01 August 2008

Baseball Week: Stats Are Fun!

Every baseball player comes packaged with a set of statistics, but are they the right ones? That's the central question of Michael Lewis' MONEYBALL, which follows a season with the Oakland A's as they run a team, well, rather differently than others are currently been run.

Team manager Billy Beane, a former baseball player, read the works of a rogue statistician and baseball fan named Bill James, which intended to find out what stats really reveal how valuable a player is to the team. Those stats drive Beane's approach to buying players on the second-lowest budget in Major League Baseball, on which he was somehow able to improve the team's record substantially even after losing its best known players to free agency. So, it's THREE NIGHTS IN AUGUST meets FREAKONOMICS, more or less.

I'm not going to pretend that I understood the statistics in the book well enough to challenge them. Heck, I didn't even know where the word "sabermetrics" came from or what it meant before I read this book. (It's from the Society for American Baseball Research, which James was a major part of and which promoted these new statistics.) I have a feeling that someone better with numbers than I would be able to poke holes in Lewis' explanations, but for me I found them sufficient and easy to understand for the layperson. And like THREE NIGHTS IN AUGUST, Lewis clearly spent a lot of time with the team, just hanging out and observing how these management changes -- especially a shift away from traditional scouting methods -- have affected the team.

At the same time, I can see why some people who cover baseball would disparage the book, and not because they are just jealous. Lewis even pinpoints the primary weakness of the sabermetrics approach: It only takes into account past performance, not future potential. In this model a player is no better than he has been earlier, so a slow starter in the pros would probably never get a shot under the James/Beane model. But the team that Beane assembles makes this evident, as players who join the team don't quite perform as they have on paper. One could also argue that sabermetrics reduce players to numbers, but not in a way that the stats don't already do. I don't think that MONEYBALL's numbers will ruin the way I watch baseball; if anything, it will make me more curious about the stats I usually ignore.

Dugout Jitters
Is This The Great American Baseball Novel?
Filmbook: "The Natural" (1984)
Roger Kahn, A Boy Among Boys

1 comment:

Elizabeth said...

Don't forget what Mark Twain said about statistics.

The two main problems in statistics are those of data collection and those of interpretation (mainly the old mantra about correlation and causation).

For baseball stats, I would think the data could be well-defined and consistently collected among players (speaking of course as someone who knows absolutely nothing about baseball, statistically or otherwise), so in this case be most wary of interpretation. Always try to think of potential alternative explanations for relationships between trends before accepting what the author of the study (or book, in this case) concludes.