(Hopefully) good sports essays and observations for good sports by a guy who tries (and can sometimes fail) to be a good sport.


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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Are the Stat Guys and Outcomes Predictors Ruining the Fun or Just Changing the Conversation?

I appreciate math people, I really do, but I confess that I am not all that good at math (even though friends of mine and I in the 70's figured out MoneyBall way back when via Strat-o-Matic cards, thinking that OBP for hitters and OBP and Total Bases Yielded for pitchers meant something).  Today, there is so much math around baseball in particular that you can settle arguments about who is better than the next guy via some type of calculation.  I suppose that empirical evidence should trump observations and opinions, but the latter are just so much fun.  When people used to talk about hot-stove or inside baseball they used to debate whether Mays was better than Mantle and historically how DiMaggio and Speaker matched up.  Today, they'll pull out a bunch of algorithms to prove one's superiority over the other. 

It's analytical, mathematical and clinical at one level, but does that type of stuff remove the intangibles, and, yes, the fun?  Or, does it spark a whole new level of discussion about which numbers really matter and why some calculations are fuzzy math while others bring home the goods.  In the days before the Society of Baseball Research guys (and pretty much they were guys) and the internet, one could wonder about the relative merits of say Lefty Grove versus Whitey Ford.  Today, there are a whole host of people who can break down the careers of both in so many ways that the discussion ends with the math; the words are rendered almost pointless.

Many who like baseball like it because of the math, even though today's metrics arguably replace out-dated ones that might not mean a whole lot, such as runs batted in, ERA for a relief pitcher and wins for a pitcher (I still maintain that had Frank Tanana pitched for anyone but the Angels, he'd be in the Hall).  That said, what's replaced them to a degree are numbers that are hard to explain and, therefore, hard to capture the average fan.  And while fans in San Francisco and Kansas City might have had a gripping World Series, the rest of the country yawned.  The numbers are better conceived, but harder to grasp.  The numbers that get grasped are that games take 3:30 and that the ball is in play for about 15 minutes.  Those numbers repel kids; baseball increasingly is becoming the game their grandfathers took their fathers to, or, alternatively, a side show to sports bar-like stadiums that permit the 21-35 crowd mingle on pavilions while showing only a slight interest in the game.  That doesn't seem to be a sustainable strategy.

Yes, there are all sorts of statistics in other sports, but in soccer the main ones are goals and assists, as in ice hockey.  In basketball, it's points, rebounds and assists, and in football, well, it's just whether your team wins enough to make the playoffs.  With baseball, it's harder to tell.

The analytics can be fun.

If only the average fan can understand them.


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