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Quote of the Day: a fabulous explanation of the interplay between stats and baseball’s human element

Jun 1, 2011, 2:30 PM EDT


Over at the Angels blog Halos Heaven, they’re interviewing their own writers so that readers can get to know them.  The man who goes by the name of Suboptimal was asked about his thoughts on the “stats vs. chemistry” debate. Or, as I took his answer to mean, the interplay between statistical analysis of baseball and coverage of the personality-based aspects of baseball by the traditional media.

In my view, there is a balance. You have to understand what happens in baseball in objective terms (the stats), but you also must know the limits of statistical analysis. Especially the fact that they do a way better job of explaining what happened as opposed to what is happening or what will happen in the future. Suboptimal seems to grok this concept quite well, and his answer is pretty much the best take on the basic problem I’ve ever read:

I like advanced metrics. As fans, we don’t have access to what happens inside the clubhouse. Unfortunately, the people who get paid to tell us what happens inside the clubhouse are autocratic, pretentious, and incoherent. Sabermetrics is a fantastic critique of bad sportswriting, bad broadcasting, and downright bad thinking. On the other hand, even though heavy stats are great for beating the shit out of bad ideas, it’s much harder to use them constructively. The system is built on correlations and probabilities, which can never predict the result of a single event like a critical late-inning pinch-hit appearance. The ebb and flow of the game is still a human drama, so I don’t think the “stats” and “chemistry” perspectives are necessarily in opposition, although many years of arguing has made them appear so.

I’d only add the words “some of” in between “unfortunately” and “the people” in that third sentence, but otherwise he’s spot on.

Things are way better than they used to be. A great many of the people covering games — especially the beat writers, who tend to skew younger — seamlessly blend stats and non-stat analysis and reporting, giving us a holistic view of things.  As is almost always the case in this world, however, you gotta beware of the people who believe that they and their fellow travelers have a monopoly on wisdom and who speak in absolutes.

  1. garlicfriesandbaseball - Jun 1, 2011 at 2:42 PM

    Finally some clarity! In other words, sabermetrics doesn’t really mean a whole heck of a lot. I know a little about baseball, but find I’m having to attend a class this summer on the subject so I can understand what they’re talking about. It’s not a lot of fun to have to run to the baseball dictionary everytime a sabermetrics term is interjected into a writing.

    • mercyflush - Jun 1, 2011 at 3:02 PM

      “In other words, sabermetrics doesn’t really mean a whole heck of a lot.”

      um, that’s not what he said at all.

    • churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Jun 1, 2011 at 3:04 PM

      No, you don’t. You don’t need to go to fangraphs or or baseballprospectus to enjoy the game. You can enjoy the game using the old BA/RBI stats of yesteryear. No one has ever said otherwise so to allude to that makes your argument disingenuous.

      However, there are better ways to understand the game than using the above. You can read up on advanced stats (basic math is enough to understand them). You can read on what statistics are better predictors of the future, how much credit a player should get for what happened, how much value they’d be worth in FA, etc.

      It’s your choice what you want to read/not read.

    • rebarratige - Jun 1, 2011 at 3:17 PM

      You didn’t actually read the post, did you?

  2. drmonkeyarmy - Jun 1, 2011 at 2:44 PM

    Yep, typical stat guy. Who else is shocked to hear that he has a problem dealing with people and went out of his way to criticize the human element?

    • Mr. Jason "El Bravo" Heyward - Jun 1, 2011 at 2:54 PM

      Yep, typical [drmonkeyarmy or halladaysbicepts] guy. Who else is shocked to hear that [they have] a problem dealing with people and went out of [their] way to criticize [everyone and everything]?

      • drmonkeyarmy - Jun 1, 2011 at 3:12 PM

        So, the guy in the article didn’t criticize people? For the record, I do not have a problem dealing with people.I deal with people all day long and seldom have problems. The only thing I criticize on this blog is sabermetrics. You like them, I don’t. I also like to have a healthy, constructive debate about things. If everybody thought the same way, the world would be terrible. I’m sorry I don’t write the popular opinion just to see the thumbs up tab rise.

      • Mr. Jason "El Bravo" Heyward - Jun 1, 2011 at 3:29 PM

        Dude, nothing in your comment was either healthy or constructive.

      • drmonkeyarmy - Jun 1, 2011 at 3:34 PM

        Maybe it wasn’t constructive and there was no reason for me to say “typical stat guy”, but I think it is all to common to rely on stats ignoring the human element. That would have been a less jerky way to put it.

    • rebarratige - Jun 1, 2011 at 3:20 PM

      I’m missing the part of the interview in which he does any of the things you are accusing him of doing.

      • drmonkeyarmy - Jun 1, 2011 at 3:23 PM

        “Unfortunately, the people who get paid to tell us what happens inside the clubhouse are autocratic, pretentious, and incoherent.” Yeah, that is not taking a shot at people.

      • rebarratige - Jun 1, 2011 at 3:32 PM

        No, it’s taking a shot at traditional sportswriters. A very small subset of “people.”

        Is everyone who dislikes traditional sports reporting a misanthrope?

      • drmonkeyarmy - Jun 1, 2011 at 3:36 PM

        Why did you put people in quotations? That has a very negative implication to it. I don’t think all people who don’t like traditional beat writers or whatever are misanthropes….just this guy.

      • rebarratige - Jun 1, 2011 at 3:51 PM

        I was quoting your use of the word “people.” The quotation marks were intended to press home the fact that people in this case comes without qualifiers. As in, all people. Everyone. If you don’t like traditional sportswriters, you don’t like anyone. Which appears to be what you’re saying here, because the only evidence you have of this guy’s misanthropy is his dislike for a particular kind of sportswriter.

      • drmonkeyarmy - Jun 1, 2011 at 3:56 PM

        Fair enough about the quotes. I wasn’t saying that. All I am saying is that somebody whose job it is to analyze baseball statistics and come up with these numbers who have a predictive value or at least correlate to something tangible needs to take the human element into consideration. He is saying bad things about the very people he should be working with to further his research.

      • rebarratige - Jun 1, 2011 at 4:05 PM

        OK, that’s fair. Sorry, my hostility was unnecessary. I think, though, that he would probably disagree with the claim that those writers have unique insight into the sort of human element he’s talking about. I think he’s trying to argue that they aren’t particularly good at identifying or communicating it.

      • drmonkeyarmy - Jun 1, 2011 at 4:12 PM

        Ok, I get your point. That is fair. I could have done a better job of explaining what I meant and dropped the hostility on my part too.

      • mgflolox - Jun 1, 2011 at 10:59 PM

        Wow, an actual mature resolution to a dispute on a blog post. What’s the world coming to?

  3. Mr. Jason "El Bravo" Heyward - Jun 1, 2011 at 2:48 PM

    Stupid humans. You will all be destroyed and deleted. 01010101100000101111 [enter]

    • cur68 - Jun 1, 2011 at 3:05 PM

      I see your binary and counter with a Unix ‘rm’ command. Your plot has failed. Prepare for your doom.

  4. natstowngreg - Jun 1, 2011 at 3:22 PM

    The guy seems to get sabermetrics’ limitations, which are the same as for stats used by economists, social scientists, and political pollsters. That is, seeking certainty in human behavior, about which there is little certainty. He also seems to understand that stats and reporting can be used together, as in blowing up bad assumptions.

    But he steps on his own argument by slamming writers who don’t use stats to the extent he wants, as somehow being bad people. Craig is right to challenge that.

    • paperlions - Jun 1, 2011 at 4:05 PM

      I think what he is slamming is reporters that use poor stats because they can’t be bothered to keep current with the use and application of statistics for the enhanced understanding of baseball.

      If your job is to cover and report on baseball, you have absolutely no excuse for not staying current with developments on the new ways to understand the game. You don’t have to become a statistician, but understanding what the “advanced stats” mean is not complicated. Stubbornness and laziness are not good qualities in a person expected to provide insights to the general population of layman, regardless of the focal topic.

      The vast majority of both sabermetricians and fans that use “advanced stats” completely understand the limitations of the stats; the people that typically try to say that statisticians think the numbers can tell you everything or that such analysis removes the human element or that statisticians should watch more baseball (they probably watch as much or more than anyone because they subscribe to MLBtv) are people that can’t be bothered to listen long enough to understand the situations in which people are saying that analysis can enhance understanding. No sabermetrician has ever said than analysis can or should replace scouting (as the common argument goes), just that is is a usefully complement.

      • natstowngreg - Jun 2, 2011 at 11:59 PM

        We’re not disagreeing about the value of sabermetrics. My problem with the blogger is the blanket characterization of baseball writers as “autocratic, pretentious, and incoherent.” That was uncalled for.

  5. xmatt0926x - Jun 1, 2011 at 3:28 PM

    Who cares what side people are on? Whether it be baseball or life situations in general it always amazes me how people are so concerned with how other people live and think and take offense to anyone who thinks any differently then they do. Live and let live people! If some other guy has to have everything broken down using advanced stats then so be it. I for one still enjoy just watching the games and I think I have a general idea of who the good and bad players are and thats good enough for me. At the same time I do understand that advanced stats are available and tell a more true story about each player. I just don’t have much interest in obsessing over them but I don’t have any problem with people that do. To each his own. Life is too short.

    • rebarratige - Jun 1, 2011 at 3:33 PM


  6. hardballbalk - Jun 1, 2011 at 4:31 PM

    People, people, people….. calm down. Craig was right weeks ago on this matter; read “The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop.” It looks for that line between probability and emotion just fine.

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