A Response to Bob Ryan

Here on FanGraphs, we don’t do a lot of writing about other writers. It’s actually a site policy, and when someone joins FanGraphs, we make a point of telling them that our goal is to talk about baseball, not talk about the people who cover baseball. I have little to no interest in media criticism, or in advancing any kind of notion that the “traditional” and “new” media outlets need to be at war with either. But yesterday, Bob Ryan published a piece in the Boston Globe that I think is worth responding to.

In some ways, the piece isn’t that different from what hundreds of other sports writers have written over the last few years. However, I think this one is worth a response, or put more accurately, I think Bob Ryan is worth responding to. He’s one of the most respected sports writers in America, generally, and his body of work suggests that this article was born out of a genuine belief system, not just an attempt to stir the pot and generate discussion. My experience in reading and listening to him has always led me to perceive him as a reasonable man, and so I’d like to offer a reasoned response to his column.

The central tenet of Ryan’s piece can be essentially summed up in these two paragraphs.

Where I’m going with all this is that I’m wondering if all this, to borrow a phrase, Inside Baseball is just, well, Inside Baseball, of interest to the working baseball people and to the new breed of baseball writers and analysts who are perfectly comfortable micromanaging every game they encounter. I read some of these people, and, yes, I learn. But I feel like I have to follow them because I don’t want to be perceived as a baseball Luddite.

My question is, does the average person care? Is the average fan still content with batting average, runs batted in, and earned run average being the Holy Trinity of baseball stats, even though the modern Smart Guys have discredited all three? Oh, and — how could I forget? — wins. Speak not to the modern baseball analysts about a pitcher’s wins, those being the most circumstantial of pitching developments, at least in their eyes.

Ryan is right: the average baseball fan does not care about the numbers found here on FanGraphs. This is a niche industry, a community of enthusiasts whose interest in baseball goes far beyond that of the general sports fan, the type who follows baseball to the same degree that they follow football, basketball, hockey, soccer, tennis, and golf. We are baseball’s equivalent of automotive gearheads, craft beer enthusiasts, or foodies, and the size of our community is dwarfed by the number of casual fans, just as the number of Camry owners, Budwiser drinkers, or diners at Applebees far outnumber people who are passionate about their specific hobby. By definition, enthusiast communities are always a minority of the population, because they self-select based on being hyper-interested in that specific event or activity. Enthusiasts will never be the majority in any venture, because then that would simply require a new definition of enthusiast.

But there’s an assumption in the paragraph that follows the two above paragraphs that I disagree with, and that was the impetus for writing this response.

I’m guessing that most fans are oblivious to all the new statistical stuff. They just want to watch and enjoy a game. They will continue to evaluate players and teams by giving everyone the Eye Test, just as their father, grandfather, and great-grandfather did. If this means they are then wallowing in some kind of statistical ignorance, then so be it. I think the average fan really didn’t understand the recent fuss over whether Miguel Cabrera was worthy of an MVP. He won the Triple Crown in 2012, didn’t he? Isn’t the Triple Crown supposed to be baseball’s crowning offensive achievement? Hadn’t we been waiting since 1967 to see another one? Of course, Miguel Cabrera was worthy of being MVP. Next question.

I think the first half of this paragraph is entirely correct. Most baseball fans, most sports fans, watch for the enjoyment of the emotion and the contest itself. But the second half of the paragraph assumes that there is an innate understanding that the Triple Crown is “baseball’s crowning offensive achievement”, and that “the eye test” leads one to evaluating players by the “Holy Trinity of Baseball Stats”. That paragraph suggests that the casual fan comes to value batting average, RBIs, and ERA as the definitive metrics of player performance on their own.

In reality, I think casual fans value batting average, RBIs, and ERA because that’s what 100 years of baseball journalists have told them to value. These numbers are not the product of “the eye test”, as they were both created and placed on a pedestal in the age that preceded television. These statistics came to prominence at a time when the only way people could apply “the eye test” was to actually attend a game in person, and few did so more than a handful of times per year. The average fan being able to watch hundreds of baseball games and create their own evaluation based on what they themselves have seen is an extremely recent phenomenon.

Put simply, I believe the average fan will place value on the metrics that the media tells them to value. The average fan of the NFL knows what Quarterback Rating is — despite it being a complicated formula that they could not recreate themselves — because the broadcasters talk about it regularly and it is listed in the on-screen graphics right next to things like attempts, completions, touchdowns, and interceptions. It isn’t a matter of ease of calculation; it’s simply a measure of the experts telling the viewers that this is a statistic that matters. Baseball fans care about things like pitcher wins not because they pass “the eye test” — awarding a win to the closer who blows a save, only to watch his teammates make up for his failure in the next inning doesn’t make any sense to anyone who watched the game — but because they’ve been told that pitcher wins matter and take the statement at face value.

I’d suggest that the statistics that the average fan puts emphasis on are solely a reflection of the statistics that the media puts an emphasis on. The numbers that are displayed prominently on Sportscenter, by beat writers, or are shown and discussed during a team’s telecast are the numbers that fans will value. If the media emphasizes a different set of numbers, then so will the average fan.

But here’s the thing: the actual numbers themselves are kind of irrelevant. Beat writers and reporters don’t need to use wOBA, FIP, or WAR in their stories, and I don’t think the baseball media would be improved if everyone simply replaced the “Holy Trinity” with a selection of stats from FanGraphs. The use of numbers only matters to the extent that they inform our ability to tell the right story.

We — those privileged enough to write about sports for a living — are all storytellers. I don’t believe that a good story needs to include any numbers at all, as long as its an accurate reflection of the truth. A good storyteller doesn’t need tables, graphs, or charts; I need those because I’m not a very good storyteller. Those who were born with better writing gifts can tell far better stories than I, and can do so without ever referring to a number. The point of our community isn’t to promote the numbers; it’s to promote the story those numbers tell.

The problem with the “Holy Trinity” statistics is that, far too often, they tell the wrong story. Putting value on things like pitcher wins or RBIs isn’t a choice about aesthetics or enjoyment; it’s about continually propagating myths at the expense of the truth. I think telling an accurate story is more important than telling a comfortable one, and the reality is that the numbers that are commonly used generate stories that are factually incorrect.

So why should we continue to use them? As those entrusted with telling the story of baseball, why continue to lean on tools that mislead rather than inform? We should value accuracy over tradition. We should strive to tell interesting stories that are rooted in fact. If that takes a re-education of the public due to several generations of emphasizing and valuing flawed statistics, so be it, and that’s where the numbers have value.

We’re not replacing the “Holy Trinity” of baseball statistics because we can’t enjoy the game. We’re pointing out that these statistics breed false narratives, and we value the truth. This isn’t about replacing old numbers with new numbers, or attempting to dissuade anyone from enjoying the aesthetics of the game. It is simply about telling the average fan about the reality of what actually happened on the field. The “Holy Trinity” of baseball statistics fail at this most basic task, and so they are not worth deifying any longer.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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S. Urista
9 years ago

After struggling all morning to try and articulate what I thought of Bob Ryan’s article, Dave basically wrote exactly what I was thinking, and did it in a far better manner than I could have done.

Thanks for an outstanding read.

Rubén Amaro, Jr.
9 years ago
Reply to  S. Urista

There’s nothing wrong with the Holy Trinity.

I’ve always used batting average, runs batted in, and earned run average to value players.

Dusty Baker
9 years ago

Don’t forget pitcher wins! They’re very important.

9 years ago
Reply to  Dusty Baker

While I’m sure your comment was sarcasm, I do believe wins should be considered when voting for the Cy Young award. Not the only thing considered but it should be part of the conversation. I feel most baseball awards are part team award and part individual award.

9 years ago
Reply to  Dusty Baker

Here’s the argument from a sociological perspective: If the players and managers think stats like wins are important, they may be self-reinforcing, because relative status levels can affect performance.

9 years ago
Reply to  S. Urista

Trying to intellectualize a great game like baseball through obscure statistics is like intellectualizing sex. In life, sometimes it just feels good. I’m also thinking the average baseball fan can’t calculate ERA.

9 years ago
Reply to  Hurtlocker

Thumbs up just for the: “I’m also thinking the average baseball fan can’t calculate ERA.”