The Scary Statistical Strawman

Well, it took about three weeks for Grantland to publish its first anti-sabermetrics piece. How did that fare compared to the over/under? Did Bill and Cousin Sal make a wager?

And like nearly every anti-sabermetrics piece to come before it, this one is built almost entirely around a strawman argument.

Take it away with your sub-Gladwellian thinkpiece bullshit, Jonah Lehrer:

Buying a car is a hard decision. There are just so many variables to think about. We’ve got to inspect the interior and analyze the engine, and research the reliability of the brand. And then, once we’ve amassed all these facts, we’ve got to compare different models.

It goes on like this for three more paragraphs. This is even more forced than the tiger-hunting metaphor that served as an introduction to an article on Roger Federer last week.

But this is not a column about cars.

Could have fooled me.

Instead of accepting the inherent mystery of athletic talent — or at least taking those intangibles into account — [sports teams] are pretending that the numbers explain everything. And so we end up with teams that are like the worst kind of car. They look good on paper — so much horsepower! — but they fail to satisfy.

This extended horsepower metaphor is actually making me nauseous. I don’t feel so good. Also, right off the bat, we’re hitting a couple key anti-stats checkpoints: mystery and intangibles. That makes me think of David Eckstein dressed up like a ghost for Halloween. What a scary little imp he would be.

This is largely the fault of sabermetrics.

Also the fault of sabermetrics: climate change, the Greek economy, Don Mattingly shaving his mustache, the early cancellation of Terriers, postpartum depression, the band Train, and drought.

The underlying assumption is that a team is just the sum of its players, and that the real world works a lot like a fantasy league.

No, that is not the fucking underlying assumption of advanced statistical measures. Nobody thinks that. Sabermetrics exist to advance our understanding of sports — both on an individual and team level.

But sabermetrics comes with an important drawback. Because it translates sports into a list of statistics, the tool can also lead coaches and executives to neglect those variables that can’t be quantified. They become so obsessed with the power of base runs that they undervalue the importance of not being an asshole, or having playoff experience, or listening to the coach.

Can you name one example where this has happened? One time when a coach or GM has become a raging asshole because he developed a better understanding of WAR, or DVOA?

This is the moral of the Dallas Mavericks. By nearly every statistical measure, the Mavs were outmanned by most of their playoff opponents. (According to one statistical analysis, the Los Angeles Lakers had four of the top five players in the series. The Miami Heat had three of the top four.) And yet, the Mavs managed to do what the best teams always do: They became more than the sum of their parts. They beat the talent.

I see. That’s not really what I meant. At all. The Mavericks are your example of old-timey, pro-intangibles thinking defeating sabermetrics? Really? Even though Mark Cuban is among those owners willing to try anything, and is often at the cutting edge of statistical analysis? Holy cow, you don’t know what you’re talking about at all, do you? The fucking moral of the Dallas Mavericks [sic] is not that sabermetrics are bad. It’s that any statistical analyses that showed the Mavericks were a vastly inferior team were perhaps flawed in some way. Or that small sample sizes often trump even the most well-thought-out and accurate metrics. Remember when Billy Beane said “My shit doesn’t work in the playoffs”? No? Maybe you should go back and ready “Moneyball,” and try to understand it a little better this time.

Here’s my problem with sabermetrics — it’s a useful tool that feels like the answer.

NO ONE WHO SUPPORTS SABERMETRICS EVER SAID IT WAS THE ANSWER. Jesus fucking Christ. Sabermetrics is exactly what you said: a tool. How people use or don’t use that tool is on them. Advanced statistics give you more information, and more accurate information than you had previously. When fucking batting average was invented, did idiot Philistines complain that this bewitching new math was ruining baseball? When Old Hoss Radbourn and the like first began keeping track of total wins or home runs in a season, did the purists scream that their beloved pastime was being ruined by an avalanche of terrifying digits and numerals? Opponents of sabermetrics scream from the mountaintops that there’s more to the games than numbers — well no one every fucking said there wasn’t.

Instead, coaches and fans use the numbers as an excuse to ignore everything else, which is why our obsession with sabermetrics can lead to such shortsighted personnel decisions.

Again — when has this happened? When has a baseball fan ever said, “Fuck it, I know that on paper the Brewers are better than the Cardinals, so I’m not going to bother to watch the game”? This entire column was simply an excuse to rail against something the author didn’t understand. Advanced numbers scare people when they don’t understand them. It brings up feelings of inadequacy. All anti-sabermetrics arguments essentially boil down to one thing: more knowledge is bad. Which is the same argument used by people who think we shouldn’t teach sex ed in schools, or research AIDS because it’s a punishment from God against the gays. Fear-mongering, strawman bullshit. I’ve never seen one anti-stats argument that’s anything more than that.

As Colin Wyers says on Baseball Prospectus, “But if knowing more about baseball makes it harder for you to enjoy the game, then I’m really not seeing your case that you’re the better fan than someone like me.”



Filed under Sports Has AIDS, The Dilemma

3 responses to “The Scary Statistical Strawman

  1. As is the norm for anti-sabermetric posts, your argument is well supported with facts, evidence and convincing reasoning.

  2. Anonymous

    Sabermetric wingnuts. You´re all counting angels on the heads of pins. The Moneyball taliban will fall and the sport will be better for it

  3. Pingback: Baseball Stats ….. Traditional vs Sabermetrics. | Garlicfriesandbaseball's Blog

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