How to Speak Sabermetrics to a Mainstream Audience

Alternate titles to this article: “How to NOT Look Like a Nerd” or “Convincing Your Friends You’re Right and They’re Wrong”.

As weird as it may sound, sabermetrics doesn’t need to be geeky. After all, saberists are simply trying to answer the same questions that everyday fans are trying to answer. How valuable is this player? How will certain players and teams perform in the future? Was this the correct managerial move or not? Sabermetrics is a new tool – a confusing tool to some people -but the questions are the same ones that fans have been asking for the last 80+ years.

But how do we present these new tools in a way that keeps mainstream fans from tuning out? How do you talk to your friends about sabermetrics without confusing them and looking like a nerd? It’s a tough balance to maintain, but I’ve found there are five guidelines that work well for me when talking with friends and writing articles.

Pick Your Topic Carefully. Casual fans are more likely to accept a new statistic if you can show them that it confirms what they already believe. In other words, you should be careful about picking an underperforming pitcher like Kyle Davies (6.23 ERA, 3.24 FIP this year) to try and convince your friends about the wonders of FIP. You can point out all the positives you want – his strikeout and walk rate, the fact that he’s allowed so few homeruns – but not many people are going to listen to you unless they’re already familiar with sabermetrics. To the casual fans, Davies has sucked this season, so anything that tries to tell them otherwise will seem totally ridiculous.

In other words, don’t argue, “Kyle Davies has actually been good this year,” but try something along the lines of, “There are some encouraging signs that Davies should improve going forward this season.”

Mesh the Mainstream and the Advanced. If I feel like introducing someone to an advanced statistic, I’ll normally compare it with its mainstream counterpart to show how both statistics say similar things about a player. If a player has a high Isolated Power, they’re also going to have a high SLG. If they have a good wOBA, they’ll also have a good OPS. From there, you can go on to explain what the new statistic captures that the mainstream statistic doesn’t, but it’s a good way to introduce someone to a new statistic: show them something familiar, and then show them something unfamiliar but similar.

This works best with offensive statistics, but every now and then a pitcher’s FIP and ERA will be similar too.

Don’t Overload Your Audience. There are some people out there that enjoy slogging through articles that feature paragraph after paragraph of statistics and numbers, but they certainly aren’t in the majority. In fact, there are lots of people out there that are math-phobic and are immediately turned off once you start spouting lots of different statistics. These readers shouldn’t be your target audience, since it’s likely you’ll never reach them no matter how hard you try, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still try and make your articles as simple as possible.

When I talk with friends, I normally pick one or two sabermetrics statistics to focus on. While you could easily include 10 statistics when discussing Joe Mauer’s value, why overload you audience with 10 statistics when only one or two will get the job done? Also, there are ways to use a statistic without delving into the specifics: “Mauer has a high walk rate, walking as often as he strikes out, which helps him reach base in 40% of his plate appearances.” That’s a lot easier to reach than, “Mauer has a career 12.1% BB%, which is higher than his career 11.4% K%, and his career OBP is a robust .406.”

Use Percentages. As you just saw, I love using percentages. While a person may or may not know what wOBA or FIP mean, they can understand percentages. As Dave Cameron mentioned in his article on FIP- recently, why talk about Cliff Lee’s 2.58 FIP when you can simply say, “And when you look at his peripheral statistics, Cliff Lee was 38 percent better than average at things pitchers have the most control over”?

Since there’s now wRC+ and FIP-, there are easy percentages available for both offensive players and pitchers. You can also look on the Saber Library page for a statistic and find what the general percentiles were for each statistic in 2010. For instance, looking at the FIP page, you can conclude that Cliff Lee’s 2010 performance ranked within the 90th percentile for all starting pitchers that season.

Focus on Concepts, Not Stats. If you remember one thing from this article, make it this: sabermetric concepts are waaay more important than individual statistics. If you’re having trouble convincing someone to give wOBA a shot, take a step back and explain to them the value of getting on base an avoiding outs. If they won’t listen to you talk about FIP, try and engage them in a conversation about what variables are in a pitcher’s control and which aren’t. And if they’ve confused by UZR or DRS, you can still talk about the value of good defense / run prevention.

There are many “sabermetric” concepts that most fans will agree with if you present them in a simple manner. Most fans will agree with you that small samples can make statistics and results fluky, as we see in the beginning of the season, and that it’s impossible to predict the beginning or end of streams and slumps. What fan will disagree with you if you start talking about the value of avoiding outs on offense? They may not want to hear about some funky new statistic, but you can engage readers by speaking of the core concepts undergirding each stat.


Anything I’m missing? Any other ideas you’ve found that work for you? Feel free to share!

Piper was the editor-in-chief of DRaysBay and the keeper of the FanGraphs Library.

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11 years ago

Kyle Davies?