Bill Simmons, ESPN’s Sports Guy, may be the most popular sports columnist on the internet, but until recently he was a saber denier, writing about how people like you and me were making baseball less fun for him. Until the day after April Fools, when the Sports Guy finally, proudly proclaimed himself a member of our ranks. He explained: “I stopped writing about baseball these past two years when the sabermetrics movement became too complicated for my liking… Fundamentally, it’s moronic.” So he decided to learn more about stats, and recommended all of his readers familiarize themselves with OPS, OPS+, UZR, VORP, WAR, BABIP, and FIP.
You’ve read Bill Simmons — pretty much everyone has at some point. He’s funny, he’s ubiquitous on ESPN, and he’s been prominent for more than a decade, basically a lifetime in internet terms. If you’re not from Boston, you may have gotten annoyed at how happy he was when every single one of his teams kept winning, but that’s who he was: he wrote like a fan, and just about every sports blogger to follow in his footsteps has consciously or unconsciously borrowed from his style. As Rany Jazayerli has written, “If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Simmons is the most flattered writer in America.”
But the most-imitated sports writer in the country barely wrote about baseball in the last two years, during which time we’ve seen nearly every team in baseball turn to sabermetrics either implicitly or explicitly (by hiring someone like Tom Tango or Josh Kalk), and we’ve even seen a few more beat writers willing to integrate sabermetrics into their dispatches, like Chico Harlan of the Washington Post and the sainted Joe Posnanski. Beginning this offseason, many Fangraphs writers have written for ESPN, first on the hot stove and now on a new baseball stat-oriented blog, TMI. And they’re bringing in their fans and readers, slowly but surely.
Still, few institutions have the readership of Bill Simmons. At this point, he’s about as mainstream as mainstream gets. Now that Simmons is one of us, his favorite stats are mainstream, too. If he keeps writing about FIP, UZR, and WAR, they will gain a much wider currency than ever before. Of course, that also means the nuances will be missed, the stats will be misused, and faulty conclusions will be drawn. Just days after the Sports Guy’s stat piece, in which he’d condemned Bobby Jenks on the basis of FIP, Matthew Carruth responded on the TMI blog to point out the drawbacks of FIP and merits of xFIP when evaluating relievers. Simmons’s conversion doesn’t mean that stats will be understood better, just more widely.
And that’s enough. As T.H. White wrote in The Once and Future King, the best way to spread an idea is simply to make it available. That’s what the Sports Guy did. (He also linked to me in the UZR section, which was — I’ll admit — a thrill.) Welcome to the mainstream, fellow freaks!
Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times, and is an enterprise account executive for The Washington Post.