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Spring’s Here: Time to Bash on Stats!

March 10, 2010

You know it’s baseball season when grit-lovin’, hustle-lustin’, crusty old sportswriters dust off their Smith Coronas and bust out some hysterical screed about evil stats and the Geeks who push them upon the innocent and unsuspecting youth of America. So here to usher in baseball season, let’s all give a warm welcome to Jerry Thronton of WEEI in Boston. He wrote this column yesterday, which we’ll pick up a couple of paragraphs in.

There’s no escaping this conclusion: the Stat Geeks have quietly and insidiously taken power. Every hot stove report I’ve read this offseason, every article written from Fort Myers, every statement from Sox brass, has the Stat Geeks’ grubby little fingerprints on it. They’re like the Communist Party plotting to take over Hollywood in the 1950s before Ronald Reagan got wise to them and kicked their pinko butts all the way back to Moscow and Harvard Square. Only, instead of trying to write screenplays full of anti-capitalists rants, the Stat Geeks have succeeded in making otherwise normal, decent, God-fearin’ Americans start talking about VORP (Value Over Replacement Player) ratings and UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) numbers like they really believe in this nonsense.

Before we jump into everything, “insidiously” means working or spreading harmfully in a subtle or stealthy manner. That seems a bit over the top, no? Or maybe not, I remember once a few years ago, I was thinking about Curt Schilling’s gritty performance in the World Series and a dark van full of Stat Geeks pulled up, yanked me in, and brainwashed me into thinking about baseball in nothing but terms of VORP. Changed my life. Except I could never seem to get my hands clean after that. They were always grubby. Weird.

Just remember this kids: VORP is the new proletariat, and UZR is the new perestroika.

And call me overly paranoid, but part of me is afraid Theo Epstein is their prize project. The one they’ve brainwashed into bringing their message of Sabremetric supremacy to the world. The Staturian Candidate.

I’d like to call you paranoid, Jerry. I don’t think Epstein is being swayed by a roving band of Stat Geeks. I think that’s his team-building philosophy. And the dude assembled two World Series winning teams.

Look at the Red Sox roster as it’s currently constituted: While there’s still a core of blue chip, proven, battle-tested baseball lifers who’d be winners in any era … the Pedroias, Becketts, Lesters, Papelbons and Youkili … it seems like this offseason, the rest of the roster was supplanted with Stat Geek favorites. Agents who were trained in a basement at the Baseball Prospectus HQ to infiltrate the Sox and destroy them from within. And suddenly, a legit All-Star like Jason Bay is body-snatched away and replaced with Mike Cameron with his 70 RBI but his to-die-for Rtzhm (total fielding runs above average at home) numbers. I don’t know Cameron and maybe he’ll be a great addition to the club. But I also won’t be surprised to find out he talks in a robot voice and repeats “I am Mike. I play center field. Would you care to discuss my lgRF9 (league range factor for 9 innings) numbers?” over and over again all year.

Listen, Jason Bay is a good player, but so is Mike Cameron. And Mike Cameron is leaps and bounds better than Bay in the field, while Bay is better than Cameron at the plate, but not by an overwhelming margin. And why shouldn’t Mike Cameron be good? After all, he’s one of those new computerized, Moneyball cy-borgs. Those things are freaking unstoppable.

One thing I can’t understand is why these stat-haters make up stats to try to defeat the “Stat Geeks.” Rtzhm and lgRF9, as you might imagine, are not real stats. UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) is though, and while imperfect, it’s a much better way to quantify defensive ability than, say, counting Gold Gloves.

And one more thing: Lester, Pedroia, Papelbon, and Youkilis can hardly be called “lifers.” That’s all. Just wanted to point that out. Oh. Oh. Oh. One more thing. What did you use to determine that they would be winners in any era? Your gut? Do you have a time machine? No? Hmmm…me? I use OPS+ for the hitters. That’s a good start. You should look it up.


At this point you might be saying “Gee, Jer. How do you know so much about Stat Geeks anyway?” Glad you asked because the answer will surprise you. Because I, for a very brief time in my life, was one. Yes, it’s true. Looks like mine and brains, too? As implausible as it sounds, I Was A Teenage Stats Geek. I read the backs of guys’ baseball cards. I studied the day’s box scores. I committed to memory the tops of the all time career statistical rankings in dozens of categories. I swear it’s a true story that I visited the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown with and my fellow Stat Geek buddy Roger corrected the career HR list on the wall. One time I was home sick so I interpolated Ted Williams’ career numbers to fill in the years he lost to two tours of duty in the Marines (700 homers, if you’re wondering). With all the time I squandered playing Strat-o-Matic, I could’ve turned myself into an academic All American.

This guy's gonna be awesome.

Reading the back of someone’s baseball card and being into Sabermetrics isn’t quite the same thing…at all. For one thing, the stats on the backs of those cards are not Sabermetrics.


But then, I made an amazing discovery. Something that the Stat Geek population doesn’t know and never will. Women. And it changed my life forever, in much the same way that Blossom’s life changed in that Very Special Episode where she gets her period, I would never be the same. As I recall, the exact moment for me came when Phoebe Cates climbed out of the pool in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and took her top off in slow motion to the Cars’ “In Stereo” that did it for me. What Phoebe showed me that day was perfection. I wanted to have them and I was willing to do what it took to get them. Then my whole world was transformed. Suddenly Butch Hobson’s RBI total didn’t mean quite as much. Jim Rice’s total bases faded from my mind. And for me that mean putting away the Baseball Encyclopedia, getting outside and living an actual life. It also led to other discoveries like jobs, cars, activities, beer and sunlight.

Hooray! Ad hominem attacks! Let’s get in on the action.

Listen, Jerry, I’m glad that having your first period changed your life, but you do know that many “Stat Geeks” and Sabermatricians have wives and girlfriends? Also, RBI total should never really mean that much, new-found breasts or no. You know what it takes to get an RBI? It takes people in front of you getting on base. You know what we Stat Geeks call that? We call that On-Base Percentage. It’s a stat.

But not everyone has evolved the same way. There is a growing subculture of stats-crunching troglodytes among us, and I for one am frightened that these mouth-breathing, greased stained Gollums might actually be influencing something vital to our national interest. Namely, the 2010 Red Sox. They’re like the nerdy fanboys from “Galaxy Quest” being asked to use their ridiculously detailed knowledge of the show to save the world for real. I mean, consider Bill James, who is like a god to these Sabremetric trolls. He’s made an industry out of making up silly, useless formulae to prove things like Alex Gonzalez should be bussing tables in the Fort Myers Waffle House, and yet Theo has given him a position of power and influence in his inner circle. It’s the equivalent of my old Missle Command skills getting me a job with NORAD or my Bill Belichick building a gameplan around my Coleco electric football offense.

Oh goodness. Here we go. Stat Geeks breath through their mouths! Gross! They get shit all over them! Disgusting! They creep around like Smeagel! Creepy! What a bunch of losers. Don’t listen to them. They’re weird. They worship at the altar of Bill James (who by the way has helped your beloved Red Sox to two World Series since he joined the front office)!

Silly and useless formulae, huh? Well, we’ll get into that in a second. But are you suggesting that Alex Gonzalez should have a job in baseball? Because that’s nuts. He can’t hit. At all. Using any sort of stat…or even eye test. He’s bad.

So as a public service to all like-minded fans, concerned Red Sox citizens worried about the direction the Nation is headed, I’d like to put my ex-Stat Geek skills to us and offer my own formula for judging all statisticians. Let’s call it the NSGR/MMUSRI (Nerdy Stat Geek Ridiculous/Meaningless Made Up Statistic Rating Index). You take any new, obscure baseball evaluation stat and you start with the weight of the guy who invented it, times how many days he’s been wearing the same “Han Solo Shot First” T-shirt, divided by how many times he’s had sex in his life, multiplied by how often his mom cooks his meals add how many days a month he sees the sun times the percentage by which he throws like a girl.

Overload. Overload. Overload. This is unfair Jerr. My sexless, Mama’s Boy, Star-Wars-loving, sun-averting brain cannot comprehend all the cliches and stereotypes you just threw out there.

OK. I think I’ve got it. You’ve pigeon-holed everyone who wants to understand baseball better, and evaluate players more effectively into a bunch of social retards. And then you tried to make up a stupid stat to mimic some of the stats that run our lives. All right. Would you like to, at any point here, defend your position with, you know, evidence?

Then you throw them all out and go with what your eyes tell you. And stop wasting our time with this Sabremetrics foolishness.

All right, let’s delve into this a bit more now that Jerry’s done bashing people who also like baseball and like to evaluate it.

First of all, the guy clearly doesn’t know anything about any Sabermetrics. He mentions VORP and UZR in passing, and then makes up some other things. And that’s it. He doesn’t even offer how he evaluates players, instead, opting to just bash the people who use advanced stats. Let’s look at two things quickly.

  1. The Mike Cameron-Jason Bay issue. I’ll grant you, Bay is the better hitter. But he’s an awful fielder, and that DOES cut into his value. Even if you take that into account, given his age, and offensive goodness, Bay’s still better than Cameron, but not by a large margin. Cameron is a good hitter and an outstanding fielder. And like I said before, fieldng counts. Baseball isn’t played in a batting cage. It stands to reason that someone who saves, say, 50 runs a year, but produces none, is just as valuable as someone who produces 50 runs a year but saves none. Obviously it never happens that way, but for the sake of argument. Anyway, UZR is the best way we have to calculate how many runs a fielder saves. And that’s good to know. Teams can then do just what the Red Sox did: Sacrifice a few runs produced to get a cheaper player who saves a lot of runs. It makes good baseball AND business sense. This should be obvious.
  2. Those blue-chippers Jerry mentioned? How does he know they’re blue-chippers? Did someone tell him? Did it come to him in a dream? Did he see it on an episode of Blossom? Nope. Pedroia, Beckett, Lester, Papelbon, and Youkilis are all good players, and we can tell that by looking at their stats. In fact, Youkilis himself is the quintessntial Sabermetric player. He was even featured in Moneyball for crying out loud. The guy plays good defense and gets on base a ton. Recently, he’s added some power there, too.

Anyway, get ready for all this witch-hunting because it’s baseball season now, and we can’t have stats here. Listen, I like to watch baseball. I can sit there and enjoy a game. I appreciate it when a player hustles or works hard, but when trying to gauge how good a player is, these stats help. You don’t have to sit there and crunch numbers all day. People have already done that. You can just take 2o minutes of your time, a little common sense, and type into your web browser. Just take a few minutes to understand, Jerry. Actually, I don’t care if you do or not, but just quit bashing the people who use them…Hell it brought your Sawx two Championships.

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