(NB: I originally wrote this on my personal blog,but I thought you all would appreciate this.)
Yeah, there are probably a million columns like this written every day, and by now most of us have learned to laugh them off. But given that it's an off day, why not take a few minutes to fisk this silliness.
As a lifetime fan who also has been a sports journalist for a good share of my adulthood, I think I've earned the right to an opinion on numbers.
I would that think that your mere existence as a human being would earn you the right to form an opinion numbers, but I understand that sometimes we all struggle for catchy ways to open a column or blog post.
OK, here's the first -- and most critical -- thing to remember about statistics of any kind...
Anybody can be right, depending on what stat you choose and how you turn and twist the thing to fit your argument.
Sure they can. Someone can point to the fact that Ryan Howard hits 40+ homers every year and drives in 120-140 runs to establish the fact that he is an elite players. Someone else can use alternative statistics to demonstrate that he is a very good, but not elite ballplayer. Both people would be using statistics to buttress opposing arguments. In a sense both men would be right, but in a technical, more accurate way, the latter would be more right.
So why am I revved up today?
Well, I suppose it's because a very talented sports columnist, Bill Simmons of ESPN.com, seems to have sold himself out to the humorless number-crunchers who have buried baseball in something called "sabermetrics."
It's funny that a guy who who is essentially writing an "angry old man yells at clouds" column is calling another class of humans "humorless," but that sort of par for the course. I'm not exactly sure how preferring, say. WAR over RBI is a sign of humorlessness, but we can't all be brilliant columnists for the Merced Star Sun.
I was shocked when Simmons wrote a piece admitting that he'd fallen into the clutches of people like Bill James and others who have managed to convince baseball executives, mainstream journalists and even some serious fans that the sport is ALL about numbers.
This is what we like to call a "strawman argument." I know of no sabermetrically-oriented fan who believes that baseball is ALL about numbers. For most, sabermetric figures merely offer a more comprehensive way to look at baseball. The traditional counting stats - homeruns, batting average, rbis - do not present a full view of the player. So why not dig deeper and try to get a fuller measure of a player?
Players aren't humans, they're statistics with uniforms.
This, once again, is simply a strawman. Next.
The sabermetric crowd laughs aloud at the old, now-disgraced numbers we used to study on baseball cards -- batting average, homers, runs scored and RBIs.
These have been replaced with formulae like "OPS-plus."
(This is a complicated equation to combine on-base percentage plus slugging percentage, adjusted for the player's home park. When numbers are compared against a norm of 100, you wind up with something like Albert Pujols being 44 percent better in this category than an average player in 2009.)
I am not an advanced mathematics major, but there isn't anything complicated about OPS+. It simply combines on-base percentage and slugging percentage - not terribly complicated - and the adjustment for park effect is hardly something that requires years of doctoral level experience and a full-day bender at some lab. The reason this measure is useful is because on-base percentage and slugging percentage are most useful measures of a player's worth than just his batting average. Of course, true stats nerds don't really use OPS+ anymore, they'd prefer something like wOBA (weighted on base percentage), but I think an explanation of that might Cameron's head to explode.
No offense to Bill James, the guru of sabermetrics and a man determined to remove baseball's soul, but I don't need "OPS-plus" to know that Pujols was miles better than an ordinary schmuck.
First of all, I don't think these advanced metrics are necessarily used to demonstrate the obvious. It's used more to highlight disparities that might be harder to capture using traditional statistics. Teams can therefore use them in an effort to more fully appreciate the true value of players, and therefore not do stupid things like give Ryan Howard $125 million over five years.
I'll leave it to a comment left on Cameron's article to explain why else this is a silly comment.
We also don't need batting average to tell us this. Or home run totals. Or RBI. Should we get rid of all these stats too?
That just points out the hypocrisy of the anti-Saber crowd. They're not anti-stats, they just don't like those yucky new stats. There's nothing more hilarious than a sports writer kvetching about stats, and then in the next breath declaring that Jack Morris is a Hall of Famer in part because he made some number of opening day starts. Well, that's a statistic - it just happens to be a really poor one to use in order to evaluate a player.
The sabermetricians now have so many baffling stats within other stats, combined with idiotic acronyms, that the whole thing is laughable.
So because you're too damned lazy to look up what the statistics mean, that makes them laughable? If you spent about five minutes on a site like Fangraphs most of this stuff would be instantly understandable. Again, we ain't exactly talking about quantum physics here.
How much time does a fan want to spend at the ballpark learning about UZR (a defensive stat that supposedly tells you about a player by dividing the field into 64 zones), VORP, BABIP or FIP?
Does that sound like fun?
If I'm at a ballpark I'm not learning about UZR, I'm watching the game. I can read up on UZR and the other stats on my computer at home.
Again, I'll quote the commenter:
I imagine you have a college degree, probably in journalism, so these concepts should not be difficult for you to grasp. But it has become a troubling trend in American society today to eschew learning new things and instead treat anything we cannot understand as scary and weird.
Undoubtedly Neanderthal Cameron would have pitched a hissy fit about that new fangled wheel thing.
There was a situation in Toronto where the Royals were trailing 2-0 in the sixth inning and one of the Jays stroked a two-out hit to center field.
The guy tried to stretch the thing into a double and should have been thrown out, but second baseman Alberto Callaspo got himself slightly out of position taking the throw. So he had to lunge clumsily out to attempt a tag, and when umpires see that on a fairly close play...
Replays showed it was an out, but Callaspo's poor positioning "sold" the wrong call -- and what followed was a walk and a three-run homer to make it 5-0.
The stat boys will note pitcher Brian Bannister's inflated earned run average and all of that -- but three earned runs wouldn't exist if the silly Royals played good fundamental baseball.
Umm, actually advanced stats are used precisely to account for all that. That's why there's something called FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) that looks beyond ERA in order to gauge how good a pitcher really is.
My first clue that we were headed down the wrong road occurred when pro football scouts began judging potential draftees by measuring things like vertical leap, time to run a course around cones, etc.
Me, I'll trust my eyes to see if a guy can play.
This is the stereotypical false dichotomy presented by guys like Cameron. Either scouts use numbers or they rely on their eyes, as if they can't do both. Good scouts use numbers to enhance what they see with their eyes in order to gain a clearer overall picture. This like expecting a doctor to eschew using an MRI because he should just be able to see with his eyes what's wrong with the patient - or alternatively solely relying on MRI instead of using other medical equipment. It's both/and, not either/or.
You're going to find that really good players have really good numbers.
Leave VORP to Mr. Spock, thank you.
And we end, as we typically do, with a witless cheapshot.
Another thing that I find laughable about people like Cameron is the undisguised contempt he has for "statheads." Cameron doesn't come out and say it here, though it is certainly implied, but supposedly statheads are just robotic geeks who don't even like baseball and would prefer to just wait for computer printouts rather than watch the game. This never made much sense to me. Who other than a passionately devoted baseball fan would spend hours pouring over statistics, developing spreadsheets and formulas in order to analyze the game? If anything, statheads are probably more insane and passionate baseball fans than the average fan, or else they wouldn't bother with all of the stats, and they certainly wouldn't bother spending time to respond to uptight cranks.