Point/Counterpoint: Do Statistics Belong In Baseball?

OAKLAND CA: Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane (R) looks on as Hideki Matsui (L) speaks during a press conference where he was introduced as the newest member of the Oakland Athletics. The Oakland Athletics signed designated hitter Hideki Matsui to a one-year deal worth $4.25 million plus possible incentives for the 2011 season. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Monday's piece on Grantland ignited another debate on statistics and sabermetrics. Do they add or subtract from our enjoyment of baseball? Here at Baseball Nation, we've set up a point/counterpoint between two people on different sides of the debate. These people represent the middle of the road in each case, so this will likely be the final debate ever on this topic. Enjoy.

 

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POINT:

Statistics Are For People Who Don't Enjoy The Game.

by Every Traditional, Pure Baseball Lover

Baseball is a sport that is as much art as athletic competition. Nothing saddens me more than someone ruining the game of baseball with numbers, limiting the purity of the sport with mathematical reductions of humanity.

Ted Williams got a hit in 40.6% of his at-bats in 1941. If he had instead hit safely in 39.9%  of his at-bats, was I supposed to be less impressed? What about the way he sized the pitcher up, the concentration that he managed on every pitch? There's no way that trying to divide hits and at-bats can tell me how good a player is. Over a season, Williams would pick up about six or seven extra hits with a .406 "average of hits per at-bats" that he wouldn't have with a .399 "average of hits per at-bats."

But when would those six or seven hits have come? In the first inning of an eventual blowout? The ninth inning of a tie game? I don't know, and you don't either just from some average-based abstraction. It doesn't make his overall accomplishments more impressive in the slightest.

Watch the game.

Go up to any stathead and ask him how many home runs Roger Maris had in 1961. If he's a true stathead, he will actually know the answer off the top of his head. While others were watching games -- tense, strategic battles of purity and wonder -- that person was apparently reading a book of numbers as if there were a test later on. And how many of those home runs led to a Yankees win or loss? No one can really say with just one number. But it must have been important for someone to keep counting up those home runs, even if it doesn't mean a thing to someone fifty years later.

Watch the game.

There will never be a test. There will only be the sublime, athletic ballet of baseball, the magic that is everything beautiful about this country. And while I'm watching a game, I'm not thinking about numbers. I'm just absorbing a game. There is no reason to record what's going on in a game; it's a flowing, free-form concert of individual struggles and triumphs, of pitches that hit their spots and pitches that don't, of hitters who guess right and hitters who guess wrong.

It's even a little gauche to note how many runs score each inning -- you can almost tell which team outplayed the other when the nine innings are up. Does it really matter if a team wins 10-5 rather than 10-6? All you need to know is that one team was better than the other that day.

Watch the game.

Please, keep all of these advanced metrics to yourself. You can't seriously expect me to juggle an equation like (ER/IP) x 9 in my head while I'm watching a pitcher's elegant, violent delivery. That's no way to enjoy baseball. And I enjoy baseball more purely than you could ever hope to imagine. I see things by watching the game -- by really, truly watching a game -- that you can't possibly imagine. There is a truth and balance to this game that transcends numbers. All numbers.

Watch the game. It's beautiful, but only if you watch it just like I do.

 

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COUNTERPOINT

I Hate Baseball

by Every Stathead In The World

When the New York Yankees play a game, they should score 5.25 runs. Statistically, that's what should happen. They should get on base about 340 times out of every 1,000 at-bats, and that should lead to 21 runs every four games.

When that doesn't happen, it makes me angry. When the Yankees score more or fewer runs, it disgusts me. There is enough randomness in life that I don't need it in my hobby. It makes me hate baseball.

More so, I mean. I already hate baseball. I hate the people who play it, the athletic galoots who towered over me while I grew up. I hate hot dogs, those poisonous tubes of nitrates and arsenic. The prize in Cracker Jacks is usually some crappy temporary tattoo. I'm allergic to grass, so even if I wanted to kick back and watch a game, I wouldn't be able to with all that sneezing. And I hate the sport. It's like soccer, but without all of the action.

But there is a beauty inherent in knowing what a lineup of nine David Ortizes would score. If nine David Ortizes were on the same team at the same time, I could predict their futures. I would know exactly how they would perform because I know his RC/27. I like knowing that if David Ortiz were replaced by a AAA scrub before the season started, the Red Sox would be 42.8-35.2 instead of 45-33 by virtue of Ortiz's 2.2 WAR. When you do this sort of math, you are basically a god.

Except baseball players are always screwing things up. Some guy with a .300 on-base percentage might take four walks in a game, just to challenge everything I know to be true. It doesn't convince me because I already know the truth, the stats, the essence of everything there is to know. But it's inconvenient, at best.

Luckily, I've found a solution. I don't watch the games. A bunch of guys running around after a ball? You can keep it. Just don't stop the stream of glorious data. I have the numbers automatically feeding in to my spreadsheet, and I love nothing more than waking up, getting a cup of coffee, and just reading the data from the day before, parsing the numbers, juggling them, rubbing the numbers all over my face.

That's baseball. That's what I love. And thanks for your invitation to watch the game exactly how you watch it, but I think I'll just stop watching entirely. Agree to disagree.

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