Let’s Talk About Why We Talk With Stats

Last month, over at NBCSports, Bill Baer detailed an intriguing lashing from 101 ESPN’s Bernie Miklasz on Cardinals manager Mike Matheny. Cardinals reporters have been critical of Matheny for his decision making for a while and it came up recently because of Matheny’s response to why the team struggled defensively last season. “Keep in mind, Matheny once told me that he considered my use of stats – facts – to be personal attacks,” Miklasz tells.

If you read around, you’ll probably find some enmity between Matheny and the press. But regardless who you might agree with, let’s remove “facts” from Miklasz’s quote above. While it contributes to a point about how baseball is processed, it also assumes a right and wrong way to do it. It’s easy to side with him and call Matheny a crabby Old Head. But that’s still missing the point.

The advent of publicly available baseball stats isn’t about insisting everyone ought to change because the game does. It’s about finding a new way to put words to it. Baseball is classically Ferris Bueller: if you don’t stop and look around, you might miss it (even among four hour games).

Stats can be and are frequently used to define players and what they are. Prediction models come out annually, and much commentary is derived from acknowledging their accuracy. But each stat is more a single camera angle than a panoramic view of a player’s ability. Consider BABIP. When I saw it first making an impact, it was in fantasy leagues and articles detailed how much you could rely on a player because of it – often whether you should be keen to kick them to the curb or keep them for the long haul. It was better than batting average; told you not just that a player with a high average over the last X games was hot but gave you a strong idea why.

Now consider just how far things have come in the last five, six, seven years. BABIP is looked at and accounted for but not nearly as much. We got to the angle that showed us how it lit up the game. We took the picture. But the sun moves through the day, right? Naturally, we still want the best lighting, so we follow the sun as it plods along. Now we find ourselves looking at stats that light up the game in a fresher, more engaging way than BABIP. Like wOBA, for example. It tells us the quality at which a player is reaching base, even if they’re dropping in hits at a quirky rate.

We can talk about a pitcher having more than “good stuff” and cite credible documentation about the benefits of the MPH difference between his four-seamer and change. We can see the spin he puts on his curve and correlate the likely success of it instead of just saying “it falls off the table.”

Most importantly, though, doing these things is not a reaffirmation of stats or an exclusive endorsement of baseball as a matter of physics. They are not about turning beautiful shades of gray to black and white. The topic is a matter of pushing the bounds on conversation about the game and the thoughts that spark the words. It’s how you can get a Fangraphs community member trying to determine what a “quality at-bat” is because a phrase without meaning is ripe for misappropriation.

These examples are just the tip of the iceberg.

Frankly, I do agree more with Miklasz than Matheny, but not because stats are facts. I feel stats give me more opportunity to better understand baseball. I love investigating why a guy should throw less fastballs, even when his heater is incredible; how a remarkable stalwart might get even better; or how hard luck might hit one guy more than others.

Facts, though often mistaken for definitive truth, are malleable. The real, definitive truth about baseball is it’s always in flux, so we should always be looking for new ways to understand it. Why wouldn’t we?

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