As a child, I loved baseball cards. When I wrote my letters to Santa, the annual Topps baseball card set was always the second or third item on my list, usually right behind a bike or whatever video game console was coming out.
The reason I loved cards wasn’t for the pictures, it was for the back of the card. I loved looking at a pitcher’s card and seeing how many wins he had, or how many runs a batter scored or RBIs a certain player put up.
Being from the Northwest and not having games on television every single day, that was my way of finding out just how good a certain player was or wasn’t.
So imagine my surprise when I found out those statistics are meaningless.
That might be a bit hyperbolic, but what we’ve come to learn from advanced statistics – or sabermetrics – is that the statistics we’ve generally used to judge players’ abilities are flawed, to say the very least. And that has caused one of the more heated discussions in sports.
People who value things like wins and RBIs call it old school versus new school; people who value new statistics like Wins Above Replacement (WAR) or Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) call it ignorance versus open-mindedness.
In reality, it’s more a mix between the two, but I’m here to tell you it’s much closer to the latter.
The question is: Why? Why do we fear advanced statistics so much? Why are we so sure that the old-school way of thinking is the correct one?
The answer is: Fear. Not fear of being wrong, but fear of irrelevance.
Sports are the one consistent topic around the proverbial water cooler. Sure, we may talk about the crazy thing a celebrity did at an award show, or what wacky politician said what wacky thing; but those are fleeting moments.
Sports are finite, though. We know – outside of labor strikes and lockouts – they’ll be around every year and give us something to talk about on Monday morning.
And those statistics we love to talk about – how many points a kid scored, or how many wins a pitcher has at the all-star break – are so easily calculated in our heads. Most of it is just simple addition; at the very worst, we have to break out our third-grade abacus or look at our fraction cards to figure out batting average or shooting percentage.
Meanwhile, advanced statistics are not easily to calculate. By anyone. They involve a pretty advanced understanding of mathematics, and those who are looking for a day-to-day conversation about someone’s Wins Above Replacement or Player Efficiency Rating had better not do what I did: I stopped taking math after my sophomore year of high school.
While I understand people’s frustration with its complications, it’s a poor excuse to dismiss the statistics. But that’s exactly what has happened. Countless number of columnists have written about how they didn’t vote for an MVP because they can’t believe in WAR until they figure out how the number works. Those who believe in the advanced stats are labeled “stat geeks” who have “never played the game.”
That’s simply not fair. They aren’t numbers that are just being made up on the spot; they are tangible statistics that go deeper into what does – and doesn’t – win games for ballclubs. They should be lauded for their creativity, not treated like pariahs because they were smart enough to realize on-base percentage means more than batting average, or that whether or not a pitcher gets a win or a loss, it tells you nothing about how well he or she pitched that day.
I don’t blame anyone who looks at advanced statistics with a skeptical view. If you talked to proponents and creators of the system, they would tell you to question it. It’s one of the chief reasons why they were created.
Just don’t say it’s an old-school way of looking at things. It’s a comfortable way.Sports Editor Chris Crawford can be reached at 253-358-4155 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.