In Defense of Compassionate Sabermetricism

If I’m going to have a horribly unhealthy, gut-busting, productivity-killing Friday lunch, I’m a big fan of Panda Express’ Orange Chicken. And there’s a decent copycat place a couple blocks from the office, but it was a nice day yesterday, and I was up for a walk, so I went for the real thing. To get that, you have to head to the James R. Thompson Center, a big gathering point for a lot of Chicago that, as I understand it, houses some government offices and whatnot. The Panda Express is really all I’m interested in.

So I get there, and there’s this big protest going on right outside the building. Up close, people are waving signs about the right to life and how gay marriage is destroying our families, milling about in the general neighborhood of someone who is speaking ineffectively into a megaphone, while across the street is another group of people doing their best to drown out this first group with shouts like “What do we want?” “Abortion rights.” “When do we want it?” “Now!” and “Fascists go home!” and I’m thinking to myself, what are these people (any of them) doing here, really? Do they expect to convince anyone by labeling the other side murderers or fascists, or by just being louder? Or do they just like to hear themselves talk? Is there just nothing better to do on a pleasant Friday leading into a holiday weekend?

That’s basically how tHeMARKsMiTh sees the world of baseball fans and writers: the internet-savvy sabermetric crowd against the talk-radio-and-newsprint traditional crowd, both sides trying to shout each other down, never getting anywhere. (Of course, that doesn’t even remotely do justice to his post. Read it yourself; I’ll still be here when you’re done. Ready now? Good.) A couple basic things to get out of the way:

  1. I agree with most of his main points. There’s a lot of shouting into the abyss that goes on on both sides, a lot of name-calling and making fun, and it’s hard to see how any of it does anything at all other than making people on the same side feel smug and superior at the other side’s expense. (Okay, I have to make an exception for these guys, who were just too funny. And JoePoz, who’s kind of a fence-straddler, anyway. But otherwise, I don’t see the point.)
  2. I don’t think traditional stats (or most of them, anyway; sorry, Holds and Fielding Percentage) are completely worthless. You’ve seen me use HR and RBI a bunch of times already. Stats like those give context; even if you believe that VORP or WAR or Win Shares are a perfect measure of player value, think of the traditional stats as the splash of color in the crystal-clear black-and-white picture. They tell the story: what kind of hitter he is, where he likely hit in the lineup, and so on. WAR will tell you that Mark Teixeira and Carlos Beltran were almost exactly as valuable as each other in 2008, but don’t you want to know a little more than that? That’s where I think runs, RBI, HR, SB, and so forth come in handy.
  3. Another main point of Mark’s is that neither side has it completely right. I agree with that, too: there’s not much “right” about picking an MVP based on who has the most HR or RBI or Saves, and sabermetric analysis is certainly far from perfect as well — all you need to do is look at how much the various metrics (WARP vs. WAR, plus/minus vs. UZR) disagree with each other.

But where I disagree with Mark is: I don’t see this as being like the abortion or gay marriage debate at all. In those debates, like in the “dialectic” Mark envisions, there are really only three plausible truths: (a) one side is correct; (b) the other side is correct; or (c) the answer is somewhere in the middle. If you have one side that believes that abortion should be legal in all circumstances and one side that believes it should be banned in all circumstances, that’s as far as it goes; it can’t be more legal than the first side wants it, and it can’t be more illegal than the second side wants it. So the one true “right answer” has to be either one of those extremes or something between them.

Not so here. Our advanced metrics are flawed, but the answer isn’t some compromise between them and the traditional stats; the answer is more research, and more metrics. The metrics we have have grown out of the more traditional statistics. Saying you prefer HR and RBI to VORP and WAR isn’t at all like saying you prefer “Choice” to “Life” or vice-versa; rather, it’s like saying you prefer Betamax to Blue-Ray.

Here’s how Mark defends the traditional crowd:

Those who follow counting numbers have a point (among many). Baseball revolves around the run. It determines who wins and who loses. Therefore, should you not pay attention more to runs, RBI’s, and home runs? Home runs automatically score a run (making them slightly important) and bring in whoever is on base (making them more important). If the point of the game is to score runs than the other team, home runs and RBI’s are awfully darn important, which gave Howard the edge [over Pujols for 2008 NL MVP].

But this ignores the critical weakness of run and RBI totals (and this isn’t a criticism of Mark, who I know understands this: it’s just that I don’t think there’s any way for anyone to successfully defend this position), which is that, in every instance in which you don’t hit a home run, your runs and RBI are totally dependent upon your teammates either getting on base for you or driving you in.

This doesn’t work well for the NL race, because Howard actually did do a phenomenal job of knocking runners in in 2008 (Pujols was still the clear MVP for other reasons), but take a look at this list (I hope). In 2008, Justin Morneau finished 2nd in the AL MVP voting, while his teammate Joe Mauer finished a distant 4th, based largely (or rather, entirely) on the fact that Morneau had 129 RBI and Mauer managed just 85. If that link went to the right place, though, you’ll see that when they batted with runners on base, Mauer and Morneau drove in those runners at almost exactly the same percentage: 19.0% to 18.6%. Morneau gets that huge edge in RBI because he batted with 151 more runners on base than did Mauer. Morneau actually batted with the most runners on base of anyone in the league. Part of that, of course, is because he’s not a catcher, and thus got to play every day. But a huge part of that is that he got to hit behind Joe Mauer, and his 2nd-in-the-AL OBP!

So the RBI stat tells you who was at the plate for the final event resulting in the creation of a run, but it can actually distort your sense of how that run was created. Mauer was, hands down, a better hitter than Morneau in ’08, and played a much bigger part in how the Twins’ runs were scored. When you add in defense and adjust for position scarcity, it’s not even close. They’re very nice complementary pieces, but Morneau is the Scottie Pippen to Mauer’s MJ.

So, yeah, runs are awfully important. On the team level, you could almost say they’re all-important (almost). But to look at the HR, runs or RBI a single player has as a way of judging that player’s value is never a good idea. Even with Howard: make him the MVP because he drove a bunch of guys in, and you’re ignoring Pujols’ 100+ points of OBP and 100+ points of SLG, amounting to 100+ fewer outs and many more runs for Pujols’ team, and Pujols’ vastly superior defense, all for the sake of (a) Howard’s good fortune of having 50 more runners on base during his PAs than Pujols had in his and (b) a 2% edge in his success at driving those runners in. It doesn’t add up, or even come close.

More to the point, every one of those traditional stats is totally encapsulated in some more advanced metric or other. Whatever skills you think RBI measures, that’s also measured, and better, in SLG; or, if you think hitting with runners on base or “in the clutch” is a skill that’s worth measuring, stats like WPA/LI do a better job with that. Batting average is a fun little stat for what it is, but OBP tells you the same thing and more. Fielding Percentage is totally encapsulated by all advanced fielding metrics, like UZR and Plus/Minus.

You might think that these things (well, save OBP) are less-than-perfectly accurate, but that’s not an argument in favor of going back to the old things; it’s an argument in favor of doing more research and finding better new things. UZR may not be perfectly accurate, but it’s always, in every possible instance, going to do a better job of telling you who is the better fielder than fielding percentage will. FIP may not be perfect, but it’s better than just comparing two players’ ERAs. There may be slightly different ways to measure OPS+, but it’s always going to be better than not adjusting for era or ballpark factors at all. And so on. We can argue about how good the new stuff really is, but it’s just plain better than the old stuff (the well-grounded stuff that gains some level of acceptance, that is, not just any old thing someone thinks up).

So that’s the point: I’m not going to use the term “flat-earthers” around here. I try to avoid mudslinging of all types. I have nothing against people who rely solely on traditional stats, and I think those stats have their place. But their place isn’t in player analysis, not anymore. If you’re going to argue something like that Howard was the 2008 NL MVP and base it on traditional stats, you’re going to be wrong — simply, objectively, obviously wrong. And I’m sincerely sorry to say that. But I’m not trading in my DVD player for a VCR, and I’m not giving up my numbers for a set that tells me the same stuff, but less of it, and with more static.

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5 Responses to “In Defense of Compassionate Sabermetricism”

  1. tHeMARksMiTh Says:

    Nice. I have a response post up.

  2. Bill Says:

    Man, I am having serious formatting problems with the good people at blogspot lately. Should be fixed now.

    Thanks, Mark. Your response is good too, and focuses on a third part of your initial post that I kind of ignored because this post had to end at some point. 🙂 I’ll leave a comment at your site with my thoughts in a little while.

  3. tHeMARksMiTh Says:

    That does look better. There’s a reason I center a picture at the beginning instead of elsewhere. It just gets weird and difficult.

    I like having these discussions. Hashing it out and taking a look at the situation. You made clearer some points that I should have but cut down when submitting it to make the word count.

  4. Ron Rollins Says:

    Bill, good discussion. Take a look at this and give me your opinon.

    I’m not saying right or wrong on any number, but this kind of mirrors some of the discussion.

    http://baseballoverhere.blogspot.com/2008/12/in-defense-of-rbi.htmlhttp://baseballoverhere.blogspot.com/2008/12/in-defense-of-rbi.html

  5. Bill Says:

    Thanks for sharing, Ron. That’s interesting. I think I might have to just write a follow-up for tomorrow and talk about that there. I think you’re essentially right, though — I’m just not convinced that the fact that players who get lots of RBI happen to be good players makes it an especially useful stat. Nick, in your comments, calls for an “RBI%” stat–that’s pretty much the stat I used above in the discussion about Mauer and Morneau, right? Throwing that into the mix definitely makes RBI more useful…

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