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.