On Research and Writing: The Growing Niches of the Saber-Sphere

I’m a little bit late following up on this, but I absolutely loved this quote from Tom Tango during a recent Baseball Prospectus Q&A:

Q: I like to flatter myself that I’m an ‘early adopter’ to the sabermetric perspective on the game, even though it’s been so many years since its introduction and uptake by those like yourself. Is sabermetrics already ‘mainstream’ in your mind, or how long do you think it will be til it is?¬†What was / will be the tipping point to #2?

Tango: Sabermetrics will always be on the leading edge. There’s no need for it to be in the mainstream. If the mainstream wants to adopt, they know where to find us. If they want to ignore us, they can. We’re there to make sure they don’t misuse numbers, that’s all.

I hope [the tipping point] never happens, actually. You look over to your left and right to make sure that whoever wants to be part of the movement has the tools and knowledge to join in. There’s no sense in looking over your shoulder to make sure everyone comes along. They aren’t in a burning building they are trying to escape. They are on the beach, and they can decide if they want to come surfing with us or not. But I don’t need them to tell me that I’m drowning people with numbers. We’re giving out surfboards, and they can decide if they want one. And then we’ll be happy to make sure they don’t drown.

I couldn’t agree more, but I realize that might seem counterintuitive for those that have followed my recent Saber-Tips series here. A large part of my writing and work here seems geared at making sabermetrics more mainstream – or at least, more widely used – but that’s not my intention. Let me explain.

One of the most beautiful things about sports coverage these days is that you can have your baseball however you want it – as shallow and broad or as deep and specific as you’d like. And as Tango hit upon in his answer, the same can be said for sabermetrics – everyone is free to take as much as from sabermetrics as they want. If you’d prefer to skim the surface and learn enough to help slightly in fantasy baseball or discussions with friends, you can do that. But if you’d like to jump in with both feet, there are plenty of places out there to read detailed research as well. All the options are there, and you can pick from them as you choose.

But here’s where my point comes in: I feel that for the longest time, sabermetrics has largely been a research-driven field. Up until the last few years, most of the writing about sabermetrics was done by people that were doing unique research and trying to push the field forward in terms of knowledge. It was a very small collection of people that were in on this, and everyone knew about the stats and concepts you were talking about.

And since then….bit by bit, sabermetrics has become democratized. Fire Joe Morgan made it fun and humorous to care about advanced analysis, and FanGraphs came along and made these saber-stats available to everyone for free. And over the past few years, the online baseball blogosphere has really solidified into a strong, vibrant mass of awesomeness. Now, not only can you find a blog specializing in, say, the Tampa Bay Rays or Milwaukee Brewers, but you can also find blogs on those teams that focus specifically on sabermetric stats and analysis.

As more people are writing about saber concepts, the field is evolving: there is still the collection of researchers that do yeoman’s work and move the field forward (and get hired by teams in the process), but there’s a larger, growing group of people that couldn’t run a t-test if their lives depended on it, but know enough about saber-stats to use them in their writing. As opposed to being saberists (a la Tom Tango), they’re saber-writers (like Rob Neyer or Joe Posnanski, for instance).

There’s no shame to being in this category; I consider myself a saber-writer, and there are lots of people still doing insightful analyses even though they don’t necessary fall under the heading of “researcher”. But I do think that even though more people have become saber-writers more than researchers, the language we’ve used around sabermetrics has remained largely static. We’re talking like researchers and peppering articles with acronyms and decimal points, yet we’re trying to reach a different audience.

In the end, it’s all about finding the right balance to best reach your audience. This is something we all have to worry about, whether we’re writing research pieces, writing on a blog or mainstream site, or just explaining things to a friend. What audience are you trying to reach, and how can you best convey your point to them? As Bob Costas pointed out in a recent interview with Joe Posnanski, he approaches each of his appearances differently depending on what audience he’s appearing in front of (which is one of the reasons it’s tough for announcers to include saber stats and analysis in their game broadcasts).

Sabermetrics will never be mainstream. But to use Tango’s metaphor, there should be some gradient between lying on the beach and surfing in water 20 feet deep. I like to reach out my hand and help people swim deeper, but other writers reach out to other niches. All I ask is that you be aware of which niche you’re trying to reach, and not only think about using saber-stats correctly, but consider how to use them in a way that will be easier for your audience to digest. If you’re not a researcher, do you need to include a decimal point in a player’s swing rate? Is it that important to use ISO instead of Slugging? I don’t think so.

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

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I think part of what holds sabermetrics back is that it’s misunderstood and that’s partially because of how many go about explaining what sabermetrics is. At one point, we’ve all talked about how meaningless RBIs are but if you say that to somebody who has used RBIs their entire life, then you’re inadvertently insulting them and questioning their knowledge of baseball.

I’ve found that it’s very simple to get people to buy into the concept of sabermetrics you just have to know how and when to make your point. To me, it’s the way the message is portrayed that will or will not get people to give sabermetrics a chance.

In the words of Walter Sobchak, “Am I wrong?”