17th August 2016
More than once on radio or television, I’ve been asked about sabermetrics, the advanced statistical analysis in sports, most commonly associated with baseball. I’d also say I’m a firm believer in information. That you can’t have enough of it, and that the value of it in sports should never be discounted.
This would make sense, coming from me. I was approached early on to write about the business side of baseball from internet outlets that were steeped in reaching out to those that saw not only value in the numbers game in baseball, but for some that were repeat visitors to the sites, sabermetrics verged somewhere on par with religion. Whether that was The Hardball Times, Baseball Prospectus, Fangraphs, or to a lesser extent Baseball America, looking at new statistics to better understand baseball was, unlike the mainstream sports media, not frowned upon.
While I was part of this culture and never looked down my nose at it, my interests and what I covered were not known for being big sabermetrics hot beds. There absolutely were economists that centered on sports, but they were mostly in academia. You knew of Roger Noll, or Rodney Fort, but it was really only Andrew Zimbalist that seemed to move the needle in the baseball fan culture.
That changed some with the late, great Doug Pappas. Doug most well-known metric creation was Marginal Payroll/Marginal Wins to show efficiency and effectivity of how clubs were spending on player talent. Still, myself or Neil deMause would touch on this in later years, with Neil doing adjustments to Doug’s formulas, but the honest to goodness truth was—and still is—business of baseball writers exploring advanced metrics have always been the musical version of the backing band to the rock stars that delved into looking at the players themselves. After all, people don’t go to the ballpark to watch how payrolls are constructed. They go to see the players and the teams they support.
But that didn’t mean that those that look at the business of sports don’t have some value in this discussion. And it’s here that my spending far too much time looking at how the workings of MLB front offices, and the networks that air games, has led me to want to get to the heart of this article.
Today, I ran a piece for Forbes called MLB Network’s ‘MLB Now’ Call Of Pirates At Giants Game Shows The Sabermetrics Battle Has Been Won. In it I described how the unique call of the game done by host Brian Kenny, my former BP colleague and now CBS Sports media member Jonah Keri, MLB.com’s Mike Petriello, and Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz would be using the Giants’ local feed of the game with Kenny providing his own play-by-play of the game while incorporating the multiple perspectives on the desk and live info provided by MLB.com’s powerful Statcast technology.
Social media (as social media is wont to do), had some things to say about this idea. That because there was one game being shown with some sabermetric guys on a panel, did not mean that we’d be seeing something akin to PHD level physics dressed up as a baseball broadcast anytime soon. Maybe the best comments came from FOX Sports’ CJ Nitkowski:
@BizballMaury As part of the initial shot at this when we did Jabocast, I can say with confidence this will never be what the masses want.
— CJ Nitkowski (@CJNitkowski) August 17, 2016
@BizballMaury Sabermetrics are great for building a roster, not for presenting a baseball game on TV or radio.
— CJ Nitkowski (@CJNitkowski) August 17, 2016
What CJ is alluding to is something more about how television has approached sabermetrics. Producers have seen that there’s this community of people that dig the numbers side of baseball, and have thrown programming weighted almost entirely around this. “If you dig numbers in baseball, we’re going to talk advance metrics like you’ve never seen before!” or something to that effect.
The problem here is, while you’ll get some interested, for the most part CJ is right: it’s just not going to ever reach the masses, and in television, masses are what count.
I don’t hang this on sabermetrics. I hang it on well-meaning producers trying to paint with one color.
The analogy is this: there’s this new color that few have seen, but there’s a group of people out there that think it should be used more often as the establishment has largely ignored it. So, someone says, “Hey, we have a market for this new color, so let’s use lots of it. Let’s use it pretty much exclusively and we’ll reach this new audience.” Well, you know how that turns out. You get too much of one color. Yes, you’re reaching an audience, but the audience wouldn’t be nearly as large as using that new color evenly along with all the other colors in your palette to paint your picture.
So, what CJ is saying is correct, but what I truly believe is that you don’t need to overwhelm programming with sabermetrics. It only has value within context of everything else that is out there. So, maybe you start by putting a player’s WAR (Wins Above Replacement) in the graphics for players when they step in the box or take the mound alongside the more traditional stats. Maybe you make the whiz-bang aspects of Statcast something highlighted often around replays of dazzling catches or routes around the base paths (in reality, this is already being done incrementally).
And maybe that’s the biggest thing to focus on. That as more fans—especially younger ones—are exposed to advanced analytics, the audience grows incrementally. That what is declared “advanced analytics” now simply grows into ‘baseball stats” in the future like we look at batting average, or earned run average now. The new stats simply grow into commonplace due to exposure.
None of this is to say that what is going on prior with Jabocast, or Clubhouse Confidential, or currently with MLB Now is bad. What those programs are are highly targeted to the sabermetrics community.
So, when I say that “the sabermetrics battle has been won” it’s a reflection that it’s now embraced by the league and front offices, and that it’s now part of a larger culture. Is it going to overwhelm what we see as part of television and mainstream media? No. Is it going to slowly but surely become more common in both? Absolutely. It’s a new color that the average fan deserves to see.