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Baseball statistics and the arrogance of ignorance

There are a lot of ways to approach baseball, but blatant arrogance should not be one of them

Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images

On June 8, 2001, the Kansas City Royals were in the midst of a lengthy playoff-less streak 16 years long. Though they would wait another 13 years for that streak to end, a young boy did not care about that as he went to Kauffman Stadium with his father. Fresh off a move from Cleveland, Ohio, the boy did not have an attachment to the Royals in any form. He had spent his formative, single-digit years watching Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, Sandy Alomar, Omar Vizquel, and Kenny Lofton play beautiful baseball.

This boy - the 10-year-old me - was nonetheless excited to go to Kauffman Stadium, as Randy Johnson was pitching for the visiting Arizona Diamondbacks in an uncommon interleague game in Kansas City. I had watched Johnson on Sportscenter and followed his exploits in the league leaders partition in the sports section in the Kansas City Star. I knew nothing except for his terrifying ability to strike hitters out and his total dominance on the mound.

Johnson struck out 11 Royals in seven innings that evening, allowing a single run to cross the plate. A late Mike Sweeney home run was no match against the onslaught that Luis Gonzalez and Steve Finley unleashed upon Paul Byrd, Mac Suzuki, and Doug Henry. It was a great experience, and my dad and I will always remember it.

Last night, I saw Johnny Cueto's brilliant complete game shutout Kansas City debut. I had access to information that I could not have comprehended 14 years ago. I understood far more. It was a great experience, and my wife and I will always remember it.

Baseball can be enjoyed by anyone with any knowledge of the game. A home run is possibly the most iconic thing in sports. Parts of the baseball lexicon have even become entrenched in everyday usage as metaphors. Baseball, as they say, is played on the field--not by a computer (well, other than cyborg Wade Davis).

Advanced knowledge of statistics is unnecessary to enjoying the game, nor does it impede enjoying the game. Knowledge of baseball is a spectrum, and everyone is somewhere on that spectrum. In 2001, I could not explain what made Randy Johnson so amazing. In 2015, I can. That ability does not make my fandom any more special or valid.

One of the problems of advanced baseball statistics is that they are notoriously nerdy, wordy, and complicated, so much so that they often go by their own name-"sabermetrics." That perceived fanciness turns off people to their use, much as the intricacies of symphonies are unappealing to those who want to listen to some mindless pop music on their drive to work.

The use of statistics is often criticized due to this disconnect. Statistics take work to understand and can be unwieldy to use with fellow fans who don't have or care for that particular knowledge. There is a barrier for entry.

Your basic baseball statistic requires little thought, as batting average, RBIs, home runs, ERA, and strikeouts are all simple to understand and have been continuously repeated by our fathers, our grandfathers, and the media for decades. The game can be enjoyed, loved, with this level of knowledge. There is nothing wrong with that.

Analysis, however, is not the same as pure enjoyment of the game. Analyzing baseball requires a working knowledge of statistics as a prerequisite, not an option.  In order to disagree with an argument, statistical or otherwise, you must first understand what is occurring and how.

Unfortunately, it seems that many people don't feel this way, even when they should.

Bob Fescoe is a local sports talk radio host, a man paid to know about sports. Look at Bob Fescoe's quote there again - his response to what is a very simple and friendly statement from Austin Casel is clear: There are too many numbers. It is too difficult to attempt to learn about them. They are meaningless to me. For a man whose job it is to analyze sports, that is a shockingly naive viewpoint. It is an arrogance of ignorance, one that actively hurts discussion about sports on every level.

I will give Fescoe some benefit of the doubt here, even when others might not. Fescoe is not primarily a baseball guy, and Twitter is an extraordinarily poor medium to fully enunciate and vet ideas. Furthermore, that Tweet was sent at 8 a.m. in the middle of a 4-hour radio show, which begins at a time that I would rather not fathom experiencing on a daily basis. I also do not know the context of Casel's first Tweet to Fescoe.

That being said, Fescoe is hardly unique in his intentional misunderstanding of statistics; Lee Judge is famously opposed to learning about them and Ned Yost even doesn't understand how pitchers are evaluated by front offices and pundits. Fescoe just happens to be the guy with the smoking gun at the moment.

Ignoring statistics will not make them go away. In order to intelligently evaluate baseball, actively refusing to attempt to learn a key language of analysis is an exasperating attempt at haughtiness and serves no one. I continuously hear in comments that statistics are worthless, that it is what happens on the field that matters, and that the confusing numbers can't possibly illuminate anything. Of course what happens on the field is the thing that matters--and that is what statistics measure, in various forms. Batting average tells the rate that a player gets a hit. Weighted on base average tells how valuable a player's overall offensive performance is. That wOBA isn't instantaneously intuitive or calculable is irrelevant. It measures what happens on the field.

Our understanding, or utter lack thereof, does not prevent us from using our magic math machines to connect with the world and each other. That we cannot comprehend how the Twitter app actually functions on our phones does not prevent us from using it. That we cannot easily replicate the calculations in Wins Above Replacement should not prevent us from using it.  To refuse to use the Twitter app because it is complicated would be ridiculous, but that is often the approach to statistics.

The catchy pop song of traditional statistics is countered by the weight, grandiosity, and formal beauty of a symphony. Both are types of music, both often try to do the same thing. But symphonies are complicated, steeped with history, and performed by unfamiliar instruments in unfamiliar settings. In order to study music, refusing to consider symphonies would be pure folly. There is a limit to what can be accomplished studying pop music.

Ten-year-old me had never played a symphony. The 24-year-old me has. My enjoyment of music has not changed. And, regardless of your feelings about statistics, your enjoyment of baseball doesn't have to change either.