The Revolution will be SABRized (except it's not really a revolution)

I had a long conversation last night about a couple of issues raised by my last post, and I want to put a couple of things down. Conversations are great opportunities for exchanging ideas, but rarely feature efficient, surgical uses of language.

My last post was spurred by my surprise at how much advanced baseball analysis had begun to infiltrate mianstream media, especially in the form of Expected W-L on the MLB.com site. This is a website that has been in existence for over a decade, is officially maintained by, you know, baseball and decided at the begining of the season to include this stat in their official categories (although you do have to turn the option on).

Now, I was happy about this, and I think all baseball fans should be. This metric gives us all a better understanding of the game, and I think it is therefore a good thing. But, unfortunately, I used the acronym SABR in my post, which among some people in the baseball community has become a bad word ... hell, almost blashpemy.

I'm going to take this slow, so as to be completely clear. SABR, as in SABRmetric (sabermetric), has the following meaning:

The Society of American Baseball Researchers. Keep this in mind as you read along.

Last night, our discussion centered around the difference of opinion on this community. A friend told me that he views this community as incredibly arrogant, and that he feels that their work "takes the fun out of baseball." I didn't agree with that.

I disagreed with a number of things about his arguments.

Firstly, most of the baseball community is quite arrogant. Ozzie Guillen, George Steinbrenner, Mike Scioscia back when we was really winning, Barry Bonds, Ricky Henderson, Roger Clemens, David Wells, A-Rod, Jeter, Curt Schilling, Dusty Baker, Tony LaRussa just to name a very few. Chances are you don't have to think very hard to come up with instances where these men insisted they were right to the point of arrogance, or to come up with another dozen names. Competitive sports are going to draw competitive people, and to single out a single group for arrogance is like singling out a Royals player for incompetence; they're all at fault.

Furthermore, SABR is not what most people think it is, which is why it kind of pisses me off to hear blanket statements about a group that's actually trying to grow baseball in a time where public distrust of the sport is dangerously high, African-Americans are leaving in droves, and postseason viewership continues to drop. SABR actually does a number of wonderful things for the game.

Now, I know I'm not supposed to ever use wikipedia as a source, but there's not a traditional encyclopedia or source I can go to, so I've got no other choice. From the SABR page on wikipedia:
The Society for American Baseball Research was established in Cooperstown, New York, in August of 1971. The Society's mission is to foster the research and dissemination of the history and record of baseball while generating interest in the game.
Members include Bill James and Rob Neyer. SABR, which is pronounced "saber" and whose acronym led to the creation of the word sabermetrics (mathematical tools to analyze baseball), is about much more than statistics.
In fact, only a minority of members pursue "number crunching" research. Rather, SABR offers a community of fans organized in two ways. Research Committees study a particular issue. Regional Chapters are for members in geographic proximity. They are frequently named after baseball personalities relevant to the region.
So sabermetrics is far different than what most people would believe. However, as a statistical discipline it is imperative to get this point across. It is the application of the scientific method to baseball. That way, we don't believe the baseball equivalent of mice being bred from dirty piles of rags in corners.

Secondly, anyone who ever mentions the word "sabermetrics" is immediately asked about "Moneyball." This is the law of firsts, the idea that the first product, idea, or book that identifies a unique product or idea is tied into it with unbreakable bonds. This is why in some places you can go to a restaurant, order a "Coke" and then when you're asked what you want, you order a Sprite, or Root Beer, or something else that is clearly not a Coke, or even a Cola. This is because Coke as the first widespread soda (pop, whatever) with widespread recognition. Moneyball has done this to sabermetrics, to the point that it has become impossible for some to seperate the two in their minds. Let me make this clear, because in some quarters this is still misunderstood. Sabermetrics does not automatically suppose that OBP is the most important stat, that speed is useless, nor does it suggest that all coaches and scouts are deranged. It is, like I said, just the collection and analysis of statistics, leaning heavily on resources such as Retrosheet and Baseball Reference.

This leads into my third point. For me, a greater understanding of the game through stastics doesn't diminish the 'magic' around the game at all. The steroid scandal, yes, the White Sox winning a World Series, yes, but understanding that OBP correlates better with scoring runs than SLG, no. Comparing Milwaukee attendance in their new park to the Twins over that time, controling for variables and concluding that the Twins can expect a huge bump in attendance, given how much higher their winning percentage is, no. Investigating how a steal affects late and close games by using the Win Expectancy calculator, no. All of those things enhance my love of the game, and pull me deeper in.

Yes, sometimes these studies contradict common baseball knowledge, but why should baseball be immune to criticism if it can be proved that it is wrong? Honestly, that too close to the way the adminstration treats the press for me. "Even if we're wrong, you can't criticize, because you're tarnishing a great institution." If we truly believe in our great institutions, then we must hold them to high standards of honesty and conduct, and by giving dumb managers and commentators a pass, we let bad information circulate about the game we love (like the importance of having an pitcher that "knows how to win").

In the end, I took all of this a bit personally, because while I am not an official member of SABR, I've felt a certian affinity for people who are trying to find new and interesting ways to look at baseball, and who may get carried away in their love of the game but always have their hearts in the right places. Yes, at times the style of presentation can be a bit abrasive, and sometimes it appears that they want to tear down tradition, but I think their contribution far outweighs any cost they might bring. Besides, think of all the raidcal changes to baseball in the last fifty years: interleague play, the wild-card, weight rooms, online radio and TV broadcasts, the DH, 73 homeruns, the 4 then 6 divisions, steroid worries, expansion teams, mound distance and probably a lot of others I'm too young to remember.

Sabermetrics isn't just something else the game has to weather, it's a community that is going to do whatever they can to make the game thrive, and try to educate us a bit along the way. This is all just my opinion, which is too bad because I'd love some statistics to back this up (just the SABR in me, I guess).

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