Weeks ago, when Kansas City Chiefs fever was only starting and hubbub around one of the most talented quarterbacks in recent memory was as much due to surprise as anything else, I was listening to 610 Sports Radio in my car. Brad Fanning, one of the hosts of The Drive, was complaining that Patrick Mahomes was voted AFC Player of the Week when he should not have been named so. This was a good take. Tyreek Hill should have won the award, as he was game breaking in a way that Mahomes, who was nevertheless very good, wasn’t.
But this take wasn’t just a simple take to talk about. Fanning was brandishing it as a metaphorical sword to argue one of his much less reasonable takes, which is that statistics lie. Not that they are misunderstood, or that they can be used poorly, or that purposeful misuse of statistics (like purposeful misuse of anything) can be poisonous and false. That they lie.
This is not a hit piece on Fanning, who is definitely not alone in his distrust of statistics, and finding pundits and fans with similar views on statistics is easy. Baseball statistics are a particularly hot button issue. Any time someone quotes something more advanced than batting average, or runs batted in, like Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) or Wins Above Replacement (WAR), there will always be an internet commenter (or radio host, for that matter) who immediately scoffs at such statistics. They will often quip a rhetorical question like “is the game played on a spreadsheet,” “is the game being played by robots.”
Those who believe in the efficacy of FIP and WAR will often engage, after which the conversation will permanently devolve into nonsense until both parties leave smugly satisfied and a little angrier.
However, the argument about the usability and effectiveness of advanced statistics is an entirely useless one for two reasons. The first reason is that arguments about sabermetrics often include total red herrings and fundamental misunderstandings, purposeful or otherwise. Obviously, the game isn’t played on a spreadsheet or by robots (mostly), and yet that doesn’t stop people from bringing that up as a criticism for...reasons? Furthermore, anti-stat people like to set up the argument as a ‘stats vs scouting’ dichotomy, when in reality no one believes they are mutually exclusive from one another.
Second, and most importantly, the argument about advanced statistics is a useless one because it is simply over. It’s done. There is no more argument to be had.
Bill James popularized the entire field of sabermetrics in the 70s and 80s, and the Oakland Athletics used those ideals to average 94 wins a year for almost a decade with a quarter of the resources of the other great teams in the American League in the late 90s and early 00s. James was eventually hired by a little ol’ team called the Boston Red Sox in 2003, just after they hired a 28-year-old Yale graduate named Theo Epstein. Through sabermetric practices, Epstein and James led the Red Sox to an average of 94 wins per year in the next five seasons, also accruing two World Series titles along the way. In 2012, Esptein took over the Chicago Cubs, and wouldn’t you know it—the Cubs also won a World Series for their troubles.
Success wasn’t just limited to Epstein and Billy Beane. Andrew Friedman kept the Tampa Bay Rays relevant despite pitiful payroll limitations in the late 00s before helping the Los Angeles Dodgers build the most robust organization in all of baseball. The Houston Astros revamped their organization and were so knowledgeable that a rival executive was caught hacking their computers. Meanwhile, expressly old-school GMs like Ruben Amaro, Jr of the Philadelphia Phillies flamed out and were replaced by more sabermetrically-inclined executives (Amaro was replaced by Matt Klentak, a 35-year-old with an economics degree from Dartmouth).
Take one look at the dudes in charge of the teams in the 2018 playoffs. Oakland, headed by the aforementioned Beane. Los Angeles, headed by the aforementioned Friedman. Houston, headed by Jeff Luhnow, who owns degrees in economics, engineering, and business. Cleveland, headed by Chris Antonetti, who owns degrees in business and sports management. Milwaukee, headed by David Stearns, who owns a degree in political science from Harvard. Boston, who, well, just re-read the two paragraphs above.
In fact, the last three GMs hired have had a combined zero years of baseball experience as a player. And of the last seven GMs hired, only two played baseball beyond high school. If baseball owners are making aggressive moves by staking the future of their franchise’s profitability on stat guys who have never played baseball and yet succeeding wildly, why on earth would anyone be anti-stat?
This is not to say that stats are infinitely powerful. They are not. This is not to say that every advanced stat is perfect and useful for all manner of uses. They are not. Ya’ll remember Kyle Davies’ 2011 season? You know, the one where he was so bad for a 90+ loss team that they just plumb released him just a few weeks away from September roster expansion? His FIP that year was 4.39. If you were to just look at that stat, you’d think he had a fine season, albeit in only 13 starts. Of course, anyone cursed to watch him pitch that year would instantly know otherwise.
But the Saga of 2011 Davies doesn’t mean that FIP is a bad stat. It just means that there needs to be context around it, and around any stat. Ultimately, this argument that people are having about statistics in baseball is ridiculous and silly. Instead, we should be arguing about how to bridge the knowledge gap between the industry professionals whose careers are built on the proven worth of sabermetrics and those who don’t know a thing about it.