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Bob Ryan asks if the average fan cares about baseball stats

May 18, 2014, 2:20 PM EDT


Bob Ryan penned the latest edition of an article in which a sportswriter complains about all these new-fangled stats everybody’s using nowadays. He writes that back in his day, managers only got stats on little index cards and went with their guts. Ryan says he feels compelled to keep up with the stats junkies lest he be viewed as a Luddite, then asks if the average fan truly cares about the stats.

The answer to that is an easy yes. Many fans are involved in fantasy baseball in some way, shape, or form and fantasy baseball is the most applicable use of Sabermetrics for the average fan. They may not understand the advanced stats themselves, but they visit websites that display and interpret them and they follow the writers on Twitter and participate in those writers’ live chats.

But the practical answer is that while the fans may not desire an intimate knowledge of the stats themselves, they do care if their favorite teams are abreast of the latest trends. As a Phillies fan, I’ve long been reading the criticism of GM Ruben Amaro for the organization’s slowness to adapt to the statistical zeitgeist. Generally speaking, teams that have adopted statistical analysis have experienced more success in recent years and it’s readily apparent. Fans don’t like watching their team lose, and a failure to utilize important, available information is one of several factors that goes into failing to reach the playoffs. Thus, fans like stats if it helps their team win.

Where Ryan really loses the argument is when he, like every other sportswriter to have made the case, says that numbers junkies can’t appreciate a baseball game. Ryan writes that they get angry at every decision a manager makes, be it lineup construction or bullpen usage. Would that every fan cared as much about the game that deeply — baseball might one day close the popularity gap between itself and the National Football League. And, by the way, casual fans are just as guilty of second-guessing. Everybody has that uncle who yells at the TV. If they don’t, it’s their dad.

Ultimately, Major League Baseball should hope that more and more fans care about the game enough to delve deep into the numbers. That kind of engagement creates a long-lasting relationship with the sport. How many kids grew to love and appreciate baseball by gawking at the numbers — even if they were batting average, home runs, and RBI — on the backs of baseball cards even as recently as 20 years ago? Instead of questioning whether fans really care to engage that deeply, we should be encouraging them specifically to engage that deeply.

  1. largebill - May 19, 2014 at 8:21 AM

    What Ryan really means but can not come right out and say is sportswriters are upset that stats often show that what they remember doesn’t match up with what actually happened. Look at some Hall of Fame votes and arguments over the years. Some BBWAA members vehemently argued that their narrative and memory of player X (Morris, Rice, etc) was more relevant than the statistical record of what actually happened. Someone needs to remind Ryan that all stats are is a record of what happened. I think I have a pretty good memory, but have no problem admitting that I frequently stumble across something that doesn’t match up exactly with my memory even regarding the teams I think I follow closely.

  2. gregclucas - May 19, 2014 at 8:57 AM

    Problem with this discussion is it is among those who like all the new numbers and not including the real general public. Ryan is right, but those who buy into all the new stats can’t accept that what they accept is of little use to most regular fans. Those who are into heavy numbers are not regular fans. They are more Super Fans. That is a compliment. They love even more than just the game itself. Regular fans like the game, but their lives are too busy to want to get bogged down with numbers that are more suitable for analysis by team front offices than fans. They still want to know batting averages, home run totals and RBIs more than any “adjusted” numbers or newly created stats that may be of debatable use or value even among those who are baseball numbers crunchers. Baseball fans might enjoy a well written debate about why the ERA is less important or valuable now that it was in the days of complete games, but they don’t necessarily want a new stat to replace it.

    The long time numbers are how we compare Babe Ruth to Barry Bonds even though we know the eras were vastly different. Baseball’s history is more important than that of any other sport.

    It must never be forgotten that while there are a lot of folks playing fantasy baseball and a larger percentage than ever who like to analyze everything with numbers if the paying public were limited to only those people baseball would be a dead sport very quickly.

    Go ahead and use and invent your new concepts. Sell the ideas to teams and management as new ways to evaluate players when drafting or making trades. Just don’t try to hard to justify everything by requiring sports writers or broadcasters sell them as much as you would like. The writers and broadcasters must reach the largest audience, which no doubt to the stats masters dismay, is not them.

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