In case you missed it, play-by-play man Jon “Boog” Sciambi (hired away from the Atlanta Braves by ESPN this offseason) wrote a terrific guest piece at Baseball Prospectus on Tuesday about how sportscasters can better integrate the kind of advanced baseball analysis that goes on here and at BP, inspired by Will Carroll’s recent post “Be Stupid(er).” It’s all worth reading, but here’s the heart of the piece:
The goal is not unveiling newfangled stats; it’s about getting people to understand basic ideas and concepts. To achieve that, we can’t just slap stats up on the screen and explain them. Understanding has to come in the form of analysis. We have to use the stat and explain it…
If Ryan Howard is up, I can talk about RBI and why dependent stats don’t evaluate individual performance well; RBI aren’t what reflects Howard’s greatness, his SLG does. I can mention that Howard’s massive RBI totals may be due to the fact that no player has hit with more total men on base than Howard since 1492 (I believe this is a fact but didn’t feel like looking it up). Point is, there are dead people who could knock in 80 runs hitting fourth in that Phillies lineup. (OK, I probably wouldn’t say that on-air.)
The metrics are getting so advanced that we’re in danger of getting further away from the masses instead of closer… We can’t assume that’s understood just because we understand it. And the only way it gets embedded is to keep beating the audience with it so that it becomes ingrained the way ERA eventually did, even though that once passed for advanced math.
As R.J. Anderson recently wrote, this offseason has featured a terrific number of sabermetric primers (including a series by yours truly). But it has also heard a few “let me catch my breath!” pleas, from fans as varied as John Sickels, Bill Simmons, and Russ Smith of SpliceToday (who quotes the beloved Craig Calcaterra for cover).
Sciambi’s a good broadcaster, and he clearly has his heart in the right place: his goal is to enhance the viewers’ experience of the game, by giving them useful information that they can understand, neither dumbing it down nor sailing it over their heads. That’s a tricky assignment, because it’s always hard to be all things to all people, and it’s hard to be part of any movement pushing a paradigm shift. It’s hard to please a casual watcher who doesn’t know the acronyms or methodology of advanced sabermetrics at the same time that you’re trying to say something that Dave Cameron doesn’t already know. (As Will Carroll notes, last year ESPN tried to make OPS a regular feature of their baseball broadcasts, but apparently their viewers thought it was “too complicated.”)
So what can be done? I think a lot of non-saberheads get hung up on the constellation of acronyms that we use, getting so hung up at all the capital letters that they miss the meaning behind them. (Like Jim Bowden, creator of “OBPATUZXYZ,” or Jon Heyman, inventor of “VORPies.”) So, pace Will Carroll, we need to be willing to let broadcasters be stupid — but with a purpose. The stats around here are pretty easy to read, because they’re all scaled to look like things we’re more familiar with, but we’re not going to see a broadcaster talk about FIP any time soon. However, everyone understands runs and wins, and, as Will Carroll says, anyone can understand a statement like “Albert Pujols was two wins better than Zack Greinke last season.” It has to be justified, but we’ve all heard broadcasters make unsupportable assertions about how many more wins a player adds to his team, or how many runs he saves with his glove. These are just numbers that add support to things they already say. And it can easily be understood. Both by the Jon Sciambis of the world, and the Russ Smiths.
Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times, and is an enterprise account executive for The Washington Post.