On old school and new school values

The 2012 season has left us all in an interesting position with respect to what the baseball community terms as valuable. The AL MVP debate, a two-horse race between Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout, has dug up a debate that appeared to have been partially buried as we trudge forward into the future. It may be completely ludicrous to many, but alas, here we are once again. The never-ending “old school vs. new school” tussle.

The discussion surrounding Cabrera as AL MVP was minimal until the Triple Crown became within striking distance. When he ultimately clinched it—the first player to do so in 45 years—the old school unanimously clamored for the simultaneous anointment of Cabrera as the MVP.

Not so fast.

On the other end of the spectrum was Angels wunderkind Mike Trout. Quite simply, Trout put together one of the greatest rookie seasons in baseball history, and one of the greatest single seasons in the modern era. Unfortunately, much of this isn’t readily apparent and we must dig deeper and use advanced metrics to truly capture what a phenomenal year Trout had.

Wrapping up the season with these two stars pitted against one another in the spotlight set an interesting tone of analytical condescension throughout the playoffs. As someone who digested as much playoff baseball as I could muster, I can safely say that the opportunities for one side to take a jab at the other were not wasted.

The silliness of a commentator using the example of a seeing-eye ground ball beating a shift as a platform for demeaning the concept of statistics is almost impossible to express. Yet, unfortunately, this is the climate for discussion once again.

Quite simply, the climate for reasonable debate has become untenable.

One doesn’t need to be well-versed in Zen concepts to understand that eventually the two parties will need to meet somewhere in the middle and from there on out they can live in harmony. Baseball has actually created an interesting platform for this false dichotomy as it is the first sport to truly have a pronounced and influential statistics-based community.

Basketball, football and hockey are all seeing those communities grow in North America while soccer’s metrics are gaining more acceptance overseas, but insofar as math being used to aid and evaluate on-field products, baseball still reigns supreme.

As such, there is no proven method on how to weld these parties together and baseball will have to take the lead on the issue. Eventually sports and stats will live in harmony; they just need someone to show the world how.

While I don’t know where or when this debate will resolve itself, I have an idea on how to get started and it has to do with altering rigid ideas of value.

From the old school perspective, it’s time to acknowledge that stats aren’t invented by pencil pushers. These are metrics extracted from watching games play out and breaking them down to ensure they properly represent what transpired. The notion that advanced statistics are fictional beings hellbent on fraying sport at its very fabric is a truly puzzling phenomenon.

In the case of baseball, these are events which take place in a baseball game. The fact that they are extracted and analyzed differently than convention has historically dictated changes nothing from game play to evaluation. The ability to get greater depth when evaluating a player should be welcomed as a good thing.

Statistics isn’t a catch-all word for evil. Batting average, home runs and runs batted in are all statistics as well. They just don’t paint as clear a picture of a player’s ability as others do, though they do play a role. It’s possible to give credence to old school stats while acknowledging new school interpretations are worthwhile.

For the new school, it’s time to acknowledge that old school concepts do matter. They may not lend value to the purposes of advanced metrics, but they do affect the game itself and painting with a wide brush is a dangerous precedent, as we all know.

Take the concept of pitcher wins, for example. We know that, for the purposes of evaluating a pitcher’s quality, wins are irrelevant criteria. However, to say that they simply do not matter disregards the weight they hold in baseball circles. Managers will try to get pitchers in line for wins, and pitchers regularly admit to altering their approaches in order to earn a win on their record. Ergo, pitcher wins matter because they affect games. That,, in turn, affects data.

Homestretch: The 1967 AL Pennant Race, Part 3
A tight race shows no signs of letting up.

The same goes for other traditional concepts like RBIs. While having more RBIs doesn’t make one batter better than another, the quest to create RBI situations for particular hitters influences lineups and in-game strategy which, in turn, affect other, more pertinent offensive outputs. RBIs influence in-game decisions, which means they matter, despite the fact that they don’t anoint one batter as more valuable than another as well as weighted runs created, for example.

As baseball trudges forward, its community of analysts and fans need to reach a resolution of some sorts, and this will require give and take between the two schools of thought. It’s time to alter our definitions of what “matters” and accept that another half of the circle brings value on some level, even if it does not directly correspond to the information we are seeking. It’s possible to name Mike Trout the MVP while acknowledging that the Triple Crown is a compelling accomplishment, and vice versa.

Flippant dismissals of one party by the other don’t lend themselves to progress. Acknowledging that the other lends value, though not necessarily in the same ways, is a start and ought to be a focus going forward.

The sooner we can bring these two closer together, the better.

What do our readers think can be done to constructively weld the links between the old and new schools of thought?


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obsessivegiantscompulsive
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obsessivegiantscompulsive
Frankly, I think many new schoolers have gone too far to the other side with the pendulum.  Yes, OBP is very important, thus making the ability to take walks very important, but I think that becomes a short-hand that people state matter-of-factly, without remembering that it is very important to get hits too.  People forget that while OBP is better, and that taking walks is good and something that was overlooked before, it is not like BA and getting hits is not important too, as that affects both OBP and SLG positively. Getting hits is still very important. I find… Read more »
Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider
I agree with the previous comment.  Some sabermetric analysis act as if getting a walk is better than getting a hit.  If you hit, say .350, that’s important.  Similarly, I think sabermetricians downplay the value of psychological factors, such as leadership, that baseball people value.  While I agree that the notion is certainly overdone, it’s hard for me to dismiss the idea that confidence, leadership, morale, etc. play some role in performance. I think sabermetricians unduly dismiss the perspective of people who do, after all, play the game. At the same time, baseball, especially, is saddled with a tradition of… Read more »
Bob Rittner
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Bob Rittner
I have 1 minor suggestion and 1 that I doubt will ever be implemented. 1. Stop the snark-on both “sides” (as if there really are two sides). It simply suggests arrogance and rather than encouraging people to consider an opposing view causes them to dig in their heels. 2. In all discussion/debate, recognize and dignify opposing views and arguments that have merit. Rather than trying to “win the argument”, or show off one’s superior grasp of the issue, consider it an effort to find some consensus-or some common ground from which to augment everyone’s understanding. True, on all sides there… Read more »
Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider

Bob,

I wish your view would prevail in our politics as well.  I think the anonymity of the Internet encourages the problems you describe.  Most people would behave a lot differently if they were talking to someone in person.

TomH
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TomH

WAR is too complicated for a stattha most will be able to get a handle on. We ought to start but getting old-schoolies to acknowledge that OBP is far batter than AVG, and that scoring is as important as driving them in. That the ‘triple crown’ (TC) wasn’t drawn up by Moses (pre-Ruth it was irrelevant), and a better measure of offesnive breadth (what the TC tries ot capture) would be OBP, R and RBI, or OBP, SLG, and R+RBI, or OBP, HR, and R+RBI.

Old and new schoolers both already know that defense is impt.

Beau
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Beau

Tom—While the equation for WAR may be “complicated” (though is it, really?) I don’t think the concept of WAR is something that most baseball fans can’t wrap their minds around.  Granted you are right that things like OBP and OPS or even K/9 or WHIP might be better first steps I do think that WAR is ultimately something that the entire community could accept.

David
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David

TomH—

I found your comment inspiring, so I spent some time today figuring out how many times each of those things has been done.  I did it by hand, so I might have made a mistake here or there, but I kind of doubt it.  Anyway, it’s A LOT more that any of those “Triple Crowns” have happened.  The fewest was 19, of the OBP/R/RBI variety.  Then 45 of the OBP/SLG/R+RBI, and 32 of the OBP/HR/R+RBI variety.  So there you go.

hopbitters
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hopbitters
I think the biggest problem is that stats on both sides are misunderstood and misused. Average is a great statistic. It’s simple to calculate. It has an obvious and direct relation to what happens on the field and it tells you exactly what its name implies. And like it or not, it is an indicator of offensive performance. It’s not a perfect indicator, but that’s why it isn’t called “absolute offensive value rating”. It is what it is and if you ascribe your own biases to it, either way, then that’s your own doing and not a reflection on the… Read more »
Andrew in Toronto
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Andrew in Toronto
I think the description of what the new school needs to acknowledge does not go far enough.  It sounds like you are saying that the new school only needs to recognize that, despite the wrongness of the old school, they still influence things in the real world and so should not be forgotten.  See Jason W’s comment, for example.  That’s more patronizing than compromising. Rather, a middle ground is more likely if the new school recognizes the value that actually does exist in the old school way of looking at things.  Because there is some value.  You just have to… Read more »
Bob Rittner
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Bob Rittner

I think you are exactly right Andrew although I will quibble about the phrase “middle ground” with a similar objection to the one Jason W. made. Perhaps this is getting into semantic quibbles, but I do agree that the idea is not to find some middle ground as if the greater truth lies midway between positions but rather to incorporate what is correct in all positions-and even to use that with which we may disagree to widen our vision and sharpen our convictions.

Jason W.
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Jason W.
“For the new school, it’s time to acknowledge that old school concepts do matter. They may not lend value to the purposes of advanced metrics, but they do affect the game itself and painting with a wide brush is a dangerous precedent, as we all know.” Do statheads not acknowledge these things? And what’s the value in so acknowledging even if they don’t? Or, more particularly, what’s the value vis a vis “the other side”? Statheads must acknowledge reality, yes, and reality includes managers making decisions because of outdated statistics that do not actually add to the odds of winning… Read more »
Bob Rittner
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Bob Rittner
“And for that matter, why is the middle ground so great? Pitcher wins are flat-out wrong. What’s the point of the stathead community moving even an inch in that direction?” I don’t think it is a matter of accepting the middle ground. Rather it is important to consider all views-seriously consider- in determining the best understanding. For example, is there no value in considering pitcher wins? Don’t they suggest, at least for starting pitchers, the ability to go at least 5 innings per start? Doesn’t it indicate something about a manager’s confidence in a pitcher-at least in some cases? Perhaps… Read more »
rubesandbabes
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rubesandbabes
For me, the problem is not the New School which has been around for some time now – Bill James, Ron Shandler, and Nate Silver all getting real jobs coming from the New School, naming a few. It’s the combination of the fact that there are suddenly like half-a-dozen new methods of measuring the components, and the crappy ideas of people that have always been there on both sides who throw around the stats without really grasping them. Two typical examples: The use of WAR to explain away guys like Jack Morris and Miguel Tejada, for different reasons, but also… Read more »
rubesandbabes
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rubesandbabes
Yes, the other comment I would like to make concerns the idea of the “Replacement Level Player.” Watching the game, it is just very clear to me that the imaginary guy in the WAR stat is just a very different animal than the true replacement level player on the field. It is possible for a replacement level player to have success, and we see really a wide range of levels of contributions from these so-called players from the fatter part of the bell curve. Take a good look at the rosters of the more budget conscious teams, where replacement level… Read more »
staiton
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staiton
There is one area that the old school has always been superior to more modern analysis: the point of baseball is to win, not acquire the most cumulative team WAR. A lot of people seem to forget that these statistics are an attempt to predict a player or a teams future value, be it for a season or for a day, not a way of judging past performances. A team or a player should not be discredited as “lucky” for playing over his head, or winning with a poor pythagorian record. The outcome didn’t fail the stats; It is the… Read more »
Cooldrive
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Cooldrive

Stalton, doesn’t it seem to you that some stat-heads actually get upset when the World Series winner may not measure up statiscally?

Bob Rittner
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Bob Rittner
I don’t think the question Chris Lund asks is what is wrong with a stats approach (or with a scouting approach). It seems to me he is asking for suggestions as to how best to weld the two approaches so that we can have profitable discussion rather than rants. I suppose proper modesty about the usefulness and dangers of progressive statistical analysis is one positive suggestion, but so too would be that those dependent on scouting or “old school” analysis also accept the limitations of their approach and welcome the use of stats to confirm or challenge their conclusions. In… Read more »
Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider

It’s arrogance and smugness like this that guarantees no one will listen to you.

hopbitters
Guest
hopbitters

To be fair, proponents of both schools cherrypick their stats when making the case for their favorite players. I know I do.

RA Rowe
Guest
RA Rowe
trying to get stupid people to listen to smart people is a steep uphill battle. and just like in the rest of life, there are a lot more stupid people in charge of things, and so they decide a bunch of stupid stuff should happen. Miguel Cabrera will be the MVP. If you want to see a stupid person’s head start smoking, do this: Ask them “So if Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout had the exact same numbers at the end of the season, but Mark Reynolds had ended up hitting .203 but hit 50 homers, would Cabrera still be… Read more »
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