Busting the myth of old baseball stats

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Smart Baseball: The Story Behind the Old Stats That Are Ruining the Game, the New Ones That Are Running It, and the Right Way to Think About Baseball by Keith Law, William Morrow, US $ 27.99, Pp 290, April 2017, ISBN 978-0062490223

Many baseball fans, writers have continued to use the old statistics – baseball card numbers such as batting average, saves records, and a pitcher’s won-lost record – although smarter and counterintuitive baseball stats known as sabermetrics have become commonplace throughout Major League Baseball. The reason is confusion about the newer stats persists. In Smart Baseball, ESPN writer and statistical analyst Keith Law demolishes the accepted wisdom that has prevailed for more than a century. He argues that the allegiance to these numbers, which date back to the beginning of the professional game, is deeply rooted in baseball’s irrational adherence to tradition and not in accuracy or success.

Law argues that, in the last 20 years since 1996, the field of baseball analysis has undergone a quantum-state change, going from one or two consultants providing statistical insight to a handful of interested teams to all thirty clubs employing departments of full-time quants. The media coverage of baseball in the 1990s was homogeneous in people and in content, today it is exploding with a diversity of faces, voices, and opinions. This revolution has had, at its heart, the rising adoption of statistical analysis within and around the game. If you said OBP was better than batting average in 1996, you’d be looked at as if you were a little strange. If you say it now, you will be asked why you are not looking at wOBA or wRC+ instead.

Why has baseball as an industry, including the media covering it and the fans stuck with outdated statistics for so long? Law says the answer is largely a giant appeal to tradition, a common type of fallacious argument that says we should keep doing it this way because we’ve always done it this way. Baseball has always suffered from a sort of inertia. Whether it’s about the rules of the game, replay, or the unwritten code of player behavior, old ideas are hard to unseat. For too long people have put faith in old numbers and stats precisely because they are old; these are the numbers that the baseball gods graced us with all those years ago, so we must follow them – even if there are numbers out there that actually work better. A game with a century and a half’s worth of history has a hard time escaping the gravitational pull of that past. Law argues that using the wrong measurements has resulted in bad decisions on contracts, playing time, trades, and draft picks.

But even as commentators, managers, writers, and talking heads have resisted the statistical sea change of the last decade, most front offices around the league have long recognized that these and other numbers lie at the heart of the game precisely because they work better. They describe in-game events with greater accuracy and they predict what players will do in the future with greater accuracy. Law says that baseball might be a sport fueled by nostalgia and adherence to the past, but no team wants to go back to a time when they used to lose more often. As such teams evaluate players substantially differently today than they did in 2000, and it’s time that we as journalists, bloggers, and fans adapt. For that to happen the conversation has to go beyond merely pointing out that batting average and the pitcher win are bad, into a discussion of what stats are better, allowing us to reframe how we discuss player performance. Communicating that is my main goal in writing this book.

Law busts the myth of old baseball stats and shows that there was no scientific basis for them. Law has conclusively proved that old methods of creating baseball stats are inherently flawed and must be replaced with newer and smarter ones. It is the best book on the history of baseball stats and why old stats methods should be replaced with new, scientific stats. It is an indispensable book for baseball lovers.