VORP Speed Ahead, Mr. PECOTA!

Joshua Fisher, in the course of a useful primer on sabermetric stats, makes a point I’ve come back to again and again:

Our arrogance comes from the strength of our position; we’re right about baseball and we know it. The problem is that things have become almost cultish; our alphabet-soup language poses a formidable barrier to entering the club. And that’s where these primers come in. If we can walk people through the silliness of pitcher wins and ERA, they’ll greet FIP with open arms. That’s the plan.
But I’m not sure it works as elegantly as we’d like. I believe we’ve reached a sort of saturation point with advanced stats. Most anyone who wants to know about WAR is already plugged in. And the primers, while enjoyable, accurate, and insightful, are still lessons. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I got into sabermetrics because I enjoyed discovery. There’s a fine line between learning and being taught, and the former is much more enjoyable than the latter.
What’s more, at the end of the day, do we really care if the people we watch the game with know the differences between UZR and Dewan Plus/Minus? Does it matter if they can discuss the merits and flaws of SIERA? Do our friends need to carry run expectancy charts in their briefcases?
I say no. What’s important about sabermetrics isn’t the statistics, but the approach to the game.

This has long been one of my two major critiques of Baseball Prospectus, much as I respect and value what BP brings to the table (the other is the ceaseless hyping of prospects without adequate perspective about how often super-prospects stumble and face a learning curve even when on their way to great careers): too much advanced math too close to the surface, too many non-obvious acronyms (WXRL sounds like a radio station to me), too many boutique stats with non-obvious scales (quick: what’s the typical WARP for an All-Star? An MVP?). That’s all well and good if you are writing a trade journal for professional GMs, and sometimes that seems to be what BP aspires to, but it’s impossible for even an educated BP reader to translate this stuff quickly and cleanly to neophytes. And it often leaves one with a false sense of certainty about inherently imprecise inquiries, while the opaque nature of the numbers renders their inner workings impervious to analysis by most outsiders, who simply have to take the workings of the formulae on faith. Personally, I never use any math on this site more complex than algebra; partly that’s my own mathematical limitations, and I recognize that there are times when a regression analysis would come in very handy, but if you start with the assumption that your readers come to be entertained and enlightened rather than have all arguments settled for all time, it’s sometimes worth trading some level of precision for more easily understood measurements. That’s a lesson Bill James, not just the greatest original thinker among baseball analysts but also the greatest popularizer of the form, has never forgotten, and I try to adhere to his example.

9 thoughts on “VORP Speed Ahead, Mr. PECOTA!”

  1. Well put. I’m also put off by the excessive use of statistics to attempt to predict player performance, prospects or not. As a fan and Fantasy GM, I always try to remember John Maynard Keynes quote about another highly-numerical field:
    “the market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent”

  2. I’d like to keep up with these “new” stats, but unfortunately those who inject them into their bloodstream and then spew them out in articles without explanation (or with at best link to a ten-page jargon-filled article explaining the stat) fail to do the most important thing to help fogies like me understand their relevance.
    Very simply put: until such time as the meaning of thees stats is understood among a majority of fans, provide a simple reference to assist in evaluation, rather than a for-statisticians-only doctoral thesis covering the theory behind. Make it easier for us simpletons to understand the basic question- is Joe Blow’s BONEZ (Batters Over Natural Equivalent Zone) number good or bad?
    I see stats like ERA+, and Sandy Sabathia had a 4.16 ERA+, the highest in the league. Is this good or bad? Highest BA I know is good. Highest ERA is bad.
    Recommendation: Instead of using “high” or “low” or equivalent comparatives, why not use “good” or “bad”, so some of us can get a handle on it?
    Instead of linking to 6 pages of mathematical formulas and functions used to calculate the stat, why not put a simple English language reference for understanding relevance: “Crank’s WHOOPSY was 52.93 last season (versus a league average of 17.69. The league best was Elio Chacon with 8.11)”.
    I have very little idea of the acceptable or unacceptable ranges of many new stats, and I don’t think I’m alone in this.
    Just something like “Crank’s ZYGB last year was

  3. Well put. I’m also put off by the excessive use of statistics to attempt to predict player performance, prospects or not.
    As a longtime fantasy participant, I’ve found that there is no source, none, that can even come close to predicting MLB performance. NBA, sure, you knew Karl Malone was going to get his 26 pts, 11 boards, but we have no idea if Michael Bourne is going to steal 50 bases & be a great fantasy pick or start the season batting .225 for the first two months, end up batting 8th due to that showing & steal 31 bases and thus be a poor man’s Wily Taveras. Absolute worst predictor: MLB.com. They had Dallas McPherson hitting 28 homers last year.
    I’ve decided to forego all the statistical analysis & go with the average draft position (ADP) of the players via a compilation of the major sites. Even then, it really doesn’t matter since the league champion is generally going to be the guy with the most AB’s & IP, and that’s pure luck (your ‘big’ guys don’t get hurt). All the research in the world won’t help you if your #1 pick tears a ligament. You can’t replace a Pujols, an A-Rod, an Ichiro or a Lincecum, no matter how well your ‘bench’ picks were.

  4. I taught a baseball stats elective this term at y school, and the hardest part was coming up with stats simple enough to teach to 8th graders while still being meaningful. Doing it for hitting was pretty easy, but pitching and fielding especially got ugly.
    As a result, I took a page from Bill James and put everything into a team concept. When done that way, stuff made more sense.
    For example; When Griffey went to the Reds, he was essentially replacing Greg Vaugnn (big season), and when Jose Reyes went down this season he was replaced by Cora (death to all line-ups).
    Students arriving….. must go.

  5. For some people, stats have become the “game” instead of what’s happening on the field. I usually move to another seat when I find myself sitting next to one of these people at a game.
    Fantasy Baseball is just that… its not real.
    – John

  6. John,
    The money that some of us put into the “pot” as entry fees for a league is oh, so very real. 🙂

  7. Touche’. Fantasy Baseball is a real game. Its just not baseball – no grass stains on the knees and no dirt down your shorts. 🙂

  8. I hope Bill James has not changed his presentations. One of the reasons I loved his work in the 80s was that his stats were presented in a way so that not only did you know if playerA had better stats than playerB, but also if the difference was significant. He also took an effort to present the stats in a number that a regular baseball fan could comprehend, such as runs per 27 outs.

  9. Stats don’t always tell the true story; however, toss in a few variables here and there and a pattern usually begins to emerge. Even so, keeping a lefty who has a higher batting percentage of hitting home runs against a particular right-hander on the bench due to an overall low batting percentage isn’t necessarily a smart move.

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