Monday, May 12, 2008

Mainstreaming Sabermetrics

Reader Chris Heer wrote in with a God, I Love Baseball submission, but I'm going to use it to springboard into something else:

So I attended the Cardinals/Brewers game on Friday (5/9/08). As the game went on, I started making comments about the OBP and SLG of various hitters. My friend is a sports fan but knows almost nothing about sabermetrics, so he started asking me questions about why I was ignoring batting averages. As I began explaining, I leaned forward and noticed that, on the digital display behind home plate, they actually showed OPS for the batter and WHIP for the pitcher! I pointed this out and began explaining it to my friend.

Within fifteen minutes there was a whole group of fans leaning in, joining the conversation. Within 30 minutes, there was a sizable crowd of newly-born stat geeks arguing about who the Brewers leadoff hitter really should be. And in the bottom of the ninth, as Isringhausen loaded the bases, none of that mattered because everyone was standing, cheering, yelling. The stadium actually shook with the noise as Rickie Weeks stepped to the plate and drove a single to LF, driving in two runs to win the game. High fives all around, and I found myself screaming my lungs out as I normally only would for my Cubs.

God I love baseball.

A couple of things to take away from Chris' story. The first one is the obvious, but still worthy-of-repeating point that analyzing the game statistically and whooping it up like a lunatic are not mutually-exclusive modes of enjoying baseball. I and every geek I know do the same thing all the damn time, so the notion that statheads are somehow missing something is patently ridiculous.

The second thing worthy of mention is the way in which sabermetric principles are slowly but surely integrating themselves into the mainstream media and, subsequently, into the minds of the casual fan. Between the casual inclusion of OBP on a TV broadcast's statline or on the scoreboard behind home plate in Milwaukee, the establishment is starting to come around. The latest example: just yesterday, as I was reading my hometown Columbus Dispatch, I came across an article by writer Scott Priestle about teams locking up young players. The linked article doesn't have it for some reason, but the print edition included the chart to the right which breaks down recent free agent signings by VORP.

The important thing about it is not that Priestle used VORP in and of itself -- he's a smart guy who reads BP, so it makes perfect sense that he would use it -- but that he did so without making a huge honking deal about it. No long explanation which assumes the readers are idiots and, more importantly, no hacky disclaimers apologizing for using it in the first place, which I've seen on numerous occasions. It's just an instance of a baseball writer using information in service of a story, the same way we expect reporters to do on any beat.

I think the larger point here is that, as is the case with any evolution or advance, the grand statements (Moneyball) and initial confrontations (Neyer and Law being kept out of the BBWAA) get all the headlines, but don't lead directly or immediately to enduring change. Rather, they serve to create an environment in which people feel that it's safe to do things or think about things in new ways on their own timetable and in their own way. Rosa Parks and Curt Flood knew this, and I'm guessing Bill James was talking about this over cocktails a decade or two ago.

The stathead-traditionalist battles still flare up from time to time, but the war is over and the good guys* have won. It just may take a while for it to become apparent how successful the hearts-and-minds campaign really was.

Good guys = the ones who realize that each "side" is right about a great many things and successfully integrate those things into their enjoyment of the game.


Kelly said...

Also worth noting -- a Cubs fan attended a Brewers/Cardinals game and cheered for either team.

Traitor. :-D

Craig Calcaterra said...

I have to step up and defend Chris. I edited his email a bit for the article. Not included was this:

"As a Cub fan, I didn't have a significant rooting interest ither way,except (A) the Cardinals were ahead in the standings, (B) I was, after all, at Miller Park, and (C) I hate the Cardinals with...oh, some sortof cliche . . ."

Alex said...'s gameday has a feature that will pop up quick stats for a player when you click his name in the lineup. Those stats, if I recall, are AB, Hits, Avg, HR, and OPS. I think OPS is pretty much mainstream now, which is a great stride.

Dre said...

All of these stats are featured heavily on AZ's scoreboard. Of course, there's plenty of room for them all since its the biggest HD scoreboard in sports. The front office is very involved in the fan base and actual asked the prevalent AZ message board for their input as to what things they would like to see on the new display.

Jason said...

Living in San Diego I get the pleasure of listening to Matt Vasgersian doing the TV broadcast for the Padres. He's really good about mixing in more advanced stats, but once and a while he says something like, "you can't pitch around Tejada here because Erstad is on deck." Which sort of ruins it for me.

Chris H. said...

Len Kasper on the Cub broadcasts has also been dropping in comments about OBP, etc. It is indeed starting to become more mainstream, just as Craig pointed out.

Oh, and to kelly...the tickets were free, and it was a way to spend a fun night out with a friend of mine, and...look, my second-favorite baseball team is generally whoever St. Louis is playing, OK? OK? :)

drpaisley said...

The ginormously awesome 8000 sq ft videoboard at Royals stadium has OBP, SLG and OPS numbers for batters, at least the first couple of times around (later innings will show the batter's stats in the situation at hand), and the LED screen on the left field wall has the pitcher's stats, including WHIP.

That said, our tv play-by-play man, Ryan Lefevre, has gone off several time this season about statheads and "invented" stats, particularly in relation to Brian Bannister and the BABIP issue, which is especially stupid given Bannister's well-documented love of sabermetrics. Small steps.

Ron Rollins said...

Leferve is not a good announcer at all, and I'm not even a stat head. He's the new Tim McCarver. He thinks everything he says is funny, and he is more interested in telling stories no one care about than actually doing play-by-play. And to listen to him, the Royals are 5-time WS champions.

But at least he's not Bob Davis!!!