Sunday, February 17, 2008

Engaging a wider audience with statistical arguments

Rather than bandy about all kinds of excuses for how long it has been since I posted here, let me get to my topic: the accessibility of a stats-based understanding of baseball. Mostly in response to Graham's post over at Lookout Landing, I want to suggest ways that the statistically minded baseball fans might better engage the general public (We'll call them 'GP' from here on out).

A large part of the problem with these conversation is a lot of snarkiness on both sides. Much like talk-show personalities of either political persuasion, I hear a lot of arguments that ooze contempt, as the proponent of one point of view constructs a straw man to ridicule his or her opponent. We can start to change that tone by admitting when we were wrong and what are the limits of our analyses. For example, the guys over at USSM have admitted (though I can't seem to find a specific reference) they've been wrong about Raul Ibanez, that his late-career production has been a pleasant surprise. More directly in response to Graham: yes, we should explain why VORP makes sense, but also freely admit that it doesn't account for defense at all, making it only a useful tool for comparing offensive production.

Another suggestion: rather than simply roll our eyes at the mention of 'intangibles,' we need to argue how any intangibles that have real value are going to show up in the stats. "Hustle" is going to show up in defensive evaluations, baserunning statistics, infield hits, etc. "Veteran Leadership" is going to show up in consistently successful pinch- and clutch-hitting situations, a lack of hitting slumps, or an improved performance by teammates. If it doesn't show up in the stats, then it doesn't help the team win, and we shouldn't care about it.

Finally, effective arguments from statistics acknowledge the GP's perception, even if that perception turns out to be an illusion. For example, a pitcher may appear to have a run of effective seasons with a low ERA, but those gaudy numbers are more a result of the defense behind him, and a likely unrepeatable streak of stranding runners. (Hello, Jarrod Washburn.) Simply saying, "ERA is meaningless, so Jarrod Washburn is a mediocre pitcher" lessens our credibility.

My hope is that the more clearly we can articulate the value of statistics in evaluating talent, the more clear it will become to Seattle sportwriters (and ultimately, the M's front office), that the team needs to take quantitative tools for talent evaluation much more seriously. That is, the smarter everyone else is, the dumber the front office will look.

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