How to Speak Sabermetrics to a Mainstream Audience

Alternate titles to this article: “How to NOT Look Like a Nerd” or “Convincing Your Friends You’re Right and They’re Wrong”.

As weird as it may sound, sabermetrics doesn’t need to be geeky. After all, saberists are simply trying to answer the same questions that everyday fans are trying to answer. How valuable is this player? How will certain players and teams perform in the future? Was this the correct managerial move or not? Sabermetrics is a new tool – a confusing tool to some people -but the questions are the same ones that fans have been asking for the last 80+ years.

But how do we present these new tools in a way that keeps mainstream fans from tuning out? How do you talk to your friends about sabermetrics without confusing them and looking like a nerd? It’s a tough balance to maintain, but I’ve found there are five guidelines that work well for me when talking with friends and writing articles.

Pick Your Topic Carefully. Casual fans are more likely to accept a new statistic if you can show them that it confirms what they already believe. In other words, you should be careful about picking an underperforming pitcher like Kyle Davies (6.23 ERA, 3.24 FIP this year) to try and convince your friends about the wonders of FIP. You can point out all the positives you want – his strikeout and walk rate, the fact that he’s allowed so few homeruns – but not many people are going to listen to you unless they’re already familiar with sabermetrics. To the casual fans, Davies has sucked this season, so anything that tries to tell them otherwise will seem totally ridiculous.

In other words, don’t argue, “Kyle Davies has actually been good this year,” but try something along the lines of, “There are some encouraging signs that Davies should improve going forward this season.”

Mesh the Mainstream and the Advanced. If I feel like introducing someone to an advanced statistic, I’ll normally compare it with its mainstream counterpart to show how both statistics say similar things about a player. If a player has a high Isolated Power, they’re also going to have a high SLG. If they have a good wOBA, they’ll also have a good OPS. From there, you can go on to explain what the new statistic captures that the mainstream statistic doesn’t, but it’s a good way to introduce someone to a new statistic: show them something familiar, and then show them something unfamiliar but similar.

This works best with offensive statistics, but every now and then a pitcher’s FIP and ERA will be similar too.

Don’t Overload Your Audience. There are some people out there that enjoy slogging through articles that feature paragraph after paragraph of statistics and numbers, but they certainly aren’t in the majority. In fact, there are lots of people out there that are math-phobic and are immediately turned off once you start spouting lots of different statistics. These readers shouldn’t be your target audience, since it’s likely you’ll never reach them no matter how hard you try, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still try and make your articles as simple as possible.

When I talk with friends, I normally pick one or two sabermetrics statistics to focus on. While you could easily include 10 statistics when discussing Joe Mauer’s value, why overload you audience with 10 statistics when only one or two will get the job done? Also, there are ways to use a statistic without delving into the specifics: “Mauer has a high walk rate, walking as often as he strikes out, which helps him reach base in 40% of his plate appearances.” That’s a lot easier to reach than, “Mauer has a career 12.1% BB%, which is higher than his career 11.4% K%, and his career OBP is a robust .406.”

Use Percentages. As you just saw, I love using percentages. While a person may or may not know what wOBA or FIP mean, they can understand percentages. As Dave Cameron mentioned in his article on FIP- recently, why talk about Cliff Lee’s 2.58 FIP when you can simply say, “And when you look at his peripheral statistics, Cliff Lee was 38 percent better than average at things pitchers have the most control over”?

Since there’s now wRC+ and FIP-, there are easy percentages available for both offensive players and pitchers. You can also look on the Saber Library page for a statistic and find what the general percentiles were for each statistic in 2010. For instance, looking at the FIP page, you can conclude that Cliff Lee’s 2010 performance ranked within the 90th percentile for all starting pitchers that season.

Focus on Concepts, Not Stats. If you remember one thing from this article, make it this: sabermetric concepts are waaay more important than individual statistics. If you’re having trouble convincing someone to give wOBA a shot, take a step back and explain to them the value of getting on base an avoiding outs. If they won’t listen to you talk about FIP, try and engage them in a conversation about what variables are in a pitcher’s control and which aren’t. And if they’ve confused by UZR or DRS, you can still talk about the value of good defense / run prevention.

There are many “sabermetric” concepts that most fans will agree with if you present them in a simple manner. Most fans will agree with you that small samples can make statistics and results fluky, as we see in the beginning of the season, and that it’s impossible to predict the beginning or end of streams and slumps. What fan will disagree with you if you start talking about the value of avoiding outs on offense? They may not want to hear about some funky new statistic, but you can engage readers by speaking of the core concepts undergirding each stat.

***

Anything I’m missing? Any other ideas you’ve found that work for you? Feel free to share!




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Steve is the editor-in-chief of DRaysBay and the keeper of the FanGraphs Library. You can follow him on Twitter at @steveslow.


37 Responses to “How to Speak Sabermetrics to a Mainstream Audience”

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  1. tbad says:

    Kyle Davies?

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  2. CSJ says:

    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?”

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  3. dan woytek says:

    Or just listen to Jon Sciambi try to converse intelligently with Chris Singleton

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  4. Luke in MN says:

    “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.

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    • 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.

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      • Telo says:

        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.

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  5. Eddie says:

    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.

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    • Xenophanes says:

      Bingo, same here.

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    • 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.

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    • Al Dimond says:

      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.

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    • philkid3 says:

      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.

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  6. Azmanz says:

    I’m pretty sure the average baseball fan does not want to hear percentages like “Cliff Lee was 38 percent better than average at things pitchers have the most control over”.

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  7. Nick44 says:

    Alternatively, you could call this article “Maximal Optimization of the Propagation Vector in Memetic Sabremetric Terminology” if you wanted to be more geeky. Some people actually like that.

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  8. Travis says:

    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.

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  9. DJG says:

    I doesn’t help the cause when professional writers at huge media outlets write stories about a stat like FIP when they clearly don’t understand it.

    http://sports.espn.go.com/fantasy/baseball/flb/story?id=5260306

    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?

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  10. yceberg says:

    For his birthday, I bought my father;

    Beyond Batting Average
    Lee Panas

    The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball
    Tom M. Tango

    After he digests those I will then try to engage him in some conversations getting away from the old ways of watching and thinking about the game…

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    • HRB says:

      It’s always seemed kind of perverse to me to give people presents based on what YOUR interests are, but hey. I’m funny that way.

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  11. 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.

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  12. philkid3 says:

    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.

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    • philkid3 says:

      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.

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  13. Matt Barr says:

    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.

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  14. dangnewt says:

    Nice work

    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.

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  15. HRB says:

    So, in essence:

    1. Know your audience and
    2. Don’t be a jerk

    With most hard-core saberists I know, #2 will be the sticking point.

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    • bill says:

      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.

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  16. Chip Buck says:

    I much prefer droning on for hours talking about the wonders of xFIP- or the minute intracies of UZR until my conversation partner’s ears start bleeding or head explodes.

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  17. Matt says:

    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.

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  18. Pierre says:

    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”.

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  19. Llewdor says:

    “Kyle Davies has actually been good this year.”

    “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.

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  20. acoustic567 says:

    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.

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  21. Brian Cartwright says:

    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”

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    • Pierre says:

      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.”

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