At Tuesday’s Opening Day game, the scoreboard at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati did something peculiar when Joey Votto came to the plate in the fifth inning. Rather than displaying the normal triple-slash, or his HR and RBI totals for 2016, it showed Votto’s WAR, OPS+, BABIP, and ISO, along with a brief description of those stats. That inspired the following tweet, from Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports:
WAR and ISO on a big league scoreboard are reminders of a truism in life.— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) April 3, 2017
The nerds always win. pic.twitter.com/UAqZjNcmXO
The scoreboard and the tweet inspired the following discussion between a rotating cast of Beyond the Box Score writers. Why do these stats exist? Do teams have an obligation to educate their fans, or an obligation to keep showing their fans the stats they’re used to? And do the nerds really always win? We’re presenting the conversation in two parts; the first part follows below.
Participating in the conversation: Mark Davidson (MD), Henry Druschel (HD), Azam Farooqui (AF), Devan Fink (DF), Stacey Gotsulias (SG), Zachary Moser (ZM), Anthony Rescan (AR), Ryan Romano (RR), Audrey Stark (AS), Nick Stellini (NS), and Luis Torres (LT).
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What was your first response when you saw the scoreboard?
AS: The first thing to irk my tater was that they defaulted to bWAR as the default WAR, without giving any context for the differences between it and the other varieties. So the layman who is Googling WAR without any other context won't be aware of the differences. They weigh different things and incorporate different measurements, so presenting WAR as this monolithic stat without any variation is not really a win for anyone.
RR: There’s a fine line between simplifying stats for a broader audience and stripping out their nuance.
NS: On the other hand, the layman may not really give a damn about the difference between bWAR, fWAR, and WARP. All of the idiosyncrasies there are quite technical.
AS: Yes! But shouldn't they at least label it with the little “b” so the detail is there for those who want to learn? Or for those of us who really don't want to use in-stadium wifi to figure out which version of WAR it is? And for those who want to say screw it, they can still say that, too, right?
LT: WAR is one of the better known advanced stats. The 2012 and 2013 AL MVP debates did a lot to publicize it.
NS: I think you can argue that the people who are putting together the jumbotron graphics have something of a duty to put forward the most accurate stats they can, but the debate over which form of WAR is the best is probably one for another time. I dunno. I try not to get worked up over WAR. It’s a flawed stat no matter which form you’re using.
RR: It's not necessarily about which form is the best, so much as it is about recognizing the limits of each form, and conveying those limits to fans (or at least giving them the tools to find out about them).
LT: The thing about WAR is that there are a lot of places where reasonable people can disagree. If there were only one version, that would be awfully suspicious, and showing only one version misses a lot of nuance.
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So it sounds like we generally agree that these stats should be conveyed in an accurate and nuanced fashion. But what is the goal of a stadium, or a team, when they display a stat? What should their goal be?
NS: I feel like teams are doing it to get online brownie points from baseball Twitter types like us (and Jeff Passan). It adds very little to the in-park experience.
SG: It is just a way for them to get people like us to say, “Hey look what [insert team] is doing at [insert stadium]!"
Is getting Twitter brownie points a worthy goal, in your opinions?
NS: It is not. Put on a good show. Make the fans feel welcome and show them a good time. I don’t need to know Player X’s WAR. The people who give out the brownie points for this already know about Votto’s WAR, and the ones who don’t know WAR either have a general sense of the player’s talent or are just there to have a good time and are more focused on what’s happening on the field.
AR: But how does putting WAR or OPS+ on the scoreboard detract from anyone’s experience?
RR: Yeah, I think you [Nick] might be overestimating the extent to which this sort of thing impacts the average fan.
AF: Perhaps, but ballpark scoreboards exist to add to the in-game experience. It's cool to see an advanced stat or two, but from an entertainment standpoint, they have to cater to the lowest common denominator.
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Is there a good way for teams to use advanced stats in their public-facing capacities?
HD: This feels like a new question in the lifetime of advanced stats, for sure. They generally developed independently, through the work of unaffiliated individuals, and when teams adopted them, they did so via secret analytics departments. Using them as marketing tools instead of analytics tools presents distinct questions.
RR: This assumes there’s something special about advanced stats, though. Teams have always shown some stats; why not make them stats that are worth seeing?
SG: Well, we’ve all seen how some people on Twitter react to a broadcaster going “too SABR” on the air. Some Yankee fans get so pissed when David Cone does games, because he tends to lean on the SABR side. So I can just imagine how they’d react to seeing something other than BA on the scoreboard.
ZM: The Cubs' broadcast does a great job of introducing some advanced metrics and being plain about it.
DF: Explanations are important, I think, perhaps in the program or on the scoreboard itself. There will be people that are legitimately curious and want to learn more about these stats, but they might not know how to begin.
MD: That’s when they look it up and come to Beyond the Box Score.
SG: That is a cool thing.
RR: It definitely helps ease the transition.
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As Mark points out, we do a lot of education here at the site. Is that a responsibility that teams have, too?
NS: It depends on the stat, and how well it fits with the in-park experience. If a team wants to show ISO or whatever that’s fine, because that’s a more tangible production stat. The dude’s at bat and I want to know how good he is at walloping the ball. If it’s Kevin Pillar, WAR doesn’t necessarily tell me that he can or can’t hit. ISO and wOBA can. But then again, the average fan has no clue what ISO and wOBA are, so it’s a mixed bag.
ZM: I explicitly think that stadium experiences should not cater to fans like us. Smart phones keep any info we want at our fingertips; we don’t really gain much from them doing this.
LT: Agreed; I just care about the game when I’m at the ballpark. It’s a different experience than when I’m watching from home. If I want to know a stat, I'll check my phone.
HD: But this doesn’t have to be catering to fans like us, if done right. Like Nick said, the average fan has no clue what ISO and wOBA are, but ISO and wOBA are cool, interesting, and valuable stats. One way for fans to learn about them is to have them gently integrated into broadcasts and ballparks.
NS: Why do people need to learn about them? Why not just throw up a triple slash? I actually think a triple slash is incredibly informative in terms of how someone is as a hitter; most fans don’t want or need something more.
I think a broadcast booth is a better place for education, like Stacey and Zack are saying. They can actually talk through and explain stats, and get at some of the nuance we were discussing earlier. But the in-ballpark experience is about putting on a show, not educating fans.
SG: Yep, it is really helpful to hear someone explain something that you’ve tried to read about. I find it easier to learn something when someone is talking me through it, and I know not everyone is like that, but it can be really helpful for some people.
MD: I don’t see the issue here. I can’t imagine someone feeling strongly about advanced stats on a scoreboard except for Jeff Passan and people like us.
ZM: Right. I think it's totally fine to present the stats they did on the board, but I'm skeptical that it adds much.
AF: Yeah, half the people at the ballpark are there for entertainment and just want to watch a game.
AS: What percentage of baseball fans at a game are sober enough to read and care about advanced metrics on the scoreboard?
AR: But is it a problem if some of the fans don’t get it? If you get a couple of people interested in advanced stats, isn't that worth it?
NS: We’re acting like having sabermetric knowledge is equivalent to knowing how to balance your checkbook. It’s really not that big a deal at all. Kick back and enjoy the game. If you want to go deeper and dig around, good for you.
RR: Well I think the point of putting the stats on the scoreboard is to encourage people to dig around. I really think we're underestimating how many people have no knowledge whatsoever of this, and might have interest in learning about it. It’s like recommending a good book to someone: I like this thing, and I think you might like it too.
NS: But it’s just not going to appeal to the extremely causal fan. How many people at the ballpark on any given day regularly seek out sports content outside of the local paper and sports radio?
ZM: I think it's important to be honest with ourselves as stat-y writers about what we do and who we do it for, too. We serve a limited, niche audience.
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AS: So here’s the interesting question to me: is there a responsibility from either the league or individual teams to let their fans know about these other metrics?
NS: No. I think the idea that we (or teams) somehow have to spread the Good Word of sabermetrics is weird. Let people enjoy the game how they want to.
LT: But there are some things that fans really should know, if they’re going to fully enjoy a game. If you don’t understand a triple slash, you lack a very basic understanding of offense in baseball.
HD: Sure, but our view of what’s “basic” is informed by our time. It’s possible that OPS+ and wOBA will be viewed as “basic” in twenty or thirty years, and understanding them will do just as much for a fan’s enjoyment.
NS: That seems unlikely. Do these stats add enjoyment?
RR: I mean, Beyond the Box Score wouldn’t exist if they didn’t.
AS: They might not add enjoyment for me, but I do like that I have numbers to back up my points about the Cardinals and their poor baserunning.
LT: Analytics can help you understand and analyze the game of baseball, but how to enjoy the game is completely up to the fan. I would never tell anybody they’re doing something wrong in that regard.
HD: But what I want isn’t for stats to be forced on people; I just want to let people know they exist, and give them an opportunity to go deeper.
NS: Does the average fan have a better time at the ballpark because they know that Brandon Guyer is a HBP machine?
AR: Maybe! What if they just don’t know?
HD: If you can open the door to those folks without turning others off, that is unequivocally a good thing, I think.
NS: On a scoreboard in the middle of the game, though? People aren’t at the game because they want to read; they’re there to blow off steam.
AR: Why are we describing the average fan as if they're incapable of expanding their scope? What “average” is can slowly change, and some number of currently average fans might end up going deeper than that.
NS: I don’t think it’s a responsibility of the team to do that, though. That’s what writers like us are for. If you just start using the more accurate stats in written content — not because they’re new and cool but simply because they’re more accurate — they become more mainstream.
RR: I agree, but I think the teams can and should play a role in what stats make it into journalism.
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In Part II tomorrow, our writers discuss what stats are for, what they’ll look like in the future, and whether there’s actually a war for the Nerds to win.