Jon Sciambi on Smarter Broadcasting

In case you missed it, play-by-play man Jon “Boog” Sciambi (hired away from the Atlanta Braves by ESPN this offseason) wrote a terrific guest piece at Baseball Prospectus on Tuesday about how sportscasters can better integrate the kind of advanced baseball analysis that goes on here and at BP, inspired by Will Carroll’s recent post “Be Stupid(er).” It’s all worth reading, but here’s the heart of the piece:

The goal is not unveiling newfangled stats; it’s about getting people to understand basic ideas and concepts. To achieve that, we can’t just slap stats up on the screen and explain them. Understanding has to come in the form of analysis. We have to use the stat and explain it…

If Ryan Howard is up, I can talk about RBI and why dependent stats don’t evaluate individual performance well; RBI aren’t what reflects Howard’s greatness, his SLG does. I can mention that Howard’s massive RBI totals may be due to the fact that no player has hit with more total men on base than Howard since 1492 (I believe this is a fact but didn’t feel like looking it up). Point is, there are dead people who could knock in 80 runs hitting fourth in that Phillies lineup. (OK, I probably wouldn’t say that on-air.)

The metrics are getting so advanced that we’re in danger of getting further away from the masses instead of closer… We can’t assume that’s understood just because we understand it. And the only way it gets embedded is to keep beating the audience with it so that it becomes ingrained the way ERA eventually did, even though that once passed for advanced math.

As R.J. Anderson recently wrote, this offseason has featured a terrific number of sabermetric primers (including a series by yours truly). But it has also heard a few “let me catch my breath!” pleas, from fans as varied as John Sickels, Bill Simmons, and Russ Smith of SpliceToday (who quotes the beloved Craig Calcaterra for cover).

Sciambi’s a good broadcaster, and he clearly has his heart in the right place: his goal is to enhance the viewers’ experience of the game, by giving them useful information that they can understand, neither dumbing it down nor sailing it over their heads. That’s a tricky assignment, because it’s always hard to be all things to all people, and it’s hard to be part of any movement pushing a paradigm shift. It’s hard to please a casual watcher who doesn’t know the acronyms or methodology of advanced sabermetrics at the same time that you’re trying to say something that Dave Cameron doesn’t already know. (As Will Carroll notes, last year ESPN tried to make OPS a regular feature of their baseball broadcasts, but apparently their viewers thought it was “too complicated.”)

So what can be done? I think a lot of non-saberheads get hung up on the constellation of acronyms that we use, getting so hung up at all the capital letters that they miss the meaning behind them. (Like Jim Bowden, creator of “OBPATUZXYZ,” or Jon Heyman, inventor of “VORPies.”) So, pace Will Carroll, we need to be willing to let broadcasters be stupid — but with a purpose. The stats around here are pretty easy to read, because they’re all scaled to look like things we’re more familiar with, but we’re not going to see a broadcaster talk about FIP any time soon. However, everyone understands runs and wins, and, as Will Carroll says, anyone can understand a statement like “Albert Pujols was two wins better than Zack Greinke last season.” It has to be justified, but we’ve all heard broadcasters make unsupportable assertions about how many more wins a player adds to his team, or how many runs he saves with his glove. These are just numbers that add support to things they already say. And it can easily be understood. Both by the Jon Sciambis of the world, and the Russ Smiths.

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Alex is a writer for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times, and is a product manager for The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @alexremington.

43 Responses to “Jon Sciambi on Smarter Broadcasting”

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  1. Nick says:

    This post totally falls apart in the last paragraph. I’m really not sure what your overall point is, or what your disagreement is with Sciambi.

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  2. odbsol says:

    He’s not replacing Joe Morgan, is he? (fingers crossed)

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  3. Random Guy says:

    It’s interesting to read (in Sciambi’s column) that Joe Simpson is an old-school kind of guy. I first got into baseball with the 1979 Mariners, and thought they had a pretty decent right fielder in Simpson because, hey, the guy hit over .280. Years later I realize that a big reason for that somewhat talented team losing 95 games was a platoon corner outfielder with a wOBA below .300. No wonder Simpson prefers the old-school stuff!

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  4. Joe R says:

    You know what’s funny about SABRmetrics, though? At their root, they make the game simplier.

    Example, when arguing the merits using old school #’s (BA, Wins, Fielding %, etc.), you have to divorce yourself from something you know is correct to argue it. Fans KNOW that walks are a good thing, but will discount them once they hear that evil “OBP”. Fans know that mediocre pitchers can rack up wins, and good ones can get a lot of no-decisions / losses, but some will still use it as a way to compare. Fans know a guy who ranges all over the field w/ the occasional error is better than the one w/ a 100% fielding percentage, mostly due to having stone feet and not getting to any ball that isn’t hit right at him. Then, amazingly, they’ll completely argue against themselves. It’s a sight.

    That being said, announcers shouldn’t be SABRmetricians. They should explain why stuff is good, let people know the logic around a metric. I notice a lot of new-to-the-party (or even older than that) analysts talk about some Bill James’ metrics as relics of the past, but forget that James has always been far more concerned w/ the purpose to a metric than the actual metric itself. Secondary Average, for example, is outdated, but the reason behind it was creating a number that shows the value of guys whose contributions aren’t encompassed in the Holy Trinity of BA/HR/RBI like Tim Raines, and showing some players w/ more traditionally loved stats can be overrated. That’s what analysts need to do now. Show to the casual fan

    1) Why there’s new metrics, aka what’s wrong about the one’s they know and love and probably misuse
    2) The logic of them

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  5. Cooper S says:

    I’m going to miss Boog calling Braves games. He really is one of the best.

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  6. Brian Lonsway says:

    If Jim Leyland = Masses… your definately getting farther away… latest comment… “there always seems to be enough men on base.. it finding the guys to knock them inn that’s important”

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  7. LeeTro says:

    It would be nice for broadcasts to start including more advanced stats, but it would be better to see more players begin to understand these metrics. I was talking to a minor league pitcher in the Brewers organization, and he had never heard of BABIP, FIP, or UZR. It would be nice to see more Brian Bannister’s in the baseball world.

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  8. Nick says:

    I think the MLB Network has it’s heart in the right place, but their little segments are almost setting the movement back.

    For example, they did a snippet on BABIP, and they listed the top 5 players by BABIP in 2009. Tom Verducci said something like, “And there’s David Wright at the top with a .410 average, wow”, completely missing the point of the stat, that’s it not really something where Leaderboards are very useful. Ken Rosenthal went into a bit more detail but it was almost an afterthought.

    Also, they looked at the leader in some pitching metric (FIP I think), and Victor Rojas said something to the effect of, “Well, these are all great pitchers, we know that, what does this tell me that traditional stats don’t?”

    Harold Reynolds is always good for a laugh though. As in, “ha ha look at that guy”.

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    • philkid3 says:

      I agree with this.

      They introduce a stat, say what it is, then have a panel of traditionalists who don’t want any sort of change and don’t know what they’re looking at make fun of it.

      There is no input from someone who knows what they’re doing, there is no discussion of what the statistic is actually useful for and there is no explanation for why it is the way it is.

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      • Brian Lonsway says:

        I TIVO’s a segment on the tigers’ on mlb network.. my favorite Harold Reynolds moment was when he recomended they put ADAM EVERETT inn the #2 hole…

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  9. I don’t disagree with Sciambi at all. I think he’s smart, and I think he’s right. If the post reads as though I disagree with him then I didn’t express myself well. My point is that the way to satisfy both of Sciambi’s points — that broadcasters need to be smarter, but need to accommodate a widely varied audience — is to explain complicated concepts in simple terms, ignoring the acronyms and just talking about “runs” and “wins.”

    And I’ll definitely miss him calling Braves games. He’s a whole lot better than Chip Caray.

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    • Nick says:

      I understand now. I was thrown off by you prefacing it with “his heart is in the right place”.

      That said, I completely disagree. Yes, acronyms lead to eyes glazing over and sometimes scorn, but to use “runs” and “wins” in that sense is even worse than just ignoring sabremetrics altogether.

      For the type of person you’re trying to reach, their idea of what a “run” or “win” is has very little to do with what you’d be talking about. They think of these things in literal terms, not abstract ones like they should be. And ironically, I don’t think this approach gives these people enough credit. They will inevitably ask how a player’s runs or wins are calculated, and that’s where you’re losing them. Otherwise, they’ll just interpret you incorrectly, and what good does that do?

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      • I’m predicating this on my experience that broadcasters (and beat writers, and columnists, and TV analysts) tend to refer to the number of runs or wins that a player contributes fairly nebulously, and we have numbers that can ground those assertions. So we can talk about exactly how many runs a guy like Andruw Jones was saving back when he was good, instead of just making a number up like “one a game” (which I literally heard on the radio).

        We can talk about how many wins the Mets lost last year with Beltran and Reyes out and Pagan and the revolving door of shortstops in their place. Columns have literally been written about this very subject. (Including one by me.)

        People will surely ask for an explanation, and you can provide one, as brief or as long as time permits. But the point is that the concepts are out there, and they’re easy to understand — everyone wants to know how many more wins this guy is worth than that guy. Everyone wants to know how many runs this guy puts on the board, and how many runs he saves. Broadcasters, journalists and fans have been making unsupported assertions about this stuff for years. If they’re going to keep doing that as before, they might as well use accurate numbers.

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  10. Bryz says:

    I’m all for putting some advanced stats on broadcasts, but I was offended when I saw that ESPN, without warning, suddenly had OPS on the player graphics. Why? Because I felt like ESPN was trying to please the saber-heads, but only by doing the bare minimum. Oh, and there was no explanation as to what OPS was, or why it was useful (to my knowledge, anyway), almost like Jon Miller, Joe Morgan, etc. were never informed that OPS would now be a part of the broadcast.

    *insert jokes on how Morgan wouldn’t even be willing to promote OPS and instead would advocate a lineup of speedy hitters*

    I’m not saying that I want Joe Mauer’s entire FanGraphs player page to appear as he walks up to the plate, but I do think that something like FIP could be useful. “Pavano’s ERA is over 5 but his FIP is near 4, suggesting that he’s just been unlucky this year.” That’s not that hard to say, unless you have no idea what FIP is in the first place (likely a common issue for today’s analysts).

    Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune has been doing something in some of his articles lately that I like. When talking about defense, he’ll occasionally point out something like, “IF YOU BELIEVE IN THEM, some defensive metrics say that Delmon Young was one of the worst defensive outfielders last year.” I like this because Christensen is not only allowing the readers to decide whether or not to believe what he’s telling them, but also hinting that it’s perfectly ok for the readers to disagree with him.

    I love sabermetrics, and I definitely want them to become a bigger part of the game of baseball (and I believe they someday will), but one thing that will always annoy me is us saber-heads being closed-minded of the people that want to stick with the older stats. I feel that the old and the new should work together, not one in place of the other.

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    • Bronnt says:

      I was actually pleased by the triple slash stats being included. The announcers themselves have to mention it in order to truly make it a part of the broadcast, but it’s there. And honestly, within OPS are the vast majority of the information needed to quickly judge a player’s offensive contributions-all that’s missing are the league average and replacement levels, which most statheads already recognize as a matter of familiarity. From the triple slash, you can pull out an ISO, you can see how much of his OPS is weighted in slugging vs OBP, and you can quickly compare players of relative value.

      All it requires for the average fan is more familiarity. There was a time, when we all were young, and we’d see a player with a .250 batting average, and think “That’s decent, right?” Fans not familiar with the scaling for OBP might have the same reaction to a .320 OBP.

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      • Bryz says:

        I’m shocked to think that a significant number of ESPN viewers found OPS to be “too complicated.” Even though I’m a math major, there’s no way that you can accuse me of being biased when I say that OPS = add OBP to SLG is not “too complicated.”

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      • walkoffblast says:

        That surprised me as well. Although I have also been surprised for years that adding OPS to the screen qualifies as advanced baseball when almost no one that delves a little deeper into advanced baseball cares much about OPS.

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  11. neuter_your_dogma says:

    I agree that broadcasters can and should do more to bring advanced analysis to the masses. However, aren’t some of the data used in “advanced analysis” to evaluate players proprietary? And if so, isn’t this an impediment to understanding and acceptance?

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  12. jaydan says:

    I know everybody has a pet opinion on why advanced metrics aren’t more widely used but I’m surprised at how seldom the issue of scaling comes up. The practice of scaling basically makes it so an announcer *can’t* explain a stat without insulting the viewing audience. I run into this all the time when I try to explain wOBA (by far everybody’s favorite advanced metric) to friends:

    “What’s wOBA?”
    “Well you know how SLG works?”
    “Well, wOBA is the same as SLG but you count walks too. And instead of just saying a triple is worth 3 times a single, it actually tries to figure out real relative value and then uses that.”
    “Wow – That Makes Sense.”
    “Doesn’t it? And then you multiply the whole thing by 1.15 or something like that.”
    “Because people get confused if it’s on a different scale than on base percentage.”
    “They think I’m stupid?”

    I’ve had this conversation over and over and I never have a satisfactory answer for why the stat is converted to some arbitrary scale. I realize that the scale was arbitrary to begin with but at least it was something you could explain to somebody. Adding another calculation needlessly obfuscates the underlying data and will forever prevent people like television announcers from explaining how the stat works. They can’t afford to openly condescend to their audience and any attempt to explain the current popular advanced metrics (FIP has a similar problem) is going to end up at condescension real quick.

    Is this an ongoing conversation at all? Is there any reason beyond “making it easier to understand” that the sabr crowd continues to ignore the non-scaled versions of these useful metrics? I understand that there are league weighting issues at play but I can’t see how they’re anywhere near as important as making these metrics easier (and more polite) to explain.

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    • q says:

      Why are stats scaled? Easy. Every single stat requires a baseline. We all know that a .400 OBP is “good.” But, if you’re completely new to baseball, you’re not going to know this. So if wOBA is scaled so that what’s “good” is the same number as what’s a “good” OBP, then those new to the stat but familiar with baseball will intuitively know that a player with a .400 wOBA is “good.” If wOBA weren’t scaled and you told me that someone had a .300 (unscaled) wOBA, I would have no idea what that means.

      It has nothing to do with stupidity. It’s about easier adoption.

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      • jaydan says:

        I get that that’s the intention. But how did we all figure out that .400 OBP is good? OBP isn’t scaled at all. People don’t seem to have any trouble figuring out OBP at all. Or AVG. Or SLG. Or even OPS, really. They’re easy to explain. And it doesn’t take people long once they understand those stats to separate “good” from “bad”.

        But wOBA, although much more useful, is in fact, harder to explain. And I don’t think that difficulty has anything to do with linear weights or run values. People are smart (especially baseball fans!) – you can explain things like that to them. I think it has everything to do with arbitrary scaling. Which, in my experience, is actually quite difficult to explain. Because, you know… it’s arbitrary.

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      • TCQ says:

        OBP has been around forever, though. And anyway, there’s no scaling because it’s a very simple calc – you know, times on base and plate appearances. Makes sense very easily; .400 means he got on base 40% of the time. Something like wOBA is calculated using(seemingly) arbitrary numbers, so it needs a familiar scale.

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      • Bryz says:

        @ Jayden: By comparing it to the league average, we can determine what constitutes a “good” OBP and what’s a “bad” OBP. However, you can run into issues if you’re trying to compare players from completely different eras. A .350 OBP now should not be comparable to a .350 OBP in the Dead Ball Era.

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    • Benjamin says:

      One solution to this might be greater use of the + stats (OPS+, wRC+, etc etc). It’s pretty easy to explain that 100 is average, > 100 is good, < 100 is bad, and it doesn't seem arbitrary. (Choosing 100 is arbitrary, of course, but it makes sense).

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    • BIP says:

      Isn’t the most obvious solution to simply not mention the scaling factor?

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      • jaydan says:

        What about when people try to compute it for themselves?

        But with your plan, I’d probably be more fun to be around. Nobody has ever complimented me on being extra pedantic. I’ll have to give it a shot.

        But if that doesn’t work, I just think we should have a metric that tries to approximate the contribution of a player’s offense per plate appearance that an announcer can explain without any caveats. Something like, weighted unadjusted plate appearance outcome average:

        wuPOA = HR * 1.70 + 3B * 1.37 + 2B * 1.08 + 1B * 0.77 + NIBB * 0.62

        Done. Simple. Is it adjusted for season? No. League? Nope. Does it park adjust? Nuh-uh. Nobody is really all that good at doing those things anyway.

        Can an announcer explain it in 15 seconds? Yes. Way easy. Will it do a much better job of comparing offensive players than OPS, AVG, SLG, or OBP? Totally. Is there going to be any confusion about what’s “good” and “bad”? No more than there was about ops. That is, not very much.

        To me, the real interesting part of wOBA and FIP (trying to assign relative values to the possible outcomes) is being totally hidden by all this “difference from season/league average” stuff and “scaling for people to understand” weirdness. I find both of those aspects near impossible to explain, much less justify, to a neophyte.

        But that’s me. If others are having success explaining opaque stats, then great. We’ll all be better off for it.

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  13. Sam says:

    “as Will Carroll says, anyone can understand a statement like “Albert Pujols was two wins better than Zack Greinke last season.””

    I am sorry, in and of itself, that statement makes no sense to me. How are we comparing a pitcher and a position player in a team game (i.e., where it is the team that wins, not the individual player), and concluding “Albert Pujols was two wins better than Zack Greinke last season”? What is the unit of measurement?

    I know the answer to these questions, because I have gone through the calculations that contribute to the computation of win shares, of replacement levels, and of wins above replacement. Once the objective measures have put a pitcher and a position player in terms of runs contributed, and translated those runs contributed to wins contributed, the statement makes sense to me.

    Otherwise, they are as illuminating as “Pitcher X won Y games.”

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  14. RonDom says:

    In politics you speak to the independents because they make up the vast majority of the population. The same goes for baseball fans. I cannot believe most fans wouldn’t understand these stats since their creators (and numerous users) have brought them to point where they are almost second nature. 5 is greater than 2. You want the bigger number (on offense and defense). Now for pitching ERA has brought forth the argument less is more, and so FIP goes on that trail as well. The transition would be easy if we started talking about it more, but we would have to bring it to the front like Alex and “Boog” mentioned, casually. It’s how I became interested in it (when it was shoved down my throat I ignored it), and I think I am no more or less than the average baseball fan.

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  15. Ryan says:

    I’m actually the radio broadcaster for a minor league team (the Hagerstown Suns, the A Affiliate of the Nationals) and I’ve been working FIP and BABIP into my broadcasts for the last couple of years from time to time. I wouldn’t rate our listenership as the most educated sabr-wise around or anything, but it seemed to go over fairly well. One of the problems, at the minor league level at least, is that I had to compute the stats myself, and didn’t have time to do so on a daily basis. So, for a few guys I’d make sure to run their FIP before starts, but it wasn’t a standard feature.

    Now that I’ve found (somehow didn’t know about it til October of this year…my bad), I’ll be able to work them in consistently. That’ll be a big plus, and I wouldn’t be too surprised if other statistically-inclined broadcasters around milb go a similar direction.

    The biggest issue is always leading in – you can’t assume that everyone listening now was listening the last time you used FIP or BABIP or anything else, so you have to give a little primer each time. That gets annoying for those who are regular listeners, so you’re caught in a dilemma. How often do you have to explain it, and how in-depth do you go each time? My goal for the season (one of them at least) is to feature those two stats in particular on a regular basis. Perhaps I won’t get them into every game, but I should be able to get pretty close.

    Does anyone have thoughts on other important, yet relatively simple to explain, stats that could be easily incorporated?

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    • Ryan, that’s awesome! Clearly I spoke way too soon when I said FIP would never show up on a radio broadcast.

      Keeping with the minorleaguesplits theme, how about some more of the pitching components, like LD%, GB%, HR/FB%, and that sort of thing?

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      • Ryan says:

        Luckily the minor league baseball stats portal (which has day-by-day and many other stats that are evidently only accessible to those of us who work in MILB) has GB/FB ratios. I use that quite a bit, though the HR/FB% will be a nice add. And it’s on the minorleaguesplits pages too, at least for pitchers. It’ll be interesting to see if they add that for hitters n the site too, as that would definitely help. I can do the math if necessary, but I won’t do it daily for every hitter.

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      • Sam says:

        Ryan, fabulous! Can you somehow kidnap John Sterling and Suzyn Waldman and take their place with whoever is your partner?

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    • Bote Man says:

      Ryan, I suggest you focus on the fan who listens consistently.

      The old adage applies here: “never try to teach a pig to sing, it wastes your time and annoys the pig”. Those who tune in sporadically probably don’t care much about stats (or baseball) anyway so the stats and their explanations will flow like water off a duck’s back.

      Those who tune in regularly are clearly interested in following the team and might very well want to know more about these new stats and appreciate your explanations from time to time. They can always search for more information on the Net.

      When I first started paying attention to baseball with the Orioles (pre-Internet) I appreciated the fact that Jon Miller would explain certain baseball terms as he used them, not every time, but frequently enough that I learned what a wheel play was or the hit-and-run (leaving its merit aside). I listened to most of the games and even some of the rain delay antics and came away more aware, if not more knowledgeable.

      Don’t sell yourself short on your ability to educate the listener, either about better statistical measures or any aspect of the game.

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  16. walkoffblast says:

    I think the biggest problem with ignoring advanced stats in broadcasts is that now more teams than not are using such numbers. One of the main jobs of the announcers is to talk about why a team did something. Now if the announcer does not understand advanced concepts then they cannot in fact properly answer this question. This problem only exacerbates itself when they then start talking about if a decision was the “right move” or not. Why should they misinform the fan as to what a team is doing just because they fear the fan is too stupid to understand? Isn’t this kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy at that point?

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    • Barry Reed says:

      Don’t teams employ their regular announcers? If that’s the case, then as more teams use advanced stats, it seems reasonable to expect that more of their broadcasters would as well… In other words, I would expect advanced stats to work their way into broadcast booths the same way they worked their way into the front office: hiring young execs and stats people…

      This will likely take longer on the broadcast side, since they don’t seem to turn over nearly as quickly as players… However, as players start to think more about advanced stats, when those players start to turn into broadcasters, I wouldn’t expect them to check that knowledge at the door… As more non-players like Sciambi get hired and want to discuss advanced stats, they will begin to appear… In my opinion, the casual fans watching (or listening to) a game will be the last to come on board, since that won’t happen until well after the broadcasters change…

      We can wring our hands about how long this might take (or how to speed it up), but as someone said or wrote: everything’s eventual…

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  17. El Lay Dave says:

    In Will Carroll’s article, I thought there was a brilliant idea in the comments. That was to include as an on-screen graphic a version of the Fangraphs Win Probability % and graph. Think of how ESPN packages the World Series of Pokers. I’d bet most viewers have no clue how the probabilities of any of those situations are calculated, but knowing who is better off sure adds to the viewers experience.

    Having the win probability on screen could lead to all kinds of great discussions, such as how the situation the 7th inning got out of was so much more huge than the save the closer got with a two-run lead, or how the sacrifice bunt really affected the situation, etc. etc.

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    • Joe R says:

      That sounds well and good, but I can see a running WPA graph being clutter on my TV screen (not to mention intuitive enough to everyone).

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  18. BIP says:

    It seems to me that there are two main problems that hinder the average fan from understanding modern statistics:

    1) The vast majority of fans (and people in general) know next to nothing about probability, or what they do know is fallacious. Any disscussion of luck or “what should have happened” or making a projection is likely to run into this problem, and I’m not sure what the solution is, really.

    2) The average fan perceives new statistics as being arbitrary. In some cases, it’s true (this is likely the problem ESPN is encountering when trying to explain OPS), but in many cases, they aren’t (wOBA, tRA, etc.). This is the area I think sabermetricians have done really poorly in their attempt to explain the new statistics: not nearly enough emphasis has been given to the fact that these new statistics aren’t arbitrary.

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  19. Oskar says:

    I’m more or less in my SABR infancy and as my awareness grows, I find the mix of apathy & disdain for advanced metrics in mainstream MLB coverage quite disappointing. It appears MLB Network is trying to incorporate more into their studio shows, but just when you think you’re about to watch an insightful segment, Joe Magrane or Harold Reynolds dismisses them.

    The other night on Hot Stove, Magrane blatantly called them a joke (excuse the paraphrasing): “all these new stats are too complicated and can be explained so much easier”… he then proceeded to take about 20 seconds to explain OPS (or something similar) in a rambling and very inefficient way. I guess is a three-digit decimal is a bit hard to grasp…

    Anyways, good stuff with the article and in the comments, as always.

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  20. Jason Andreasen says:

    Boog’s finest hour happened on The Dan LeBatard Show on 790 AM when he teamed up with R2D2 for “Robot Baseball” which looked at the idea of robots replacing MLB players. Here’s the link:

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