Argument: statistics can help us understand and enjoy baseball

An editor and writer for Baseball Prospectus argues that we need science and statistics to understand baseball:

Fight it if you like, but baseball has become too complicated to solve without science. Every rotation of every pitch is measured now. Every inch that a baseball travels is measured now. Teams that used to get mocked for using spreadsheets now rely on databases packed with precise location and movement of every player on every play — and those teams are the norm, not the film-inspiring exceptions. This is exciting and it’s terrifying…

I’m not a mathematician and I’m not a scientist. I’m a guy who tries to understand baseball with common sense. In this era, that means embracing advanced metrics that I don’t really understand. That should make me a little uncomfortable, and it does. WAR is a crisscrossed mess of routes leading toward something that, basically, I have to take on faith…

Yet baseball’s front offices, the people in charge of $100 million payrolls and all your hope for the 2013 season, side overwhelmingly with data. For team executives, the basic framework of WAR — measuring players’ total performance against a consistent baseline — is commonplace, used by nearly every front office, according to insiders. The writers who helped guide the creation of WAR over the decades — including Bill James, Sean Smith and Keith Woolner — work for teams now. As James told me, the war over WAR has ceased where it matters. “There’s a practical necessity for measurements like that in a front office that make it irrelevant whether you like them or you don’t.”

Whether you do is up to you and ultimately matters only to you. In the larger perspective, the debate is over, and data won. So fight it if you’d like. But at a certain point, the question in any debate against science is: What are you really fighting and why?

As someone who likes data, I would statistics is just another tool that can help us understand baseball better. It doesn’t have to be an either/or argument, baseball with advanced statistics versus baseball without advanced statistics. Baseball with advanced statistics is a more complete and gets at some of the underlying mechanics of the game rather than the visual cues or the culturally accepted statistics.

While this story is specifically about baseball, I think it also mirrors larger conversations in American society about the use of statistics. Why interrupt people’s common sense understandings of the world with abstract data? Aren’t these new statistics difficult to understand and can’t they also be manipulated? Some of this is true: looking at data can involve seeing things in news ways and there are disagreements about how to define concepts as well as how to collect to interpret data. But, in the end, these statistics can help us better understand the world.

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