Beer Run: How to Defeat a Sabermetrician in an Argument

I greatly enjoyed the recent smackdown between Rich Lederer of Baseball Analysts and Buster Olney of ESPN regarding the Hall of Fame merits of Jim Rice. If I had to score the fight, I’d say Rich won the argument in a blowout. But I say this not because I think Lederer is necessarily right, but because Olney played the game poorly. Olney was like a fast-break basketball team that let itself get caught in a half-court battle. Lederer was able to dictate the terms, and Olney fell right into his trap.

When one competitor prefers a particular style of play, you can beat them in one of two ways: (1) you can play their style of play better than they do, or (2) you can change the game you play. *

*Permit me a brief Posnanskian aside here, on the eve of Super Tuesday: the current Democratic primary is an interesting contrast of these two choices. Remember back in the 80s how the Republicans changed the meaning of the word "liberal" so that it became a bad thing? How Carter, Mondale and Dukakis got labeled as wimpy and economically incompetent "tax-and-spenders", and just got their butts kicked? And then along came Bill Clinton, who figured out how to play the Republicans’ game better than the Republicans? Look, it’s a Democrat who can manipulate the meaning of words better than a Republican! A Democrat who blames the Republican for being economically incompetent! A Democrat with a mean streak! It’s like the Red Sox and the Yankees: neither one would ever admit it to themselves, but the reason they hate each other so much is that they’re so damn similar. So here’s Hillary Clinton now, playing that same old game, and like her husband, she’s really good at it. But along comes Barack Obama, who says, we’re tired of all this boring, low-post, half-court crap, we’re tired of Red Sox vs. Yankees all the time, we’re tired of the Bush vs. Clinton dynasties, there’s more to this game than just the two dominant teams, we’re playing a completely different game with a completely different point of view and we’re going to take the ball and just run and run and run up and down the court. And of course, Bill Clinton goes out and spouts off and tries to drag Obama into the half-court game of parsing words and defending the low post, and Obama tries his best to avoid it, but he can’t, completely, because if the other team is posting you up you still have to defend it. And so last week, after all this time trying to avoid the dynasty game, goes and makes a mid-season trade for a dynasty-type player (Ted Kennedy), to help him defend the low post. Anyway, this is all a big mixed metaphor that’s about to jump the shark off the deep end, but like the recent Super Bowl, I find the game to be surprisingly fascinating, and probably should be until the end.

Anyway, back to Lederer vs. Olney. The trap that Olney fell into was to let Lederer dictate that the argument must be based on statistical evidence. So Olney tries to say that OPS+ is misleading, RBIs were important at the time, blah blah blah, and deliberately avoided using "fear" in his argument. To all that, I say, phooey. If you’re not immersed and invested in statistical analysis, you’re not going to win a statistical argument against someone who is. You’re like that guy in that movie who pulls out a sword and proudly swishes it around, and Indiana Jones pulls out a gun and blows you away.

If you want to avoid falling into that trap, if you want to avoid becoming fodder for BTF and FJM mockery, you need to learn how to avoid the Sabermetrician’s weapons, and where to hit him where he is weakest. Welcome to your first lesson in Defense Against Deductive Arts.

To begin your study, consider this: what is the most important element of the following photograph: Elijah Dukes’ home run, or the beer?

The first and most important lesson when fighting against a Sabermetrician is this: remember the beer. No, I’m not saying you should get your opponent drunk, although I suppose that wouldn’t hurt your cause any. The point is this: sabermetricians almost always argue from the point of view of a General Manager. They focus entirely on how to win instead of why we watch.

If you remember the beer, you also remember that you’re a fan, not a GM. Does your particular argument require a GM’s perspective? If not, don’t pretend that you are a GM. Embrace another perspective: the manager, the coach, the owner, the player, or the fan. The further away you get from the GM’s POV, the more you disarm your Sabermetrician opponent. The opponent has plenty of weapons in a high-level, how-to-win argument, but is practically defenseless in a why-we-watch argument. Play the game you think you can win.

Take, for example, the argument regarding the Hall of Fame merits of Jim Rice. If you’re a GM picking an all-time team, maybe the stats say you’d be stupid to pick Jim Rice for your team instead of Tim Raines. But who says you’re a GM? Remember the beer. You’re a fan, not a GM.

I’ve made this point before, but I’ll make it again: awards are celebrations, not measurements. If Jim Rice struck fear into my heart when my team faced him, why is that emotion not a valid reason to celebrate him? We watch for a reason, and nobody I know of has ever been able to articulate that reason, but I’m very certain that the reason we watch is very closely related to our emotions. And if Jim Rice evoked strong emotions in us, and Tim Raines or Bert Blyleven didn’t, then so be it. Statistics are a valid reason to celebrate a player, but so are emotions. Don’t dismiss emotions, embrace them.* They are why we are here in the first place.

*Another Posnanskian aside: I have been here on this earth for 42 years today. And I think I have finally come to a general philosophy I believe in, which is somewhat related to this whole article. The best, most effective human systems (governments, businesses, schools, sports teams, etc.) combine an objective, rational measurement of success with a subjective, emotional measurement of success. For example, I believe that the reason that America is great and strong is we have a system that combines an objective, rational system (free markets measured by money), with a subjective, emotional system (democracy measured by votes). Over time, you get progress because every idea is constantly being tested by one, if not both, measurements. Most of the time, you trust the objective measurement, but the reason you don’t trust it fully is that we need to correct for the fact that the objective measurement we choose (money) is really just a proxy for the real thing we want to measure (life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, whatever), and sometimes the proxy measurement doesn’t correlate very well to the real goal, so we need to adjust. But subjective measurements are more likely to be flawed than objective, so you should treat the subjective measurements as an adjustment to objective results, not as equal to them. To ensure that the both the objective and the subjective can play their roles optimally, you should avoid mixing the two systems as much as possible (that is, don’t let governments run businesses; don’t let businesses buy votes). Ideally, you probably want a balance between objective and subjective of about 80-20 or 90-10, depending on the systems and the quality of the measurements.

Back to baseball again: using statistics to measure a player’s qualifications for the Hall of Fame is just a proxy for the true thing we want to measure: how much we want to celebrate the career of this player. Most of the time, the stats are enough to decide for us, but sometimes we need to adjust. For example: Jim Rice is a player with borderline Hall of Fame stats who struck fear in the hearts of AL fans everywhere. We were there, we felt it. We want to celebrate Jim Rice by inducting him into the Hall of Fame. Mark McGwire is a player with borderline Hall of Fame stats who cheated by using chemical enhancements. We were there, we feel betrayed. We don’t want to celebrate Mark McGwire.

Proxies are useful, but don’t mistake a proxy for the true thing. A map is not the treasure in itself.

Defense Against Deductive Arts, Lesson #1, in conclusion: Count the run, but remember the beer.

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  • DXMachina

    1.  Happy Birthday. Great piece. I shall drink a beer in your honor tonight.

  • ToyCannon

    2.  Excellent

  • chris in illinois

    3.  Interesting notion—considering the entertainment value of a player as a component of their Hall of Fame case. Hopefully someone will develop a metric that accurately describes the entertainment value of a GIDP.

    RE: McGwire- Now that ‘greenies’ have been banned, I forward the motion that all players from 1946 be labeled as ‘probable cheaters’ as they most likely ingested what is now considered to be a PED. (BTW I’m not some sort of deranged Cardinal fan—not that there is another kind, mind you).

  • chris in illinois

    4.  1 I drank a beer a few hours ago, I hereby retroactively tip it for you!

  • Ali Nagib

    5.  Are there links to the exchange, or are we just supposed to imagine the down-smacking?

  • Josh Wilker

    6.  Ken, I didn’t think it was possible to find a way out of the repetitious loop of the Rice arguments, but you found one, opening up new ground. As a SABR-sympathizer who is nonetheless emotionally unwilling to let go of the idea of one of my childhood heroes as an all-time great, I particularly appreciated this piece.

  • Ken Arneson

    7.  5 Oops, sorry, I thought I had linked to it in the first link in the piece, but didn’t:

    http://baseballanalysts.com/archives/2008/01/a_public_letter.php

  • D4P

    8.  awards are celebrations, not measurements

    I would go even further, and argue that awards are a superfluous means of rewarded someone who has already been rewarding thousands of times over throughout and after his career. Any player who is remotely eligible for HOF consideration has already earned millions of (inflation adjusted) dollars, received countless “free haircuts” and the like, had access to all the beautiful women he wanted access to, can probably have just about any job he wants post-retirement (e.g. coaching, announcing, etc.), and has generally been treated like royalty for 20+ years.

    Why should I care whether or not they’re rewarded even further? It’s as if we’re supposed to feel sorry for players who we think deserve HOF membership but don’t get in.

    Waah.

  • Craig Calcaterra

    9.  Awesome piece, Ken. I’ll echo Josh in saying that I didn’t think it possible to say anything else about the Rice thing, but this is truly the first thing I’ve read on it that actually brings my mind to some level of rest on the matter. Indeed, the whole notion of celebration vs. measurement is, like most great insights, stunningly simple and it amazes me that no one had ever thought of it before (I guess you did, but I missed that).

    Anyway, nice job.

  • Bama Yankee

    10.  Nice article, Ken. Happy Birthday.

  • Sky

    11.  Wow. Thanks for letting me read that.

  • scopi14

    12.  As someone who often argues from the GM’s point of view, this was a fantastic piece – well reasoned and sound.

    After reading it, I was trying to think of a way to quantify the emotional impact of a player, possibly a metric consisting of how many times the word ‘hard-nosed’ or ‘fundamentals’ is used in an article about them. Maybe a ‘scrappiness index,’ called EkStn could contribute…

    But then I remembered the beer.

    Thanks for the read.

  • vockins

    13.  A buddy of mine once said, “It’s the Hall of Fame, not the Hall of the Ninety Eighth Percentile.”

  • Andrew Shimmin

    14.  D4P forgets the beer, but not the profit margin on it.

  • Michael G

    15.  I also enjoy the GM POV and found this to be a very “refreshing” piece. Cheers, and good work.

  • bigcpa

    16.  Here I thought you were just the guy who fixes the html when some turkey posts a 200 character url. Very spot on post. I promptly forwarded it to 4 of the non-stat guys I most enjoy arguing with.

  • deadguy

    17.  Excellently done, sir.

  • StolenMonkey86

    18.  Cheers.

  • rory b bellows

    19.  But don’t winning and watching go together? Teams that wins have more fans then those that don’t. If a team of Tim Raines’ is going to win more then a team of Jime Rice’s, aren’t more people going to watch the Raines team then the Rice team? I would think so.

    Your comment about Rice and McGwire really annoys me. We suspect (probably rightly) that McGwire used steroids, but why doesn’t anybody suspect Jim Rice? They were certainly around and people used them at the time but for some reason people just ignore steroids for that time period. That’s why thinking with your heart isn’t always the best thing.

  • fordprefect

    20.  Great screed, Mr. A.

    Unique fusion of political and sporting commentary.

  • spudrph

    21.  Outstanding piece. Well reasoned and very well written.

  • doppelganger

    22.  Very interesting piece.

    Any connection between Defense Against Deductive Arts and the Dada movement of the 20s? Both seem to be a celebration of subjectivism and a reaction against “progress”.

    Happy Birthday Ken

  • Ken Arneson

    23.  22 It’s a Harry Potter reference. Whether the acronym is related to Dadaism, you’d have to ask J.K. Rowling.

  • dianagramr

    24.  Given my love for all things Monty Python, your headline made me think of this …

    http://www.jumpstation.ca/recroom/comedy/python/banana.html

  • Dougbb

    25.  Full disclosure – I’m a stat-head, but I also like to watch games just because, or because of some emotional attachment to certain teams or players. For this reason I’ll never let myself argue Omar Vizquel’s case/non-case for the HOF, because I’m too close to it.

    So, good article, but my problem with it is this, ’emotion’ just reads like code for ‘if he was popular, it’s ok that he wasn’t as good’, and the dark flip-side that’s going to bite Raines, ‘if he wasn’t popular, it’s ok to ignore his performance’. The second one is more troubling, but both are just ways of marginalizing the actual talent of players.

    Since most of America knows their team and the Yankees and Red Sox, this sort of justification would end up with borderliners (like Rice) ‘rewarded’ for being on a popular team, or a team that did well for awhile, and borderlines (like Blyleven) who never played on good teams but were still outstanding players, on the outside looking in.

    As an argument primer, I agree, he who controls the vocabulary wins the argument. But be careful, your definitions are very close to ‘argumentum ad populum’.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Argumentum_ad_populum

    PS – my emotions say we should celebrate talent, not popularity…

  • Ken Arneson

    26.  25 I see your point, but I would argue that it is not necessarily a fallacy to consider popularity when judging a popularity contest.

    What is the Hall of Fame for? Is it really just for honoring the best players? Or is it actually a tool for celebrating ourselves, our culture, our history, where we’ve been, and who we are? If you look at from the point of view that the Hall of Fame acts as a mirror onto ourselves, it would be wrong not to consider our emotions as an element in that consideration. Our emotions are the very point of this whole exercise.

    Anyway, I didn’t really intend to argue the Hall of Fame; I don’t necessarily agree with Olney or disagree with Lederer; it was merely the example at hand. My point was more that arguing everything from the POV of the GM is not the only way to look at things.

  • Dougbb

    27.  Ken,

    As far as the HOF goes, the ‘problem’ is that there isn’t one answer to the ‘What’s the HOF for?’ question. As implied above, I want it to honor the ‘best’ players – rather than being a celebration of ‘ourselves, our culture, our history’.

    Aside – I think you mean that it should celebrate the BEST of our culture and history – reflecting ALL of American culture and history would have rather negative effects.

    Last point, I think that there’s more than enough celebration of our culture and ourselves. Look around the media, we can’t stop celebrating ourselves. I want the Baseball HOF to reflect Baseball talent.

    See, I’m not letting you define the ‘terms’ of what makes a HOFer – the article had good advice.

  • Ken Arneson

    28.  27 Ha, thanks for absorbing the advice. I’m playing devil’s advocate here more than I actually disagree with you.

    Yes, I meant “best”. I realized after I hit submit that I left that word out.

    I don’t see that having different answers to the question is a problem. Quite the contrary; if there is a diversity of opinions as to the purpose of the Hall of Fame, that helps ensure that only the truly deserving make it in. If we only look at it from a single POV, whatever flaws that POV has is going to be magnified in the result.

    I think that the population of HoF voters is not currently diverse enough. If there was a much higher percentage of voters who understand and demand statistical rigor, the results would probably be more sound. But I also don’t think that the population should only consist of statistical analysts, either.

  • cosmic charlie

    29.  Ken, thanks for articulating exactly what I’ve been feeling for the past several years. This goes beyond Jim Rice or the Hall of Fame. It appears you’ve developed a compromise between the followers of sabermetrics (who sometimes forget that objective measurements are just a proxy) and the “old school” (who seem to favor subjective evidence over objective). Hopefully we’re now one step closer to being able to see both the homer and the beer!

  • RIYank

    30.  DA beers.

    Beers.

    Ditka.

  • ibrosey

    31.  So, does this mean that if I drink enough beers Don Mattingly and Keith Hernandez and Ron Guidry and Edgar Martinez can all get in the HOF? I guess it would be inappropriate to drink a beer for Dwight Gooden. ‘Cause Mattingly was my favorite player, and Hernandez was the best fielding first baseman ever and Guidry, for a couple of seasons, was the greatest pitcher in the world and Edgar was the best DH to ever swing a bat and the nicest guy to ever play the game and Gooden, well Gooden, he coulda been a contender.

  • williamnyy23

    32.  I think the premise of your argument misses one key point: baseball is a sport that reveres stats. Whether it was .BA, HRs and RBIs way back in the days of Cobb, Ruth and Hornsby, or OPS+, RCAA or DIPS in the current sabremetric era, the fact remains that baseball has always been a game that revolves around stats. That’s why more baseball fans can rattle off records and results, and why the steroid issue seems so much more serious in baseball. As a result, the Rice argument isn’t emotion versus analysis; it’s old analysis versus new analysis. I also think it’s completely wrong to assume that sabremetric analysis isn’t based on passion and emotion. How else would you describe why scores of educated professionals would spend their time and talent developing complex formulas to evaluate a game, when they could apply those same skills to other academic areas of greater importance? Also, what would be the reason why multitudes of fans continue to strive for better ways to settle arguments and compare players throughout the history of the game. Personally, I think the reason sabermetrics is popular is because it is the next frontier in baseball’s inherent tie to statistics (why is it that other sports don’t seem as vibrant with statheads?), which essentially create the living history that gives baseball its unique mythology.

    Also, I think another unique thing about baseball is most fans DO see themselves as the GM. Unlike sports such as football, I think every baseball fan thinks he can evaluate the players and make trades to improve his team. That’s why MLB has the only hot stove. Baseball fans who cherish the Hall of Fame are far more likely to look at things from the GM point view, even though they may still down a beer while doing so. Besides, since when did beer and GM’s become mutually exclusive?

    Finally, I think part of the “anti-Rice” campaign is that not everyone agrees that Rice was feared. I remember watching Rice come to bat and never did I fear him to the degree being portrayed by the likes of Gammons. I remember “fearing” guys like Murray and Brett much more. Heck, as a Yankee fan, one guy that I really “feared” was Scott Fletcher. I would hate to let that emotional force me into voting him into the Hall of Fame.

  • Ken Arneson

    33.  32 Again, my point is not that any of that is wrong. My point is that that is only one way to look at it, and there are other valid ways to look at it.

  • williamnyy23

    34.  33 That’s true…but you could say that the worth of a player is defined by what he means to you. For example, if a player represents a bond between a son and his father, well, what could have more value than that?

    I think the point of the Hall of Fame is to be less subjective than that. Since its inception, Hall of Fame status has largely been about performance, which is mostly measured in stats (whether they be traditional or sabremetric).

    Baseball is a very romantic game…the further a player gets from his career, the more heroic he becomes. I am not sure that makes for a formula one would want to use for determining historical significance. Think about it, if Jim Rice was so feared, and his play was so inspirational, why has his candidacy languished for so long? Did the voters suddenly remember the good feelings he engendered?

  • Bluebleeder87

    35.  I can’t handle the beer!

    But seriously, my feelings towards reading Ken Arneson’s posts can best be described by this Wayanes world scene [http://tinyurl.com/2x3lkt]