Sabermetrics And You: An Introduction

"'Is there another explanation?' is really, in my view, the heart of science. It's so easy to accept the explanation you have because it sounds good. It's so difficult to say, 'Well, it sounds good, but is there a better explanation?' and to keep looking and to keep testing and to keep trying to refine your explanation. That's something that's really hard to do." --Eugenie Scott
"I've never said, never thought, that it was better to be an outsider than it was to be an insider, that my view of the game was better than anyone else's. It's different; better in some ways, worse in some ways. What I have said is since we are outsiders, since the players are going to put up walls to keep us out here, let us use our position as outsiders to what advantage we can. Let us back off from the trees, look at the forest as a whole, and see what we can learn from that. Let us stop pretending to be insiders if we're not. Let us fly over the forest, you and I, and look down; let us measure every tract of land and map out all the groves, and draw in every path that connects each living thing. Let us drive around the edges and photograph each and every tree from a variety of angles and with a variety of lenses; and insiders will be amazed at what we can help them to see. Or maybe they won't; who knows. But anyway, we'll have some fun." -- Bill James, The Bill James Baseball Abstract 1984

Bill James coined the term 'sabermetrics', a derivation of SABR -- the Society for American Baseball Research -- and defined it as "the search for objective knowledge about baseball." For some people, sabermetrics is merely baseball statistics, which is a lot like saying biology is merely test tubes and beakers. We use statistics predominantly as a means of collecting data, because we can't experiment with baseball players the way we can with plant cells or bacteria. We can watch those players play, and we can design simulations and experiment with those, but we can't make Joe McEwing bat 5,000 times against Randy Johnson to find out if he really does own him.

Make no mistake: we study baseball because we love it. Absolutely love it. We watch a lot of games. Personally, I watch maybe 200 baseball games a year. In many respects, sabermetricians are a lot like all baseball fans. We all learn a great deal by actually watching the games. There are a lot of things we miss, though, not because we're imperceptive or because we aren't paying attention, but because our eyes tend to see what is obvious and miss what is not. We tend to best remember things that happened most recently and forget or minimize things that happened a little while ago. We are so-called pattern-seeking mammals. We consume and embrace evidence that confirms our biases and often reject or ignore evidence that does not. For some people that's good enough.

For the rest of us, though, merely interpreting the game through our eyes and the eyes of those who play it and cover it professionally is insufficient. We love the game and we want to know everything we can about it. The more information we have the happier we are. This ceaseless desire for more and better information doesn't take anything away from our love of baseball; in fact, it only strengthens our bond with the game and our respect for the tiny fraction of human beings who are talented enough to play it for a living. We spend hours a day studying and reading about baseball, because it's awesome and fascinating and comforting and humbling.

One fundamental precept of sabermetrics is that we should always be skeptical of baseball "truths" that are revealed to us by those who play (or manage or are otherwise close in proximity to) the game. Some time ago, if you were told that Roger Maris was a clutch hitter you'd have little recourse but to accept the assertion on face or to rebuke it based on a handful of times you remember Maris striking out with the game on the line. Now you can test the veracity of the "Maris is clutch" statement in any number of ways depending on how you wish to define clutch. Is pitching really 90% of winning baseball games? We can test that. Is bunting in the first inning with your #2 hitter a smart play? We can test that, too. All of this information makes us smarter, more knowledgeable baseball fans. Ignorance may be bliss, but information empowers, emboldens, and enlightens.

The Mets have a new front office that craves information, that is skeptical of institutional baseball axioms, and that is driven to learn as much about baseball as it possibly can. That's what sabermetrics is really about, and the overarching goal of this series is to bring you up to speed on what we know and how we know it (plus what we don't know) about the game of baseball. I urge you to stick around, enjoy yourself, and by all means ask questions. This is a learning process for all of us.

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