The Value of Baseball Statistics

I was mowing the lawn this morning and musing over Ken Harrelson and his inane comments regarding sabermetrics (and by extension, ANY baseball measure) in his diatribe on the MLB network on Thursday, April 25th. I shouldn't be disappointed with Hawk, since this is a common refrain which hasn't changed one iota over time (a clear indicator of a man striving to improve his knowledge). Hawk is what he is (and here's what the Wall Street Journal thought he was a couple of months back), but it was the outpouring from folks who actually THOUGHT HE WAS RIGHT that made me sad. As such, I offer this polemic on statistics and why we use them.

At the heart, we use stats for one reason, and one reason only--to tell a story. Words are nice, but numbers can amplify, quantify and supplement that narrative. Just this morning, my wife was describing her place of work and said that something was removed "a long time ago," which meant at least 30 or so years ago in that context. NOT 30 SECONDS LATER she described a restaurant that had changed names "a long time ago," which in THAT context meant two years. Words have meanings, but they're fluid and can be confusing.

Numbers add context. They help explain the why behind what we see, and with any luck, add predictive ability to what we MIGHT SEE in the future. Numbers are only noteworthy when compared to other numbers. Frank Baker was considered a great power hitter, leading the AL in homers from 1911-1914, never hitting more than 12 in that span--he wouldn't make it out of Double-A ball today. But that was the Dead Ball Era--the home run hadn't become a potent offensive tool. In 1911, Ty Cobb drove in 127 runs, leading the AL--and hit eight home runs.

Why were Babe Ruth's 54 home runs in 1920 such a big deal? Two reasons:
1. Because the previous record for home runs in a year had been set by Ruth the year before--with 29. In one year he moved the benchmark by almost 100% (86.2%, to be precise). Very rarely do records fall with that kind of magnitude.
2. George Sisler was second in homers in 1920--with 19. Ruth hit more than twice as many homers as the runner-up.

Fast forward to Hawk's comments, which focused on easily my (least) favorite things:
1. Intangibles
2. Leadership
3. The Will To Win

I was a debater in high school and college (not a very good one) for the obvious reason--to meet women. My first girlfriend was a debater at another high school, and she came home from a tournament and said "The other team said 'God said we can't do it,' so we can't do it--how do you answer that?" You can't--those of us of faith (and I'm one) have some fundamental beliefs that we consider foundational, the building blocks upon which our faith is based. The term dogma can rightly be used, since these beliefs are accepted on faith and not provable using human means. That's why we didn't invoke God in debates--how can you argue it without completely getting off the topic?

That's what "leadership" and "intangibles" are--the dogma, the foundational arguments of the ignorant and uninformed that CAN'T BE CHALLENGED. They're true because they're true, and everyone knows it. They are beyond question. They are accepted by anyone who knows anything, and anyone or anything that questions them is without value. There's one slight problem with this line of reasoning--if everyone has some level of "leadership" or "intangible" in them, how can we use this as any kind of yardstick? Everyone has it--what makes it special? Bryce Harper isn't a great player because he has two legs, four fingers and two thumbs--EVERY player has those. Something else must set him apart.

These qualities are the argument-stopping, I-don't-want-to-discuss-it-anymore lynchpins of the non-metric Luddites. It's their life preserver in an ever-changing world of stats and metrics that THEY DON'T UNDERSTAND and have no intention of investing the effort necessary to learn what can be learned from them. It's laziness disguised as knowledge. The problem with injecting a term like "leadership" into the discussion has a very tacit expectation that it's VISIBLE, and if it's visible, it's measurable. The only way "The Will To Win" works is if someone can recognize it, as opposed to invoke it, which is all Hawk does.

Other than having to watch the Cubs, watching their broadcasts with Len Kasper and Jim Deshaies is a joy because they bring meaning and understanding to these numbers. If a TV is developed where you can block out Hawk and listen only to Steve Stone, you'll have the chance to hear one of the best analysts in the game and not feel your brain melt as you listen to Hawk make you dumber with each sentence. 

A couple of years ago, Chip Caray, Braves TV announcer, was on the Boers and Bernstein Show on The Score, AM 670 in Chicago, and Dan Bernstein innocuously asked him about modern baseball metrics, to which Caray responded that he had no use for them. After making this point for about a minute, he then recounted how Chipper Jones is a sure Hall of Fame inductee (which is true) relating a steady stream of his stats. The only stats Caray didn't like were the ones he didn't understand, and if he took the trouble, he'd see they tell a BETTER and more complete story about how Chipper is easily one of the ten best third basemen in baseball history. It's one thing to know something--isn't it nice to know the foundation of that knowledge?

Folks who don't like advanced metrics seem to believe that people who do look at numbers only and ignore anything else. If you look up the definition of "strawman argument" in the dictionary, this is the working defintion . No serious metric person would even think otherwise, let alone say it. Only idiots like Hawk think that, for the same reason he knows nothing about advanced metrics--because he's an idiot. I'm sure Hawk would be surprised to learn that he's a poster boy for 40+ years of post-modern thought, where nothing is real and meaning is changeable at the drop of a hat, but that's what he does when he throws out his cornpone terms. Just because he says it doesn't make it true.

That's why we use statistics. We measure and LOOK for truth, instead of blithely asserting it.

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