I posted this piece last year on opening day. It took me several years to come to these conclusions. I'm posting it again because I've seen a lot of fighting on the board lately between newer posters and long time contributors in the stats vs. scouting battle.
1. A gradual process in which something changes into a different and usually more complex or better form.
Numbers have a special relationship in baseball. No other sport has such a long history of celebrating the numeric benchmarks that have been passed down from generation to generation. The .300 hitter…. the 100 RBI guy… 30 homers. They were standards with which we all agreed. It was how we defined excellence. They gave us perspective, a way to judge players from one era to another.
But there was always an uneasy feeling among “baseball men” that there was more to player evaluation than simple numbers could ever reflect. Subjective judgment was still more important, in spite of the variety of opinions you could get among talent evaluators. People who spent a lifetime in baseball used statistics as a side dish, but not as the main course. How could a number ever express the beauty of Mazerowski turning a double play? What equation could describe the jump Mays got on the ball off the bat?
We were right when we argued that statistics didn’t tell the whole story. We were right when we gave more weight to scouting methods steeped in subjective judgment.
The reason we were right wasn’t that statistics is an imperfect science. The reason was that the particular statistics that we grew up with were inadequate in expressing what was going on. So, we very often drew the conclusion that stats are incomplete, and we were right.
But baseball, for all it’s tradition and history, does not exist in a static environment. It’s dynamic, ever changing, evolving. And a big part of that evolution in the past 30 years comes from a group of dedicated baseball lovers who were also mathematicians. These were people who, like the “baseball men” of the day, saw the current statistical measures we used were inadequate. But they didn’t stop there, as we did. They looked for better ways to express performance through mathematics.
And they came up with some surprising conclusions. Things that were counterintuitive to the traditional baseball world. Much of this “new thinking” came in the form of complex equations, far beyond the simple formulas used for batting average, ERA, and the counting stats that had been used as benchmarks ever since Henry Chadwick conjured up the first box scores.
The community of mathematicians saw the value immediately. This was their turf, and it wasn’t even that complicated, relative to the kind of things they were doing in other fields. But it was voodoo to most baseball men. An egregious transgression, perpetrated by a bunch of people who “never played the game”.
And as the movement grew, the divide between the “baseball men” and the “statheads” grew ever wider. It became a turf war. And it got ugly.
The “statheads” ridiculed “traditionalists” like it was a dirty word. Moneyball portrayed scouts as tobacco chewing Neanderthals, simpletons, incapable of seeing the big picture. And traditionalists loved to tell stat guys to get their nose out of their spreadsheet and actually watch a game. It was personal, demeaning, and very emotional on both sides.
I was one of the guys who laughed out loud when I first heard some of the conclusions coming out of the sabermetric movement. Before I even scratched the surface of trying to understand what they were doing, I lumped the “new math” of baseball into the same category as the old stats, the ones that I and all of my friends KNEW were incomplete in describing the big picture.
And I was right, from my perspective. But my perspective was skewed. It was incomplete. So, even though I was convinced from all my years of playing and coaching and studying the game I loved that I was right, I wasn’t. In the grand scheme of things, I was wrong.
The craziest thing about all of this is that both sides come from a noble place. Both sides are seeking the truth about baseball. Both sides want the same thing.
I’ve been studying and debating and really agonizing over all this for the past 4 years. And I’ve bought in completely.
And I’m glad that I didn’t come to these conclusions easily. I’m glad that I resisted, kicking and screaming all the way. I’m glad that I demanded proof, and challenged it at every turn.
But to me “buying in” doesn’t mean that I have to abandon what I know and have learned from a lifetime of observation. I’ve said over and over that a “balance” between statistical analysis and subjective judgment from observation is the optimum approach. I now believe this more than ever. There has to be a blend with which the two disciplines can co-exist.
In my opinion, the perfectly evolved baseball mind doesn’t exist on either extreme of the spectrum. It’s somewhere in the middle, depending on your background and experience. You don’t forget how to crawl when you learn how to walk. You just find a better way of moving. I submit that both extremes have to give up old attachments and open our minds, and learn a better way of thinking about the game we love.
I would love to see the fighting stop between the so-called “traditionalists” and the so-called “statheads”. It’s gone on for too long. The personal attacks, the condescension, it’s all so counterproductive. It’s a turf war that serves no useful purpose.
I don’t mean to stop the discussions. I don’t want the challenges to every new and old idea to stop. That’s how we evolve, we test our theories against one another, and we seek the truth. But the personal rancor and invectives are childish and ridiculous, demeaning to all involved.
We all seek the truth about the game we love. What could be more noble?