Lindholm: Welcome Back, Steve Stone — Now Let’s Talk Sabermetrics
By Scott Lindholm-
(CBS) Listeners to the Boers and Bernstein Show on Friday heard a familiar voice, Steve Stone, announcing his return to The Score as a baseball expert. I’ve always enjoyed his work in the broadcast booth and with The Score, as he combines an insider’s knowledge with the ability to convey it in a listener-friendly manner. I look forward to his return.
He said this at the 10:15 mark of the podcast:
I have actually been studying up and will continue to because we’re going to kind of introduce … some sabermetrics to the broadcast this year. We’re going to actually explain to our viewers a bit about how it’s used as a tool and try to explain that’s it’s not the tool but is a tool. If used correctly, wins above replacement is an incredible statistic and batting average on balls in play, these are incredible statistics …
A better springboard to discuss what advanced metrics mean couldn’t be provided, and I’ll take the opportunity to explain what statistics can and cannot do. Most of my comments relate to baseball but can be applied to any sport.
Stone mentioned two statistics, wins above replacement (WAR) and batting average on balls in play (BABIP). For almost as long as baseball has existed, people have been trying to develop a statistic encompassing everything a player does, be it batting, fielding, baserunning or pitching and put it into one statistic. This is sought for one reason and one reason only, to attempt to compare one player’s performance with another.
If told a player has a season WAR of 5, the number itself is meaningless — it’s just a number. The power comes from knowing that seasons like this are typically All-Star caliber. A WAR around 8 is an MVP-type season, and if players like Mike Trout have a WAR of 9.2 in 2013 (Baseball-Reference value), it’s just short of being one of the top 100 seasons for offensive players in baseball history. Around 10,000 position players have played a total of around 56,000 seasons in baseball history, putting Trout’s season in the top 0.2 percent of all time – -pretty good. It’s not important that Trout had a 9.2 WAR as much as how few players have had one as high. The WAR figure helps put Trout’s season in the proper context of one of the best seasons ever.
We use statistics to illuminate, to expand our knowledge and fill in the gaps. There were 709,927 pitches thrown in the major leagues last year, and even the most dedicated fan saw a fraction of them. We use box scores and advanced metrics to fill in what we didn’t see and add nuance to what we did. Not every play is equal — a home run hit when a team is losing 15-1 in the eighth inning is different than a single that breaks a 3-3 tie in the bottom of the 13th. Advanced metrics help differentiate between events and allow for meaningful comparisons.
There are three common reactions to the data explosion in the past 15-20 years. The first was adoption, which most every baseball front office has done by 2014. Some were earlier than others, but it’s essentially a battle that’s over. The second was, “I don’t need them — I know what I saw,” to which I respond, “Good for you. Vaya con Dios.” My goal isn’t to force people into a brave new metric-heavy world not of their choosing but hopefully to explain how the these measures can supplement and add to their knowledge of the game.
The third attitude still exists but is less prevalent with time — “I don’t need those numbers, they distort the truth.” Numbers can’t distort anything — it requires human intervention to distort and misinterpret what a number means. Adam Dunn had a bad 2011, a very bad one, and no statistic exists to sugarcoat how awful that season was. There are people who can misinterpret statistics, but when viewed objectively most advanced metrics give a more complete measure of how a player or team is performing.
I’m not a reporter with access to the players and coaches or an ex-player or coach with insider insights. I comb through mountains of data in search of trends and patterns and explain what it means. My approach isn’t for everyone, but what I bring supplements and complements what reporters, athletes and other experts state. My goals are simple — to quantitatively substantiate an idea and see how often given items have occurred. I use numbers to tell a story.
Len Kasper instituted Stats Sunday during Cubs Sunday home games, and Dan Bernstein (weighted on-base average), Matt Spiegel (pitches per plate appearance) and I (Mistake Index) were privileged to be guest participants in 2013. From Stone’s comments it sounds like the White Sox broadcasts will take a more data-driven approach. I look forward to seeing how these metrics are incorporated — they have an outstanding resource in CSN Chicago’s Christopher Kamka (my favorite person to follow on Twitter), who will be invaluable in working this data in seamlessly and informatively.
Those of us who are comfortable with advanced metrics welcome all looking for a deeper knowledge of baseball — note that I specifically did not say “better.” It’s just another avenue to add nuance, context and perspective to the game we love. Welcome back to The Score air waves, Steve, and best of luck in adding new facets to your already-extensive knowledge of baseball. We’ll all be better informed as a result.
Follow Scott on Twitter @ScottLindholm.