I used to know this guy named Clark.
Clark knew more about country music history than anyone. He was more versed in the history of the Carter Family than anyone in the state of Tennessee. He didn’t just know the Johnny Horton standards like, “North to Alaska” and “Johnny Reb” he knew the original Jimmy Driftwood version of “The Battle of New Orleans.” Clark knew why the Rolling Stones got all twangy that one time (Gram) and he knew that “The Gambler” was originally pitched to Johnny Cash.
But, there’s one tiny problem. Clark was a prick. He had one desire, and it wasn’t to spread his knowledge of country music to others. It wasn’t to spread the music of Gram Parsons, New Riders of the Purple Sage, and the wonder that is 1976 Dolly Parton to novice country music fans. His sole desire was to let you know that he was smarter than you.
When someone next to Clark played a feel-good Garth Brooks song, Clark told them how stupid they were and that if they loved REAL country music, they’d be listening to Faron Young. During the Dixie Chicks era, while everyone was having fun, Clark scoffed at the losers singing along to “Goodbye Earl” and told them that if they had a brain, they’d be listening to some Dolly or Tammy. If Clark was ever in a social situation (which was extremely rare) he’d say things like, “You see, this is what’s wrong with country music. Crap like this. People like you.”
(Now, it IS important to note that the Dixie Chicks were not as great as Gram Parsons or The Byrds (Sweetheart of the Rodeo era). But then, you have to understand why so many people liked the Dixie Chicks. I think the answer is simple. Sometimes, you don’t want to think about much and you just want to feel good. Baseball is the same way.)
You can imagine the effect that this has had on Clark. Through the years of being an elitist prick, he was left with only one audience. Himself. Clark had a few Twitter followers, he even started a country music blog, but the only folks who read it were him and his three friends. It’s a tragedy, because Clark had so much valuable knowledge about the subject at hand. But, because he was a prick, he never gave anyone who didn’t know who Gram Parsons was an opportunity to learn about the Grievous Angel.
You see, the message is only as good as the messenger.
Nobody hates WAR or wRC+ or wOBA. They hate being told how stupid they are for using batting average. Fans have always understood that some guys hit for power, and some guys hit for average. They’ve always said “that guy can really pick it at short” and that other guy would be better replaced by a boulder on defense. In 1962 Twins fans didn’t know Harmon Kellebrew’s ISO, but they did know that he mainly mashed taters. What metrics have done is put numbers to the phrases and anecdotes that fans have used for a hundred years. And in the same way that the phrases and anecdotes don’t quite encapsulate the entire story of the player, neither do the advanced metrics (Nick Markakis has a better wRC+ and wOBA than Ichiro).
There’s a war (no pun intended) in the world of baseball stats right now. But, there shouldn’t be. There are two sides – the analytical crowd and the traditional crowd. (There’s certainly people in the middle, I think I’m one of those people, but in general there seems to be two extremes on twitter dot com.) The traditional crowd hates the advanced metrics crowd and the advanced metrics crowd doesn’t care about what the traditional crowd thinks. While the traditional crowd is cracking open a cold one and cheering, the advanced metrics crowd is whispering in their ear, condescendingly, “Well, actually, that particular catch wasn’t all that impressive because of the catch probability.”
Here’s the problem. It’s a lot more than merely two sides at war with each other. The problem is, one side is comprised of extremely accomplished people in the field that both of the sides are arguing about, and it’s not the analytical side.
I recently talked to Jason Woodell (from Prospects Live) about this “war” we’re experiencing. Jason believes that the advanced metrics crowd must destroy the traditional crowd and their traditional stats and their ways of thinking without any concern to their well being. I think the world of Jason, he’s a damn hoot, we had him on our podcast, but I vehemently disagree with him. Reason being – both sides aren’t the same; one is much more accomplished in the world of baseball.
You see, the traditional side has guys who played the game, who faced Ted Williams, Hall of Famers, World Series Champions, 16 time Gold Glove winners, and award winning sports broadcasters. The advanced metrics side have mainly people who’ve never played or managed the game. (Those that can’t do may still be qualified to teach, but no one remembers who taught Ted Williams how to hit.)
What I’m saying is, when you are approaching a century-old subject with new ideas and totally new and different metrics and ways to evaluate the subjects, if you do it without any humility, you lose. Especially when you’re engaging with people who actually did it, on live TV.
Your message is only as good as you are.
Now, there are certainly some fantastic examples of folks who approach it the correct way, in my opinion. Look at Jayson Stark. Jayson spent years as a senior writer with ESPN and is now with The Athletic. Jayson is a master at introducing the old-school fan to new advanced metrics. Look at Rob Friedman (Pitching Ninja). Rob has introduce SO MANY fans to pitching mechanics and metrics in a fun and different way.
My favorite (non-Braves) baseball podcast is Statcast, with Mike Petriello and Matt Meyers. Mike and Matt introduce pretty much all of the advanced metrics in an easy-to-understand way. I’ve learned a lot from them. And guess what? I don’t agree with a lot of their takes, but it’s BASEBALL, and disagreeing about the value of a player or strategy is a huge part of enjoying the game.
I spoke to Jim Kaat about advanced metrics over the phone last summer. I watched Jim deactivate his Twitter account because of baseball bloggers telling him how stupid he was for not using xFIP and WAR. I watched him even offer to speak with a certain baseball blogger about these political matters only to be met with silence. So, guess what? Jim hates advanced metrics. Can you blame him? Or, at least Jim thinks he hates advanced metrics. I don’t think Jim, or anyone, actually hates advanced metrics. I think they hate you, because you (who did not face Ted Williams and Julio Franco on live TV) told him that he didn’t understand how baseball worked because he wasn’t using WAR. The real irony is that the very advanced stats many were abusing fans with three years ago are now the subject of abuse. “Oh you use bWAR instead of fWAR, you’re such an idiot” (when 3 years ago that same person abused someone who used batting average because they didn’t use bWAR).
If you’re constantly telling people on Twitter that they are stupid for not using wOBA, then guess what? They are never going to use wOBA. They’ll continue to use batting average because their only experience with wOBA is you telling them how dumb they are online for not using wOBA.
Think of it this way. If your kid has a stomach ache and comes to you for help and you say “here let me help you” and you fix up a big spoonful of Pepto for them, but then just as you’re about to give it to them you slap them in the head as hard as you can and say “HOW DARE YOU HAVE A STOMACH ACHE?! NOW TAKE THIS PEPTO”. You might cure the stomach ache, but the kid’s never talking to you again and they’re not interested in ever using any Pepto again. Hell, they’ll probably grow up and join some anti-pepto cult that has a podcast and makes fun of pepto users, something like Stomachoma Nation.
As I’m writing this, I’ve stepped back and wondered why I’m so passionate about this. I think it’s because I see so many smart and capable voices (mainly on Twitter) who could really build a voice or a brand, but their need to be “correct” and “win” every interaction supersedes their message. I see these same folks get so frustrated when someone doesn’t agree with their takes, and they even lash out angrily at the very audience who needs their information. I want to sit them down, put my arm around them, give them some bourbon, and tell them about Clark.
Here’s my final hot take. I think wRC+, UZR and wOBa are fantastic, but if someone uses batting average, who cares? It’s baseball and, at the end of the day, guys are hitting balls off a bat and the team with the most runs wins the baseball game. If you’ve read this and you’re still mad, it’s you I hate, not wOBA.