Why Haven’t Sabermetrics Gone Mainstream?

In response to a previous Pizza Cutter post, Tom Tango wrote the following, which was directed at the people on the fringes of baseball analysis: “The world is big enough for all of us. Join us if you want. Just don’t stand in our way.”

While those posts are unrelated to this one, that statement got me thinking. My dad and I are both big Yankee fans, and as such we constantly talk about roster decisions, free agents, trades, etc. I’m obviously a numbers guy, and while my dad will hear my arguments, that’s still not his forte. When I say that player X will help the team a given amount, that number has virtually no meaning to him.

While the kind of people who read this blog probably constantly think about player value in real terms, it’s a topic that doesn’t seem to come up in the minds of most people. A manager will tell you that player X will help the team win and fans collectively think, “He’s probably right.” And the manager, more often than not, is correct. But when he says that the player will help the team win, how many people think to themselves, “How much?”

We are the kind of people who think “How much?” This is no great strength of ours and no great weakness of the general population. I think it is simply an attribute–whether it is positive or negative is not for me to decide.

In thinking about this issue, I decided for myself that one of the main reasons the general population thinks differently than the “sabermetric community” is fantasy baseball. Everyone has a team, some people have 3 or 4. And most of these leagues are the standard 5×5 variety where the stats of importance are RBI, runs, batting average, wins,  etc. As Patriot (LINK) will tell you, these stats have no meaningful units that can be converted to runs (don’t tell me that runs = runs, you know what I mean).

My dad plays fantasy baseball. To him, value is measured in those ten categories, because when he is “playing GM” then those are the only things that matter.  Here is my main point: Outside of increased awareness of projection systems, fantasy baseball is holding back the proliferation of sabermetrics. Why should anyone think about OBP when it has literally zero fantasy value in most leagues?

Maybe Joe Morgan and Tim McCarver are the culprits, I don’t know (Lord knows it sure ain’t this guy). Or it could be the negative sentiment towards Moneyball held by so many close to the game that’s holding us back. What do you guys think?

Edit: Further discussion can be found on FanGraphs and Baseball Think Factory

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16 Responses to Why Haven’t Sabermetrics Gone Mainstream?

  1. Doug Gray says:

    There are a few things holding it back….
    Firstly, people resist change. Everyone over the age of 10 grew up watching games on TV or collecting baseball cards and nowhere to be seen on any of those was OBP. It was AVG, HR, RBI, SB and Runs. People are used to that. Its what they know and it makes them feel warm inside. When people break down what you know and tell you its wrong, it doesn’t feel so good. They resist it because they weren’t brought up on it.
    Secondly, people for the most part don’t think for themselves. Maybe I will get some grief for saying that, but I stand by it. They believe what someone else tells them because they are a ‘sports writer’ or an ‘analyst’. The problem is, those guys likely fall into my first group.
    Thirdly, people are lazy. It takes a lot of time to learn some sabermetric ideas and understand them. Its tough to teach an old dog new tricks, but when the old dog doesn’t want to learn new tricks its simply impossible.
    Thats my take at least.

  2. Martin says:

    Insofar as it gets people to think about the value of players rationally and objectively, fantasy baseball is spreading sabermetrics, not holding it back. There’s no league so basic in its stats that a GM won’t benefit by asking the question, “OK — but how much is this player contributing REALLY?”

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  4. I agree with Martin that fantasy baseball is only helping sabermetrics right now. I’d venture to say that short of the book Moneyball, fantasy is probably the #1 reason people first take up an interest in sabermetrics. And nearly every community goes through a growth period during which the motives and culture surrounding incoming new members are questioned or diminished by the “old guard” elite. In some cases, even those who rely on the fantasy community for their livings, can’t even hide their disdain for their primary audience. (see http://www.baseballprospectus.com/unfiltered/?p=335)

  5. Al says:

    Wow, great post, nailed exactly what I was thinking. You could substitute some religious terms in there and it would fit right in, too…

  6. Millsy says:

    I’m going to have to agree with Martin above. Fantasy baseball is one of the things that springboarded regular old people into using statistical analysis for sport. In fact, things like OBP actually are important in the realm of fantasy, even if you don’t have it as a category. Knowing how OBP and other statistics contribute to your categories like Runs and SB will ultimately help you to pin down a projection for a player. You know this. Winners of the fantasy leagues inherently know this.
    People who play fantasy sports, for the most part, aren’t the old-school fan. The majority of fantasy sports players are upper-middle class MBAs, lawyers, doctors, etc. I would imagine that these are the type of people that pay attention to blogs like this, know how to run a regression for their business, are skeptical about everything that doesn’t come with a 20 page defense…or even read articles on ESPN, Yahoo, and CBS that talk more generally about how players will perform. I’m going to have to blame Joe Morgan.

  7. Jeff Freels says:

    A lot of good points made above and I agree with the commenters who point out that fantasy has probably increased the awareness and acceptability of sabermetrics.
    I would only add that, if not for fantasy, sabermetrics would be even more irrelevant to the average fan. After all, does understanding runs created or DIPS ERA add anything to the game-day experience of the casual fan? While it’s easy to see how GMs might benefit from sabermetrics, the benefit is not nearly so evident for fans.
    Also, you really cannot expect fans to appreciate sabermetrics when they do not see them manifested directly on the field of play. It takes zero intellectual capacity to understand a home run or a strikeout, but good luck explaining DIPS ERA to a nine-year-old kid. That is the barrier that will keep sabermetrics on the fringes of fandom.

  8. Millsy says:

    Good point, Jeff, that there would be little motivation for a casual fan to understand statistical analysis without playing fantasy. I think some of the resistance is due to the feeling we get when we watch these amazing athletes run out to their positions. As a fan, and someone who played competitively, the athletes out there seem like mythical creatures. The things they do are impossible.
    While I love being a dork and like to find out what makes them so amazing, using sabermetrics can sometimes lead us to feel less enamored with the players. We break everything down into these simple (well simple in the eyes of those designing them to be simple…I guess the word ‘simple’ is a relative term), measurable things…and that takes away from the mythical status that a lot of people associate with baseball. Why? I’m not sure. Maybe Pizza Cutter can find out with a psychometric approach 🙂

  9. Dan Novick says:

    I agree with the points above (especially #3). But remember, I’m talking about baseball analysis besides projecting player performance.
    For example… this is relevant, but I don’t see anybody really caring about it:
    http://www.insidethebook.com/ee/index.php/site/comments/offensive_rates_as_a_function_of_base_out_state/

  10. Millsy says:

    Dan,
    When you say ‘nobody really caring about it’ what do you mean? For a casual fan to discuss probabilities of succes based on game situations, they can’t rely on their laptop they bring to the game all the time. I think your article there shows that some people seem to be paying attention to it. But bringing up things like odds ratios, percentages, etc. can get really annoying. In a forum like this, it’s fine. But I see no reason to be critical of having casual discussion of the game without referring to complex statistical analysis. Players, managers and executives should probably be looking into how different game situations affect their probability of success given a certain move, but what does that add to a casual fan if it proliferates beyond that level? And I’m still unsure of how fantasy baseball gets in the way of that. Is it because we only make daily or weekly changes in those games?
    I’m not sure anything is being held back at this point. Yes, there are a number of old-school baseballers that think it’s silly to no go by your gut. They’re obviously naive. However, I think smart person running a business like a baseball team absolutely pays attention to these kinds of things. The reason they’re not mainstream, in my opinion, is they’re not casual conversation topics (and possibly proprietary).
    So my main question is: What does the casual fan have to gain from adopting analysis that you’re speaking of?

  11. Nick says:

    I blame the media. The cliche-ness of that statement notwithstanding, guys like Harold Reynolds, John Kruk, Joe Morgan and Steve Phillips are the people that most guys get there information from. Unfortunately, those guys really have no idea what makes a player good.
    Especially during the MVP season, the Baseball Tonight guys constantly back up their choices with HRs, RBIs, Runs and other meaningless stats. So when people are watching the show, they figure that those things are what makes up a good player.

  12. Nick says:

    I blame the media. The cliche-ness of that statement notwithstanding, guys like Harold Reynolds, John Kruk, Joe Morgan and Steve Phillips are the people that most guys get there information from. Unfortunately, those guys really have no idea what makes a player good.
    Especially during the MVP season, the Baseball Tonight guys constantly back up their choices with HRs, RBIs, Runs and other meaningless stats. So when people are watching the show, they figure that those things are what makes up a good player.

  13. Nick says:

    I blame the media. The cliche-ness of that statement notwithstanding, guys like Harold Reynolds, John Kruk, Joe Morgan and Steve Phillips are the people that most guys get there information from. Unfortunately, those guys really have no idea what makes a player good.
    Especially during the MVP season, the Baseball Tonight guys constantly back up their choices with HRs, RBIs, Runs and other meaningless stats. So when people are watching the show, they figure that those things are what makes up a good player.

  14. Dan Novick says:

    Millsy, I mean that you could just show the results to some random fan in the stands and his/her response would likely be “Why do I care?” I’m not being critical of them, it doesn’t really matter to me if anybody cares about this stuff.

  15. Jack Bershtel says:

    It is conceivable that there is absolutly no use for sabermetrics as the sport is entertainment in the eyes of a majority of the population and a business in the eyes of the few. We are all afraid of Sabermetrics figuring out the twitching muscle in the left pinkie which when correlated to right fielders at age 12 detemrine who will hit 300 at age 34. The sport for me is entertainment and important at that, but since my IQ is 70 and the business of baseball wants me to pay $8 for a hot dog, being intellegent about the game serves no purpose to the consumer. It only breeds steroids.
    Jack Bershtel

  16. Dan Novick says:

    Jack, I figured this post would find its way to your inbox.

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