clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Wall Street didn't kill sabermetrics

A response to Jack Moore's essay on the struggle for public knowledge in a world of trade secrets.

J. Meric

The principle of openness is missing in today's sabermetrics. That isn't the only argument Jack Moore advanced in his piece at Vice Sports on Wednesday, but it's the thesis relevant to those of us who frequent these particular Internet pages. Moore's essay makes a number of points with which I won't argue, like that baseball lionizes leaders or that owners and executives are interested in limiting wages and making big profits. But I would like to respond to Moore's central claim, and the one that produced the attention grabbing "How Wall Street Strangled the Life out of Sabermetrics" headline.

I encourage you to read the full piece because Moore is a great writer and because you should react to his words in their entirety rather than just the ones I'm going to present. I don't mean to present any of these without context, but be aware that it's a long piece and there's plenty I'm not quoting below.

Here are two critical paragraphs:

Sabermetrics at its best can deconstruct myths, make connections between eras and leagues separated by centuries, and create new conversations and ideas about the games and the people who play them. Projects like Retrosheet, which has collected hundreds of thousands of box scores and play-by-play logs and made them available to the public, were founded on principles of openness. The idea was that anybody with a computer and an internet connection could make the next FIP, the next OPS+, the next wOBA or WAR—and they did. Voros McCracken, Bill James, Tom Tango—they were anonymous people from outside the establishment (Tango even uses a pseudonym), people who had rare and unique thoughts on baseball and wanted to share them with their baseball fan friends.

This principle of openness is missing in today's sabermetrics. Sites like FanGraphs, Baseball Prospectus, and Beyond the Box Score function as farm systems, churning out major league consultants once they prove their technical skills and creativity (all on the cheap, of course). When Andrew Friedman hired new Rays consultants, they were immediately greeted by non-disclosure agreements. Why secrecy, in a discipline once defined by openness? "The short answer," Nate Silver told Baseball Analysts when asked why he kept the formula to his golden goose projection system PECOTA proprietary, "is that we're trying to make a living off this stuff, and we're reluctant to give away trade secrets."

Moore builds this argument on three main pillars. First, sabermetrics is the pursuit of knowledge. Second, sabermetrics is an outsider's business. Third, teams have ruined the first two by hiring bloggers and requiring that they keep their mouths shut about the work they've done while on the inside.

Shortly after, Moore says that "Sabermetrics has transformed from a public intellectual debate into a trade, a business, with secrets to be locked down like any other" and that in the last three years public researchers have made few advances because teams have gobbled up all of the talent. He refers to FanGraphs, Baseball Prospectus, and this site as farm teams for major league clubs looking to acquire analytic assets.

Moore continues to discuss the way a "Wall Street" mindset has taken over MLB front offices and that it's turned everything into a cost-benefit calculation leaving players as assets rather than employees, leaving sabermetrics as another means to control the wage structure of the game.

Moore closes with this:

Statistics don't have to be evil. They don't have to be gross. They don't have to be dehumanizing. But there is no beauty in data as information to be hoarded, as a means to find the next market inefficiency, as a way to slash a bottom line. Statistics as F.C. Lane saw statistics—as stories waiting to be told— can be fascinating and inspiring. Until sabermetrics is free of the executive grasp, however, it will be doomed to take on the colorless, joyless image of the Wall Street suits who now grasp it for themselves.

Essentially, his argument is that sabermetrics have become a tool of the executive class and that their usage has crushed the joy of the pursuit of knowledge on the outside. Bottom line: Moore's arguing that Wall Street co-opted sabermetrics and turned it from an intellectual pursuit among guerrilla academics to a bloodsucking tool of Wall Street oppression.

My purpose here isn't to critique Moore as a writer. I think the point he wants to make is that a Wall Street mentality has overtaken baseball front offices (it has) and that it has turned certain aspects of the game into cold, dehumanizing balance sheets. I'm not going to argue with that perspective. I have no idea if the Wall Street angle has been good or bad for baseball, but I do think Moore is wrong about the damage Wall Street has done to public sabermetrics.

There are two critical discussions missing from Moore's piece that are worth considering. First, public sabermetrics is thriving. There is a huge influx of young, talented, diverse writers working at all of the sites Moore listed as the farm system. The fact that MLB teams hire away writers from our sites attracts talented writers to the public wing of sabermetrics.

People want to work for baseball teams and it's common knowledge that baseball teams look for potential hires among our ranks. This makes people want to write for FanGraphs, BP, here, and other places and those people who got into the blogging community simply to get noticed have made contributions to public discourse. Sure teams have hired away some great writers, but there's no shortage of sharp minds who pursue a blogging career and work especially hard while on staff to thicken their resumes.

How do you get hired by an MLB team? You produce high quality work on one of the big sites and then you do a little work making connections with people who work in the industry, just like you would in any profession. The fact that teams hire away the good analysts pushes every new crop of writers to work to become good analysts and that's good for everyone because they provide great insights for all of us to read. There's a case to be made that the turnover is actually good for the scientific process because it forces new eyes onto old problems.

If any MLB executives are reading this and happen to be searching for an analyst of some kind, I have several people who I would heartily recommend that haven't even been writing on the Internet for free for a full calendar year. Those people are taking time away from legitimate careers to help us learn about baseball because of the brain drain, not in spite of it.

Additionally, Moore's entire argument is built on the idea that sabermetrics was supposed to look more like a university symposium than a Wall Street bullpen. I won't pretend to speak for the founders and I won't even suggest that the intentions of the founders should matter, but the purpose of sabermetrics wasn't just to educate interested knowledge seekers. Sabermetrics isn't a book club.

Sabermetrics set out, at the founding or somewhere along the way, to destroy the wrong ideas that dominated the sport and to change the game and the way teams make decisions. Sabermetrics isn't just about realizing that Jack Morris wasn't an elite pitcher, it's about wanting teams to realize it too and change the way they build their roster.

Moore's a champion of the working class and that's a noble and worthy position to take. But that doesn't make the competition between the executives less important or interesting. In fact, it's totally natural that people lionize the general manager because it doesn't take superhuman hand-eye coordination to execute a trade. At some point, we all reach the age where we realize we aren't going to play in the majors but those of us with limited physical gifts can and do influence the game via the front office.

In other words, for the blogger class, Andrew Friedman is the everyman, not the "working class" player on the field. The goal, dare I say it, was for the "nerd class" to take over the decision making aspect of the sport. They could obviously never compete on the field with world class athletes, but when it comes to determining which players are best and how to put them together into sets of 25, the sabermetric class could beat the house by counting cards.

The world Moore is describing is a success story. Sabermetrics won and as a result, it's a totally normal thing that a guy with a sharp mind and no ability to hit a slider can make a name for himself (or herself!) in the game they love. Wall Street didn't suck the life out of sabermetrics, Wall Street made sabermetrics the norm. Moore says as much, but he says it like it's a bad thing.

It's not. I hear from people all the time who want to know how they can get a job in baseball and my advice is almost always the same: research, analyze, write. All the time. And share it with others. The goal of joining the Wall Streeters in front offices has been good for the pursuit of knowledge and has improved the quality of decision making in the game.

Does it make baseball cold? Perhaps. I won't argue with someone who wants to make that case. But it hasn't killed the pursuit of knowledge. There's tons of great new research published every week. Just because we haven't had a paradigm shift in a few years doesn't mean sabermetrics is gasping for air. Shifting paradigms is just really rare and really hard. But there's a good chance one of the young bloggers plugging away as we speak is getting close to doing just that.


Neil Weinberg is the Associate Managing Editor at Beyond The Box Score, the Site Educator at FanGraphs, and can also be found writing enthusiastically about the Detroit Tigers at New English D