, honestly, there are so many better things to argue about than statistics when it comes to baseball. As it is, the argument over statistics didn't even become necessary until it became clear that there are two distinct schools of thought on which statistics should be used to argue certain points.

Before fans started squabbling about numbers, the squabbles were about things that really mattered. Player vs. player. Team vs. team. League vs. league. In arguments like these, the numbers just played a part in the argument. They weren't the argument.

The old arguments can return, but not until traditionalists and sabermetricians meet in the middle.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter. 

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