Sabermetrics wins big


I’ve been warned not to mix politics and baseball (especially my politics), but I’m going to just this once, if only to celebrate Tuesday’s big Election Day winner: Nate Silver.

In case you followed the results on television, or are waiting for the mail to get your news from Newsweek, Nate Silver is the blogger whose work on his 538 website was to the unfolding presidential campaign what Buster Posey was to the Giants: invaluable.

Silver picked all 50 states correctly in the presidential election, and picked every Senate race correctly until Rick Berg conceded to Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota Wednesday afternoon. It took 22 hours after the polls had closed for Silver to be wrong about something. No wonder the man is single: imagine living with someone who is right as much as he is (someone tweeted Tuesday night that Silver’s “IRS withholdings match his 1040 return perfectly, resulting in neither refunds (nor) underpayments.”)

Before his political career, Silver did something even more important: he was a sabermetrician. Which is what brings us back around the bases to the baseball point of the blog.

Silver was like the manager of a bad team this fall: he took a lot of criticism for circumstances beyond his control. But he was merely doing for politics what he and others — foremost, Bill James — did before him for baseball: he was applying meaning to data.

Today baseball has a new lexicon and countless acronyms, and I’m not talking about OPS. You can absorb some of it, or all of it or none of it, but if you choose the latter, don’t expect praise of old-fashioned values for your ignorance.

I don’t claim to understand all of it — my 14-year-old is already better at math than I ever was — but when I don’t, I’m going to defer, and/or be educated.

We’ve come a long way in understanding the game’s many numbers, thanks to sabermetricians, and we better know how to judge players. Felix Hernandez won a Cy Young he deserved to in 2010 despite a 13-12 record; a generation ago it would have gone to a Pete Vuckovich or LaMarr Hoyt-type season — more wins, less efficiency. Hopefully we won’t see Andre Dawson-type MVP seasons or Manny Trillos ever hitting second in the order again (or only on very bad teams).

There’s a level for everyone who is a fan, and there’s plenty of room for interpretation and argument — I would be lost without the latter. Seek out WAR. Or BABIP. Or don’t — that’s an individual choice, but the more you know, the more you understand. RBIs aren’t going anywhere as a stat, but they’ve already left as a true determinant of a player’s value.

Political prognosticators, mostly from the losing side, took issue with Silver’s election analysis. That was their first mistake. Silver said the president had an approximately 91% chance of re-election; George Will and Fred Barnes and Peggy Noonan and Dick Morris all predicted victory for the challenger, the latter by a landslide. Their prose was as fluid as ever, but their reasoning and denial — like fans who use 1940s stats in 2012 arguments — were flawed.

We can understand why — they picked with their heart (they counted yard signs; Silver counted polls). That’s OK. Even Silver conceded there was an 8-9% chance of an upset, and upsets happen. Did someone attract more notice for picking the Packers to win Super Bowl I, or the 18-point underdog Jets to win Super Bowl III? There’s no fame to be gained by picking favorites.

But there’s also little to be gained from arguing with the data. It’s knowledge. It’s enlightenment. If you want to defend your favorite player, don’t do it with batting average. Or RBIs. Or traditional stats. Otherwise, you’re going to spend a lot of the next decade arguing that Ben Revere is a more valuable player than he really is.

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2 Responses to Sabermetrics wins big

  1. Jeff says:

    Just out of curiosity, how do the 1941 seasons for Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio compare with the new data being used?

    • Jeff:

      Great question. Sabermetrics are very favorable to Williams. His .406 season was worth a 10.1 WAR in 1941 (Williams’ OPS was 1.287); DiMaggio’s was 1.083 and his WAR was a very good 8.6. However, you can make a pretty good argument for DiMaggio for MVP in ’41 — he played center field and was far superior defensively, he was a better baserunner and the Yankees did win the pennant (there’s a couple of other years Williams was second in the MVP that the winner wasn’t anywhere as close to deserving as Joe D. was in ’41).

      Given the title of my blog, I’m a little biased to Williams.

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