Welcome to the refreshed Beyond the Box Score! To celebrate the new look and feel of our sports communities, we’re sharing stories of how and why we became fans of our favorite teams and interests. If you’d like to share your story about how you got into sabermetrics, head over to the FanPosts to write your own post. Each FanPost will be entered into a drawing to win a $500 Fanatics gift card. We’re collecting all the stories here and featuring the best ones across our network as well. Come Fan With Us!
Becoming a fan of a sports team — any club, in any sport, in any league — is, all things considered, pretty straightforward. Most people learn about a game through their parents or friends, usually based on whatever’s geographically closest to them. They’ll pick up the habits and customs, cheering and jeering in sync with their peers. It always helps to have a team worth watching; I started following the Ravens in 2006, around the time they brought in Steve McNair, and got into the Orioles when Buck Showalter turned around the disastrous 2010 season.
Statistics fandom — if it can be termed as such — is pretty different. There’s no one set path for getting into numbers; everyone does it in their own way. Plus, a lot fewer people do it, period. While going to high school and college in Maryland, I’ve met hundreds of fellow Ravens and Orioles fans, but I can count on one hand the amount of stats nerds I know IRL. It’s a much more esoteric interest, something typical spectators will disregard, no matter how many Statcast™ Powered By Amazon Web Services™ highlights they see.
That, I think, is part of the reason I got into sabermetrics. I was never a typical person. I always posed questions, seeking to learn more and look beyond conventional wisdom (not in the insufferable New Atheist way, although I did have a phase — but I digress). I was a math geek, of course, and like many Americans, I wasn’t athletically inclined, yet found myself drawn to watching those who were.
Still, the love for sports statistics wasn’t always there. As I became a Ravens fan — first through the tail end of the Brian Billick era, and then into the John Harbaugh years — I never felt the curiosity awakening. I’d dig deeper in other areas of life, but sports was the one area where my craving for knowledge dried up.
There’s often, though not always, a prerequisite for sabermetrics interest: being a fan of a crappy team. This, of course, establishes another distinction between this fandom and the standard variety. Where a winning club garners followers, a losing one drives those followers to other, related sources of entertainment.
My interest in baseball began, as stated previously, during the final months of the 2010 season. I went into 2011 with high expectations for the O’s, who dashed them quite expertly. After tuning in every night for a few months to watch the Yankees or Red Sox pummel some hapless Birds starter, I found myself needing something to look forward to. Why should I keep watching this miserable team?
As it turned out, there were a few good reasons, which I soon uncovered. Zach Britton’s inflated ERA masked some more promising peripherals, and although he eventually bottomed out of the rotation, he’d later leave his mark in the ‘pen. Matt Wieters provided sterling defense behind the plate, and so did J.J. Hardy at shortstop. Koji Uehara had, at the time, the second-highest strikeout-to-walk ratio in MLB history. (Of course, the team traded him midseason, but we all know how that worked out.)
Discovering small nuggets of information like these gave me something to look forward to. Maybe tonight’s game would be the one when Britton would turn his bad luck around, or Wieters and Hardy would flash the leather, or Uehara would make some slugger look silly with a sub-90 fastball. It was the next best thing to, you know, actual, winning baseball.
For the Orioles, the 2011 season would wrap up in surreal fashion, with perhaps the greatest singular play I’ve ever witnessed. But an undying hatred for the Red Sox (and a newfound appreciation for Boston-related schadenfreude) wasn’t the only thing I took away from that campaign. Baltimore’s 69-93 record — you knew I’d mention that win total eventually, didn’t you? — had forced me to look, well, beyond the box score.
Of course, my knowledge of statistics has come a long way since then. Herein lies yet another difference: While devotion to a team is more of a static enterprise, sabermetricians — or the good ones, at least — never stand still. I’ve learned a ton about the processes behind various metrics (thanks, AP Stat!), and getting into arguments in the comments sections on FanGraphs and Camden Depot helped me understand logical fallacies. And, of course, working here at BtBS has helped me grow immensely as a stathead and a writer.
The journey of this thousand miles — from regular couch potato to, uh, marginally more educated couch potato — began with a single step: becoming more curious about the game I was watching. It can happen to anyone, really; you just need to question what you see on the surface and try to dig a little deeper, as I did.
Despite the continued ignorance of the O’s announcers — for Christ’s sake, Gary, get the name right — I’ve remained a sabermetrics fan ever since that up-and-down 2011 season. And this hasn’t prevented me from enjoying the team’s recent success. Even as the Birds outperform their Pythagorean win expectancy yet again, I still cheer when Manny Machado hits a home run and jeer when Jose Bautista comes to the plate. Sabermetrics fandom may have some differences from other fandoms, but at the end of the day, we all care about what happens on the field, and we’re all doing this because we love this crazy game.
Ryan Romano is the co-managing editor for Beyond the Box Score. He also writes about the Orioles for Camden Depot, sometimes. Follow him on Twitter if you enjoy angry tweets about Maryland sports.
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