For a nerd like me, this quantification of sports has been tremendous fun. Thanks to obsessive websites, even the casual fan now has access to statistical tools that would have boggled the mind of a GM 10 years ago. Sabermetrics has also transformed the act of being a spectator, so that watching a game is no longer just about cheering for our hometown team. The numbers have given us a whole new way to think about sports, elevating the conversation beyond disappointed groans, ecstatic high-fives, and subjective opinions.
But sabermetrics comes with an important drawback. Because it translates sports into a list of statistics, the tool can also lead coaches and executives to neglect those variables that can’t be quantified. They become so obsessed with the power of base runs that they undervalue the importance of not being an #######, or having playoff experience, or listening to the coach. Such variables are the sporting equivalent of a nice dashboard. They can’t be quantified, but they still count.
...Here’s my problem with sabermetrics — it’s a useful tool that feels like the answer. If we were smarter creatures, of course, we wouldn’t get seduced by the numbers. We’d remember that not everything that matters can be measured, and that success in sports (not to mention car shopping) is shaped by a long list of intangibles. In fact, we’d use the successes of sabermetrics to focus even more on what can’t be quantified, since our new statistical tools take care of the stats for us. We are finally free to think about how those front seats feel.
But that’s not what happens. Instead, coaches and fans use the numbers as an excuse to ignore everything else, which is why our obsession with sabermetrics can lead to such shortsighted personnel decisions.