Sunday, October 17, 2010

Does Sabermetrics Need to be Marketed Better?

Will Carroll has been expressing his frustration with the sabermetrics community in a of couple of articles as of late.  The second article will not go down as his best work and it was surprisingly bitter and petty.  Many have responded including Tom Tango at the Book Blog, Carson Cistulli at FanGraphs, Josh Garoon at Baseball Time in Arlington and Minda Haas at Royal Blue.  They have done a good job critiquing his inaccuracies and unfair generalizations, so I won’t dwell on that. 

If you can get past all of the hyperbole though, Carroll does bring up up interesting points about the issue of communicating the world of sabermetrics to a broader audience.  Sabermetrics is a very difficult subject and its creators have not always done a great job explaining the ideas very clearly.  The sabermetrics community is coming up with new statistics seemingly every week and many, if not most, readers have been overwhelmed at times.  The main reason I wrote Beyond Batting average is to clear up much of the confusion for those that do have an interest in learning sabermetrics   

My book was not targeted to the mainstream, but rather a niche audience of knowledgeable fans with an interest in learning more about statistics.  Beyond Batting average has been pretty well received and I have been told that it is quite accessible.  I think I have achieved my goal of educating intelligent and curious readers.  If you have already decided that you want to learn more about sabermetrics, then my book is a good place to start. If you don’t have any interest in sabermetrics, then my book is probably not going to convert you into a believer. 

I believe Will Carroll is interested in engaging the second group.  He’d like us to teach sabermetrics to a more mainstream group of fans, who are not yet convinced that they need sabermetrics.  He points out that very few fans use even the most simple sabermetrics measures.  He believes that sabermetrics writers have not done a good job of making sabermetrics interesting to the average baseball fan and that we need to tell a more compelling story:

Moneyball told a good story and brought some advanced measures to a wider audience. In the shadow of that book, statheads lacked a Michael Lewis to carry their message, and worse, didn’t understand why the book was popular…Statheads need to “stop making sense” and start making strides.

He also uses Freakonmics as an example of a book which made a difficult subject – economics – more appealing to a wide audience.  He doesn’t think that we are doing that with sabermetrics.

I would argue that writers such as Joe Posnanski and Rob Neyer have certainly made strides into the mainstream and many bloggers have also contributed..  If you have spent a lot of time reading and participating in various internet forums, you would know that interest and understanding of sabermetrics is at least ten times what is was five years ago.  Advanced statistics have also made it into the broadcasts of Dan Dickerson (Tigers), Vin Scully (Dodgers) and Chris Welsh (Reds) among others. 

Interest in sabermertrics is growing for sure, but Carroll is right that it’s not really part of the mainstream yet.  He claims that “99% of baseball fans still don’t use OPS, let alone a more advanced measure.”  Once you go beyond the internet and a few curious media people, there isn’t a great deal of enthusiasm for the field among baseball fans. 

Tango, Mitchel Lichtman and others say that they don’t care if the audience gets bigger.  They want to learn more about the game through statistics for the interest of themselves and their niche group of readers.  I certainly don’t want analysts of the caliber of Tango and Lichtman spending their time trying to entertain fans with stories

Personally, I don’t want us to dumb down sabermetrics to the point where they are no longer useful.  I didn’t like what happened to ESPN when the went from a television station for hardcore sports fans to an entertainment network for more casual fans.  That may not be a perfect analogy but I’m not interested in contributing to that kind of transformation. 

However, I do think that Carroll has a point.  If we are going to complain about the media’s lack of understanding and awareness of sabermetrics in Hall of Fame and awards voting, then we do probably need to make more progress in making sabermetrics accessible and interesting.  I think we've made strides, but there is more work to be done.

2 comments:

  1. Excellent post. Even I as a lifetime baseball fan and someone who blogs about it when I have the time, am challenged when it comes to keeping up with the latest trendy statistic.

    And yeah, at the same time I agree with the dumbing down treatment we receive from most mainstream sports media (though some columnists fight the good fight).

    heh, maybe I should buy that book of yours. :)

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  2. Very excellent post. Baseball is the only sport where the most relevant statistics are rarely discussed. You can watch football or basketball or hockey and the announcers and TV graphics will inform you of all kinds of great stats, but baseball comes up short in that regard. Baseball is a slow boring game and it would do the sport some justice to educate the fans more and give them more to think about.

    If fans could learn that the game has more to it than just staring at the screen with heavy boredom and approach it more like a thinking man's game inbetween plays, then that could encourage greater followership and participation. They have nothing to lose and everything to gain because the numbers of the audience and corresponding revenues clearly could be higher. Unless you believe baseball is at a max profitability level, then one needs to ask why is not higher and what can be done?

    The audience needs something to grab onto. In basketball and hockey you have fast paced game activity to keep you involved, and in football you have lots of dynamic unique positions to concentrate on and figure out how your team can be better and where it is failing. But the average fan is left in the dark during the long pauses in baseball and commentary talk can only go so far, there need to be other efforts to engage the fan, not just stats, but stats could help. By thinking about the myriad of football positions, the fans of even the losing teams can analyze game to game something constructive on how to improve and then solve that through thinking about the draft. Baseball teaches the fans to not think and brush those issues under the rug. There's not enough coverage of all aspects of the sport.

    And thank you for not being like ESPN, let them continue to serve as an example of what not to be like.

    -The Strategy Expert

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