This is a lazy piece of writing but I am going to do it anyway.
Jason Whitlock is the latest writer to attack sabermetrics and claim it is ruining sports. Whitlock is known for taking a stance that is less than popular and arguing in favor of that stance. It is a good way to get eyeballs on his work, sort of like anyone who is on the radio; make a point that 80% or more of the world disagrees with and you have a ton of listeners. Howard Stern has made millions offending people over the airwaves. Whitlock is sort of the same way.
In this piece he attacks sabermetrics which is a good way to get a lot of free press on Twitter at the very least. I am not saying that those who use sabermetrics are in the majority yet, but it is becoming increasingly popular among baseball pundits to favor sabermetrics as they see the value.
Without further ado here are some excerpts from Whitlock’s column and then my thoughts.
“I won’t be going to see “Moneyball.” The movie celebrates the plague ruining sports: sabermetrics.
That is not intended as a shot at Bill James, Billy Beane or Michael Lewis.
James (the inventor of sabermetrics) and Beane (the most adept user of sabermetrics) are baseball visionaries worthy of glorification. Michael Lewis (the author of the book “Moneyball” that celebrated Beane’s use of sabermetrics) is one of the most important writers of this era.”
First off, Beane is not the most adept user of sabermetrics, just the most popular due to Moneyball. The Tampa Bay Rays, Boston Red Sox and many other organizations employ countless “nerds” to find the newest way to judge a baseball player via his historical numbers. These nerds are incredibly bright individuals with degrees from Harvard, Yale or other smarter-than-smart schools.
Secondly and more importantly – and if Whitlock actually read and understood the book – Moneyball wasn’t about sabermetrics, Beane was exploiting market inefficiencies. Those inefficiencies might have been mostly around on-base average (which is the most basic stat out there and not really sure why it is consider “sabermetric”) but it wasn’t solely about sabermetrics; it was about Beane getting ballplayers on the cheap because he was looking at them from a different view point than other General Managers around baseball.
“They unwittingly conspired to remove much of the magic and mystery from baseball. They reduced the game to a statistical bore. It’s no longer enough to be down with OBP (on-base percentage). To talk the game, you now must understand OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging), VORP (value over replacement player), BABIP (batting average on balls in play) and on and on.”
I use sabermetrics to judge baseball players all the time, but I still love watching Troy Tulowitzki make a dazzling play at shortstop. I still love watching Carlos Gonzalez square off against Tim Lincecum. I still enjoy the game. Plenty. I feel that sabermetrics allow me to look at what has happened historically and make a better judgment as to who is a good player or not. I don’t let it fool my eyes, however. UZR has been known to say that Dexter Fowler and CarGo are substandard defensive outfielders, for example, and I don’t believe that for one second. As many smart writers have said before me; sabermetrics gives us an idea of a player’s past performance and then we use our eyes to see if we believe the data or not.
“There’s a stat for nearly every action in baseball. Little is left to the imagination. Sports were never intended to be a computer program, stripped to cold, hard, indisputable, statistical facts. Sports — particularly for fans — are not science. Sports, like art, are supposed to be interpreted.
It’s difficult to interpret baseball these days. The stat geeks won’t let you argue. They quote sabermetrics and end all discussion. Is so-and-so a Hall of Famer? The sabermeticians will punch in the numbers and give you, in their mind, a definitive answer.
It’s boring. It’s ruining sports.”
It is true that there is a stat for everything. Fielding, base running, pitching, hitting, all of it. But like I said before I don’t reduce baseball to just looking at stats. We all know that every out is not the same. If I only looked at the newspaper each morning and saw that Tulo was 0-for-4 and I didn’t watch the game I could assume he grounded out easily four times or hit four lazy pop flies. If I watch the game I know that those four outs were rocket shots to infielders or lasers to the outfield that just so happened to be right at one of the three guys in the grass. Saberheads do not rely solely on stats, they use them to better understand what they see.
If it wasn’t for statistics in sports we wouldn’t have fantasy sports and can anyone say that fantasy is ruining sports? The NFL surely couldn’t say that. Due to fantasy hundreds of thousands watch the NFL every weekend to root for their fantasy teams, which score points based on stats. (More on this below)
“Last season, the basketball analytics crowd was convinced that LeBron James and Dwight Howard deserved the MVP over Derrick Rose. The fact that Howard’s whiny, immature crybaby-ass was even in the discussion tells you all you need to know about analyzing the game solely on statistics. The Orlando Magic were a joke last season in part because of the immature environment fostered by Howard.
As for James vs. Rose? Well, James devoured Rose in the Eastern Conference Finals. Rose’s defenders — most notably ESPN’s Ric Bucher — argued that Rose’s inferior supporting cast is what allowed the Heat and James to get the best of Rose and the Bulls. And by the time James disappeared in the NBA Finals, it was easy to see the merit of Bucher’s point.”
I don’t follow the NBA so I am not sure what he is talking about here, but I do know that his obvious bias towards Howard being a “whiny, immature crybaby-ass” is an opinion with no factual basis. I guess if you would rather vote an MVP on stuff like a player being a “whiny, immature crybaby-ass” versus his actual tangible contribution to helping a team win, then, yes, you would hate sabermetrics. Anyone who knows a saberhead knows they hate when someone talks about “intangibles”. Intangibles are saying that the player brings nothing tangible to the game, right? But because he is – usually – shorter in stature and generally unathletic looking, he is more likeable to the sports writers who fit the same physical description.
David Eckstein made a career out of “intangibles”. I would much rather have someone on my team who brings something tangible to the table to help the team win. Not some phantom illusion that Tim McCarver and apparently Jason Whitlock see in players.
“It doesn’t really matter who deserved the NBA’s MVP award. What matters is that there was a fun, yearlong debate. As much as we enjoy watching the competition on the field or court, we take equal pleasure in interpreting and debating what we just saw.
Sabermetrics/analytics undermines the debate. They try to interject absolutes.”
Nothing could be further from the truth. Saberheads always disagree. Just look at the MVP races and Cy Young races in 2011. Some think Jose Bautista is the MVP and some think Justin Verlander. I don’t think anyone believes there is a clear cut MVP in the NL in 2011, even those who hate sports like sabermetricians (/sarcasm).
“No one will ever convince me that John Elway isn’t the greatest quarterback/football player in NFL history. I know what I saw. I don’t care that Joe Montana won more Super Bowls. I don’t care that Dan Marino threw for more yards. I don’t care that Peyton Manning’s completion percentage is eight points higher.
I can and have argued credibly and passionately that Elway is the best QB and player in the history of the league. You are free to disagree. I invite you to disagree. I’d love to refute your erroneous position. Just bring more than stats to the table.”
Sort of blurring the topic, aren’t we? Whitlock was talking baseball and sabermetrics and he has gotten into his own agenda on Dwight Howard and now John Elway. See, he attacks players from sports who have a large following and when that following reads stuff above about guys like Manning and Howard they get upset. It has been proven that males who disagree with someone are likely to continue reading or listening. Just like the local sports radio guy attacks the local team to gain listeners Whitlock does it on a national level. He has taken an article about sabermetrics and turned it into an “I told you so” and “so-and-so is the best ever and I won’t let some nerd tell me otherwise” column. Because, the way I read it, if you think Montana is better than Elway you must be a nerd.
“That’s what bothers me about this whole era of sports. In my lifetime, there have been two innovations that have significantly influenced sports fans: 1. fantasy leagues; 2. sabermetrics/analytics.
Again, the stat geeks are winning. Our perception of athletes and their value are primarily being dictated by statistics. Peyton Manning is the king of fantasy football; therefore, he is the king of real football. LeBron James is the king of fantasy basketball; therefore, he is the king of real basketball.
Is it a coincidence that James and Manning have both struggled in postseason play?”
OK, he lost me. What does regular season play and fantasy have to do with postseason? Can anyone really say with any conviction that the Colts didn’t win more Super Bowls because of Manning? Or is it easier to say that the Colts made the playoffs all those years because of Manning? Once they got to the playoffs the competition was stronger and the supporting cast (especially on defense) wasn’t enough for the Colts to win. Assigning wins and losses to a QB is worse than assigning them to a starting pitcher (another column in itself for a football blog).
“I don’t know the answer. But I want to discuss and debate it. And I don’t want to do it with people who simply want to quote stats. The answers and the questions that make sports special, unique, our collective national pastime, can’t be found on a stat sheet. They’re in our imaginations and our individual interpretation of what we witness.
When the “Moneyball” movie hysteria subsides, I hope the sabermeticians STFU.”
I would love to hear Whitlock’s argument as to why Elway is the best QB ever. If he even so much as mentions passing yards or won-loss record I would immediately inform him that he is quoting statistics and, well, that IS what sabermetrics are all about. Right? How else do you argue who is the greatest ever? Hairstyle?
And, finally, if anyone is more geared up AGAINST Moneyball it is the sabermetricians who know that not only does the movie portray the characters in a way that is not how they are in real life, but it isn’t really about stats. Moneyball was about market inefficiencies; a practice that is used from Wall Street to kids trading baseball cards.
Whitlock ends up winning in the end: not only did I read his article I wrote one countering it and will actually give him more eyeballs (albeit a small number of eyeballs…).