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Sciambi on stats on TV: "VORP, EqA, WAR, and Robert Parish are not walking through that door"

Feb 23, 2010, 4:00 PM EDT

ESPN’s Jon Sciambi — one of the better and brighter baseball broadcasters you’re ever going to hear — wrote a guest column for Baseball Prospectus today.  It starts out with a great Chipper Jones anecdote and (accompanying pic), and segues into the challenges broadcasters face in bringing more advanced stats to baseball games on TV:

We need to get to where the masses understand there is no choice. This isn’t subjective. I evaluate offense with OBP and SLG while you like RBI
and runs scored is not the same as “I like strawberry, and you like
vanilla.” It’s “strawberry is better than vanilla.” More accurate and,
therefore, more delicious. To be clear, I don’t speak for ESPN here,
just me, but I think we have a responsibility to inform correctly. If a
majority of teams are using advanced metrics to inform decisions, then
we should do some of the same in analyzing those decisions . . .

. . . If we eliminate the noise of RBI,
runs, etc., keep it basic and utilize the slash stats, I believe that,
slowly, the desert masses will drink the sand. The [Baseball Prospectus] base must
understand: VORP EqA, WAR and Robert Parish are not walking through that door. Not for a
while. But it can only help if the broadcasters are a team, too–in
uniformity (together, I mean, not wearing those blazers) while
patiently holding that door open.

This is probably the most clear-eyed assessment of the role of statistical analysis in the mainstream media I’ve seen (it’s basically a better-put version of what I said on the topic yesterday).  No, you’re not going to convince millions of casual baseball fans to accept very granular metrics while they sit on their couches and watch the Game of the Week, so you probably shouldn’t press it.

But broadcasters can be smarter about it. They can explain the general concepts behind advanced statistical analysis — e.g., not making outs is more important than merely getting hits; fielding percentage can be a very misleading measure of defense — and not get bogged down in the numbers. And if they do so, baseball fans will be a lot better off for it.

  1. Drew - Feb 23, 2010 at 4:37 PM

    Interesting follow-up to the Chipper Jones anecdote: Chipper walked in that plate appearance; it was the only time he reached base all day, with two ground outs and two fly outs in his other trips to the plate. Also, he didn’t swing at a first pitch the entire game (two were balls, three were strikes). Maybe Boog had a real impact on his approach, at least for that day.

  2. ecp - Feb 23, 2010 at 4:39 PM

    The MLB Network has been trying, but they need to keep Harold Reynolds off the set when they are explaining these things. He absolutely refuses to acknowledge that any of these of these concepts have value. Heck, he doesn’t even understand OPS, much less embrace it. (C’mon, Harold – on-base percentage? slugging percentage? add ‘em together and what do you get? But no.) You should have seen Reynolds’ head explode when they were talking about WPA.

  3. Charles Gates - Feb 23, 2010 at 4:48 PM

    Completely agree.
    However, this inherently assumes that broadcasters understand these stats themselves, which unless their typical presentation is purposely engineered for the masses, they have yet to prove.
    What Sciambi doesn’t mention in that blockquote (I’ll read the linked article after I leave corporate cubicleville tonight), is that this strategy will also accelerate the demand of the average viewer as well. If you’re a casual fan who only watches Sunday Night Baseball, you’re not going to have a chance to be exposed to anything other than ERA, RBI etc. Subtle interjections will educate casual fans, which I believe they want, as long as their bottle fed and not given the fire hose. Once fans start demanding a more analytic viewing experience, through blogs, message boards, marketing focus groups and the like, the broadcasters that can’t reasonably understand/explain these stats will slowly get less and less prominent. It’s simple evolution driven by supply and demand. Sciambi has done a nice job of articulating how to increase the market demand.

  4. Ryan - Feb 23, 2010 at 4:50 PM

    I think it’s much easier than that Craig – The lowest common denominator of baseball-watching fans understands AVG/HR/RBI and MAYBE OBP. That is the group they cater toward. You and I both know what the value of OPS is, but really, do you think that the networks or their advertisers want to target us? We are not their target audience. There is no value to them to include those stats. Change that, then you can get ERA+ and VoRP included. Yay for the status quo!

  5. Jamie - Feb 23, 2010 at 5:06 PM

    Harold Reynolds (he of the .668 career OPS) refuses to accept any stat that says Harold Reynolds wasn’t awesome. So anything except stolen bases and maybe runs scored is pure quackery.

  6. Union - Feb 23, 2010 at 5:38 PM

    Good luck convincing Joe Morgan on this.

  7. Old Gator - Feb 23, 2010 at 5:58 PM

    We were lucky to have Boog down here for his apprenticeship in play-calling and talk show hosting. When he left – about the same time as Hank Goldberg and, perhaps worst of all, Eddie Kaplan – sportscasting and especially sports talk quality in Macondo sank so fast that they might as well be broadcasting Atlantis. Now you all got a taste of how good we had it here. What the hell, he was too good for this tightwad regime with which we are encumbered anyway.

  8. JE - Feb 23, 2010 at 7:20 PM

    It would have helped if you had read the Sciambi column, Union, as he references — and implicitly defends! — Morgan in a mention of defensive metrics.

  9. CharlieH - Feb 23, 2010 at 9:28 PM

    That’s all well and good but there are players that hit in clutch situations and there are players that don’t. There are players that hit into a lot of double plays, are slow on the basepaths, are easy themselves to double up, and/or make unwise base running decisions. Then there are players that get a lot of walks, don’t strike out a lot, steal a lot of bases, etc. There are players like Rod Carew that had a very high lifetime batting average but low RBI totals. It’s great to get on base, but the object is to score. Give me a player with high RBI and run scoring stats everyday.

  10. James - Feb 25, 2010 at 1:55 AM

    CharlieH, you do realize that in order to achieve a high rbi count you must have people on base ahead of you. So if someone comes up with runners on base only 50 time a year, he’s going to have less rbis than the person who came up with runners on base 150 times a year. RBI’s are probably the worst stat to measure a player’s ability to hit the baseball.

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