John Thorn Rebuttal: In Defense of Stats...Sabermetrics Aren't Bad for Baseball
Last week, John Thorn, Major League Baseball’s official historian, stopped by Bleacher Report to post three eloquent essays in which he aptly demonstrated his knowledge of and passion for our national pastime.
Unfortunately, much of what he wrote was based on a false premise that permeates much of the discussion about baseball today. In “Farewell to Stats”, Mr. Thorn wrote:
"Amid today's...sabermetric analysis, I miss the fun."
This is not a malevolent attack or an angry outburst, but it is emblematic of a misguided opinion popular among analysts across the country, most of whom are far less thoughtful and diplomatic than Mr. Thorn.
The prejudice we number-lovers face comes from all directions, from Sports Illustrated’s Jon Heyman calling us “VORPies” (apparently that was supposed to be an insult) to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune’s Patrick Reusse’s politically incorrect comparison of statistically inclined bloggers to homeless people.
Even here at Bleacher Report, any article involving BABIP or xFIP is sure to get a few angry comments. Speaking from personal experience, I’ve had my playing experience questioned (I earned a .533 OBP in fourth-grade kid pitch, thank you very much), been accused of bias towards the team I most despise and even had someone threaten to call Brown to tell them to revoke my admission.
These kinds of ad hominem attacks aren’t worth worrying about—no one takes them seriously. But there is another accusation that is much more damaging because even people as respectable as Mr. Thorn have bought into it: the idea that sabermetric analysis is irrelevant to—or worse, the antithesis of—enjoying the game.
This idea is baseless, condescending and, most of all, completely wrong.
Perhaps there are some masochistic statisticians who study baseball even though they don’t care for it, but I’ve never encountered any of them. In my experience, people who appreciate sabermetrics are actually some of the most passionate fans—objective analysis does not interfere with subjective enjoyment.
Consider my firsthand anecdotal evidence. I was ecstatic the first time I heard Tom Hamilton’s voice on the radio this spring a couple weeks ago. This weekend, I was completely enraptured the first time I got to watch a game on TV.
I even planned my trip to see my girlfriend over spring break around the Indians’ schedule so I could go to a game while I was home. Yes, I’ll probably be calculating Justin Masterson’s FIP in my head while he’s on the mound, but if Shin-Soo Choo makes a diving catch to save a double, I will appreciate the play for more than just its effect on Masterson’s BABIP.
Moreover, Mr. Thorn’s comparison of sabermetrics to Thoreau’s “count[ing] the cats in Zanzibar” is incredibly misleading. We who study these things do not do so for the sake of memorizing numbers; we do it so we can better understand the game.
As someone who has spent a significant amount of time typing numbers into spreadsheets, I can tell you it’s not fun. It’s boring and tedious. There’s no thrill in it for anyone.
The fun part comes when you hit “enter” for the last time, and the results tell you something you didn’t know about the game: that relief pitchers are impervious to DIPS theory, or that Power Factor is a better measure of a hitter’s raw slugging ability than is ISO.
The specific stat that led Mr. Thorn to quote Walden was “a list of the all-time leaders in receiving intentional bases on balls with no one on base.”
Now, that sounds like a terrible ordeal, and I would never have the patience to take on such a project. But even if it wouldn’t be worth my while, I would definitely interested in seeing which batters opposing pitchers feared so much that they preferred giving them free bases than letting them hit with no one on.
More importantly, though, apparently someone decided it was worth his or her time to do it. Why is that wrong?
Mr. Thorn began his third piece by saying, “Statistics are something of a fetish.”
I disagree. The real problem with the way people talk about baseball today—and, to be clear, I don’t count Mr. Thorn in this—is the fetishism of ignorance.
These are the militant traditionalists who dismiss sabermetrics without a rational explanation and think Billy Beane wrote Moneyball to brag about how smart he is. They are the Heymans and the Reusses, who lash out at those who use advanced statistics with childish ad hominem attacks while giving no indication that they actually understand what it is that they are rejecting.
This is a world in which Joe Morgan, the former lead color commentator for the No. 1 sports media network in the country, wears the fact that he has not read the most influential baseball book of our generation as a badge of honor. And we blame sabermetrics for being misleading?
What’s worse, people reject advanced stats while simultaneously observing the effects they explain. Many fans dismissed the discrepancy between Ubaldo Jimenez’ ERA and his xFIP early on in 2010 while simultaneously saying he couldn’t keep up his torrid pace forever. I had one commenter dismiss an analysis of an overachieving rookie’s unsustainable BABIP, then say he was scared that the player would fall victim to the “sophomore jinx”. It’s like condemning the theory of gravity while at the same time wondering why things keep falling down.
If you aren’t interested in sabermetrics, that’s fine. But know that by ignoring them you are deliberately stopping yourself from understanding the game as best you can.
I won’t make Mr. Thorn’s condescending implication that those who enjoy baseball differently than I do are wrong, but willful ignorance will make you a poor analyst. In the words of John Locke: “He who judges without informing himself to the utmost that is possible, cannot acquit himself of judging amiss.”
Do you use sabermetrics?
But you shouldn’t take my word that UZR and xFIP work any more than you should take Reusse’s. Read up on what they mean, where they come from and how they’re derived, and see for yourself. Keep an open mind, and surely, the logic will make sense to you. They’re not perfect, but they’re the best we’ve got.
Don’t fall for buzzwords like “you can’t measure everything a hitter does in one stat” or “you can’t put an objective value on a player.”
That’s exactly what wOBA and WAR do. The sabermetric revolution has allowed us to strip away luck and context to quantify the unquantifiable.
Yes, Kevin Youkilis’ plate discipline matters more to me than David Eckstein’s scrappiness, and I care about Francisco Liriano’s strikeout rate much more than Derek Jeter’s “calm eyes”. Why does that make me a bad fan?
If you don't care about statistics, that’s fine, but know that you’re missing out on something big. If Ozzie Guillen wants to play small ball and Dusty Baker fears "clogging the bases," go ahead—let them whittle away valuable outs.
But please don't tell me that I'm not enjoying the game just because I own a calculator.
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