How Sabermetrics Helps Build a Better Ballgame
It's been several months since Murray Chass woke up one morning and decided to devote the last six paragraphs of his column to criticizing Baseball Prospectus. As I replied at that time, what most took be aback about his column was its assertion that sabermetrics "threatens to undermine most fans' enjoyment of baseball."
Naturally, I think quite the opposite is true. Here are seven ways in which sabermetrics has helped to improve the fan's experience:
1. Enhancing the Quality of Play.
There has been a great deal of debate about just how much the quality of play has improved in baseball over time. What nobody debates, however, is that the quality of play has in fact improved substantially. There are a great number of reasons for this, first and most importantly because the size of Major League Baseball's potential player pool has tended to grow more quickly than the number of teams in the league.
A small part of the improvement in quality, however, might be the result of the sabermetric movement. In a forthcoming essay for It Ain't over 'til It's over: The Baseball Prospectus Pennant Race Book, I developed something called the Efficiency Index, which operates by comparing the performances of the best backups in the league to the worst regulars in the league. The idea is that if the best backups in the league are much better than the worst regulars, then the league is doing an inefficient job of distributing talent, presumably because of great disparities in wealth, scouting acumen, or aptitude for talent evaluation.
The Efficiency Index has improved over time, particularly with the widespread introduction of the farm system in the 1950s. There has been a smaller but perceptible rise, however, within the past 5-10 years, and particularly within the last 2-3 years, which coincides with the widespread introduction of sabermetrics into the thought processes of major league front offices. There is no longer any reason to Free Erubiel Durazo!, or Frank Catalanotto, or Kevin Youkilis, or Chad Bradford. Those guys are getting a chance to play, and they're helping to resolve asymmetries in the talent distribution process.
This takes for granted, of course, that fans would rather see Kevin Youkilis play baseball than say J.T. Snow, which is almost certainly the case if he's donning the uniform of your favorite team, but perhaps less so if we're coming at this from the standpoint of pure aesthetics. That is really just the tip of the iceberg, however. Consider: would the Red Sox have matched Daisuke Matsuzaka's price if not for the work of people like Clay Davenport, who helped us to understand the high quality of baseball in Japan? Would Jake Peavy be the best pitcher in the National League, or would he have been a victim of high pitch counts? Would Curtis Granderson be patrolling center field for the Tigers, or would he have been written off because he came from a tiny college program in a northern state, doomed to see his skills and desire atrophy in the lower minors? Even if you think the answer to these questions is "well, probably," baseball is replete with examples of potentially great players whose skill sets slipped through the cracks, and not all of those guys were Jack Cust types.
2. Democratizing the Media
Don't get me wrong. I'd have a tough choice deciding between ESPN and the other 400-odd channels in my cable lineup, provided that some allowance could be made for The Sopranos. But there's developed an increasingly blurry line between the people who cover the baseball industry, and the people who profit from it.
At the one extreme, you have the obvious potential conflicts of interest. The Tribune covers the Cubs while also owning the ballclub. I believe The Trib generally does a good job of managing these conflicts, but - full disclosure - I have been a frequent guest on WGN Radio. At the other extreme, you have the more vaguely insidious conflicts, such as Buster Olney blogging about "fantasy sleepers" when he clearly has no interest in the subject. And there's nobody much left to police the conflicts of interest, because if you don't have a relationship with the leagues themselves, you probably have relationships with the major media players (full disclosure #2: "you" includes Baseball Prospectus).
What we do have, however, is the blogosphere. The blogosphere has generally not been interested in covering the meta-issues of the sports media - there's no mediamatters.org for sports, unless you want to count Fire Joe Morgan. But it does an absolutely superlative [corrected] job of covering baseball itself. At the risk of being self-aggrandizing in an Al-Gore-Invented-the-Internet kind of way, I believe a great deal of that has to do with the lower barriers to entry that sabermetrics helps to facilitate, in terms of its tendency to allow objective knowledge about the game to go forth and multiply. The very thing that Murray Chass seems to fear is the very thing that makes him less important. Baseball fans can still read Murray Chass if they want - but they can also read Rob Neyer or Tangotiger or Rich Lederer. Once you realize that the arrangement of the Yankees' locker room has less to do with their success or failure than simple things like how often Johnny Damon gets on base, you're armed to debate about them without having to tip your hat to insider knowledge.
3. Leveling the Playing Field
One of the great myths of Moneyball is that sabermetrics is something that's the domain of small-market clubs; as the Red Sox have shown, there is little intrinsic connection between a team's financial and analytical dispositions. Nevertheless, having a core competency for statistical analysis provides another dimension along which a team can compete. Since statistical analysis is relatively cheap to execute, this has tended to lessen the intrinsic advantage of large-market clubs, which in turn provides "hope and faith" to a larger number of fans. As a corollary, the analytical approach represents another potential strategy that teams can gravitate toward, which increases the genetic diversity of the sport.
4. Opening up the Owner's Box (and the General Manager's Office)
Fans have always debated about the game's greatest players. But as difficult as it can be to determine whether Hanley Ramirez or Jose Reyes is the better player, it is even more difficult to determine whether Billy Beane or Terry Ryan is the better general manager, or corporate ownership is better than having a megalomaniac like George Steinbrenner. Sabermetrics, particularly when it pursues angles related to economics, empowers us to discuss the game off the field to a more profound extent. As a result, while the sport itself has a six-month season, baseball fans have grown accustomed to enjoying a twelve-month news cycle, and the Hot Stove League can approach the pennant races in excitement. It is no coincidence that the Baseball Prospectus website gets more traffic in March than it does in April, and more in November than it does in July.
5. Enlivening the History Books
The birth of the National League now predates that of the oldest living person, so there's nobody on earth who can claim to have seen every Hall of Famer play. If you look at the vigorous debate at places like the BBTF Hall of Merit, however, you wouldn't know the difference. Sabermetrics provides perspective, and that perspective can just as easily be applied to the past as to the present. Baseball has the richest history of any major sport, and while sabermetrics owes a great debt to that history - it helps to have 130+ years of observations to work with when you're developing a statistical model - that history owes an increasing debt to sabermetrics.
6. Now Geeks Can Play, Too
Each year, Baseball Prospectus takes internship applications and asks the candidates to submit short writing samples; it's likely that more than half of these writing samples will contain some reference to Theo Epstein. Most of us are not natural athletes, and although sabermetrics has probably not penetrated the industry to the point where the ex-jock/old boy's network culture has been irrevocably changed, it certainly opens up a career in the industry to a wider array of people than might have had access in the past. Keeping those sorts of dreams alive has to help with the sport's audience. And while relatively few of us will be fortunate enough to have a career in the industry itself, we're all able to experience the next best thing in the form of fantasy baseball, which has a mutually reinforcing relationship with sabermetrics.
7. Knowledge is Power
I don't want to sound like Richard Dawkins debunking the Santa Claus myth, but I believe there is inherent good in the pursuit of objective knowledge. Sabermetrics can occasionally demystify certain constructs that it might be pleasant to believe - like the existence of the Clutch Hitter, baseball's answer to Santa Claus - but is that necessarily a bad thing? And sabermetrics tends to spark new questions as well as resolve old ones. Perhaps the Clutch Hitter has been relegated to the status of the Loch Ness Monster, (or perhaps he hasn't), but sabermetrics has provoked us to look at things like player development and the relationship between pitching and defense in entirely different ways, just to name a couple.
What ultimately bothered me about Mr. Chass' article was its anti-intellectualism. Perhaps Chass would prefer that all knowledge about the game be disseminated by the Old Gray Lady on her stone tablets - "Thou Shalt Not Make the First Out at Third Base" / "Thou Shalt Not Worship False Statistics" - but the rest of us are having a lot of fun with this stuff, and we're building a better ballgame in the process.