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The 'problem' with sabermetrics

Sabermetrics have changed the way people think about the game of baseball -- particularly in big league front offices. But there are a few old-schoolers who don't believe in the movement, and therein lies the problem.

Doug Pensinger

We are all aware of who the stark proponents of the anti-sabermetric movement in the game of baseball are. We know that Harold Reynolds, a former player, is of the traditional mind and doesn't believe advanced metrics can impact the outcome of a game. We know that Joe Morgan, who continuously bashed the Oakland Athletics for their inability to manufacture runs, isn’t a fan. Joining them is maybe the biggest critic of them all: Hawk Harrelson. Harrelson, a voice of the Chicago White Sox, voiced his disapproval in 2013 when MLB Network’s Brian Kenny battled him in a sabermetric showdown. The entire video can be found below.

And now a new enemy of the "Moneyball" era may have emerged. On July 23, during a game between the Cincinnati Reds and the Milwaukee Brewers, Reds broadcasters Thom Brennaman and Marty Brennaman were talking about infield shifting, particularly shifting when Ryan Braun is at the plate. Thom wondered out loud why the Reds defenders didn't play Braun to go to right field more, and it was a valid question. Just under half of Braun’s hits do in fact go the opposite way. Marty, however, didn't have an answer for his son, leading him to say this:

"The problem with having metrics and data at your disposal is you're asking questions that we've never asked before."

Now, Marty is no slouch in the booth. In 2000 he was presented with the Ford C. Frick award, and was inducted into the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association Hall of Fame in 2005. But take a minute to ponder his statement.

It doesn’t make much sense, does it?

The entire point of sabermetrics is to go somewhere we have never gone before, to ask new questions and find new answers that will inevitably further our understanding. Asking questions that no one has asked before is a good thing. It means you’re thinking outside of the box, and many of the brightest minds in history have done just that. In the baseball world, Bill James and Voros McCracken did it with sabermetrics, but more importantly, Branch Rickey did it when he opened his team to Jackie Robinson. Thinking differently isn't a problem at all. It’s a solution.

The sabermetric critics are usually found in two categories. They are either former ballplayers who played in a time when the game looked vastly different (and these statistics weren’t available), and/or they are old-school television and radio guys who don’t believe baseball is capable of change.

Hawk Harrelson, for example, fits both of those profiles. As you can tell from the video above, Harrelson's arguments were not based on logic. He used the movie "Moneyball" as the main weapon for his argument, when admittedly he had never read the book, which dives much deeper into the world of advanced statistics than the Hollywood movie. Harold Reynolds even chimed in, claiming he would rather not know what the percentages say of how often a runner is going to score depending on what base he's on and how many outs there are. That befuddles me because as a manager or a GM, wouldn't you want as much information as possible when making a decision, like Brian Kenny suggests? Making an informed decision is always better than making an ill-informed one.

Harrelson doesn't seem to believe that though, as he is of the opinion that TWTW (the will to win) is more important than any number you can throw at him. Here’s a quote unleashed by Harrelson that deals specifically with this idea during his debate with Brian Kenny:

"It’s not ready yet. Down the road, 40 or 50 years, when you can put some of those categories, you get your OBPs and all that, your VORPs, when you put in TWTW, and interface those numbers with TWTW, that category, then you might have something cooking."

Harrelson is someone we'll never be able to convince that statistics used by the sabermetric body are more important than the desire to perform well. He'll never believe that Fielding Independent Pitching is more valuable than ERA. Not to mention he's a staunch supporter of pitcher wins, a statistic the sabermetric community has shied away from. That's just the way he is.

The problem with sabermetrics isn’t that we’re asking questions we've never asked before; the problem is that people like Hawk Harrelson, Joe Morgan, Harold Reynolds and Marty Brennaman don’t seem to be trying to comprehend there is more to baseball than what they already know. They appear to discredit something that’s been proven over and over again, like how bunting a runner over isn't always the right move and how it doesn't really manufacture runs. This becomes a bigger problem when it comes to misleading the audience. In essence, they’re doing a disservice to their listeners by teaching them something that isn't factually correct.

Fortunately, the majority of Major League Baseball organizations are all-in when comes to advanced metrics, which is why the New York Yankees traded for Brandon McCarthy, owner of a 5.01 ERA with the Diamondbacks. They noticed his FIP was a respectable 3.82 and were confident his ERA would soon begin to reflect that. And through three starts (two great ones), Brian Cashman looks like a genius. It's not about McCarthy's will to win, it's about science and math.

As time goes on, the sabermetric skeptics are likely to dwindle -- or at least the outspoken ones. But until then, we must deal with and at least try to convince the old timers that their way is no longer the right way. Because, in truth, the problem with sabermetrics is them.

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All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.

Justin Schultz is a contributor for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @JSchu23.