Designated HitterMay 10, 2007
How Sabermetrics Helps Build a Better Ballgame
By Nate Silver

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 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.

Nate Silver is the Executive Vice President of Prospectus Entertainment Ventures; inventor of PECOTA, the BP projection system; and writes "Lies Damned Lies," a column about modern statistical analysis. He lives in Chicago.


I still can't believe that you intended to leave Josh Beckett out of your top 50 list at SI. Admit it - you made a mistake.

As for this article - hear hear. In addition to what you wrote, sabermetrics has enriched the baseball experience for a huge subset of fans. Murray Chass is an irrelevant exception that just happens to have a bully pulpit from which to shout his minority opinion.

The blogosphere:

But it does an absolutely superfluous job of covering baseball itself.

I hope this is an editing error.

As a newspaper editor and reporter, as well as a contributor to this site, I hope more professional beat writers and columnists will embrace and accept sabermetrics and utilize it more often in "the main stream."

If it weren't for online publications like Baseball Analysts, Baseball Prospectus, The Hardball Times,, and many others, I probably would have lost much of my passion for the sport simply by following nothing but the "traditional" coverage.

One of the issues with newspaper, from what I've experienced, is that they tend to shy away from hiring baseball fans to do their coverage of Major League Baseball... regardless of their experience or skill. They would rather find a solid writer who has only a working knowledge of the sport to keep things "impartial."

Many of the sabermetric publications are so wonderful to read simply because you can feel the writers' passions.

Sabermetrics combined with other factors such as skilled scouting and intelligent player development can turn low-budget teams such as the A's and Twins into consistent contenders.

I wouldn't go entirely on stats and data, but I'd be a fool not to use them. The work of Nate Silver and others has been very enlightening.

I enjoy sabermetrics and think they are good for the game. Sabermetricians,..., eh, not so much. A little too arrogant for me, as many of your columns demonstrate.


The three guys that I've gotten the most hate mail about with respect to their exclusion from the Top 50 are Beckett, Matt Cain, and Adrian Gonzalez. You can certainly make a case for any of them. Beckett's PECOTA numbers were not too far behind someone like Dontrelle Willis, who made the list as an honorable mention, and he's certainly made up some of that ground with his performance so far this year, but I still have some longer-term concerns about injuries. Cain has a nice heater, but his peripherals actually aren't very good at all this year. The Adrian Gonzalez argument is more one of positional scarcity. But all of those guys are close, and the difference between #1 and #15 on this list is much greater than that between #50 and #100.


That error is on me. I think I meant to use the word 'stupendous' and somehow things didn't flow quite right from my brain to the keyboard.


I'm finding that that arrogance is dissipating somewhat as analysis has grown to play a larger role inside the industry; there is not so much of an axe to grind.

With that said, a lot of sabermetricians suffer from "smartest kid in the room syndrome", and I'm sure there are times when I've been no exception. What's important to understand is that we aren't murdering to dissect; most of us really love baseball.

cool article, my colleague is building something very innovative in regards to sabremetrics. I'll be glad to forward it to you as I imagine it seals up a few "seams" or alternate paths to Bill James' great research, and will likely be a useful new reference tool.

"Sabermetricians [are] a little too arrogant for me, as many of your columns demonstrate."

Yeah, Sabermetricians are the most arrogant people in baseball...except for everyone else.

Do you honestly think that a baseball analyst with a blog or maybe even a self-published paperback book is even in the same universe of arrogance as most managers? General managers? Owners? People who vote for the Hall of Fame?

Do you think your local baseball beat writer - who still thinks hitters who take pitches are lazy - is a paragon of humility?

Let's have some perspective here. If I was making my list of MLB's most arrogant blowhards, nobody from B.P. would make the top 100.

Do you think your local baseball beat writer - who still thinks hitters who take pitches are lazy - is a paragon of humility?

It's funny you should ask -- I do.

While I think there is still lingers a lot of guys afraid of changes or whatnot, but I also think there are a lot of good guys out there. Guys that may not be running statistical studies, but guys who just love the game and are open to different types of analysis. There is, and there always will be, progress being made.

Great article, Nate, as usual. I'd add that the games are, to me at least, much more enjoyable to WATCH once you've had a taste of sabermetrics. A couple years back Mitchel Lichtman and I got into a spirited debate over email about the wisdom of intentionally walking Jeff Kent in a given situation. The discussion would have been unthinkable (or at least much less interesting) without an understanding of run expectancy, platoon splits, leverage, etc. -- all things which are much more rigorously understood b/c of sabermetrics.

For me, sabermetrics is a lot like film criticism. You often hear people say that a critical approach to movies ruins the unmediated joy of filmgoing. But I've found that I'm actually MORE likely to get swept up in the poetry and romance of movies when I have a better grasp of what's going on in them.

Oh, and for the record, Al Gore never claimed he invented the Internet, despite propaganda that says otherwise.

Commenting on Moneyball, the A's and Red Sox....
Sabermetrics helped Billy Beane recognize flaws in the way players are valued financially, which is benificial to a small market club. A difference in the perception of value translates very differently to big market teams that have the resources to pay for the best overall talent, regardless of how this is estimated. The Red Sox, blinded by Bill James, found a way to value Kevin Youkillis higher than Hanley Ramirez (who should have been tapped as untouchable)...because the skill set of the former was determined to be "undervalued." And eventually they'll end up paying Youkillis above market rate, at a price they determine is commesurate with his value. The Red Sox have proved not that Sabermetrics is of little value to a big market team, but that it should be in a different manner.

Garth - Bob Dutton seems to be a different breed of writer. The Giants' beat writer is just a mouthpiece for management and has done quite a few hatchet jobs on players (Jeff Kent isn't clutch, Ray Durham plays too much basketball, etc...) The Dodgers have to contend with Bill Plaschke, who made it his personal mission to get Paul DePodesta fired. Richard Griffin called J.P. Ricciardi racist because he drafted too many college players. And we have the moronic ramblings of the aforementioned Murray Chass.

Unlike Dutton, most baseball writers prize their access and aren't open to new ideas. The idea that Nate Silver is arrogant in comparison is preposterous.


"But it will emerge from my dialogue with the American people. I've traveled to every part of this country during the last six years. During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet. I took the initiative in moving forward a whole range of initiatives that have proven to be important to our country's economic growth and environmental protection, improvements in our educational system."

For someone who makes general claims on improving various aspects of American life as most politicians would do, he includes a specific claim that is refutable.

Since politicians will either life or make general claims that can mean anything and therefore is irrelevant to listen to, I'd prefer the latter, so that we can ignore them altogether.


And here's Vint Cerf defending Gore. If Gore had said "promoting", or "involved in the creation of what eventually became" instead "creating", then that would have been more accurate:

Baseball has always been obsessed with statistics and numbers. It's part of the fun. However, it's also a downfall. Take the Barry Bonds thing. We are in a frenzy over his numbers and what they say about him and us and how his overtaking Hank Aaron is an affront to Aaron and baseball. I say, "So what." Let him take over Hank. It doesn't take anything away from the Hammer. We all know Aaron had more class and was a more decent and important player in the history of baseball. STYLE COUNTS. That's what baseball forgets. It is entertainment, not engineering or physics. Putting the emphasis on numbers takes the style out of the game. I'll take Ozzie Smith or the Mad Hungarian over Barry Bonds any day of the week. Screw the records and the numbers. Let's see cool players again who entertain and dazzle us. Let all the records be obliterated and forgotten.

To the last commenter:
I understand your angle and I feel the same way to a degree. The difference is that I want my team to use sabermetrics and therefore have a better chance of winning while the other teams go for razzle dazzle and therefore have a better chance of being entertaining. Turf baseball in the 80's is an example of enjoyable but sabermetrically unsound baseball. The bottom line is that statistics matter and using them intelligently improves a teams chances of winning.

To the last commentator:
Win or lose, does it really matter? The Yankees are a .500 ball club right now, and they draw more fans than any team in baseball. It's about money, baby!