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Broadcasts still struggle with advanced stats

There’s no ‘kinda’ with statistics; it’s either yes or no.

Watch a baseball broadcast for, oh, as long as television has existed, and you’ll see and hear a collection of statistics. For batters, those stats are batting average, runs batted in, home runs, maybe every once in a while a listing of doubles/triples or maybe slugging percentage if the network is getting fancy. For pitchers, we’re looking at earned run average, pitching wins, strikeouts, and holds or saves/save opportunities for relief pitchers.

The math involved for each of these calculations is elementary. That’s not a Sherlock Holmes joke: it’s simple elementary school math, like counting or division or multiplication. The simplicity of that, combined with the utter ubiquity of the stats themselves, is why they are so ingrained. Anybody that can read can see .300, but most Americans who follow sports even casually know that’s a good batting average. Statistics, like all math, is another language. It follows its own internal logic and will yield patterns. Your average fan speaks this language—but only this language.

Of course, batting average isn’t a very good measure of offensive worth; a better rate is on base percentage. Look at isolated slugging percentage for a better measure of power, not total extra base hits. Strikeout rate and walk rate are immeasurably better metrics than the Frankenstein’s monster known as ‘pitching wins.’

This is awfully simple stuff. It’s not even Moneyball 101; it’s a remedial course. A stat like OPS, on base plus slugging, is perfectly transparent but just involves a few more steps. The only reason why OPS isn’t in use more is because it’s not part of the lexicon. It’s that simple. If, tomorrow, all baseball broadcasts decide to use it in place of batting average (or as part of a triple/quadruple slash line), the public would adjust by the end of the season.

Still, this sort of resistance against unusual or new statistics extends in a greater and greater fashion towards things like Wins Above Replacement (WAR), which is easy to define conceptually but almost impossible to explain every mathematical component and why it’s set up like it is.

Enter Fox Sports Kansas City in the top of the first inning on Opening Day, where they displayed a curious stat at the bottom:

In the old, traditional vocabulary of statistics, fielding percentage was about the best you could do for a defensive statistic. Fielding percentage is the rate at which a player fields a ball without an error, which if you can spare four brain cells and six seconds of thinking, you can come to an understanding that it is extraordinarily limited.

The Royals defense has been particularly amazing over the past half decade or so, and greater acceptance of more advanced statistics and a desire to brag about said defense has led Fox Sports Kansas City to use this statistic.

But DRS is definitely an advanced statistic. Here’s the first paragraph on DRS by Fangraphs:

Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) is a defensive statistic calculated by The Fielding Bible, an organization run by John Dewan, that rates individual players as above or below average on defense. Much like UZR, players are measured in “runs” above or below average, and Baseball Info Solutions data is used as an input. Since DRS is measured in runs, it can be compared easily with a player’s offensive contributions (wRAA or similar statistics).

Ask a grizzled baseball veteran to read that and their eyes will probably glaze over and they’ll start thinking about sacrifice bunts or ACDC or something. DRS is easy to explain, but harder to quantify. It’s your grandma’s secret marinara recipe: you just can’t explain what goes into it, and maybe a part of you doesn’t want to.

And herein lies the problem with advanced statistical language when the majority of people aren’t speaking it: they can be used as a simple bludgeon more akin to propaganda than analysis. This is also a screenshot of the game:

*screenshots courtesy of one Shaun Newkirk #newkirkd

Notice how Fox Sports KC is perfectly fine with saying that the Twins were terrible at defense last year. What FSKC probably also isn’t fine with doing is telling viewers that, by the same stat they used to praise the Royals team in general, Gold Glover Eric Hosmer ranked 16th out of 17th qualified first baseman last year with -6 DRS by himself (or that Hosmer ranks 33rd out of 40 first baseman with 2000+ innings since 2011). Or, if it is, that information has not worked its way to Joel, Ryan, Hud, and Phys.

Television and radio coverage of baseball needs not be inherently critical, and honestly probably shouldn’t be. But there’s a disconnect when they discuss stats that aren’t as common. When they display Raul Mondesi’s batting average of .185 (Mondesi’s 2016 batting average), they don’t have to explain that it’s bad or shove it in our face. It’s there and everyone can see it. Nobody argues with batting average.

Ultimately, DRS is a tool that is either legitimate or it’s not. If it’s legitimate, it should inform opinions, and if it’s not, you probably shouldn’t use it at all.

The larger sports media is still caught in an awkward stance, with one leg firmly cemented in the old-school tradition of baseball statistics and another testing out what new areas exist. It’s awkward because it’s scary: some new stats might disprove old notions.

Recognizing validity of new statistics while not fully utilizing them is like agreeing with Galileo that the planets circle the sun, but that the Earth is still the center of the universe. It’s better than not at all, but it just doesn’t quite work.