That rumbling you felt earlier may or may not have been the earth spinning off its axis with the news that Bill Simmons, a noted anti-sabermetrics guy who had actually placed an embargo on writing about baseball for three years because he felt that advanced stats had made everything too complicated, has "seen the light." It's an Easter miracle! Or we can just chalk this up to the general euphoria surrounding the arrival of the baseball season!1!!1!
Anyway, in the interest of full-disclosure, I will say the following thing: this is the first thing I've read by Bill Simmons since at least the year 2007. It's nothing personal, I was just never all that into his work, mostly because of the fact that he so often writes about the NBA, the professional league I care the least about. In fact, the only reason I heard about this most recent article is because some friends asked me if I had read it. Based on the way they were talking, it seemed they were of the opinion that this was some watershed moment for the sports world. Fine, I took the bait and decided to check it out.
And I... I can't believe I'm saying this: Bill Simmons gets it. Mostly. The general motive behind Simmons "conversion" is nicely summed up by the following 'graph:
Little did I know, the ball was rolling for me. I spent March reading and surfing sabermetrics for mostly selfish reasons ("I want this column to be better," "I want an edge for fantasy purposes," "I'm bored"), but also because the advanced formulas weren't nearly as intimidating as I had expected. Full disclosure: I, um ... I-I kinda like them. I even understand why stat junkies take it so personally whenever a mainstream guy spouts out an uninformed baseball opinion. It's too easy to be informed these days (Ed.: Emphasis mine, naturally). Takes a lot less time than you might think.
What's even better is that Simmons preceded this entire paragraph by talking about how researching advanced statistics allowed for him develop an even greater appreciation for the greatness of one of his favorite players (Freddie Lynn). You mean the Sports Guy finally grasped the fact that sabermetric nerds like me aren't trying to make the game an emotionless realm of numbers? That we care about the game as much as any other fan and are simply looking to gain a better appreciation for what true greatness is in the modern context? GTFO!
Simmons then targets his layperson audience and attempts to teach them some advanced stats they ought to know. It's a nice gesture, and I certainly appreciate the enthusiasm, but this is where Simmons, having emerged from the tomb on the third day, trips over his own sandal and falls flat on his face. I won't go into each of the seven he lists in depth, and I urge you to read the article linked above if you haven't already done so. However, I will go so far as to point out my main gripe with Simmons' list: it's filled with far too many things that come off like backhanded compliments and it is also full of navel gazing on the part of the auteur. Case in point: Simmons trying to explain OPS+. He makes it way too complicated, and then gets up in arms at OPS+ for being way too complicated. Fuck the heck?
Love the concept, don't love the execution. Right now, everything plays off the number 100. If you have a 100 OPS-plus, you're average. From there, your OPS-plus increases by two points for every percentage point you're better than everyone else that season. When Albert Pujols led the National League in 2009 with a 188 OPS-plus, that meant he was 44 percent better than average (100 + 88 / 2) before correcting for park factors. That's already too complicated for someone like my father. He's out right there. If your stat is complicated AND hard to relate to, that's a deadly combo.
Door No. 1: Albert Pujols led the NL with a 188 OPS-plus in 2009.
Door No. 2: Albert Pujols' OPS-plus was 44 percent better than that of the average 2009 National Leaguer (first in the NL).
We lose my dad with Door No. 1. We keep him with Door No. 2.
That brings up something I first mentioned at last month's Sloan Conference: In my opinion, the biggest challenge for sabermetricians (not just in baseball, but in every sport) is making their numbers more accessable to all types of sports fans.
Oh goodness, Bill. On the one hand, I appreciate his efforts to attain a better grasp on the stats as a whole; he consistently tries to find out how they're calculated. Good on him. On the other hand, perhaps Simmons is getting a little too overzealous and missing the point. If you know an OPS+ of 100 is average, and you tell someone who knows that information that Albert Pujols led the league with a 188 OPS+, said person will undoubtedly draw the following conclusion: Albert Pujols is really friggin' good at baseball. Simply knowing that 188 is greater than 100 (and significantly so) conveys this information. Behind Simmons' "Door Number Two" is just further clarification of this detail. Again, it's admirable that he wants to go all the way with his newfound obsession, but he comes off as being condescending and too in depth when there's no need to be.
At the risk of severely damaging what little credibility I have as a nerd in the online baseball community I'm going to say the following: I have no idea how some of these statistics are calculated. UZR and WAR (two other stats on Simmons list)? Not a clue. I've never even seen the formula for UZR. But I know what the numbers "mean" and I'm happy to leave it at that. Looking at a leaderboard on Fangraphs and seeing Death To Flying Things crushing the competition in UZR is good enough for my purposes. Would I be better served knowing the ins and outs of the UZR formula? I'm not so sure I would.
There are much smarter people out there who organize the data, and we should be happy to reap the benefits without all the work. In other words, despite what Simmons thinks, the numbers are already plenty accessible for the casual wanna-be nerd simply because of the vast number of sites that offer them at any given time for free. A simple definition (with appropriate frames of reference, like 100 being average for OPS+) often suffices for a lot of these metrics.
Does this most recent column give Simmons any weight in the sabermetric community? A look at some of his subsequent writings to see how he does, will be necessary. Hopefully we're not looking at just another case of an ESPN-er trying something new and ultimately missing the point because Simmons does have a very big audience and the chance to expand the average fan's cognizance of the baseball world. So, yeah, welcome aboard, Bill, I suppose. Everybody on? Good, great, grand, wonderful. No yelling on the bus!