The Times They Are A-Changing

Outside of my office there’s a giant television screen that broadcasts The Score’s television content twenty four hours a day to the fine people passing by King Street and Peter Street in Toronto.  Coming in and out of the building several times a day, you tend to get desensitized to it.  Where other people stop, stare and listen to the talented personalities voicing sports highlight packages, doing their best to make The Score competitive with the other national sports television networks in Canada, I normally tend to walk on by like a real life surgeon who doesn’t grimace at the supposedly shocking scenes from an hour long medical drama on television.

Yesterday on my way into work, my blissful ignorance was interrupted.  The Score’s television personalities were talking about baseball. a rarity to begin with, but instead of hearing words like batting average and runs batted in being used to describe the success or failures of a certain player, they were using on base percentage, slugging percentage and on base plus slugging percentage.  I did a double take up at the big screen to see a graphic listing Jose Bautista’s numbers in all three of these categories from last year, and my heart nearly skipped a beat.

I assume I’m not dissimilar to most of this blog’s readership in rolling my eyes at typical jack of all sports broadcasters who quote pitching wins and runs batted in as meaningful numbers.  And I’m not suggesting that The Score is much different from the competition in this regard, outside of yesterday’s analysis.  We can’t all be Alan Ashbys, able to simultaneously appeal to both casual and intense fans.

It takes a conscious decision on the part of sports media to raise the level of a casual fan’s understanding.  And ESPN has recently made this conscious decision by creating a position for former NBA consultant Dean Oliver as the network’s director of production analytics.  His mandate: to evolve sports talk.

We have to introduce new language. You can get lazy using convenient language. Like with common discussions of basketball players’ per-game points, rebounds and assists. That has to be replaced. How many team wins does he contribute? How often do his passes lead to buckets and free throws?

Oliver, using basketball in this example, will work to create new statistics for all of ESPN’s coverage, while attempting to grandfather out the misguided numbers that really don’t tell you anything about the level of a player’s ability.

RBI, in 10 years, will have gone away. What’s more of a battle is what it’s replaced with.

Of course, not everyone is pleased with this advancement.  The Big Lead’s Ty Duffy puts together a defense of hokum that’s very well written, but unfortunately not well reasoned.

We have entered sports’ industrial revolution. Statistics are making sports homogenized, faster and efficient.

That sounds really great, only it’s not remotely true, even at an ironic level.  Statistics do nothing to blend sports together.  No one would argue that they do.  If anything, they help to break one aspect of a sport down further to create a better understanding.  Then Duffy goes on to argue against himself later in the piece by suggesting that statistics interfere with the enjoyment of a baseball game.

A baseball GM could construct the ideal statistical team. Tremendous athletes would blanket the field. Dispassionate hitters top to bottom would work pitch counts and be excruciating outs. It would be successful and efficient. It would be awful to watch. Every game would take five hours with minimal scoring. The game needs to entertain.

What Duffy fails to realize is that for some, enjoyment of sports comes from going beyond the visceral.  In fact, statistics add new elements of pleasure beyond merely seeing a memorable play.  Knowing the correct odds of a player hitting a home run in a certain situation makes that home run even more memorable.  And going even further, knowing how much that player makes and how the team acquired him and how many wins he will bring to the team at what cost adds a completely new level to being a sports fan.

Sports are beautiful. Seeing Lionel Messi dribble through three defenders or Larry Fitzgerald make a leaping catch in the end zone exhilarates us. We need to know the mechanisms behind those feats as much as we need to know the composition of Van Gogh’s paints or a diagram of Shakespeare’s sentence structure. We understand because we experience greatness organically. We don’t need to double check the spreadsheet.

No one has a gun to anyone’s head while attempting to open up Microsoft Excel.  Almost everyone has grown accustomed to using statistics, counting and otherwise, to describe a game, so why wouldn’t we want the most accurate?  Imagine if every art gallery listed composition items below a painting all the time or if every great novel came with diagrams of sentence structure already.  Wouldn’t it seem ridiculous if that information was wrong or completely misleading?

Caring about numbers and tracking statistics doesn’t limit your enjoyment of brilliance.  Just because I think that OPS is a better measurement of a player’s success than batting average doesn’t mean I appreciate a walk off home run or a diving defensive play any less.  If anything, it means I likely understand the rarity of it even more.

No one is pretending that sports isn’t an escape or that it has an importance beyond providing a distracting pleasure.  But part of the pleasure that comes from baseball and other sports, is the understanding of it, the predictions, the second guessing, the strategy involved.  Statistics are necessary for providing that pleasure.

I know that at times people who use more advanced statistics can come across as annoyingly evangelical, but think about the root of evangelism.  As delusional as it may be, it’s rooted in a desire for others to find the enlightenment that you have.  I love baseball and I assume that anyone else visiting Getting Blanked also loves it because by the very fact that you’re reading these words, it means that you’ve sought it out.  If I have a way of understanding that love in a more accurate way than what’s commonly believed to be true, it would be irresponsible of me not to share it and not promote it.

And that’s why statistics are important to sports, and that’s why we should always be thinking critically about them and seeking out the most accurate measurements possible, because as nerdy as the image of a spreadsheet is, it goes a long way to contributing to all the fun.

Comments (22)

  1. Amen, and I too have noticed the Score leading the way at least in Canada when it comes to elevating the level of sports discussion/analysis. Love the Score, really get disappointed hearing the viewership for TSN, and online pageviews. Their highlight packages arent any better, there personlaities in my opinion are mostly brutal….I could go on but its no fun thinking about. Other than live sports broadcasts why would anyone watch it?

  2. I’ve been reading your blog for the past few months in order to grab a sense of your style and feel for the game of baseball. I have appreciated your efforts thus far but your incessant needs to blather endlessly over stats is killing my repeated interests in visiting. Stats are stats. They evolve and further promote the game. We get it. Quit beating it.

  3. Does Lionel Messi play basketball now? Must be a point guard.

    I’ve actually noticed that The Score seems to be ahead of the curve when it comes to advanced stats in baseball. They’re not perfect, but they’re certainly better than the other two. Simon Bennett seems to be very good at using modern stats.

  4. The example from Van Gogh and Shakespeare only diminish Duffy’s argument. The trope that analyzing great works diminish your enjoyment of them always seem to come from the camp that refuses to engage art on this level. Those who actually look at Van Gogh’s composition or Shakespeare sentence structures with any degree of seriousness will tell you that the perspective the analysis gives them complements the visceral pleasure beautifully. If anything it’s far more likely to increase the enjoyment of the works than diminish it.

  5. Maybe I’m missing something but where else has Parkes talked about statistics themselves outside of when he’s used them? I think it’s relevant considering where baseball stands and the context of this ESPN hire. The Score may be ahead of the curve on TV but Parkes needs to have a sit down with Tim and Sid. It’s painful whenever they talk about baseball.

  6. I need to vary my verbs more. Diminish, diminish, diminish…

  7. @Simon: AGREED! I pray that they don’t talk about it. Remember when they tried talking about Pujols that day?

    “Werth got like $100-million from the Senators”

    “The conversation for Pujols must begin at like $150-$200-million.”

    “If Crawford can get $80-million, Pujols must be able to get at least that.”

    I love those guys but JESUS.

  8. I just don’t understand why those people feel the need to offer their opinions.

  9. Great create more stats for more involvement and more blathering articles. It looks the sports journalists have saved themselves from redundancy. Win-win. Bunch of fappers.

  10. I will agree with Duffy on one thing. I hate batters who “work counts”. Hence why Yankees-Red Sox games can in fact be, as he said, excruciating. A 1-0 9 inning game should not take over 3 hours, but when those 2 play, it can. And I change the channel cause it’s boring.

  11. Couldn’t agree more. Knowing more never does anything but increase the potential pleasure of an experience. Especially with baseball, where the game that happens in your head is at least as important as what happens on the field. Can the batter hit the ball the other way reliably, will the pitcher bust him inside so he can’t, is he going to bunt, is the hit-and-run on, how do each player’s strengths and weaknesses figure into a situation? All of it becomes part of the game a knowledgable fan actually experiences, It’s perhaps most important in baseball, where at least two out of three times, nothing much happens at all. The people who are reacting violently to the new statistics are simply threatened, and ignoring the place numbers, probabilities, potential outcomes have always had in the game. The new numbers are just better, that’s all.

  12. @Jeff – yeah, taking that approach really affects the popularity of the Yanks and Sox. People really complain about the length of games during the parades.

  13. I’ve always felt like advanced stats exist for those who care to understand the cause-and-effect of what goes into making a team successful. Not every casual fan necessarily needs to know what WAR is if they just want to scream “Go Jays Go” when someone hits a home run…but if you have any interest at all in roster construction, it serves you well to have an ever-improving idea of what makes a useful player as opposed to an underutilized roster spot.

    We should definitely move towards discussing more complex stats on the baseball analysis we see on TV, but as with any change in understanding we should remember that there are some people out there over the age of, say, 60, who grew up on BA and RBI and aren’t likely to have the interest or the intellectual capacity to understand how FIP is calculated (hell, I don’t even know how it’s calculated, and I’m into this stuff)…I think what we’re seeing right now is a grandfathering of the archaic stats, but it’s going to be a long, gradual shift.

  14. I haven’t read his whole article (and probably should) but it seems as if Duffy is deriding not just advanced statistics, but all statistics as they relate to sports. Perhaps his ideal game is one where nobody keeps score, because you’re just playing for love of the game, and there are no uniform numbers, as members of a team should all coalesce in their pursuit of a single goal. Which isn’t winning, by the way, because you can’t keep score. I don’t know what it is, but Carlos Estevez sure-as-shit wouldn’t be involved in a movie about it. WINNING!

  15. jeez – if anything stats that measure how an individual contributes to the team should aid in creating less selfish players. i guess that would be annoying if i liked bball (given the NBA’s m.o), but all the “way the game should be played” people should be losing their shit.

  16. “If I have a way of understanding that love in a more accurate way than what’s commonly believed to be true, it would be irresponsible of me not to share it and not promote it.”

    Why do so many journalists deny this fact? It blows my mind when a sportscaster will admit, on camera, that they don’t know and don’t care to know what OPS, WAR, wOBA, etc mean. How do you expect anyone to respect your opinion when you GO OUT OF YOUR WAY to ignore new ways of thinking about things? You don’t have to automatically agree with it, but it’s part of your job to know.

    As an accountant, if I refused to change doing things from the way I’ve always done them, I’d be out of a job in 30 days. Yet these guys manage 30 years. It’s stunning how little regard they have for their jobs.

  17. @Drew: This is why the Yankees and Red Sox are perennially in the basement when it comes to attendance too. Remember last year when the smash first, ask questions later Jays were selling out the Dome?

    Fans care about one thing: Winning. They couldn’t care less how they get there.

  18. Far worse than taking pitches is stepping out of the batter’s box or stepping off the rubber and constantly readjusting, refocusing, etc. Just brutal.

  19. While the Yanks/Sox do work counts, that’s not what extends those games. I can’t remember where or when I read the article, but the extra number of pitches in those games is negligable. What extends those games, as Parkes said, are the players stepping out and steppping off, the substitutions (because every Yanks/Sox game is a “big” game) and the TV services sneaking in extra commercials.

  20. Whatever floats your boat is what I think! As long as your following, who gives shit what the reasons or factors are. Enjoy the game!

  21. the problem with people like parkes who are stat geeks is that you simply dont understand what the purpose of statistics are. these are not for actuaries working in insurance companies. stats are only relevant in baseball if they are useful. that’s why stats like obp and slug etc will forever be used because they are very simply and accurate. trying to reinvent a more accurate thermometer serves no purpose. if you cant tell who’s a good hitter/pitcher by just looking at the basic stats then inventing more stats isn’t going to help you is it?

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