Friday, October 15, 2010

On Will Carroll, Statheads, and Choosing One's Brush

By Bill

I like Will Carroll. And yeah, I'm using the present tense.

I've been a fan since before he even came to Baseball Prospectus, when he was producing his quirkily fascinating baseball-injuries-only e-mail newsletter. Had a couple e-mail interactions with him during that time, and he was very gracious and informative. I thought he was great at BP, I think he's a lot of fun to follow on Twitter, and I'm sure sometime soon he'll have some sort of big new gig (if he doesn't already), and I'll probably mostly like that, too.

But on Monday, Will had something to get off his chest. Problem is, I'm not quite sure anybody who read that really understands what that thing was.

We start (after an opening line on The Simpsons that's never really brought back in) with this:
It might surprise you to know Ryan Howard doesn’t know his VORP.
Roy Halladay didn’t know his xFIP.
Jamie Moyer doesn’t understand BABIP.
The Reds? You think I’m going to ask those questions in Dusty Baker’s clubhouse? Forget it.
These are true facts (well, the last one is a fact if you translate it to "Dusty Baker hates most statistics"). But the question that comes immediately to mind is: so what?

Beyond all that being completely unsurprising, I can't think of a way in which it could possibly help Ryan Howard to know his VORP. He knows that getting on base and hitting home runs are good and making outs is bad, right? Ding, job done. Similarly, Halladay and Moyer might not know xFIP or BABIP, but I bet they know that strikeouts are good, walks and homers are bad, and that sometimes line drives get caught while little dribblers bleed through. These stats are useful to the people who might be in a position to decide whether to hire Howard, Halladay or Moyer (as opposed to say Votto, Lee or Rowland-Smith), but what good could they possibly be to a player, who's already doing the most he possibly can to do all the right things well? And the important point, of course (as Will notes), is that the majority of front offices, and almost all of the most successful ones, have people somewhere in them who do understand those numbers.

So, again, the question is: so what? Well, be ready to be left hanging, because Will goes in a totally different direction for the rest of the piece. Skipping a bit:

Statheads will never let a good story get in the way of a fact, a decimal place, or a holier-than-thou snark. Don’t know how to do a multivariate regression or a pivot table in Excel? Heathen. They’d certainly never let a good game get in the way of their viewpoint. Put up against Joe Morgan, ex-players, and an entrenched viewpoint ripe to be questioned, statheads might have figured out the right algorithms, but they never figured out the right formula for capturing anyone’s attention. I’m sure some out there – a small, rounding-error kind of niche – like their baseball on an 8-bit platter but most are captured by stories. The statheads never had one.

Well. This bit is strange for a whole lot of reasons. First, I don't think statheads would care about the decimal place or the holier-than-thou snark if the fact wasn't already underlying the whole thing, but I get the stylistic effort. More importantly and more troublingly: who is he talking about, really? Carroll throws out the "statheads" label, then responds to straw-man criticism (in the comments and on Twitter) by saying that he could name names if he wanted to, but he's above that.

But here's the thing; I know, and/or am otherwise familiar with, a lot of statheads. And I know there are a few who come off exactly the way Will describes them (us). They're smart guys who might add a lot to our understanding of the game, but I get frustrated with them myself for their apparent inability to see anything but numbers.

However, that's just a few folks, comparatively. And by using the term "statheads" -- because, ironically given the tone of Will's piece, the sabermetric movement has been so broadly, wildly successful at capturing people's attention, as these grass-roots things go -- Will has swept into his criticism many thousands of people who like statistics because they enhance the game's story. People who love reading Joe Posnanski and Ken Rosenthal and Jayson Stark, and listening to Vin Scully. People who wouldn't have any more luck doing a multivariate regression or a pivot table in Excel than they would hitting a Carlos Marmol fastball, but who like being able to quantify all the interesting things they see. People who wouldn't have a problem with Joe Morgan or Tim McCarver or Murray Chass if they just went about their business and weren't so fervently opposed to new (or even just common-sense) ideas.

People like, you know, me. 

Quick, find me a reasonable, accurate, easy to read book on stats? No, nothing? How about just a series of articles, something like a “101″ series. No? Wait, I know BPro did that one … but that was 2004.
 Actually, there's a TON of that stuff out there. Here's one by the excellent Mariners blog Lookout Landing. Here's a free, introductory course on it I just found. Here's the HowStuffWorks page. Here are a few posts I did within the last year or so introducing interested newbies to the concepts. Here's a page linking to a wealth of primer-type resources collected, and sometimes written, by SSN's own Bill Baer of Crashburn Alley. All of these turn up in a Google search. Is 0.31 seconds quick enough for you? We're not guarding our secrets.
Me? I was never one that followed and now, Prospectus in my rear view, I can easily reject that false god. I’m not rejecting facts, just the inability to tell a story, see beyond a spreadsheet, or acknowledge that other people have some things to teach me, whether it’s a scout, a Trainer, or a writer who’s been watching ball games since before VORP was a twinkle in Keith Woolner’s eye.

Here's where the real anti-BP vitriol comes out. I don't know whether there's a single person out there who believes the implied converse of what Will is saying--in particular, that "a scout, a Trainer [capital T? -ed.] or a writer who's been watching ball games since before VORP was a twinkle in Keith Woolner's eye" have nothing to teach us. Everyone I'm aware of recognizes that scouts have their own irreplaceable stake in the game, no one would doubt that trainers are important, and most people can appreciate a writer who can tell a good story (as opposed to just railing against newfangled stats or praising little white guys with limited skills for being gritty--that's not a "story"). 

I am sure that, after seven years at BP, there have been plenty of people and situations that absolutely drove Will nuts, and understandably so. I also know that it's a real problem that, as a group, stats-savvy baseball people don't make the best baseball writers (Carroll's one-time colleague Rany Jazayerli has talked quite a bit about this, but without alienating most of his fans in the process). And there's absolutely no doubt that the sabermetric-friendly crowd, as a group, is overly snarky (I think almost all the snark is provoked by deliberate ignorance, but that doesn't make it justified). There are some real, legitimate problems Will is getting at here. Unfortunately, he chose to address them in a totally unhelpful and, frankly, incoherent way, painting with the broadest possible brush and relying on irrelevancies like what the players know and bizarre caricatures of "statheads" ("an extra pi or something"? Seriously?). I also suspect that Will's conflating a few things, here; there are people out there who are really, really good at stats, but not very good at telling stories, just as there are people that are great at stories but not so great at stats (Jon Miller comes to mind). That doesn't mean that those people don't appreciate a good story, or that they don't add their own value--just that they themselves don't tell a good story. There's a place for all this, I think, at least until we can clone Posnanski.

So, anyway, I like Will, a lot, and I'm more than willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. He's got his own place in the baseball-writing world, and it has nothing at all to do with what he thinks of wOBA or tRA or the people who propagate them. (And I hope he doesn't unfollow me for this.) It's just that, whoever Will knows and whatever Will thinks, I'm 100.00% sure that "statheads," as a group, aren't at all the way he painted them (us). If you want to tackle a problem, attack the problem, not everybody even kind of a little bit remotely associated with the thing the problem lives in. You know?


The Oriole Way said...

I really enjoyed Will for a very long time, but something changed over the past season and I think he's become an arrogant dbag. For instance, he got his story wrong on Brian Roberts this summer and when I pointed out that what he was saying didn't jibe at all with what his sources were saying on their own blogs or in notes columns, he refused to engage. The next day (or so - it was his next column) he stuck in a minor note that said basically "things change." Well, no, they didn't. You got it wrong and refused to admit it. I'm glad he's getting pushback on this column; hopefully he realizes that he's not quite as infallible as he thinks he is.

Will Carroll said...

Never said I was infallible. I think I've admitted I was wrong as much as any writer. I'd also REALLY challenge the assertion that I "refuse to engage" with anyone. Please find a writer who's more accessible than me, via email, Twitter, etc.

As to Bill's column, yep, I painted with a very broad brush. I used some hyperbole. I did not know about some of the links to "101 style" pieces that Bill found. That said, I think the points I made stand and the discussion has been very worthwhile.

Brien Jackson said...

There's one thing I want to push back on. There are bad writers in virtually any area you want to look at. But if I focused on Flip Bondy and Mike Lupica to summarily dismiss every single person whose writing is published by a major newspaper, everyone would immediately recognize that as illegitimate. Using the handful of sabermatricians who aren't good writers and/or are basically hostile to anyone who isn't on their level or doesn't agree with them as a pretext to ignore anyone who recognizes the stupidity of pitcher wins or that RBI isn't an evaluative stat is just a cop-out for people who want to avoid engaging on it at all.

Sabermatricians and writers who are saber-friendly aren't a collective, and we really ought to push back at that premise, rather than apologizing for the worse writers among us as though it's somehow a group failing.

Bill said...

Will, thanks very much for reading and for the comment. You've certainly been plenty accessible in my experience, though of course I can't speak for the incident The Oriole Way refers to.

Brien, I'm with you to a point. I think that's part of what I was saying up there -- that Will is unfairly associating "statheads" with a handful of bad writers, hostile people, and/or people who don't really like actual baseball all that much (I do think there are a couple of those).

But I do also think there's a larger problem that *is* common across almost the entire universe of sabermetricians and the saber-friendly: we tend to be unfairly dismissive of not just other viewpoints, but the people who hold those viewpoints. You might say that's because we're right and they're wrong (and often consciously incitefully and bull-headedly wrong), and I'd agree, but there's still a problem with tone in how we address these things, and I think it is very close to a collective problem, and it is holding the whole movement/acceptance process back a bit.

Will Carroll said...

Isn't that last paragraph what I said, Bill?

Anonymous said...

I am a blogger you would know, but I am posting anonymously because I don't want the rat pack to get on my case.

I don't know who or what Will was talking about specifically, but I do know that I have had to block probably close to a dozen rabid sabermetricians on Twitter because they are just mean, nasty, bitter and dismissive of anyone who does not see the world from their viewpoint. They openly and loudly mock anyone who does not embrace statistics with the same fervor as they do.

The result? I don't even try. I'm not stupid. I have a Master's degree. Admittedly math is not my strong point, and I'm not good at stats, but I don't hate sabermetrics, and love reading about them.

What I don't love is the way many sabermetricians use other people's weakness in this area to belittle them or to show how much smarter they are. If that's not their intention, it certainly feels that way, speaking as someone who's been on the receiving end of it too many times.

It's not everyone, but there is a loud, angry crowd out there, and they're the ones who continually engage with the mainstream media in an aggressive fashion. It would be easy to come to the conclusion that Will has, because the volume makes them seem like the majority.

You're right that there are resources out there, and it's not their job to educate people. But instead of being an evangelist for stats being a way to enhance your love of baseball, they do exactly the opposite.

Bill said...

Will, if that's all you were trying to say, I think there was a big problem with the execution. Which I think was my whole point in this piece; you had a real complaint, but one that needed a scalpel, and you took a flamethrower to it. I don't see how Ryan Howard knows about VORP, Curt Schilling's bloody sock, or the sabermetricians' affinity or hatred of stories has anything to do with my last paragraph above. It comes off looking, whether you intended it that way or not, like a full-on attack on all things stats and all stat-people -- and not targeted, not in a "sometimes they get kind of snooty with people who disagree with them and it's annoying" way, but in every single thing they do or stand for.

And Anon- thanks for posting that. I can see how that might happen, and how it would be terribly annoying. But I think this gets into the territory of what Brien is talking about above -- most of us are content knowing as much as we can, educating people where we can, and saving our disdain for people who really go out of their way to attract it (Conlin, Chass, etc.). The relatively few who go around blasting people--like, evidently, yourself--who are interested but who just don't quite get it (or can't take the time to fully grasp it, or whatever) are the kind of extremists you'll find on the edges of every group, and as Brien intimated above, it's no fairer to lump us all in with them than it is to hold Posnanski and Rosenthal accountable for Dan Shaughnessy and Bill Plaschke.