On Research and Writing: The Growing Niches of the Saber-Sphere

I’m a little bit late following up on this, but I absolutely loved this quote from Tom Tango during a recent Baseball Prospectus Q&A:

Q: I like to flatter myself that I’m an ‘early adopter’ to the sabermetric perspective on the game, even though it’s been so many years since its introduction and uptake by those like yourself. Is sabermetrics already ‘mainstream’ in your mind, or how long do you think it will be til it is? What was / will be the tipping point to #2?

Tango: Sabermetrics will always be on the leading edge. There’s no need for it to be in the mainstream. If the mainstream wants to adopt, they know where to find us. If they want to ignore us, they can. We’re there to make sure they don’t misuse numbers, that’s all.

I hope [the tipping point] never happens, actually. You look over to your left and right to make sure that whoever wants to be part of the movement has the tools and knowledge to join in. There’s no sense in looking over your shoulder to make sure everyone comes along. They aren’t in a burning building they are trying to escape. They are on the beach, and they can decide if they want to come surfing with us or not. But I don’t need them to tell me that I’m drowning people with numbers. We’re giving out surfboards, and they can decide if they want one. And then we’ll be happy to make sure they don’t drown.

I couldn’t agree more, but I realize that might seem counterintuitive for those that have followed my recent Saber-Tips series here. A large part of my writing and work here seems geared at making sabermetrics more mainstream – or at least, more widely used – but that’s not my intention. Let me explain.

One of the most beautiful things about sports coverage these days is that you can have your baseball however you want it – as shallow and broad or as deep and specific as you’d like. And as Tango hit upon in his answer, the same can be said for sabermetrics – everyone is free to take as much as from sabermetrics as they want. If you’d prefer to skim the surface and learn enough to help slightly in fantasy baseball or discussions with friends, you can do that. But if you’d like to jump in with both feet, there are plenty of places out there to read detailed research as well. All the options are there, and you can pick from them as you choose.

But here’s where my point comes in: I feel that for the longest time, sabermetrics has largely been a research-driven field. Up until the last few years, most of the writing about sabermetrics was done by people that were doing unique research and trying to push the field forward in terms of knowledge. It was a very small collection of people that were in on this, and everyone knew about the stats and concepts you were talking about.

And since then….bit by bit, sabermetrics has become democratized. Fire Joe Morgan made it fun and humorous to care about advanced analysis, and FanGraphs came along and made these saber-stats available to everyone for free. And over the past few years, the online baseball blogosphere has really solidified into a strong, vibrant mass of awesomeness. Now, not only can you find a blog specializing in, say, the Tampa Bay Rays or Milwaukee Brewers, but you can also find blogs on those teams that focus specifically on sabermetric stats and analysis.

As more people are writing about saber concepts, the field is evolving: there is still the collection of researchers that do yeoman’s work and move the field forward (and get hired by teams in the process), but there’s a larger, growing group of people that couldn’t run a t-test if their lives depended on it, but know enough about saber-stats to use them in their writing. As opposed to being saberists (a la Tom Tango), they’re saber-writers (like Rob Neyer or Joe Posnanski, for instance).

There’s no shame to being in this category; I consider myself a saber-writer, and there are lots of people still doing insightful analyses even though they don’t necessary fall under the heading of “researcher”. But I do think that even though more people have become saber-writers more than researchers, the language we’ve used around sabermetrics has remained largely static. We’re talking like researchers and peppering articles with acronyms and decimal points, yet we’re trying to reach a different audience.

In the end, it’s all about finding the right balance to best reach your audience. This is something we all have to worry about, whether we’re writing research pieces, writing on a blog or mainstream site, or just explaining things to a friend. What audience are you trying to reach, and how can you best convey your point to them? As Bob Costas pointed out in a recent interview with Joe Posnanski, he approaches each of his appearances differently depending on what audience he’s appearing in front of (which is one of the reasons it’s tough for announcers to include saber stats and analysis in their game broadcasts).

Sabermetrics will never be mainstream. But to use Tango’s metaphor, there should be some gradient between lying on the beach and surfing in water 20 feet deep. I like to reach out my hand and help people swim deeper, but other writers reach out to other niches. All I ask is that you be aware of which niche you’re trying to reach, and not only think about using saber-stats correctly, but consider how to use them in a way that will be easier for your audience to digest. If you’re not a researcher, do you need to include a decimal point in a player’s swing rate? Is it that important to use ISO instead of Slugging? I don’t think so.




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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.


14 Responses to “On Research and Writing: The Growing Niches of the Saber-Sphere”

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  1. Greg says:

    I think part of what holds sabermetrics back is that it’s misunderstood and that’s partially because of how many go about explaining what sabermetrics is. At one point, we’ve all talked about how meaningless RBIs are but if you say that to somebody who has used RBIs their entire life, then you’re inadvertently insulting them and questioning their knowledge of baseball.

    I’ve found that it’s very simple to get people to buy into the concept of sabermetrics you just have to know how and when to make your point. To me, it’s the way the message is portrayed that will or will not get people to give sabermetrics a chance.

    In the words of Walter Sobchak, “Am I wrong?”

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  2. BDF says:

    There is often a totalitarian moralizing component to sabrmetricizing that many (including me, and I’m a believer) find off-putting in the extreme: We know far more than you could ever hope to and are therefore superior because you are stupid. Whether or not that’s the intent that is often the subtext and sometimes even the overt text, especially at the beginning of the revolution. Even if it were true (it’s my opinion that it’s not), it’s an assholish way to present yourself.

    There’s also simply no reason to be as rhetorically high-handed as even Greg, in saying that we shouldn’t be so high-handed, inadvertently is. It just isn’t true that RBIs are meaningless; they mean that Ryan Howard really has driven in 42 runners so far this year. There are 42 runners who had not scored before he came to the plate and had after. It’s a historical fact and it’s not meaningless. He did those things. It may not mean what folks thought it meant for nearly a century, and can be shown to mean a lot less, but it’s not meaningless.

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  3. Brad Johnson says:

    I recently made a life decision (at 24 I feel young enough that I can still make those) that I cared more about the writing than the research. I want that baseball job at the end of the research path, but I don’t want to do all the walking. Not when there’s something more interesting right in front of me.

    In making this decision, I’ve come to agree with your take that the field is dominated by outdated and/or clunky language. I’ve been trying to make the language I use simpler and more accessible, yet I still find it hard to break all of the bad habits I’ve picked up over the last few years.

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  4. fredsbank says:

    i wish there was a better way to get people to understand BABIP and BA… i can’t remember how many times i’ve tried to explain that a hitter is hitting the ball the way he normally does, but he’s just been really unlucky and balls havent been dropping for hits the way they normally would… to me, BABIP is the one serious block to sabremetrics being truly mainstream

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  5. DJG says:

    With regards to BDF’s comment:

    “We know far more than you could ever hope to and are therefore superior because you are stupid. ”

    I’ve been reading Saber-stuff for several years now, and I’ve never seen any work have this subtext (with the possible of exception of the posts on firejoemorgan which sometimes play this angle for comedic purposes). People might take it this way, but that’s on them.

    In my view, the subtext of most Saber works is: in the past we’ve used x to evaluate players (for example, x = cumulative RBI), if instead we use y (for example y = cumulative WAR), we do a better job of evaluating players and accurately predicting how a player will perform going forward.

    If that’s an “assholish” way to present yourself, then basically all empirical researchers an assholes.

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    • BDF says:

      That’s just not my perception. As sabrmetrics has gone mainstream it’s been toned down, but in the early days many sabrmetric writers seemed particularly anxious to do not just what you describe–touting a new and better way–but also to put down non-sabrmetric ways of thinking in an ad hominem–you’re so stupid for not recognizing how right I am–way. That is also the reported experience of many outside the sabrmetric community, and I think it should be respected if there’s any interest in the propagation of sabrmetric ideas. As a longtime sabrmetric convert myself I can still see why they felt that way, and it’s left a residue. You used very even, neutral language to summarize in a single sentence the essence of sabrmetrics, but when addressing outsiders sabrmetric writers for many years adopted tones that were anything but even and neutral.

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      • Totally agree. I think things started off very snarky in the early days of saber, but it’s changed a lot within even the last few years.

        I think there’ll always be that perception that writers are assholes, though, since the majority of our analyses that get the most play consist of: this player isn’t as good as you think, or this player is better than you think. Totally against the grain and against public perception, most of the time, so it’s tough to not come across as a jerk.

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      • Oscar says:

        To be fair, there’s a ton of snark on both sides. It’s not like most “traditional” analysts were particularly courteous and receptive.

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  6. Sam says:

    Fredsbank,

    One way I’ve found to explain any saber-jargon is to use baseball cliches that really prove a sabermetric principle correct. For example, “hit them where they ain’t”…obviously this phrase implies that sometimes you hit the ball hard right at somebody, and sometimes you hit it poorly and it dribbles through the infield. I believe there was a fangraphs article about cliches that are consistent with sabermetrics, it seems like a way to open someone’s mind to a new principle because they really have had the thought the entire time they are now just looking at it in a different way.

    I’ve worked for agencies writing and constructing arbitration cases and unfortunately that aspect of baseball is still enthralled by old-age baseball thought. What i’ve attempted to do, and what I suggest you should do, is use statistics that are not too difficult to explain (or take too long as such in arbitration which is time sensitive–xFIP and wRC+ are not coming up in a case). A single and a home run are obviously not equal in value, so batting average is not the best statistic to use–and then explain the benefits of OBP, SLG, and ultimately, if you get this far, wOBA.

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  7. Tal Sheppard says:

    DJG & BDF,

    The phenomenon that BDF describes is a relatively recent iteration of the same ol’ tension between town and gown. Indeed, the (perceived) trade-off between rigorousness (and potential douchebaggery) on the one hand, and collegial accessibility (and potential dumbing down) on the other may be glimpsed in nearly every scholarly field from Constitutional Law to Poetic Semiotics. I see no reason why Sabermetrics should be immune from this problem.

    That said, DJG’s point is valuable in demonstrating that Saber-writers/researchers are not inherently incapable of adopting good-natured and productive means of communicating with those unfamiliar with the benefits of Saber-analysis. But as a relative latecomer to the “revolution” – and now a dedicated follower – I can certainly attest to the widespread feeling that advocates of Sabermetrics often come across as these sort of Platonic philosopher-kings, saving the masses from their own stupidity.

    Of course, maybe Saber-writers DON’T inadvertently encourage this perception, and instead its origins lie in the delusions of the masses whose collective inferiority complex is just another extension of their unwillingness to better themselves through the use of advanced statistics… Well, you get my point…

    Listen, maybe the problem really IS that popular audiences are being willfully ignorant, or deliberately misinterpreting Saber-writers. But even so, what would be the harm in Saber-writers trying to be a bit more aware of subtle yet important things like tone and presentation? The Saber-community has so much to offer the baseball fan-world that it would be a shame for it all to be lost due simply to a defect in the packaging.

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    • PaulScarfo says:

      It’s also some of the saber-writers who suffer from inferiority complexes.

      As commenter Sam said above, the attitude is astounding: ‘we’re descending from on high to save the great unwashed masses with BABIP.’ Never mind that everyone’s gotten the concept since the 1800s.

      With sabermetrics & Fagraphs, etc., empowers some — who never played baseball past HS, possess just a facile understanding of statistics & math, and writing-wise, are just hacks — to be ‘experts’ in not one, but all 3 fields(!)

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