I bet your OPS went up so high after this. (Image : John Munson/THE STAR-LEDGER via USA TODAY Sports)

Sabermetrics and the Future of Baseball Writing

With the advancement of sabermetrics in baseball has come a lot of changes. With change usually comes good and bad. Some pros and some cons. In today’s internet age there’s rarely ever a fan who can’t resort to WAR when comparing two players. I forgot who, but I once read that even today’s biggest baseball idiot isn’t that much of an idiot. I definitely have to agree with this due to the sabermetric age.

I recently had a very short conversation with a friend who doesn’t really get majority of his sports information off the web. He relies on the major networks like ESPN and the league’s respective networks. We’ve talked about sabermetrics and the concept of them, but he hasn’t really come around. Today even ESPN shows these new statistics that have taken the internet by storm. However, a few still rely on the simple numbers. In all honesty I’m okay with that, and I don’t mind that some people don’t use sabermetrics. It’s okay to be a fan of the standards statistics, but you just can’t dismiss the new wave of statistics that is sabermetrics.

However, today everyone is an expert. If you can find sites like Baseball-Reference or Fangraphs, then you have all the numbers at your disposal to copy and paste into the comment section of any baseball forum. Which is fine to make a point in a comment section. Though, now I’m starting to see a lot of this in baseball writing. A whole paragraph dedicated to reciting numbers off a website. Is this really what baseball writing has become? Just a stat-based discussion with little in between? What bothers me is that I am guilty of this at times. Sometimes I feel that I ad lib my way through an article because many of the terms sound the same after a few years of analysis.

There is a cyclic pattern here that I realized the other day when reading other prominent MLB sites. In the comment section a thread stated how WAR was bogus. Then another commentator joined the discussion stating how it was not. It ended up with words I’m very familiar with when it comes to WAR. “WAR is a valuable tool, but shouldn’t be the be all and end all.” Every anti-WAR conversation ends that way. It’s gotten to the point where it’s boring.

Now, not all writers do this. Perhaps my favorite baseball writer of all-time, Joe Posnanski, is the best example of what every writer should strive to be. A writer who can state his numbers, but that won’t be the content of the article. He seems to make a point without even using the numbers. There is a story to be told in almost all of his posts, which make his writing so enjoyable to read. Someone who can make a clear point using stats does have talent. They have the evidence to prove themselves correct. But someone who can prove a point with a story involved has a special talent. What I’m trying to say is that sabermetrics has closed our minds more than it has opened them. If even the simplest of commentators are analysts, then we need to creatively separate ourselves.

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  • http://YanksGoYard.com/ Matt Hunter

    Interesting piece, Joe. As you probably know, I’m a big proponent of sabermetrics, and I use advanced stats and the like often in my writing. Here’s the sentence that gets to me in your post:

    “What I’m trying to say is that sabermetrics has closed our minds more than it has opened them.”

    I don’t think that’s necessarily true. Sure, a lot of people do simply state WAR or whatever other numbers they’d like and leave it at that. But others, and this has been going on for a long time, simply state AVG/HR/RBI, or intangibles like “clutch” and “heart” and leave it at that. Neither is a good thing, but I wouldn’t say that sabermetrics has made it any worse. In fact, I think sabermetrics has completely opened up the game in so many different ways. From pitch f/x to wOBA to WPA and so on, baseball fans have been able to measure new things, answer new questions, and find way more ways to love the game. I definitely love being a fan more since I discovered sabermetrics. Like anything else, it can be misused, but overall, it’s advancing the conversation a lot more than hindering it.

    That being said, I completely agree about the need to have a narrative as well. You can’t just state the numbers. You have to explain what they mean, tell a story. Good baseball writing, like you say, takes all that research and analysis that’s being done and uses it to form a compelling, yet objective and accurate, narrative.

    Sorry, that was an absurdly long comment, but it’s something I feel very strongly about. Good article overall, Joe.

    • Joe

      In a way it hinders our narrative I mean. Not really closing our minds. Like I said, good and bad come from it.

      I’m sure a lot of people will feel strongly about the subject. Thanks for your take Matt.

      • http://YanksGoYard.com/ Matt Hunter

        Right, but by itself, it shouldn’t hinder the narrative. Sabermetrics is just an attempt to determine objective answers to questions in baseball. Using WAR and wOBA in a post shouldn’t hinder the narrative any more than using HR and RBI would. Stats are helpful (well, most stats). They just need words to go along with them.

        • Joe

          Oh I agree with that. I use SABR stats a lot. As writers we need to get more creative with our writing because everyone can use those stats now.

    • Bill B

      I would be considered an old timer. I saw the tail end of Mantle’s career. I enjoy the advancement forward in statistical analysis. Never the less I have witnessed over the years intangibles such as team chemistry as to player to the rest of squad. Recall the tumultuous year of the 76 Bombers with Reggie etc. then who could have predicted, with stats, the greatest team of all time the 98 Yankees. Chemistry remains a major factor that is difficult to measure with numbers.

  • ikkf

    Good article. I think a lot of writers are getting too caught up in the statistical analysis *cough*RAB*clears throat* and so much of the writing out there just sounds like regurgitation. And even though I’ve been into statistical analysis for 20 years — though a different system from all those WAR and woba stuff — I still get a better idea of a player’s abilities from his HR, RBI, and BB line.

    • http://YanksGoYard.com/ Matt Hunter

      Why RBI? I understand if you want to use it to evaluate the past (though I don’t think you should), but it seems like there are much better ways to evaluate a player’s talent than RBI since it’s so dependent on the players in front of you.

      • ikkf

        I dunno, it’s just me being a dinosaur. I guess it’s more curiosity than anything else. I totally agree with you that it’s too dependent on others’ abilities. I look at power and walks the most.

        • http://YanksGoYard.com/ Matt Hunter

          Makes sense. I’d encourage you to check out stats like wOBA and wRC+. The formula’s are complicated, but they’re both really useful and accurate as far as how to value different outcomes (single, double, HR, BB, etc). This is a good place to start: http://www.fangraphs.com/library/index.php/offense/woba/

          • ikkf

            Thanks, I’ll check those out sometime, just to know what people are talking about. They sound similar to a system that was invented by a guy who did statistical analysis for the Expos in the early 1990s and the Red Sox up until Duquette left. It takes the statistical value of every action (single, double, triple, home run, etc.), and figures in a player’s defensive range to calculate a player’s Run Production Average, which represents the percentage of a run that a player generates in his team’s favor every time he steps to the plate. It even takes into account the statistical advantage or disadvantage a player’s ballpark gives him, whether a pitcher’s defense is helping or hurting him, stuff like that.

            I have yet to find another analytical system that’s as brilliant and elegant in its simplicity as the RPA. When the system was being published in book form, it first made me aware of the value of walks and the worthlessness of batting average and RBI. The author used it to predict the Braves going from worst to first in ’91 and other surprises that the sports press didn’t see coming. It was Moneyball a decade before Moneyball.