Numbers are Ruining Sports

Wait, no, they aren’t. At least, not in the way a lot of purists are saying. If numbers are ruining in sports in any way, it’s because some people think you should ignore them completely and focus on the game itself, and some others that think that, because numbers don’t lie, you should never deviate from what they tell you. And like any highly contentious subject, you can’t expect to convert most of those fundamentally entrenched on either side.

The truth is, not surprisingly, that both qualitative and quantitative data are essential. What’s important is to use the information appropriately. Don’t try to make the data say something it doesn’t. And use it to make an informed decision. This is not that difficult of a concept to grasp, but as you can see by the amount of opposition to a lot of managerial decisions in a baseball* game, it is difficult to master. And I think it’s both an art and a science.

*I know numbers are making their way into many sports now, but I chose baseball because I’m most familiar with it, it was the first to have much devotion to stats, and it still has the most.

Let’s take batting average, one of the most common statistics. It was conceived by statistician Henry Chadwick back in the 1800s as a way to measure a hitter’s skill better than runs scored. It tells us the percentage of at-bats which resulted in a hit. According to conventional baseball wisdom, if a hitter can do this 30% of the time, he’s among the best in the game.

Now let’s talk about what it is not. It is not a lot of things. It’s not the percentage of times he didn’t make an out (now acknowledged as usually being more important than simply getting hits). It’s not the number of bases he gets per hit (because extra bases are better than singles). But it is still relevant sometimes. Every statistic means something and is useful in the proper context. A team’s general manager and his staff may use some statistics when constructing their team. A manager may use them when making the lineup and in-game decisions. But statistics only tell you what has already happened. They can have predictive power (some more than others) but they are by no means guarantees. The number of factors that affect any particular play are so numerous it would be a huge tangent to get into them, and so every bit of statistical data must be complemented by real-world data. Many fans like myself who enjoy learning and using stats know this and admit it readily.

“There are a lot of baseball lifers who have been around the game so long they instinctively—sometimes subconsciously—know to look for things that I don’t even know exist. Not all of their theories and beliefs are going to be right, but I acted as though, by dint of their non-outsider, non-Ph.D-having status, anyone who wasn’t quoting the latest sabermetric research was automatically wrong.”
—Russell A. Carleton

That’s true for a lot of us. In fact, when I first started learning about advanced statistics, I briefly fell into this trap as well. Fortunately, by reading articles like Russell’s and having some knowledgeable people remind me otherwise, I don’t think I made a fool of myself very often before learning this. Now, if I hadn’t, I might be one of the people that may have been the impetus for the kind of sensationalist ignorance promulgated by those staunchly opposed to sabermetrics, like this gem from Mac Engel of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram:

“A lot of these are the same people who secretly wish the team simply hired a computer to manage the club, and that once and for all the game was played where it was meant to be, on a spreadsheet.”

This could not be more wrong. None of the fans I know that like statistics, both in real life and on the internet, want the game reduced to a computer simulation. That completely misses the point of having a game in the first place. We like stats because they contribute to our understanding of the game. We can appreciate it and discuss it on a whole other level, but very few of us can’t see the forest for the trees.

As for those few…well, they’re hurting the cause. It seems unfortunate to me that John Thorn, a notable name in the field of baseball statistics who is now the official historian for MLB, was compelled to write the following in his abdication of sabermetrics:

“For a whole generation of fans and fantasy players, stats have begun to outstrip story and that seems to me a sad thing.”

Then they’re doing it wrong. And while that’s a shame, that doesn’t mean the stats are worthless. It just means a paradigm shift is necessary. Stats are a tool. Used correctly, tools can be incredibly helpful. But you shouldn’t use them for something other than their intended purpose. Also, sometimes they just don’t work out like you’d hope. The careers of some players, like Jeff Francoeur and Dustin Ackley, may have been hindered or derailed by the prevalence of stats. But those isolated incidents do not belie the success of sabermetrics. Nothing works for everybody. It doesn’t mean that we should abandon the idea.

I’m not saying you have to embrace the numbers. It’s perfectly fine to enjoy sports without caring about them at all. But don’t say they’re worthless, or that they’re ruining the game. They aren’t. If you don’t like them, ignore them. But don’t badmouth those that care about them, because they have their place, and there’s no harm in them if they’re used appropriately. That’s why we should be trying to find a balance.

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