Sabermetrics and the Old-School, Can't They Coexist?

Tim FitzgeraldContributor IJanuary 7, 2010

ANAHEIM, CA - SEPTEMBER 27:  A view of a base with an Angels logo beofre the game between the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and the Oakland Athletics on September 27, 2009 at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, California.   The Angels won 7-4. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

There's a bothersome trend going on amongst baseball fans and media.  Total reviews and analysis of players are being done completely independent of seeing video of them play, while disregarding more traditional stats and methods.  Have sabermetrics replaced watching the games?

The Good and the Bad

Let's start with the good of sabermetrics.  There's a lot to like.  They give us a far more expansive analysis of players.  Wins, ERA, batting average, and fielding percentage only told us so much.  Adding in things like WHIP, OBP, OBPS, IRA and zone ratings tells us a lot more about a player. 

They are a great help in establishing a pool of players for amateur scouting before seeing them play.  It's revolutionized the scouting field.  They also help give us an idea as to what type of player somebody is before seeing them.  They help GMs, owners, agents and arbitrators get a better idea of what a player should earn.  They also help us adjust for ballparks and divisions, and can give a guide for projections.

The bad of sabermetrics stems more from their usage rather than the formulas themselves, or the idea that they are the end-all to any baseball decision.  You plug in your info, and boom, you know completely, without a doubt who the better player is.  Many fans and baseball writers are relying too heavily on them. 

The theory behind most of them is okay.  When they are applied as absolutes, the theories can seem off, but I still think that's due to usage.  When they are applied as part of the overall formula that makes up a good baseball player and are just part of the equation themselves, they are a nice addition.

The idea that a pitcher has NO CONTROL over what happens after a ball is put into play —absolutely zero influence—is one of the bad usages of the very popular sabermetric formula, FIP.  The actual definition of it is "what a pitcher is directly responsible for." 

But a pitcher controls HOW a pitch is hit… if he has control.   Heat on the hands often creates a pop up or shattered bat, much like something sinking low in the zone creates a ground ball.  Pitchers will often make a hitter hit it to his defensive set up as well.  If a team's defensive set up is for a hitter to go to the opposite field, the catcher will set up away, and the pitcher will try to put it on the outside part of the plate.  If the pitcher induces a liner to the second baseman, that's still good pitching.  The formula helps you learn what type of pitcher a guy is and how proficient he is at that style, but doesn't give you the entire picture as some like to claim FIP can.

Stats Vs. Acts

I realize the "intangibles" are difficult to quantify in any sport and any line of work.  Otherwise, they wouldn't be intangibles.  But because it's not quantifiable in sabermetrics, these days it's disregarded as unimportant.  Maybe a pitcher doesn't have the prettiest fangraph stats, but is a bull dog on the mound, and knows how to get an out. 

That's the kind of stuff you have to see on film or in person.  The sabermetrics, like a lot of stats, can show you skews and trends, but why is that trend happening?  What's going on in a player's life, his experience level, coaching or health gets lost or isn't a concern in sabermetrics. 

And I realize wins for a pitcher aren't the measuring stick they used to be.   It's very true a pitcher can end up with a win due to his run support, defense or his opponents' lack of those things.  But let's not confuse the "statistic" of a win, with the "act" of winning a game.  That's something you have to see in action to truly know how a pitcher is doing it. 

A pitcher's ability to perform in the clutch and get out of a jam isn't measurable in sabermetrics.  I see an attempt's been made at measuring a hitter in the clutch, though it doesn't seem to factor in the game's score and inning yet.  There's probably someone working on the GOOAJ, Getting Out of a Jam, saber right now.  The fact that these metrics are often changing in name and formula doesn't help me take them as the end-all to all baseball decisions or discussions either.

Overall these stats are a great help.  But there's still a lot more to baseball than sabermetrics.  Going forward, fans and media are going to have to strike a balance between the two worlds.  These formulas can't be dismissed by old, frumpy baseball folks, but they cannot be treated like baseball exists in a statistical vacuum, void of emotion, teaching and motivation.  So as March rolls around my sabermetric-loving friends, remember to watch a game.  Enjoy the subtleties that make baseball special—and that can't be captured on a spreadsheet.