Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Beauty in Numbers

When it comes to baseball analytics and particularly newer metrics (defensive measurements chief among them), there's a tendency within the baseball world to split into two camps: that which embraces the new world order wholeheartedly and without question, and that which rejects new methods, preferring instead to rely on conventional wisdom.

These two groups battle it out on online message boards and comment threads, in sports bars and in the stands, and even in clubhouses and front offices across the game. In most major league cities, the verdict is in, and the geeks have won - any major league manager or GM that ignores his stat department won't have a job for long.

But does the issue really have to be so black and white? The stat people argue that their counterparts are stuck in the past, too stubborn to embrace tools to improve their teams' performances. The old guard feels as if numbers and equations threaten to overshadow the simple beauty of a knee-buckling curveball or a soaring home run.

From where I'm standing, both sides have their merits. Statistical measures make baseball unique and allow for another dimension of quantitative understanding. But I fell in love with the qualitative parts of the game: the pop of the catcher's mitt, the smell of hot dogs cooking at the ballpark, and the looks on the faces of the players when one of their teammates does something incredible.

I play fantasy baseball, and I read FanGraphs, and I'm a loyal consumer of everything Bill James puts out - but the game I love wouldn't be the same if it didn't play out in real time, on real grass (except in Toronto and Tampa Bay), with real people.

I love the numbers because they describe and (sometimes) predict what I see on the field. It seems that the most successful teams neither abandon the old, go-with-your-gut ways of scouting, nor scorn the ever-changing field of sabermetrics. No, success comes when the old guard embraces the new, and the front office listens to conventional wisdom and innovative new techniques.

Ten years ago, you would never see OBP on a graphic for a televised baseball game - now even the most casual fan expects it as a baseline. But the traditional box score staples are still around, and the combination makes for a more complete baseball experience.

And as someone who practically goes into mourning between November and February, I'm always looking for a more complete baseball experience.

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