Sabermetrics and baseball analytics have become a focal point in the conversation about the growth of the game and the overall health of the sport. One thing that can’t be denied is that the numbers are a large part of the process in building baseball teams today, which puts pressure on the media and fans to keep up with the numbers teams use and understand them to understand how their teams operate. Well, in theory, that’s how it’s supposed to be. Many things in this world aren’t how they’re supposed to be, if they were I’d be a lot taller, but alas, here we are. Fans argue about the role of analytics every day on social media platforms, fueled by a deep misunderstanding of what analytics are, and how they’re used. That’s not to say the numbers are perfect and not without flaws, but the conversation around those numbers isn’t where it should be, and I am going to try and explain how we got here, and where we can go from here.
You’ll often hear the average fan say many things about analytics and statcast metrics throughout a game. You can go through the Twitter feed of a random fan on a random game and the chances you’ll see them complain about the “focus on launch angle” is going to be high. It would make sense to get this reaction when fans were just sort of thrown this information without a ton of explanation. However, it’s now been six years since that information became public and is mentioned on every broadcast. The biggest misconception is that launch angle is a new concept because it’s not. Ted Williams was speaking about the idea of getting the ball in the air back in the 1940s, we just have a name for it now.
Another thing you might notice is every decision that fans don’t agree with, they will blame analytics. Trust me, go through any team’s Twitter when they post their lineup, the comments will be flooded with those comments. Sometimes, they are right, decisions were made with the numbers in mind, and they just don’t work, that’s baseball. Other times, lineups and in-game decisions are made while ignoring the analytics, and they just don’t work, that’s also baseball. When fans get frustrated, they can feel like they have to blame something and or someone for things going wrong. Analytics can sometimes be the scapegoat of that frustration. As before, it can make sense that people not understanding something, or someone, will cause them to lash out against it if something doesn’t go the person’s way.
I ran a survey that asked fans several questions about baseball analytics and someone brought up the great point that pitching development is so far beyond hitter development that it has helped fuel the decline in offense. This is an unintended consequence of pitching development through data but blaming analytics as the sole cause of the lack of offense is disingenuous to the fact that pitchers are better than they’ve ever been before.
Analytics is the boogeyman of baseball. An entity that many people don’t understand and seem to be afraid of. That’s for a variety of reasons but one of the biggest is that baseball has been around for over 100 years and has changed more in the past few years than it did in the previous 80 years. Baseball today is completely different than it was even 5-6 years ago, even if you ignore the rule changes. Change is hard to understand at times and accelerated change can be confusing. It also doesn’t help that the analytics aren’t perfect, and things are evolving.
The Flaws of Numbers
I’m not going to fool anyone here, I’m biased towards the numbers. I believe in this process and will defend its use in the game. That being said, there are a lot of flaws in the process and the numbers themselves. People will focus on the defensive side of the game when talking about flaws in the numbers, which is true, the numbers aren’t as perfect as offensive metrics and pitching metrics. They require a much larger sample size to stabilize out and can vary year to year. DRS, OAA, and UZR are still better and more reliable, over a large sample than any fan’s eyes. We all have biases, and we’re more likely to remember the great or bad plays rather than the routine plays or balls that players should have gotten. Those metrics aren’t perfect, but they’re better than anything we’ve got.
In the survey, they were asked what a flaw of analytics was and got a wide range of responses. One of the main ones is those analytics are taking away from the soul of the game. Francisco Lindor said it before the season and people have continued to say this. When I asked a fan what they meant by this, they told me that they feel less action and a focus on efficiency takes away from the humanity of the game. That every decision is quantified and there’s a lack of feel used by the managers. This came out in force when Blake Snell was pulled from game 6 of the World Series. Fans argued that Snell was rolling and was giving a historically great performance. Others argued that Snell has a history of falling apart quickly and that going to the bullpen was the move that made the most sense. We can’t go back and change it now but months later, the discourse continues and fueled the question of analytics have a place in baseball.
I asked that same question and out of nearly 440 respondents, 97% of them responded with yes. Now, my followers and the respondents don’t likely represent the overall fanbase of baseball so that number should go down, but it’s good to know that the numbers have a place in the game.
Back to the flaws, one flaw that was mentioned only a few times, is that numbers have helped teams suppress the salaries of players. You might be reading that and thinking, but Fernando Tatís Jr. and Francisco Lindor just got 340-million-dollar contracts, how have they had their salaries suppressed? You’re right, they just got a lot of money, deservedly so, but the middle of the pack players aren’t going to get paid. Gerrit Cole, one of the most vocal players about the state of the game, said it’s like a bell curve. The top-end guys will still get paid, but if there are multiple 3-win players available on the market, why would you shell out the dollars for them if there are so many substitutes? That’s where the team’s thinking comes from but that ignores so much context that it becomes a problem.
What Fuels the Misunderstanding
The biggest misunderstanding of the numbers comes from the fact that some of them are incredibly complicated. Baseball fans might hear about SIERA and get confused and so they become discouraged. It also doesn’t help that when a fan states an opinion using traditional statistics, they will get bombarded on Twitter from fans telling them that they are stupid. That’s not the best way to convince people of the process if you just berate them whenever they believe something that might go against the views of the metrics. I’m no stranger to this, I’ve done it myself, and while I’m trying to get better at it, sometimes it’s not always easy.
There are fans out there who just don’t want to learn about the new wave of thinking and complain about all of the new metrics as much as they can. “I’ve seen this game for X years, I don’t need no damn website to tell me what I can see!” they’ll scream at a random beat writer who cited Giancarlo Stanton hitting the ball 120 mph in a game or Jacob deGrom hitting 102 on the radar gun. There are so many things wrong with the eye test but just to rattle off a few, it’s impossible to watch every plate appearance, or every chance in the field, or every pitch for every player. You cannot possibly watch that much baseball, and that’s okay. That’s where we go to check the numbers. The other major flaw of the eye test is that your eyes can deceive you. You are more likely to remember the big play or the big misplay than the ground ball that snuck through the whole that an infielder with good range would have gotten to. It’s ok to admit that you can’t possibly know or see everything, that’s why baseball has numbers in the first place.
Another thing that fuels the divide is that fans won’t always understand the point of the numbers. I’ll mention Giancarlo hitting a ball 120 mph because a retired beat writer said what’s the point if it doesn’t lead to wins. Which, in a vacuum, is a fair point about how we talk about statistics in baseball, if it doesn’t help the team win why should we care? I asked Eno Sarris, a friend of Pitcher List and one of the most forward-thinking writers in the game today at The Athletic, about how fans felt the numbers were taking away from the soul of the game. He said,
“I think we’re just trying to tell stories. A stat by itself is not a story. If someone is just leaning on hey here’s a stat, wow, look at it, for their story, they’re relying too much on the stat. The stat should fit hand in glove with the story, support the story, and move things forward.”
He also added that fans were technically right that analytics were taking away from the soul of the game, but we shouldn’t blame the teams and analysts. They’re just doing their job and trying to help their team win by the rules that are set in front of them. Change the rules, and things will change. Something I think all fans need to hear about the current state of baseball.
I asked a question on the survey, to identify as an analytical fan, a traditional fan, or something in between. The majority of the respondents said they were something in-between at 56%, while just 11% said they would call themselves a traditional fan. Again, probably not an accurate representation of the fanbase of baseball as a whole so keep that in mind. The follow-up question asked fans to say which was more harmful to the growth of the game: fans who don’t want to learn about analytics or analytical fans who demonize those who don’t use them. The vast majority said both were bad, but most would cite that demonizing people who just want to enjoy the game in any way they could is more harmful. I asked one of the respondents who described baseball fans as a community said that “Everyone has their favorite players, even if they aren’t the greatest at the game. I see it a bit too often where someone wants to appreciate their favorite players, but someone brings up stats to bring them down.” He added that “traditional fans can invest some time into learning these metrics by learning from the analytics community itself.” An optimistic view of the way fans can interact, and one I hope that we can get to.
Where Do We Go from Here?
You might be asking yourself, “well, Max, what’s the point of all this? How do we move forward from here?” Fear not, I have answers for both of those questions! The point of this article is that, while there are a lot of other issues in baseball but there is a large disconnect in the way teams operate and the way fans think they should operate. If a team uses an opener, fans complain that they aren’t the Rays and they shouldn’t do stuff like that. Ignoring the fact that the Rays have been very successful with that philosophy and strategy, teams should always do whatever they think they can to help them win. Eno Sarris recommended that MLB and the teams should give more resources to their social media to tell better stories with those stats. At best, Sarris says, the stats come to life on a local level. This is where we should start, local broadcasts.
This past Sunday, Sunday Night Baseball offered the statcast broadcast. A fun alternative to the regular broadcast that provides fans with a fun view of the game as well as potentially teaching them about things they might not have already known. It also provides an alternative to Alex Rodriguez clamoring for more bunts and saying hitters are too focused on launch angle rather than just making contact. The irony of Rodriguez clamoring for bunts is not lost on anyone. However, if you go on a lot of local broadcasts, you’ll hear sentiments very similar to what Arod says on Sunday Night Baseball. If all fans hear from their broadcasters is confusion and pushback on the analytics, then how can we expect fans to feel positive about the way the game is going? Some of the local broadcasts do a great job. David Cone is one of the best analysts on TV and does an amazing job explaining the metrics and thought process behind the modern game. If you swapped him with Rodriguez, how much would the game improve? A question that can’t be easily answered.
As mentioned earlier, analysts for a baseball team come up with the best strategies to help their team win. The best organizations, as Sarris says, work hand-in-hand with all their departments to push forward on one beat. Fans have complained that teams are too reliant on the metrics or not enough. If fans were to become more knowledgeable of these strategies then they’ll understand the thought process more, thus less blaming every decision on analytics or lack thereof. A smarter fanbase is a better fanbase.
Finally, I think we all need to look inward to how we approach baseball conversations. The old phrase in baseball is the best players still fail 70% of the time. The very best minds in baseball are going to be wrong way more than they are right. People want to enjoy the game of baseball in many different ways. Some fans want to just rely on batting average, runs, RBI, and ERA and wins. That’s ok! Other fans can enjoy the more advanced metrics and that’s also ok. We don’t have to constantly yell at each other to figure out who’s right. Instead, analytical fans can explain the numbers and thought process, educationally. More traditional fans can learn about it if they want to, but they don’t have to. Analytics are here to stay, how you use them is your choice. Baseball is a game for everyone, let’s embrace that and let everyone enjoy the game they want to.
I want to thank Eno Sarris for answering some questions as well as helping push the industry forward. I want to thank Twitter users @11lizzie, @bagman928, @shpurk, @jkrodgers, and @KidOogley for taking the time to answer some follow-up questions based on their survey responses.
Photo by Ken Lund (https://www.flickr.com/people/kenlund/) | Adapted by Justin Paradis (@JustParaDesigns on Twitter)