Thursday, November 17, 2011

You Have to Get Inside the Characters!

By Mark Smith

Freddy Got Fingered isn’t that great of a movie. At it’s very best, it’s a fun movie to watch when there’s nothing important on, and in all honesty, it’s probably a movie that should be placed on a VH1 Awesomely Bad list somewhere toward the top. That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s a complete waste of time, and I thoroughly enjoy watching it. It just has no redeeming quality outside of being completely ridiculous, which is kind of a redeeming quality I suppose. Anyway, the funniest moment, in my opinion, is when Tom Green’s character, an aspiring cartoon writer, gets turned down by a cartoon exec, who suggests that Green needs “to get inside the characters”. This, of course, means that Green doesn’t really understand his characters or where they are coming from, but Green … well, hold on. On his way home, he hits a deer, and because of the advice he receives and that he draws animal cartoons, he literally cuts the deer open, gets inside the deer, and parades around before finally getting hit by a semi. Watch the movie. I don’t do the moment justice.

As a budding baseball writer/blogger and analyst, I wonder if I’m not in a similar position to Green’s character when it comes to baseball stats. I understand baseball stats. I understand why the traditional ones don’t always describe what they think they do, and I understand why advanced stats do a better job. I can even explain the logic of newer stats to other people. What I can’t do, however, is explain how those stats were derived, and I can’t tell you which one is better than another.

Let’s see if I can explain why I have to begun to admit that I have a serious problem with this, at least from my personal perspective. I’m not a man of faith. The reason is simple - faith isn’t something you can argue with. It can’t lose. I can sit here all day and explain how a certain religious belief is probably ridiculous, but faith can always argue that it’s the deity’s plan or that I don’t know. It’s frustrating. I’m not saying it’s wrong, but as a man that has to understand, faith is particularly difficult for me (please don’t send me crisis of faith emails/tweets; that’s not what this is about). What I started to realize was that sabermetrics had become my “faith”.

That probably seems absurd. Sabermetrics is all about science, numbers, and the pursuit of knowledge and, as such, seems to be the anti-thesis of faith. But from my perspective (and believe the perspective of many), it is a point of faith. The difference between religion and sabermetrics, however, is that this faith crisis with sabermetrics can be solved, whereas I’ll have to wait a hopefully long time before meeting my maker and figuring out how I screwed everything up. To this point, I certainly understand the logic behind the stats, but also to this point, I’ve taken it as a point of faith that the numbers actually work.

The definition of faith is a “belief that is not based on proof”, and despite my evangelism of sabermetrics, I have to come to admit to myself that I have no proof, despite the fact that it is out there. What’s the difference between “It’s God’s will,” and “The numbers just worked. Someone checked.”? For me, the two are now uncomfortably close, and for that reason, I’ve decided to do something about it.

I want to understand the stats. I want to “get inside the numbers”. I want to be able to be able to do the math and the fact-checking necessary to know that I’m saying is actually backed up in fact. Thus, I’ve bought a stats book that will teach me by using baseball statistics as a guide, and after I find it in my mom’s basement (shocker, I know), I’ll be reading through it, with the hope that I’ll be able to decipher what Russell Carleton used to call “Messy Statistical Details” (or something like that).

But let’s understand what I am not saying. I am not saying that I don’t trust analysts and stats inventors that are out there doing excellent work. I am not saying that I think sabermetrics has gone some wayward path. I am not saying that anyone who doesn’t understand the math behind the stats is a lemming. What I am saying is that I feel the need, in order to be intellectually consistent to myself, to learn about these stats.

I bring up my personal quest for a few reasons. One, I think a lot of people are in the boat I’m in. They understand the logic behind it, but if it came to a point when someone demanded a better explanation, we couldn’t really give it to them. Two, if people want, I’m willing to help people learn along by putting up a post as I finish a chapter, explaining what I learned. This would help me learn by having to explain it, and it might help others more than trying to learn from an “expert” who might still talk a little over a novice’s head. Three, I always need post ideas, and this seems like an interesting off-season venture. Four, I'll probably get something wrong, and I'll need people to point it out.

Lastly, I think the sabermetrics movement deserves it (not me, per se, but having its supporters truly understand). Logic will often work, and it’s often sufficient for an explanation. But people will always ask, and people will always want to know the difference between this stat and this one. And it’s just irresponsible to offer an opinion when one truly doesn’t understand what went into the stat. So here’s my confession. Forgive me Basebaal (I think Bill Baer was the first to use this that I saw, but I thought it was awesome for a baseball deity), for I have sinned. This is my first confession. I have advocated for stats of which I did not truly comprehend. My penance is to read this book (when I find, I’ll let you know) and explain it to those willing and/or eager to listen.

Also, if those who do really understand the stats jargon and such would like to help in my endeavor before I post and make a fool out of myself, I would appreciate being able to ask knowledgeable baseball people about how these apply to advanced stats.

1 comment:

Pizza Cutter said...

I believe the phrase I used was "Gory Statistical Details"