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On advanced stats and scoreboards, P2: a BtBS roundtable

Inspired by some stats on a Reds scoreboard, our writers continue a wide-ranging discussion of what it means to be a “sabermetric” fan, and what it will mean in the future.

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:

The scoreboard and the tweet inspired the following discussion between a rotating cast of Beyond the Box Score writers. In Part One, we discussed who is the target audience for advanced statistics, where they belong, and what obligations teams may or may not have to educate their fans. Below, in Part Two, we tackle what these types of stats are for, what they’ll look like in the future, and whether there’s actually a war for the Nerds to win.

Participating in this part of the conversation: Henry Druschel (HD), Stacey Gotsulias (SG), Ryan Romano (RR), Audrey Stark (AS), Nick Stellini (NS), and Luis Torres (LT).

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AS: I have a broader question: Who is sabermetrics actually meant for? Because things like route efficiency, or Z-swing%, or more detailed splits all seem like they're more suited for coaching staffs to develop and improve players, not for outsiders to enjoy. Are fans meant to get the most out of sabermetrics, or is it about helping the organizations better their players?

NS: My understanding is that sabermetrics came about as a better way of building teams, with some application to fans as a better way to do fantasy baseball.

LT: Advanced stats actually originated more with fantasy baseball than SABR [the Society of American Baseball Research]. SABR’s focus has always been more on baseball history.

RR: Right, SABR means something different than sabr- (or saber-) at this point. In all seriousness, I think the term "sabermetrics" plays a not-insignificant role in building interest in advanced stats. It’s so damn catchy and cool sounding.

As for who it’s meant for now, I think that’s two questions that we’ve sort of danced around to this point. What are advanced stats now? And where do they go from here? By the 2027 season, what will be on the scoreboard? What will be in the broadcast, or in the column?

NS: You’ll probably see WAR and WHIP all over the place.

LT: I’m not so sure. A lot of studio analysis and color commentary is done by former players. Even the younger ones seem very slow to move on from old, useless stats.

NS: One thing it depends a lot on is how much MLBAM keeps pushing Statcast. Even those old traditionalists are being required to talk about exit velocity.

RR: I know this is a contrarian opinion, but I like catch probability as a way to douse water on plays that looked harder than they were. One of the biggest reasons Derek Jeter was overrated was because he made the easy plays look hard.

NS: But sports are entertainment! I agree that Jeter was incredibly overrated on defense but the immediate reaction (and ESPECIALLY the league’s social media presence) shouldn’t be to say, “actually, he sucks and that play was bad, and you’re dumb for thinking it was cool.”

RR: Entertainment for me comes from athleticism, not sloth masquerading as athleticism.

LT: I remember how often Jonny Gomes made “spectacular” catches on fly balls he badly misplayed to begin with.

NS: That message might be important, but who delivers it matters. Have a color commentator go into how the outfielder only had to dive because he got a bad jump. But MLB should not be the one telling you that the player you like is actually not good, and that the cool-looking thing he just did shouldn’t be impressive.

RR: The presentation can definitely be more artful. There’s a fine line between talking past people and talking down to them.

HD: I think this might just be a fundamental problem with Statcast as applied to television. The whole point is that it catches things that our eyes and brains don’t. Nick’s right that telling people they shouldn’t be excited about something is terrible, but it also doesn’t make for a great on-air product to show a catch that looks routine and say that it was actually really difficult. A guy covering 60 meters in 6.5 seconds just doesn’t look that different than one covering 60 meters in 7.0 seconds. Putting some percentages on the screen doesn’t change that.

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LT: I’m not sure how seriously Passan meant that line from his tweet, but saying "nerds always win" is disingenuous at best. There was never a war (no pun intended) between nerds and players, or nerds and scouts. The anti-analytics crowd loved to say that sabermetrics was anti-scouting, or that analysts wanted to get rid of scouts. But nobody actually wanted that. It was a giant strawman. I have never seen one analytics person denigrate scouting.

I, for love scouting. I wish so bad that I could do it. It's so cool. I actually like it more than analytics, but it's hard to get into it here in chilly Massachusetts.

SG: But for whatever reason, it always feels like there is an “us vs. them”-angle with regard to stats. The result is that some people don’t want to even try to learn, and I can’t blame them.

RR: A lot of the discourse around stats is pretty snobbish. And, to loop back to the first part of our discussion, I think that’s where advanced stats at baseball games can come in handy. It takes sabermetrics off the internet and makes it more accessible to a casual fan.

NS: But that snobbery is often the product of the idea that making people aware of analytics is a duty of the good baseball fan. I’m all for getting people to be more aware of the stuff, but in the grand scheme of things, let people enjoy the game how they want.

LT: Yeah, forcing analytics down fans' throats is a great way to get people to reject it, like Stacey said.

SG: But the “war” mentality comes from the other side, too. There’s the idea that if you’re too into stats, you have to be a nerd, which is so dumb and antiquated. I hate that whole, “Oh you have your head buried in a spreadsheet and you don’t watch the game!” nonsense. You can be into stats and watch the game, obviously. We all do it.

RR: Yes! Fandom — screaming, crazy, irrational fandom — can coexist with stats. I think a lot of “old-school” types don’t get that still. Us “new-school” types can hurt on that front, too, when we try to present themselves as “above it all.”

LT: I am definitely not above it all. If I had a choice between spending a while on Baseball Reference and FanGraphs — which I love to do! — or being at a baseball game on a warm, sunny day without even glancing at my phone, it wouldn’t be a contest. I'd rather be at the game watching.

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NS: I think there’s too many people in the sabermetrics community (which is itself a funny term to me) who think you’re not a “true believer” if you’re not a zealot for advanced stats. More than anything else, that attitude is what I think limits their spread. Ken Rosenthal uses WAR in his columns sometimes, but he’s certainly not a super-sabermetrics guy. It’s people like him who bridge the gap between the old and new schools, and who help people gain an understanding of these ideas.

LT: The line between analytical and traditional writers is definitely blurring.

NS: And that’s a very good thing.

HD: To close, I think it’s a good thing for everyone, but especially us analytical writers. Like Zack said in Part One, we write for a pretty niche audience, and if the line between us and traditional writers stays sharp, that audience won’t ever grow.

To go back to Passan’s tweet one more time, the nerds definitely do not always win. The arc of the baseball universe doesn’t inherently bend towards analytical rigor. It’s taken a long time for relatively simple concepts like WAR to gain even a fraction of acceptance. Even MLB, with all it’s influence, can’t just make “Barrels” a thing. Statcast has a lot of potential, but it needs to change to fit baseball, and fit the way fans enjoy it. We, along with anyone else who thinks stats are worthwhile, need to keep trying to make them accessible, understandable, and fun. It’s not enough for us to be the smartest people in the room, or in the park; we’ve got to make these stats look fun, too.