I was recently speaking to someone from Britain who had an extremely limited knowledge of baseball. I wanted to tell him a little bit about statistics, but knew he didn’t much care about the nitty-gritty stuff. So I started talking about batting average and simply stated: “Batting average doesn’t even acknowledge that walks exist. How useful can a statistic be when it completely ignores a player’s positive impact on the team?”
“And when you look at his peripheral statistics, Cliff Lee was 38 percent better than average at things pitchers have the most control over”
I applaud your broader effort, but I think this is a perfect example of poor sabr-inclined writing for a broad audience. I actually don’t know what it means. Does it mean that Cliff Lee’s FIP is at the 88th percentile or that the difference between Cliff Lee’s FIP and the league-average FIP is a number equal to 38% of the league-average FIP? Under either interpretation it’s not clear what population you’re comparing him to. If you’re worried that you can’t explain those things without boring your audience, fine, but then you might as well just write that “Cliff Lee is quite good” instead of giving an ambiguous quantification of his skill.
Also, if you talk about his “peripherals” being 38% better than average, you raise a slew of perfectly legitimate questions in the average reader about what the heck you mean by that word. “Peripherals” as you’ve used it is every bit as much sabr-jargon as FIP or whatever. Simplicity and brevity are great, but without accuracy and clarity they’re more trouble than they’re worth.
One more thing I wonder about: Is FIP or xFIP really worth talking about all that much to any audience? It’s a peculiar meld of three other stats that’s occasionally a small degree better at predicting ERA than ERA by itself, depending on how much data you’re working with. Unlike ERA or RA, it doesn’t actually describe end results that people care that much about in and of themselves. I’m not really sure its virtues justify the degree of use it has, let alone attempts to spread it further.
In my experience, I’ve gotten the most pushback from people when I try to explain DIPS theory to them. Some people just cannot accept that pitchers like Greg Maddux couldn’t coax groundballs directly at infielders.
It’s not clear? It seems straightforward to me: it means he had a FIP 38% lower/better than league average (62 FIP-). It’s a rather vague statement, yes, but I do think you need to pick your battles when you try and talk about certain things with people that aren’t in sabermetrics. I normally wouldn’t use something like that simply as a stand-alone sentence, but follow it up with talk about strikeouts and walks and suchnot.
In my experience, there’s nothing wrong with saying that his peripherals are X% above or below average….it’s a handy shortcut, and most saberists will get the general vibe of what you’re talking about. You can’t be 100% detailed and involved with everything you say, or else you’re going to start losing people very quickly.
But yeah, I definitely agree that the example I gave was rather clunky. I could have worked that better. And FIP is really tough to talk about with a mainstream audience….I normally never bring it up, but merely the concepts of how strikeouts are good, walks bad, and defense can impact ERA results.
Agreed, it’s definitely one of the toughest things for people to grasp. There’s no real easy way to explain it without making some people go “Whaaaat?” I normally focus on the fact that a good or bad defense can help a pitcher’s ERA, and people are pretty receptive to that idea.
Cliff Lee was 38 percent better than average at things pitchers have the most control over
is different than
he had a FIP 38% lower/better than league average
In fact, one thing to definitely NOT say when dealing with non saberists are things like “X was better/worse than because of this Y (saber stat)”.
What we want is to convey the fundamentals, not to point at things and claim someone was better or worse than someone else. I’d say introduce FIP and what exactly what it measures, then say Lee was 38% better FIP than the rest of the league. They get tend to get defensive when you assume that your stats actually mean someone was BETTER or WORSE.
It’s funny, when I first read the DIPS article (long after it was published) the first thing I did was check Maddux’s b-r page, because the idea that Maddux gave up a pretty average number of hits on balls in play ran counter to everything I had thought about his success. When I told my dad this he had the exact same reaction. Fortunately by that point BABIP was easy enough to find — when the facts are right there for you, it’s hard to argue with them.
Good article. I might suggest not to challenge anyone’s beliefs on controversial players or talking points as an introduction. Don’t begin with discussing how dominant Bonds was, how great Manny was, how MLB despite a lack of a salary-cap has greater parity than other sports. Using their same statistics but framing them in a fictional player or historical player may get concepts across without provoking anyone to defend their mainstream views.
A quote (story was written midway through last season):
“That’s not to say I don’t think FIP can be a useful tool. You just have to use it as a guide to what it truly measures: a pitcher’s ability to control the outcome of his start without any outside influence. The pitchers with the most control over a game’s outcome — and thus, the lowest FIP — are the ones who are least impacted by outside factors, be they defensive ability, ballpark conditions or luck. It is these pitchers, whose pitching exploits most often end up in one of the three true outcomes, who you can most rely on to maintain the status quo, for better or for worse. These are the pitchers you can count on. In the case of Roy Halladay and Ubaldo Jimenez, that’s a good thing. For Randy Wells and Felipe Paulino, not so much. ”
What? Having a low FIP is bad for Wells and Paulino?
Except for the Cliff Lee bit (already covered above) this is a great article. I’ve been “converted” to the new stats over a period of time, and can say that too many new stats at once is very confusing for the novice.
One minor complaint: I realize WAR is a valuable tool, but merely stating someone is a “XX” WAR player does not tell me anything..is he a lanky, fast outfielder with gap power? Sluggardly slugger? All fielf-no hit SS? Especially for younger players and prospects who I know nothing about.
I was going through this article thinking “I find talking about the concepts to be very successful IRL.” Then, lo and behold, you have that as the last point.
I talk baseball with quite a few people in the real world, and while my conversations are different form the internet, I don’t exactly abandon opinions for the nature of easy conversation. But I’m not pulling out wOBA or FIP to most people, either. Instead, I focus, as you say, on the concepts. On saying something like “Jon Doe doesn’t have much of a batting average, sure, but he is walking, and that’s almost as good as a single, and he’s hitting a ton of line drives. It’s not like he’s hitting them directly at people on purpose, if he keeps that up they’ll eventually be hits and he’ll be doing just fine.”
A whole lot of sabermetric stats are rooted in logic, and if you talk about the logic and the concept, people will get what you’re saying. Even if they don’t always agree, you’ll have inserted a sabermetrically influenced opinion in to a conversation successfully without a wall of dismissal going up.
And from there, if it’s going well, I have found I can suggest something like “according to one site’s excellent estimation, he’s made the team about two wins better than they would be with a scrub” and have it make sense to them.
DIPS theory is absolutely the hardest. I find it’s easier if you never say anything like “pitchers don’t control what happens on balls in play.” Partly because that’s not exactly true.
If you say something like “at the MLB level, the best pitchers don’t really control it any more than the worst” it tends to go better. At least in my experience, people have an easier time getting behind that idea.
Well done. I do the Stat Nerd column on the big Yahoo NHL blog. Your point about confirming what they already believe is right on. It’s exciting, and a sexy premise, to set out to prove why something everybody knows is true isn’t, but that’s when you get the most pushback and closed-mindedness. Better to demonstrate a new (to your readership) stat by saying “we already know so-and-so is great, but here’s another reason why,” for example.
It is also useful to read Bill James – I was as hooked on his writing style as on the stats and concepts in the mid’80’s Abstracts. He always stressed that stats needed to mesh with what your eyes saw on the field.
I agree that you should provide as much context as possible. That is why I love any index with 100 as the average. Even national announcers with staff continue to simply say things like “he has a .280 average with Runners in Scoring Position” is this much better or worse than the overall average? is this much better or worse than that players average? is the differential between his BA and BA with RISP any better or worse than the average player.
Lastly, do not assume that someone in their late 40’s or 50’s is going to be hostile to sabermetric arguments – sabermetrics is almost mainstream now and it has been 25 years or so since it was an underground pursuit. Which means if someone is scoffing at sabermetric arguments regardless of their age, they just might be scoffers and the best course is to change the subject.
Though HRB’s comment is a little bit jerky itself, it’s a good point. Saber- style analysis would probably have greater reach by this point if we proponents were not so often wedded to a internet prose-style that is quick to scoff and mock and pile on the snark, and instead practiced a bit more patience and generosity. Bill James never struck me as snarky, for example, and he was tremendously successful in reaching people.
I find he easiest stat to explain is BABIP. Every baseball fan can remember when their favorite player was in a slump, but they were hitting screaming line drives straight at gloves the whole time. even casual fans know there’s a lot of luck involved. I feel like when people find out that there’s a stat that tracks balls in play, they can introduced to others.
try “he walks a lot” or, for batters or pitchers, “the hits have been dropping/not dropping. It’ll even out”. That covers about 95% of it. For UZR, “the fielding stat people say this guy is really good/bad”.
“There are some encouraging signs that Davies should improve going forward this season.”
Those are two very different statements. If Kyle Davies has actually been good, then saying he’ll improve is silly. Maybe if you say he should see better results, but if he’s already good you can’t say he’s not because then you’re just lying to people.
I’m sort of on the border between between being an insider or an outsider to the sabermetric congregation, so take this for what it’s worth to you. It’s just an expansion of the point made by HRB and Bill.
There can definitely be sort of a “young turk” quality to essays and posts by sabermetric folks. The comments sometimes go beyond enthusisam about an exciting and intellectually challenging approach to looking at the game, to an implicit assertion that “This is now THE way to think analytically about MLB baseball, and if you’re not thinking this way you are stuck in an outmoded and inferior way of thinking about it.”
I appreciated Bill’s reference to Bill James because, when you read his best work, he makes clear that the beauty and the history of this great game, with all its characters and all its intuition-defying events, exceed in importance our analysis of it, however sharp that analysis might be.
Sometimes it’s making sure you don’t say the wrong thing, such as equating batting average with hitting. If Ichiro leads the league in BA, don’t let someone say that he led the league in hitting – correct them with “He led the league in batting average, but hitting is much more than just BA”
Comment by Brian Cartwright — April 26, 2011 @ 9:01 pm
See, if someone said that to me, I would find it incredibly annoying. The effect is the same as when someone interrupts a conversation to correct your English. It strikes me as a great example of what you should not say.
If, for example, someone says “Magglio Odonez is a career .300 hitter”, I think the correct response is something like “yeah, he’s been really good for a long time. Plenty of walks and extra base hits, too.”