In Defense of Sabermetrics

One of the most remarkable and unique aspects of baseball that differentiates it from almost all other sports is its compatibility with statistics. Unlike most team sports, in which every player works together to achieve a common goal, baseball is individualistic; each play starts with two people, the pitcher and the hitter, and ends in an easy to measure outcome. For this reason, statistics have always been a central aspect of baseball. Even when the game began in the 1800s, records were kept of batting average and earned run average for every player. As the game evolved, so did the complexity and intricacy of how fans, analysts, and management measured all aspects of the game.

From this increasing usage of statistics came sabermetrics, a term derived from SABR, an acronym for the Society of American Baseball Research. Since Bill James coined it in the 1980s, the term has come to acquire many different connotations and uses, but all broadly depict it as the analysis of baseball through the use of empirical data and evidence. The recent film adaptation of Michael Lewis’ book Moneyball has brought sabermetrics into the public eye. It tells the story of Billy Beane, the general manager of the A’s who revolutionized baseball management by using sabermetrics to exploit market inefficiencies. By relying largely on advanced statistics rather than scouting and traditional assumptions about what makes a player valuable, Beane was able to build a high-performing team with very little money.

Despite Beane’s relative success and its objective, scientific nature, sabermetrics carries a very negative stigma among many baseball enthusiasts. The reasons for this, as I see it, are twofold. Firstly, sabermetrics questions many of the traditional assumptions about baseball that have existed since its conception: that batting average, home runs, and RBIs determine a hitter’s prowess; that ERA and wins determine a pitcher’s; that there is such a thing as clutch hitting, that sacrifice bunts are useful, and so on.  Sabermetrics uses statistical data, research, and analysis to determine what truly makes a player valuable, how to predict performance and the correct strategy for certain situations, but in the process it comes to conclusions that go against the status quo. This is why it took so long for managers and general managers to use more advanced statistics; on the one hand, they wanted to do whatever necessary to win, but on the other hand, they wanted to keep fans interested. Running a baseball team is a business, and the risks of throwing away deeply held intuitions about how to evaluate players could be detrimental to the fan base of the team.

The second reason that sabermetrics often carries a negative stigma comes from inaccurate representations of its purpose and methods. I have heard people say that “stats people” don’t watch the games, think all players are robots, claim to be able to predict every event perfectly, don’t take scouting or emotions into account, and so on. Though these depictions may describe the beliefs of a small number of people, they absolutely do not represent the purpose of sabermetrics as a whole. Bill James originally called sabermetrics “the search for objective knowledge about baseball,” without mention of statistics, intangibles, or scouting. James did believe that the use of more advanced statistics could more effectively discover “objective knowledge” about baseball, but that does not mean that other methods are not still useful or that his method was foolproof.

Part of the problem with Moneyball was that it gave the impression that Billy Beane disregarded the advice of scouts or that he completely ignored the mental and emotional aspects of the game. This was simply not true. Beane could not have created such a strong core of homegrown players without good scouting. What Beane did was realize that there were certain biases present in not only scouting evaluations, but in the entire free agent market.  By being willing to question assumptions and use all methods available to gain a better understanding of players, Beane was able to exploit inefficiencies in the market and gain an advantage over other teams.

As a philosophy major, I have realized that there are a lot of similarities between philosophy and sabermetrics. Both carry a negative stigma because of their willingness to question assumptions. Both try to search for objective knowledge about their relative domain of study (for sabermetrics, this is baseball; for philosophy, this is, well, everything). Because of these two things, both lead us to change the way we understand certain questions, issues, and the way we view the world and baseball. Nevertheless, neither philosophy nor sabermetrics is the be-all and end-all of how to understand their respective fields. We cannot learn everything about baseball through statistics and objective research, and more importantly, we must admit that there is more to baseball then the search for objective truth within it, just as we must understand that there is more to experiencing life than rational thought and Socratic dialogue.

There are many ways to be a fan of baseball. I use sabermetrics as a way to understand and appreciate the game, but many other prefer to hold on to the traditional beliefs that have been a part of baseball for ages. This is completely understandable, and appropriate in the sense that baseball is not a science, but a game in which tradition plays a central role. What people should understand, however, is that sabermetrics does not take away meaning from baseball, but adds it, bringing more complexity, analysis, and intricacy to the game. “Stats nerds” like myself don’t want to take the fun out of baseball, but have more fun following it by being able to gain a deeper understanding of the game.

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7 thoughts on “In Defense of Sabermetrics

  1. bblontz says:

    I am writing to see if you are interested in applying to write for FanSided MLB’s Yankees site, Yanks Go Yard. For more information please email blaine.blontz@gmail.com.

  2. Michael says:

    Very interesting. Nice article!

  3. Penn says:

    First of all, I have to say that I am an avid baseball fan, and a math major, so yes I do understand the statistical analysis of sabermetrics. I believe that baseball is the greatest sport ever played. Not just for its grandeur, but for its inherent unpredictability. This is also the reason for baseball to have developed such close ties with statistics. Other sports don’t need much of such things because of their fundamental dependence on tactics rather than strategy. Saying all of this, and although I do appreciate and respect sabermetrics as a mathematical tool that seemingly have no bounds in terms of applications and as a branch of mathematics itself, the question is: Are sabermetrics detrimental to baseball as a sport? The answer to that is an unequivocal yes. And there are many reasons besides the two you listed above. The first of yours, I would say carries the most weight. In your second reason, you describe a group of people who view sabermetricians as mere number crunchers with no connection to the game. However, the group of anti-sabermetric

  4. Penn says:

    First of all, I have to say that I am an avid baseball fan, and a math major, so yes I do understand the statistical analysis of sabermetrics. I believe that baseball is the greatest sport ever played. Not just for its grandeur, but for its inherent unpredictability. This is also the reason for baseball to have developed such close ties with statistics. Other sports don’t need much of such things because of their fundamental dependence on tactics rather than strategy. Saying all of this, and although I do appreciate and respect sabermetrics as a mathematical tool that seemingly have no bounds in terms of applications and as a branch of mathematics itself, the question is: Are sabermetrics detrimental to baseball as a sport? The answer to that is an unequivocal yes. And there are many reasons besides the two you listed above. The first of yours, I would say carries the most weight. In your second reason, you describe a group of people who view sabermetricians as mere number crunchers with no connection to the game. However, from a philosophical and mathematical point of view, I would point out that this group is a subset of the entire anti-sabermetric baseball fans, a subset analogous to the group who looks at baseball from the purely statistical viewpoint. You see, regardless of the debate there are always extremists on either end. These are rather small subsets of the whole and tend to balance each other out. In my opinion the second most weighted reason against sabermetrics

  5. Penn says:

    First of all, I have to say that I am an avid baseball fan, and a math major, so yes I do understand the statistical analysis of sabermetrics. I believe that baseball is the greatest sport ever played. Not just for its grandeur, but for its inherent unpredictability. This is also the reason for baseball to have developed such close ties with statistics. Other sports don’t need much of such things because of their fundamental dependence on tactics rather than strategy. Saying all of this, and although I do appreciate and respect sabermetrics as a mathematical tool that seemingly have no bounds in terms of applications and as a branch of mathematics itself, the question is: Are sabermetrics detrimental to baseball as a sport? The answer to that is an unequivocal yes. And there are many reasons besides the two you listed above.

    The first of yours, I would say carries the most weight. It is very true that the players in baseball are not only paid for the runs they create but also for the fan base that they draw.

    In your second reason, you describe a group of people who view sabermetricians as mere number crunchers with no connection to the game. However, from a philosophical and mathematical point of view, I would point out that this group is a subset of the entire anti-sabermetric baseball fans, a subset analogous to the group who looks at baseball from the purely statistical viewpoint. You see, regardless of the debate there are always extremists on either end. These are rather small subsets of the whole and tend to balance each other out.

    In my opinion the second most weighted reason against sabermetrics would be the the fact that they are detrimental to the integrity of baseball. In the exact same way that a player using steroids is detrimental to the integrity of baseball. Just like the use of steroids increases a players chances of hitting a homerun, or striking out a hitter, or whatever is intended, the use of sabermetrics increases the teams chances of winning. In the end the two are essentially one and the same: cheating. As I said baseball’s grandeur comes from its unpredictability, not its predictability. Sabermetrics in more ways than not, reduces baseball from a sport to a game. This is very disturbing for any fan of baseball. And maybe I’m wrong, but I expect baseball to take even more of a loss in fan interest in years to come if sabermetrics are overused. There is nothing interesting about watching a game in which you already know the outcome. If that is the case, then I’m sad to say that my beloved sport will not only cease to amaze and impress, but it will lose all respect and grandeur and eventually become another business which has gone bankrupt.

    I don’t know if there is such a sabermetric. There most likely is. But for these reasons I would implore the sabermetricians, instead of focusing purely on winning games and run value, to focus on the revenue a baseball player brings in vs. what their value is determined by traditional performances sabermetrics to determine the value of a player. This should be easy enough: revenue – salary = net value. (However, this is purely individualistic, and most likely unrealistic)

    • Matt Hunter says:

      Penn- Thank you for your comment, but I’m going to have to respectfully disagree.

      First of all, I think your comparison of sabermetrics and steroids is flawed, not because sabermetrics don’t increase a team’s chance of winning, but because of your assumption that anything that helps a team’s chances of winning is “detrimental to the integrity of baseball” or is “cheating”. Consider the following examples of things that help a player or a team win:

      – Lifting weights in the offseason.
      – Putting your best hitter in the #3 spot.
      – Putting on the shift against a pull-heavy hitter.
      – Batting practice
      – Studying video of the starting pitcher before a game.
      – As a GM, signing or drafting a player because scouts say that he is very good.

      Now all of these things are attempts to increase the team’s chance of winning or the player’s chance of performing well on the field. Yet none of these practices is cheating; they are all universally accepted as fair game. In fact, baseball, and all sports for that matter, are full of attempts to gain an edge on the opponent(s), whether it be through physical hard work, scouting, or statistical analysis. Of course, this practice of trying to gain an edge can’t go too far, as in the case of steroids. I won’t try to figure out the conceptual difference between taking steroids and lifting weights, but it’s clear that there is a line, and lifting weights, as well as all the above practices, is definitely below that line. Is signing a player because scouts say that they are good, or because they had a high batting average the previous year, really any different than signing them because more advanced statistics say that they are good? A large part of sabermetrics is simply an attempt to estimate the worth of a player, which owners and GMs have been doing since baseball started.

      In response to your claim that sabermetrics makes baseball predictable and will cause it to lose its grandeur, I simply disagree. While sabermetrics does sometimes attempt to predict player performance and game outcomes, it is no where near nor will it ever get close to being able to predict baseball. This is what makes the sport amazing; no matter how much we analyze baseball, down to the specific trajectories of pitches, we will never be able to predict what happens. I think this is a major misconception about sabermetrics that I should have mentioned in the article. Sabermetricians don’t pretend to be able to predict baseball, and they don’t think that it is even possible to do so. Despite all the numbers and analysis, saber-minded fans like myself are still amazed and entranced by the unpredictability of baseball, and that will never go away.

  6. Matt S. says:

    nice article well written and easy to follow. Kudos to you.

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