Sunday, February 08, 2009

Numbers are Just Numbers, and That's All They Ever Were

It is my contention that if you took a systematic poll of sabermetricians or sabermetrically-inclined fans, you would find that as a group, sabermetricians are much less militant on the steroids issue than the average fan. This survey has never been taken, and it is possible that I am wrong about what it would find. I certainly am not claiming that there is a proper sabermetric position on steroids, or that there aren’t good sabermetricians who despise steroids use. But I’m going to assume that I’m right, for the sake of argument, and proceed from there.

So why is this? If I was being particularly arrogant about it, I would try to claim that sabermetricians are more logical than the average baseball fan, and that logic leads one to an apathetic position on the matter. But that would be self-serving, and it’s probably not true, even if I’d like it to be. In my own case, my steroids nonchalance is based in politics, more or less--a hatred of government regulating what people can put in their bodies (or just about anything else), a fear of invasive drug testing when it is implemented because of state edict rather than private economic concern. And none of that has anything to do with sabermetrics.

A less self-aggrandizing and more satisfying explanation (although potentially not any more plausible) is that sabermetricians are far less likely to feel violated by “tainted” records. One of the most common laments of the anti-steroids crowd is that steroids have cheapened and degraded statistics. “No longer,” they say, “can we compare the records of Babe Ruth and Jimmie Foxx to those of today’s great sluggers.”

And so if you have made a career largely out of pointing out frivolous, meaningless, but occasionally interesting or entertaining statistical factoids, as Jason Stark has, you just might think that the statistics themselves are of paramount importance. And so you will respond to additional steroids news by going absolutely off the reservation:

What compares to it? The Black Sox? This is worse. Game-fixing in college basketball? This is worse. Nominate any scandal in the history of sports. My vote is still that this is worse.

How detached from reason does one have to be in order to believe that players taking substances that weren’t explicitly banned by MLB in an attempt to improve their performance on the field is worse than players attempting to intentionally lose games? It is impossible for me to comprehend anyone actually believing this. If they do, I am at a loss at how to reason with them, as the worldview from which they must begin is irreconcilable with my own.

Of course, Stark does not explicitly say that his angst arises from the destruction of the numbers he enjoys so much, and if you want to accuse me of putting words in his mouth, I’ll take the arrows. But he does say:

Once, the numbers of baseball used to mean something special and magical. And the men who compiled those numbers were transcendent figures in American life.

I enjoy playing around with baseball stats, with no objective and just for sheer amusement, from time-to-time too. But I don’t kid myself about it. Those statistics were compiled in a specific time and place, with each player from year-to-year, from game-to-game even, in a unique context.

If the numbers themselves, rather than the people that compiled them and the wins they contributed to, ever were magical to you, then I have no sympathy for you. You should have known better. If you ever believed that Pete Rose collecting his 4,192nd hit (*) ever meant anything more significant than that he had compiled more hits than Ty Cobb, then you were horribly misguided. It surely didn’t make Rose a better overall player. It didn’t make Rose a better offensive player. It didn’t make Rose a better player at the isolated skill of collecting base hits. It simply meant that he had managed to collect more of them.

Having more hits or home runs does not make someone a better or more valuable baseball player. It can certainly be evidence that speaks to those questions; I am certainly a big believer in the premise that the objective record of what occurred on the field (statistics) can tell us a great deal about those questions. But the context in which they were compiled is an absolutely essential consideration. In the case of Rose versus Cobb, one factor that has to be considered is the number of opportunities each man had. Everyone inherently recognizes this one, particularly on the question of hits thanks to the ubiquitous nature of batting average. But that is far from the only contextual factor in play--the league environment and the impact of the park in which a player performs are crucial as well, and of course you can dig deeper still.

And it is that subtle distinction, the recognition of the importance of context, which marks the biggest difference between how sabermetricians view statistics and how other baseball fans view statistics. Sabermetricians are always considering context; non-sabermetricians are intermittently concerned about context, usually when the point of view they’re espousing will benefit. It’s not that they don’t understanding the importance of considering context; I think most people do. It is more a matter of not reflexively considering context, and all too often neglecting to ever consider it.

The so-called steroids era has thrust the issue into the limelight, though. Suddenly, everyone is aware that numbers can’t be taken at face value. Unfortunately, many of the fans who have recognized this may have only done it because they believe the specific player cheated or that all players must be viewed with a jaundiced eye because of their era. My hope is that it will compel some of them to always consider the era in which a man played, the parks he played in, and the way the game was played at that time.

Baseball statistics are simply counts of what a player or team has done on the field. They can be fiddled around with and enjoyed, or they can analyzed and enjoyed in an attempt to relate them to the goal of the game (which is to win), or they can be ignored. But they cannot be taken (at least not rationally) as magic numbers capable of make comparisons at face value without any interpretation.

If you lament the use of steroids because they result in an unfair advantage or are illegal or set a bad example for children, or some other reason, I disagree with you. But I don’t inherently write you off as a fool; we happen to have a difference of opinion. But as for the minority that decries the damage to the sacred records…

Stark also laments the fact that he believes a number of players who hold or held important records (Rose, Bonds, Sosa, ARod, Clemens, McGwire) will not be in the Hall of Fame. While I suppose it can be inferred that he agrees with this decision, I think it is worthy pointing out that the only way all of those men, sans Rose, will be left out of the Hall of Fame, is if Stark’s brethren in the BBWAA choose to keep them out. It is not inevitable that they be excluded--indeed, somewhere around a quarter of the voting writers are voting for McGwire. Their exclusion from the Hall will be a result of the mindset of observers, and not a natural consequence. And if you think that the identities of the players in the Hall of Fame is of grave importance…well, I’ve written about that before.

(*) Of course, Cobb is now credited with 4,189 hits, so Rose had already broken the record when he got the “historic” hit. There is a minority of people who complain about such corrections to the historical record, sometimes based on a similar mindset to the one described above: a belief in the sanctity of the records themselves.

Finally, I have two quick opinions on other aspects of the ARod story and the surrounding furor.

1. The most disturbing aspect of this story, by far, is not that ARod tested positive for steroids, it’s that a supposed non-disciplinary and anonymous round of testing was obtained by the government and leaked to the media. The real villains of this story are the leakers, and those that enabled them.

2. Even if the premise that steroids need to be removed from the game is accepted, it needs to be remembered that this test came before penalties were implemented in the rules. Therefore, it is ridiculous to use this test to draw any conclusion about the efficacy of the current testing policy or the associated penalties.

1 comment:

  1. Really enjoy your blog. I agree that it is troubling that A-Rod's "anonymous" test result was obtained by the fed and leaked.

    I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss the idea that sabermetric fans are less troubled by steroids because they are more "logical." Analytical fans tend to be ruled less by gut feelings and emotion.
    Nothing good or bad about that.

    I do feel that steroid usage is dangerous and does constitute cheating, though its contribution to performance can not be, and will never be, quantified.

    Context, I agree, is paramount when considering these things. I wouldn't keep Barry, or Mac, or Alex out of the HOF. That said, I will never place Bonds ahead of Williams in my "frivolous" list of all-time left fielders.

    Again, thanks for blogging. Go Bucks.


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