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Monday, March 18, 2013

Schoenfield: The meaning of baseball statistics

What it is, Where it is, and how to avoid threading in it.

We’ve made a lot of progress in understanding baseball in the past 25 years, although last year’s Miguel Cabrera-Mike Trout MVP debate was framed, to a large extent, around the same philosophical argument James made a quarter-century ago. Trout failed to win the MVP Award, not so much as a rebellion against sabermetrics and WAR, but because of Cabrera’s statistics—namely, his batting average, home runs and RBIs. (The fact that the Tigers made the playoffs and the Angels didn’t should have been a non-starter, since the Angels won more games.)

Even though we know we shouldn’t completely trust a statistic like RBIs in evaluating a player’s contribution—it’s heavily dependent on opportunities and where you hit in the lineup—it’s still a key influence in MVP voting. Last year, eight NL players drove in 100 runs; six of them finished in the top 11 of the MVP voting. In the AL, nine players drove in 100 runs and five finished in the top 11 of the MVP voting. (Don’t get me wrong: I’m not comparing Cabrera, who had an outstanding season, to Dawson.)

I’m not even suggesting RBIs is a horrible statistic and should be ignored; I still enjoy knowing how many runs a player has driven in. But the context needs to be understood. That’s why I often cite statistics like WAR or Defensive Runs Saved or other advanced metrics; these are all attempts to better understand the game and understand why teams win or understand more accurately the value of a player beyond batting average, home runs and RBIs.

Yet there is still a lot of push back against stats like WAR. The majority of fans still don’t trust it or believe in it. A few weeks ago, SportsNation asked on ESPN.com, “Do you consider WAR to be a useful statistic in evaluating baseball players?” The “no” votes outweighed the “yes” votes 63 to 37 percent. It was a landslide rebellion against new metrics. It was Andre Dawson winning the MVP Award.

Repoz Posted: March 18, 2013 at 12:47 PM | 15 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
  Tags: sabermetrics

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   1. Eric Ferguson Posted: March 18, 2013 at 01:12 PM (#4390556)
Yeah, but ... have you read the comments on ESPN.com? If anything, I'd take those voting results as a feather in WAR's cap.
   2. John Northey Posted: March 18, 2013 at 02:32 PM (#4390609)
I suspect of the general public seeing 37% have any clue what WAR is is a good thing. I did prefer WARP as the term though... must be the Trekkie in me :)
   3. jdennis Posted: March 18, 2013 at 04:42 PM (#4390690)
actually we are underestimating the voters, they actually all just have an even more complicated metric they feel is technically superior to WAR. it's coming from the other side of the debate.
   4. Walt Davis Posted: March 19, 2013 at 02:02 AM (#4390991)
Yet there is still a lot of push back against stats like WAR. The majority of fans still don’t trust it or believe in it. A few weeks ago, SportsNation asked on ESPN.com, “Do you consider WAR to be a useful statistic in evaluating baseball players?”

Ugh. Not that I blame these guys since it's common practice on much more important topics, but questions like this should always be preceded or followed by questions to determine whether the person has any idea what they're talking about.

For example, ask people if the US should spend less money on foreign aid and you get a heavy tilt towards yes. Ask them how much of the budget the US spends on foreign aid and you'll get answers like 20-30% (it's less than 1% still I believe). Similarly I'm sure you get much different answers if you asked "Should the US spend $1 billion a year on foreign aid?" vs. "Should the US spend 1% of its budget on foreign aid?"

There's also a problem around "evaluating baseball players". What does that mean? Evaluate for what purpose and along what dimension (talent or performance)?
   5. Dr. Vaux Posted: March 19, 2013 at 06:58 AM (#4391001)
questions like this should always be preceded or followed by questions to determine whether the person has any idea what they're talking about.


I think a person should have to take a quick test on the basics of the current issues and the candidates' positions before voting, but just try implementing that and you'll be branded a racist or elitist classist or something, even though it has nothing whatsoever to do with race or class (unless newspapers have gotten much more expensive than I think they have).

With that in mind, I think they framed the question pretty well. They didn't ask whether WAR was the most useful, or the "best," just whether it was "a useful statistic." I think everyone here, even those of us who are suspicious of aspects of WAR, would answer yes to that question.
   6. DanG Posted: March 19, 2013 at 09:47 AM (#4391065)
Yet there is still a lot of push back against stats like WAR. The majority of fans still don’t trust it or believe in it. A few weeks ago, SportsNation asked on ESPN.com, “Do you consider WAR to be a useful statistic in evaluating baseball players?” The “no” votes outweighed the “yes” votes 63 to 37 percent. It was a landslide rebellion against new metrics.
A gross misinterpretation of the results.

Most fans don't know what WAR is, or don't understand its uses. So for them it's not a "useful statistic". This is very different from "push back" or "rebellion", it is simply ignorance. Once you understand it even a little, it becomes useful to reference it.

It takes time for new metrics to penetrate into public consciousness and be widely understood enough to be "useful". Look at on-base percentage. It took 30 years after Branch Rickey and Allan Roth introduced it for it to become an official statistic, and another 20 years to be widely used and understood.
   7. Ulysses S. Fairsmith Posted: March 19, 2013 at 10:06 AM (#4391085)
Why are we discussing the results of an online click poll at all? As I tell my beginning statistics students, such a poll isn't completely worthless--but it's so close to being completely worthless that it might as well be.
   8. Fancy Pants Handles lap changes with class Posted: March 19, 2013 at 10:23 AM (#4391099)
As I tell my beginning statistics students, such a poll isn't completely worthless--but it's so close to being completely worthless that it might as well be.

That's how I usually describe RBI.
   9. The Id of SugarBear Blanks Posted: March 19, 2013 at 10:29 AM (#4391103)
The false precision in WAR renders it almost useless.(*) The defensive numbers are very untrustworthy, as is the scale of comparison of baserunning and batting.

It's really that simple.

(*) Under the strict definition of the term, meaning WAR doesn't really tell you anything you can't glean from reviewing data other than WAR.
   10. Scott Lange Posted: March 19, 2013 at 10:57 AM (#4391140)
The false precision in WAR renders it almost useless.(*)

(*) Under the strict definition of the term, meaning WAR doesn't really tell you anything you can't glean from reviewing data other than WAR.


Do you mean that in the same sense that it is true that a country's GDP doesn't really tell you anything you can't glean from reviewing every transaction conducted in that country for a good or service provided to an end-user in a given year?
   11. The Id of SugarBear Blanks Posted: March 19, 2013 at 11:17 AM (#4391162)
Do you mean that in the same sense that it is true that a country's GDP doesn't really tell you anything you can't glean from reviewing every transaction conducted in that country for a good or service provided to an end-user in a given year?

No.

WAR isn't like GDP, which represents a tangible concept that makes sense -- and measures actual events.
   12. DanG Posted: March 19, 2013 at 11:38 AM (#4391182)
that makes sense -- and measures actual events
"What is REAL?" asked the Rabbit one day,.."Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?"
   13. The Id of SugarBear Blanks Posted: March 19, 2013 at 11:41 AM (#4391185)
"What is REAL?" asked the Rabbit one day,.."Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?"

No, it doesn't mean that.
   14. vivaelpujols Posted: March 19, 2013 at 12:05 PM (#4391247)
I'll just drop in to say the SBB has no ####### idea what he's talking about.
   15. Fancy Pants Handles lap changes with class Posted: March 19, 2013 at 03:20 PM (#4391619)
I'll just drop in to say the SBB has no ####### idea what he's talking about.

Could you drop by the politics thread, and reiterate that?

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