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Why the Boston Media Hates Sabermetrics

July 30, 2010

Over the last decade or so, people in baseball and people that cover baseball have been embracing Sabermetrics and advanced statistical analysis to evaluate baseball players.

In the past year (give or take), there seems to have been a breakthrough as Sabermetrics have become more and more understood by those in the media, and as most teams are filling their front office with “stat geeks,” advanced statistical analysis has finally gotten respect.

Still, there are haters out there. Usually when their team does poorly, or is perceived to be doing poorly. Oh, and they’re usually Boston fans and media. Yes, those members of the fickle (lovable!) Red Sox Nation can’t seem to come to grips with the idea, even though the use of Sabermetrics and advanced statistical analysis has played a HUGE role in bringing not one but two World Series trophies to Boston after such a long wait.

We can add another article to the pantheon of stat-hating today. We’ll get to it in a bit.

Before the season started, we profiled (tore to shreds) a column by Jerry Thronton of WEEI. Here’s a bit from that column to jog your memory:

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.

See, lobotomized basement-dwellers are holding the Red Sox down. (Also, that Jason Bay bit seems pretty silly now, doesn’t it?)

There’s even the old go-to move of making up stats in a jumble of letters, which really only proves how little the writer understands. It’s not about the name of the stat, it’s what it shows. Call wOBA Chicken Shit if you want. It’s still instructive. Anyway, such hatred. And it’s worse even than that paragraph. Click here to read the rest.

Here’s a column by the estimable Dan Shaughnessy from early May wherein he rips the Red Sox FO for their much-ballyhooed (maybe) plan to make run prevention a priority. (Quick note: how the fact that a run saved is worth a run scored gets beyond these journos is beyond me. That seems like basic math.)

It looks like those sun-deprived stat geeks eating pudding in their basement (the same nitwits who insist that homers and RBIs are overrated) outsmarted themselves in assessing this unit.

Again, stupid people who live in basements are running the Red Sox!!! See!!! It’s May 9, and we haven’t won the World Series yet! Also, guess what?  No pudding-eating (I like mine vanilla) stat geek has ever claimed that HRs are overrated. It’s the small-ball, play-the-right-way, Moneyball-was-written-by-a-computerized-rage-driven-robot-intent-on-ridding-the-world-of-Joe-Morgan crowd that thinks HRs are overrated.

Anyway, Shaughnessy, like Thornton, apparently fails to remember that a core group of stat-minded guys, plus of course lots and lots of money, played a direct role in bringing two World Series to Boston. You can’t win every year. And when you don’t win, it doesn’t mean that sabermetrics and advanced statistical analysis are to blame.

Today, as I mentioned before, they’ve struck again. Matt Langone from the Gloucester Times outside of Boston is the newest culprit. Apparently, the Red Sox are boring now. (Bill Simmons thinks so, too, so surely it is true). This comes on the heels of a study showing that TV ratings are down. It’s the stat geeks’ fault, obviously.

The Sox lineup is built on a foundation of sabermetrics, the new-age philosophy of analyzing baseball through newly created statistics such as runs created and win shares. The emphasis strays away from batting average and RBIs, and stresses on-base percentage and OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage).

I just want to say a quick word about about “newly-created” statistics as anyone who bashes them says (“these are new-fangled, so they must be flawed, they aren’t tried and true, like counting Gold Gloves”). First of all, while the statistics may be (relatively) new, as in name, the data that they represent and the trends that said data shows have always been there.

In other words, people aren’t just making numbers up. Just like BA, OPS is based on actual baseball field happenings, and as long as we have the requisite box scores, we can calculate the OPS of anyone (even those who played before it “existed”).

OPS (and there are other even better stats out there: wOBA, for instance) is just better for evaluating and projecting player value, than BA.

Baseball is not brain surgery. For years teams were built on players who produce runs and pitchers who prevent runs. Now, front offices such as the one in Boston are over-thinking things. It’s why J.D. Drew gets paid $14-million to bat .270 and drive in 70 runs and why there has been a revolving door at shortstop since Nomar was traded.

No, baseball is not brain surgery (how astute of you!) but does that mean baseball execs should just unthinkingly throw guys out on the field? “Hey, that feller in row two looks like he can fling a ball. Get him a uniform!”

The Red Sox aren’t over-thinking. They are right in the thick of things in a very good division all while being hit hard by the injury bug this season. That’s pretty good. Also, J.D. Drew is pretty good, and if anyone sits down and thinks about for more than two seconds, they’ll see that RBI are a meaningless way to evaluate a player, and that BA is nearly as meaningless.

It’s amazing that these guys (the various and sundry Boston newspaper men) are still railing against stats. It’s mind-boggling really. Why do they do it?

The success of the Red Sox in the last decade can be directly traced to a shift in front office philosophy towards using advanced statistical analysis to evaluate players. And they have been wildly successful, winning two World Series since then. And yet, they are constantly derided for this method in the hometown press.

Perhaps the media has a vendetta against Theo Epstein. Perhaps it’s just plain old ignorance. It’s actually probably a mix of both, combined with the age old Boston tradition of whining about the Red Sox.

I think the most likely answer is that Red Sox reporters (and fans) have to complain about their team. They have to lament their suffering and woe.

But in an age where they’ve won, and won big, Sabermetrics have gotten caught in the crossfire.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Ming permalink
    October 11, 2011 5:27 pm

    Seems ironic that the journalists would JD Drew’s BA and RBI stats to criticize the Front Office’s use of other stats to evaluate is value.

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