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Gary Cohen Doesn't Understand, Derides Sabermetrics

During Friday night's game between the Mets and Nationals, Gary Cohen and Ron Darling shared the following exchange after a David Wright single in the fifth inning.

Gary: Can I say something about sabermetrics?

Ron: Yes.

Gary: Because we don’t talk about sabermetrics very often. And you know I think there are certain metrics that have come into play that are useful. But I think sometimes the people that are adherent to sabermetrics overrate the importance of them. In David Wright’s case, David has struck out a ton this year. Struck out 91 times. And yet he’s hitting well over .300. Now, one of the stats that the sabermetrics people like to throw at you is batting average on balls in play. And if you have a particularly high batting average on balls in play, they like to think that it’s because you’re lucky. In other words, if you have a high batting average on balls in play, it shouldn’t be that high, which means you’re having a fortunate year and you’ll come back down again.

[Game action narration]

Gary: Conversely, if a pitcher has a particularly low batting average on balls in play, they like to tell you it’s going to rise eventually. Well, to me that doesn’t make any sense. Certain guys hit the ball harder than other guys hit it. Certain pitchers induce more groundballs or more weakly hit balls than others. That’s part of what you’re trying to do. Am I totally off base with that?

Ron: No I totally agree with you, I think that for the average hitter, to have a high average putting balls in play, it’s probably because they do have some lucky hits. But certain hitters, like Wright, hit the ball hard almost all the time.

The list of people (or, in some cases, movements) who have been lampooned or belittled for making claims that run counter to conventional wisdom is as long as the list of baseball-related tasks that escape Alex Cora's skill set. Copernicus, Darwin, McCracken, and so forth. I respect Gary, Keith, and Ron very much and consider them among the best broadcasting teams in baseball. If you've ever had to listen to a Nationals or Diamondbacks telecast you'd probably appreciate GKR even more. Nevertheless, GKR are necessarily part of the "old guard" of mainstream media and membership requires that they defend the institution of sportscasting against those who seek to make their jobs more difficult by forcing them to back up their assertions with actual facts.

As is customary when mainstream analysts discuss sabermetric research, there's a tendency to latch on to a single point while ignoring (or failing to understand) the larger body of data. While G&R are right that there are some players who hit the ball harder than others, they didn't bother to mention that that conclusion is not only self-evident but is also the same conclusion that has already been drawn by the bath-fearing basement-dwellers who conduct evidence-based analyses of the game.

The correlation between line drive rate and xBABIP (expected BABIP) is critical in understanding why BABIP is important (speed plays a small role here, too), but G&R didn't mention it at all, either due to laziness (i.e. they didn't bother to do any further research on it), or due to old-fashioned dishonesty. I like to think it's the former, which is unsurprisingly common among anti-fact analysts*. They pull out part of what has been said and hold it up as an example of what's wrong with the movement in question -- in this case, the so-called spreadsheet-ification of baseball -- failing to understand, appreciate, or simply acknowledge the larger body of work that happened to include, among many other things, the one thing they did bother to mention.

* Not outwardly anti-fact, but certainly close-minded to ideas that might falsify what they believe to be facts about their wonderful game.

If you've read much of the research done on BABIP (here's some), on batted ball types, and on defense-independent pitching, you couldn't have understood it very well if your only takeaway was "high BABIP = lucky, low BABIP = unlucky" (for hitters, anyway). It's a little bit like reading On The Origin Of Species and coming away with "man descended from apes." Kinda, sorta, but not really. As G&R pointed out, some guys do hit the ball harder than others, and when evaluating whether or not a player's performance has been luck-aided we're sure to alter our expectations accordingly. For hitters anyway, the baseline for expected BABIP is adjusted to accommodate elevated (or depressed) line drive tendencies, among other things. It's fairly simple and satisfyingly intuitive, but if your M.O. is to slag down anything that makes you question what you've learned from fifty-odd years of baseball watching, it's a terrible inconvenience to your case when those new ideas make total sense.

The good news for G&R is that most of their audience is probably content to keep their heads buried in the sand, so the (possibly) stubborn ignorance of their appointed mouthpieces really only marginalizes the folks who actually want to understand the game at a level deeper than can be conveyed by outdated but comfortably familiar analysis. The truth is that sabermetrics makes it a lot harder to be a hack journalist/commentator, because it's not as easy to say things you believe to be true about baseball -- even if they aren't true -- because now we have the data to test the fidelity of those statements. The intellectually honest broadcaster (or writer, analyst, or fan) is skeptical by nature but insatiably craves the truth above all else. The intellectually dishonest one is perhaps willing to sidestep the truth in order to continue buttressing himself and his craft with the "conventional" wisdom that now crumbles under the burden of close, honest scrutiny.

G&R's contempt for BABIP and the like was on display again in the eighth inning of Sunday's game against the Nats while mainstream media mancrush Jeff Francoeur was in the process of striking out.

Gary: There’s just been a phenomenal number of strikeouts in this game. That is 24 strikeouts, 13 for Washington pitching and 11 for the Mets.

Ron: What makes it phenomenal is that there’s 13 runs scored. Usually you see these kind of games when the score is low.

Gary: You know what that means don’t you? A very high batting average on balls in play.

Ron: --laughter--

Well, yea, it does mean that, but its relevance to the big picture requires a basic grasp of randomness and small (as well as large) numbers. But all of that sounds like a lot of work (it's not) so let's just act smug and laugh at the nerds instead.

I used to rave about Gary Cohen's broadcasting and his quickness to embrace things like on-base and slugging percentages because those things made sense to me and I thought it was important (and commendable) that they be stressed above certain lesser things (batting average, RBI, and so on). I still like Gary a lot, but more for his game-calling and less for his grasp of the finer points of baseball analysis. Your average listener has no interest in understanding linear weights or regression analysis, but I think even casual fans can grasp the basics of things like BABIP (when explained properly) and FIP, and, contrary to what some may think, awareness and comprehension of these tools serve only to increase one's appreciation for the sport and its players, not detract from it. It's disappointing that Gary feels otherwise.