Sabermetrics and sexiness

If you’re confused, see the note at the top of this post for an explanation

In a fresh post at his wonderful blog, John Sickels gives his rather timid two cents on the newest advances in sabermetrics, exemplified here:

I enjoyed the first two years of grad school and performed well, but in the third year (as I approached completion of my MA), I grew disillusioned. The further I got into the process, the less I enjoyed it, and eventually I lost my love for history altogether. The topics of study grew so granular and narrow as to lose all relevance, and studying nineteenth century Belgian weavers was just one egregious example. At some point graduate school became just a series of ticket-punching classes that you had to get through, an intellectual treadmill. I felt like it was sucking the life out of my soul… I now wonder if a similar process is underway in my baseball mind. I still love baseball, and I still love studying, analyzing, and projecting minor league players. It doesn’t put a bad taste in my soul the way history did from 1994 through 1997. But when it comes to the most advanced sabermetric stuff regarding major league players. . .that old grad school feeling is returning. The newest stuff is becoming so granular that I’m having problems making sense of it. I’m a humanities guy, and the most advanced math is beyond my ability to completely comprehend. My personal opinion is that the many of the newest metrics (at least in regards to hitting and pitching) are just more complicated ways to say the same basic truths.

John, I can relate. I am a liberal arts school-attending history major with a concentration in European History. I understand what it is like to appreciate words, essays, and soft research. And yet at the same time I am completely enamored by the current sabermetric advancements taking place, literally grinning every time I see a friend from Twitter try to put together something new and exciting.

But I think we need to approach sabermetrics different than we approach history. I study history because I find it fascinating. I get a great deal of utility out of reading history and studying it, and it’s fun for me, just like you said it was for you. The difference here is that sabermetrics has never promised to be particularly exciting or sexy. In fact, most of the advancements in pitching and hitting statistics (such as wRC+ and SIERA) are admittedly marginal improvements on already useful statistics. So when you say that they are “more complicated ways to say the same basic truths,” you are, to an extent, 100% correct. However, the questions that remain are: 1) how much an improvement are we gaining over the basic truths and 2) how valuable are those marginal improvements? Maybe you find these advances boring and trite, but many others (such as myself) don’t. I’m sure there are front offices and analysts that clamor over the newest posts at Fangraphs and The Hardball Times, just like I’m sure you find the latest breakdown of a hot prospect’s swing riveting. These are, ultimately, questions of what gives us the most utility (or satisfaction), and are completely subjective.

At one point John says:

Or is advanced sabermetric analysis becoming so specialized that no one but physics and math majors can understand it, leaving us humanities majors behind, let alone the average fan?

I don’t think so. Can I keep up with the math Tango has used to break down SIERA? Not much at all. But do I understand the philosophical elements behind wOBA, FIP, tERA, and other advanced metrics? Absolutely. What’s the best example of this? Well, I’m going to have to reveal a deep, dark secret. You know that crazy talented guy that writes stuff like this and this? He’s an English major. Shocking, but just goes to show you what liberal arts majors can do; advanced degrees are certainly not needed to understand the current trend of advanced statistical analysis.

John eventually says:

why am I reading this? I’m not enjoying it. I want to watch a baseball game.

So don’t read it anymore. Close the Excel sheets and turn on a game. Dissect a swing, not a box score. It’s all a matter of what makes you happy, and you’re free to pursue that. Sabermetrics never made any promises to be sexy (at least to everyone), but there are some people out there that do find beauty in sabermetrics. I’m one of them, and I think it’s great.


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Pat Andriola is an Analyst at Bloomberg Sports who formerly worked in Major League Baseball's Labor Relations Department. You can contact him at Patrick.Andriola@tufts.edu or follow him on Twitter @tuftspat
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Jeremy Greenhouse
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Jeremy Greenhouse
Pat, I’m with you. And good closing paragraph. What I find odd is that Mr. Sickels and others (Mr. Simmons) seem to blame the field of sabermetrics for making these esoteric advancements. Yet nobody’s going to say that historians have gone too far in their research. But for some reason or another, probably since baseball is supposed to be inherently fun, there’s a tipping point where, if you no longer enjoy a part of it, it becomes *our* fault as sabermetricians for going to that new level of analysis as opposed to his fault for going down a path not… Read more »
John Sickels
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John Sickels

I thought I made it clear in the essay that I wasn’t calling for an “end” to sabermetrics or blaming it for anything. I was asking how do we integrate the new knowledge. The problem with studying 19th century Belgian weavers in grad school was that what we were studying wasn’t integrated into any sort of larger whole.

Jonathan Sher
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Jonathan Sher
You write that Sabermetrics never made any promises to be sexy. Your claim suffers from a lack of precision and clarity. Fields of research don’t promise anything—that is the domain of people who practice in those fields, and while you my think that distinction isn’t meaningful, let me show you why it is. As I understand it, the pioneers of Sabermetrics started in the 1960s but its practitioners and followers were small in number and almost non-existent in the major leagues until Bill James began to write books and essays that examined ways both traditional and sabermetric to examine baseball.… Read more »
Jonathan Sher
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Jonathan Sher

And to Jeremy—You wrote:
“What I find odd is that Mr. Sickels and others (Mr. Simmons) seem to blame the field of sabermetrics for making these esoteric advancements. Yet nobody’s going to say that historians have gone too far in their research.”

What’s odd is the work by John Sickels that drew your ire says exactly what you say is lacking—that historian in academia had gone too far. It’s what prompted him to abandon history as a career pursuit.

Did you even read John’s essay before posting?

Pat Andriola
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Pat Andriola

Jonathan,

But I think the empirical evidence is that John’s worries/claims are not the case. Advanced sabermetrics is as popular as it has ever been. WPA was being talked about on MLB Network yesterday. Dave Cameron and a host of other analysts are writing for WSJ, ESPN, etc. Fangraphs is insanely popular. If anything, I would say that sabermetrics is currently attracting more fans than ever.

Jonathan Sher
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Jonathan Sher
Pat, (1) Stating there is empirical evidence and showing that evidence are two different things and you have done the former. That doesn’t disprove the latter, of course, but we should rely evidence, and when we lack evidence, we should state so, as I did. (2) Again I think you aren’t as precise in your thinking and writing as is required. Neither you nor John defined what you meant by “advanced sabermetrics”. I quite enjoy Cameron for his work on Fangraphs and USS Mariner but I would suggest he is mostly using conventional sabermetrics rather than advancing its knowledge. In… Read more »
Dan Novick
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Dan Novick

Jonathan—

You wrote:

(2) Again I think you aren’t as precise in your thinking and writing as is required. Neither you nor John defined what you meant by “advanced sabermetrics”.

Required by who, exactly? And you should have been able to figure out what “advanced sabermetrics” meant, based on the article itself or the articles linked to in the post.

Jonathan Sher
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Jonathan Sher
Dan – In Pat’s article he defends advanced sabermetrics by pointing to work about wRC+ and SIERA. Then, when I questioned if such work enjoys the popularity and influence of Bill James, Pat responded by pointing to work by Dave Cameron, who I don’t believe has played a role developing those advanced sabermetrics. A cursory review of Cameron’s writing that’s appeared in the WSJ, also pointed to by Pat, shows a focus on concepts that have been in vogue since Moneyball, concepts such as exploiting mistakes in he way the market values certain skills, be it relief pitching or defense.… Read more »
gary
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gary

Sickels is right. A lot of this stuff is splitting hairs. Formula A claims to be .00000000001% more accurate than Formula B. Yawn.

Pat Andriola
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Pat Andriola

(1) I did state evidence, such as Dave Cameron’s writing, the popularity of WPA and Fangraphs, etc.       
(2) If your premise is that people would rather read articles in which they cab think less and simply apply what they know, you are aiming low. It is a strawman to claim that I said articles on new stats get viewed more than those which deal with existing ones.

(3) This is also relatively true. To each his/her own.

Gentleman Jack
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Gentleman Jack

I think the author largely missed Sickels’ point.  I thought John’s choice of the word “granular” was perfectly descriptive. That is exactly where it’s gotten for many, many hardcore fans.  These metrics don’t help us better understand what we’re seeing, or better predict what is to come.  They lack context and precision, and often have more design flaws than my ‘08 Toyota.  Designing and implementing new metrics has become an academic exercise without utility.

Dan Novick
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Dan Novick

Gentleman Jack,

You are horribly misinformed.

TCQ
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TCQ
I don’t get where you could make the jump from “articles on FanGraphs using already existing metrics get more views*” to “better metrics need to stop being developed”. I really don’t understand that: a lot of people use simple math everyday(2 + 2 or what have you), but that shouldn’t stop mathematicians from exploring new concepts. I think Pat’s main point – and I agree with it completely – is that if something is getting too advanced or granular for your taste…don’t read it. There’s plenty of stuff out there(like, say, those articles at FanGraphs) using already established stats. If… Read more »
Jonathan Sher
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Jonathan Sher
TCQ – I’m not entirely sure to whom you addressed your post as you didn’t preface it with a name and than you enclosed in quotation marks a couple of lines that no one said (quotations being reserved for exact quotes and not a paraphrase or attempt at a summary. But since you post seemed to point to issues I raised, I will assume your post was in response to mine—if that wasn’t the case, I apologize. You wrote, and I do quote, ” I don’t get where you could make the jump from “articles on FanGraphs using already existing… Read more »
Pat Andriola
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Pat Andriola
Jonathan, You are unfortunately missing the entire point, and I don’t now if all the logic in the world can save you. You say that we should compare Bill James’ work to what is being done today, but this is an absolutely absurd notion (and rest assured, Bill James pissed off a traditionalist or two in his time as well). To compare the writings of James, who at the time was discovering the fundamentals of sabermetrics, to what must be left to work with today, which are the marginal advances made in more specified areas of the game, is a… Read more »
TCQ
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TCQ
Jonathan, my post was indeed directed at you. I figured you would make the inference – as you did – but I could’ve stated that explicitly. “(quotations being reserved for exact quotes and not a paraphrase or attempt at a summary.” It was obvious that those were not exact quotes. The idea that you are going to condescendingly act like I broke some cardinal rule of writing in using quotation marks as I did is laughable. “But I never stated anywhere that “better metrics need to stop being developed.”” True – not in so many words. But you have repeatedly… Read more »
Jonathan Sher
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Jonathan Sher
Pat, I understand and agree the marginal improvements in some advanced metrics today aren’t remotely comparable to the groundbreaking argument that was suggested and popularized by Bill James. But it is you who invited the comparison, when, in response to Sickels, you wrote: “The difference here is that sabermetrics has never promised to be particularly exciting or sexy.” I also understand and agree when you wrote, “The point we are making is that we are not trying to mass appeal sabermetrics into a brand for everyone.” But it is you, not I, who seemed to dispute that very point just… Read more »
Jonathan Sher
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Jonathan Sher
TCQ – (1) As to your misuse of quotation marks, I wasn’t condescending, I was confused as to whether your post was in response to mine. (2) You claim I am not interested in advanced sabermetric articles. That isn’t true. I quite enjoy Tom Tango, for example. (3) You assumed I’m mot interested because I argue that many people are not and YOU make the leap — the inference — that I must not be interested myself.  It’s clear your understanding of logic, of what can and can’t be deduced from a set of facts, is flawed. (4) You claim that… Read more »
TCQ
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TCQ
Jonathan, “(1) As to your misuse of quotation marks, I wasn’t condescending, I was confused as to whether your post was in response to mine.” Fine, it’s really semantics either way. Not a big deal at all – to either of us, I’m sure. “(2) You claim I am not interested in advanced sabermetric articles. That isn’t true. I quite enjoy Tom Tango, for example.” Quote me. That’s patently false. “(3) You assumed I’m mot interested because I argue that many people are not and YOU make the leap — the inference — that I must not be interested myself.”… Read more »
Jonathan Sher
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Jonathan Sher

TCQ—I’ve become bored by you inability to make an argument grounded in logic rather than its opposite and I don’t want to further prompt responses from you that only serve to further illustrate that point.

TCQ
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TCQ

“TCQ—I’ve become bored by you inability to make an argument grounded in logic rather than its opposite and I don’t want to further prompt responses from you that only serve to further illustrate that point.”

Christ, you’re arrogant. I mean, now you’re gonna break out the “take my ball and go home with it” tack? I think I’ll live…

Jonathan Sher
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Jonathan Sher
Pat, (1) As I wrote to Dan, pointing to the popularity of Dave Cameron does little to sport your contention about the popularity of advanced and developing stats such as SIERA. And if you look at fangraphs, you will find most posts and responses deal with projecting players based on much less cutting-edge sabermetrics.  (2) Again, there is a difference between stating evidence and showing it—the latter would be measuring the number of hits on Fangraph postings to compare what elicits more interest and what elicits less. I would think that would be a useful measure. (3) Please don’t mistake… Read more »
MVD
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MVD
I’m not sure where I fall on the Casual Fan-Sabermetrics Analyst spectrum. I attend and watch a large number of games, read quite a few blogs, news sites, and magazines, enjoy analytical articles, consider myself knowledgeable about the game’s history and present, and, to an extent, love stats, so I’d guess more on the Saber side than most. I’m not a major in anything nor do I have a degree, but I did excel at Math (including Calculus) in High School. When it comes to specific stats…I’m glad that Hot Stove’s discussion of WPA was mentioned because I feel WPA… Read more »
TCQ
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TCQ
MVD, I’m not going to get into your main post, because that’s really just a philosophical split, but in reference to FIP, it isn’t ERA multiplied by some numbers*. It’s an entirely separate stat that’s just put on an ERA scale(you might know this already, but the quote below is what made me think you didn’t)… *“I’m not saying ERA is perfect, but too many people act like FIP is. Math is great (Hits divided by At-Bats!) but when we are taking stats we already have, multiplying them by seemingly random numbers (yes, I know that the individual stats have… Read more »
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