Answering The "Elevator Question": It's Not About The Stats

For those that missed it last week, we're beginning a series on sabermetrics and education. I hesitate to call it a "Saber 101" course since we'll be focusing on a slightly different topic: how writers can best make sabermetric principles accessible to new readers. You can find the introduction to this series here.

Last week, I left everyone with a question to ponder about. In case you forgot (or didn't get that far down in the article), here it is again:

Say you're in an elevator with someone and they notice the [insert favorite MLB team here] hat you have on. You get into a conversation about baseball and somehow, it comes out that you're a fan of sabermetrics. The person immediately looks at you a little shifty and says something along the lines of, "Sabermetrics? You mean that movement with all the funny stats and numbers? Why should I trust that stuff?"

What do you say?

We had some great conversation on the topic, with people taking a variety of different approaches in their answers. Some people focused on the statistics, explaining how they allow for objective analysis of players, while others highlighted the theories behind many sabermetric ideas (like DIPS, replacement level, etc.). Everyone had the right idea - starting basic and working your way to more complex theories - but I want to emphasize what I thought what was the most important part of the conversation: sabermetrics isn't about the statistics.

Bill James once defined sabermetrics as, "the search for objective knowledge about baseball." I've tried coming up with my own definition, but it's tough to create something as succinct yet all-inclusive as that statement. We certainly love our statistics, our Pitch F/x charts, our data reports and visualizations - yet all of these are merely a means to an end. Saberists are a community of questions askers. Who's the best player in baseball? Who deserves to be in the Hall of Fame? Who should be the fifth starter for my team? We use statistics to find these answers, but sometimes the answer can get lost underneath all the numbers.

In other words, we've done a poor job of communicating the goal of sabermetrics to the general public. If you were to ask a random baseball fan for their first thought upon hearing the word "sabermetrics", their answer would likely be along the lines of, "Statistics. Confusing ones." That's what comes to everyone's mind first, but why is that? Statistics shouldn't be the backbone of sabermetrics. Instead, the focus should be on the thought processes that people use to answer their baseball questions.

I firmly believe that you could be an excellent saberist and write thought-provoking articles, yet never use a statistic more confusing than OPS. If you doubt this, just take a look at the work Joe Posnanski is doing over at his blog. While he's recently begun delving into WAR and more complicated statistics, he still regularly uses ERA, OPS, and raw numbers in his articles. Despite this, he's able to convey sabermetic principles better than most.

And so, my answer to the elevator question is rather simple: "Sabermetrics isn't about statistics - it's about asking questions and trying to find the answer. Sometimes statistics help, sometimes scouting does the trick, but at its root it's about trying to find the truth."

As a community, we could all use to keep this in mind more often. If you're trying to reach a mainstream audience with your writing, ask yourself: what's the simplest statistic I can use to prove my point? Do I need to quote tRA and xFIP, or can I make things easier for readers to access? And if I'm going to use a more complicated statistic - say, wOBA - is there a way I can explain it without using math and numbers? Statistics are just a means to find the truth; we shouldn't let them distract from our points and arguments.

Steve is the founder of the Sabermetrics Library and also writes over at DRaysBay.com.

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