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Sabermetric Meta Discussion: Do we really need to explain ourselves?

Christian Petersen

This morning, one of my favorite persons on the planet, Rob Neyer, posted something on which I've been kinda preachy about both here and on twitter for some time. The gist of it is something along the lines of stop with the stupid WAR cliches in your headlines, spell it out, use it appropriately:

...WAR just looks and sounds ... silly, don't you think? Have you ever noticed how many baseball people -- writers, broadcasters, ex-players-turned-analysts -- sort of sneer every time they say "WAR"? I feel a little ridiculous every time I write it. I'm not going to argue that Mike Trout would have picked up a single additional first-place vote in the MVP balloting if so many of his boosters hadn't said WAR so often. I do believe that ridiculous-sounding acronyms don't help the cause of objective analysis, in the long run.

So what's the alternative? We don't want to say Wins Above Replacement again and again. Too much of a mouthful. What I suggest is that do use Wins Above Replacement upon (as they say) first use ... and switch to Wins -- yes, with a capital W -- afterward. Let's be honest: Nobody has a solid idea of what "replacement" means anyway, and in fact different methods for computing Wins Above Replacement use different definitions of replacement."

Why I'm retiring WAR (but not what it stands for) - Rob Neyer

There's a bit about changing the name of it to Wins but I think that part is somewhat irrelevant to his bigger point, which I think is more about our tendency to obscure what we're talking about by relying on acronyms.

Now, to really get this you need to know where Rob is coming from as both a tenured writer and as an editor/mentor for many of us both in and outside of SB Nation. While I don't presume to speak for him, I can say I had the pleasure of hearing him speak in Vegas (details on that weekend later never!) on the exact topic of how to communicate data to a wider audience. It's been more than a year now, but I'll paraphrase:

Spell out your acronyms at least the first time they appear in an article; don't be afraid to round your numbers; decimals are your enemy, and especially don't be afraid to spell out your numbers.

Numbers ain't the story. Baseball is the story.

But the bigger point is this, and I've said this to all the writers that come through here at Beyond the Box Score: numbers ain't the story. Baseball is the story. If you're writing about numbers as a topic itself, you're probably writing to a highly select group of readers and not advancing much of anything.

And that all brings me back to the topic. Apparently Rob's article spawned a discussion that is both rather meta and definitely self-indulgent. The question, spawned by some number of tweets by several of my other favorite people on the planet -- Colin Wyers, Ben Duronio, Marc Normandin, Sky Kalkman, Dan Turkenkopf, and DevilFingers:

Do we really need to explain ourselves?

Let's jump right in the middle of the conversation, if only because it doesn't really have a beginning worth adding. Here:

Forgive me ahead of time if some of the nuance of this conversation is lost or out of order. I think I'm catching the big picture here. More:

There's a lot, lot more. I'll skip ahead.

Like I said, there's a lot missing from the conversation. Twitter is a notoriously bad place to try nuance and keep different conversational threads organized. Either way, I think we're at a place where we can open it up for discussion. I want to hear your thoughts:

  • Where do you stand on liberally using acronyms as stand-ins for statistical explanations? Is it unnecessary to spell it out the first time? Too much work?
  • Who are you (we) writing for? Do you assume some minimum amount of understanding and competence?
  • Do we as saberists/saber-writers have an obligation to explain what we're talking about, either in-line or otherwise? At what point do we say, dude, start HERE (glossary), and come back when you understand?
  • Where do we go from here? Where's the balance? How can we provide the tools necessary to understand our writing to a total noob that wants to understand while also not insulting our current audience -- or bloating our content with 500 extra words of explanations every time we write?